“Here I am again : me and a girl and a wall”

howtobebothAli Smith, How to be both (2014)

So much is in the timing: for years I never read Ali Smith (no particular reason; she was just one of those writers I never got around to). My first was Artful, a couple of years ago; I liked it, but it didn’t strike me as a good way into the author’s work. Now felt like a good time to try again: as I want to explore ‘experimental’ fiction (I don’t much like that term, but it’ll do for what I mean), and have resolved to savour the tide of words more when reading, Smith seemed an author I might respond to well. And so it proved.

Perhaps the first thing to make clear about How to be both is which version I read. The novel is in two parts, one focusing on a girl named George who lives in present-day England, the other on the Renaissance Italian painter Francesco del Cossa. The order in which the two halves are presented varies between copies, and you can’t tell from the outside which is which. Alan Bowden asked me on Twitter which version I had; ‘George first,’ I told him. He replied, ‘I can’t imagine reading it that way.’ It’s testament to Smith’s skill that I can’t imagine reading How to be both the other way around (I can see where the connections would be, but so logically does Del Cossa’s half follow on from George’s that the sense of the experience eludes me. I’m sure I’d feel the same had I read the other version – which I fully intend to do one day).

As its title suggests, How to be both is full of duality and mirroring. Both sections collapse the sense of linear time: George’s story moves between her present life, and a few months earlier when her mother was still alive; Del Cossa tells of his life in the fifteenth century, but has also been incarnated as a spirit in the present, where he shadows George. As George also views Del Cossa’s frescoes, the two protagonists observe and are observed by each other, in their own strange loop. So really, both sections come before each other; although I do feel that most of the novel’s emotional weight likes in George’s half. Then again, Del Cossa’s art is intrinsic to making it all happen. You still need both halves to make up the whole.

For all that How to be both dissolves chronological boundaries for the reader, the passage of time remains of central importance to the characters, especially George. She still struggles to comprehend a world in which her mother is no longer alive, and the gap of those few months between life and death is ultimately as vast for George as that between her own time and her mother’s youth in the 1960s – another life that the girl can’t truly envisage. When George’s mother first takes her daughter to see Del Cossa’s paintings in Italy, George can’t see the relevance, can’t see the layers of meaning that her mother can. With time, though, she’s able to do so, thereby bringing the past closer (her intense observation of the artist’s work is what brings Del Cossa’s spirit back); it’s also symbolic of George starting to come to terms with what has happened.

I must mention Smith’s prose, which flows like a river changing course unexpectedly: past and present, dialogue and description, action and reflection merge into one another, always with an unstoppable momentum. After this, Ali Smith goes on to my list of must-read authors – and not before time.

 

 

Strange Horizons review: Widow’s Dozen by Marek Waldorf

WaldorfI have a new review up at Strange Horizons, looking at Widow’s Dozen by Marek Waldorf (published by Turtle Point Press). The book is a collection of eleven linked (or fractured) short stories revolving around the fictitious Bearden County, NY, where something strange has happened to the laws of nature. I won’t say more: I’ll just invite you to check out the full review here.

No would also be a good time to mention that Strange Horizons’ annual fund drive is currently under way; if you like what they do, why not consider making a donation? You might even win a prize in their raffle.

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.