I’m back at Strange Horizons with a new review. The Liquid Land by Raphaela Edelbauer (translated from German by Jen Calleja) concerns a woman who goes in search of her parents’ birthplace and finds a quaint little town in its own bubble of reality – with a giant hole in the middle, where the secrets of the past can be conveniently lost. Eddelbauer’s novel is a striking metaphorical exploration of how people may seek to ignore the past, and how it may catch up with them. Published by Scribe UK.
A Happy New Year to you! I’m starting 2023 on the blog with an obscure classic that took me by surprise…
Gertrude Trevelyan published eight novels before she died tragically young in 1941, from injuries incurred when her home was bombed in the Blitz. She fell into obscurity, but a few years ago her work was rediscovered by Brad Bigelow of the Neglected Books Page. This led eventually to her debut novel, 1932’s Appius and Virginia, being reissued. It’s the story of a woman who raises an orang-utan as a human child, and from that description, I was expecting to be rather whimsical. It really isn’t.
Virginia Hutton is on her own aged 40 and frustrated with life. She decides to conduct an experiment to see if an ape can be nurtured into humanity. This is her chance to leave a mark:
All her will power, all her suggestive force, her whole reserve of nervous and mental energy, was not too much to expend on this experiment. For If it succeeded she would indeed have achieved something. She would have created a human being out of purely animal material, have forced evolution to cover in a few years stages which unaided it would have taken aeons to pass…
Virginia buys a young orang-utan, names him Appius, and retreats from London to the countryside to set about her task. It isn’t easy, because Appius experiences the world on a much more abstract level than Virginia, and often he doesn’t understand what she’s trying to tell him, or why she does what she does. But eventually, Appius gains skills such as rudimentary speech and the ability to read, and Virginia feels she’s making progress. Oh, what a future she imagines for Appius – and herself:
She saw him, in Eton suit and shining collar, bowing over an armful of gilt and crimson tomes while the oak-panelled hall resounded with discrete, kid-gloved applause. She saw herself in the front row, surrounded by secretly envious parents and gratified masters, clapping shyly, blushing a little at this honour paid to her big boy, doing him credit by her clothes, her sleight figure, her youthful but not too girlish appearance.
Key to Virginia’s approach, though, is keeping Appius unaware of his true animal nature. There are times when this breaks through despite her best efforts, and the whole reading experience becomes something much rawer, elemental. The unbridgeable gap between Appius and Virginia becomes more apparent as the novel reaches a higher pitch – until the ending, which gives me chills just thinking back on it.
In Denmark, a linguist named Knut is watching a TV show about people from in countries that no longer exist. One woman catches his attention in particular, with her unusual name (Hiruko), appearance (she looks a bit like Björk on that album cover), and language (she speaks a pan-Scandinavian tongue of her own devising).
Knut sets out to meet Hiruko and find out more about her. Hiruko’s country has vanished beneath the sea, and with it any knowledge of the word ‘Japan’ – as just one example, Knut thinks that sushi is Finnish. What Hiruko wants most of all is to find someone else who speaks her native tongue. Knut resolves to help her, and they set off on a journey across Europe.
Along the way, Hiruko and Knut gain several fellow-travellers, including Akash, a trans Marathi-speaking student, and Tenzo, who turns out to be a Greenlander rather than Japanese. Everyone is between worlds in some way. Different characters narrate across Tawada’s novel, so that no one is truly at the centre. What we then have is an exuberant exploration of how language can help to make and remake identity, and how we might find different ways to belong.
Published by Granta Books.
After Convenience Store Woman and Earthlings, Sayaka Murata has become one of my must-read authors, so I was looking forward to this story collection. I’m used to her work starting off innocuously, before something strange stops me in my tracks. So it proved with the opening story here, ‘A First-Rate Material’. It begins with an apparently ordinary scene of afternoon tea, before one character says to the narrator: “Hey, Nana, that sweater…Is it human hair?”
Yes, that’s a Sayaka Murata story, and no mistake.
In this story, human remains are commonly reused: hair for clothes, bone for rings, fingernails to decorate a chandelier. Nana is fine with this, but her fiancé Naoki sees it as sacreligious. To Nana, reusing people’s remains is a way of honouring our humanity, but she resolves to respect Naoki’s beliefs. That’s until she goes to visit his family, and the couple both find their preconceptions tested.
