“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.
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.
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.
It’s time for my second stop on the UK blog tour for Boekenweek. Today I have an extract from Two Blankets, Three Sheets by Rodaan Al Galidi, translated from the Dutch by Jonathan Reeder and published by World Editions.
The blurb goes like this:
Amsterdam Airport, 1998. Samir Karim steps off a plane from Vietnam, flushes his fake passport down the toilet, and requests asylum. Fleeing Iraq to avoid conscription into Saddam Hussein’s army, he has spent seven years anonymously wandering through Asia. Now, safely in the heart of Europe, he is sent to an asylum center and assigned a bed in a shared dorm—where he will spend the next nine years. As he navigates his way around the absurdities of Dutch bureaucracy, Samir tries his best to get along with his 500 new housemates. Told with compassion and a unique sense of humor, this is an inspiring tale of survival, a close-up view into the hidden world of refugees and human smugglers, and a sobering reflection of our times.
Today’s post is part of a UK blog tour to mark Boekenweek, an annual celebration of Dutch literature that takes place each spring in the Netherlands.
I’m pleased to share an extract from The Blessed Rita, the latest novel by Tommy Wieringa to appear in English, translated by Sam Garrett. I was impressed by Wieringa’s The Death of Murat Idrissi last year, so I’m looking forward to this one.
Here’s the blurb:
What is the purpose of a man? Living in a disused farmhouse with his elderly father, Paul Krüzen is not sure he knows anymore. The mill his grandfather toiled in is closed, the glory of the Great Wars is long past, and it has been many years since his mother escaped in the arms of a Russian pilot, never once looking back. What do they have to look forward to now?
Saint Rita, the patron saint of lost causes, watches over Paul and his best friend Horseradish Hedwig, two misfits at odds with the modern world, while Paul takes comfort in his own Blessed Rita, a prostitute from Quezon. But even she cannot protect them from the tragedy that is about to unfold.
In this darkly funny novel about life on the margins of society, Dutch sensation Tommy Wieringa asks what happens to those left behind.
If that’s piqued your interest, here is an extract from the book…
Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell (Argentina, Oneworld).
The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, translated from the Dutch by Michele Hutchison (Netherlands, Faber and Faber).
Mac and His Problem by Enrique Vila-Matas, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull-Costa and Sophie Hughes (Spain, Harvill Secker).
Okay, well… To date, I have read two of these: the Pagano (which I liked) and the Ogawa (which I really liked, but I’m reviewing it for Strange Horizons so you’ll have to wait to find out more…). It’s great to see Schweblin and Vila-Matas on here, and I’m excited to explore the rest. How much I’ll get through is another question, because some of these books are quite long (and the Haratischvili is very long indeed). But I don’t want to rush – we’ll just see what happens.
I wanted to join in with Fitzcarraldo Fortnight because I have plenty of their books that I still haven’t read, so here’s a chance to catch up a bit. I’ll post individual reviews over on Instagram first, with two or three round-ups on here.
To start with, though, I’ve gathered together all my existing reviews of Fitzcarraldo titles below. If you’ve never tried this publisher, I warmly recommend them.
My friend the writer Paul Barnett – who mostly wrote as John Grant – died suddenly this week, at the age of 70. To some, his name may be unfamiliar. For me, there has scarcely been a time in my reading life when he wasn’t somewhere in the background.
I first came across Paul’s work in the early 1990s, in my high school library – there was a book on Viking myths, and one on ‘unsolved mysteries’. Already I could tell he had a way with words, and a sense of humour, that I liked.
I was into adventure gamebooks at that time, including Joe Dever’s Lone Wolf series. This led me to the Legends of Lone Wolf novelisations, which were co-credited to John Grant – the same John Grant I knew from those library books. Collecting the Legends of Lone Wolf was something of an adventure itself: just as I started reading them, they began to drop out of print. I alternated them with Discworld books, and loved both series.
I didn’t realise at the time how far the Legends went against the grain of much fantasy fiction. Paul believed that fantasy could go much further, be more subversive and transformative, than it often did and was. In the Legends of Lone Wolf, he was quietly working out his own vision of the genre. I wasn’t thinking about that – I just enjoyed the books – but my taste is still for fiction that pushes against the norm in some way, and I credit that in large part to reading Paul’s work.
In Paul’s author biography in the Legends books, I began to see mention of The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, which he co-edited with John Clute. It was published in 1997, and I found a cheap copy a couple of years later. I spent hours browsing it, and much longer following up references. Of course Paul was far from the only person who contributed to this volume, but I could see that his view of fantasy ran through it – and this inspired me. It showed me a new way to read, which could also be a new way to think, and in turn a new way to see the world.
Paul’s email address was given in the Encyclopedia‘s introduction, and he became the first author I ever wrote to (it would have been in 2000, I think). We kept in touch, which I’m so glad about. In the early 2000s, Paul was reviewing books for the website Infinity Plus. I admired his style: rigorous and humorous in equal measure. When I began writing book reviews myself, Paul was one of my key influences.
Born in Aberdeen and later resident in Exeter, Paul had moved to the USA in 1999. Nevertheless, we met in a person a couple of times at SF/fantasy conventions. He was always friendly, funny and insightful.
As the years went by, we were in touch less often. But Paul remained an occasional commenter on this blog, and I enjoyed catching up with his thoughts on his reading over on Goodreads. When I was invited to contribute to Jonathan Gibbs’ A Personal Anthology newsletter, one of Paul’s stories was my first choice, because his work was so significant to me. I’ll take this opportunity to recommend his story ‘Wooden Horse‘ again.
It’s not unusual for books, music, TV and films to form part of the furniture of our lives. But a select few become more than that: they truly become part of who we are. Paul’s work was like that for me. I don’t know if I can put into words just what that means.
Thank you, old pal. Farewell. I’ll miss you, but I will always have your writing.
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 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.