Reading round-up: late July

Notes on some of my recent reading…

BurtonJessie Burton, The Miniaturist (2014)

Amsterdam, 1686: Nella Oortman is aged eighteen and about to begin her new life as wife of the successful merchant Johannes Brandt – but she is met at the house by Brandt’s stand-offish sister, Marin; the merchant himself is nowhere to be seen. There are secrets to be uncovered in the Brandt household, and someone seems to know about them than ought to be possible – the mysterious miniaturist who sends Nella models for the replica house that was Brandt’s wedding gift. The Miniaturist is a pacey historical mystery; but it’s also about what it means to challenge social roles – Nella, Brandt and Marin all step outside the norms that society prescribes for them, and Jessie Burton explores the ramifications of this in an intriguing debut.

Andrew Crumey, Mr Mee (2000) and Mobius Dick (2004)

Andrew Crumey has been on my list of authors to try for quite some time, having head very good things about his work. Now I have tried him – thanks to Dedalus Books and their new editions of two Crumey novels – and my only regret is that I didn’t do it earlier.

I can’t think of a better way to sum up Crumey’s work in a few words than ‘comedy of ideas’, which is how its blurb describes Mr Mee. Crumey presents us with three narrative threads. In the first, Mr Mee – an elderly amateur researcher – writes to an unknown correspondent detailing his attempts to find out more about Jean-Bernard Rosier, an 18th century French thinker who appeared to have some fairly advanced ideas on physics. The second thread takes us to Paris of 1761 and Ferrand and Minard, copyists in possession of Rosier’s writings, who flee the city and end up living next to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The third strand concerns Petrie, a university lecturer on Rousseau who wants to get closer to one of his students. There’s a good deal of humour in this novel – particularly in Mr Mee’s delightful unworldliness, as he tries to navigate the byways of the internet – but also intrigue from seeing how the different plot threads will tie together. And, though Rosier’s rarefied ideas may be at the root, I find it’s the simpler, more personal revelations that really hit home in Mr Mee.

Both of these books remind me of Christopher Priest’s work, particularly in the sense that reality within them is mutable, but this is mediated through textual accounts, with the added layers of uncertainty that they bring. Mobius Dick put me specifically in mind of Priest’s The Affirmation, as both create multiple realities that vie for validity. Crumey switches between the stories of John Ringer, a university lecturer in quantum physics; and Harry Dick, a man who wakes up in hospital having lost his memory. Alongside these are extracts from novels by one Heinrich Behring, often featuring Erwin Schrödinger. There are contradictions between the different narrative tracks, and once again, the intrigue comes from seeing exactly how these will be resolved. Science and art are intertwined in Mobius Dick, with the sense that both are different ways of addressing the idea of ‘reality’. I like that approach, and I’ll be reading more of Crumey in the future.

Ismailov

Hamid Ismailov, The Dead Lake (2011)
Translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield, 2014

This short novel by Usbek writer Hamid Ismailov is the first title in Peirene Press’s ‘coming-of-age’ series. It’s the tale of Yerzhan, a promising young violinist from the Kazakh steppes who has a crush on his neighbour’s daughter, Aisulu. Yerzhan’s life is changed irrevocably when, trying to impress, Aisulu, he dives into a lake which has been poisoned by nuclear testing – and his growth is arrested from thereon.

There’s a fairytale quality to The Dead Lake, as events take an absurd, exaggerated turn; for example, while Yerzhan’s body remains that of a child, Aisulu grows immensely tall. This quality is reflected in the tone of Andrew Bromfield’s translation, which also evokes the vast openness of the landscape in which Ismailov’s story takes place – an openness that contrasts with the way Yerzhan has become trapped. The Dead Lake as a whole is a work of contrast, one that might appear whimsical at times, but never lets you forget the seriousness lying underneath.

Linda Mannheim, Above Sugar Hill (2014)

This collection is from Influx Press, a publisher of ‘site-specific’ fiction. The stories in Above Sugar Hill are all set in Washington Heights, the area of New York City where Linda Mannheim grew up. It’s not a place I know myself, but Mannheim’s characters, and the worlds they inhabit, come vividly off the page. A couple of examples: ‘Once’ tells of a troubled girl’s on-off friendship with a woman who had a difficult past of her own; the background is one of idealism and protest fading away, just as some of the local buildings are decaying. In ‘Tenor’, through a series of interviews, we hear of Ira Gittman, a housing activist who disappeared in tragic circumstances; it is implied that Gittman’s story could be the story of many others – and the whole collection implies that there are many more stories like these out there, waiting to be told.

