Tagbook review

Looking for Bono by Abidemi Sanusi

Abidemi Sanusi draws on her background as a human rights worker for this sharp look at celebrity. Life is going nowhere much for fiftysomething Baba in the Lagos slum of Palemo. That is, until he sees a news report: Bono is in Africa to speak at a summit. Here, thinks Baba, is a man who can get leaders to listen to him. Baba resolves to meet Bono (whom he calls ‘Mosquito Man’ from the shape of his dark glasses) and tell him about the water shortages in Palemo.

A friend phones the local radio station to tell them about Baba’s plan… and suddenly everyone becomes interested: a journalist, a campaigning charity, even the company behind the problems with water supply – not to mention Baba’s wife Munira, who dreams of making it in Nollywood. So Baba becomes a cause célèbre in his own right, as different parties see what advantage they might gain from him. Looking for Bono is great fun to read, and has serious points to make about access to resources, and how we effect change. 

Published by Jacaranda Books.

The Storm by Akeem Balogun

The stories in Akeem Balogun’s debut collection are loosely linked by an extreme storm that belongs more to the world of metaphor than weather. The tone is set by the opening title story, which sees Seun mostly stuck at his workplace because of the storm, which has been raging for weeks. It provides a vivid example of people becoming separated, as Seun ventures out to check that his father is OK. 

Balogun often explores the effects these extraordinary events have had on his characters. One of my favourite examples is ‘A Stroke of Madness’. This is the story of Amri, whom we mostly see in conversation with either his work colleague Carl or his daughter Kali. All seems mundane at first, but we learn that Amri’s sister Adea vanished in the storm twenty years previously. Only gradually do we see how deeply this has left a mark on Amri. When he learns that a block of flats is due to be built on the park where Adea went missing, he sees this as an affront to her memory – which leads him to desperate measures…

The collection also heads off in several different directions. ‘Room Four’ is one of a number of stories revolving around advanced technology. In this piece, banking is done through interaction with an AI avatar; Balogun’s protagonist struggles with its attempts to dissuade him from making rash decisions. ‘Marc Populaire’ is told entirely through voice messages left to the title character, leading readers to piece together their own story of what has happened to Marc. 

The Storm is a fine introduction to Balogun’s work, and to the publisher Okapi Books. I look forward to seeing what they do in future.

Holiday reading, and a blog anniversary

Happy New Year! Wishing you a better year than 2020, anyway…

It was eleven years ago today [EDIT: I’m wrong, it’s twelve years!] that I published the first post on this blog. How time flies, and how things change. The blog has a greater focus on books now; my tastes have evolved, as has my approach to blogging – not to mention the world of book blogging itself.

But this is still my place for writing about reading and books. I’m thinking about what direction to go in with the blog this year, but for now I have a few books to tell you about that I read over Christmas and New Year…

***

Emily Jeremiah, Blue Moments (2020)

I know of Emily Jeremiah as co-translator of several Finnish titles for Peirene Press (including Children of the Cave, White Hunger and Mr Darwin’s Gardener). Blue Moments is a novella by Jeremiah, recently published by Valley Press

We’re introduced to Eeva as a young girl. Her parents have divorced, and she moved with her father to his home country of Finland – her mother remains in England, recovering from depression. Eeva finds it hard to adjust, feeling caught between the two cultures. Years later, Eeva goes to study in England, and resolves to understand more about her parents’ lives. 

Blue Moments is a fine example of how much a novella can encompass in a relatively small space. We see Eeva coming to terms with her past, and find a place for herself in the present. 

Samantha Clark, The Clearing (2020)

Samantha Clark is a Scottish artist; this memoir revolves around the process of clearing out her parents’ old home in Glasgow after they have passed away. The act of doing this leads Clark to reconsider her relationship with both of her parents: her mother, who developed severe mental health problems; and her father, whose role caring for his wife distanced him from his daughter. 

