Sunday, 15 July 2018

New Boy: Othello Retold by Tracy Chevalier

An arena in which the most base human emotions can be played out

Tracy Chevalier's latest novel New Boy is an ambitious retelling of Shakespeare's Othello with the narrative transported to a 1970's school playground. The source material Othello: The Tragedy of Othello the Moor of Venice (1603) is one of the Bard's most frequently adapted plays; from the Orson Welles film-noir, to Rossini's opera all the way, perhaps, to Disney's Aladdin. So what can Chevalier bring to the table in this particular adaptation? 

Some of the themes in the original text (sexual tension and political posturing for example) are inevitably absent from this scholastic retelling. Instead Chevalier focuses on the universal themes of race and jealously both of which have specific potency today. Othello in New Boy is cast as 10 year old Ghanaian school boy Osei, or 'O', who moves to an all white school in 1970s Washington after his diplomat father is posted to the USA. Chevalier's Desdemona is Dee and Iago is recast as Ian.  

Although the names are similar characters in New Boy take on their own life as the story deals with being the outsider in society and about the way jealousy motivates the most extreme behaviours. In this way the playground setting is ideal as an arena in which the most base human emotions can be played out in a believable way.

In clever recognition of the genesis play, the narrative in the book is compressed into a single school day with 'acts' named 'morning recess' and 'after-school'. Less successfully, Desdemona'a pivotal handkerchief from the play is translated into Dee's strawberry covered pencil case in New Boy.

Whilst New Boy lacks some of the creativity of Margaret Atwood's retelling of The Tempest in Hag-seed it is, nevertheless, a compelling read especially for the young adult audience. 

New Boy: Othello Retold by Tracy Chevalier published by Vintage, 192 pages

Saturday, 7 July 2018

The End We Start From by Megan Hunter

A story about survival and protecting the young

Megan Hunter's debut novel The End We Start From is a curious read somewhere between a novella and a prose poem. Though the themes are huge the narrative itself is brief in extremis - Hunter distills the text down to the bare minimum of words; even abstracting the characters names to single letters, but has she cut the story to thin?

The End We Start From follows one mother's first experience with childbirth against the backdrop of an apocalyptic flood which leads to mass evacuation from London to the North. This is a story of survival and of protecting the young which resonates with the refugee crisis that we see playing out in the news most days. The premise is interesting, the characters are well defined and some of the imagery conjured beautiful. 

But Hunter's writing style is almost like reading notes or a draft of a 'real' novel. The text appears in short staccato paragraphs that could be argued is prose poetry. The use of random creationist quotes scattered throughout the text also needs more development.

The ultimate compromise in Megan Hunter's extreme brevity is that we miss out on understanding the world that she has created. Some back story expansion would have made this a far more engaging novel that could easily have been three times as long. The End We Start From is certainly extraordinary but the idea deserves more time to grow.

The End We Start From by Megan Hunter published by Picador, 144 pages

Saturday, 23 June 2018

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk

Like insatiable wanderlust you'll feel lost when its over

Olga Tokarczuk's Man Booker International 2018 winning novel Flights could be the most original novel you read this year. Part collection of short stories and part essay on the theme of travel psychology, Tokarczuk takes us on a life affirming examination of the role of time and place.

Tokarczuk is one of Poland's most renowned writers having already scooped the country's most highly prized accolade for Flights when first published in 2009. Translation duties into English fall to the capable hands of Jennifer Croft who elegantly manages to make sense of Tokarczuk's boundless prose.  

In Flights Tokarczuk takes us on a multi-narrative journey from a story concerning Chopin's preserved heart traveling from Paris to Warsaw, to a tourist who goes missing on a Croatian island via a former whaler who high-jacks his own ferry. Tales are disjointed and interspersed with short essays concerning the minutiae of travel yet the book as a whole hangs together in addictive symphony.

For the seasoned traveler, the committed nomad or the reluctant holiday maker Flights offers a world of discourse in which to literally immerse yourself. In the tradition of the essay novel there are parts that will resonate greater than others but, like like insatiable wander lust, you'll feel lost when its over.

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, 432 pages

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Monday, 18 June 2018

Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday

Alice's curiosity peaks as she continues down her own rabbit hole

Lisa Halliday's debut novel Asymmetry has divided opinion; just look at the divergent commentary from The New York Times to reader reviews on Amazon. On the one hand, champions of character based literary fiction argue that the novel is an intelligent work worthy of endorsement by the late Philip Roth. On the other hand there are those readers who find Asymmetry a loosely plotted and confusing collection of three disjointed novellas. The publishers are, no doubt, relishing the conversation; isn't that the point of great fiction? 

In the first part of the novel 'Folly' a young editor in New York, named Alice, meets and falls for a celebrated older writer, Ezra Blazer. Halliday's characterisation is completely convincing, in fact much has been written about her own relationship some years ago with Philip Roth. Alice's curiosity peaks as she continues down her own rabbit hole with the older writer.

In 'Madness', the second part of the novel, we meet economist Amar who is being interviewed by immigration officers at Heathrow Airport whilst on his way to Kurdistan to see his brother. Despite the odd recurring motif there is little to connect this story with 'Folly'either contextually or stylistically, or is there?

Finally, in the third part of the novel we find a brilliantly well crafted transcript of an episode of BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs featuring Ezra Blazer himself speaking about his life through a hypothetical playlist.  

