Tagbook review

Patience by Toby Litt

“Please be patient with me,” says Elliott at the start of Toby Litt’s novel Patience. Elliott is a disabled boy living in a Catholic orphanage in 1979. He is largely unable to move or speak, but his inner voice is richly expressive. I was reminded of Gerald Murnane’s writing at times, not just with the long, winding sentences, but also the way that Elliott’s imagination opens up patterns in the world.

For example, here he is watching a greenfinch:

…the green vision danced and fretted and eagered and preened in front of me I could not believe who could believe that I deserved so many feathers that overlapped in such a succinct way and that slid over one another in greens that were doorways to shy sly gardens of other greens that tree green had only hinted at.

Litt asks his readers to experience the world at Elliott’s pace, but the depth that’s revealed in doing so makes Patience a rewarding book. Elliott’s burgeoning friendship with a new boy, Jim, is a delight to read about.

#InternationalBooker2020: Melchor, Kehlmann, Azar

A selection of titles from the International Booker Prize longlist

Fernanda Melchor, Hurricane Season (2017)
Translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes (2020)

Hurricane Season is an appropriate title for a novel that roars into the unsuspecting reader’s mind, with its long and winding sentences, and its refusal to flinch from the brutalities of its world.

Set in a Mexican village, Melchor’s book begins with the murder of a woman known as “the Witch”, whose house is rumoured to hide a stash of treasure. Subsequent chapters unpeel the events that led to the killing, and show the dark realities of life in this community.

It’s a powerful translation by Sophie Hughes, and a novel that’s not soon forgotten.

Daniel Kehlmann, Tyll (2017)
Translated from the German by Ross Benjamin (2020)

Tyll Ulenspiegel, the main character of this novel, is based on a trickster figure from medieval German folklore. Kehlmann brings him forward in time to the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48). Tyll escapes the childhood village where his father is accused of witchcraft, and as an adult becomes a travelling entertainer and court jester.

Kehlmann’s novel is at its best when Tyll is at centre-stage, the prankster who breaks through the superstitions and mores of his society. When he isn’t front and centre… well, it probably helps to know about the historical background. Overall, though, Tyll is engaging and enjoyable. ⁣

Shokoofeh Azar, The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree (2017)
Translated from the Persian by an anonymous translator

Following the 1979 Revolution, Bahar’s family were forced to flee Tehran for the small village of Razan, seeking to maintain their intellectual freedom, and at least some sort of continuity in life.

But the authorities catch up with them eventually. As the novel begins in 1988, Bahar’s mother has climbed a greengage tree and apparently attained enlightenment. At the same time, Bahar’s brother has been executed elsewhere. Brightness and brutality are intermingled in the text. ⁣

Azar’s novel is full of stories within stories, and the supernatural is never far away (even Bahar, our narrator, is a ghost). It’s compelling to read, delightful and powerful in equal measure.⁣

Dylan Thomas Prize blog tour: Flèche by Mary Jean Chan

Welcome to my first stop on the longlist blog tour for the Swansea University Dylan Thomas Prize. The book I’m looking at today is Flèche, the debut collection by Hong Kong-born poet Mary Jean Chan, a collection that won the Costa Poetry Award.

‘Flèche’ is the French word for ‘arrow’, but it’s also the name of a technique in fencing, a sport that Chan competed in as a young adult. “As a teenager, fencing was the closest thing / I knew to desire,” writes Chan in ‘Practice’, and fencing becomes one of the metaphors she uses to explore the assertion of her identity. In the poem ‘Flèche’:

The day I learnt to lunge, I began to walk differently, saw distance as a kind of desire. Once, my blade’s tip gently flicked her wrist: she said it was the perfect move.

One of the collection’s main themes is the poet’s relationship with her mother. ‘Conversation with Fantasy Mother’ describes an idealised coming out: “You sieved my tears, added / an egg, then baked a beautiful cake.” The reality that Chan presents in the book doesn’t go so smoothly. In ‘Always’, she writes that her mother is “always where I begin…Always the lips wishing / they could kiss those mouths / you would approve of.”

But perhaps the main theme of Flèche is love — romantic and familial love alike. Here’s an example from ‘an eternal &’:

look I say to you / listen watch / how we can make it through another day / on this shore / of lifetimes / we’ll have this ocean / an eternal &

There’s a restless power to Flèche that makes it a memorable collection, well worth a read.

