Tagfantasy

Three reviews: Modiano, Roffey, Foenkinos

Three more short reviews that were originally published on my Instagram.

Patrick Modiano, Villa Triste (1975)
Translated from the French by John Cullen (2016)

A few years ago, I enjoyed reading three of Patrick Modiano’s novels. When I mentioned one of them in a recommendation series on Instagram, I had a hankering to read him again. So I took Villa Triste down from the shelf, and experienced a welcome return to Modiano’s world.

Modiano’s narrator looks back on his life age 18, at the time of the Algerian War in the early 1960s. Apparently seeking to dodge the draft, he flees to a lakeside town on the Swiss border. Calling himself Count Victor Chmara, he meets the fabulous young actress Yvonne, and her exuberant doctor friend René. Victor joins in with their golden social life, but of course nothing lasts forever. ⁣

There are themes typical of Modiano here: the elusive past, and the fragility of memory. Yvonne and René have their secrets as much as Victor, which means that happy-go-lucky life could dissolve as quickly as it began. ⁣

Published by Daunt Books Publishing.

Monique Roffey, The Mermaid of Black Conch (2020)

In 1976, Aycayia, a mermaid, appears off the shore of St Constance on the Caribbean island of Black Conch. She is captured by a group of visiting American fishermen, and left on the dock. A local man, David Baptiste, rescues Aycayia and hides her at his home. She begins to change back into a woman, and suddenly both she and David find themselves living new lives.

Monique Roffey’s (author of Archipelago) new novel is told in a mixture of voices: standard third-person narration; the dialect of David’s journal, looking back forty years later; the poetry of Aycayia’s own voice. It’s compelling stuff, and there are some really affecting moments, such as Aycayia and a deaf boy finding a connection through sign language. But nothing lasts forever, and a bittersweet ending waits in the wings. ⁣⁣

Published by Peepal Tree Press.

David Foenkinos, The Mystery of Henri Pick (2016)
Translated from the French by Sam Taylor (2020)

Over the last few years, I’ve become a big fan of Walter Presents, Channel 4’s streaming service for world drama. I’ve come across many an enjoyable show on there, and appreciate the fact that it’s curated – like a good bookshop. ⁣

Now, the curator of Walter Presents, Walter Iuzzolino, is branching out into books, selecting a series of titles to be published in translation by Pushkin Press. The first is this charming French literary mystery. ⁣

In the Breton town of Crozon is a library of rejected manuscripts, each left there by its author. A young editor persuades her publishing house to take on a lost book that she finds in the library – and it becomes a bestseller. The author is apparently the late Henri Pick, a pizza chef who, by all accounts, had no literary leanings whatsoever. Did he really write the book, or is there some other explanation? ⁣

Reading The Mystery of Henri Pick is like going on a scenic tour of the countryside, with diversions down interesting byways. It pokes gentle fun at ideas of literary celebrity, but most of all it’s enjoyable to read. ⁣

Books of the 2010s: Fifty Memories, nos. 5-1

Here we are, then: my top 5 reading memories from the last decade. I knew how this countdown would end before I started compiling the list. The reading experiences I’m talking about here… more than anything, this is why I read.

The previous instalments of this series are available here: 50-41, 40-31, 30-21, 20-11, 10-6.

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Books of the 2010s: Fifty Memories, nos. 10-6

Now we come to the top 10 books in my list of memorable reading moments. I wanted to say a bit more with these, so I’ve split the ten in half. The top 5 will be up next Sunday, but for now, please enjoy numbers 10 through to 6. These are all books I have never forgotten, and doubt I ever will.

You can also catch up on previous instalments of this project here: 50-41, 40-31, 30-21, 20-11.

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Three reviews: Ogawa, Dusapin, Mesa

Today I’m rounding up three reviews that I’ve had published on other websites in the last few months. I would recommend all of these books…

First, The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder). It’s one of my favourite books from this year’s International Booker Prize, a tale of loss set on an island where things disappear from living memory without warning. I’ve reviewed it for Strange Horizons.

The second book is Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin (translated from the French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins). The narrator is a young woman working at a guest house in the South Korean tourist town of Sokcho, who’s ill at ease with her life. The novel is a quiet exploration of a moment when that might be about to change. I’ve reviewed Winter in Sokcho for Shiny New Books.

Finally, we have Four by Four by Sara Mesa (translated from the Spanish by Katie Whittemore). This is a novel about the use and abuse of power, set in an exclusive college. I’ve reviewed the book for European Literature Network.

Books of the 2010s: Fifty Memories, nos. 30-21

We’re now halfway through my list of reading highlights from the 2010s. I’ve really enjoyed compiling this list and reminiscing about some beloved books. Let me know if you’ve read any.

