Reading round-up: mid May

Time for another look at some of the books I’ve been reading recently…

Andy MillerAndy Miller, The Year of Reading Dangerously (2014)

With all the business of work and family, Andy Miller had read only one book for pleasure (The Da Vinci Code) in three years; then he found a second-hand copy of The Master and Margarita, and started reading:

…borne aloft on Bulgakov’s impassioned words, I felt the dizzying force of books again, lifting me off the 6.44, out of myself, away from Mrs Atrixo [a fellow-commuter of Miller’s who would manicure herself on the train] and her hands. How had I lived without this? (pp. 30-1)

Spurred on by that feeling, Miller made a list of fifty books he’d always meant to read (and that he’d told people he had read, when he hadn’t), and challenged himself to read them; The Year of Reading Dangerously is his account of that time. Some of the books he likes, some he doesn’t; but Miller is always entertaining when he writes about them, and there’s always a keen sense of how personal this reading is to him.

Reading this book reminded me of Eleanor Catton’s idea of literature as encounter, because that’s very much what Miller is describing here (indeed, he and Catton make some of the same points). This volume isn’t a list of ‘fifty books you must read’; it’s the story of one person rediscovering what he loves about books, and finding a place for them in his life. It’s an inspiring piece of work.

The Year of Reading Dangerously is published in the UK by Fourth Estate, and will be published in the US by Harper Perennial on 9 December.

Oscar Coop-Phane, Zenith Hotel (2012)
Translated from the French by Ros Schwartz (2014)

Now this is an example of how important social media can be for translated books and small publishers: Zenith Hotel (published by Arcadia Books) comes covered in quotes from bloggers, bookshops and other people on Twitter (it even bears the #translationthurs hashtag created by Stu from Winstonsdad’s Blog). And if all that praise wasn’t enough to raise a sense of expectation, there’s also the fact that Oscar Coop-Phane was only 24 when he won the French Prix de Flore for this, his first novel.

What we have in Zenith Hotel is a short (not even 100 pages) portrait of a day in the life of a prostitute named Nanou, and her clients. With great economy, Coop-Phane depicts a succession of men, each with their own individual situations and concerns; but makes clear that, when they go to their appointment at the Zenith Hotel, each man is no more (or less) significant than the rest. Tying the book together is the world-weary voice of Nanou, who refuses to tell us much about herself: the most important thing is what’s happening now, and what she needs to do to keep going. Ros Schwartz’s translation creates fine distinctions between these characters whom we glimpse briefly but clearly, underlining the subtlety of Coop-Phane’s work.

Dave Eggers

Dave Eggers, A Hologram for the King (2012)

This was a choice for my reading group, one I was looking forward to as my first experience of reading Dave Eggers. I don’t know quite what I was expecting – probably the kind borderline fabulism that (rightly or wrongly) I tend to associate with McSweeney’s – but it wasn’t what I got. A Hologram for the King is the story of Alan Clay, a middle-aged consultant who has travelled to Saudi Arabia in the hope of making the business deal that will turn his work and life around – if only the King would turn up so Alan can make his presentation.

I gather that this book is written in a plainer style than is usual for Eggers (the literary equivalent of an acoustic set, perhaps); I think the sparseness does have its moments, but not as many as I’d hope for. I appreciate the parallel Eggers creates between the difficulties of Alan’s personal life and the USA’s economic situation, but… A Hologram for the King just never really came to life for me. Still, I would like to try reading Eggers again one day; hopefully this title was just a blip.

A Hologram for the King is published in the UK by Penguin.

Lois Lowry, The Giver (1993)

My reading group also recently started a science fiction offshoot, for which this was the first choice. I hadn’t come across book or author previously, though it’s a YA title that I would have been roughly the right age for at the time of publication, and it’s the sort of book I would have read. I think the teenage me would have liked The Giver very much; but the adult me still enjoyed it.

