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.

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: 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.

Investigation

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.

IFFP 2015: Erpenbeck and González

EndofDaysJenny Erpenbeck, The End of Days (2012)
Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky (2014)

I’ve come across several novels on this year’s IFFP longlist which examine the twentieth century through the lives of ‘ordinary’ individuals, but this may be the sharpest one yet. The protagonist of The End of Days is born in the Austrian Empire at the start of the century; each of the novel’s five ‘books’ imagines that she died at a different point in her life; the short ‘intermezzo’ sections between them run through all the small differences – walking down this street instead of that; a window left open to let the air in – that could have kept her alive.

The first thing to say is that Susan Bernofsky’s translation is very potent indeed. When I read the first page, in which the protagonist is buried as a baby, it was so powerful that I almost had to put the book down (something that rarely happens to me): as handfuls of earth are thrown into the child’s grave, each is described as covering the girl or woman who might have been. The rest of this first section is full of tiny but resonant details, like the toy whose bells make the same jingling noise they did the day before, although so very much has changed. The protagonist’s death at such a young age is presented as a hole in reality for her family, beside which all else becomes insignificant.

The structure Erpenbeck has used enables effects like this. In The End of Days, ‘history’ in the broad sense doesn’t change; it is the individual’s interaction with history that changes. In each iteration of the protagonist’s life, her death means something different: in one section, she joins the Communist Party and moves to the Soviet Union, but dies labouring in the gulag; in another, she escapes internment and dies thirty years later, a celebrated writer and Party member; in the last, she lives to be ninety, and is one resident among many in an old people’s home. Erpenbeck’s novel intertwines the personal with the grand sweep of history to great effect, underlining the importance of both. I would certainly expect to see The End of Days on the IFFP shortlist; for me, it’s potentially a winner.

ItBWtS

Tomás González, In the Beginning Was the Sea (1983)
Translated from the Spanish by Frank Wynne (2014)

One of the interesting things about the IFFP (or, if you prefer, something that points to just how much literature from other languages remains untranslated into English) is that we’ll see the odd book which was originally written much earlier than the translation. Such is the case with In the Beginning Was the Sea, the first novel by Colombian writer González, and his first to appear in English, some thirty years on. I actually read this last year, but didn’t review it at the time, because I didn’t particularly care for it. Looking back, I think I was thrown by what the publicity material said about the book’s inspiration (which, for that reason, I won’t reveal here).

This is the story of Elena and J., a couple of intellectuals who leave behind city life to begin a new life by the sea. But money problems mean that they are going to have to earn a living from their land, and it’s not going to be plain sailing. There are hints (and increasingly clearer indications) that all is not going to end well; the novel becomes a chronicle of ill fortune, with a claustrophobic air of dread created by Frank Wynne’s translation. We know that something is coming, but not precisely what – and, for all the foreshadowing, González doesn’t make it feel too staged. I appreciated In the Beginning Was the Sea more the second time around, though I don’t anticipate that it would necessarily make my shortlist.

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

IFFP 2015: Fois and Mortier

FoisMarcello Fois, Bloodlines (2009)
Translated from the Italian by Silvester Mazzarella (2014)

Bloodlines is the story of a Sardinian family through the first half of the twentieth century – but not a family linked by blood. Michele Angelo Chironi and Mercede Lai were both orphans, and, even though he was adopted by a local blacksmith, Michele Angelo kept the surname given to him at the orphanage. So the Chironi family starts at the turn of the century, and the story of Bloodlines is the story of its first faltering steps through war, mortality, and socio-political change.

Though there are tumultuous events in the background, the focus is always on what they mean for the Chironis, and there is a sense that the family’s struggles are a reflection of wider Sardianian society coming to terms with the changes of modernity and gradually becoming more of a part of Italy (if I were more certain of the history, I might suggest that the family’s seeking to establish itself from effectively nothing reflects the coming together of Italy as a nation-state). There are frequent reminders from Fois’s narrator that this is a story, and therefore selected and shaped – there are many other stories that could be told about other families. Silvester Mazzarella’s translation captures the tone of being slightly distanced from events that occasionally – often tragically – come close to home. All in all, I very much enjoyed Bloodlines and I’d be happy to see it progress to the IFFP shortlist.

