Book Review: Map of Another Town, by M.F.K. Fisher

Best known for her food writing, in Map of Another Town the American writer M.F.K. Fisher takes us on a virtual tour of the French town of Aix-en-Provence. She first moved there not long after the Second World War, taking her two young daughters with her, and this book covers two periods of the family living in Aix.

Fisher
covers many aspects of living in Aix and paints a vivid portrait of the town
and its inhabitants. We meet various people, from her inimitable landlady
Madame Lanes and her head servant Fernande, to the stately waiter Ange, who
works at The Glacier where Fisher and her children often eat. Mary and Anne,
her daughters, are ever present in the book and we see them growing up through
the two periods of residence, which took place some years apart. When the
Fisher family first moved to Aix the effects of the Second World War were still
being keenly felt, and nowhere was this more apparent than in the townspeople.

Describing
Madame Lanes, she writes: “She was on guard when I first knew her, wary but
conscious of the fact that she had survived the Occupation (which was really
three: German, then Italian, then American) and had escaped trouble in sprite
of being such a staunch worker on the Underground for all of its duration. She
was remote and hard … When I saw her next, in 1959, she was younger. A year
later she was younger still.”

The
book is structured into twenty chapters, each of which concentrates on a
particular theme, such as the lively main street in the town, or the two cafés
that Fisher and her daughters frequent. Most chapters are subsequently split
into three or four shorter essays, all loosely linked by the chapter’s theme. I
really like the way the book is structured. The reader is taken back and forth
through time, and is able to wander around the town with certain characters
crossing our paths time and again, like old friends. One minute you are
wandering down the Cours Mirabeau listening to the great fountains, the next
you might be stepping down carefully down the narrow, slightly eerie Passage
Agard, where the daughters think they are being haunted by a gypsy woman.

Regular
readers of Fisher’s work will be used to her delectable food writing and there
are some delightful flashes of it in Map
of Another Town
– she can make even the simplest ham baguette sound
absolutely delicious. Describing one of the great pastry shops in the town, she
writes: “the shop always smelled right, not confused and stuffy but delicately
layered: fresh eggs, fresh sweet butter, grated nutmeg, vanilla beans, old kirsch,
newly ground almonds…” If I close my eyes, I am transported into that bakery
and I can smell it.

What really works for me in this book isn’t just Fisher’s writing (full disclosure: I was already a big fan of hers) but the way she takes us off the beaten track and away from the tourist attractions, really introducing us to the life and the heartbeat of the place. We meet doctors, tramps, priests, neighbours, students, shop owners and more, all of whom are described with intimacy and in Fisher’s trademark style. I have never been to Aix but after reading Fisher’s descriptions and after tracing her own personal map around the city, I would love to visit there myself and seek out some of these places – and ultimately create my own map of this town.

Map of Another Town is out now from Daunt Books.




Book Review: Good Day?, by Vesna Main

Vesna Main’s latest novel, Good Day?, is a masterpiece of understatement and inquiry into intimacy, fidelity, memory, and the business of fiction itself; a novel within a novel, told entirely in dialogue between husband and wife. All we know of the couple is that the wife is a writer, her husband is an academic. They’ve been married for twenty-four years, and have two grown-up children, rather, in fact, like Richard and Anna, the protagonists of the wife’s novel.

The exchanges take the form of the
husband’s commentary on the novel his wife is writing which focusses on Richard’s
revelation that he has been visiting prostitutes for the last eight years. Right
from the beginning, the gender lines are clearly drawn. The husband sympathises
with Richard, complaining Anna is “controlling”. The wife claims Richard gets
what he deserves. As the story progresses, conversation meanders from the
fictional marriage to the husband and wife’s own relationship, fragilities are
exposed, the boundaries between fiction and reality begin to dissolve.

– So Anna’s not me? [The wife
says.]

– More or less she is.

– Are you Richard?

– You’re building him out of me.

Despite the husband’s misgivings,
the wife cannibalises their marriage to flesh out characters and furnish them
with backstory: Richard is given her husband’s job and boss, two grown-up
children hover in the wings, a scene from the wife’s previous love affair is
exhumed, and intimate details of their first meeting are lifted hook, line and
sinker and inserted into the novel. Truth and fiction blur the role of reader
and writer in a never ending hall of mirrors until the reader can no longer
sure which novel they are reading, only that their presence is vital as a moral
arbitrator, voyeur and literary critic.

– Who are you writing for? [Richard
asks.]

– An intelligent active reader,
someone who is prepared to make an effort. [Anna replies.]

It is both story and commentary on
the literary process; the surveillance and compartmentalisation of our modern
lives. There are the clever self-referential texts to the wife plagiarising Vesna
Main’s work, Richard has his own alter ego called Alan Roberts, a prostitute
called Tanya is mistaken for a student. Anonymity is an aspiration; allowing characters
to act out fantasies without taking responsibility. Surveillance is ever
present in the form of the couple’s friends and children; a reminder that the
ultimate goal of any surveillance society is not only to remind us of the
watchful eye, but to inculcate self-censorship into its citizens.

– People who know us will
recognise it is as you and they’ll assume the story is ours.

– People who know us will be able
to see this is fiction. [The wife replies.]

The sole use of dialogue as
narrative structure reduces the plot to its essential elements without
compromising or diminishing the story in any way. In fact, stripping away
descriptions, settings and narrative summary, allows the voices to burn more brilliantly
in the darkness, and starts to make other novels look a little bloated by
comparison.

Good Day?’s meta structure raises serious questions about fiction
and ethics: how much of fiction is really fact? Who do joint memories belong
to? How much of a writer’s life can be brought into the work without compromising
those they love? And, through the other end of the telescope, it asks what
effect fiction has on our own lives. At one point in the novel, the wife says: “This
story makes me question our own life, our own marriage.”

In Good Day?, Main has created a clever, and thought-provoking story
which engages as it delights. Its deceptively simple prose slices through
layers of thematic enquiry to address contemporary concerns over identity,
gender and representation. For all this, it’s an easy and compelling read, as
tense as a thriller, twisting and turning, right down to its last postscript.

Main, whose work includes a collection of short stories, claims to admire the work of Kafka, Sebald and Beckett. The influences are clear in Good Day?, the sparse minimalistic prose, diversionary, experimental, all wrapped up in a luminous dialogue.

Good Day? is out now from Salt.




Book Review: The DNA of You and Me, by Andrea Rothman

The DNA of You and Me is the story of scientist Emily
Aspell as she looks back on her life and beginnings in the world of science
just before she is about to receive an important award for her work in olfactory
research. An award that summarises what her life has been all about, the points
of no return and the choices made along the way.

Smell is an illusion,
my father used to tell me: invisible molecules in the air converted by my brain
into cinnamon, cut grass, burning wood.” And so, it starts. Recently graduated,
Emily moves from Chicago to New York to work in Justin McKinnion’s lab only to
find out she is joining Aeden Doherty and Allegra Meltzer, a team conducting
very similar research on the sense of smell. Aeden almost immediately tells
Emily that she’ll need to find a new topic to research. Let the war begin!

It is here where Rothman, a scientist herself who studied
neurobiology and olfaction, completely submerges the reader in the fascinating
world of microscopes, test tubes, petri dishes and testing mice. She makes the
world of scientific research exciting and accessible to the everyday reader. We
witness tensions among colleagues, the fascinating lab politics, the pressure
of conducting experiments and the need to get results ahead of rival labs. The
novel brilliantly depicts the speed of the race for knowledge that has the
improvement of human health at stake. I have no scientific background at all
but the atmosphere in The DNA of You and
Me
felt real and I think that is a huge achievement.

It is no surprise that Emily and Aeden will move from
colleagues to lovers. Their relationship is far from standard, and it is sometimes
rather uncomfortable to witness. Emily has fallen for him but Aeden keeps the
relationship secret, cold and detached. On their sexual encounters, Aeden
performs some very questionable behaviour, leaving Emily constantly sad, hurt, confused,
and feeling lonely. She is in love, but he is reluctant to take the relationship
outside the lab’s walls. Is this your conventional love story? No. And the
reason it’s not is Emily Aspell and what she represents as a female character.
As the story progresses, Aeden is finally ready to take the relationship to the
next level and settle down. But it comes at a cost. He finds a new job in a new
lab away from New York and wants Emily to come along, to “Choose us”, as he
puts it. In convincing Emily to go with him, there is a serious ethical breach
involved that I will leave to the reader to discover. Emily chooses her work,
her lab and to stay true to herself.

In recent years, we have been flooded with discourses stating
the importance of empowering young women to take roles that are traditionally
male dominated. Science is just the perfect example. In creating Emily Apell,
Rothman is a step ahead introducing a character that truly reflects the life
choices that women are making in today’s world. Emily is passionate about
science and will eventually face the ultimate question of choosing career vs
family life. I hope women reading The DNA
of You and Me
will be inspired by Emily’s character to take absolute
control of their lives, to think big and find their place in the world. It’s ok
to be unconventional and to not follow the path that society expects women to
follow. It may be a road of tough choices, but it is ultimately a rewarding
one.

A highly entertaining read with the bonus that you will learn a thing or two about research on the all-important sense of smell.

The DNA of You and Me is out now.




Treading the path of loss: Thoughts on A Small Dark Quiet, by Miranda Gold

Psychoanalyst Adams Phillips writes, “Our lives are defined by loss”. For when we lose things they disappear, yet we remember, recall, and, in turn, we become inhabited by that which is no longer there. Lost things live on in us, vacillating between absence and presence.

Set in a crumbling post-WW2 London, A Small Dark Quiet by Miranda Gold is a book about loss, a delicate, haunting meditation on a generation both engulfed and shattered by war. The Allies have been victorious, and everyone should be celebrating, but inside the tiny house in Llanvanor Road, Sylvie has lost one of her twin sons at birth; she seems to be losing her mind. Two years later, Sylvie and her husband Gerald adopt little Arthur, a concentration-camp survivor, as a replacement for their dead baby. The child has been dispossessed of his own identity, is given the name of the deceased twin. He is “someone else’s little someone”. The father, Gerald, has also lost, or is trying to lose, his family’s Jewish identity. The book translates intelligently the unshakable fear Gerald still feels of being Jewish in Europe. His hands shake relentlessly and he is suffering from what we would now diagnose as PTSD. The war is over, yet things for the family will never be the same again. It is, Gerald believes, “tabulae rasae … records had been scattered, blanks left pending…”

A Small Dark Quiet is also the story of how we fill these blanks, how we live with the real and metaphysical horrifying gaps, described by Edna St Vincent Millay as the “hole in the world, which I find myself constantly walking around in the daytime, and falling in at night.” “Let’s find her smile. Let’s find her smile,” Gerald repeats cruelly to Sylvie in their kitchen, trying to recover, resuscitate, the Sylvie he once knew. “My Sylvie had a nice smile,” he says.

Interweaving scenes from 1950s and 1960s, darting between Freud’s mourning and melancholia, as the book advances, author Miranda Gold reveals the stories the characters have told themselves to make sense of their trauma. Each of them tries to deal with their past selves, those which they have relentlessly tried to get rid of, as Roxanne Gay describes, “I buried the girl I had been because she ran into all kinds of trouble. I tried to erase every memory of her, but she is still there, somewhere.” We follow Arthur through his own attempt to build an adult life, to understand where he belongs. We meet other characters living with “small dark quiets”: a Polish caretaker with a number tattooed on his arm. Lydia, Arthur’s lover, who is repairing her own past by playacting the role of her previous employer, Mrs Simons. Lydia was the Simons’ nanny, and has stolen the family’s two dolls, and now, grotesquely, pretends they are her children.

In the novel, the strongest, most haunting image of loss and its replacement is the infant Sylvie fabricates from twigs and minuscule buds of white flowers to replace (or make living) her dead baby. This “twig baby” encapsulates “the story of the other little Arthur that Arthur never was…” In the novel, Sylvie believes her baby is buried in the park and visits the grave every Thursday, trying to find “a grave that would keep him.” In one exquisitely painful scene, she takes Arthur to the park; they dig in the soil and grass, hands muddy, trying to find the baby. Gold’s visceral image is macabre and tender, frightening and soft. Sylvie clutches a bundle of twigs, placing her hope, her longing in withered ivory petals.

In A Small Dark Quiet, Miranda Gold’s force is her concentration on ordinary darkness, the banal, yet ruthless effects of war and trauma on the everyday. In keeping with this focus on the intimate life of a family, the book takes place in restricted locations: Llanvanor Road, the park, Arthur’s workplace, the squalid room he rents when he seeks independence and meets the unstable Sylvie. Yet, while the cast and places of the book are clearly identified, the writing darts endlessly back and forth in time. Whilst this is in keeping with the effects of trauma, which exists outside of time, the latter part of the book can be confusing to follow.

Overall, however, A Small Dark Quiet is a highly perceptive, beautifully crafted, lyrical book, highlighting aspects of the trauma of WW2 often ignored. Books like this must be written and read, for as the Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel warned years ago, “to forget a holocaust is to kill twice.” This is a loss we cannot neglect.

A Small Dark Quiet is published by Unbound.




Book Review: Punch, by Kate North

Cars, restaurants and foreign
travel feature heavily in Kate North’s new collection of short stories. A mask
on a wall of a rented villa speaks out, a car and van collide on a roundabout,
a couple sit in a Venetian trattoria discussing Pope Pius’s penis. Characters
are routinely displaced and forced to negotiate unfamiliar situations. Over one
third of the stories are set abroad, while those closer to home focus on the
unfamiliar, the sudden losses or discoveries which unsettle and expose the hotchpotch
of emotions simmering below the everyday calm. A few push beyond the
commonplace into the realms of the surreal. In “Fifteen Arthur Crescent”,a couple move into their “bargain” new
house to discover disappearing ladders, walls which stencil themselves and
underwear mysteriously relocated. “Lick”follows
a male protagonist who wakes after his thirtieth birthday to find a lump on his
hand. Embarrassed rather than concerned it may be a symptom of something sinister,
he worries about how he can disguise it as he embarks on an important first
date: “…because the growth was flatish, it lay along his palm like one of those
fortune telling fish you get from Christmas crackers. It didn’t stick out an at
angle or anything.”

The majority of stories in this
collection involve couples, often unnamed and of indeterminate age and gender –
which may be intended as a reflection of our anxieties about gender identity
and politics – but which often gets in the way of the story. Who are these
people? I found myself asking, flicking back over pages to check I hadn’t
missed something. Many of the stories employ the second-person epistolary narrative:
“‘Front, middle or back,’ I asked and you pointed to the front row where there
was room at the edge of the bench. We took our places and you munched on the
almonds.” This device often works in fiction to create a sense of voyeurism or
proximity, yet in these stories it has the curious effect of creating a glassy
distance between text and reader, and this is the problem. Even when characters
are named or appear in third person, they are etched lightly. In “Beaujolais
Day”, we learn that Nick has been with Debbie for a year, has bought an old
chapel, earns enough money to eat at a good French restaurant, and knows his
Bordeaux from his Beaujolais, but when he’s confronted by a waiter who once
bullied him at school, and takes his revenge, instead of rooting for him we
feel so little that we barely care.

North is an excellent social
observer. She ably chronicles a country full of curiosities, ambiguities and
hypocrisies, from our preoccupation with house ownership, cut-price travel and
road rage, to a land of CCTV, polytunnels, and department stores closing down.
She has a keen ear for dialogue, as the opening lines of Punch brutally
demonstrate: “Fat fucking cow. Fat fucking dyke. Your brother’s a spaz,” and is
gifted with a poet’s eye when it comes to detail: “The rain sounds like someone
drumming their fingers softly against a coffee table.”

There are many flashes of
original, incisive writing (“Black & White Buttons”, “The Largest Bull in
Europe”) in this collection, yet too many of these stories left me with a
feeling of: “So what?” It may be fair to say that slice-of-life stories do not
turn on a plot, conflict or exposition, but then they must elevate or
illuminate the everyday to something startling and revelatory; to haunt and
unsettle. In this collection North has created incisively told anecdotes filled
with a sense of anticipation, of something struggling to rise to the surface –
yet it rarely does, leaving the reader instead with a sense of frustration, of
a blow one’s been waiting for which lands wide of the mark.

Punch is published by Cinnamon Press.




Book Review: This Paradise, by Ruby Cowling

This Paradise by Ruby Cowling offers the most original short stories I’ve read in a long time. It’s one of the titles from the newly launched Boiler House Press, based at the University of East Anglia.

The collection opens with
“Edith Aleksander, b. 1929”. It’s one
of the shortest stories but one that will stay with you for a long time. The
narrator, Edith Aleksander, is presented with pair of tiny white doll wings
from her granddaughter. She feels them moving. This gesture triggers a touching
recollection of her life, as she stares at the children playing outside. There
is an element of peace as Edith witness the joy and innocence of childhood that
serves as a mirror of a life that is coming to an end. This story is about the small
things that really matter in life and it’s beautifully wrapped around the
powerful image of those tiny wings. A stunning story, under five pages long,
that deserves to be read and reread.

A display of
extraordinary narrative talent, is found in “The Ground is Considerably
Distorted”. This is the story of a
political scandal, of politically incorrect comments, overheard by a journalist,
that make it into the headlines. I believe this is an astonishing example of a
polyphonic story, a term coined by the Russian literary theorist M. Bahktin. In
“The Ground is Considerably Distorted” we hear the narrator’s voice, a Japanese
journalist; at the same time, and cleverly displayed on the side of the page,
we hear the voice of a newsreader giving the developments in the story. On top
of that, a series of tweets and a chat on a mobile phone are brilliantly intertwined
in the narration. And it works, those dialogues give the story a fresh and
current perspective on the way we communicate with one another, presenting a
very recognisable portrait of our relationship with the news, social media
platforms and overall, human interaction.

The story that gives name
to the collection, “This Paradise”, is one of the most conventional in terms of
structure but touches several topics of how we see one another in moments of
despair. The story starts with an au pair, Cara, looking after two small
children as they are informed of the imminent arrival of a hurricane. Nothing
more unpredictable than the course of nature’s most terrifying and destructive
forces. As everyone prepares for it, the boys grow concerned for the wellbeing
of their Haitian gardener and his family. Suddenly, they are nowhere to be
seen. Once again, Ruby Cowling builds the tension in the story in an incredibly
skilled way: the torrential rain, the missing children, and the very unexpected
ending. Brilliant.

Human relations are a
topic that prevails across this collection of short stories. For me, the talent
of Ruby Cowling shines even more in the shorter stories. In “[SUPERFAR]”the atmosphere feels dangerously
current but also completely futuristic. With dashes of sci-fi the reader
becomes a witness to an odd and slightly uncomfortable exchange of cyber
messages as the two characters try to explain to one another the worlds they
live in. Is this virtual reality? Are these parallel worlds? Don’t be surprised
if this short story ends up being made into an episode of Black Mirror, it’s that good.

This Paradise offers an incredibly diverse range of topics, from luna moths, to everyday family life, odd encounters at massage parlours and more. There is something very refreshing about these short stories; they are original, current, entertaining, and relevant. Highly recommended.

This Paradise is published by Boiler House Press.




Book Review: Constellations, by Sinéad Gleeson

At the age of thirteen, Sinéad Gleeson found herself in pain: ‘The
synovial fluid in my left hip began to evaporate like rain. The bones ground
together, literally turning to dust’. She was diagnosed with monoarticular
arthritis and missed months of school, her teenage years marred by long stays
in hospital and numerous operations, including a major one to fuse her hip
joint together with metal plates. Then, at twenty-eight, six months after she
got married, she found out she had leukaemia. Although the outlook was bleak,
Gleeson promised her mother: ‘I’m not going to die. I’m going to write a book’.

Constellations is that book,
a collection of raw, beautifully charged, wide-ranging essays about living in
an imperfect body, specifically a female body in Ireland, where historically
women have been denied their right of corporeal self-governance. Gleeson knows
that ‘the patient is never in charge’, and one feels this is particularly the
case for women in an overwhelming male medical establishment.

When, as a ‘self-conscious girl’, Gleeson was made to wear a swimsuit
while being checked for scoliosis and cried from the shame, her doctor threw
her a towel and asked: ‘“There, is that better?”’ In one harrowing scene, she recalls
how a doctor took a saw to the cast running from her chest bone to her toe tips.
As ‘blade meets skin’ she feels ‘a scald of heat spreading’ but he tells her
she’s ‘overacting’. Her mother, unable to withstand her screams, is forced to
leave the room as ‘this man urges it on, like a horse in a race’. Years later,
after the difficult birth of her second baby, a male surgeon responds to her
complaint of terrible pain in her hips with the suggestion of ‘baby blues’.

Gleeson’s lens is close, intensely intimate, but devoid of self-pity. Her book – entitled Constellations for all the metal in her body, which she sees as artificial stars – is not a lament for her misfortune. Nor is it a triumphant account of recovery against all odds. It’s deeper and more interesting, a memoir of a body that radiates out to discuss politics, literature, art, science and history. Comparisons to fellow Irish writer Emilie Pine’s Notes to Self are inevitable: both books take in birth, death and grief, both writers are brave, wise and true. But Gleeson also sits alongside Maggie Nelson, Siri Hustvedt and Olivia Laing for the rigour of her debate and interrogation of ideas.  

In ‘A Wound Gives Off Its Own Light’, one of the most dazzling essays
in the collection, Gleeson explores the work of three women who transformed
their damaged bodies into art: Frida Kahlo, Lucy Grealy and Jo Spence. She
recalls finding Kahlo – who broke her pelvis, collarbone, ribs and leg in a bus
accident when she was eighteen – while she was in hospital, similarly confined in
a cast as a teen. Although reluctant to equate their suffering, she holds up
Kahlo, alongside Grealy and Spence, as ‘lights in the dark’. Whereas she viewed
her plaster cast as a ‘tomb’, Kahlo decorated hers, creating a language of
beauty in place of sickness and death. Similarly, Grealy’s searing account of
her deformity Autobiography of a Face
and Spence’s unflinching pre- and post-surgery photographs are shown to be powerful
acts of self-assertion and reclamation. By bringing the private world of sickness
into a public space, these women refused to succumb and disappear, showing Gleeson
that ‘it’s possible to have an illness and not to be the illness’.

The quest to find a language to express pain recurs throughout the
book. In ‘Where Does It Hurt?’ Gleeson responds to the McGill pain index, a
vocabulary-based scale developed by practitioners, with twenty poems exposing
her unique, personal experience. One poem on scars depicts ‘a mouth sewn up
with metal’. Another conveys the terrible heartburn she suffered while
pregnant, her throat ‘hotter than coals’. In ‘Our Mutual Friend’ Gleeson
intersperses prose with poetry to describe how her former boyfriend introduced
her to her husband and then, at the age of twenty-four, died after a tragic
fall. One gets the feeling that pain cannot be contained within neat, orderly
sentences. Gleeson quotes from Virginia Woolf’s ‘On Being Ill’, showing how the
sufferer must coin new words, ‘his pain in one hand, and a lump of pure sound
in the other’.

Formal experiment is also evident in ‘60,000 Miles of Blood’, as
Gleeson interweaves the history of blood-group identification with tales from
art and religion, her own transfusions and her treatment for leukaemia. During
chemotherapy, she takes a drug to stop her periods, ‘a moratorium on one aspect
of being female.’

A woman’s right to govern her own body is addressed most powerfully in ‘Twelve
Stories of Bodily Autonomy’, a fiercely argued essay about the 2018 referendum
on abortion. Gleeson reminds us that ‘Ireland’s history – for women – is the
history of their bodies’. From reproduction to sexuality to motherhood, women
have been reduced to their physical form, their choices taken away, their
freedom legislated against. By sharing the stories of women who have suffered
and died, Gleeson shows that change has been hard won, that it has been paid
for in blood. Taking her daughter with her to the polling booth, she reflects
on how the change in law will affect the next generation and ends with a note
of hope: ‘She takes my hand and we walk into the cool air of the hall, to
change the future.’

Constellations contains a political spark, but it is a collection fuelled by acceptance and solidarity. Early in the book, Gleeson recounts a school trip to Lourdes where ‘in the shadow of the grotto’ she receives not a healing miracle but a kind of peace: ‘I know that I will go home, and that I will live with my imperfection; that my surgically altered bones will carry me through the years’. Despite her pain and suffering, the repeated betrayals and frequent operations, she is not at war with the body that has borne her two children. While Gleeson is right that ‘pain – unlike passion – has no commonality with another being’, there is unity in the way she links the fragments of life, the loose ends and tangents, the cycles of birth, blood, motherhood, death and ghosts. For pain is a human experience, one shared and endured by generations of women in their mortal bodies.

Constellations is out now from Picador.




Book Review: Common People, edited by Kit de Waal

Common People is a collection of original essays, poems and memoir written in celebration, not apology.” So it says on the back cover.

There is no doubt that
the publishing world does not reflect the demographics of the world we live in.
And I think as readers we suffer as a result.

But there you go! This
is 2019. The UK is still run by the public-school Oxbridge elite (and happens
to be up a famous creek without a paddle – not that I’m drawing a conclusion
about that – just saying).

But back to the book,
there are some angry polemics here – so far, so predictable but not – to be
fair – unjustified. And a lot of the stories and essays were written by writers
writing about being writers and the writing experience as a (working-class)
writer. That’s great and everything, but I didn’t feel these writers were
saying anything new.

I was also confused by
the notion that if you’re not working class – that is, growing up on a council
estate – you have a land rover in the drive, stables in the garden and are
probably “setting foot in the Bullingdon club”. This rags-to-riches contrast
cropped up in a few of the pieces and I found it irksome.

Aren’t most of us
somewhere between the council estate and the country manor? Isn’t Britain full
of streets with semi-detached and terraced houses that go on for miles? And
what about all those redbrick estates full of houses – like the one where Harry
Potter lived before he went to Hogwarts? Most of us live in places like that,
so how come when some of the writers who contributed to Common People left
their council estates, they only seemed to meet people privileged Tories?

But aside from all
this, Common People has some real
gems – too many to list here, but definitely Chris McCrudden’s “Shy Bairns Get
Nowt”,which drew on his own
experience and family history to explore perceptions of class. “For some
people, class is a vector… For others it’s a fixed point.”

And I loved Katy
Massey’s clever and entertaining account of her mother’s business and life in a
brothel, which showed the intersection of class prejudice and misogyny. And Jodie
Russian-Red’s “The Wedding and the Funeral” was a great piece of storytelling.

However, too many of
the pieces focused on childhood memories and it would have been nice to have
more variation, like Dalgit Nagra’s beautiful profile of a contemporary, “Steve”,
and Paul Allen’s wonderful memoir of life as a bricky, “No lay, no pay”.

I also loved “Little
Boxes”by Stuart Maconie, which is
full of history about housing, Nye Bevan and facts about architecture,
interwoven with his experience of growing up on an estate where streets were
named after literary figures. An utterly informative and captivating piece of
writing.

With over thirty
contributions from as many writers, Common
People
shines a light on the huge diversity of people in the United Kingdom
and celebrates this richness loudly. I loved the variety of dialect, racial
heritage and regional culture.

Considering the UK is
quite a small collection of islands and nations, it is incredibly rich in
language and culture and the publishing / literary world is missing a trick not
exploring that.

Kit de Waal and Common People have done a great job of highlighting that.

Common People is published by Unbound.




Book Review: London Undercurrents, by Joolz Sparkes and Hilaire

To give London Undercurrents its full title is to understand both the process and the product of Joolz Sparkes and Hilaire’s collaboration: The hidden histories of London’s unsung heroines north and south of the river. Sparkes and Hilaire have divided in two the work of unearthing and voicing by location, with Sparkes taking North and Hilaire the South of London, demarcated by the river that bisects the city. The Thames itself provides a thread which weaves this collection together, its shape bobbing across the page of each new section, with words from Sparkes hovering in the North-East of Islington, Hilaire’s in the South-West of Battersea, each their respective homes and the place from which they reflect on their own feel of London. Within each section, themes such as work, family, protest and war, through every age of London, are explored from either side of the river, with an (N) or (S) in the top right-hand corner of each page denoting both the location and author of each poem.

The collection begins
with the theme of the characteristic pull of London for outsiders: “Paved with
Gold”. Opportunity and the struggle that precedes success is experienced and
explored in “First Crop” by a Huguenot asparagus farmer tending to the soil and
the spears “as rude / and round / and succulent / as fantasy allows”. A quick
flick to the Background Notes section of the South poems reveals that an
investigation into the unusual name of the poet’s local pub (The Asparagus)
lead to the discovery that Battersea is thought to be the first place in Britain
where asparagus was grown, the poem’s subtitle offering the date 1685. In “Livestock”
three experiences of the dairy business are brought together in a three-part
poem. The cry of an Islington cheese and cream street seller from 1575 combines
with Mrs Nicholls’ aching despair at the slaughter of her cattle to prevent the
further spread of plague: “Each bolt to the head / shatters our bones. / City
air thickens / deep with lowing, / as London turns Heifer, / mourns her lost
calves” (again the North Notes section clarifies the scale of an 1895 outbreak
which decimated most of London’s cows); and a Cardiff cattle herder’s wife
coming to Holloway in 1811 remarking “Such a sight – great grey teats full of
gold coin / aching to spill on the floor. Quick! Get our pails / underneath and
open our mouths.”

Gathering and grouping
the poetic products of Sparkes and Hilaire’s combined research in this way,
that is to say thematically as opposed to chronologically or separated into two
authored halves of the North and South of the city, allows each piece and each
voice to converse in a way that builds connections; by-lines that travel
between the experiences of women through the landscape of the city and into the
past. In this way London becomes an industrial place populated by industrious
and tenacious people, such as a thirteen-year-old coin forger detailing her and
her family’s endeavours in a thirteen-point to-do list. Or an 1892 White Lead
Works factory worker “Dodging the Doctor” in order to avoid a diagnosis that
would prevent her from making wages by clambering “barefoot / up the drying
scaffold, / hide at the top on rough planks. / Hup I go.” “Hup” really
sings as an example of the ways the voices of these women are written:
carefully, thoughtfully and often playfully. “Thames Crossing, Second Attempt:
19th August 1861” illustrates Selina Young’s successful tightrope
walk from Battersea to Cremorne Gardens as if viewed from above. Her rope
becomes a taut line across two pages, her balance pole perpendicular to this,
cries from the crowd populate two stanza banks (“look at her go! man alive – / those skirts must weigh / a tonne!”),
and the boats on the river lurk between. As expected from a collection that
brings together such a variety of voices, the challenges encountered by women
range from feats of physical endurance to acts of acknowledgement as in “Dido
Belle Sits For Her Portrait” where Belle, a woman born into slavery then
brought by her grandfather 1st Earl of Mansfield to Hampstead, is given the
complexity she deserves and not afforded when the portrait, up until the 1990s,
was simply known as The Lady Elizabeth Murray: “No corn-fed, / cotton-raised
statue am I / nor decoration / picked for porcelain shine… I am a gift”. It is
in this way that voices are given a chance to respond, making these poems feel
full of possibility even in desperate situations, and in other moments, gleeful
and utterly joyous. In “Battersea Women’s Pub Outing” a June 1947 daytrip has
the women of the Mason’s Arms “let loose in Margate” with “voices in rollicking
singalong / kicking our legs high” in such infectious humour it seems possible
to feel as if we might have been there ourselves when on “every ride / Little
Lottie roars so much / she heaves her dinner up / soon as she’s off the Big
Dipper”.

At the end of Joolz Sparkes and Hilaire’s collection both poets take a moment in their respective biographies to reflect on the experience of unearthing the stories and voices of the women that combine to create London Undercurrents. “It should not be so hard to find them”, remarks Sparkes; Hilaire writes that “I’ll keep on digging,” suggesting there is much work still to be done. And that’s possibly what’s so remarkable about this collection: the appetite it engenders for more. I can imagine the voices of yet unheard women in every village, town and city of the UK emerging to create sequels and chapters of the Undercurrents project. It’s disheartening to realise what an endeavour this might be, to seek and find the histories of women, but the rewards that occur through this work are so striking. The richness and variety, intrigue and emotion, together provides an illustration of London as a tumultuous and exhilarating place, occupied by women throughout its history who have built and shaped its terrain from the bottom up and from the top down.

London Undercurrents is out now from Holland Park Press.




Book Review: The Choke, by Sofie Laguna

Sofie Laguna’s novel, The Choke, opens with the narrator’s half-brother Kirk chasing her through the scrub with his slingshot: “this is going to hurt,” he yells, before firing. Reader be warned. From the arrival of Ray, Justine’s absent father in the dead of the night, to the Mauser gun locked in the cupboard, the feuding Worlleys on the neighbouring farm, and the Isa Browns scratching in the dust, you know it’s not going to be an easy ride for ten-year-old Justine.

Set in the Australian outback, on
the meagre scratchings of “Pop’s Three”, Justine lives with her grandfather, a
beer-swilling Korean vet, visited occasionally by her half-brothers, Kirk and
Stevie. Rather than offering the fatherly affection or attention Justine
craves, Ray’s return only exposes the impossibility of her situation. She’s motherless,
dyslexic, and isolated; the only friendship on offer comes from her classmate,
Michael, who’s ostracised by the other children because of his disability.

Through “overheard conversations” Justine
learns what happened to her mother, to Pop’s wife, about Ray’s history of violence,
and the feud with the Worlleys. While she’s too young to understand the
significance of these events, or interpret them wisely, by the time Ray arrives
at Stacey Worlleys’ door, the reader is well primed to cross their fingers and
pray.

The past casts long shadows across
the present. Characters are trapped by circumstances, doomed to repeat the
mistakes of previous generations, as they bid to break free from a cycle of poverty,
addiction and violence. Disparate lives are finely knitted together against the
landscape of the Murray River; its scale and sparsity adds to the growing sense
of isolation and tension, “We leaned against the fence. A weight hung over us.
It was as if the sky was made of the same concrete as Relle’s yard.”

The Choke is rich with symbolism:
guns that don’t go off, chooks who dominate the landscape but are caged, eggs
which don’t hatch. There’s little kindness or support on offer. Michael must
manage his own disability; the half-brothers leave Justine in the lurch when
she needs help. Relle ignores her, Rita has her own problems with the family.
You’re on your own, so get on with it; the message loud and clear. Yet Laguna deftly
avoids sympathy or mawkishness. The narrative is economic and finely tuned. The
plot twists and turns, always at least two steps ahead of the reader – from the
Mauser in the first act which, as Chekhov so famously said, “must go off by the
fourth act” (and it does, but not in a way you predict). The result is an emotionally
wrenching story which keeps the reader trailing by the seats of their pants until
the last page. Then it delivers the rarest of gifts in contemporary novels, a
satisfying and unexpected ending, arising seamlessly from the plot, which
manages to extract redemption for Justine, while resisting the temptation to
provide all the answers.

Laguna is an accomplished writer of young adult fiction. The Choke is her third adult novel. Her second, The Eye of the Sheep, was shortlisted for the Stella Prize in her native Australia, and won the 2015 Miles Franklin Award (past company includes Patrick White, Tim Winton, Peter Carey). The Choke has already been shortlisted for a slew of awards, all of which it thoroughly deserves.

The Choke is out now from Gallic Books.




Book Review: At Home in the New World, by Maria Terrone

In her collection of essays, At Home in the New World, Maria Terrone explores the world through the lens of an Italian-American New Yorker.

This
is a fascinating collection of essays, driven mostly by Terrone’s sense of
wonderment and curiosity about the world around her. She groups the collection
into five sections, but they are loose groupings and the stories she tells
transcend any real attempt to categorise them as they weave through the fabric
of Terrone’s life, and her experiences and impressions of the world around her.

From
stifling subway rides to lunchtime escapism in a shoe shop, through her first
trip to Sicily and a glorious love letter to a golden shawl bought on her
Spanish honeymoon, Terrone has the power to pick the reader up and transplant
them into her world. Her prose is skilled, shifting between light and dark but
always with the power to make even the most mundane activities seem magical. A
big part of the beauty of this collection for me is that each essay is so very
carefully crafted; there isn’t an unnecessary word in them and each one
matters.

War
is a thread that runs quite heavily through this collection. In one essay she writes
about her brother’s lifelong obsession with guns and the military (an obsession
Terrone herself can’t understand) and how at fifty years old he began work as a
part-time police officer. In another she talks of her experiences working over
the summers of 1967 and 1968 in the Veterans’ Administration, transcribing the
psychiatrists’ reports of veterans’ therapy sessions against the backdrop of
the escalation of the war in Vietnam and the anti-war protests. Elsewhere she
weaves in her own father’s experiences in WWII and a chance meeting on a train
with a British veteran, Fergus, with whom she strikes up a lifelong friendship.

Identity
and family are also important themes in the collection, and Terrone often comes
back to what it means to be an Italian-American. The immigrant experience is
writ large throughout, and is an underpinning theme in many of the essays. As
she marries and takes on her husband’s surname she also shortens her first
name, emerging newly confident only to discover that “Terrone” is a word used
by Northern Italians as an insult to Southern Italians. This leads Terrone on a
journey not only to find out more about her own Southern Italian family but
about the often-supressed history of the region. As she says in the last essay
in the collection: “This is what immigrants are born to do: face both forward
and back, like Janus, one of our many Roman gods.”

It’s impossible to pick a favourite from the collection. As I worked my way through, each one became my favourite only to be supplanted by the next and there is something here that will appeal to almost every reader. It really is a lovely collection that deserves to be read and savoured time and again.

At Home in the New World is out now from Bordighera Press.




Book Review: Stubborn Archivist, by Yara Rodrigues Fowler

Yara Rodrigues Fowler’s debut novel is a visceral experiment in form and language. A stylistically complex novel, Stubborn Archivist blends prose poetry and disjointed narratives, the result of which is a novel with a sense of urgency. The fractured writing style – sometimes one unpunctuated line to a page – mirrors the unnamed protagonist: a traumatized woman flailing in layers of hybridity. Stubborn Archivist manipulates language and highlights disquieting interactions veiled in normality (“Yeah, I’d heard of you, half Brazilian. I used to have a thing for Brazilian girls. Used to love Brazilian porn”).  In an essay for Vogue Rodrigues Fowler writes,

“[Stubborn Archivist] in an enduring fit of self-love that came from so much anger and so much having been quiet and having been told from the moment I hit puberty that I should be just exotic enough and just not-foreign enough and attracted to men, of course. I loved this protagonist so much. I wanted to shower her in love and golden honey. She was born out of a love for my identity, my body, in all its violence and depression and silence.”

A novel that fuses who one is with “what” one is, Stubborn Archivist is as vulnerable as it is infuriating (“So, you’re half and half?”). It is a novel overflowing with violence and depression and silence, but there is love, too, and skin sticky with golden honey.

Spanning three generations, Stubborn Archivist fluctuates between Latin America and England, between grandmother, aunt, mother, and daughter. As the novel progresses, each woman necessarily modifies their understanding of belonging – sometimes finding it through language and food, sometimes through education and financial stability. But it is the novel’s blue-eyed protagonist, the reader’s stubborn archivist, who “mix[es] up the words in both languages to make sure [she is] always understood”. She is a woman of duality, with an English father and a Brazilian mother, aware of the “double lives” of various fruits, and the inhabitant of two vastly differing climates. She is a woman regularly exoticized by strangers, a woman traumatized and caged in a “broken up body”. And it is the sharp, short lines, and the subsequently empty spaces between them, that create an uneasy atmosphere; the stubborn archivist is hiding something.

Stubborn Archivist studies the intricacy of spatial belonging – belonging to a place (“You don’t look like you’re from here”), belonging to a community (“I don’t feel foreign / But you are foreign”), belonging to one’s own body (“And she would lean back and nod and raise a hand but they would hug her anyway”). It is the detachment from her body, in particular, that the protagonist addresses in a tense and revealing interaction with a former partner. Seated together in a bar, they observe each other between small talk – a cordial if somewhat awkward exchange between people who were once romantically and otherwise deeply involved. Amid his body language (“He leans incrementally infinitesimally forward”) and hers (“She looks away”), there is a profound and discomforting revelation. It is an admission of wrongness, a punctuated sentence, carefully wedged between the memories of the women who raised her. It is a sobering moment that brings the reader back to the early pages of the novel where Rodrigues Fowler writes the inner-dialogue of the protagonist,

“But there were good times / There were good times. Come on. Be honest with yourself. / Yeah the sex had been good sometimes. / You called it great / I know. / You called it— / Sometimes it was ugly. / But still / And she had loved him. / Yes. / And he had said – If you love me don’t you leave me / (if you love me) / And there were other things. But she’s a stubborn archivist.”

Yara Rodrigues Fowler’s novel is an eloquent work of messiness, of ugliness. The characters in Stubborn Archivist seek steady ground, finding their footing in a shared history. Does the reader ache for the protagonist; ache to know her name? Yes, the reader aches to know her. And yet, her namelessness is intrinsic to her identity. It, like much of what comprises her identity, was given to her without her permission. Perhaps the protagonist seeks a reprieve. And, oh, what a relief it must be: no one sounding it out or asking for the precise spelling or speculating about what it means. What a relief it must be, maybe just this once, to have something all to herself.

Stubborn Archivist is out now from Little, Brown.




Book Review: Bottled Goods, by Sophie van Llewyn

I was drawn to Bottled Goods after hearing it was set in 1970s Romania. I was even more attracted when I heard that the book’s author, Sophie Van Llewyn, had written it as a series of flash fictions, some of which she’d entered into competitions – some of which had won prizes. What a clever woman! I thought. (I still think that, by the way).

So my big question when starting the book was “How is this going to work?”

The book starts tense and funny, with brilliant observation of the humans that populate it. The protagonist, Alina, becomes a “person of interest” along with her (pretty useless) husband, after his brother defects to the west. Alina turns to her aunt for help. She is the wife of a communist leader and a secret practitioner of traditional Romanian magic.

Sophie Van Llewyn does a superb job of combining traditional Romanian folklore with magical realism, which of course was traditionally used in communist regimes in Eastern Europe – as well as in fascist states in Latin America – to convey sensitive political ideas in a way that might not escape the sensors if written in a more conventional literary form. I thought that was a delightful touch and, whether conscious or not, a fitting tribute to writers from the Communist era.

The characters are delightfully flawed cruddy people. The prose is tight, witty, vivid and atmospheric. The comic timing well delivered. When the tension went up a notch, I felt what Alina felt, as if I was part of her. Each flash fiction was delightful in its own right and written in a style that was dictated, I felt, by what was best for that individual flash, which fitted perfectly with the different stages of Alina’s life.

Being a series of flashes allowed for considerable freedom in the way the chapters were written – in first person, third person, present or past tense, graphs, lists, and quotes “from my mother”. I especially loved the chapters that are lists – “How to attract (unwanted) attention from the communist authorities”, and “What we had to give away so that we could buy a fourteen-year-old Dacia so that we would have an independent means of transportation in order to flee from the country”.

The effect of every piece of action being contained within 1,000 words or less was to speed up the story. Every word on the page pulled its weight to communicate mood, action, setting etc. This was powerful. However, I don’t think it had a positive effect on the plot, which felt comparatively rushed and unresolved in places. About halfway through some of the chapters began to feel less like flash fictions and more like links. But this is still a great book, especially for those of us who like flash fiction, poetry and our literature experimental.

Bottled Goods is published by Fairlight Books.




Book Review: Table Manners, by Susmita Bhattacharya

The characters in Susmita Bhattacharya’s collection, Table Manners, are alienated by language, culture and geography, silenced by loneliness and yearning. Food is a byword for class, loss, happiness, and a minefield of potential gaffes for the culturally uninitiated. Food is also the thread that connects Indian, Bangladeshi, Chinese and Somalian immigrants with Cardiff’s indigenous residents, who despite differing geographies, all have one foot in the familiar and the other in uncharted territory.

In “That Face, Like a Harvest Moon”, the simmering meats and stinging onions are a wormhole to the past, bittersweet with longing, as a grandmother savours the rare experience of sharing kitchen space in her daughter’s house, only to subsequently discover food makes her feel sick when an unwanted pregnancy in the family occurs. An onion sliced into four chunks becomes a symbol of both poverty and lust in “The Taste of Onions on his Tongue” as the housebound narrator spies on a neighbouring couple from behind her window.

“Comfort Food” is a gem of a story, recounting a wife’s pleasure in preparing and anticipating her favourite chicken rice, only to be summoned to a restaurant for a business dinner by her husband. The restaurant with its scalloped dumplings, Octopus fritters and steamed spare ribs becomes a theatre set where each course exposes the power imbalances between partners and spouses. Finally, at the end of the evening, as the wife returns to her kitchen, Bhattacharya records with great empathy, the small comforts to be found in a lonely marriage.

But, it is in “Table Manners”, the title story, in which an elderly Chinese lady makes soup for a widowed neighbour, that food moves beyond metaphor to offer a lifeline, transcending cultural and language barriers more compellingly than words ever could, and serves as a timely reminder that it is usually wise to suspend our judgements.

The stories in this collection are deftly constructed and executed with confidence and surgical precision. Bhattacharya is at her strongest on the interior life, the misunderstandings and hairline cracks of families; the baby with black kohl eyes to ward off evil, the husband who only liked Twinings tea. At its best, her writing brilliantly reveals entire worlds in a paragraph. In “Growing Tomatoes”, we learn: “Cardiff was nothing like Mogadishu. And yet, it was everything like it. It confused Hoda. It has the same activities of daily life. Husbands to please. Food to be cooked. Clothes to be washed. But everything here had a substitute including husbands. They were called partners, ready meals and washing machines. Hoda did not trust any of them.”

Regrettably, these insights are all too rare. The hushed-up domestic violence, English lessons, chicken kormas, caustic mother-in-laws, and cooking smells leaking into the street often seem overly familiar – perhaps because so many writers have latterly documented the immigrant/outsider experience, these observations appear commonplace rather than curious?  Yet don’t be deterred. There are real gems to be found in this collection – “Comfort Food”, “Growing Tomatoes”, “A Holiday to Remember”, and “The Taste of Onions on his Tongue” – worth reading for these alone.

Table Manners is out now from Dahlia Publishing.




Book Review: The Gods Will Hear Us Eventually, by Jinny Koh

What’s the most important part of a book to you? Are you a plot person? Or do you prefer fully rounded characters, startling prose, and feeling the atmosphere of the setting? Many people would argue that all these things are important in a story, and many authors are brilliant at them all.

However, I have never read another book quite like The Gods Will Hear Us Eventually – which has such an intriguing and unpredictable plot: a plot that carries the reader through and doesn’t end quite how you might expect; a plot that I don’t want to ruin for you by describing in too much detail – but is otherwise a bit of a let-down.

The story starts with a family celebrating Chinese New Year, the grandmother suddenly falling ill and in the chaos, a lie being told. You can find a more detailed synopsis on the internet, but I’m glad I didn’t before I read the novel, because the exposition is surprising and delightful.

When you expect The Gods Will Hear Us Eventually to become a whodunnit it morphs more into a mystery and almost becomes a ghost story, but don’t let me give too much away. The plot is brilliantly executed.

Yet in every other way the book is cripplingly cliched.

The story is told through the eyes of two main characters: Anna, the younger sister, who at times infuriated me because she was so self-obsessed and bratty; and her mother Su Lai, who is understandably (under the circumstances that I don’t want to give away) distressed and making bad choices. Both of them spend a lot of time thinking in backstory – mostly backstory that the novel doesn’t need.

And all the characters in this book are either stock – the lovable grandma, the demanding mother, two sisters, one good-looking, the other supposedly plain (who is of course the one we are supposed to sympathise with). Or they don’t make sense, like the father who is unusually calm when his ten-year-old daughter doesn’t come home all night.

Thoughts and feelings are described rather than shown, and those thoughts and feelings are laboured and obvious. The prose is full of people being caught off guard, keeping their eyes peeled and the sharp smell of urine assailing nostrils.

Don’t get me wrong. If you’re a plot person, The Gods Will Hear Us Eventually is a clever book and you will probably love it. I think it would make a brilliant film. But if you like your books literary, maybe this book’s not for you.

The Gods Will Hear Us Eventually is published by Ethos Books.




Book Review: The Cartography of Others, by Catherine McNamara

Cartography – the study and production of maps – is, by definition, a pioneering art. Charting the unknown is a job for the explorer; those not trapped by familiarity. As difficult as geographic mapping is, and traversing jungles is no small feat, the human psyche is arguably more treacherous territory. We live it together and live it alone, viewing the world differently, as one might see mountains in different hues from disparate places.

Catherine McNamara’s The Cartography of Others may take us to exotic locations but it’s no frilly “summer read” to be grabbed at the airport for Boonsian entertainment by the swimming pool. The “cartography” here is not primarily geographic. The backdrops are real and effectively drawn but it is in charting the contours of the human condition that McNamara succeeds with skilful interpretation.

This collection displays an incredibly descriptive art in conveying the tenuous tapestries of the soul. We become human through our interpersonal relationships with other human beings. The characters convey this longing for connection. Their emotions and lusts are so finely conveyed that the reader wishes the story would go on. Yet like all good things, they end, and the author knows how to leave a reader wanting more.

The first story in the collection, “Adieu, Mon Doux Rivage”, is a curious piece of observational art. Not much transpires in the linear narrational sense but it’s clear why McNamara chose to open the collection with this and it shows how she can do much with ostensibly little. A musician is on a summer boat trip around Corsica, where staff must adhere to his pretentious requirements. The story reveals how confusion and longing can erupt in apparent serenity.

The rich musician who books the cruise oozes the qualmish stench of the rich but boastful nobody. His strange relationship with a demanding Japanese wife is told in delicate brushstrokes. The geographic background is equally descriptive and the reader is drenched in a deep and exotic realism. “Adieu, Mon Doux Rivage” leaves the reader wondering if they’ve just spent five minutes glancing at abstract expressionism in a silent gallery somewhere in time.

McNamara continues to paint a myriad of human confusions and catastrophes in a delicate yet confident language, often making the physical background, however eventful, at times almost irrelevant. What matters in the cartography of others is not what others do but who they are.

Most of the story titles could easily have been Joy Division song titles, but not “Magaly Park”, where a coastal town is knocked out of balance by a homicide. Amid the sea breeze and urban familiarity is a palpable sense of societal fracture. Residents’ attempts at communication are stilted by a ubiquitous suspicious of human interaction.

The descriptions of the seaside with its gulls and lapping waves are still lush in spite of the chaos of crime. The story develops from an assumed crime story into a satisfying insight of the protagonist’s longing for the love of another woman. It ends with a wonderful escape into a rocky landscape that has metaphorical allusions of lesbian love.

Such observational interpretation of the human psyche demands strong, cutting prose and at times the light touch of a feather. McNamara is an expert at conveying gravitas with the briefest of sentences and somehow makes remote feelings seem emphatically our own.

With characters that are stunningly unique yet refreshingly accessible, the stories all seem to have a kernel of longing for love or lust. In a broader sense all want connection: the touch of a hand; the voice of a lost lover. Further stories analyse deeply the agony in watching a loved one suffer persistent domestic abuse at the hands of their spouse. Another piece watches a realisation unfold wherein cancer and disability have changed a relationship forever. We leave each story with a sense that however remote the feeling or improbably the odds, we’re never far away from pain or happiness in our own existence.

Today’s globalist and technological era perpetuates the idea of fewer divisions and less conflict. McNamara has a proclivity in taking readers to the wrong side of town, where dialogue is often snared by cultural and societal division. She seems not to consider our differences so easily erased. The concept of “foreign” is impressed as a real entity in a seemingly shrinking world.

The Cartography of Others charts a landscape of pain and hope that emblazons the strength and fragility of the human spirit. It is an atlas of distances and bridges between us. That readers may wish some of these tales developed into novels should come as encouragement to the author.

The Cartography of Others is out now from Unbound.




Book Review: Live Show, Drinks Included, by Vicky Grut

Economic prose and settings both foreign and familiar sell this oblique collection from Vicky Grut, long before circumstances sinister, touching and sudden muddy not-so-clear waters. I was lucky enough to read Live Show, Drink Included – Collected Stories a few days prior to most and can resoundingly say I’m still thinking about the intricacies of several of the collection’s fourteen stories even now. It’s fair to say that most tastes, so long as they are inclined to the literary, will be catered to at some point. I cannot say, hand on heart, that every single story was for me, but I can say I was never bored, never tempted to put the book down and come back later, only ever taking a break from Grut’s worlds to sip tea between stories.

The book is slim and the stories short enough to not outstay their welcome but long enough to make an impression. Each tale boasts a character or characters so immediately relatable they threaten to further blur that fictive line and spill out over into your living room. People fleshed out enough to be as wholly identifiable as the noses on our faces, effortlessly real and, more importantly, serving as great ballasts to the often oblique Hail Marys to come. Gently insistent with an edge, I came to think of them not as kitchen-sink tales – they often deal with domestic quarrels and denouements – but more as kitchen-sink tales with soapy-water enough to occlude up-facing knives. Close to home but with bite.

Take “Escape Artist”, the sixth story of Grut’s collection, a piece which explores relationship-dependence and idolisation in a couple who stand on opposite sides of the age and career fence: a young actress and an old playwright. Corazón is presented as ostensibly in decline and past her sell-by date while partner Robert slaves away at a resurrective piece specifically written for her that likely will never be completed. It is this “gift” he is working on that becomes a guilt-chain to Corazón, one which begins to impede her own ambitions. A simplified synopsis would be to call it a tale about Corazón accidentally winning a talking-part in an experimental response to The Tempest and the emotional and marital fallout of her accepting it. What was once teased at being a pastoral couple who consummated their mutual feelings through an idyllic kiss beside sunlit-skewered water with “poplar leaves tapping and clattering lightly overhead” segues into something else entirely when an angered Robert goes on a bender after hearing about her acceptance of the part – read: betrayal – and unknowingly(?) locks her inside their apartment. The story, as so often as they do in this book, slips sideways here, and becomes something else. Something madder, more meditative, offering a glimpse at the darker side of relationships. Cracking open a door to show just how rickety some are held together, with nothing but combative aural sleights and copious amounts of controlling disdain. Corazón, at least, seems to understand this at the last and, I hope, strive for something more freeing.

Another stand-out, and possibly my favourite of them all, is “An Unplanned Event”, a tale largely about misguided validation, and how, in the jealous Eric, this hinges upon a deep-seated ignorance towards knowledge offered by others in sufferance to his own posturing. Health and Safety? “What do you want to learn that for?” An ex-warehouse employee who’s stumbled into his career as a gardener for the well-off ex-headteacher Mrs McClusky, Eric appears to begrudge any and everyone around him with the sniff of the intellectual about them; none more so than the “smarty-pants foreign boy” Thomas, who comes calling to the grounds he tends one day. To call them antonyms wouldn’t be untrue. Eric is old, hands-smart and a foundling. Thomas is young, loved, and as bright as the many bulbs of a chandelier.

The location Grut paints is a simple one yet inherently tantalising: the ex-headteacher lives in a gated residence with a “metal grille over its front door” and lawns enough for daffodils, daylilies, white shasta daisies, with “lobelias and pansies for the borders”. I found it vaguely metropolitan-gothic with interrelational angst to boot in the introduction of a supremely gifted foreign student and his precocious ways. It is Thomas piercing a veil Eric has heretofore been uninvited to cross – the threshold of the house he hasn’t stepped beyond in over three years of employ – and Mrs McClusky forgetting to bring Eric his customary plateful of biscuits and a cup of tea one day that serves as the catalyst for this tale’s climactic wrinkle.

It is as explosive a moment as you’ll find in this collection, yet one which favours subtlety and what follows the outburst rather than the outburst itself. Storming a path towards the door with the grille and calling out to Mrs McClusky, Eric is primed to let loose his feelings of being hard-done by, disregarded and discarded – things that seem at this point to be cyclical grievances in his life. Mrs McClusky’s threshold, however, rebukes him by smarting a persistent ailment that has been plaguing him the last few weeks. His temperament and temperature having spiked in his anger. Eric collapses on the steps, a prize slice of meat for the achievement-hounds he so despises.

What comes next is a one of a handful of lasting denouements to feature throughout Live Show, Drinks Included, as Eric admits, albeit diagonally, to his shortcomings when his “ears are filled with the roaring sound” of misplaced happiness. After overhearing that, yes, he has passed tests and, yes, they are advanced, but not really registering the fact that they were only done when he was unconscious, prone and behind curtains that squeak when pulled on their curved rails. Needless to say, he is elated. Ecstatic to have passed a test, to be wanted – “Oh no, there’s no question of discharging him” – and to finally, finally be “on his way now”. Thomas who?

I know relatability is a buzzword and thrown around a lot nowadays, but everyone knows someone reeling from a breakup who can’t stop themselves trying to contact the person that hurt them, or a stranger intent on fracturing that most sacrosanct ignorance of “concentrated blankness” to be found on commutes, or an adored loved one at their last, scared to go off alone into that unwelcoming white. Grut populates her collection with people so close to us, so easy to read, it is as if they were the neighbours we’d spent a decade or so apologising to about the noise. Live Show, Drinks Included is not a mirror but rather a window above a kitchen sink where you just might catch a sun-distorted reflection of someone you know. At 173 pages, I just hope her next offering is a little thicker.

Live Show, Drink Included is published by Holland Park Press.




Book Review: We Were Strangers, an anthology of new stories inspired by Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures, edited by Richard Hirst

A Book with the Sound of Its Own Making Covered with Semen…

You’d expect a book that was inspired by the ten tracks on Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures to contain some green and greasy semen somewhere along the line. And this book does not disappoint. From the final fiction, “I Remember Nothing”, by Anne Billson: “I look forward to tasting his green greasy semen again, and laughing with delight, remembering how earlier I found it so repulsive. What a fool I was. It’s a delicacy.”

A metaphor for JD’s music and the whole spectrum of post-punk? At first you’re not too sure, it sounds dodgy, but then, gimme gimme gimme. Dribble, dribble, dribble down chin. They were probably right naming the album Unknown Pleasures though, rather than the more jazzy Green and Greasy Semen.

It will be forty years in 2019 since the release of this seminal album that’s forever intertwined with the suicide of Ian Curtis in 1980. A suicide like a black blanket permanently wrapping this record. But not by Christo. Thus, most people just won’t go there. It’s like handing someone a frothing pint of green and greasy semen and asking them to pay thirty quid for the privilege of drinking it down in one gulp. Eh, no thanks there mate.

All this misjudged levity is really an attempt to sublimate the subject matter of the record that inspired this collection: depression. As Mark Fisher said, Ian Curtis goes way beyond the blues and into the pure, unadulterated black. This is the black dog fully grown, ungroomed and drooling all your serotonin onto the floor. Go on, try to lick it up. See what I fucking do. Make my day, punk. And besides, as Camus said, “After all, the best way of talking about something you love is to speak of it lightly.”

It’s 1979 and Thatcher is here to change everything irrevocably. There’s nothing more for the young working class to look forward to anymore, except make two modernist masterpieces and kill yourself. And the first fiction in this collection, “Disorder”, by Nicholas Royle, paints a frightening montage of those times from inside the mind of Ian Curtis. “The pain is here. Mine.” The words of this fiction comprise all the lyrics from the album. No quotation is used and “no word is repeated unless it is repeated in the lyrics.” A mad scientist of a Sudoku puzzle yet quite chilling because even when the words are all mixed up and put into another narrative, the message stays the same. Life is a pantomime. It’s shit. Don’t take part. Kill yourself. “I’ve lost the means to connect, the will to know the truth.”

There’s a conceptual artwork by Robert Morris from 1968 called, Box with the Sound of Its Own Making. The artist recorded himself making a wooden box. Then he slapped said box onto a plinth in an art gallery and played the recording of the sound of its own making as a soundtrack, thus pricking the romantic balloons of the art-mystics and drawing attention to the actual boring and time-consuming nature of making art. This collection could be called Book with the Sound of Its Own Making or perhaps more a propos, Coffin with the Sound of Its Own Making, for the cut-up lyrics in this first fiction get so raw you can physically see bones sticking out from skin: “Descend by wire with my own hand”, and, “I’ve talked for too long. But I’ve said it all. I have to live until there are no new sensations anymore”. This will leave you, “Occupied by death. Corrupted by sin”. Which I suppose was the original intention of the album. If you cut-up the words you use in a week and rearrange them into a different narrative, would the same hold true? You’d get the full picture of what you’re actually thinking and feeling without the blinkers, would you? With modern technology it’s certainly doable to record everything you say for a week. But would you really want to go there? Really? To know yourself that well? But then we all know ourselves only too well, and need constant distraction in order not to say it as out-loud and as out-straight as Ian Curtis’ lyrics and the sound made by the rest of the band. This album and this particular fiction is the be-here-now moment we don’t want to know about. Because in the next fiction, “Day of the Lords”, by Jenn Ashworth, the be-here-now moment is the up and coming world war with Russia. It doesn’t say it’s Russia. I just know it is. And who the hell wants to focus and think about such a reality in the ice-cold manner of a JD track? That much death? Not me. So it’s best to focus on (in this story) the broken relationship of a couple with a young child instead. The mother’s new partner has to deliver the child to his father on one of his weekly Saturday access visits, while conscription, mind-altering drugs and bad dreams by father and son quietly explode in the background. So a good interpretation of the JD track it was inspired from, but perhaps a little bit too literal. A delicate, beautiful at times, telling of this four-way relationship, punctuated by nice lyrical squawks along the way: “He was zipped up in a tight red raincoat, the laces of his shoes done up in big bows.” But it’s all, as I said, a distraction from the war raging in the background and the gradual degeneration of the human psyche, only delaying the ineluctable march of death. Listen to JD. Go on, kill yourself. Cut out the middle man. Don’t just wait cowardly for the Russians and the Americans to press the nuclear buttons. Rick, the soldier father of his young son, Ted, says, “Distracting him out of a tantrum. He once threw a fit in a supermarket and I told him there was a pigeon sitting up on one of the shelves and he was scaring it. It kept him entertained for an hour, that one did.” A fizzing ice-cream in lemonade of an image in sharp contrast to “Candidate”, by Jessie Greengrass. This is pure Joy Division. No quarter given. Like a noose around your neck. But in a good way because as your legs are dangling there in midair, it can feel like you’re dancing. And we all love to skank. Of course we do. Again, attempted levity to distract from a real and fictional world of zero-hours contracts, unaffordable housing and constant it’s-so-easy-to-be-an-entrepreneur courses shoved into your face as soon as you open your mouth to breathe. It’s grim out there. And so too in Jessie Greengrass’ story: “We have always lived in the factory. We were born here amongst the engines and the lathes, the conveyor belts which stretch for miles.” It has everything, that opening sentence. The history of Manchester pigeon-struts up your nostrils. Frederick Engels, Peterloo, Thomas De Quincey, Cottonopolis, Sex Pistols in the Lesser Free Trade Hall, Tony Wilson’s Factory Records, The Fall, The Smiths, The Hacienda, etc. It’s not supposed to be a comprehensive list.

This story reminds me of Bernard Sumner’s experience of the shock of real life, that Mark Fisher wrote about. He grew up in Salford in a two-up two-down. An idyllic childhood relatively speaking, poor but with ample opportunity to play on the street to all hours. Long games of Giant-Steps-Baby-Steps with all his mates. On summer evenings even the mothers, fathers, grandparents and grandmothers would be up chatting outside at their front doors until past midnight sometimes. But the factory wouldn’t allow that. The houses/slums were pulled down and everyone was flicked into tower blocks with all its attendant anomie. The shock of real life. “We don’t know what it is we make. We don’t know the purpose of so many narrow lives. We only know the way to slot this piece to that one.”

Back then the culture of the times created people as inveterate modernists who would spit into your earholes if you asked them to repeat something from music’s past. It just wasn’t in their nature. Progression was the carrot that made them hopeful. Mark Fisher again. He said everything. Greengrass says, “A necessary recalibration of a mechanism. A swift repair. Hope is a lubricant.” Yet this story shows that even creating two astonishing works of art doesn’t prevent the dead-certain future from putting that noose around your neck.

“Insight”, by David Gaffney, seems to refer back to Robert Morris’ Box with the Sound of Its Own Making. Or Coffin with the Sound of Its Own Making. A man buys Ian Curtis’ former house in Macclesfield and one of his new neighbours offers him big money to buy the garage that comes with the house. The why and the wherefore of his interest in acquiring the garage will definitely put a chill down your trousers and leave you thinking for days afterwards. So a decent cover of the JD song that doesn’t spare the maggots.

Sophie Mackintosh’s (on the longlist for this year’s Booker Prize) “New Dawn Fades” gets even deeper into Ian Curtis’ mindset as the protagonist is haunted by her past self. Today, yesterday seems nostalgic. You hated yourself and could barely look up from staring at your shoes back then before finally being pushed outside into the natural light. Those sad and anxious days of yore seem rosy and practically carefree compared to today’s trials and tribulations. You want to go back. You can’t go back. You want to go back. Even though you wanted to kill yourself back then like you want to kill yourself now. Sophia Mackintosh writes, “A place will disappoint you like a person. No more pearlescent lustre. No more pastel water.” This is intense fiction with scant narrative detail, making you fill in a lot of the gaps yourself. The world within this fiction inexorably leads you to a room with a gun and a locked door and then a loud bang: “Spreading you and your feelings around like butter on toast, diluting the intensity of your territories.” My interpretationIs this the only way of obliterating the intensity of where you were born and raised? Possibly. Another decent attempt at a JD cover version.

“Transmission, A Graphic Interlude”, by Zoe McClean is imaginatively drawn and a quick, lively read. Minimalist with word and line. An Ian Curtis-esque live transmission. Making me think of JC. Jeremy Corbyn is a racist and an anti-Semite, apparently. The surf is sky high. No wonder Ian Curtis ended it the way he did and didn’t live to see such duplicity. But Ian was a Tory apparently and always voted that way according to Deborah Curtis in Touching from a Distance. So there’s Krautrock-like electronic interference coming through in this particularly enjoyable graphic interlude.

“She’s Lost Control”, by Zoe Lambert is a darling of a story that interprets the lyrics of the song literally. A young woman of nineteen. Her epilepsy manifests at the worst time of her life, if there’s ever a good time to be diagnosed with anything. “It happened just as her friends were starting to cut their hair into long sexy fringes and watch bands in Manchester, just as they were getting jobs or going to college or getting married. She found her life getting smaller.”

“Shadowplay”, by Toby Litt is a Philip K. Dickish fiction and is not only a cover-version of JD’s Shadowplay but also a cover version of Martin Hannett’s contribution to the album. A story about a very rich man that’s paid big bucks to transfer himself into another body so he can live again. After an accident / robbery / kidnapping involving seven robot Prousts the protagonist finds himself in a spaceship millions of miles from where he’s supposed to be – and alone. The ship has a personality and a voice. You can turn everything on and off. “But he could tell it was an interference and he asked to get rid of the pleasure. It did.” The ship can make things in life more enjoyable and keep your senses high as a constant injection of heroin. It must be like what being middle-class feels like. But he wanted it turned off. He was alone and wanted to feel alone. What was the point in simulating anything else? If it’s ice cold and lonely, with no one else to talk to, except programmed robots, then why pretend otherwise? During the recording of the album Martin Hannett use to turn off the heating in the studio to drive all the members of JD to the pub so he could do what he wanted to their sound. So I see the protagonist in this story as Martin Hannett building a new graveyard from the already masterpiece-like work presented to him by JD. Gilding the lily. A coffin with the sound of its own making.

And further into the freezer we go with “Wilderness”, by Eley Williams. A story about a person who works as an ice-resurfacer. Dancing on ice and all that Olympic sportiness in tassels. The language employed here is quite seductive: “…give me the calming scrape and top of my mechanised strigil, the pizzicato of my re-surfacer across the ice, and I’m completed transported.” It makes me want to jump into the rink after all the dancing on trippy tippy toes is over and lie down on the ice looking up at the roof with crossed arms like Dracula in his coffin. Waiting for the protagonist’s ice-resurfacer to come toward me, and poetically, do the business. Put me away. Rebuff and gloss me over into the ice. “I’ve developed an ear for the phonology of ice-resurfacing, the word itself almost onomatopoeic, and catch myself listening out for the fricatives of the blades on ice.” A mellifluous, sensuous and life-affirming annihilation. JD present no answers, however forward-looking their sound. They present the unvarnished truth in all its poetic blackness. If you can banish hope without killing yourself then rave on. And we’ll all live happily ever after. The ice-resurfacer in this story only wants to help and connect with people however difficult his personality. But without hope, there is hope after all: “A cut-up ice rink is something lacerated but unweeping, furrowed like a brow but unthinking, ploughed but not bringing anything to harvest.” Scary but then again, not so scary.

“Interzone”, by Louise Marr, shows how all the progressive dreams of the past were shot dead in their tracks by Thatcher and her confrères. A young woman gets a job as a Project Manager and has to attend a high-fallutin meeting with all the design and architectonic bigwigs of the company. She’s fully qualified for the job but had been working in a coffee shop for a long time previously. At the meeting they discuss, question and show slide shows and drawings from the past. “From around the world, there were pictures of bridges to nowhere and highways that just ended, paving and tarmac coming to an abrupt end on the bare earth.” Sound familiar? Constructions just left hanging in midair forever frozen. There’s no way back to build forward from where things were left off no matter how many meetings.

And finally, “I Remember Nothing” by Anne Billson is pure horror show. A man and a woman wake up in bed together covered in green greasy semen in a room neither of them recognise. They don’t even remember who they are. When they finally do realise, make sure you read these paragraphs again and again. Ian Curtis’ makes the case for the base nature of man over and over in his lyrics, like this final story in the collection. The phrase the base nature of man brings immediately to mind, Nazis and fascists. JD were accused of being fascists themselves in their overly fond use of Nazi references. Were they Nazis? I personally don’t think so.

Rik Mayall in The Young Ones (Rick with a silent P) used to casually call everyone who gave him the hump a Nazi or a fascist. And when I was young, many people I knew did the same. Like crop rotation in the seventeenth century, it was more widespread. Hold on. Considerably more widespread. These references outside the context of history lessons in school I found quite exhilarating. Yes, a bit childish and Kevin-and-Perryist. But not entirely wrong. Were they? I must have been stupid because when people compared someone to a fascist it made me feel intelligent (I was very young) that I got the reference and saw the comparison. Although I knew to take it as an exaggeration. But the past is a different country, I suppose and maybe I’m wrong. Everybody’s clever nowadays apparently. You’re not supposed to bring the Nazis into anything anymore, it would appear. The trope goes that the first person to invoke the Nazis or fascists loses the argument. And is this the final horror of all horrors that this story is trying to scream? That JD are fascists. Which means by implication that all the writers of this book are fascists? Which makes me one too for reading it. Perhaps not. But worth considering when you’ve finished this death-rattling good read.

Before the horror of all horrors (from “I Remember Nothing”): “Rancid and noxious and green, like no semen I’ve ever encountered, and I’ve encountered quite a lot of it, in my time.”

After the horror of all horrors (from same story): “I look forward to tasting his green greasy semen again, and laughing with delight, remembering how earlier I found it so repulsive. What a fool I was. It’s a delicacy.”

We Were Strangers is out now from Cōnfingō Publishing.

 




Book Review: Conradology

The author who would become known internationally as Joseph Conrad was born in 1857 in northern Ukraine, a region home to a significant community of ethnic Poles. Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski was born into the land-owning class, to parents who were committed Polish nationalists and dissidents. Both parents died while he was still a child. At the age of sixteen, the young Conrad left Poland for Marseille, where he began his life in the merchant navy. This career, spent first on French and later British ships, would take him all over the world – from the Caribbean to Borneo, India to the Congo – and expose him to the global politics of commerce and capitalism. The novels and short stories which made him famous (among them Heart of Darkness, Nostromo and The Secret Agent) drew vividly from these experiences. Conrad is recognised as one of the earliest and most prominent western writers to engage with globalisation and colonialism: forces which, in various guises, have exerted an ever-greater influence over more and more of the world’s peoples since Conrad’s day. Other themes in his work – terrorism, high finance and political intrigue, as well as psychology – continue to resonate in the present era. Comma Press has now brought out Conradology, an anthology of ten new short stories and three essays inspired by Conrad’s legacy. The book contains much insightful and exciting work, but is thwarted by crucial omissions.

A major pleasure of the anthology is the inclusion of some genuinely page-turning fiction. Kamila Shamsie’s impressive satire “A Game of Chess” is the tale of a rivalry between two high-ranking British officials: the Home Secretary and Police Commissioner, the latter “a child of working-class migrants… [who] was feted by a certain segment of those who had inherited their own privileges and were therefore deeply invested in the idea that rewards came to those who deserved them”. At either side of the action stand identical twins Yousuf and Nasser Ismail, former Guantanamo inmates wrongly accused of terrorism, and now each adopted by opposing factors in the establishment. The story has a novelistic scope, drawing together political machination and terror with personal dramas of ideology and hypocrisy, set on the treacherous terrain of the modern British class system. It is all too believable.

Giles Foden’s “The Double Man” is another gripping narrative with, like many of the stories here, a mystery at its heart. It is narrated by Marisa, an incomer from Madeira and now receptionist in an unremarkable London hotel. Marisa spends much of her time gazing out of the basement window at the passing feet above, a suitable metaphor both for her position in the story and in the wider world, as time and events move onward out of her view. But she is a close observer of those around her, and when after an act of vandalism at the hotel she notices “an expression of panic” cross the face of the normally assured concierge, “as if his self-possession had crumbled”, she is drawn into danger. If Marisa’s voice occasionally jars – her wise, poetic tone sometimes a little heavily applied – the story still manages both to be the affecting tale of a woman’s self-realisation, and a thriller.

Sarah Schofield’s “Expectant Management” is a rarity in this anthology in that it deals principally with internal drama. Jess has taken up a demanding new job, and is disguising a failed pregnancy.  These two pressures – her determination not to show weakness, and her unrelieved grief – bear down together, distorting her grip on reality. It’s a work of emotional depth, and a reminder that inner worlds can be as difficult to navigate as any foreign waters.

There is an international flavour to the anthology, which includes several contributions by Polish authors, but the absence of any black African voices – despite numerous direct references and allusions to Africa – is a significant omission. Chinua Achebe’s criticism of Heart of Darkness is well-known[1], but disconcertingly glossed over here. Robert Hampson’s introduction mentions the debate only fleetingly, stating that Achebe “criticised the American academy’s teaching of Heart of Darkness, which foregrounded psychology and downplayed its themes of colonialism and the book’s representation of race”. Achebe said rather more than that; he argued that Conrad depicted Africa as “the antithesis of … civilization”, and dehumanised Africans. The essence of Heart of Darkness, according to Achebe, was a profound fear of the common humanity between black Africans and white Europeans. A counter-view might be that this fear was really a recognition of the hubris at the core of the imperial project. A book such as Conradology, which aims to celebrate the work and impact of Conrad, needs to respond more boldly to the challenge of this debate.

Instead, there are two short stories set in Africa which are ill-judged in various ways. “The Helper of Cattle”, by Farah Ahamed, follows the exploits of Dr Patel, a businessman intent on securing “The Lodge” – a Kenyan safari resort – for his company’s portfolio. Patel is escorted around by Ole, a serious local whose lectures on culture and wildlife are laden with ominous undertones. Ole explains that the Maasai “don’t hesitate when it comes to protecting our land and traditions,” just as the wildebeest, “like many of us … prefer to stick to their own.” Patel meets Ole’s sister, Jamba, who – on top of being a witch – is both cursed and mad. “She pointed her beaded club… and yelled. She moved closer, hissing at him through the gaps in her teeth.” Shortly afterwards, Patel develops a fever. Possibly the story is supposed to poke fun at stereotypes: there is some suggestion that “the Maasai” are deliberately trying to spook Patel (preferring a potential Somali investor). But Patel is utterly insensitive and far from spooked. After his encounter with Jamba, he writes in his notebook: “Maasai women are volatile. Recruiting female staff could be problematic.” He refuses to accept that his fever is caused by a spell. If Patel is the butt of the joke, he never notices, and it remains unclear to the end what the joke really is: has Patel fallen prey to malevolent tribal magic, or hasn’t he? And why, exactly, are we considering that question?

“Mamas” by Grażyna Plebanek is set in an unspecified African country recovering from civil war. The country is now suffering from a shortage of men; the government is dominated by young women, who propose “importing” men to correct the imbalance. Two older women, Mama Fatoumata and Mama Scholastica, have a better idea: they want to reintroduce polygamy. The “Mamas” are simple women; when one of them uses a word with more than two syllables, she has to say it slowly. “Eth-nic-ity. What a word!” The young women in Parliament are “pro-gress-ive”, independent and in possession of iPhones, but when it comes to the vote on polygamy, they are outwitted by the Mamas in preposterously idiotic fashion. As in “The Helper of Cattle”, the premise seems bizarre and the characters irredeemably foolish; I can’t imagine that an insult is intended, but I struggle to understand the point being made.

The idea behind Conradology is a good one. Conrad’s themes remain prescient and wide-ranging, loaded both with dramatic potential and real moral urgency. What can contemporary writers take from an author who was there at the beginning of modern globalisation, and what can they add? The essays bring a different stimulus, including a difficult but original exploration by Jacek Dukaj into the transference of perspective and experience in Heart of Darkness as a precursor to twenty-first century virtual reality and “cultural capitalism”. There are other enjoyable stories here besides those I’ve mentioned; the anthology has left me curious to read more Conrad, as well as to seek out work by some of the contributors. It has, however, also left me with concerns about what has and has not been learnt from decades of post-colonial theory and debate. By failing to engage adequately with the world beyond Europe, or with the arguments voiced by Achebe, the book upholds a one-sided view of globalisation and the colonial legacy.

Conradology is published by Comma Press.

 

[1] Achebe, C. 1977. ‘An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness’. https://polonistyka.amu.edu.pl/__data/assets/pdf_file/0007/259954/Chinua-Achebe,-An-Image-of-Africa.-Racism-in-Conrads-Heart-of-Darkness.pdf

 




Book Review: Writing the “literary life”: The Pleasures of Queuing, by Erik Martiny

Just a little over halfway through Erik Martiny’s debut novel, the protagonist-narrator, Olaf Montcocq, deep in the throes of adolescent literary self-emergence, explains how he welcomed the prospect of being sent abroad for a year as a teenager “to experience another school system, get a fresh perspective on things and learn to be more autonomous.” While he is “not too eager to leave Ireland just yet”, he says, “the prospect of being able to write an entire short story in peace, of having a whole room to [himself] and not having to queue makes [him] finally agree to set off for France”.

By the time the reader gets to this point in Martiny’s highly entertaining and fast-paced narrative, one realises that it is, for all of its comic high jinks, an intellectually engaged and engaging work. This is to be expected given Olaf’s immediate family background – his father is a professor at University College Cork in the south of Ireland – but Olaf is himself also an academic in the making. He is a literary scholar, to be precise, though he is also tormented (as many literary scholars are) by the desire to make art. So we encounter Olaf, towards the end of the work, in a situation where he has “read so many articles, gargled so much jargon, that there’s a knot in [his] tongue and a crumpling in [his] soul.” In a sense, then, The Pleasures of Queuing is a book about what happens when one attempts to untie this “knot”: to unravel and tease out the strings that bind and sometimes restrain the discourses of “literature” and “criticism” as they relate to each other.

There are many ways in which this project could have been undertaken. From Terry Eagleton’s The Function of Criticism (1984) to Rónán MacDonald’s The Death of the Critic (2007), many influential literary critics have sought to critique the institutions and practices of criticism from inside the academy. Writers have done it too, of course, and the list of novels in which academia provides both setting and theme is a long one, including some of the best novelists of recent decades, such as Michael Chabon, Jeffrey Eugenides, Julie Schumacher, Donna Tartt, and John Williams. Martiny’s book, from its opening pages, is an uproarious and irreverent exposure of male literary self-consciousness, not just within the academy but within the home. Olaf’s desire to find “a whole room to [himself]” is a clear allusion to Virginia Woolf, for example, who wrote that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” in A Room of One’s Own (1929). Olaf desires a room because he cannot find space to write in the house he shares with his parents and several siblings, but his need to have “a whole room to himself” reflects a hilarious lack of self-understanding on the part of the protagonist. In the character of Olaf, in other words, Martiny satirises the male academic author for whom the ghosts of Woolf, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, and many others, are conjured as reassuring presences in a personal pantheon that serves no other purpose than to boost the protagonist’s ego.

This is hard on Olaf – it is not at all clear that he ever really gets it, even after the ghosts of these and other writers appear before him to offer advice in the final episode of the novel – but how else should one take this character and the accounts he gives us of his various adventures in living “the literary life”? Granted, these are funny, often darkly so, and Martiny has a knack for comedy that often produces side-splitting results. “When all is said and done”, however, as Olaf says at one point, “it is our father’s reading of Camus and the experience of enduring fleas that makes me want to become a writer.” He continues: “Writing seems like the perfect way of turning bad into good, pain into pleasure, weariness into wonder, a way of transmuting shit into gold when shit happens as it inevitably does”. There is still an awful lot of “shit” to be processed in Olaf’s life – and in the world around him. Each chapter of the book begins and ends with a list of shitty historical facts – “The USA, the USSR and France test nuclear missiles […] Charles Manson is convicted of murder”, for example – but these are scarcely registered by Olaf or those around him, whether in the home, at university, or anywhere else. Instead, we are told by Olaf early in the narrative that these are nothing more than “short French news bulletins provided in translation [as] condensed samples of the informative noise pollution that pervades [the] house in Bishopstown, County Cork, Ireland” where the Montcocq family resides.

What we have here, in other words, is a seriously funny novel that wants us to take seriously the fact that it is funny – without being too serious about it. It could be an error, but at one point in the text the narrator imagines the reader wondering “[w]here, if anywhere, is this factional memoir even going?” (emphasis added). If The Pleasures of Queuing is “factional” – not “fictional” – then it is one of the most candid literary autobiographies ever written. Whether it is a work of pure fiction or not, however, it is undoubtedly one of the funniest narratives to be written in recent years about growing up and coming-of-age in the south of Ireland in the last few decades of the twentieth century. It has parallels with the works of contemporary Irish writers such as Kevin Barry and Julian Gough, but its world ultimately extends beyond Cork, out into the broader Irish and, indeed, Franco-Irish cultural and social sphere of reference and beyond – and back again, into the “small republic” of the family. That term (“small republic”) belongs to John McGahern, whose work provides one of the epigraphs to The Pleasures of Queuing, but it is given new life here in a novel that seems destined to become some kind of cult classic.

The Pleasures of Queuing is out now from Mastodon Publishing.