We Love This Book reviews: Susan Barker and Julia Crouch

A couple of my recent reviews from We Love This Book:

Susan Barker, The Incarnations (2014)

BarkerSomeone is watching Wang Jun, leaving letters in his taxi, claiming to be his soulmate. This person insists that they and Wang have known each other for a thousand years, and has stories to tell of their various incarnations throughout Chinese history, from the Tang Dynasty to Mao’s regime. In these stories, Wang and his correspondent variously love and hate each other, live together or die at the other’s hand. Back in 21st Century Beijing, Wang has his suspicions about who is writing these letters, though confirming them might drive his family apart.

True to its title, the idea of “incarnations” runs all the way through Susan Barker’s third novel. It’s not just the various historical incarnations of Wang and his “soulmate” – there’s also the sense that a place can go through different incarnations (Wang has seen the city of Beijing change as the 2008 Olympics approach), and that the stages of a person’s life can function in the same way. Wang has experienced several upheavals in his life, and there are family secrets to be uncovered as well – and the gaps between these can seem as great as those between different eras of history.

Barker’s novel balances past and present, the grand sweep of history and the intensely personal, all wrapped up in brisk and densely evocative prose. You can never quite be sure where Wang’s story is going to turn next – not even after a thousand years.

(Original review.)

Julia Crouch, The Long Fall (2014)

CrouchIn 1980, Emma James is eighteen, travelling in Greece before going to university, when an event occurs that will permanently alter the course of her life. In the present day she is Kate Barratt, charity figurehead and wife of a wealthy hedge-fund manager, with the past safely behind her. At least, that’s what Kate thinks: but she discovers that a figure from the old days is back, and has the seemingly limitless capability to threaten her and those she holds dear.

There’s an interesting theme of identity running through The Long Fall: at a time of life when people are finding out who they are, Emma has to change herself, radically and unexpectedly. As Kate, she appears to have built up a happy life (albeit one marked by personal tragedy); other characters have not been so lucky. Kate finds herself questioning how far she has put up a façade, in her marriage and as the face of her charity.

Then there is the plot, which Julia Crouch controls very well: first Emma’s travel diary, leading up to the tragedy that we glimpse in the opening pages, then Kate’s present-day nightmare. The pages turn, the revelations come along at a brisk pace, the sense of dread grows as Kate’s world is systematically undermined. All leads up to a conclusion that brings the narrative satisfyingly full-circle.

(Original review.)

“In these pages, the Professor had walked beyond beaten paths, looking for truth in a place no one knows”

Yoko Ogawa, The Housekeeper and the Professor (2003)
Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder (2008)

HPIt occurred to me when I was compiling my review list in preparation for Women in Translation Month that I’d read all bar one of Yoko Ogawa’s books which were available to me in English translation – so now seemed as good a time as any to complete the set. It’s a paradoxical feeling: on the one hand, I’ve now read everything of Ogawa’s that I can, so I must have some kind of handle on her work; on the other, it’s only four volumes out of a much larger bibliography, so how can I be sure?

This is particularly relevant in the case of The Housekeeper and the Professor, because it’s a little different from Ogawa’s other books that I’ve read – the intense focus on a distinctive relationship is still there, but it’s noticeably less dark. There’s still a sting to it, but the overriding tone is wistful. I believe from what I’ve heard that it’s not typical of Ogawa’s work as a whole, but I say that with a degree of uncertainty.

Anyway, our narrator is a housekeeper who goes to work in 1992 for a retired professor of mathematics (neither character is named). After being injured in a car accident, the Professor remembers nothing from before 1975, and his short-term memory lasts only eighty minutes – so, each time the Housekeeper arrives, it is their first meeting as far as he’s concerned. But the pair bond (albeit one-sidedly) over maths: it is the Professor’s world, literally and figuratively; and the Housekeeper becomes able to understand more because the Professor will happily explain concepts to her repeatedly (though for him, of course, it’s always the first time he’s done so).