#FitzcarraldoFortnight: Langley and Hildyard

Patrick Langley, Arkady (2018)

I’m starting Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight with the first debut that Fitzcarraldo published: Patrick Langley’s novel Arkady. It’s told as a series of episodes from the lives of Jackson and Frank, brothers on the margins of an austerity-ravaged society that feels only a few steps away from now. They find an abandoned canal boat that they name Arkady. The brothers then have a chance to leave their city and look for a new life.

What really makes Arkady work for me is its impressionistic quality. It is tempting to read the brothers’ city as being London, but really it’s not a place with a precise geography. The brothers experience their environment as an abstract urban landscape, and that’s how Langley makes us see it. That background makes the relationship between Frank and Jackson all the more vivid. Their bond is one thing that might weather the storms life throws at them, in a strikingly affecting piece of work.

Daisy Hildyard, The Second Body (2017)

This book is an essay in trying to square the human sense of being a physical-bodied individual with the fact of being embedded in an ecosystem. Daisy Hildyard refers to the latter as “having a second body”, one that reaches around the world. ⁣

Hildyard draws together science, literature (this book gave me a new perspective on Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels in particular) and personal experience. She argues that it’s difficult for us to imagine the individual and the global scale at the same time, unless perhaps nature invades your personal space, as when Hildyard’s house is flooded in the book’s final chapter.

I find myself agreeing with her on that – it has been my experience, in the past and even during the reading of this book. So The Second Body is a challenge: to think differently. It will stay with me for some time. ⁣

A Peirene Press round-up

Claudio Morandini, Snow, Dog, Foot (2015)
Translated from the Italian by J Ockenden (2020)

Peirene’s series theme for 2019-20 is ‘Closed Universe’, and this first title takes us into the troubled mind of one old man living in the Alps.

Adelmo Farandola (always referred to by his full name) spends the winter up in the mountains away from people, and the summer even further up in the mountains. When we meet him, he goes down to the village to stock up on supplies for the winter. The shopkeeper is surprised to see him because (she says) he visited only last week. Adelmo has no memory of that.

For most of Morandini’s novel, it’s just Adelmo, his dog, and the young ranger who goes by from time to time. Adelmo is snowed in for months, then has to decide what to do when he sees a foot poking out of the snow.

What makes Snow, Dog, Foot so compelling is the ambiguity running through it. Reality is fluid for Adelmo, so there’s no fanfare when (for example) the dog starts talking to him, because that’s just the way things are. Adelmo has complete trust in his senses, which means we have constant mistrust. The book grows ever more poignant as the layers of perception peel away and we understand what’s happening.

Emmanuelle Pagano, Faces on the Tip of My Tongue (2012)
Translated from the French by Jennifer Higgins and Sophie Lewis (2019)

Part of Peirene’s ‘There Be Monsters’ series, this is a collection of linked stories set in rural France. These are vivid tales of character: the hitchhiker who stands in drivers’ blind spots. The old man near the holiday rental who’ll tell stories of the local area to anyone who will listen. The father remembering his daughter’s childhood through an old jigsaw puzzle.

Characters and images recur, not least the roads that link up places but also lead away from them. The repeating references to individuals and events serve to remind how small a community can be. But the details of the stories reveal how even familiar faces may be unknown or forgotten.

Birgit Vanderbeke, You Would Have Missed Me (2016)
Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch (2019)

Another title from the ‘There Be Monsters’ series. Vanderbeke draws on her own childhood for this tale of an East German refugee trying to settle into West German society in the 1960s.⁣

I particularly like the childlike tone of the narration: the hurried gabble of this happened and then that and this and you know what else, as though the narrator wants to tell us everything.⁣

Blog tour: The Island Child by Molly Aitken

My post today is part of a blog tour for The Island Child, the debut novel by Molly Aitken, which was published last week by Canongate. It’s set on the small Irish island of Inis, where Oona grows up in the mid-20th century. Inis is a place steeped in tradition for better or worse, where the old tales are told, and the cycle of life turns fixed on its axis – especially for women.

But Oona tries to break free, building a new life for herself in Canada. Twenty years later, she has her own daughter, Joyce, who goes missing, gone to Inis to find out about the past. Oona follows her, bringing her life full circle.