Mortier

Erwin Mortier, While the Gods Were Sleeping (2008)
Translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent (2014)

Belgian author Mortier  offers another personal approach to the early twentieth century, this time through the eyes of Helena Demont, an old woman in the present looking back on her life before and during the First World War. It begins as a comfortable bourgeois existence, before the German invasion sends Helena to France,, and the farm of her mother’s family. The experiences of Helena’s brother in battle and convalescence, and her journeys with an English photographer whom she falls for, will bring Helena – and us – closer to the horrors of the war.

Paul Vincent’s translation is rich and dense – indeed, at times (especially towards the beginning) I found the prose a little too over-egged. But the realities of war-ravaged Flanders are rendered vividly indeed, and Helena’s emphasis on the nature of memory underlines that even such dark moments of history will eventually fade into shadows and exist, for good or ill, only in our recollections. It wouldn’t at all surprise me to see While the Gods Were Sleeping make the IFFP shortlist, and I don’t think I’d mind if it did.

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

IFFP 2015: Knausgaard and Ávila Laurel

KnausgaardKarl Ove Knausgaard, Boyhood Island: My Struggle Book 3 (2010)
Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett (2014)

I expect that Knausgaard will remain a fixture of the IFFP longlist until the whole of My Struggle receives UK publication; here he is for the third year running, anyway. By now, the style and approach are known quantities – intensely detailed chronicles of everyday life, told in the rough-and-ready tones of Don Bartlett’s translation – but the substance varies. The stereotype of My Struggle is that it’s just a catalogue of minutiae; but what made the first volume especially so vital for me was the sense of Knausgaard grappling with the deeper realities of life – love, death, memory – and the dizzying moments when these would break through all the chatter.. In Boyhood Island, though, I we’re largely left with only the chatter.

It’s sharp, disarmingly frank chatter: Knausgaard is focusing on his childhood, and evokes the sense of this as a time of exploring, discovering boundaries and testing them (for good or ill). There’s a running theme of the restrictions of inside spaces (home, school) versus the freedom of outside – to the point where the teenage Karl Ove talks in terms of treating his bedroom as the ultimate ‘outside’ space.

There are times when Knausgaard confronts the some of the realities which animate My Struggle: how can he really remember all this? what does he actually know about that time? But I cannot shake the impression that, in Boyhood Island, I got the form of My Struggle without the full effect, and that feels like having only half a book. That’s why I’m not keen to see this volume progress any further in the IFFP.

Avila Laurel

Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel, By Night the Mountain Burns (2008)
Translated from the Spanish by Jethro Soutar (2014)

Relatively little African literature in translation makes it to UK publication, and By Night the Mountain Burns would be notable simply for being only the second work from Equatorial Guinea to be made commercially available in English. More than that, though, it’s also very good.

At the beginning, we don’t know why, or to whom, the narrator of Ávila Laurel’s novel is telling his story, but we do know that he’s telling it orally. He begins with the song that would be sung when the people of his island pulled canoes to the shore, then runs through various events and situations from his childhood: the grandfather who would never visit the sea; a fire that destroys the mountainside plantations; visitors who come to trade, or for more mysterious reasons. The style is dense, rhythmic and discursive; I was interested to read this article by Jethro Soutar on the choices he had to make while translating, which shows just what a precision job it was.

By Night the Mountain Burns highlights a number of opposites (I hesitate to say ‘contradictions’): the spoken and written texts; the island’s vernacular and Spanish, the language of authority; the mixture of Catholic and traditional beliefs. The tensions created by these opposites create an undercurrent that ripples through Ávila Laurel’s novel; but all is held together by the flexibility of the narrative voice. Though the narrator’s digressions might seem to risk making the novel too diffuse, in the end I found that a cohesion of tone wins out. There’s a wonderful sense that the style and voice are not passively reflecting place and circumstances, but are actively creating them. I was reminded of Zone in that way – and, like Zone, it helps just to jump right in.

I enjoyed By Night the Mountain Burns, and I’d be happy to see it on the IFFP shortlist. On a final note, this is the first time that And Other Stories have received a nod from the IFFP; they’re a great publisher, and I’m pleased to see them get this recognition at last.

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