Underpinning the novel is the idea of mathematics as a hidden, eternal map of the universe; Stephen Snyder’s translation really captures the joy of this view of maths. For example, here the Housekeeper imagines the universe as a vast, intricate pattern of lace:

The lace stretches out infinitely in every direction, billowing gently in the cosmic breeze. You want desperately to touch it, hold it up to the light, rub it against your cheek. And all we ask is to be able to re-create the pattern, weave it again with numbers, somehow, in our own language; to make even the tiniest fragment our own, to bring it back to earth. (p. 124)

So the Professor’s worldview comes to influence the Housekeeper’s: she is inspired to do her own investigations into prime numbers, and even refers to her son solely by the Professor’s nickname for him, Root (derived from the flat top of the boy’s head, which reminds the Professor of the square root symbol).

It’s a sign of how far the Professor’s outlook comes to suffuse Ogawa’s novel that the little numerical questions he asks the Housekeeper as a greeting – ‘What’s your shoe size?’, for example – seem jarring when he blurts them out in another context (namely, in the barber’s chair). At that sort of moment, we see the Professor’s outbursts as the rest of the world sees them: the ravings of a confused old man; but when he’s with the Housekeeper, we understand that they are a part of his mental framework.

Stability is a key theme running through The Housekeeper and the Professor: mathematics as an eternal truth against the vagaries of life; maths again as the Professor’s store of knowledge against his fleeting memory; this particular job, these circumstances, as something the Housekeeper wishes to remain in. The melancholy truth, of course, is that the characters’ situation cannot last forever; but hope remains, because the numbers will go on.

Elsewhere
My other blog posts on Yoko Ogawa.
An essay on Ogawa’s work in the LA Review of Books, by Robert Anthony Siegel.

“The letters, unbeknownst to their authors, had absorbed their entire surroundings”

Ioanna Bourazopoulou, What Lot’s Wife Saw (2007)
Translated from the Greek by Yannis Panas, 2013

WLWSWhat Lot’s Wife Saw is a novel that shifts and evolves as you read it, until you can’t quite be sure what you thought you were looking at in the first place. The story goes that, at some point in the future, a great flood, dubbed the Overflow, has drowned much of the land; the world has become addicted to a violet salt mined in the Colony, a home for outcasts which is located by the Dead Sea and owned by the shadowy Consortium of Seventy-Five – and whose governor has mysteriously died.

In Paris, Phileas Book is inventor of the Epistleword, a kind of three-dimensional crossword puzzle derived from finding connections between newspaper readers’ letters. Book is hired by the Consortium to work out the truth of Governor Bera’s death, from the written testimonies of six members of his inner circle. All former criminals, the six are hoping that the past will stay in the past, and nurturing suspicions towards each other.

As well as being a novelist (this is her fifth, though the first to be translated into English), Ioanna Bourazopoulou is a playwright, and it seems to me that What Lot’s Wife Saw has quite a theatrical quality, particularly in its focus on a small group of characters in an enclosed environment (the Governor’s Palace, at least to begin with); and its background, which feels self-consciously stylised. I could vividly imagine some of the scenes acted out as though on stage, such as the six hapless letter-writers frantically trying to decide what to with the Governor’s body that they’ve unexpectedly discovered.

But, though episodes like this are amusing, there is a serious heart to What Lot’s Wife Saw. At first, the idea of the Epistleword seems largely a flourish, an extravagant way to give Phileas Book the investigatory skills for the task at hand. But then we learn what inspired the puzzle: Book was separated from his family by the Overflow; he read and re-read the letters he had from them, becoming deeply aware of the personality traces left embedded in the writing. He got a job at The Times in London, where he’d pore over the letters from missing persons, searching for those tell-tale traces. Book started to notice certain resonances and patterns among sets of letters; Yannis Panas’s translation captures the rush of insight:

[The letters] are transformed, they integrate and each letter now becomes vitally dependant on the others, one breathes with the lungs of the others and speaks with the other’s voice…the letters are by nature incomplete, like most human expressions, and they struggle for completion. They merge of their own accord, like atoms as dictated by their valences… (p.200)

Having seen these patterns in the letters, Book made a puzzle in the hope that the letter-writers might solve it and recognise themselves. So the Epistleword was born in dire circumstances, and in a belief that writing might have the capacity to reunite a family. This, I think, is central to What Lot’s Wife Saw: the power to solve a mystery is contained within the letters that Phileas Book (and we) read – and with it, the power for an individual to understand and shape the world. That’s also what makes the ending work for me: out of context, the solution to the mystery may seem trite; but, coming at the end of What Lot’s Wife Saw, it symbolises just how completely the world has become subverted by the text.

What Lot’s Wife Saw is published in the UK by Black & White Publishing.

Ivo Stourton, The Happier Dead (2014): Strange Horizons review

StourtonThis week, Strange Horizons published my review of Ivo Stourton’s new novel The Happier Dead. The book is framed as a murder mystery set in a near future where rejuvenation treatment is available to those who can afford it, and riot is fomenting among those who can’t. To go alongside the mystery, Stourton is also interested in exploring the ramifications of the rejuvenation treatment (and the mindset that created it) for his future society. In the end, this doesn’t quite all come together, but The Happier Dead does have its moments.

Click here to read my review in full.

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.

Two from the Friday Project: Charles Lambert and Harry Karlinsky

Charles Lambert, With A Zero at its Heart (2014)
Harry Karlinsky, The Stonehenge Letters (2014)

The Friday Project is one of my favourite imprints of any mainstream publisher; their range is eclectic, and their selection of fiction always interesting. Here are my thoughts on a couple of their recent novels.

***

LambertYou can calculate the length of Charles Lambert’s With a Zero at its Heart precisely: there are 24 chapters (themed on topics like ‘Travel’, ‘Art’ and ‘Waiting’), each with ten numbered paragraphs of 120 words, plus one final paragraph as a coda. Each paragraph represents an episode from its protagonist’s life (a fictionalised version of Lambert’s own, I understand). The paragraphs in each chapter aren’t necessarily in chronological order, but there is a sense of movement: so, for example, the chapter on ‘Clothes’ begins with the protagonist as a ten-year-old with his first pair of jeans; goes on to depict him as an adult in Italy shopping for clothes with his partner (“It is hot, and so are they, and they have no idea how hot”); and ends with him buying the suit that he will wear at his father’s funeral.

There’s an interesting dissonance between the rigid structure of the book, and the very fluid nature of what’s being described; this highlights that the memories we each hold are ultimately what we make of them (which is underlined further by Lambert’s distancing third-person voice). The individual paragraphs may be affecting, but the contrasts and linkages created by their arrangement deepen the book’s power.

With a Zero at its Heart makes an interesting point of comparison with Knausgaard, in that both treat incidents from the author’s life as a way of exploring memory. But where (say) A Death in the Family creates a dense thicket of detail shot through with moments of transcendence, Lambert’s book is quite spare and crystalline; the experience of reading it is more a gradual accumulation of pieces that coalesce into a whole picture. Like Knausgaard, though, Lambert juxtaposes the incidents of everyday life with the unchanging realities of living.

***

Karlinsky

Harry Karlinsky’s first novel, The Evolution of Inanimate Objects, was such an idiosyncratic book that it made me wonder what on Earth the author would write next. Here’s the answer: another work of fiction disguised as non-fiction, and drawing (to an extent!) on genuine historical documents. Karlinsky’s narrator is a psychiatrist preoccupied with why Sigmund Freud never won a Nobel Prize. The narrator’s researches reveal that a secret codicil to Alfred Nobel’s will established another contest: winners of one of the official Nobel Prizes would be invited to submit their theories explaining the mystery of Stonehenge; The Stonehenge Letters recounts the theories of several Nobel laureates, including Marie Curie and Rudyard Kipling.

Well, there wasn’t actually a Stonehenge Prize, but Karlinsky makes the thought of it very plausible. There are sly nudges that what we’re reading is a spoof: the narrator’s footnotes, which bring everything back to Freud; and some oddly random illustrations (“Figure 5. A one-legged stool”). But all the theories put forward about Stonehenge are genuine enough, even if they were advanced by different people. When Einstein is quoted as assessing Marie Curie’s theory (which we’d recognise as carbon-dating) as “decidedly theoretical”, it’s almost goading us into doubting what we think is fiction and what fact. I’m in no doubt, however, that Harry Karlinsky has written another delightful book in The Stonehenge Letters.