Lois Lowry starts by briskly outlining some of the contours of her fictional world. This is an enclosed community where everything is highly structured, even growing up: every year, there’s a ceremony at which children are given the appurtenances of the next phase of their lives; until they reach Twelve, when age no longer matters and they begin the ‘assignment’ which will occupy them for the rest of their lives. Relations between children and adults in the same family unit may seem oddly distant, and there are clear hints that some catastrophe happened in the past; but this society appears to work well enough. Our protagonist is Jonas, who at Twelve is sent to The Giver, an old man who will pass on the community’s memories – suffice to say, there’s a reason most people don’t remember them.

I liked The Giver for its crispness of telling, and its thoughtfulness on issues of individuality and conformity. There’s also a wonderful shift of perception halfway through which I was nowhere near predicting. I think the book is let down slightly by its ending, which is a little too abrupt – not so bad in the context of the four-book series which The Giver begins, but it leaves this volume feeling unbalanced on its own terms. My teenage self would have wanted to read on.

The Giver is published in the UK by HarperCollins Children’s Books.

Anna Jaquiery, The Lying-Down Room (2014)

This is the first in a new series of crime novels set in Paris, written by French-born and Australia-resident Anna Jaquiery. Commandant Serge Morel investigates the grisly murder of an elderly woman, a case which will lead him into the past of Soviet Russia – all while his father is slowly succumbing to dementia, and there’s turbulence in his personal life. Jaquiery balances the different elements of her novel well, and the historical thread adds an interesting dimension. All in all, the Morel series is off to a good start with The Lying-Down Room.

The Lying-Down Room is published in the UK by Mantle.

Sworn Virgin and Bonita Avenue

Elvira Dones, Sworn Virgin (2007)
Translated from the Italian by Clarissa Botsford (2014)

edsvIn 2001, Hana Doda flies from Albania to the US, where she has been invited to live with her cousin’s family – but her neighbouring passenger calls her ‘Mr’, and Hana is travelling as Mark Doda. Hana is a ‘sworn virgin’: a series of events in 1986, including her dying uncle’s demand that she abandon her studies in the city to marry a village boy, led her to follow an ancient custom which allowed her to live as and have the status of a man, on condition of lifelong celibacy. Now, in America, Hana has the opportunity to leave Mark Doda behind – if she can learn how.

Elvira Dones is an Albanian writer and film-maker who now lives in the US and writes in Italian; she has previously made a documentary about sworn virgins, but this novel is very much a study of Hana’s character specifically. Dones makes the complexity of Hana’s situation clear: it’s not just that Hana doesn’t want to lose her independence by marrying; it’s also that she loves her uncle deeply, and doesn’t want something to happen which would put that love at risk.

Hana’s gender identity also remains complex for her. Clarissa Botsford’s translation shifts between ‘she’ and ‘he’ at times, emphasising that Hana cannot settle into one persona. Though it seems clear enough that Hana was uneasy in the role of Mark (‘that man was only a carapace,’ p. 178), she also finds it difficult to establish a new self-identity as a woman. And she has to adjust to life in a new country: the life of her cousin’s daughter Jonida may be as remote from Hana as Hana’s life studying in the city was from her uncle’s in the village.

So, Sworn Virgin digs deeply into its protagonist’s psychology, and delineates the contours of her world in some detail. Strikingly, though, there are some key aspects of Hana’s life that we never see; for example, she kept a diary of her years living alone as Mark – but we don’t get to read any of it. Even after all that we’ve seen, the novel seems to say, the true heart of a person must remain private.

Sworn Virgin will be published by And Other Stories on 13 May.

