Nell Leyshon, Memoirs of a Dipper (2015)

Dipper

In that minute when you’re somewhere you oughtn’t to be, when your fingers are touching someone else’s stuff, when you know a key could go in the lock, a door be opened, a footstep come into the room, in that minute you feel it all over your body. You’re alive. The hairs on the inside of your nose are raised. Your ears are moving to help detect any sound. Bits of your body you didn’t know existed are switched on.

– from Memoirs of a Dipper by Nell Leyshon, which I’ve reviewed for We Love This Book.

Paulette Jonguitud, Mildew (2010/5)

MildewIncreasingly, I find that the novels I respond to most strongly are those that create their own seamless reality. I’m not talking here about the meticulous re-creation of a historical period, nor the ‘world-building’ of genre fantasy and science fiction, but something that seems to me more fundamental. I mean those times when the language of fiction unites with its subject: then, there’s nothing between me and the work – and I don’t know how far it might reach.

Here, for example, is Mildew, a short novel by the Mexican writer Paulette Jonguitud (translated by the author from her Spanish original, and now published by the ever-excellent CB Editions). It’s a novel that creeps through you, rather like the mildew which begins growing on its narrator Constanza’s body the day before her daughter’s wedding. I didn’t realise until I started thinking back on the novel just how much it had infected my thoughts. Similarly, when Constanza sees the first spot of mildew, it seems a relatively minor inconvenience:

I don’t like surprises and since the last one had been an affair between my husband and my niece, I was not feeling in the mood for another one (pp. 4-5).

Immediately this remark implies an equivalence between the physical changes that Constanza is experiencing and the events of her life. There’s still more conflation when she describes coming across her husband and niece (also named Constanza):

It was after ten that night. I walked in silence through the dining room. I assumed everyone was upstairs. And then I found Felipe and Constanza sitting at the table, their heads close together as though they were sharing a secret, a bottle of wine between them. I did not need to see much more. Those few seconds were enough for me to know that I didn’t belong there. The furniture seemed to know I was there and feel ashamed, I heard the table creak and saw the chairs wanting to tip over to one side. The edge of the wine glasses, my glasses, seemed to shrink when touched by those lips (p. 12).

This paragraph brings in memory, the physical space of Constanza’s house, and (perhaps faulty, but who’s to say?) perception. Mildew’s narrator ranges far and wide through past and present, all without leaving the house – but there’s something claustrophobic about the experience of reading all this range. Maybe it’s the knowledge of how precarious it all is: Constanza makes no secret of how fallible her memory can be; there’s plenty that she doesn’t know, for example about her niece as a person; then there are her visions, such as the mirrors that reflect old memories and occasionally talk back.

There’s no room here for the safely real to end and the imaginary to begin; this is what we feel too as we read Mildew, and start to wonder what sort of grip Constanza has on her own space, her own story. And we might wonder that with dread, because we sense that, when Constanza’s grip loosens, ours can only do likewise.

Fiction Uncovered 2015

Last Thursday, the winners of this year’s Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize were announced:

  • The Incarnations by Susan Barker (Doubleday)
  • The Redemption of Galen Pike by Carys Davies (Salt)
  • Significance by Jo Mazelis (Seren)
  • The Offering by Grace McCleen (Sceptre)
  • Mother Island by Bethan Roberts (Chatto & Windus)
  • A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar (Hodder & Stoughton)
  • Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth (Canongate)
  • Mobile Library by David Whitehouse (Picador)

It’s an interesting selection: I’ve reviewed a couple (linked above) and will be checking out a few others.

In addition, the Fiction Uncovered website is again hosting a series of articles by guest editors (like the columns I wrote last year). Naomi from The Writes of  Woman was this year’s first guest editor; currently it’s Kate and Rob from Adventures with Words. Go and have a look.

 

Alisa Ganieva, The Mountain and the Wall (2012/5)

MTN_WALL_COVER_CMYKThe Mountain and the Wall is both the first novel by Alisa Ganieva, and the first in English translation from the Russian republic of Dagestan. I have to be honest and admit straight away that I’d never even heard of Dagestan until I read this book, so I come to write this review more tentatively than I might usually. In a way, though, that’s quite appropriate; because it seems to me that Ganieva’s novel is very much concerned with hearsay and the limits of knowledge.

The prologue, set at a social gathering, is a cinematic carousel of anecdotes told by a succession of characters, until someone realises a critical fact that nobody knew. In the first chapter, we find Ganieva’s protagonist Shamil visiting a village of goldsmiths, on assignment from a newspaper to write about their traditional crafts – though he soon discovers that these are losing out to cheaper tourist trinkets, which is not the story he’s there to tell. These set the scene for a tale of hidden information, not least of which is the rumour that the government is building a wall to separate off Russia’s Caucasus republics – a wall that we hear plenty about, but never see.