The Booker’s (baker’s) dozen 2014

It doesn’t seem a year since I was pleasantly surprised to see the second novel by one of my favourite new authors make the Man Booker Prize longlist. I didn’t dare think at the time that she would go on to win, but she did – so, as far as I’m concerned, this year’s Booker jury have a very tough act to follow.

Now we have a first glimpse of where the 2014 Man Booker Prize may go, with the publication of the longlist:

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, Joshua Ferris (Viking)
The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan (Chatto & Windus)
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler (Serpent’s Tail)
The Blazing World, Siri Hustvedt (Sceptre)
J, Howard Jacobson (Jonathan Cape)
The Wake, Paul Kingsnorth (Unbound)
The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell (Sceptre)
The Lives of Others, Neel Mukherjee (Chatto & Windus)
Us, David Nicholls (Hodder & Stoughton)
The Dog, Joseph O’Neill (Fourth Estate)
Orfeo, Richard Powers (Atlantic Books)
How to be Both, Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton)
History of the Rain, Niall Williams (Bloomsbury)

Now, it’s true that I’m not as invested in a single novel this year as I was with The Luminaries (I hadn’t read The Luminaries at this point last year, but I was anticipating it like nothing else), so I’m approaching this list in a more detached frame of mind. Still, though, I wish I could be more excited by this selection. The books that intrigue me most are the Kingsnorth (which is set shortly after the Battle of Hastings and written in a version of Old English) and the Smith (a ‘literary fresco’ – narrative layered on narrative?). The Mitchell could be interesting; the Powers and Fowler, maybe; the rest, I’m not really fussed about exploring.

Overall, at first blush, this feels like a longlist that’s playing it safe – a lot of major names, not a lot that sounds particularly unusual. I also find it disappointing that, after the Prize has been opened up to Anglophone writers of any nationality, we’ve ended up with a longlist that’s not very structurally diverse at all.

So I won’t be following the Booker too closely this year. There’s potential for an interesting shortlist, and I hope we get one – but I don’t see it reaching the heights of last year’s Prize.

Fiction Uncovered reviews: Paul Wilson and Lesley Glaister

Rounding up my latest two reviews for Fiction Uncovered, which include one of this year’s winners…

Paul Wilson, Mouse and the Cossacks (2013)

MouseEleven-year-old Mouse de Bruin (she doesn’t like her given name) has lost the ability to talk. Not that this prevents her from communicating, as shown by her penchant for writing indignant letters while posing as her mother, or sending text messages to random numbers. At the start of Paul Wilson’s seventh novel, Mouse and her mother move into a farmhouse near Manchester; we soon learn that there’s a background of tragedy and break-up, but Mouse also has a story to piece together herself. She discovers a cache of letters belonging to William Crosby, the previous tenant, and becomes fascinated by his life. While serving as a captain in Italy during the Second World War, he had to deal with a group of Cossack refugees – and he fell in love with their interpreter.

As a narrator, Mouse is fascinating: sometimes likeably precocious, sometimes unpleasantly manipulative. She refuses to tell her old friend Lucas where she now lives, constructing an elaborate fantasy of moving between different hotels in London, rather than admitting that she’s actually in the same city as he. There’s a sense that this is fundamentally about control: Mouse has seen so much upheaval that she wants some form of stability in her world; insisting that people communicate with her on her own terms gives her that.

Then, into her life comes William Crosby, revealed to be as multi-faceted a personality as Mouse is herself. Wilson establishes some interesting parallels and contrasts between the two characters: both of their speaking voices have been silenced, hers by selective mutism, his by the passage of time. Both have made efforts to communicate with others in writing, but their true selves remain hidden – Mouse seems not to want to admit her true feelings, and William never sent the letters that would reveal his.

In Mouse and the Cossacks, Paul Wilson has created an engaging study of two characters whose complexities can only be glimpsed by the people around them, a study that reflects on how communication can change a life.

Lesley Glaister, Little Egypt (2014)

EgyptLesley Glaister’s fourteenth novel is a gothic tale of secrets and damaged families. In the 1920s, twins Isis and Osiris live in Little Egypt, the country house of their Egyptologist parents, Evelyn and Arthur. It’s just the siblings, the staff, the cats, and the occasional visit from Uncle Victor – until Evelyn and Arthur send word from Egypt that they’re getting close to a major discovery, and they want the twins to see. None of the characters will come through the ensuing events unscathed.

In the present day, both siblings still live in Little Egypt, although they haven’t seen each other for years. Itself now a relic of a bygone age, the house sits on a little island created by railways and roads; a developer wants to buy the land for a shopping mall, but Isis has held out so far. Over the course of the book, she becomes friends with Spike, a young American anarchist, and invites him to visit Little Egypt – but change may be coming along with him.

Much of the pleasure of reading Little Egypt comes from the gradual revelation of secrets, which Glaister handles very well indeed. Both Isis and Osiris have things to hide, secrets that come to light at different points throughout the novel, which means you can never be quite sure where it will turn next; the present-day storyline doesn’t give away where the historical one is heading, either.

Glaister also establishes some powerful parallels between the novel’s two timeframes. We see how Arthur’s and Evelyn’s obsession with Egypt ultimately created a prison for them, but also how it came to have chilling consequences for the young Isis and Osiris. In the fullness of time, the history of Little Egypt exerted its own force… But I won’t continue with that train of thought. Suffice it to say that Little Egypt is a dark, poignant novel with a pitch-perfect ending.

Giveaway winner and a new Juli Zeh review

A short post to round up a couple of recent bits and pieces. First of all, congratulations to Gareth Beniston who won my Yoko Ogawa giveaway.

DecompressionSecond, there’s a new issue of Shiny New Books online, in which I have a couple of reviews. Brand new is a review of Juli Zeh’s intriguing Decompression (translated from the German by John Cullen), which centres on a love triangle involving a diving instructor and his latest client, and becomes a game of control where you can’t quite be sure who to believe. Elsewhere in the issue, you’ll also find an expanded version of my original blog post on All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld, which recently picked up three awards within the space of eight days, and with very good reason.

The 2014 Desmond Elliott winner

As announced on Thursday night, the winner of this year’s Desmond Elliott Prize is… A Girl is a Half-formed Thing.

McBride

I’m very pleased with that result – and not only because Eimear McBride’s book was my favourite on the longlist. The continued success of A Girl is a Half-formed Thing – like that of The Luminaries before it – gives me hope that there’s a real place out there for fiction that challenges the norm and follows its own path. And that, in turn, makes me want to find and read more of such fiction, and tell people about what I’ve enjoyed. If there’s one thing I can do with this blog, I’d want that to be it.

The shadow Desmond Elliott winner

The result of the Desmond Elliott Prize will be announced imminently, so it’s time to reveal the shadow jury’s selection. Our shadow shortlist comprised Robert Allison’s The Letter Bearer, Nathan Filer’s The Shock of the Fall, and Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. And after discussing it and reaching a consensus, we came up with our shadow winner… The Shock of the Fall.

Filer

Interestingly (and like the shadow IFFP jury) our winner isn’t even on the official shortlist – but without doubt, it’s a book worth reading, and Filer’s a name to follow in the future.

So, to the actual Desmond Elliott Prize – will it go to Robert Allison, Eimear McBride, or D.W. Wilson? We’ll find out on Thursday night. For now, I’d like to thank my fellow shadow jurors Dan, Heather, Kaite, Jackie, and Sarah – it’s been great fun.

Book giveaway: Win a set of Yoko Ogawa paperbacks

RevengeYoko Ogawa’s Revenge was one of my favourite books from this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. The UK paperback edition of Revenge is out on Thursday 3 July, when Vintage Books will also be reissuing Ogawa’s backlist – Hotel Iris, The Diving Pool, and The Housekeeper and the Professor (all books translated by Stephen Snyder). To mark the occasion, and courtesy of Vintage, I have a set of the four paperbacks to give away to one lucky reader of this blog.

To enter, leave a comment on this post at any time up to 23.59 UK time on Sunday 6 July. Only one entry per person. Sorry, but the giveaway is open to UK residents only.

After the competition has closed, I will select a winner with a random number generator, and contact them for their postal address.

You can also read my blog reviews of Hotel Iris, The Diving Pool, and Revenge.