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Peter Buwalda, Bonita Avenue (2010)
Translated from the Dutch by Jonathan Reeder (2014)

pbbaFrom the outside, Peter Buwalda’s Bonita Avenue may appear to be a fairly straightforward family saga: a great slab of a book (538 large-format pages), which begins with a young man meeting his girlfriend’s parents for the first time. And the young news photographer, Aaron Bever, is as intimidated by the celebrated mathematician, Siem Sigerius, as you might anticipate. But Aaron swiftly notices the cauliflower ears which are a mark of Sigerius’ past commitment to judo; this is the first of many details that set the book off kilter. Then this meeting becomes a memory, occasioned by the now-single Aaron seeing his ex Joni’s barely-recognisable mother on a train some years later – and that indicates something of how Bonita Avenue will be told: in a complicated knot of perspective and memory that mirrors the knots whose mathematics Sigerius studied.

So Bonita Avenue isn’t quite what it appears to be at first; which is appropriate for a novel whose characters pretty much all have their secrets. We discover, for example, that Sigerius is really Joni’s stepfather, and has a biological son who’s in prison; and that Joni and Aarojn were not quite as squeaky-clean as Sigerius liked to think. These (and more) revelations are handled very well indeed, as Buwalda piles layer upon layer of story, constantly reconfiguring what we thought we knew. Jonathan Reeder’s translation is also key to this, as it dances back and forth between past and present tense, first- and third-person narration, without missing a step.

Perspective in Buwalda’s novel is constantly being destabilised: we read from the viewpoints of Aaron, Sigerius, and Joni; but we know something about each of them that causes us – for at least part of the book – to question the truth of what we’re reading. Bonita Avenue twists and turns and shifts to the very end; it’s such an intriguing delight.

Bonita Avenue is published by Pushkin Press.

Clarke Award 2014: in review

This year, the Arthur C. Clarke Award received a record 121 submissions, which set the stage for an exciting shortlist and debate. However, my initial feeling about the actual shortlist was that it felt a bit… well, unadventurous; it wasn’t going to stretch anyone’s idea of science fiction (something which the Clarke often does, and which I value it for), didn’t seem to have benefitted from the uniquely broad view of the field that the Clarke enjoys. Of course there’s no reason in principle that a shortlist focused on core genre can’t be a good shortlist; now I’ve read the books, however, I can’t help feeling that the titles on the periphery of the shortlist should be at its centre, and the titles at the centre of the shortlist shouldn’t be there at all.

DisestablishmentI’ve been going back and forth, trying to decide which one of two shortlisted books I’d jettison first; in the end, there’s so little to choose between them that I may as well call it a tie for last place. Listing the two in alphabetical order means I start with The Disestablishment of Paradise by Phillip Mann. This is the story of a scientist taking a final sojourn on the planet of Paradise as its human colony is dismantled, and uncovering the secrets of its strange ecology. Mann’s novel feels curiously old-fashioned to me, and is scuppered by its terrible treatment of gender (‘What fools we women are sometimes!’ thinks the protagonist at one point; there are many more examples). This goes right down into the heart of the text, and overshadows what interest there may be in its ecological themes.

Nexus

Also bringing up the rear of the shortlist for me is Ramez Naam‘s Nexus, named for an experimental drug which links human minds. Like Mann’s book, Nexus gives its female characters a poor deal, mostly sidelining them or otherwise using them as adjuncts to its male protagonist. The novel also has its weaknesses structurally: though there are moments when Nexus reflects on the implications of its titular drugs, these are largely drowned out by a humdrum thriller plot that doesn’t do the book’s ideas justice.

AncillaryAnn Leckie‘s Ancillary Justice - a thundering space opera with an AI-protagonist whose consciousness once spanned a gestalt of spacecraft and human auxilliaries, and is now confined to a single human body - has been a very popular book. I’ve seen effusive praise for it, and also some more lukewarm reactions; I’m in the latter camp. Leckie sets out some interesting territory to explore, such as issues of colonialism and gender (the protagonist defaults to using the pronoun ‘she’ for all characters, which gives the novel a distinctive texture); but, again, it feels to me as though the adventure plot is holding everything back.

