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.

IFFP 2015: Bannerhed and Lee

RavensTomas Bannerhed, The Ravens (2011)
Translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death (2014)

The Ravens is narrated by Klas, who lives on his family farm in the 1970s. He watches his father Agne toiling away, and dreams of a different life for himself. Klas loves nature, but has no wish to inherit the farm; he can see what the work has done – is doing – to his father, and doesn’t want to fall into that trap of obsession and despair; though at times it seems that something similar might be happening to him. The arrival of a city girl, Veronika, offers Klas a glimpse of what life could be; though the reality of Veronika’s life may not be as golden as Klas’ perception of it.

In terms of the IFFP longlist, Boyhood Island is the most obvious comparison to The Ravens; Bannerhed’s prose comes across as more ‘crafted’ than Knausgaard’s, but I like some of the effects Bannerhed creates. Agne’s perspective remains distant from us, even as he becomes more and more troubled; which makes those moments when we do see how much he has been affected by his illness all the more forceful. Klas’ descriptions of the natural world stand out among his narration as the moments when he is most at peace. I think there’s a good chance that The Ravens will make an appearance on the IFFP shortlist, and I wouldn’t mind if it did.


Jung-myung Lee, The Investigation (2014)
Translated from the Korean by Chi-Young Kim

In 1944, a guard, Sugiyama Dozan, is found hanged inside Fukuoka Prison; a more junior guard, Watanabe Yuichi, is tasked with investigating the death. All is not quite as it first seems: Sugiyama’s lips have been sewn shut, and this feared individual has a poem tucked in his pocket. What’s going on? Watanabe’s investigation comes to centre on one of the prisoners, the Korean poet Yun Dong-ju (a real-life historical figure); gradually, Watanabe uncovers the extent of what has been happening at Fukuoka, and why Sugiyama lost his life.

I’m torn over The Investigation. On the one hand, this is a book about the power of words and literature – poetry’s capacity to change minds; the tension between Watanabe’s love of reading and his new duties as prison censor; the importance for the Korean prisoners of holding on to their own names and language. I’m naturally sympathetic to a novel like that.

However, for a novel whose plot is so celebratory of language, the prose feels rather… ordinary. There’s also a touch of novel-as-history-lesson about The Investigation; this can be interesting – and it often is, in this case – but it’s not really what I want from a novel, especially one up for a literary award. I can’t really see The Investigation going any further in the IFFP: it’s OK, but so are many other novels; compared to the rest of the longlist, it’s one of the weakest titles for me.

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