 

What They Don’t See: Emma Healey and Timur Vermes

Emma Healey, Elizabeth is Missing (2014)

Timur Vermes, Look Who’s Back (2012)
Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch (2014)

Today I’m looking at two debut novels which really stand out to me for how they use first-person narration to create dramatic irony – so we know more than their narrators do, sometimes amusingly so, sometimes tragically.

ElizabethEmma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing is simply one of the most haunting books I’ve read so far this year. Its protagonist, Maud Horsham, has dementia, which makes her narration a constantly renewing present. Here, for example, is Maud looking in a drawer:

…there is a packet of lamp posts, tiny lamp posts with lead through the middle. The right word for them is gone and I pick one up, trying to remember it, pressing the end into the wood of the drawer until the tip breaks off. It’s satisfying and I pick up another just to break it.

The doorbell rings. I drop the pencil and bang into a bookcase in my hurry to leave the room. There are two dirty cups on a shelf. I collect them, and in the hall realize one has some tea in it. I drink it up, though it’s cold, and then put both cups on the bottom stair. (p. 217)

One moment, Maud can’t remember what a pencil is called; the next, she knows, without realising that she had ever forgotten. An action intended to jog her memory immediately becomes an empty ritual – and so on. Over the course of the book, as we get to know Maud better, these kinds of details have a powerful cumulative effect.

But Healey goes further than this: in the present, Maud searches for her friend Elizabeth; she also takes us back seventy years, to the time (which she recalls quite clearly) when her sister Sukey disappeared. In other words, the novel revolves around two mysteries, which would normally be all about making connections between details to create a bigger picture – but Maud is losing her ability to make such connections. This is what truly gives Elizabeth is Missing its power: the further along she goes, the more Maud is able to uncover – but she can’t perceive what it is that she has revealed. Only we, as readers, can.

In some ways, Elizabeth is Missing reminded me of Nathan Filer’s The Shock of the Fall, in its depiction of a narrator with a damaged psyche – and it won’t surprise me at all if Healey’s novel becomes as widely read. But Elizabeth is Missing really got under my skin, gave me that shivery feeling that comes when I realise I’m reading a book’s that’s very special. That feeling is why I read books in the first place.

***

LookTimur Vermes’ Look Who’s Back sees Adolf Hitler waking up, alive and well, in 2011. He’s not too bothered about finding out why this has happened, more saddened at the condition of the Germany he sees around him, and sets his heart on putting it right. Soon he has a platform that befits the age: mistaken for an exceptionally talented impersonator, he’s soon a YouTube sensation, and even given his own TV show.

Look Who’s Back makes much play of the incongruity of Hitler being in the present day: Vermes’ Hitler is quick on the uptake in some respects (he readily grasps the Internet and sees how useful it could have been for him in wartime), but not others (‘We’re all agreed the Jews are no laughing matter,’ says his producer; Hitler agrees, though for very different reasons). I expect I won’t have caught all the nuances of the satire that a German audience would; but still I found Look Who’s Back satisfyingly amusing.

Jamie Bulloch’s translation casts Hitler’s voice as long-winded, old-fashion, sure of itself. And it’s the certainty of that voice that helps create what, for me, is perhaps the most interesting effect in the novel. Look Who’s Back turns the insidiousness of Hitler’s rhetoric back on itself: where once he could persuade people around to his way of thinking, now Hitler is being outmanoeuvred by language – he doesn’t realise that he’s being made fun of by the media folk around him. As with Elizabeth is Missing, the very restrictions of the narrative voice give us a better vantage-point – and the view is one to savour.

***

Elizabeth is Missing will be published in the UK by Viking on 5 June. Read more reviews at: 50 a Year; Novelicious; Lily Meyer for Tottenville Review; My Good Bookshelf.

Look Who’s Back is published in the UK by MacLehose Press. Read more reviews at: Workshy Fop; A Common Reader; The Friendly Shelf; Winstonsdad’s Blog.