The ‘clearing’ of the title doesn’t just refer to clearing the house. It’s also about the space within oneself, or between oneself and the world. Clark contemplates the gap between her parents’ silent, static house and her own memories and experiences. She considers what this means for her, and illuminates her thoughts with various artistic and scientific ideas. The Clearing is a fascinating book that leaves its readers with much to reflect on themselves.

Published by Little, Brown.

Paolo Maurensig, Game of the Gods (2019)
Translated from the Italian by Anne Milano Appel (2021)

Paolo Maurensig has written several previous novels set in the world of chess. His latest book to appear in English returns to that world, with a fictional account of the life of Malik Mir Sultan Khan. In the early 20th century, Sultan Khan is a Punjab village boy who becomes a servant to the powerful landowner Sir Umar Khan. He excels at chaturanga, the ancient forerunner of chess. Umar Khan has the boy master the Western rules of chess, and takes him to Britain, where Sultan Khan becomes renowned for his prowess. But life has more than one further twist in store for him. 

In Maurensig’s telling, Sultan Khan becomes something of a pawn in a wider game: for Umar Khan, he’s a way to get back at the British; and when war comes, his strategic skills are useful to others. There is a sense that giving an interview about his life (which is how the novel is framed) allows Sultan Khan to exercise some control over how his legacy will be viewed. It’s not completely so, of course: this story is being told by a European author, after all. But there is a reminder at the end that conflict continues, outside of one person’s control. 

Published on 14 January by World Editions.

Earthlings by Sayaka Murata

Sayaka Murata, Earthlings (2018)
Translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori (2020)

Sometimes you read a second book by an author and you think you have an idea of what’s coming. In Earthlings, we meet Natsuki, who as a child believes that she has magical powers, and that her plush toy Piyyut is a visitor from another world. Natsuki’s cousin Yuu says he is an alien himself, and that a spaceship is coming to take him home. Natsuki wishes she could go with him. But events conspire to tear the cousins apart, and Natsuki and Yuu make a pact that they will survive, whatever it takes. 

These are not just games: there are horrific events in Natsuki’s childhood (graphically written, so be warned), and a real sense that she acts this way as a means of protection or displacement from reality. So I thought that, like Convenience Store Woman, here was another study of a character with an unusual view of the world, another challenge laid down to the reader to meet such a character on their own terms. 

Well, Earthlings is all of that. But it’s also so much else. 

As an adult, Natsuki pretends to fit in. She views society as a ‘Factory’ for producing babies. She’s able to opt out of that, but still has a deep-seated conviction that she does not belong here. When Natsuki finally has cause to reunite with Yuu, it seems that he has put away what he now sees as childish fantasies – but these are clearly still realities for Natsuki. 

And then… Well, I’m not telling. Not since New Model Army have I read a book whose ending felt so audacious to imagine. I won’t forget the experience of reading Earthlings, not for a long time. 

Published by Granta Books.

Époque Press: The Nacullians

Craig Jordan-Baker’s debut novel, published by Époque Press, was the November selection for the Republic of Consciousness Prize Book of the Month – and it’s an absolute gem. The Nacullians is a family saga about a kind of family that’s not normally the subject of such a book: a working-class family in Southampton, whose founders emigrated from Ireland in the 1950s: “Patrice Nacullian concentrated on pregnancy, smoking, and crosswords, while Nandad spent his days laying bricks and being racially abused on building sites.”

The structure is non-chronological, with chapters ranging from Nandad’s son Bernard learning the unwritten codes of acceptance on the building site in 1988, to a hospital volunteer singing songs on a ward in 2011 where one of the Nacullians is a patient. This raggedness of structure mirrors a general sense that the Nacullian family don’t quite fit into this kind of story – so the story is reshaped to fit them.