What I particularly like about The Island Child is the way that Aitken weaves in folklore. The people of Inis may often view life through that kind of framework. For example, the English incomer Aislinn has a reputation for being something of a witch. Oona sees her on the beach one night:

On the water a round and glistening shape floated towards her. My fingers clamped cold to the damp rock. She was calling her dead husband back. Bringing life to him again…

She ran screeching into the waves and, laughing, she called out to him, a melodious sound without meaning. Her long fingers reached out for him but he sank and vanished.

But the islanders’ view of Aislinn may have more to do with the fact that she is a single mother who doesn’t conform with how women in this community are expected to be. Aitken continually peels back the layers of folklore to reveal the truth beneath. This can be painful for her characters, but Oona finds a place in her life for stories by novel’s end. The Island Child is a vivid tale of character and place.

Red Circle Minis: part 1

Red Circle is a publisher specialising in translations of Japanese fiction. A while ago, they offered me a set of their Red Circle Minis to review. These are a series of individually bound short Japanese tales, which have been specially commissioned and published in English translation first. I’ve been working my way through the stories; here are my thoughts on the first three.

Stand-in Companion by Kazufumi Shiraishi
Translated by Raj Mahtani

The first chapter of this story sets the scene as follows: when Yutori has an affair and child with another man, she and her husband Hayato divorce. Hayato is granted the right to a “stand-in companion” – an android replica of Yutori, complete with her memories. ⁣

The second chapter tells a similar story, but here it’s Hayato who has the affair and child, and Yutori who receives a stand-in companion. The the rest of the story is wonderfully ambiguous as to who is who – or who is what. Since stand-in companions don’t know they’re androids, maybe this Hayato and Yutori are both artificial. ⁣

Shiraishi uses this set-up to explore the emotions that come out of a disrupted relationship. Both Yutori and Hayato are out for rev\nenge in some way against their ex-partner, but taking it in such an artificial situation underlines how hollow it may ultimately be. This is a thought-provoking piece of work.

Backlight by Kanji Hanawa
Translated by Richard Nathan

This story was inspired by an actual incident that took place in Japan in 2016. A boy is abandoned on a mountain road by his parents to teach him a lesson. When they change their minds ten minutes later, he had disappeared. Hanawa writes about the search for the boy, but his focus is on the small group of psychologists brought in to help.

While others are out doing the hard graft of looking for the missing boy, we’ll often be with the psychologists in their comfortable accommodation, where they discuss their theories of abandonment. Their talk gets quite abstract, and far removed from the reality of the boy’s predicament. Backlight becomes quite a cutting reflection of how society may treat those who fall through its cracks.

Tokyo Performance by Roger Pulvers

Roger Pulvers is an Australian writer who has a long association with Japan, and writes in both English and Japanese. Tokyo Performance is the tale of Norimasa Inomata, a popular TV chef in the 1970s. We meet him as he’s filming his live weekly show, but this week there’s something more personal to go along with the cookery. Inomata starts ranting about his personal life, and we discover that he is estranged from his wife and children. The chef’s commentary grows more and more heated, until he dares his wife to ring him live on air… ⁣

You just know that Inomata is on a path to self-destruction but, with Pulvers’ words, this is one performance from which it’s hard to turn away.

“She told me the meal was there, spare, magnificent and perfect”

Marie NDiaye, The Cheffe (2016)
Translated from the French by Jordan Stump (2019)

Although I’m not much of a foodie, I have a soft spot for programmes like Masterchef and Great British Menu. I think it has something to do with seeing already talented people excelling themselves, especially when it’s in an area I can relate to but couldn’t venture into myself. There’s also a certain mystery in watching these shows, trying to imagine what the food actually tastes like from the judges’ descriptions. I guess it’s a bit like trying to capture what it was like to read a book that you may well not have read yet yourself.

On that note: here is The Cheffe, the latest novel to appear in English translation from the French author Marie NDiaye (whose Ladivine was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize back in 2016). It is the story of an enigmatic culinary genius, known to us mostly by title rather than name.

