Reflections: ‘more than real’

When I love a book, I love it strongly: my favourite books have all, in their own ways, made the experience of living that bit more intense. One thing I’ve been trying to do through the blog this year is to come up with a way of encapsulating just what it is in books that makes me respond that way. This hasn’t been an easy task, because it needs to encompass some ostensibly very different types of books: I started off as a reader of fantasy and science fiction, but increasingly find myself drifting away from them; most of my favourites these days come from the ‘General Fiction’ shelves, yet I still tend to find straightforward realism lacking. I perceive a continuum across the books I love, and I’ve long had an idea in the back of my mind as to what unites them; but any description I tried – ‘postmodern’, ‘avant-garde’, ‘speculative fiction’ – would always seem to leave out something important.

The other day, however, the phrase ‘more than real’ popped into my head. What I mean by this is a sense that the conventional frame or form of a given book can’t contain the reality of what’s being written, so it has to push or twist. This feels right to me in terms of describing my favourite books. It covers some obviously fantastical material: Christopher Priest’s equivocal realities; Helen Oyeyemi’s collisions of story; Adam Roberts’s laboratories for testing sf. It takes in writers who take a non-realist approach to ‘the real world’: Eleanor Catton’s living sculptures; Jon McGregor’s unearthing of the strangeness in everyday experience; the mirage of coherence in Hawthorn & Child (‘more than real’ might be another way of saying ‘not real at all’). But there’s also room under that umbrella for writers like Ray Robinson and Evie Wyld, apparently realist writers who, to my mind, are shaping their work in subtler ways. One thing I’ve learned over time is that even the most mundane subject matter can be ‘more than real’.

It’s interesting to me that, though my taste in fiction hasn’t suddenly changed, just having that phrase ‘more than real’ has enabled me to think about these things in a different way. because I can see what I mean more clearly. I have a better idea of what I’m really looking for in fiction, so I should be better placed to find it and explore the experience. I’m excited to begin searching once again.

Reflections is a series of posts in which I think more generally about my approach to and experience of reading.

Michael Stewart, Café Assassin (2015)

Cafe AssassinA few years ago, I enjoyed Michael Stewart’s debut novel, King Crow – so I was really pleased to discover that he had a new book out. Café Assassin is quite different in subject from its predecessor, but it has the same tension, rooted in a strong first-person voice that feels as though it could go anywhere.

The owner of that voice is Nick Smith, newly released from prison twenty-two years after being wrongly convicted of murder. His words are addressed to Andrew Honour, a childhood friend on whom Nick now seeks revenge. Nick looks at Andrew’s life – a successful job as a QC, happily married to his old girlfriend Liv, on whom Nick always had a crush – and wants what he sees. Over the course of the novel, Nick gets back on his feet, and gradually inveigles his way into Andrew’s and Liv’s lives – but to what end?

I found Café Assassin to have an enormous narrative pull, which comes from the ambivalent attitude we develop towards Nick: we know he has seriously been wronged, but we also learn what a violent individual he can be; we want Nick to have some sort of resolution, but not necessarily the kind of revenge it appears he’s working towards. Beyond the plot, there’s a mutable quality to Stewart’s prose, and the sense of identity Nick creates in his account. Nick has to remind himself that it’s not 1989 but 2011, and there a constant sense of dislocation as the gap of years is opened and bridged and opened again. Then there are the interstitial chapters in second-person, which describe Nick’s life in prison; these aren’t a straightforward contrast with the first-person text, but intersect with it at right-angles, adding a further layer of complexity. If we never quite know where Café Assassin will end up, perhaps it’s because we never quite have the measure of its protagonist – and the sense is that perhaps he doesn’t even have the full measure of himself.

Café Assassin is published by Bluemoose Books.

Sunny Singh, Hotel Arcadia (2015)

SinghThis was my first time reading Sunny Singh, who’s written two previous novels and a variety of non-fiction; after Hotel Arcadia, I clearly need to explore that earlier work. We begin as Sam, a war photographer, wakes to find that her hotel is under attack from terrorists; rather than stay in her room, she heads out to see what images she can find. She is observed and aided by Abhi in the manager’s office, who waits anxiously for help while his lover Dieter is among those being held hostage.