Adjacent

Now to the second – and, to my mind, more successful - half of the shortlist. The Adjacent is pretty much a distillation of Christopher Priest’s individual creative vision, so what you think of it will largely depend on whether you like Priest’s work in general. I do, and I like The Adjacent: yes, there are issues with the book (particularly around its treatment of gender and the depiction of a British Islamic republic); but it also contains what I found to be the single most affecting sequence in the entire Clarke shortlist (at heart, The Adjacent is a love story), and its portrayal of bleeding realities is bracing stuff for the imagination. I don’t think that The Adjacent quite reaches the heights of Priest’s previous Clarke-winning The Separation, but it’s a considerable work all the same. I just think there are two other novels on the shortlist which are even more fully realised than this.

God's WarAction-adventure sf tends to be the poor relation when it comes to the Clarke, so it’s nice to find an example on the shortlist that feels as though it can hold its own. God’s War by Kameron Hurley comes tearing off the page with its protagonist, a no-nonsense female bounty-hunter, and its vividly depicted background of a centuries-long war on a planet with insectile technology. Issues of faith,  gender, and the body combine in a novel whose adventure aspects complement its ideas, giving them room to breathe and flourish.

Machine small

In some ways, James Smythe‘s The Machine is a very different book from God’s War, its almost claustrophobic calmness and intimate canvas worlds away from Hurley’s widescreen action. But I do think the two novels share an intensity of focus and a facility for dramatising their concerns. If I prefer The Machine over God’s War, it is really only because my personal taste runs more towards the quieter sort of novel than to action-adventure; I couldn’t place one novel ahead of the other in terms of how well each embodies and achieves its own project. That’s why I would be most happy to see either Smythe or Hurley take the Clarke when it is announced next Thursday.

“We are all the things we’ll ever be”

Eimear McBride, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (2013)

Girl is a Half Formed ThingThis is the latest example of a small press title breaking through: A Girl is a Half-formed Thing was published last year by Norwich’s Galley Beggar Press; it has since won the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize (awarded to “fiction that breaks the mould or opens up new possibilities for the novel form”), been shortlisted for the Baileys Prize and longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize (which is the context in which I’m now reading it). It has also now been published in a new edition by Faber & Faber, which comes with a cover quote from Eleanor Catton. That’s apposite: both Catton and Eimear McBride have debuted with intense portraits of girlhood, and and their work carries the sense of writers seeking to embody their concerns in the form of what they write.

McBride’s novel is written in a choppy, largely fragmented style that, in one interview, she dubbed “stream of pre-consciousness”. Anyone who loved The Rehearsal will recognise the mental adjustment needed to engage with prose like this:

Sons for breaking chairs on the backs of. Daughters to shoo from the bath for a wee. Rich-ish husbands or they got a crack in the jaw. Chaste-ish wives or the boys got more. Goodfornothinglumpofshitgodforgiveyou. Ours got for a wedding a glare though he paid.He, at least, knew how to behave. Though a man like our father could be nothing to him. Not to lick his boots. Not to be his dog. (p. 12)

My first instinct at one time would have been to call this kind of writing ‘difficult’, but in practice it’s not as simple as that. Taking the above passage as an example, there’s a compelling rhythm and cadence to McBride’s prose, and some striking detail of character (the narrator is talking about her grandfather and his children). What A Girl is a Half-formed Thing really demands is a different way of reading: concentration, yes, because what we’re being told is ‘unprocessed’; but it means that we experience the events of the narrator’s life in a similar way to her.

The ultimate effect of McBride’s prose style, I think, is to collapse the narrator’s interior and exterior lives together: so, experience is sensation is emotion is detail is thought. This makes the novel all the more harrowing, because we are that much closer to what the narrator goes through. And A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is uncompromising: while seeing her elder brother struggle with the effects of a brain tumour, its protagonist (McBride’s characters don’t receive names) experiences a strict religious upbringing in rural Ireland, and the unwelcome attentions of her abusive uncle. When the girl leaves home for the city, she finally has the chance to spread her wings – if she can.