From humble beginnings in south-western France, the Cheffe discovers her talent as a teenager, working in a wealthy couple’s kitchen. In time, she becomes a celebrated restauranteur, but she’s not interested in showing off – “cooking was sacred” to her. She also remains intensely private. It’s in the kitchen where the Cheffe is in her element:

…it’s a fact that I never saw the Cheffe make a motion or gesture that wasn’t marked by a magical precision, even in the most cramped or cluttered quarters, every tiny part of her diligently obeyed order to make every move precise, and did so gracefully, what’s more, with a radiant eagerness that suggested everything she did in the ritual space of the kitchen was done in accordance with the precepts of beauty and necessity.

NDiaye’s unnamed narrator is a former employee of the Cheffe; the text of the novel is an interview he’s giving after she has died. This man thinks he knows who the Cheffe was and how she thought, but he’s not the most reliable of narrators. He’s rather obsessed with the Cheffe (as you can perhaps tell from the tone of the quotation above), and that colours his account of her. There’s a sense that some of the narrator’s interpretations, such as his view of the Cheffe’s relationship with her daughter (which he sees as a difficult one), might be projections of his own situation.

The end result is a kind of double distancing: an already elusive character made even more so by the overlaying of another character’s preoccupations. We’re apprehending the Cheffe through two thicknesses of glass, as it were – but the impressions left of both her and the narrator are vivid nonetheless. The Cheffe is a tale of imagination filling in the gaps when first-hand knowledge falls short, as tantalising and perilous as that may be.

The Cheffe is published by MacLehose Press in the UK and Knopf in the US.

#YoungWriterAward shortlist 2019

Over on Instagram, I’ve been reviewing the shortlist for this year’s Sunday Times / University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award, which is given to a work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry by a writer aged 35 or under. The winner will be announced on Thursday, so now is a good time to put my shortlist reviews on the blog.

The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus

I’m still finding my way when it comes to reading (and writing about) poetry, but this is a collection I really enjoyed. Language and communication are two of the key themes. In ‘Jamaican British’, Antrobus considers both sides of his heritage, and how comfortably (or not) the two words sit together. ‘Echo’ is a sequence of short poems revolving the beginnings of Antrobus’ relationship with sound as a d/Deaf person: “What language / would we speak / without ears?”

Another theme running through the collection is Antrobus’ relationship with his late father. The poem ‘The Perseverance’ depicts the young Raymond standing outside the pub, waiting for his father who has just “popped in for a minute”. On the one hand, there’s a sense here of the poet’s father neglecting his family; on the other, when this situation has become a memory for Raymond, the loss of his father’s laughter is keenly felt.

Elsewhere, Antrobus describes how his father’s dementia “simplified a complicated man, / swallowed his past”. But the collection ends on (what feels to me) a hopeful note, with “Happy Birthday Moon”, in which the child Raymond’s father reads him a bedtime story. The second line of each stanza becomes the first line of the next, which gives a constant sense of rising up, reaching towards.

Published by Penned in the Margins.

salt slow by Julia Armfield

The opening story of this collection sets the tone. ‘Mantis’ is narrated by a teenage girl with a mysterious skin condition that makes her “dream in sheddings” and means that she’s constantly bandaged up. It’s just her genes, the girl’s mother insists, but she still has an uneasy relationship with her body and the thought of intimacy. Then events take a decidedly macabre turn… ⁣

Typically, the stories in Armfield’s collection revolve around a single strange or fantastical idea that gains power from being treated as ordinary. In ‘Formerly Feral’, the narrator’s father falls in love with a woman who has adopted a wolf. The protagonist and wolf are viewed as sisters, leading to some shifts in identity. ‘Stop your women’s ears with wax’ features a band who incite the most extraordinary level of emotion in their listeners – and we only see this from the outside, which makes it even more disturbing. ‘The Great Awake’ sees people losing their ability to fall asleep, which takes physical form as a shadowy figure haunting each individual, reconfiguring society’s relationship with sleep. salt slow is a collection that lingers on beyond the final page.

Published by Picador Books.

Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler

⁣We don’t so much read about the life of this novel’s protagonist as piece it together. She has a Brazilian mother and an English father; the book explores her life within and between these two cultures, and what it means to belong. The questions come: where are you from? How do you pronounce your name again? Why don’t you have an accent? There are moments of happiness and joy, but also trauma that makes the protagonist feel a stranger in her own body. ⁣

The structure of Stubborn Archivist is fragmentary, and the style veers between prose and poetry: language that bends and stretches to accommodate what this person needs to say. The nearest match I can think of is Anakana Schofield’s Martin John – very different in subject matter, but both novels organised to create meaning for the protagonist more than the reader. She’s not there to tell us her life story; we are allowed in – and the honour is ours.

Published by Fleet.

Testament by Kim Sherwood

When celebrated artist Joseph Silk dies, his granddaughter Eva finds a letter among his effects that brings back a past he had tried to shake off. Silk was born Jószef Zyyad, who left Hungary as a refugee in 1945. Unlike his brother László, Jószef was determined to leave that part of his life behind, and Eva knows nothing of his experiences during the Holocaust. The letter she finds is from the Jewish Museum in Berlin, asking Silk’s permission to use in an exhibition his account of the time, which has been found in the museum’s collection. ⁣

There are then three strands to Sherwood’s novel: Eva’s present-day uncovering of the past, and the contrasting historical stories of Jószef and László. There are some powerful moments as the truth is gradually revealed, and Sherwood explores what it means to bear witness.

Published by riverrun.

Thanks to FMcM Associates for providing review copies of the shortlist.

Goldsmiths Prize 2019, part 1: Haddon, Levy, Main

Here are my thoughts on half of this year’s Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.

The Porpoise by Mark Haddon (Chatto & Windus)

Newborn Angelica is the only survivor of a plane crash. She is raised by her wealthy father Philippe, who over the years grows protective and possessive of her – dangerously so. When Darius, a friend’s son, gets too close to the truth, Philippe tries to kill him. Darius escapes on The Porpoise, a schooner that a friend is looking after – and a couple of days later, he wakes as Pericles in ancient Greece.

Angelica tells herself the story of Pericles as a form of protection – and reshapes reality in doing so. Characters’ identities shift and the novel’s focus changes as Angelica reaches for the story she needs to help her get through what’s happening. Haddon’s writing is propulsive and engaging… a fine start to the shortlist.

[Link to publisher]

The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy (Hamish Hamilton)

In 1988, historian Saul Adler is knocked down by a car while his girlfriend Jennifer is photographing him on the Abbey Road crossing. Jennifer ends the relationship when Saul asks her to marry him, and he seeks solace in a research trip to East Germany. While there, Saul finds himself falling for his translator, Walter, but it’s a relationship that will remain beyond reach.

There are certain details in this scenario that don’t sit right, not least that Saul appears to have advance knowledge of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Any doubts about what Saul has been telling us will only increase in the novel’s second half. It’s 2016, and Saul has apparently been knocked down on Abbey Road again, but this time it has put him in hospital. His mind keeps drifting back to 1988, blurring past and present…

The Man Who Saw Everything becomes a hall of mirrors, as it won’t quite resolve into a single interpretation of ‘what actually happened’. There’s also an interesting sense that Levy is looking back from a precarious present to a time when great change was on the way. The feeling of uncertainty extends from Saul’s individual life to the broader sweep of history within the novel. It’s quite electrifying to read.

[Link to publisher]

Good Day? by Vesna Main (Salt Publishing)

Well, this is a lot of fun. It consists mostly of dialogue between a husband and wife, Reader and Writer. She’s writing a novel about Anna and Richard, a middle-aged couple whose marriage is under strain from Richard’s infidelity. Each day, the ‘real’ couple discuss the Writer’s novel and her characters, often with differing views: for example, the Reader is more sympathetic to Richard, the Writer more defensive of Anna.

The Reader is concerned that people will think that the Writer’s novel is based on their own lives. The Writer insists it’s not, though that doesn’t stop her incorporating the odd detail. The sense grows that a conversation about the Writer’s and Reader’s relationship is going on by proxy (and sometimes more directly than that) as they talk about her novel.

Good Day? turns the structure of a typical novel inside out, and the experience of reading it is also transformed. The tale of Anna and Richard is disconcertingly fluid, because it hasn’t yet been settled – and the tale of the Writer and Reader is just out of our reach. There are also some nice touches that made me smile: it’s common enough for an author to incorporate one of their previously published short stories into a novel, but I’ve never seen it done quite like this… and I shall say no more about that!

[Link to publisher]

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