Tagshort fiction

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.

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. ⁣

#SpanishLitMonth: The Penguin Book of Spanish Short Stories (ed. Margaret Jull Costa)

Over the last few years, Penguin Classics have published new anthologies of translated short stories from individual countries. There have been Dutch, Japanese and Italian anthologies, and this latest one focuses on Spain. 

Renowned translator Margaret Jull Costa has selected over fifty stories from the 19th century to the present day, many of them appearing in English for the first time. As well as Castilian Spanish, the book includes stories originally written in Basque, Catalan and Galician. 

I worked my way through the anthology gradually, and I was impressed by the overall quality of the stories. For this review, I thought I’d pick out some of my favourites. I’ve kept these in the order they appear in the book (which is arranged in chronological order of the authors’ birth). All of the stories below are translated by Margaret Jull Costa, unless otherwise stated. 

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#SpanishLitMonth: A Perfect Cemetery by Federico Falco

Stu chose this book for a Spanish Lit Month readalong, a collection from that fine publisher of Latin American fiction, Charco Press. The five stories in A Perfect Cemetery (marvellously translated by Jennifer Croft) are all set in Federico Falco’s native Córdoba Province in Argentina. The image of the title implies long-term stasis, but Falco’s characters are actually facing pivotal moments of change in their lives. 

Let’s start with the story ‘A Perfect Cemetery’ itself. In the town of Colonel Isabeta, the mayor wishes to build his father the perfect cemetery. The old fellow is 104 and has been ailing for years, but there’s no sign of him going anywhere just yet. Enter cemetery designer extraordinaire Víctor Bagiardelli, who sees the chance to create his masterwork – if only he can bring all the pieces together. Víctor’s obsession is brought to life on the page, with the mayor’s father an equally powerful creation. The old man asks Víctor what he will do with the rest of his life. The events of the story force Víctor to confront this question, and may give him the beginnings of an answer. 

There’s more vivid characterisation in ‘Silvi and Her Dark Night’. The title character is a teenager who accompanies her mother when the latter is administering the last rites to people. At the start of the story, Silvi announces that she is now an atheist – but she soon develops a fascination with a visiting Mormon missionary. It’s not straightforward infatuation: the Mormon reminds Silvi of a boy she once visited, who died in hospital. But this is not a situation that can give Silvi the anchoring she needs in the world, and there will be painful consequences. The ending, however, points to a way forward, a different kind of hope. 

In ‘Forest Life’, the home of old Wutrich and his daughter Mabel is placed under threat, and so Wutrich tries desperately to find Mabel a husband. She reluctantly marries Satoiki from the local Japanese community. In another example of Falco’s nuanced character work, we can see Mabel’s ambivalence about entering this marriage, balanced against a genuine desire on Satoiki’s part (and perhaps on Mabel’s as well) to make it work. Seeing her father’s experiences in a care home makes Mabel rethink her situation. Yet again in A Perfect Cemetery, the ending of a story is really just a beginning. 

Besides the characterisation, there’s also a strong sense of place and environment in Falco’s stories. ‘The Hares’ introduces us to the self-styled “king of the hares”, who lives out in the wilderness and maintains his own altar of bones. This individual turns out to be a human named Oscar, who has abandoned society for his own reasons. Nobody asked the hares, of course, and Oscar is quite happy to eat them – a tension between character and place that adds another dimension to the story. 

The closing piece, ‘The River’, takes us to the depths of winter, and Señora Kim, who may be living with her late husband’s ghost. When she thinks she sees a naked woman running in the snow towards the river, this could be an hallucination – or it could be a chance to rescue someone and turn a corner. Falco leaves the question open: as so often in this compelling collection, the stories only open out once you finish them. 

#SpanishLitMonth: Cockfight by María Fernanda Ampuero

July is Spanish Literature Month, hosted by Stu at Winston’s Dad and Richard at Caravana de recuerdos, and I have a few titles lined up for the blog. The theme for the first week of July is contemporary Latin American fiction, and I’ve chosen this story collection from Ecuador, published by Influx Press.

Ampuero’s stories shine a light into the darker corners of ordinary domestic life, and confront brutal subjects head-on. I have to say that this is one of the most harrowing books I’ve read in a long time. 

The opening story, ‘Auction’, sets the tone. Ampuero’s narrator recalls cleaning up after her father’s cockfight as a girl, and how she would use the birds’ viscera to put off jeering men in the crowd. It then becomes clear that, as an adult, the narrator has been kidnapped by a taxi driver and taken to be auctioned off to the highest bidder. The only way she can save herself is to draw on her childhood experiences. 

So you have a carefully drawn situation (in prose powerfully translated by Frances Riddle), with a closing shift into deeper darkness. The story ‘Griselda’ starts off more innocently, with the narrator telling us of Miss Griselda, who baked extraordinary cakes. But there are suggestions of what might be going on behind closed doors, until events reach a crescendo – and, afterwards, the narrator’s birthday cakes never taste as good again. 

Much of Cockfight takes a pessimistic tone, but there are glimpses of light to be found. The protagonist of ‘Other’ is out shopping, constrained by the thoughts of what her husband wants buying, and the likely consequences for her if he doesn’t get it. A small act of rebellion at the end of the story may or may not turn out well, but there is at least the possibility of hope. It’s a precarious end to a vivid collection. 

Reflex Press: Love Stories for Hectic People by Catherine McNamara

Abingdon-based Reflex Press grew out of a prize for flash fiction, so naturally enough that’s one of their focuses as a publisher. And here’s a collection of 33 stories in a hundred pages, by Australian writer Catherine McNamara. I really liked one of her stories when I read it at random a few years ago, so it was a pleasure to read her work once again. 

