TagGranta

Pew by Catherine Lacey: Swansea University Dylan Thomas Prize

Today’s post is part of a blog tour covering the shortlist for this year’s Dylan Thomas Prize (the winner of which will be announced on Thursday). I’m reviewing Pew, the third novel by Catherine Lacey. I’ve previously written about her debut, Nobody Is Ever Missing; like that earlier book, Pew focuses on a protagonist who’s elusive even to themself. 

Lacey’s narrator is an individual with no memory or identifiable characteristics. They’re dubbed Pew because they are found in the church of a small American town. The townsfolk welcome Pew at first, but Pew’s reluctance to say anything unnerves them, and their attitudes change. There will be a Forgiveness Festival in town at the end of the week, and the reader has reason to suspect that this may not be as wholesome as it sounds… 

With Pew staying silent, conversations are one-sided. Pew becomes an empty presence, and the town’s inhabitants fill the void with their own stories. The novel explores questions of what makes a person, and how individuals and communities relate to each other. Underneath it all is the figure of Pew, who might be looking for a place to belong, or might not need one after all. Lacey’s book is enigmatic, thought-provoking, and a pleasure to read. 

Published by Granta Books.

#2021InternationalBooker: The Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enríquez

This is Mariana Enríquez’ second story collection to appear in English translation by Megan McDowell (though it was her first to be published in the original Spanish). I would have loved Things We Lost in the Fire to be longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize (as it was then), so I was pleased to see that this collection had made it.

Enríquez tells tales of urban horror, with vivid unsettling images such as the dead baby that returns as a ghost in ‘Angelita Unearthed’, though not necessarily as the kind of spirit that the protagonist anticipates. Then there’s ‘The Well’, in which a woman tries to excise the fears that have blighted her life by returning to a witch she visited as a child. There’s a real sense of nightmare about it. 

My favourite piece in the book is the novella ‘Kids Who Come Back’. This is the story of Mechi, who works at the archive for lost children in Buenos Aires. Mechi’s life (and other people’s) is turned upside down when missing children start to reappear – though all is not as it seems. After reading this, I’m really looking forward to Enríquez’ novel Our Share of Night, which is being published in McDowell’s translation next year. 

Published by Granta Books.

Read my other posts on the 2021 International Booker Prize here.

Earthlings by Sayaka Murata

Sayaka Murata, Earthlings (2018)
Translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori (2020)

Sometimes you read a second book by an author and you think you have an idea of what’s coming. In Earthlings, we meet Natsuki, who as a child believes that she has magical powers, and that her plush toy Piyyut is a visitor from another world. Natsuki’s cousin Yuu says he is an alien himself, and that a spaceship is coming to take him home. Natsuki wishes she could go with him. But events conspire to tear the cousins apart, and Natsuki and Yuu make a pact that they will survive, whatever it takes. 

These are not just games: there are horrific events in Natsuki’s childhood (graphically written, so be warned), and a real sense that she acts this way as a means of protection or displacement from reality. So I thought that, like Convenience Store Woman, here was another study of a character with an unusual view of the world, another challenge laid down to the reader to meet such a character on their own terms. 

Well, Earthlings is all of that. But it’s also so much else. 

As an adult, Natsuki pretends to fit in. She views society as a ‘Factory’ for producing babies. She’s able to opt out of that, but still has a deep-seated conviction that she does not belong here. When Natsuki finally has cause to reunite with Yuu, it seems that he has put away what he now sees as childish fantasies – but these are clearly still realities for Natsuki. 

And then… Well, I’m not telling. Not since New Model Army have I read a book whose ending felt so audacious to imagine. I won’t forget the experience of reading Earthlings, not for a long time. 

Published by Granta Books.

#WITMonth: Stockenström, Kawakami, Quintana

Here’s another trio of reviews from my Instagram for Women in Translation Month.

Wilma Stockenström, The Expedition to the Baobab Tree (1981)
Translated from the Afrikaans by J.M. Coetzee (1983)

This short novel introduces us to a young woman living in the hollow of a baobab tree. She finds her own paths to gather food alongside the nearby animals, and measures the days with a string of beads.

LIfe hasn’t always been like this. The woman was a slave, one who has been treated brutally at times. At other times, though, she became a favourite of her owners, which might have made life a little easier, but also left her an outsider in more ways than one.

The woman joined her final owner on an expedition to find an inland city. It didn’t go well, which is how she ended up by herself in the baobab tree. Stockenström’s novel is the story of how the woman becomes isolated, but also finds a certain autonomy in finally being able to shape her own existence for herself.