You can also read my previous instalments, nos. 50-41 and 40-31. Now, on to the next ten…

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Books of the 2010s: Fifty Memories, nos. 50-41

In 2009, the writer Stuart Evers posted his “50 best novels of the 2000s” on his blog. I wished I could have done the same, but I hadn’t kept track of my reading in enough detail.

Ten years on, it’s a different story: thanks to this blog, I have a record of what I read, so I decided to put something together. I’m not calling it a ‘best of’, or even a list of favourites – it’s not meant to be that kind of exercise. Instead, I’ve chosen 50 books that have inspired strong memories.

My guidelines are: novels and short story collections allowed. First published in English or English translation during the 2010s, and read by me in that time (so nothing I’ve read this year). One book per author, except in one instance where I couldn’t choose between two.

The plan is to post my list in weekly instalments every Sunday. Here are the first ten entries. It’s a coincidence – but quite appropriate – that the writer who inspired my list is the first to appear on it…

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The Dollmaker – Nina Allan: a Strange Horizons review

I’m back at Strange Horizons this week, with a review of Nina Allan’s latest novel, The Dollmaker.

Nina is a long-time friend of this blog, and one of the authors I’ve written about most often – but never quite at this length. It was a pleasure to spend time thinking through The Dollmaker: on the surface, the novel is about a maker and collector of dolls paying a surprise visit to a correspondent, but it also explores how lives lived beside each other can be as distant as parallel worlds.

Click here to read my review in full.

The Dollmaker (2019) is published by riverrun in the UK and Other Press in the US.

Follow Me to Ground – Sue Rainsford

I like to follow the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses, because I’m interested in the kind of fiction it stands for, and it’s good for highlighting worthwhile books that I might otherwise miss. Sue Rainsford’s debut novel, from the Irish publisher New Island Books, is one of those. It caught my interest on this year’s Republic of Consciousness longlist, and when I saw Daniel Davis Wood of Splice compare it on Twitter to The Man Who Stole Attila’s Horse by Ivan Répila, that was enough to convince me to read Follow Me to Ground.

Now that I’ve read both books, I agree with Daniel’s comparison: Rainsford’s novel has the same sense as Répila’s of taking place in its own bubble of reality, and I could even imagine it as a stylised animated film, like Attila’s Horse. Rainsford’s narrator is Ada, who lives with her father in a village whose inhabitants (which they call “Cures”) come to them for healing. Despite appearances, Ada and Father are not exactly human. Father can be positively animalistic:

There were nights when he’d let his spine loosen and go running on all fours through the woods, leaving sense and speech behind.

Ada doesn’t partake in that behaviour, but both she and Father were born in “the Ground”, the lawn of their house, which has mysterious properties and almost a mind of its own. Father has tamed a section of the Ground which they use to bury those Cures who require more intensive healing. Even their most straightforward curative techniques appear strange to our eyes:

Claudia Levine arrived at noon and I sang her belly open, sang her sickness away – tricked it into a little bowl under the table. Closed her up again, woke her up again. Told her she’d be sore in the morning, waved her away down the drive, poured her sickness down the drain.

The way Ada describes herself and Father, we never get a firm handle on exactly what they are or what they do. The net effect of this is to create a sense of mystery at the novel’s heart which gnaws away at the reader.

I once read an annoying story by China Miéville about magical playing cards, which essentially used evocative names (such as “the Four of Chimneys”) in lieu of revealing anything concrete about what these cards actually did. This technique didn’t work for me, because it just highlighted how arbitrary the whole thing was – to me, there was simply nothing behind the names. I find that Rainsford’s approach works much better: she reveals enough of Ada’s world to catch the imagination, but not so much as to much as to define it. The mystery remains alive.

Ada is in love with a Cure named Samson, and her relationship with him becomes central to Follow Me to Ground. She grows increasingly possessive of him, in the face of disapproval from both Father and Olivia, Samson’s sister. Here is where the novel’s approach really comes into its own, because the obsession gnawing away at Ada mirrors the reader’s sense of ungraspable strangeness. And (without wishing to say too much) the matter of what ultimately happens is driven by that same sense of unresolved mystery. I’m glad to have found Follow Me to Ground through the Republic of Consciousness Prize; I’ll be looking out for more of Sue Rainsford’s work, too.

Book details

Follow Me to Ground (2018) by Sue Rainsford, New Island Books, 204 pages, hardback (source: personal copy).

Round-up: A.L. Kennedy and Guy Bolton

A.L. Kennedy, The Little Snake (2016)

The Little Snake is a novella inspired by Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince (which,for context, I haven’t read). It was first published in Germany a couple of years ago, and now has a UK edition courtesy of Canongate. It’s also my first time reading A.L. Kennedy.