What I particularly like is the way that the element of strangeness becomes a larger-than-life means to explore fundamental questions of what we value and how we relate to each other. The combination of otherworldliness and a focus on deep questions plays out across the collection in different ways. Some tales are snapshots of the strange, such as ‘Poochie’, in which a middle-aged man, without irony, takes the place of a pet dog (his standard bark is “Finishitbytwo!”). Then there’s ‘Lover on the Breeze’, which sees a bedroom curtain develop a crush on a visiting boy. There’s real emotional heft to these stories, because Murata (in Ginny Tapley Takemori’s ever-superb translations) keeps them grounded.
Other stories map out a process of change in more detail. In ‘Eating the City’, urban-dwelling Rina is reluctant to eat vegetables, because she feels they’re of poor quality in the city. But she thinks back to her rural childhood and her father’s love for wild foods, and that changes her mind. She starts to explore the wild plants available to eat in the city, and in turn this gives Rina a feeling of being closer to her environment. This story really got under my skin, as Rina talks about spreading her enthusiasm in terms of “marinating” another person and changing them from the inside out.
The title story ‘Life Ceremony’ is one that seems to bring the different aspects of Murata’s approach together. In this piece, a decline in population has changed certain attitudes: sex is now “insemination”, a social good done for reproduction rather than pleasure. When someone dies, it is customary to hold a life ceremony at which the deceased’s remains are eaten – and at which people then look for an insemination partner, to keep the cycle of life going.
Maho, the protagonist of this story, is old enough to remember when it was forbidden to eat human meat, and she’s never been able to accept the new custom. But when a close work colleague dies suddenly, the experience of his life ceremony challenges Maho to change her mind – and the reader’s preconceptions are challenged in turn.
Time and again, the stories in Life Ceremony – just like the ending of Convenience Store Woman – put the reader into the main character’s position. What seems strange from the outside gains emotional force from the inside as we come to understand the characters more deeply. To read Life Ceremony is to see things differently.
Published by Granta Books.
In the countryside near London stirs Dead Papa Toothwort, a nature spirit who moves through the different layers of life in the village, and revels in the music of human voices. These curl and overlap strikingly on the page:
Lanny is a dreamy young boy from the village with a wild imagination. Many people can’t work him out, as we hear from his parents, a commuter and novelist who are recent arrivals from the city. We also hear from Pete, a local artist who spends time with Lanny, and seems more on his wavelength than most.
Papa Toothwort understands Lanny, though: he sees that here is someone with an affinity for nature – someone who would respect the deep tales of old, rather than treating them as tourist fodder. As the novel’s first part ends, Toothwort decides the time has come to reassert himself – and Lanny goes missing.
The second section is my favourite part of the book, as the prose turns into a collage of voices echoing Toothwort’s passages in the first part. Max Porter explores not just the relationship between his village community and the natural world, but also relations within the village – for example, the way suspicion soon falls (unwarranted) on Pete.
The theatrical third part turns to the question of what Lanny means to those closest to him – whether they’ll be honest about it or not. It’s the feelings in Lanny that remain strongest in my mind, the way emotions twist and unpeel as the novel goes on.
Published by Faber & Faber.
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.
Isabel Waidner has been shortlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize twice and the Goldsmiths Prize once, which puts their work squarely in my area of interest. I had tried Waidner’s previous novel, We Are Made of Diamond Stuff, but… well, it just didn’t click with me. But I wasn’t going to give up.
Sterling Karat Gold was a recent Republic of Consciousness Book of the Month, and I was determined to meet it halfway. “‘Different’ doesn’t need to be scary or boring or hard; it can be fun,” says Waidner in a recent interview. So I thought: just go with the flow.
This time, the book clicked.
Any synopsis I give will be inadequate, because there’s so much going on, and because so much is in the actual experience of reading. But let’s see… This is how the narrator introduces themself:
I’m Sterling. Lost my father to AIDS, my mother to alcoholism. Lost my country to conservativism, my language to PTSD. Got this England, though. Got this body, this sterling heart.
This paragraph merges the personal, the political, the geographical, the linguistic, and the bodily. And that’s how Waidner’s novel continues.
When we first meet Sterling, they are set upon by a group of matadors, and saved by Rodney, a footballer who sends the bullfighters off. Sterling later goes to a Hendon FC match in search of Rodney, but is arrested by two representatives of the authorities for assaulting one of the matadors. Sterling is taken to a detention centre in Margate on further spurious charges. This results in a trial that takes place in Sterling’s bathroom, muscling in on Catastrophic Foibles, the performance art project that Sterling hosts at home with their best friend Chachki.