Published by Faber & Faber.

Hiromi Kawakami, The Nakano Thrift Shop (2005)
Translated from the Japanese by Allison Markin Powell (2017)

For this year’s Women in Translation Month, Meytal organised an international book swap. This is the book I got – not a totally random choice, as it was one of a list of options I asked for. I’d been meaning to read Hiromi Kawakami again.

Some of Kawakami’s books are quite strange (such as Record of a Night Too Brief, or my personal favourite, Manazuru), while others (like Strange Weather in Tokyo) are lighter. The Nakano Thrift Shop is one of the lighter ones.

Haruo Nakano is the eccentric fiftysomething owner of a thrift shop. He has two young employees: Hitomi, our narrator, and delivery boy Takeo. There’s also Nakano’s sister Masayo, an artist who brings a level head to the shop.

Each chapter is almost like a self-contained story, so we see snapshots in the lives of Kawakami’s characters, and the halting relationship between Hitomi and Takeo. The Nakano Thrift Shop is fun to read, and quite touching.

Published by Granta Books.

Pilar Quintana, The Bitch (2017)
Translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman (2020)

Damaris lives with her husband in a shack on the Colombian coast. They both look after the property of a rich family, but since that family left some years ago, they are no longer paid. The couple have no children, and Damaris’ uncle reminds her that she is at the age “when women dry up”. When the opportunity arises to adopt a puppy, Damaris sees a way to fill a gap in her life.

But the dog has a tendency to disappear into the jungle, which tests Damaris’ patience. The Bitch is a short novel that rattles along with tension. It explores Damaris’ character and relationships with others through her changing attitude to her dog. You never quite know where the story will turn, which keeps it compelling to the end.

Review copy courtesy of the publisher, World Editions.

What I’ve been reading lately: 11 July 2019

Katie Hale’s My Name is Monster (pub. Canongate) is a new debut novel that draws inspiration from Frankenstein and Robinson Crusoe. After society has been devastated by ‘the War’ and ‘the Sickness’, a woman named Monster (who was working in an Arctic seed vault) makes her way through Scotland and northern England until she comes to a city where she can rest. She believes she’s alone, until she finds a fellow survivor, a young girl. The woman changes her name to Mother, and calls the girl Monster. Told in two halves, by two Monsters with different outlooks, Hale’s novel chronicles a search for survival and asks what comes after. There’s an evocative sense of the uncertain world, and of human hopes and fears in the face of an indifferent reality.

A Flame Out at Sea by Dmitry Novikov (tr. Christopher Culver, pub. Glagoslav) is set largely in the area around the White Sea in northwestern Russia. It switches between multiple timelines, focusing mainly on two characters: Grisha (as a child in the 1970s and later in the 2000s) and his grandfather Fyodor (seen mainly in the early 20th century). Over the course of the novel, Grisham tries to come to terms with the past as he uncovers a dark secret of his grandfather’s. Novikov (in Culver’s translation) combines vivid depictions of the landscape and sea with human drama; the result is an enjoyable piece of work that lingers in my mind.

I’ve also been reading more books for Spanish and Portuguese Lit Month. Don’t Send Flowers by the Mexican writer Martín Solares (tr. Heather Cleary, pub. Grove Press UK) begins as a typical crime novel, with a retired detective hired to find a business man’s daughter, thought to have been kidnapped by a cartel. For a while, Don’t Send Flowers carries on looking like a typical crime novel with a nicely twisty plot… Then the novel opens out, revealing a world where nothing is quite as it seems. The prose is brisk, the pages turn – and turn.

From Mexico to Chile: Alejandro Zambra’s Multiple Choice (tr. Megan McDowell, pub. Granta) is a novel structured after the Chilean university entrance test. So, for example, you have a section of sentences with missing words (and options for completing them), and one with groups of sentences to be arranged in the best order. With this format, Zambra offers a series of vignettes – even short stories by the end – with multiple interpretations, or versions, layered on top of each other.

Granta Best Young British Novelists 2013: Ross Raisin

My Ross Raisin anecdote goes like this: I heard him read from his second novel, Waterline (during which he gamely affected a Glaswegian accent to match the narrator), at the first Penguin General Bloggers’ Night. We got talking afterwards, and I mentioned that we were from the same county – though, as an ardent supporter of Bradford City FC, he wasn’t best pleased to learn that I was from Huddersfield (all in good humour, though, I should add!).

