Iván Repila, The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse (2013/5)

RepilaSometimes the design of a book just hits the mark. The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse has the characteristic small paperback format of the Pushkin Collection, With David Roberts’s cover illustration, the physical volume has a timeless, ‘storybook’ quality – as does Iván Repila’s novel itself.

Repila tells of two brothers, Big and Small, who are trapped at the bottom of a well for reasons unknown, and are determined to get out. When attempting to throw Small out of the well doesn’t work, Big takes to exercise, keeping most of the food for himself– but that takes its toll on Small, so Big then has to look after him. Dreams and hallucinations abound as time passes. You can get a flavour for the writing from this passage, where Big and Small can hear animals approaching the well:

The steps become and more and more clear, and the sound of panting coming from the animals has taken over the night. Inside the well, the brothers’ stillness is catching the insects have stopped buzzing, the water has stilled in its tracks; at last, nature is silent. For a moment, the well slips its bonds and breathes like a home that the brothers don’t want to lose. The siege appears to be a fleeting assault. A wash of calm crawls up the walls, stills the mouth of the well and extends beyond its sheer edges to where the baying creatures howl. They go quiet, and for a split second the forest settles like an implosion of peace.

The translation from Spanish is by Sophie Hughes. I particularly like this passage for its use of personification, and the way the imagery transforms the physical space of the well. Each chapter brings a slightly different tone and perception; I could imagine The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse as a stylized animated film, its palette shifting with each scene.

It would be a dark film, too, because there’s a solemn allegory of metaphorical imprisonment lying beneath the surface story. It makes for a potent brew, and I hope we see more of Repila’s work in English before too long.

Shiny New Books: Janice Galloway and the IFFP

A new issue of Shiny New Books went up earlier this month, so this is a quick post to tell you about two pieces of mine…

JellyfishThe first is a review of Jellyfish, the new short story collection by Janice Galloway:

[Jellyfish] takes as its starting point an observation by David Lodge: “Literature is mostly about having sex and not much about having children; life’s the other way round.” The twelve stories in Jellyfish don’t disprove Lodge exactly, but they do approach the topics of sex and parenthood – or, to take a more general view, heightened moments of feeling and the longer-term experience of living – from a variety of angles, bringing more nuance to the straightforward opposition of Lodge’s statement…

The full review is here.

You can also read my report on the IFFP ceremony, which includes photographs by my fellow shadow judge Julianne Pachico. On that subject, there’s also an article by Tony Malone on the IFFP shadow jury. As it turns out, this year’s IFFP was also the last, as it is now being merged into the reformatted Man Booker International Prize. I’m sure we’ll still be shadowing, though.

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.

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.

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.

Adam Roberts, Saint Rebor (2014)

SaintStrange Horizons have my review of Saint Rebor, the latest short story collection from Adam Roberts (published as part of Newcon Press’s Imaginings series). I wanted to say a few words on my approach to this review, because it grew out of a sense of dissatisfaction with the other reviews that were out there.

Saint Rebor itself hadn’t garnered much commentary at the time I was putting together my review, but the book’s opening story, ‘What Did Tessimond Tell You?’, had several reviews following its appearance in a year’s-best anthology . The story is about a scientist who discovers why the members of her project team are quitting even though they’re on the verge of winning the Nobel. Generally, the reviews I read revolved around the plausibility of the science, and didn’t go much further than that.

This approach wouldn’t do for me because I had a very different sense of what was interesting about the story. To me, the issue of scientific plausibility was simply not important in terms of what Roberts was actually doing – in my experience of his fiction, it rarely is. I wanted to write a review that offered a different way of looking at the stories in Saint Rebor.

I was a little daunted by the prospect: Roberts’s style can be dense and allusive, and I know that his references are often beyond my own sphere of experience. I may well not have been the best person to engage with what I saw in Roberts’s stories – but it looked as though if I didn’t, no one else would, and I felt strongly that it needed to be done. (This, incidentally, is one of the impulses behind book blogging: that you feel something has to be said about a book, and nobody else is saying it.)

So I have a review which focuses in on a few of Saint Rebor‘s stories  and (taking a cue from Roberts’s introduction) attempts to examine how – on the structural and linguistic levels – they exploit the tensions between ‘science’ and ‘fiction’. I hope you find it interesting.