Carol Apollonio’s translation from the Russian moves through a range of different styles, particularly as it quotes from various fictional texts – including a novel which Shamil reads, and about he which he might feel differently if he knew what we find out about its author. In all, The Mountain and the Wall strikes me as a story of characters on shifting ground, trying to find their way with incomplete information – and the ultimate sense is that, to go forward, they need to know where they’ve been.

The Mountain and the Wall is published by Deep Vellum.

Reflections: a fan of the outliers

I’ve always felt fairly uneasy about the idea of being a ‘fan’ of any given author or series, because I’ve never really had (what seems to me) the typical fan’s relationship with the fiction I read or watch. Even when I was deep in collecting the volumes of long series like Discworld and Fighting Fantasy, I appreciated idiosyncracies and irregularities, the value of allowing writers to go where their imaginations took them. When I encountered other fans’ opinions, the common consensus seemed to be that the closer a given book was to the series/genre norm, the better; whereas the outliers were what most intrigued me.

Over the last 10-15 years, the fields of science fiction and fantasy have become much slicker when it comes to managing series; the trend has been towards valuing plot continuity, ‘world-building’ and high-concept combinations of ‘tropes’. Those, I’ve come to see, are not really my sort of thing, which is one reason I’ve drifted away from reading a lot of genre SF and fantasy in recent years. The work I find myself most drawn to is singular and often self-contained, and I still find myself liking aspects of work that many others seem not to (so, for example, I love The Luminaries for its four-dimensional living metaphors; and I don’t really care much either way about its plot, pastiche or astrology, which seem to get most of the attention). Ultimately, when it comes to matters such as world-building and series continuity, I am more in tune with the project of Viriconium, and I have to proceed from there.

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

Emma Jane Unsworth, Animals (2014)

AnimalsEmma Jane Unsworth’s second novel starts as it means to go on: Laura wakes up after a big night out, bangle and tights caught around her friend (housemate, landlord) Tyler’s bed, in need of something for her hangover. Tyler is twenty-nine, Laura a few years older; they became friends nine years ago, they still live in Manchester, and this is pretty much how they mean to go on, too. Well, maybe: Laura is shortly to marry Jim, a concert pianist who’s much more strait-laced – could this fracture the friendship that has defined Laura’s adult life?

The experience of reading Animals is quite a headrush: Laura’s first-person narration is snappy but dense, drily self-aware but not removed. The reader is drawn into Laura’s world, with the Technicolor intensity of her friendship with Tyler, but also with a melancholy awareness that the sense of boundless possibility that emerged in the wake of university has now faded. Perhaps one thing that drew Laura to Jim is that he rekindled that sense of possibility:

You could be anything. You could be perfect (unlikely, but the freedom of having the whole rainbow of potential flaws in the running is not to be underestimated). He doesn’t know yet about your limited geographical knowledge; that you don’t read the papers every day; that you sometimes hide instead of answering the door (and the phone). You are yet to drink white wine and turn into a complete fucking lunatic over absolutely nothing. You are yet to, yet to, yet to.

(Canongate pb, 2015, p. 48)

There you have the rush of Unsworth’s language, which never allows Laura’s life to settle into clear certainty: is she marrying Jim because she truly loves him, or because it’s the thing she ‘should’ do? There’s a similar question to be asked about her and Tyler; the journey to reach the answers is a kaleidoscope of neat observations and the flood of experiencing life.

Over-exposed

I have a print – you can buy them at the Victoria and Albert Museum – of a photograph of the village street of Thetford, taken in 1868, in which William Smith is not. The street is empty. There is a grocer’s shop and a blacksmith’s and a stationary cart and a great spreading tree, but not a single human figure. In fact William Smith – or someone, or several people, dogs too, geese, a man on a horse – passed beneath the tree, went into the grocer’s shop, loitered for a moment talking to a friend while the photograph was taken but he is invisible, all of them are invisible. The exposure of the photograph – sixty minutes – was so long that William Smith and everyone else passed through it and away leaving no trace. Not even so much of a mark as those primordial worms that passed through the Cambrian mud of northern Scotland and left the empty tube of their passage in the rock.

I like that. I like that very much. A neat image for the relation of man to the physical world. Gone, passed through and away. Suppose though that William Smith – or whoever did walk down that street that morning – had in his progress moved the cart from point A to point B. What would we see then? A smudge? Two carts? Or suppose he had cut down the tree? Tampering with the physical world is what we do supremely well – in the end, perhaps, we shall achieve it definitively. Finis. And history will indeed come to an end.

– Penelope Lively, Moon Tiger (1987), p. 13