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing‘s form underlines how its protagonist experiences what happens to her. The most coherent language within the text is often religious or some other voice of adult authority, thereby suggesting sources of structure and order – but the narrator will find them ultimately lacking. The girl’s relationships with her brother and uncle become ghastly mirror images of each other: she fears for her brother, but his illness creates an unbridgeable gap between them. In contrast, the girl’s uncle comes horrifically close to her – but she experiences both relationships with the same intensity.

After twenty years of life, McBride’s narrator looks around her:

I see the water. Look upon the lake I’ve been in. I’ve been known of. Come to know. Well. Touched and loved and ripped here all by the same hands teeth and claws and waded in. Swim. See my scrawl there. Under my feet. Mud and weeds where I was, my blood split on. Running in running in among the reeds where the ripple fish go. And vomit and some half drunk can, some things, some paper bags some cigarette rolled and stuffed and smoked. Ground to the heel. This home I know. (p. 201)

Just as the text has elided her experiences and emotions, so the girl sees this place as coexisting with what occurred there. For all that has happened to her, this is what she knows; for good or ill, this has been her life.

Going back to Eleanor Catton, I’m reminded of her essay about literature as encounter, the idea that our relationship with a book can be as complex and rich as those we have with people. A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is like that for me: I can’t see it as a book to love – it’s too unforgiving for that – but neither can I see it as anything less than a triumph. McBride’s novel does what it does, remorselessly, completely, powerfully. I can only be glad that it’s with us.

Read my other posts on the 2014 Desmond Elliott Prize here.

Elsewhere

Interview with Eimear McBride at The Honest Ulsterman

Reviews of A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by other members of the shadow DE jury: Utter Biblio; Between the Covers; Sarah Noakes.

James Smythe, The Machine (2013)

The MachineLast year, I watched ‘Be Right Back’, an episode of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror in which a woman has her dead husband’s personality downloaded into a robot body. It was the kind of intimate, human drama that genre science fiction doesn’t seem to do very much these days (on page or screen); too often, I find, interesting ideas will be drowned out by an ill-suited conspiracy/thriller plot.

It was so refreshing, then, to read James Smythe’s The Machine, and find a work of contemporary science fiction that’s happy to be understated (tellingly, the novel is published as mainstream). We begin with Beth McAdams taking receipt of three large packages. The delivery men don’t know what they are (‘exercise equipment,’ Beth tells them, though she knows they won’t believe her); the neighbours gawp as these parcels have to be brought in through Beth’s window because they won’t fit through the door. When the whole contraption is assembled, it fills most of one wall and emits a constant whirring noise; even before Beth begins using it, the Machine has staked a claim on her world.

The Machine was originally invented as a means of treating the effects of harmful memories (such as those of conflict experienced by soldiers like Beth’s partner Vic), but it left those who used it severely brain-damaged, and the original device was banned. Later, it emerged that the Machine might also be able to reinstate the memories it took; Beth has sourced an outlawed model, and plans to use it on Vic.

So there are questions of identity to be explored – who will Vic be if his memories are restored? for example – but what particularly intrigues me about The Machine is how much it focuses on Beth. The first third of the novel consists largely of Beth’s preparations for the summer holidays, when she will be able to put her teaching job aside and concentrate on tending Vic. The second part of The Machine then begins with Beth bringing Vic home from the hospice; his unresponsive body is difficult to get through the door, and she wonders if the neighbours are watching. This is a marvellous touch, because it draws parallels between Vic and the Machine, underlining the similar position that each has come to occupy in Beth’s life. Smythe then depicts the routine that Beth has to establish, looking after Vic in his current state, and playing back his memories through the Machine. The detail is unflinching, emphasising that this is what Beth must do to achieve the end she wants – perhaps the regime that Beth’s caught up in is the real Machine.