One day, a girl named Mary meets Lanmo, a handsome talking snake who becomes her best friend. Mary is the first human Lanmo has befriended: normally he travels the world ushering humans out of their lives. The snake visits Mary at various points in her life, seeing that her city is increasingly ravaged by war and that she is in ever greater danger. For the first time, Lanmo starts to have feelings about what he does; in particular, he wants to ensure Mary’s safety, though he knows the time will come when they must part.

The Little Snake is written as a fable, and Kennedy’s prose has a wonderful ‘tale for all ages’ quality. It’s a tale of losing and finding one’s place, what we lose and what there is to treasure.

The Little Snake (2016) by A.L. Kennedy, Canongate Books, 132 pages, hardback (source: review copy).

***

Guy Bolton, The Pictures (2017)

Guy Bolton’s debut novel is a murder mystery set in Hollywood in 1939. Herbert Stanley, a producer on The Wizard of Oz, is found hanged: the case is assigned to Detective Jonathan Craine, the police force’s regular fixer when it comes to MGM matters. Craine’s job is to ensure that Stanley’s death is treated as an open-and-shut case of suicide, this being the least disruptive option for the studio.

However, things soon get complicated: Craine becomes romantically involved with Stanley’s widow, actress Gale Goodwin; and there are distinct signs of foul play about the apparent hanging. As Craine digs deeper, events spiral out to encompass organised crime; there are some gripping set pieces along the way. Crane’s development as a character is also engaging: he starts off as a pretty repugnant sort who has no qualms about pinning an (apparently unrelated) murder on a scapegoat, and becomes – if not entirely sympathetic – at least more thoughtful and scrupulous. I enjoyed The Pictures, and I’ll be reading its sequel, The Syndicate, in due course.

The Pictures (2017) by Guy Bolton, Point Blank, 400 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

Frankenstein in Baghdad – Ahmed Saadawi (#MBI2018)

Frankenstein in Baghdad is Ahmed Saadawi’s third novel (although, as far as I can tell, the first to be translated into English). It won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2014, making Saadawi the first Iraqi writer to win the award. If I’m honest, though, my attention was caught by the title alone.

The setting is US-occupied Baghdad. We are quickly introduced to a number of memorable characters, including Elishva, an old woman believed to have special powers, who still longs for her son Daniel to return from the Iran-Iraq war; Hadi, an old junk-seller and teller of tall tales; and Mahmoud, an ambitious magazine journalist. In the first few chapters especially, the view of events overlaps as we go from character to character, so already we get a sense of shifting, unstable reality.

This is a place where danger and violence can erupt without warning:

When he was twenty yards past the gate, Hadi saw the garbage truck race past him toward the gate, almost knocking him over. A few moments later it exploded. Hadi,together with his sack and his dinner, was lifted off the ground. With the dust and dirt and blast of the explosion, he sailed through the air, turned a somersault, and landed hard on the asphalt.

Hadi has been collecting body parts and stitching them together, hoping that the government will give the pieces a proper burial if they’re part of a complete corpse. The corpse, however, has other ideas. The soul of a hotel guard killed by that exploding garbage truck finds a resting place in Hadi’s creation, and it only takes an inadvertent wish from Elishva to animate the body… and soon she thinks Daniel has returned.

But then the corpse – soon to be dubbed “the Whatsitsname” – disappears, and gains a gruesome purpose. He is driven to kill those responsible for the deaths of his individual parts. But, whenever the Whatsitsname kills such a person, his corresponding body part disintegrates – and so needs to be replaced, leading to another urge to kill, and so on, and so on. The Whatsitsname becomes a walking cycle of killing for its own sake. This becomes a powerful metaphor for life in the besieged city. It grows even more grimly absurd when the Whatsitsname attracts his own acolytes willing to assist his cause, so ending up at the centre of a cult-of-sorts.

But… what if it’s all not real? Saadawi builds enough trapdoors into his novel that the whole business of the Whatsitsname could be false. The Whatsitsname purportedly tells his story on a digital voice recorder provided by Mahmoud, via Hadi – at two or more removes, in other words, with one of those being a notorious liar. Furthermore, the whole book is presented as a text written by an unidentified author and found by a shady government department. The effect of all this is not so much to undermine the Whatsitsname as to reinforce the notion that he’s not needed – all the absurdity, the random killing, can and does go on anyway.

Jonathan Wright’s translation is measured in tone, making the supernatural grounded and everyday horrors all the more shocking. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Frankenstein in Baghdad, and it will be my benchmark as I go through the Man Booker International longlist.

This post is part of a series on the 2018 Man Booker International Prize; click here to read the rest.

Book details

Frankenstein in Baghdad (2013) by Ahmed Saadawi, tr. Jonathan Wright (2018), Oneworld, 272 pages, paperback (proof copy provided for review).

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