Anyway, Raisin is one of the Granta novelists whom I’ve meant to read, but not yet got around to (I’ve heard such good things about God’s Own Country, I really must read it). ‘Submersion’ is a new and complete story to end the Granta anthology; it sees a pair of siblings heading back to their flooded home town when they see news footage of their father being carried away by the water, still sleeping in his armchair. It’s a strange story that floats on reality like debris caught in the flood. It underlines that I should read more of Raisin’s work – as is the case with a good number of the authors on Granta‘s list.

This is part of a series of posts on Granta 123: Best of Young British Novelists 4Click here to read the rest.

Granta Best Young British Novelists 2013: Sunjeev Sahota

It is just about a year since I read (and liked) Sunjeev Sahota’s first novel, Ours are the Streets; he’s another on my list of authors to keep reading. Sahota’s Granta piece, ‘Arrivals’, is taking from his forthcoming follow-up, The Year of the Runaways – and I think it works quite well as a stand-alone story.

We begin with one Randeep Sanghera showing a woman into her new flat in Sheffield; is he an estate agent, or perhaps her landlord? After seeing his living arrangements and work as a builder, we find that the truth is somewhat different – Randeep is one of several immigrants living in the same house, and the woman is who he married as a means of obtaining a visa. ‘Arrivals’ is an interesting set-up for the novel, but that’s what it feels like – a beginning. Still, Ours are the Streets worked best as a whole, and I suspect that The Year of the Runaways will be the same. I’m looking forward to finding out.

This is part of a series of posts on Granta 123: Best of Young British Novelists 4Click here to read the rest.

Granta Best Young British Novelists 2013: Jenni Fagan

Jenni Fagan‘s debut, The Panopticon has been staring at me from the shelf (what else would it do?) ever since I bought it last year, having heard so many good things about it. So ‘Zephyrs’, Fagan’s novel excerpt from the Granta anthology, is the first thing I’ve read of hers – and it really is superb. A short portrait of a man leaving London as the river levels rise, the piece is written in a dense, fractured prose that makes even quite ordinary things seem hallucinatory (in this I was reminded of Jon McGregor’s work, which is always a pleasure). It ends with a strange image: a woman doing housework, outside, in her sleep. I’m left wanting to know more, and to read more by this writer – perhaps it’s time to stop staring at The Panopticon, and open it instead.

This is part of a series of posts on Granta 123: Best of Young British Novelists 4Click here to read the rest.

Granta Best Young British Novelists 2013: Helen Oyeyemi

The first taste I had of Helen Oyeyemi’s last novel, Mr Fox, was reading the embedded story ‘My Daughter the Racist’ on its own. So I’m prepared to accept that any given extract from an Oyeyemi novel is not necessarily going to represent the whole thing. A little digging around into her forthcoming Boy, Snow, Bird suggests that it’s based on the tale of Snow White – but this is only obliquely hinted in Oyeyemi’s Granta piece.

We are introduced to Boy Novak, a young bookstore-worker in mid-20th century America, who takes two teenage girls under her wing when they really ought to be at school. She lives with the Whitman family, which includes a six-year-old girl named Snow. I love the glimpses of Boy’s character that we get from her voice, and definitely look forward to a whole book narrated by her. There is the briefest hint of the supernatural at the end of Oyeyemi’s piece, with mention of a comics artist who appears to have an unusual view of time. The stage is set for another typically idiosyncratic novel Helen Oyeyemi, who’s become a writer I always want to read.

This is part of a series of posts on Granta 123: Best of Young British Novelists 4Click here to read the rest.

Granta Best Young British Novelists 2013: Xiaolu Guo

It is National Short Story Week, so this week’s posts are all about short fiction. This includes finishing off my story-by-story blog of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists 4 anthology, which I’ve let fall by the wayside these last few months. I have fives entries left, so let’s get back to it…

***

‘Interim Zone’ is an extract from Xiaolu Guo‘s forthcoming novel I Am China; on the basis of this, the new book is set to be rather different from Guo’s previous novel, UFO in Her Eyes. We meet Kublai Jian, a Chinese refugee in France, and see the contrast between his boyhood in Beijing, and his current life learning French. This piece is the shortest in the Granta anthology, perhaps a little too short for what it’s doing. Still, there’s an effective sense that Jian is in an ‘interim zone’ emotionally as well as physically; and the juxtaposition of past and present sets up an interesting theme that I imagine is explored further in the novel.

This is part of a series of posts on Granta 123: Best of Young British Novelists 4Click here to read the rest.

© 2021 David's Book World

Theme by Anders NorénUp ↑

%d bloggers like this: