#IFFP2014 guest post: Jacqui on The Sorrow of Angels

Time for another IFFP guest review from my fellow shadow-juror Jacqui Patience. Last month, Jacqui looked at Ma Jian’s The Dark Road; now it’s The Sorrow of Angels by Jón Kalman Stefánsson. Of course, now the shortlists are out, we know that Stefánsson’s book made it on to the shadow shortlist but not the official one; I’m sad not to see it in the actual final six, as it has been one of the discoveries of the shadowing process for me.I’d go so far as to say that The Sorrow of Angels is the best written/translated book on the longlist; I’m still unsure what I think of the novel overall, but there’s a re-read to come before the shadow shortlisting.

Anyway, enough from me; here’s Jacqui…

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Sorrow of AngelsThe Sorrow of Angels by Jón Kalman Stefánsson
Translated from the Icelandic by Philip Roughton

Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s The Sorrow of Angels is the second volume in a trilogy that began with Heaven and Hell (published in 2011). Set in a small fishing village in 19th-century Iceland, a place that feels close to the end of the world, the story opens with the arrival of Postman Jens in the community; he’s in a bad way, battered by the bitter wind and snow, almost frozen solid on his horse. After a short recovery, Jens is challenged by Sigurður (the local doctor and someone with considerable influence) to cover another postal route. The terrain is treacherous, ‘likely hellish after constant snowfall, relentless wind, only to be ventured by highly experienced travellers’ and our man is unfamiliar with the area. If Jens fails to deliver the post on time, his job will be at risk; if he succeeds, it strengthens his position against the doctor and there is no love lost between these two. Jens quickly accepts the mission, the prospect of getting one over on Sigurður being too tempting to resist.

However, the central character in The Sorrow of Angels is the boywho, some quick research tells me, is the main protagonist in the earlier book Heaven and Hell. The boy, unnamed throughout, is dispatched to accompany Jens on his perilous journey to transport the mail in good time. The postman is afraid of the sea and would never make it alone over the fjord that forms the initial leg of their course. He needs someone with him who can ‘row him over, keep a decent pace with him on the trek’.

By now we’re about one-third of the way into the novel and it’s at this point that the narrative really kicks in for me. The expedition itself plays out over the remaining 200 pages and we follow the pair as they battle through blizzards and incessant winds, struggling to survive everything the environment seems determined to throw their way:

The snow piles up on them, they keep going, step-by-step, cold but undefeated. Then Jens falls for the fifth time. Perhaps because the land has started to rise; not much, but enough. It snows and snow blows over them, blows down from the mountain in enormous amounts, blows violently, it’s nearly impossible to breathe and Jens gropes feebly for the postal trumpet, tries to free it from his shoulder and hand it to the boy, opens his mouth to say something but his tongue is frozen, because first it’s words that freeze, then life. (pgs 139-140)

They forge ahead in their endeavour to deliver the mail. The occasional isolated farmhouse offers a brief respite from the elements and some welcome, if meagre, nourishment. It’s a world where visitors are few and far between, where the kindness of strangers is everything, where small gestures speak volumes:

The boy gulps his coffee to burn off the fatigue; he would have preferred to sleep longer, Jens sits with his head bowed but looks up when Jakobina returns with flatbread and butter; she’s tall, her movements are strong and graceful, her brown eyes meet those of the postman, she places the tray between them, brushing as if by accident, Jens’ hand, which rests solidly on the table. A hand that touches another hand in this way is saying something; Jens knows this but dares not respond. (pg 201)

Alongside their physical struggle to survive, there are other journeys taking place, other battles being fought. Jens, sullen and uncommunicative, is deep in thought wrestling with his feelings for Salvör, a woman who has experienced darkness in her past. He knows he should open his heart and express his feelings to her, otherwise he risks losing a chance to find contentment. But so far he’s been unable to commit.

The boy, meanwhile, is trying to anchor himself following the loss of loved ones. As an adolescent, he’s also grappling with new emotions and thoughts of Ragnheiður, a girl from the fishing village, flicker through his mind. Keen to talk, the boy probes Jens about the cause of his soul-searching.

During their journey Jens and the boy develop an understated, yet heartfelt, bond. They come dangerously close to losing one another on more than one occasion, but Jens remains mindful of the need to take care of his young companion. Up on the heaths and mountains, the space between life and death seems very narrow as we become acutely aware of the fragility of life.

Night is surely approaching and death is surely approaching, that invisible being, constantly lurking, stealing jewels, hoarding rubbish, doesn’t turn up its nose at anything, and sends fatigue, cold, hopelessness and surrender out ahead, four savage dogs that sniff out anything living in blind storms. (pg 181)

The Sorrow of Angels is a spellbinding novel, beautifully written in a lyrical, poetic style. Everything seems to flow effortlessly, from Stefánsson’s luminous prose through to Philip Roughton’s excellent translation. Stefánsson creates an ethereal, almost otherworldly atmosphere in this novel and it vividly captures man’s struggle with the adversities of life.

The publisher’s notes indicate that all parts of this trilogy can be read independently. However, having read The Sorrow of Angels, I do wish I’d had the time to start with Heaven and Hell before embarking on part two of the trilogy. I just felt a little disorientated at the beginning of the narrative and I’m sure I missed some of the nuances and subtleties in the interplay between characters in the village community.  That said, I’ve read thirteen of the fifteen books longlisted for this year’s IFFP and The Sorrow of Angels is most certainly in my top three. I’m delighted to see it in our shadow-group shortlist and the closing scenes left me yearning for the next part in the trilogy. And of course I shall have to go back and read Heaven and Hell to fill in those gaps.

The Sorrow of Angels is published in the UK by MacLehose Press.

Source: library copy.

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Read more reviews of The Sorrow of Angels by the shadow IFFP jury: Tony’s Reading List; Messenger’s Booker; Dolce Bellezza.

Read Jacqui’s other IFFP reviews: Brief Loves that Live ForeverButterflies in NovemberA Man in LoveA Meal in WinterRevengeStrange Weather in TokyoTen; The Dark Road; The Mussel Feast; Back to Back;.

This post is part of a series on the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

Shiny New Books and Jam

First of all, I need to tell you about a new book recommendation site: Shiny New Books. It’s the brainchild of four UK book bloggers (Annabel, Victoria, Simon, and Harriet), and features original and reprint reviews by contributors from all corners of the blogosphere. I’m in the first issue, with a revised version of my piece on Ray Robinson’s Jawbone Lake (think of this as the Director’s Cut of the original review). Have a look around the rest of SNB; there’s some great stuff on there, and I hope the site will go from strength to strength.

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In another corner of the web, Fiction Uncovered (now the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize) is gearing up for another year, and I’ve reviewed for them the new novel by a Fiction Uncovered alumnus. Here are my thoughts on Jam by Jake Wallis Simons…

JamJake Wallis Simons appeared on the first Fiction Uncovered list in 2011 for The English German Girl, his novel about a girl sent to England on the Kindertransport in the 1930s. Following a thriller (2012’s The Pure, written as Jake Simons), the author returns with Jam, a novel which follows a varied cast as they experience one of modern life’s nuisances: being stuck in traffic.

Structurally, Jam resembles a disaster novel, insofar as it moves between the perspectives of multiple characters all affected by the same event – though here the event is not the end of the world, but a traffic jam on the M25; and Wallis Simons is less interested in the jam itself than in how his characters are changed by encountering each other. We begin with Ursula and Max, a couple not quite as firmly in love as they once were, and particularly concerned right now with letting their friends (whose daughter they’re bringing home) know about the delay. With no phone signal, Max heads out to find someone who will let him make a call; he gets talking to Jim, a supermarket delivery driver who makes clear that he can’t give away the stock in his van – though he does have some crisps in the front, if Max wants some. Other characters see what’s going on, and Jim’s van becomes the locus of attention, not all of it welcome.

To an extent, the traffic jam works as a metaphor for the characters’ life situations. Many of them feel stuck in some way – like Shauna, who’s looking for her dream man; or young Shahid, who rues his messed-up trial for Chelsea – and the night’s events enable at least some of them to move on. The way Wallis Simons orchestrates this is perhaps his novel’s key strength: some characters make a central contribution to events, others are peripheral; but all take their place as significant parts of the whole. By the end of Jam, we’ve seen a slice of life: some people win, some lose; one individual may be changed forever, while another just carries on as before. The vehicles start to move again, and those circumstances that brought everyone together become lost in the flow; but Wallis Simons has shown how extraordinary a mundane situation can be to those caught up in it.

(Original review.)

#IFFP2014: the shortlist

After the shadow jury’s shortlist comes the actual one:

  • The Iraqi Christ by Hassan Blasim (tr. Jonathan Wright)
  • Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami (tr. Allison Markin Powell)
  • A Man in Love by Karl Ove Knausgaard (tr. Don Bartlett)
  • A Meal in Winter by Hubert Mingarelli (tr. Sam Taylor)
  • Revenge by Yoko Ogawa (tr. Stephen Snyder)
  • The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke (tr. Jamie Bulloch)

I find this fascinating: any juried shortlist is of course the product of a consensus, but it’s rare that we get to see the consensuses of two different groups of people about the same set of books side by side. What’s so striking to me is that both shortlists have a strong aesthetic coherence, yet are so very different.

Generally, the shadow shortlist leans towards big, authoritative voices; think of Marías’ dense, essayistic style; or Stefánsson’s storm-lashed prose. In contrast, the overriding aesthetic of the official shortlist is quieter (one might say subtler): Ogawa’s menacing sideways view of reality, for example, or Mingarelli’s starkness. (It’s interesting, too, to consider how the two books in common, Knausgaard and Vanderbeke, change when viewed through the different lenses of each list.) We end up with two equally valid, but nicely idiosyncractic, takes on the IFFP longlist.

(If you’re wondering, my own personal shortlist would be somewhere between the two: Kawakami, Makine, Marias, Ogawa, Stefansson, and Vanderbeke. What can I say, I like both aesthetics.)

So, what should win? For me, the three best books on the official shortlist are those by women, and it would come down to Ogawa or Vanderbeke; I think both of those stand a good chance of actually winning. We’ll find out whether I’m right when the IFFP announcement is made on 22 May.

This post is part of a series on the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

#IFFP2014: the shadow jury’s shortlist

The scores are in, the numbers have been crunched, and the shadow IFFP jury has a shortlist. Here it is:

  • The Corpse Washer by Sinan Antoon (tr. the author)
  • A Man in Love by Karl Ove Knausgaard (tr. Don Bartlett)
  • Brief Loves that Live Forever by Andreï Makine (tr. Geoffrey Strachan)
  • The Infatuations by Javier Marías (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)
  • The Sorrow of Angels by Jón Kalman Stefánsson (tr. Philip Roughton)
  • The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke (tr. Jamie Bulloch)

I think we have an interesting list there, with some good books (you can see my reviews by clicking on the links above). Now we on the shadow jury will be re-reading the books we’ve chosen, with a view to selecting our shadow ‘winner’. I’d like to thank my fellow shadowers: Stu, Tony Malone, Jacqui, Tony Messenger, and Bellezza; it’s been a fascinating and highly enjoyable journey, and I look forward to the next stage.

There’s just one more thing: the actual IFFP shortlist, which will be announced tomorrow. Check back here then to see how close (or not!) it is to ours.

This post is part of a series on the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

Reviews elsewhere: Dave Hutchinson and Jeremy P. Bushnell

Europe in Autumn

Today I’m rounding up a couple of recent reviews that I’ve had published on other sites. First, I am back at Strange Horizons with a look at Dave Hutchinson‘s new novel, Europe in Autumn  (published by Solaris). This is a tale of espionage set in a future Europe which has fractured into myriad small polities – but there’s a quietness to the whole book that I find very interesting. Europe in Autumn has an engagement with form and tone that I’d love to see more often in contemporary genre science fiction. You can read my full review of the novel here.

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I also have a new review up at We Love This Book, of Jeremy P. Bushnell‘s debut novel, The Weirdness (published by Melville House). Here it is:

WeirdnessJeremy Bushnell’s first novel is the tale of a man finding his way in a world that turns out to be stranger than he ever imagined.

Billy Ridgeway is a thirty-year-old aspiring writer who wonders at the weirdness of everyday life: isn’t it just odd that you can walk into a bodega in New York and buy bananas? And why exactly did people start keeping animals as pets? One day, the Devil visits Billy’s apartment and offers him a deal: stop a warlock who’s trying to unlock the secrets of a magical artefact that could destroy the world, and Lucifer will ensure that Billy’s book is published (short stories are such a hard sell, after all). Billy doesn’t quite agree at first, but the Devil has ways of persuading him; and so begins Billy’s journey of adventure and discovery.

Perhaps the greatest strength of The Weirdness is its sheer exuberance (or cheek), as Bushnell gleefully piles absurdity on top of outlandishness. Barely any part of Billy’s life remains ordinary, so it’s not so much a case of suspending your disbelief as just abandoning it and going with the flow. Yet there’s a certain distancing effect at play, as though all the magic is just a sideshow; at the heart of The Weirdness is the story of Billy finding out what really matters in life – and what matters is much more down to earth. For all that Bushnell’s novel is a fantastical romp, it doesn’t lose sight of the human dimension.

(The original review is here.)

Desmond Elliott Prize 2014: the longlist

de2014On the shadow IFFP jury, we’re just finalising our shortlist; as the first stage of that shadowing process comes to an end, I’m about to embark on another one. This time it’s for the Desmond Elliott Prize, which is awarded each year to a UK-published debut novel, written in English by an author who lives in the UK or Ireland (previous winners include Grace McCleen’s The Land of Decoration and Ali Shaw’s The Girl with Glass Feet).

The judgeds for this year’s prize are the novelist Chris Cleave, bookseller Patrick Neale, and journalist Isabel Berick. Dan Lipscombe of the blog Utter Biblio has also put together a shadow jury to read and rate the longlist. As well as me, the shadow jury includes Jackie Bailey of Farm Lane Books; Heather Lindskold of Between the Covers; reader and reviewer Sarah Noakes; and journalist Kaite Welsh.

The 2014 Desmond Elliott longlist was announced shortly after midnight this morning; here it is:

  • Robert Allison, The Letter Bearer (Granta)
  • Sam Byers, Idiopathy (Fourth Estate)
  • Kate Clanchy, Meeting the English (Picador)
  • Nathan Filer, The Shock of the Fall (HarperCollins)
  • Katharine Grant, Sedition (Virago)
  • Jason Hewitt, The Dynamite Room (Simon & Schuster)
  • Eimear McBride, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing (Galley Beggar Press)
  • Donal Ryan, The Spinning Heart (Doubleday Ireland)
  • Sathnam Sanghera, Marriage Material (William Heinemann)
  • D.W. Wilson, Ballistics (Bloomsbury)

I haven’t read any of these, so any first thoughts will be tentative, but… It seems a good mixture of talked-about titles and more obscure ones. I guess the biggest names on the list are Nathan Filer and Eimear McBride, who won the Costa and Goldsmiths Prize (two rather different awards, I’d observe) respectively for their books.

Looking at the list from a structural point of view, it would have been nice to see more books by women and writers of colour, and more small-press titles. Nevertheless, there are some titles on there that I’m keen to read: besides the Filer and McBride, I’ve heard a lot of good things about the Byers and Sanghera; I’ve read a bit of the Clancy and really liked it; and I enjoyed Wilson’s BBC National Short Story Award winner a few years ago.

I won’t commit to reviewing all the books; but I will be reading them all, and talking about as many as I can. You’ll be able to follow the shadow jury’s thoughts on each title on this page of Dan’s blog.

Reading the Clarke Award: 2014

Shadowing the IFFP has meant I haven’t started on the Clarke shortlist yet. But now’s the time, so here is this year’s list:

God’s War by Kameron Hurley (Del Rey)
Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (Orbit)
The Disestablishment of Paradise by Phillip Mann (Gollancz)
Nexus by Ramez Naam (Angry Robot)
The Adjacent by Christopher Priest (Gollancz)
The Machine by James Smythe (Blue Door)

The only one of those I’ve read so far is The Adjacent, and I’ve linked to my review above. My IFFP experience has shown me that I should have time to read all these books, but not necessarily to blog them all; so I’m just going to review the books that I really want to. But, whatever happens, I’ll still read the whole shortlist and write an overview post before the winner is announced in May.