Did I mention the time travelling spaceships?
The world of Sterling Karat Gold is a nightmare for Sterling and their friends, because its workings are inexplicable and primed to act against them. The reader gets a sense of this by proxy through the strangeness of what happens, but there are also sharp moments of clarity. For example, there is a powerful chapter of long paragraphs (which you can read in full on the Granta website) in which Sterling reflects on the life of the footballer Justin Fashanu:
…in Chachki’s and my Cataclysmic Foibles lexicon, a ‘spaceship’ is a moment in which discreet neo-authoritarian governance and deliberate governmental deceit become apparent, just momentarily, before vanishing again. What’s that have to do with your life, you might ask, Justin Fashanu, a gay, black footballer, but how the concerted bullying of an individual belonging to more than one oppressed demographic relates to the workings of state control is a pertinent question, and one I ask myself every day.
Alongside this, Sterling Karat Gold is a lot of fun to read – and in that fun, there is hope. A word that came to my mind when reading this book is ‘carnival’, in the sense of entertainment, but also in the sense of the old feast when the structure of society could, in a fashion, be turned upside-down. Sterling and friends are able to take some control back at last.
Published by Peninsula Press.
Click here to read my other reviews of the 2021 Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.
Tartarus Press are a Yorkshire publisher specialising in supernatural and strange fiction (they were the original publisher of The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley). They publish some beautiful limited edition hardbacks – there are still some copies available of the book I’m reviewing today – but they also do ebooks, which is the version I read.
Ezra Slef is a contemporary Russian writer, “a titan of contemporary Postmodernism”, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Will Self. The text we’re reading is apparently a biography of Slef, written by one Humbert Botekin, an academic and self-styled literary genius. The problem is that Slef wants nothing to do with him, so Botekin ends up writing mostly about himself instead.
Oh, but this book is such a joy to read! Botekin is a splendidly pompous narrator, and his life goes through so many ups and downs. He accepts the help of a certain individual calling himself Rensip De Narsckof (I could tell this was an anagram, but I have to thank a Washington Post article for the solution: ‘Prince of Darkness’) to deal with a Twitter troll, and things are never quite the same again…
Komarnyckyj includes little riffs on writers such as Borges and B.S. Johnson, and plenty more that I didn’t spot (there’s a list at the back). It’s just great fun. If Ezra Slef sounds like your kind of book, I’d say go for it.
Read an extract from Ezra Slef at minor literature[s].
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.
Sylvia Townsend Warner (1893-1978) was a new name to me, but I was intrigued by the sound of her 1926 debut Lolly Willowes, newly reissued in Penguin Modern Classics. What I found in it was a very enjoyable character study.
Born in 1874, Laura Willowes grows up indifferent to the societal expectations of a woman her age:
Being without coquetry she did not feel herself bound to feign a degree of entertainment which she had not experienced, and the same deficiency made her insensible to the duty of every marriageable young woman to be charming…
Laura lives in the family home with her father – no marriage for her. After her father’s death, she reluctantly moves to London to stay with her elder brother’s family, where she is consigned to the role of Aunt Lolly.
But Laura longs for more from life. It seems the First World War might herald change, as suddenly she has a vocation (albeit the fairly tedious one of doing up parcels). But it’s not to be: “When the better days to come came, they proved to be modelled as closely as possible upon the days that were past.”
If there is to be change, then, it will have to come from Laura herself. In 1921, she announces that she is moving to a village in Buckinghamshire, seemingly on impulse (she starts thinking about it after buying some chrysanthemums that were grown in the county). But the real reason becomes apparent: Laura is leaving to practise witchcraft.
The quality that draws Laura to the countryside is underlined when it’s about to be taken from her. At one point, Laura’s nephew Titus joins her in the village. He has an instinctive understanding of the countryside, but it’s a mechanistic one. Laura understands the place on a more spiritual level, though she can feel this slipping away from her:
The woods judged her by her company, and hushed their talk as she passed by with Titus. Silence heard them coming, and fled out of the fields, the hills locked up their thoughts, and became so many grassy mounds to be walked up and walked down.
With Titus around, Laura finds herself reverting back to being Aunt Lolly. It’s a situation that seems impossible to escape – but there are ways…
Lolly Willowes is the story of a woman turning her back on prescribed social roles and forging her own path, in what turns out to be spectacular fashion. I recommend it warmly.