“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.

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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.

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.

***

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.

“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.

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.)

“Ernest, the great writer, standing in the middle of the story”

Naomi Wood, Mrs. Hemingway (2014)

Mrs HemingwayI find it intriguing when an author’s second novel is very different in subject from his or her first makes me want to look for the deeper connections that point to what the writer’s key concerns may be. Naomi Wood’s first novel, The Godless Boys (2011), concerned an alternate history in which atheist rebels had been exiled to an island off the coast of a theocratic English state. What does any of that have to do with Ernest Hemingway’s wives?

Ah, but it’s not the subject that counts: it’s the treatment. The Godless Boys could be seen as a ‘what if?’ character study: place a set of characters in an unusual situation, and explore how they might react. Wood does a similar thing in Mrs. Hemingway; it’s just that the unusual situation is real, as are the characters.

(I should say at this point that I don’t know much about Hemingway’s life or work, or the women concerned; so I approach Mrs. Hemingway very much as a work of fiction; I believe that Wood’s novel isn’t meant to be taken as entirely historically accurate in any case.)

What makes the situation of Hemingway’s wives particularly unusual is there in the book’s first sentence: ‘Everything, now, is done à trois (p. 3).’ The scene is the Hemingways’ villa in the French coastal town of Antibes, 1926: Ernest’s marriage to his first wife, Hadley, is on the ropes. She invited his mistress, Fife, to the villa in the hope of stopping the affair in its tracks; instead, Fife has effectively become part of the Hemingway household, and Hadley comes to realise that it’s only a matter of time before she loses Ernest to the other woman (when Ernest and Hadley leave the villa one morning, trying not to wake Fife, ‘it feels, to Mr. and Mrs. Hemingway, as if they are the ones who are having the affair,’ (p. 5).

This is the structure of Mrs. Hemingway: each of its four sections begins with one of Hemingway’s wives approaching the end of her relationship with him; we go back to see how that relationship developed; and past alternates with present. The thing is that each wife knows Ernest is having an affair, and with whom; the mistresses become a part of the relationship. When Martha (Ernest’s third wife), learns of his infidelity, she goes to meet her husband’s new lover, Mary; and she’s resigned to the knowledge that her marriage will soon come to an end:

They walk down the Élysées together, Mrs. Hemingway and Mr. Hemingway’s mistress…They stop off at the tobacconist to see if they can get more cigarettes. Martha holds out the door for her and lets the other woman in (p. 184).

The idea of an affair and subsequent divorce has gone from something to be fought against, to the price that one pays for loving Ernest Hemingway. Some of the wives even keep in touch with each other down the years.

So the title of Mrs. Hemingway is just that: a title, not an individual; almost an office, to be held for a finite term. Wood delineates the different ways in which Hemingway’s wives perceive that title, also showing how the women change as they move from mistress to wife (and beyond), and how the way others perceive them may not be how they actually are. For example, Hadley sees Fife as the kind of modern, confident young woman that she is not; when the story is told from Fife’s viewpoint, we see that she’s not quite so self-assured; but Fife’s glamour returns when Martha meets her some years later.

There’s another interloper in all these relationships: Hemingway’s writing. It is so often what brings Ernest and his lovers together; and so often what ultimately drives them apart. When Hadley meets Hemingway, his writing is one source of his charisma, and something he wears lightly (‘I’d rather be read by crooks than critics,’ he says at a party in Antibes [p. 58]). By the time he’s living with Fife in Key West, Ernest has become rather more concerned with what the critics think; his relationship with his writing grows more troubled as the years go by, and he sometimes turns violent. When we meet the widowed Mary at the Hemingways’ Idaho home in 1961, there’s a rueful double irony: all that’s left of Ernest is his writing, and his papers are now what feed the fire.

Mrs. Hemingway explores the characters of four women united by an experience that places them in opposition to each other, yet is also something only they can ever share. As in her debut, Wood depicts lives and individuals shaped by an extraordinary external force (in this case, their encounters with the person of Ernest Hemingway), and creates a fine work of fiction in the process.

Elsewhere
M. Denise C. interviews Naomi Wood.