Smythe’s evocation of place in The Machine is economical and effective. Beth lives on the Isle of Wight, the crossing to the mainland now made more treacherous by the effects of a warming climate (so Beth is partly dislocated by geography, which mirrors her emotional state). The heat frays tempers has brought about all sorts of little pragmatic social changes; we see these particularly through the tense relations between adults and young people in the novel – and, again, the technique underscores Beth’s feelings, this time her desperation.

I’m tempted to quote from The Machine, because its prose hits the mark so well. But the real effect of Smythe’s writing comes not from its individual pieces, but from the accumulation of the whole – its relentless, plain-speaking precision. Smythe portrays a situation which is as intense for the reader to experience as it would be for Beth, because we move through it in the same way, and at the same pace, as she does. The line ultimately blurs between whether Beth is doing what she does for Vic or for herself ; and maybe it doesn’t matter – maybe it all comes back to the actions, the mechanics.

Elsewhere
James Smythe’s website
Some other reviews of The Machine: Nina Allan; Savidge Reads; Words of Mercury; For Winter Nights.

#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.)

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.)

#IFFP2014 guest post: @JacquiWine on The Dark Road

Today I have a guest post from the one member of the IFFP shadow jury who doesn’t have their own blog, Jacqui Patience (@JacquiWine on Twitter). Various blogs (including Winston’s Dad, Tony’s Reading List, and The Writes of Woman) have been hosting Jacqui’s thoughts on the longlisted titles (see the end of this post for links); and now she’s been kind enough to visit Follow the Thread, with a review of Ma Jian’s The Dark Road. So, without further ado, I’ll hand you over to Jacqui…

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Dark RoadThe Dark Road by Ma Jian 

Translated from the Chinese by Flora Drew

The infant spirit sees Mother sitting on the edge of her bed, her hand clutching her swollen belly, her legs trembling with fear…

Meili rest her hands on her pregnant belly and feels the fetus’s heartbeat thus like a watch beneath a pillow. The heavy banging on the compound gate grows louder, the dim light bulb hanging from the ceiling sways. The family planning officers have come to get me, she says to herself. She raises her feet from the basin of warm water in which they’ve been soaking, hides under her quilt and waits for the gate to be forced open. (pg. 1)

That’s the opening section of Ma Jian’s latest novel The Dark Road. The subject is shocking and deeply disturbing as it tackles issues raised by China’s state-enforced one-child policy. Set in relatively recent times in the provinces along the Yangtze, the novel tells the story of a young woman, Meili, and her family. Meili, born into a simple peasant family, is married to Kongzi, a rather stubborn schoolteacher and direct descendant of Confucius (76th generation Kong). They have a two-year-old daughter, Nannan, but Kongzi is desperate for a son and heir to maintain the family line; daughters serve little purpose in this respect:

My brother has no sons, so it’s my responsibility to continue the family line. Our daughters will join their husbands’ family when they marry, and their names won’t be recorded in the Kong register. So they serve no purpose to us. (pg.34)

Family planning officers are combing the villages, implementing a regime of draconian measures including enforced abortions and sterilisations – any pregnant woman who doesn’t have a birth permit is given an immediate abortion together with a 10,000-yuan fine. It’s an environment where threatening slogans cry out from walls at almost every turn:

SEVER THE FALLOPIAN TUBES OF POVERTY; INSERT THE IUDs OF PROSPERITY (pg.15)

After the first child: an IUD. After the second child: sterilisation. Pregnant with a third or fourth? The fetus will be killed, killed, killed (pg. 32)

ANY PERSON FOUND TO HAVE EVADED MANDATORY STERILISATION WILL BE ARRESTED AND FINED (pg. 86)

The state’s birth control policies dictate that a couple in Kongzi and Meili’s situation can have a second child once their daughter turns five, but Meili falls pregnant too soon, two or three years before her permitted time. While Meili has been able to conceal the early stages of her pregnancy, the couple are forced to go on the run fearing for the safety of their unborn child.

