Lucy Caldwell, The Meeting Point (2011)
Euan Armstrong takes his young family to Bahrain, ostensibly to undertake missionary work; but Euan’s wife Ruth begins to question all that she holds dear when she discovers the true nature of that work. Meanwhile, teenage Noor Hussain has returned to Bahrain from England to live with her father; she has struggled to fit in and is contemplating suicide. But then Noor finds new hope in the person of Ruth, just as Ruth is falling for Noor’s brother Farid.
There are times, particularly towards the beginning, when Caldwell’s description feels over-egged; but The Meeting Point ultimately succeeds because of the elegance with which it portrays its central dynamic. Both Ruth and Noor have unrealistic desires which will inevitably lead them to clash; the progression of those events is thoroughly credible. Caldwell also draws her protagonists deftly; there’s a nice contrast between the broad strokes of Noor’s teenage impulsiveness, and Ruth’s more measured personality. All in all, The Meeting Point is a well-wrought novel that’s very much worth reading.
Friedrich Christian Delius, Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman (2006/10)
Another fine novella from Peirene Press, this one translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch. Margherita is a young German woman who came to Rome to be with her soldier husband Gert, only for him shortly after to be sent to Africa in the aftermath of El Alamein. Now, in 1943, she is alone in Rome, unable to speak Italian, but grateful for the small German enclave which surrounds her. We follow Margherita as she makes her way to a Bach concert, and reflects on her situation.
At a structural level, Portrait of the Mother is masterful, as its 117 pages comprise a single sentence. The affect of this is of a constant unspooling of thought and detail, with certain ideas recurring throughout. Delius captures particularly well Margherita’s naivety, and the irony underpinning it: insulated as she is her little bubble, she can’t comprehend the difficulties faced by ordinary Roman citizens; she’s sure that everything will be fine with Gert, just as she is sure that Rome would never be a target for bombing… Delius’s Portrait is a sharp character study.
M. John Harrison, The Ice Monkey (1983)
One of my reading resolutions for this year is to get around to reading something by M. John Harrison, who has been on my TBR list for rather longer than I’d have liked. I decided to start with collection of seven short stories, which has proven very interesting to read.
The title story sees Harrison’s narrator, Spider, who takes his friend Jones to visit the latter’s estranged ex-wife, Maureen – it doesn’t go well. Later, Jones and Spider go climbing on Ben Nevis, and that ends in tragedy. This piece sets a certain tone that carries through much of the rest of the anthology – many characters have similarly broken lives, for example – but there’s also continuity at a deeper, more structural level. The ending of ‘The Ice Monkey’ reads to me like a formal parody of a horror story, as it goes through the motions of hinting at a supernatural agency without actually doing so with any conviction – as though to emphasise that the mess-ups in the story have very human and natural causes, and there is no escape into the possibility of ‘magic’.
A deliberate turning-away from the fantastic seems integral to the affect of Harrison’s stories, here, as rituals and other strange happenings remain as mysterious to reader and characters alike at the end of a piece as they were at the beginning. In that respect, I’m reminded of when, last year, I read Scarlett Thomas’s Our Tragic Universe, whose aesthetic is also ‘anti-explanatory’ – though I find Harrison’s tales embody their aesthetic more thoroughly.
The Ice Monkey is perhaps best summed up for me by its final sentences. In the closing story, ‘Egnaro’ is the name of a secret place which is heard fleetingly by various of its characters. Where other tales might uncover the truth of that place, Egnaro remains no more than a whisper’ As the story’s narrator remarks:
The secret is meaningless before you know it: and…worthless when you do. If Egnaro is the substrate of mystery which underlies all daily life, then the reciprocal of this is also true, and it is the exact dead point of ordinariness which lies beneath every mystery. (p. 144)
My key lasting impression of the stories in The Ice Monkey is that they highlight such ordinariness. Now I look forward to reading Harrison’s Viriconium, to find out if that impression will remain.