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Peirene Press: Winter Flowers by Angélique Villeneuve (tr. Adriana Hunter)

This latest title from Peirene Press takes us to Paris in 1918, where we meet Jeanne, who makes paper flowers for a living. Her husband Toussaint has been recovering from facial injuries sustained in the war. He told her not to visit him in hospital, and she has feared the thought of what’s happened to him. 

Now, Toussaint has returned home, face covered, unable to speak. Not only is he a stranger to Jeanne, she struggles to see him as a person at first:

She doesn’t think, He’s here, she thinks, It’s here. This unknown thing that’s coming home to her. That she’s dreaded, and longed for. It’s here. It’s going to come in, it’s going to make its life with her, and with Léo [their daughter] too, it will come here, into this room that the two of them have shared so little since they left Belleville

Jeanne could be talking about Toussaint’s disfigurement in the abstract here, as much as Toussaint the person. Winter Flowers reminds me of David Diop’s At Night All Blood Is Black, in that both are First World War novels which strongly evoke sensation and feeling. Hunter’s translation is so vivid, as Villeneuve’s novel explores not just Jeanne and Toussaint working out how to relate again, but also the different traumas of the community around them. This is the first of Villeneuve’s novels to appear in English translation; I hope there will be more. 

#GoldsmithsPrize2021: Assembly by Natasha Brown

The protagonist of Natasha Brown’s debut novel is an unnamed Black British woman who works in the banking industry. She’s been invited to assembly at a local school to talk about her job. However, she’s ambivalent about this: the finance sector gave her opportunities for social mobility that her parents and grandparents didn’t have – but shouldn’t things be different for these schoolchildren? 

…it didn’t sit right with me to propagate the same beliefs within a new generation of children. It belied the lack of progress – shaping their aspiration into a uniform and compliant form; their selves into workers who were grateful and industrious and understood their role in society. Who knew the limit to any ascent. 

Then again, she wouldn’t have been invited to the school in the first place were it not for her career:

Any value my words have in this country is derived from my association with its institutions: universities, banks, government. I can only repeat their words and hope to convey a kind of truth . Perhaps that’s a poor justification for my own complicity. My part in convincing children that they, too, must endure. Silence, surely, was the least harmful choice.

This kind of reflection animates Assembly, as the protagonist considers whether she really wants to do what it takes to get ahead, in a system and society that continue to oppress her. 

But I’m getting ahead of the novel here. Assembly begins with snippets of her colleagues’ behaviour that the protagonist feels she must excuse so she can keep going. Then there’s one side of a conversation with an EU national who tries to make a well-meant comparison about the two of them being made to feel unwelcome in the UK, but still ends up talking about where the protagonist is “really” from. My sense is that this is where the book starts because these are the building-blocks of what the protagonist experiences. 

As a novel, Assembly is pared back so there’s no chance for readers to get comfortable. It changes style and form as it goes, to fit whatever the protagonist wants to say. For example, later on, she describes instances of racism as a series of figures; and the prose turns more essayistic as she discusses the persistence of colonialism. 

Brown’s novel is then an assembly of different pieces, just as the protagonist assembles the self she presents to the world. As the book goes along, she finds a way to take more control over her story, which is reflected in how the prose changes. The reader is kept close to her, and the novel builds to a powerful crescendo. 

Published by Hamish Hamilton.

Click here to read my other reviews of the 2021 Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.

In Youth Is Pleasure by Denton Welch

Born into a mercantile family, Denton Welch (1915-48) fractured his spine in a cycling accident at the age of 20, which would shape the rest of his life. He began writing in the 1940s; the autobiographical In Youth Is Pleasure (1945) was his second novel, and has recently been published in Penguin Classics

The novel tells of one summer in the life of 15-year-old Orvil Pym, a boy who doesn’t fit in either at school or with his family. Orvil is distant from his father and brothers: he was closer to his mother, but she died three years ago, and Orvil is forbidden from even mentioning her. “She was never to be thought of or considered again – because she had been loved so much.”

Most of In Youth Is Pleasure is set at a hotel in Surrey, where Orvil is spending the holidays with his father and brothers. This isn’t so much a novel of events: it’s about Orvil exploring his way of experiencing the world and his sense of self. Welch’s writing is often vivid. For example, here Orvil is reading an Edwardian exercise manual while eating in the busy hotel court:

The chatter and the music surged around him. The waves of the sound broke through the deliciousness of the cakes, then receded and were forgotten again. Orvil was not concentrating, but the hyphenated words ‘press-up’, ‘knees-bend’, ‘trunk-turn’, ‘deep-breathing’, jumped out from the printed page. His eyes also idly followed the diagrams of a coarse little man who squatted, thrust his legs out, and tucked his chin into his neck until a large vein, like a branching ivy stem, stood out on his forehead. 

The first part of this paragraph conveys the mix of sensations that Orvil experiences. In the rest, there’s a sense of him being confronted by physicality and beginning to process his feelings. This is how Welch’s novel proceeds, with Orvil working himself out as he goes along. We’re right there with him, in an experience that lives long beyond the final page.

Magma by Thora Hjörleifsdóttir (tr. Meg Matich)

This short Icelandic novel is a portrait of Lilja, a 20-year-old woman in a relationship with a graduate student. Her boyfriend is controlling, and Lilja is trapped not just in the relationship with him, but also in the way she sees him. Magma is told in short chapters, vignettes that show vividly how much of a hold the man has over Lilja:

It’s so wonderful how he likes me exactly how I am. He gets irritated, seems even hurt, if I put on makeup, and he asks accusingly, “Who are you doing that for?” I don’t understand why he gets so jealous; I would never want to be with anyone else.

translation by meg matich

Though it sounds a contradiction in terms, it feels that there’s a precise artlessness to Lilja’s narration, such that we can see what she can’t. Magma can be emotionally hard to read at times, and one wishes for Lilja to find her way out of this situation. This is a novel that draws its readers close to its protagonist, where they become trapped just as she is. 

Published by Picador.

Reflex Press: Human Terrain by Emily Bullock

It’s ten years now since I read ‘My Girl’, the story that won Emily Bullock the Bristol Short Story Prize. So many things have changed in that time, but I could still recall the atmosphere of that story. ‘My Girl’ is here again at the start of Human Terrain, Bullock’s new collection from Reflex Press. It was a pleasure to re-read: narrated by a mother acting as cutman for her daughter in a boxing match, it switches between a vivid account of the present fight and reflecting on the events that brought the pair to where they are. ‘My Girl’ is a story that works equally as well taken at face value and as a metaphor for the characters’ relationship.

Like ‘My Girl’, the title story of Human Terrain places its protagonist in a situation that may or may not be read as, real in order to illuminate a mother-daughter relationship. A woman stands at the front of a lecture theatre, but this isn’t going to be the standard War Studies lecture that the students are expecting. The narrator wants to tell the audience about her daughter in Iraq, a much more personal story than the dispassionate accounts they’re used to. History isn’t in the textbooks, she says, but neither is it quite in her daughter’s story – the truth for her is something more raw and brutal. 

Bullock’s characters are often facing situations that embody the tensions in their lives, but sometimes her stories document a more abrupt change. ‘Zoom’ is set in rural Lincolnshire, where a boy has a school assignment called “Getting to Know Your Neighbours”. But his neighbours aren’t so easy to approach, so he’s taken to filming them instead of trying to interview them. There’s an irony in that the boy doesn’t get to know his neighbours that well at all through the filming , as the story’s sudden, powerful ending illustrates. 

Perhaps my favourite story in Bullock’s collection is ‘Open House’. In this, Freddie sees that his childhood home is up for sale, and decides to pay a visit during the open house, the first time he’s been back to Whitechapel in twenty years. What he finds is an uneasy mixture of the past coming back to him while the present unspools out of his grasp. “A person’s life shouldn’t be an open house,” Freddie thinks, “for strangers to trample through and pick over”. It’s a pointed sentiment in a collection of vivid portraits.

100 Poets: A Little Anthology by John Carey

I don’t read a lot of poetry, but it is something I’m always interested in exploring. So I’m grateful to Yale University Press for offering me a review copy of this new anthology compiled by the Oxford professor John Carey.

Carey’s book includes poets ranging chronologically from Homer to Toni Morrison. For some poets, there’s a single poem; for others, Carey takes us through several extracts. So it was interesting, for example, to sample the varied ways in which Homer has been translated over the centuries. 

100 Poets gave me the chance to read some well-known poems that I hadn’t before: an extract from Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Tale made me smile, and I was drawn in by Poe’s ‘The Raven’. Then there were names unfamiliar to me. Two war poems stand out as examples: ‘Rouen’ by May Wedderburn Cannan, a vivid portrait of a WW1 nursing unit; and Louis Simpson’s ‘Carentan O Carentan’, a stark account of a battle. 

I appreciated Carey’s commentary, especially in the entries with multiple poems; indeed, there are some where I’d have liked more context. But, no question, 100 Poets is a good anthology to dip into – or to read straight through, like I did. Whatever your experience of poetry, I think you’ll find something here to enjoy. 

The Melting by Lize Spit (tr. Kristen Gehrman)

This is a very dark novel, be warned. In the present day, Eva accepts an invitation from her childhood friend Pim to return to the farming village where they grew up. Partly this is to celebrate the opening of a new automated milking station, but it’s also to remember Pim’s brother Jan, who would now be aged 30.

Eva, Pim and their friend Laurens were the only children in their school year born in 1988 – they stuck together and called themselves the Three Musketeers. One strand of The Melting takes place in 2002, when the boys are starting to discover girls and Eva has to redefine her place in the trio. The other strand unfolds as Eva goes from Brussels to her old village. Among other things, we find out why Eva took a large block of ice with her. 

Belgian author Lize Spit’s debut novel gives up its secrets gradually. It becomes an intriguing thriller with a capacity to shock and disturb. 

Published by Picador.

MacLehose Press: Hell and High Water by Christian Unge

Christian Unge is a hospital doctor in Stockholm, a background that informs his debut thriller. Unge’s protagonist is Tekla Berg, an emergency medic who feels burdened with her photographic memory. She’s introduced to us in a gripping scene where she is juggling patients. Then she is tasked with treating a young man who has 85% burns. The police think he’s a terrorist… but Tekla thinks she recognises her brother. 

The story that unfolds in Hell and High Water (translated from Swedish by George Goulding and Sarah de Senarclens) encompasses the Uzbek mafia and hospital bureaucracy amongst other things, a balancing act that Unge handles well. What I particularly like is that, for everywhere the plot goes, it ultimately comes back to a fundamental theme, that of family. All of that makes Hell and High Water an enjoyable debut. 

Published by MacLehose Press.

Faber Editions: Mrs Caliban by Rachel Ingalls

Faber & Faber have recently launched a new series called Faber Editions, which reissues some of their backlist titles with new introductions, to “spotlight radical literary voices from history”. The first book in the series is this short novel by Rachel Ingalls (1940-2019), an American writer who lived in the UK from 1965. Mrs Caliban was her second novel, originally published in 1982. 

We meet Dorothy Caliban, a Californian housewife drifting through life: her young son has died, and her husband Fred is unfaithful. The setting underlines this sense of stasis: it feels as though this could be the 1950s as easily as the 1980s.

Dorothy hears a radio item about a large sea creature, dubbed ‘Aquarius the Monsterman’, which has escaped from a research institute having killed two employees. It’s a hint of strangeness amid a seemingly ordinary tale. Then the creature turns up on Dorothy’s doorstep:

She came back into the kitchen fast, to make sure that she caught the toasting cheese in time. And she was halfway across the checked linoleum floor of her nice safe kitchen when the screen door opened and a gigantic six-foot-seven-inch frog-like creature shouldered its way into the house and stood stock-still in front of her, crouching slightly, and staring straight at her face.

I have to credit Irenosen Okojie for the observation in her foreword that Ingalls makes this seem unremarkable, but the effect really is striking in context. Dorothy embarks on a relationship with the sea creature (who prefers to be called Larry). They can keep it a secret because there are certain rooms in the house where Fred doesn’t go – but they don’t want to stay indoors forever. 

Ingalls maintains a delicate balance between the real and unreal throughout Mrs Caliban. The fact that Larry is non-human allows things to be different for Dorothy: she can take charge of her life, and he challenges the model of masculinity represented by Fred. There is something of a fable about this book, but really it has an atmosphere all its own.

Red Circle Minis 4 and 5: Japanese fiction in English

My post today is about a couple of titles in the Red Circle Minis series: short Japanese books that have been translated and published in English first. I wrote about the first three Red Circle Minis here, and now it’s on to the next two…

The Refugees’ Daughter by Takuji Ichikawa
Translated by Emily Balistrieri

A few years ago, young Aimi thought the world’s problems only happened elsewhere. But now catastrophe has caught up, and she and her family are refugees. They are due to travel through the gate, a mysterious structure leading to who-knows-where – but they do know that soldiers can’t follow them, so it’s worth the risk. ⁣

A lot of this story’s atmosphere comes from its fantastical elements: the strange, narrowing white tunnels of the gate, or the voice of Aimi’s friend Yusune, who’s broadcasting to her having already passed through. But there’s also an intriguing question at the heart of ‘The Refugees’ Daughter’, which is who might hold the key to moving forward in a time of collapse. Ichikawa looks for an alternative to military might, and his answer is quite inspiring. ⁣

The Chronicles of Lord Asunaro by Kanji Hanawa
Translated by Meredith McKinney

Kanji Hanawa wrote one of the previous stories in this series: ‘Backlight’, a sharp look at how society may treat people who fall through its cracks. ‘The Chronicles of Lord Asunaro’ is something rather different, a historical tale about a rather ordinary nobleman. ⁣

Asunaro will inherit his father’s title one day (his nickname means ‘Someday-soon’), but there’s nothing remarkable about him. Perhaps his most notable trait is an eye for the ladies at court. Not that he’s much good with them: one failed attempt at wooing haunts him throughout his life. ⁣

This is an unusual story, in that it avoids the sort of colourful historical figure you might expect to see. Yet it’s engaging nonetheless, as it brings a certain gravity to the life of an apparently mundane individual. ⁣

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