As the collection’s title suggests, this is dense and busy fiction, whose characters are often in heightened situations. Here are a few examples:

‘Banking’ sees a woman returning to confront her ex-boyfriend of one week after some money has disappeared from her account, and struggling with the desire that she still feels for him. There’s tension throughout this piece, and it’s only partly resolved by the end. 

‘A Forty-Nine-Year-Old Woman Sends Messages to Her Thirty-Two-Year-Old Lover’ is a paragraph of just a few lines capturing an intense feeling of desire that its narrator can’t shake off: “I wait for the thought of your face and body to mean nothing.”

‘The Vineyard’ has a strong central metaphor of a couple replacing their ruined grape plants with new hybrids. Their place is hemmed in, adding to the sense that this is the last chance for their vineyard to recover – just like a relationship on the ropes. 

For all that the stories are so short, McNamara’s distinctive voice comes through strongly. This is a collection that stays with you. 

Read the story ‘As Simple as Water’.

#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.

The Storm by Akeem Balogun

The stories in Akeem Balogun’s debut collection are loosely linked by an extreme storm that belongs more to the world of metaphor than weather. The tone is set by the opening title story, which sees Seun mostly stuck at his workplace because of the storm, which has been raging for weeks. It provides a vivid example of people becoming separated, as Seun ventures out to check that his father is OK. 

Balogun often explores the effects these extraordinary events have had on his characters. One of my favourite examples is ‘A Stroke of Madness’. This is the story of Amri, whom we mostly see in conversation with either his work colleague Carl or his daughter Kali. All seems mundane at first, but we learn that Amri’s sister Adea vanished in the storm twenty years previously. Only gradually do we see how deeply this has left a mark on Amri. When he learns that a block of flats is due to be built on the park where Adea went missing, he sees this as an affront to her memory – which leads him to desperate measures…

The collection also heads off in several different directions. ‘Room Four’ is one of a number of stories revolving around advanced technology. In this piece, banking is done through interaction with an AI avatar; Balogun’s protagonist struggles with its attempts to dissuade him from making rash decisions. ‘Marc Populaire’ is told entirely through voice messages left to the title character, leading readers to piece together their own story of what has happened to Marc. 

The Storm is a fine introduction to Balogun’s work, and to the publisher Okapi Books. I look forward to seeing what they do in future.

Holiday reading, and a blog anniversary

Happy New Year! Wishing you a better year than 2020, anyway…

It was eleven years ago today [EDIT: I’m wrong, it’s twelve years!] that I published the first post on this blog. How time flies, and how things change. The blog has a greater focus on books now; my tastes have evolved, as has my approach to blogging – not to mention the world of book blogging itself.

But this is still my place for writing about reading and books. I’m thinking about what direction to go in with the blog this year, but for now I have a few books to tell you about that I read over Christmas and New Year…

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Emily Jeremiah, Blue Moments (2020)

I know of Emily Jeremiah as co-translator of several Finnish titles for Peirene Press (including Children of the Cave, White Hunger and Mr Darwin’s Gardener). Blue Moments is a novella by Jeremiah, recently published by Valley Press

We’re introduced to Eeva as a young girl. Her parents have divorced, and she moved with her father to his home country of Finland – her mother remains in England, recovering from depression. Eeva finds it hard to adjust, feeling caught between the two cultures. Years later, Eeva goes to study in England, and resolves to understand more about her parents’ lives. 

Blue Moments is a fine example of how much a novella can encompass in a relatively small space. We see Eeva coming to terms with her past, and find a place for herself in the present. 

Samantha Clark, The Clearing (2020)

Samantha Clark is a Scottish artist; this memoir revolves around the process of clearing out her parents’ old home in Glasgow after they have passed away. The act of doing this leads Clark to reconsider her relationship with both of her parents: her mother, who developed severe mental health problems; and her father, whose role caring for his wife distanced him from his daughter. 

The ‘clearing’ of the title doesn’t just refer to clearing the house. It’s also about the space within oneself, or between oneself and the world. Clark contemplates the gap between her parents’ silent, static house and her own memories and experiences. She considers what this means for her, and illuminates her thoughts with various artistic and scientific ideas. The Clearing is a fascinating book that leaves its readers with much to reflect on themselves.

Published by Little, Brown.

Paolo Maurensig, Game of the Gods (2019)
Translated from the Italian by Anne Milano Appel (2021)

Paolo Maurensig has written several previous novels set in the world of chess. His latest book to appear in English returns to that world, with a fictional account of the life of Malik Mir Sultan Khan. In the early 20th century, Sultan Khan is a Punjab village boy who becomes a servant to the powerful landowner Sir Umar Khan. He excels at chaturanga, the ancient forerunner of chess. Umar Khan has the boy master the Western rules of chess, and takes him to Britain, where Sultan Khan becomes renowned for his prowess. But life has more than one further twist in store for him. 

In Maurensig’s telling, Sultan Khan becomes something of a pawn in a wider game: for Umar Khan, he’s a way to get back at the British; and when war comes, his strategic skills are useful to others. There is a sense that giving an interview about his life (which is how the novel is framed) allows Sultan Khan to exercise some control over how his legacy will be viewed. It’s not completely so, of course: this story is being told by a European author, after all. But there is a reminder at the end that conflict continues, outside of one person’s control. 

Published on 14 January by World Editions.

That Old Country Music by Kevin Barry: a Shiny New Books review

I have a new review up at Shiny New Books, looking at Kevin Barry’s third story collection, That Old Country Music. I love Barry’s short fiction, and this book is no exception: tales rooted deeply in the west of Ireland, characters navigating contemporary life while older rhythms hum in the background, all told in Barry’s distinctive voice.

Read my review in full here.

Book published by Canongate.

Read my other posts on Kevin Barry’s work here.

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