Hotel Arcadia revolves around the distance between image and reality. Singh highlights the tensions of contradiction inherent in Sam’s position: a photographer who brings the reality (but is it really?) conflict to people’s attention, yet who ultimately steps in and out of others’ war-ravaged lives, and makes art from their suffering. Abhi becomes an interesting point of comparison and contrast with her:: both characters chose careers of which their parents disapproved (one because she went close to war, the other because he stayed away from it). Both have also struggled to form long-term relationships – but, while Sam finds her partner pushed away, Abhi feels liberated by his casual (so far) liaison with Dieter.

Singh makes effective use of the artificial, enclosed environment of the hotel. The actual attack is pushed into the background, heightening the focus on the two characters, and turning the hotel into a kind of parody (though not a frivolous one) of Sam’s usual working environment. In this way, the Hotel Arcadia becomes a zone of denser reality in which whole lives can be lived in the space of a few days – and we, as readers, live them all too.

Hotel Arcadia is published by Quartet Books.

More reviews of Hotel Arcadia: Samira Sawlani for Media Diversified; Live Many Lives; Liz Loves Books.

Desmond Elliott Prize 2015: the shadowing begins


After the translations, the debuts: like last year, I am taking part in shadowing the Desmond Elliott Prize. Here is this year’s longlist:

  • Carys Bray, A Song for Issy Bradley (Hutchinson)
  • Jessie Burton, The Miniaturist (Picador)
  • Alex Christofi, Glass (Serpent’s Tail)
  • Claire Fuller, Our Endless Numbered Days (Fig Tree)
  • Jonathan Gibbs, Randall, or the Painted Grape (Galley Beggar Press)
  • James Hannah, An A-Z of You and Me (Doubleday)
  • Emma Healey, Elizabeth Is Missing (Viking)
  • Paul Kingsnorth, The Wake (Unbound)
  • Laline Paull, The Bees (Fourth Estate)
  • Simon Wroe, Chop Chop (Viking)

First impressions? Elizabeth Is Missing was, of course, my favourite book read in 2014 (immediately ahead of last year’s Desmond Elliott winner, as it happens), so that’s my front-runner going into the shadowing. I’m also particularly pleased to see The Wake getting a nod. The biggest omission for me is Lucy Wood’s Weathering, a superb novel which I thought would be a dead cert for this longlist. Whatever else happens with this year’s Prize, I will be disappointed that Weathering is not in the mix.

Still, on we go. The links in the list above will take you to my reviews of the longlisted titles; I’ll be adding as many as I can in the weeks ahead. Finally, let me introduce you to the other members of this year’s shadow panel: El Ashfield, Dan Lipscombe, Zoe Venditozzi and Sarah Watkins.

Sara Taylor, The Shore (2015): Shiny New Books review

ShoreThere’s a new issue of Shiny New Books in the world, and it includes my review of The Shore, the debut novel by Sara Taylor. The Shore is set on a small group of islands off the coast of Virginia, and focuses on the members of two families over a span of 350 years (reaching into both the past and future). The chapters are arranged non-chronologically, meaning that the reader has gradually to piece together the complex picture of family secrets that emerges.

You can read my review in full here.

IFFP 2015: The official shortlist

After the shadow selection, we now have the official IFFP shortlist:

I think this is an interesting list, I can’t quite choose between this selection and ours, because my favourite titles cross both lists. But my favourite title on the longlist – The End of Days – is common to both. I’ll be very pleased if it takes the prize; I think it stands a good chance, too.

I’d also, though, have my eye on By Night the Mountain Burns as a wildcard contender. In any event, it’s wonderful to see the publisher And Other Stories make the IFFP shortlist (long overdue, if you ask me). But congratulations to all, and I look forward to the announcement of the winner on 27 May. Of course, we’ll be revealing our shadow winner shortly before then.

Read my other posts on the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize here.

IFFP 2015: The shadow jury’s shortlist

The scores are in, the numbers have been crunched, and we can now reveal our shadow shortlist for this year’s IFFP:

We decided to ‘call in’ Zone as a sixteenth title, because a number of us felt strongly that it should have been longlisted for real – and now here it is on our shortlist. Last year’s shadow winner (The Sorrow of Angels) didn’t appear on the actual shortlist; this year, we could have a shadow winner that’s not even on the longlist, which would be an interesting situation…

But we’ll find all that out in due course. First up is the official shortlist, which will be announced tomorrow. I think we in the shadow jury have come up with a strong selection here; I wonder how the ‘real’ jury’s will compare.

Read my other posts on the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize here.