The story then follows the family as they journey down the ‘Dark Road’ of the Yangtze and Gui rivers on a boat, attempting to evade the authorities in the process. They join a world of migrant workers — many of whom are also fleeing from a similar threat — as they head towards Heaven Township. For Meili, this destination represents a glimmer of light on the horizon; it’s the one place where ‘you can live in complete freedom…no one checks how many children you have’. (p 27)

The Dark Road depicts a world where women suffer repeated acts of horrific cruelty.  Scenes of enforced abortion are described in merciless and brutal detail. In the following passage, the police discover a woman heavily pregnant with her third child as she hides in the reeds near a reservoir:

The wife was dragged to the school, where family planning officers strapped her to a wooden desk and injected two shots into her abdomen. The aborted fetus is now lying at Kong Qing’s feet in a plastic basin. It has its father’s flat nose and small eyes. Scraps of amniotic fluid are still stuck to its black hair. (pg 7-8)

It’s unflinching stuff, stark in its portrayal of the sheer savagery of abuse forced upon these families by the authorities.

Once I get going, I rarely abandon a book. But in all honesty, if it weren’t for my involvement in the IFFP shadow group, I would have been quite close to bailing on The Dark Road at the 75-page mark. That’s not to say it’s a bad book; it’s well-written, the main characters and their environment are vividly painted and I admire Jian for the way he’s used fiction to expose these atrocities. But this is a book suffused with tragic encounters and shocking acts of brutality, all of which makes for a very distressing and heart-wrenching read. The only rays of hope here are Meili’s determination and her desire to seek a better life for her family…and that’s what spurred me on to finish reading this one.

While researching and writing The Dark Road, Jian posed as an official reporter to gain access to family planning offices and hospitals where forced abortions and sterilisations are carried out. He also lived as a vagrant to experience life among those on the run from the consequences of China’s one-child policy. Jian has clearly drawn on this experience to great effect in his uncompromising depiction of the horrors that haunt this corner of the world.

Finally, turning to The Dark Road’s chances as a contender for the IFFP, Ma Jian is a well-respected writer and considered one of China’s leading dissident voices. It’s a book that tackles an unpalatable topic and many of its images will linger in the mind long after the last page is turned.  Even though it’s not one of my personal favourites from this year’s longlist, I wouldn’t be surprised if it progresses to the next stage…we shall see when the shortlist appears on 8th April.

The Dark Road is published in the UK by Chatto & Windus.

Source: library copy.

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Read more reviews of The Dark Road by the shadow IFFP jury: Dolce Bellezza; Winston’s Dad; Tony’s Reading List;

Read Jacqui’s other IFFP reviews: Brief Loves that Live Forever; Butterflies in NovemberA Man in Love; A Meal in Winter; RevengeStrange Weather in Tokyo; Ten.

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

#IFFP2014: Ogawa, Knausgaard, Mingarelli

Yoko Ogawa, Revenge (1998)
Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder (2013)

RevengeI’ve read two of Yoko Ogawa’s books previously (see my thoughts on Hotel Iris and The Diving Pool); each time, I have been struck by how she anatomises the dark psyches of her characters. Revenge is a little different: a collection of eleven linked stories, it unsettles more through the overall effect of the tales as a composite.

Revenge begins with ‘Afternoon at the Bakery’, whose narrator goes to buy two strawberry shortcakes; a conversation with someone from the neighbouring shop reveals that the narrator is doing this in memory of her six-year-old son, whom she found dead in a refrigerator. This is how Ogawa’s stories work: mundane details are shown to have dark, sometimes even absurd, underpinnings.

‘Afternoon at the Bakery’ ends with its narrator discovering a young woman crying in the bakery’s kitchen.  This young woman reappears in the second tale’s, ‘Fruit Juice’, when she invites that story’s narrator, a boy from her school, to go with her as moral support to a meal with the father she is about to meet for the first time. Strawberry cake is served is served at this meal; by story’s end, we not only know why the young woman is crying as she sits in her kitchen, we also anticipate with dismay what her reaction to the current customer’s order is likely to be.