I really appreciated Jordan-Baker’s prose style. It reminds me of Dan Rhodes’s writing, and has the same capacity to start out whimsical and end up serious and poignant. There’s a real feeling in this book that it will not be bound by any preconceived ideas of what a novel should sound like, and the result is exhilarating to read. It builds up to a scene of someone eating cheese and bread: something that sounds mundane, but in this novel has the whole weight of a family’s history behind it.

That Old Country Music by Kevin Barry: a Shiny New Books review

I have a new review up at Shiny New Books, looking at Kevin Barry’s third story collection, That Old Country Music. I love Barry’s short fiction, and this book is no exception: tales rooted deeply in the west of Ireland, characters navigating contemporary life while older rhythms hum in the background, all told in Barry’s distinctive voice.

Read my review in full here.

Book published by Canongate.

Read my other posts on Kevin Barry’s work here.

Fantasy, Galley Beggar style: Mordew by Alex Pheby

It’s a year or so now since I heard that Alex Pheby’s third Galley Beggar Press novel was going to be fantasy. I was intrigued as to what sort of fantasy novel Galley Beggar might publish, but also wanted to have some idea of what Pheby’s other work was like. That’s what led me to read Lucia earlier this year. It was a powerful experience of vivid language… and so was Mordew.

Reading this book took me back to China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station, and the sense of a fantasy novel that was vibrant and wide open, that could go anywhere it wanted. Mordew is built on archetypal foundations: Nathan Treeves, a boy from the slums with a mysterious ‘Spark’, is sent on a mission by the powerful Master of the city of Mordew. There are echoes of many a classic fantasy city, but Pheby’s novel is something all of its own.

For a start, there’s the writing. Here, towards the beginning, is Nathan wading through a patch of Living Mud, which can spontaneously generate life-forms:

Deeper and there were things brushing his knees, some the size of a finger, moving through the darkness. Then, occasionally, the touch of something on his thighs, seeking, groping, flinching away by reflex. There was nothing to fear – he told himself – since whatever these things were, they had no will, and would be dead in minutes, dissolving back into the Living Mud. They meant nothing to anyone. They meant nothing. 

It’s easier for Nathan to tell himself these things are nothing than for him to act that way in reality. This passage made my skin crawl when I read it!

Mordew also lingers in my mind because of the extent to which Pheby pushes his novel’s imagination. I could list examples, but I find that I don’t want to, because a large part of this novel’s effect lies in the discovery. Suffice it to say that, if you like the sound of Mordew, I highly recommend it.

Pushkin Press: At Night All Blood Is Black

David Diop, At Night All Blood Is Black (2018)
Translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis (2020)

This is a short and powerful novel of World War One by French-Senegalese writer David Diop. Our narrator, Alfa Ndiaye, came from Senegal and joined the French army with his friend (his “more-than-brother”) Mademba Diop. As the novel begins, Mademba is dead – Alfa found him mortally wounded, but couldn’t bring himself to do what his friend pleaded and finish him off. Now Alfa regrets that, and it has driven him to seek bloodthirsty revenge against the German forces.

The scenes set in Alfa’s childhood provide a contrast to the chaos and brutality of war, and it seems clear that the conflict is what has made him like this. Alfa’s commanding officers are happy to let him carry on at first, because his behaviour plays into their stereotypical views of African soldiers. But eventually he is sent to a field hospital for treatment, though even then the outcome is far from certain.

The language of Diop’s novel (a fine translation by Anna Moschovakis) is built around loops and repeated phrases that bring us closer to Alfa’s viewpoint, almost stiflingly so. This leads to some intense shifts of perception. We see with painful clarity what Alfa has done, and what has been done to him.

Published by Pushkin Press.

Peirene Press: The Pear Field

Nana Ekvtimishvili, The Pear Field (2015)
Translated from the Georgian by Elizabeth Heighway (2020)

The third title in Peirene’s Closed Universe series (following Snow, Dog, Foot and Ankomst) takes us to Tbilisi, and the Residential School for Intellectually Disabled Children – known more informally as the School for Idiots, which tells you in how much esteem its inhabitants are held. In practice, the school is an all-purpose dumping ground for children who aren’t wanted by their families.

