Tagshort fiction

#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.

BBC National Short Story Award 2020: ‘Scrimshaw’ by Eley Williams

This post is part of a series on the 2020 BBC National Short Story Award.

Ever since I first saw the cover of this year’s BBCNSSA anthology, I wondered: what are the walruses about? Well, here they are in Eley Williams’ story – specifically, this webcam feed of walruses in Alaska.

Williams’ narrator is messaging a – friend? lover? partner? – online when that other person admits to being unhappy. The narrator is unsure how to respond, then decides to send a link to the walrus live-stream, because it’s a favourite of theirs. But the other person doesn’t reply, and the narrator is concerned that their message may not have been taken as intended.

‘Scrimshaw’ is the shortest story on this year’s list, and the densest with language. It has the same fascination with words and exuberant expressiveness that I found in Williams’ novel The Liar’s Dictionary:

A whole town stretched between us, and I considered the surface of our separate skins blued or bluewn or bluesed by pixel-light as we typed against our own private darkness.

This is a story very much concerned with the nature of contemporary communication: the way it can be intensely solitary if you’re typing away, but can also permeate our lives. ‘Scrimshaw’ is a fine end to a strong shortlist.

Listen to a reading of ‘Scrimshaw’.

BBC National Short Story Award 2020: ‘Come Down Heavy’ by Jack Houston

This post is part of a series on the 2020 BBC National Short Story Award.

Of all the stories I’ve read so far on this year’s shortlist, this one has the most obviously unconventional style:

& what happened was Simone said she wasn’t sure she was really in the mood so Jackie walked the small & darkening park alone, the tower behind her, the fizzed glow of the thin-strung lamplight guiding her along the narrow concrete path to The Birdcage…

Simone and Jackie are friends, addicts who move in together in the hope of finding some stability. Their lives are fundamentally precarious, which is reflected in Houston’s writing, that tumble of words and occasionally-awkward phrasing – saying what you want to say in any way possible, because you don’t know when there will be another chance to say it.

‘Come Down Heavy’ is harrowing to read, but that prose is unstoppable. You’re right there with Jackie and Simone, feeling what they feel.

Listen to a reading of ‘Come Down Heavy’.

BBC National Short Story Award 2020: ‘The Grotesques’ by Sarah Hall

This post is part of a series on the 2020 BBC National Short Story Award.

With this story, Sarah Hall becomes the first author to be shortlisted for the BBCNSSA four times. ‘The Grotesques’ is as fine a story as I’ve come to expect from her.

Like Jan Carson’s story, ‘The Grotesques’ focuses on a family with its own rules and hierarchies, though Hall’s fictional family seems rather more oppressive. The narration leaves no doubt as to who’s in charge:

Perhaps she could say she had done something. Mummy would. Mummy could change a story or revise history with astonishing audacity, and seemed to instantly believe the new version.

The person thinking this is Dilly, on her thirtieth birthday. At the start of the story she is shaken by the sight of a homeless man whose face has been covered with fruit – probably a student prank. This brings a note of disorder into Dilly’s strictured world.

Dilly returns home to a party: her mother’s tea party, that is, rather than a celebration of her own special day. As the story goes on, it becomes clear that Dilly’s mother is controlling her relationship with food, and there are hints of other dark secrets in the family as well.

The tone of Hall’s narration gives a feeling of being at a remove from reality. I’m not going to give away the ending, but there’s cause to wonder whether it describes something that has happened, might happen, or is just about to happen – or perhaps even all three.

Listen to a reading of ‘The Grotesques’.

BBC National Short Story Award 2020: ‘In the Car with the Rain Coming Down’ by Jan Carson

This post is part of a series on the 2020 BBC National Short Story Award.

Nine members of an Irish family head out for a picnic to celebrate William’s birthday. Right from the start, there are power games to play:

There’s a stand-off in the front yard. No significant progress can be made until the men decide who’s driving. It’s the same every time we go anywhere together.

William’s younger son, Buff, tends to be overlooked, never having quite achieved as much in his parents’ eyes as his brother. But Buff’s wife Victoria (our narrator) hopes to change that: she plans to announce today that she’s pregnant, and is sure that this news will alter the balance of favour within the family. But the weather won’t play along with what Victoria has in mind…

Jan Carson’s story revolves around the subtly shifting dynamics of this family. She packs a lot into an essentially mundane situation, and you really get a sense of the currents and hierarchies at work.

Listen to a reading of ‘In the Car with the Rain Coming Down’.

An Inventory of Losses – Judith Schalansky: a Splice review

Judith Schalansky’s An Inventory of Losses (translated from the German by Jackie Smith, and published by MacLehose Press) is a collection of stories, each inspired by something that has been lost to the world: buildings, species, artworks and more besides. Each piece is written in a different style, adding up to a multifaceted exploration of loss. It’s a beautiful looking volume, too.

I’ve reviewed An Inventory of Losses for Splice, where I go into more detail on a selection of the stories.

Read my review here.

BBC National Short Story Award 2020: ‘Pray’ by Caleb Azumah Nelson

It’s that time of year again for the BBC National Short Story Award. It was one of the first literary awards I discovered through blogging (way back in 2010!), so I’ve always had a soft spot for it. This year’s shortlist was announced earlier in the month:

  • ‘Pray’ by Caleb Azumah Nelson
  • ‘In the Car with the Rain Coming Down’ by Jan Carson
  • ‘The Grotesques’ by Sarah Hall
  • ‘Come Down Heavy’ by Jack Houston
  • ‘Scrimshaw’ by Eley Williams

That’s two authors who are familiar to me, and three who aren’t – a nicely eclectic mix, which is the sort of thing I like from this prize. I’ve been offered a copy of the anthology published by Comma Press, so I’m doing one of my occasional story-by-story reviews of the shortlist (see previous ones here).

The plan is to post a review about one story every other day from now until 6 October, when the winner will be announced. Today, the shortlist gets off to a strong start with Caleb Azumah Nelson’s story…

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‘Pray’ is the story of two teenage boys from South East London: the unnamed narrator, and his older brother Christopher. Their parents have both passed away, and now they’re struggling to find their footing in life.

The brothers are at an age when they feel they don’t fit in, but other people are only too happy to jump to their own conclusions about where they should fit: “too young to be adults, too old to be children, but stuck in bodies which implicate us either way”. There’s also the issue of racism: as the narrator puts it, “the world we frequented wasn’t built with us in mind.”

What strikes me most about ‘Pray’ is how the brothers’ world comes to them in pieces. Over here is the club, where everything makes sense when you can lose yourself in the beat, take the mic and the words flow out. But over there is the unknown place where things get too much, and you just pray for protection “from what we can’t see but know lurks in the air.”

The boys aren’t in a position to inhabit the world in a way that lets them see it as a whole, and thereby navigate through. Instead, they are shunted from piece to piece, and have to hope they can hold on.

Listen to a reading of ‘Pray’.

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