As Ogawa’s collection continues, more links emerge between the stories: at first, isolated details reappear; then characters seem to recur (the identities of some remain sketchy, so you can’t be entirely sure whether or not character X mentioned in one story is also character Y from another); one story in Revenge may appear to be fictional in the reality of another; images and events are repeated or echoed in strange new contexts. The relative straightforwardness of Ogawa’s prose (and Stephen Snyder’s effectively matter-of-fact translation) only heightens the sense of being caught up in a world where it’s uncertain which is worse: the thought that all the details of reality won’t cohere, or the thought that they might. Revenge is one of those story collections that works, and is best appreciated, as a complete whole; it’s also one that stays in the mind long after reading.

Karl Ove Knausgaard, A Man in Love: My Struggle, Book 2 (2009)
Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett (2013)

Knausgaard 2Where Volume 1 of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle focused on its author’s adolescence and reaction to his father’s death, Volume 2 chronicles the period when Knausgaard left his first wife and moved to Sweden, where he fell in love with Linda, and examines his life as a husband and father. Reading A Man in Love has been a strange experience because, while the general palette of the first book remains – the dense treatment of everyday minutiae, punctuated by reflections on life and art – some quality that made A Death in the Family feel transcendent to me is missing.

Knausgaard takes up his key concerns from the first volume: that he feels preoccupied by the business of everyday life when what he really wants (needs) to do is write; and that he is more deeply moved by contemplating art and the natural world than by those closest to him. In this volume, he also talks more about how fatherhood affects his sense of masculinity; feeling constrained by Swedish society; and how the heady rush of falling in love with Linda didn’t last.

Don Barlett’s translation is as fine as ever, but A Man in Love doesn’t touch me as deeply as its predecessor did. When I read A Death in the Family, I could feel the clash of Knausgaard’s emotions rising off the page; with this book, that clash is still on the page, but it stays there. To me, A Death in the Family felt like something that Knausgaard needed to write in order to work through that part of his life; A Man in Love is good enough as far as it goes, but doesn’t have that same sense of urgency.

Hubert Mingarelli, A Meal in Winter (2012)
Translated from the French by Sam Taylor (2013)

Meal in WinterHubert Mingarelli is a prolific author in his native France, but A Meal in Winter is the first of his books to appear in English. It’s a novella narrated by one of three German guards who are sent out to retrieve an escaped Jewish prisoner. On their way back to the prison camp, the guards and their captive stop off in an abandoned house, and start to prepare a meal of soup. When a Pole walking past the house also seeks shelter, his raw anti-Semitism leads the guards to question what they’re about to do.

With A Meal in Winter being so short, the stage is set for a tight, intense piece of fiction. In some ways, this is exactly what we get: Mingarelli strips out most of the historical detail, thereby closing the distance between reader and book. The characters’ world is not ‘World War Two’ understood as a period of history; their world is this journey, this landscape, this house, and we are there with them.

It doesn’t seem quite right, though, to say that we come to empathise with the guards as the novella progresses. It’s more that we see the contours of their worldview, and how that is challenged by their experiences; empathy at a further remove, perhaps. But I can’t shake the feeling that the full intensity of this situation doesn’t quite come through the sparseness of Mingarelli’s prose (or Sam Taylor’s translation). For me, A Meal in Winter is almost there… but only almost.

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What of these books’ chances on the IFFP shortlist? Even though the Knausgaard disappointed me, I will be extremely surprised if it doesn’t make the shortlist (though I don’t expect it to be my preferred winner). I would be happy to see Ogawa’s book on the shortlist, and suspect it has a good chance. The Mingarelli, I don’t know: it didn’t really work well enough for me to want to see it shortlisted, but it has been better received in the reviews I’ve seen, so it may just be a book that didn’t click with me.

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