This includes our protagonist, 18-year-old Lela. She’s lived at the school for years, has been through some dark times (to say the least), and is old enough to leave – but she doesn’t know where she would go. In some ways, Lela herself is as much a closed universe as the school environment. She is driven by strong emotions, but still we see her at a certain remove.

Lela’s main project in the novel is to help a young boy named Irakli. He’s pretty much been abandoned at the school by his mother (he calls his mother periodically, and she insists she is coming back for him, but we understand differently). When an American couple express an interest in adopting a child from the school, Lela is determined that it should be Irakli. But plenty of preparation is needed if there’s to be a chance of that happening.

The Pear Field shows how insidiously the children become institutionalised, as particular ways of thinking come to the fore. It’s a quiet book, with dark tones.

#GoldsmithsPrize2020: The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again by M. John Harrison

The winner of this year’s Goldsmiths Prize was announced last Wednesday, and it was the one I hadn’t finished reading at the time. So first of all, congratulations to Mike Harrison on his win — I’m pleased he’s had this recognition. Now on to the book itself. 

On the face of it, The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again would seem the most conventionally written novel on the Goldsmiths shortlist — there are no contrasting voices or unusual layouts here. But what Harrison does, gradually and comprehensively, is to undermine the basic qualities that we might expect a conventional novel to have. Coherence, progression, resolution… all dissipate as you look at them more closely. 

Harrison’s two protagonists are caught in the midst of something strange, not that they seem to notice. Shaw is getting back on his feet following a breakdown. He moves into a small room in a damp London house. He meets one Tim Swann combing through the soil in a cemetery, and later discovers he lives next door. Tim offers Shaw a job in an office on his barge, obscure administrative tasks and trips to niche shops that are barely hanging on:

The internet was killing them. The speed of things was killing them. They were like old-fashioned commercial travellers, fading away in bars and single rooms, exchanging order books on windy corners as if it was still 1981 — denizens of futures that failed to take, whole worlds that never got past the economic turbulence and out into clear air…

In one sense, then, the ‘sunken land’ of the title refers to people and places worn down by austerity. 

The novel’s second protagonist is Victoria, with whom Shaw is having an intermittent affair. Victoria has moved from London to the Midlands, to work on renovating her late mother’s home. She finds the people quite distant, and seemingly more knowledgeable about her mother than she is. She becomes sort-of friends with Pearl, a waitress, who lives in a house whose rooms seem to shift and where people come and go without warning. 

You would never know there was anything unusual about Victoria’s life, though, if you judged by the banal emails she sends to Shaw (not that he usually reads them). Failures in communication are a recurring feature of this novel, whether it’s Victoria and Shaw not telling each other what’s really going on in their lives, or Shaw’s struggle to connect with his mother, who has dementia and can never get his first name right.

A breakdown of communication is one thing, but this is also a novel where the world itself fails to come together. Images of water abound, and there are rumours of humans being born with the appearance of fish. Tim Swann researches such fringe phenomena, and there are hints at a unifying explanation of all the book’s strange happenings. But when one’s actually reads Tim’s writings, the semblance of coherence disappears:

Stories reproduced from every type of science periodical appeared cheek-by-jowl with listicle and urban myth. These essentially unrelated objects were connected by grammatically correct means to produce apparently causal relationships. Perfectly sound pivots, such as ‘however’ and ‘while it remains true that’, connected propositions empty of any actual meaning…

The same goes for Sunken Land more broadly. Whatever’s really going on here, it’s not within the sight or comprehension of our protagonists — and therefore of us. If there’s a promise of escape from (or for) this sunken land, it will be fulfilled somewhere else. Harrison’s novel is unnerving because there are echoes of motion throughout, but ultimately what we experience through its characters is stasis.

Published by Gollancz.

Click here to read my other reviews of the 2020 Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.

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