The problem with Asymmetry is that Halliday keeps us waiting right until the very end before even the merest hint that these stories are connected. Chances are that many readers will have abandoned ship before the reveal; a simple case of too little too late. Halliday is certainly an accomplished writer but the concept of Asymmetry is just too clever for its own good. Somewhere in the text there is a brilliant story about Alice and Ezra Blazer that still needs to be fully developed.

Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday published by Granta, 272 pages

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Monday, 4 June 2018

Death in Spring by Merce Rodoreda

Rich with motifs and symbols intensified by years in exile

Penguin's new reissue of Merce Rodereda's 1986 novel Death in Spring includes a beautifully crafted introduction from Colm Toibin who praises both Rodereda's prose style and her adept storytelling. Rodoreda is regarded as the most important Catalan writer of the post war period and with this reissue is destined to be discovered by a new generation of readers. 

Death in Spring is a later work when Merce Rodoreda, having spent much of her life in France and Switzerland in exile, looks back on the Catalonia of her youth. The prose is rich with motifs and symbols as if intensified to the hyper-real by her years in exile. Colours, as depicted in the cover art, are vivid and deep from the pink of the paint applied annually to houses in the villages to the crimson stains of death in the community. 

The story concerns a 14 year old boy who grows up experiencing the bizarre customs of a small Catalonian town. The most profound traditions include the ritualistic burial of the dead in tree trunks which Rodereda's protagonist experiences at first hand when his own father dies. These disturbing scenes are played out against more comforting observations as the seasons change and the flood waters rise and fall.

Death in Spring is brutal, harsh and steeped in a sense of the Catalan experience during and after the Spanish civil war.  Rodereda's acclaim is surely in part down to her ability to articulate the social reality of a life on the wrong side of the political mainstream.

Death in Spring by Merce Rodereda and translated by Martha Tennant published by Penguin, 150 pages

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Friday, 1 June 2018

Big Sister by Gunnar Staalesen


Exactly why we love Nordic Noir

Gunnar Staalesen's 20th outing for private eye Varg Veum reminds us exactly why readers the World over love the Nordic Noir genre. Staalesen has been producing hard-boiled crime fiction since the Seventies and is the undisputed master of character based Nordic Noir thanks to his stories set against the relentlessly rain-drenched streets of Bergen, Norway. 

In Big Sister an older and more seasoned Veum faces a missing person investigation with a deeply personal connection. His client this time round is searching for her 19 year old god-daughter who has gone missing from her flat share with two other trainee nurses. This is usual Varg Veum territory but this time the client is his own estranged half-sister.

As Veum investigates he follows leads deep into the dark web and into a gang of extreme bikers discovering cover ups and hidden secrets at every turn. The narrative never slows with Staalesen keeping the reveals coming thick and fast. Staaleson's Veum is accessible, reliable and intuitively inquisitive.

With the police unwilling to get involved so early in the disappearance its Veum who follows his instinct rather than police procedure which makes for much more human fiction. Searching for the truth has universal appeal and Gunnar Staaleson knows exactly how to lead us towards a startling climax. Credit also to Don Bartlett for bringing the story to life in English.

If you ever find yourself in Bergen don't miss the proud memorial to her most loved PI. His unassuming statue can be found in a suitably shadowy doorway close to the fish market.

Big Sister by Gunnar Staalesen and translated by Don Bartlett published by Orenda Books 276 pages

Thank you Orenda for the review copy

For more from Gunnar Staalesen click here

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Friday, 25 May 2018

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

What's missing from the film adaptation?

The film adaptation of Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968) is so embedded in contemporary culture that the novel now includes a sub-title 'The Inspiration behind Bladerunner and Bladerunner 2049'. With the 1982 film adaptation now back in the spotlight, thanks in part to Secret Cinema's current production, is there any reason to read the source novel?

Like many of the titles in Philip K. Dick's canon Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a slim novel that defies its 208 page count to create a vast and complex world packed full of questions around morality and what is is to be human. The film adaptation picks up on the key story line in which ex police detective Rick Deckard earns a living retiring rogue androids. The novel is set in a post-apocalyptic megacity on the West coast of America in the near future (1992 or 2021 dependant on which issue you are reading) following a global nuclear war. It is impossible to read the novel without thinking about the genre defining art direction in the Ridley Scott film but this only makes the novel richer.

What's missing from the film are the references to pre-colonial art, music and fiction (the pulp fiction and abstract art coming from mid 20th Century Earth prior to colonialisation of nearby planets). Pris, a basic 'pleasure model replicant' and one of the androids being hunted by Deckard,  speaks of the rare science fiction novels she coverts and attempts to critique the work of Edvard Munch. Whether androids dream of Electric sheep remains a mystery but it seems they read for pleasure and have the empathy to live vicariously though others.

Writing the novel in the Sixties Philip K. Dick was fully in command of the meta-narrative he was creating. Reading today, with AI becoming an intrinsic part of daily life,  makes you realise just how prescient his writing was. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is an accomplished novel is its own right and an even better companion to the film adaptations (and the immersive cinema experience currently playing in East London)      

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick published by W&N, 208 pages

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Thursday, 17 May 2018

Consent by Leo Benedictus

A pacy and chilling thriller about our voyeuristic obsessions

Consent is the second novel, following Afterparty (2011), from writer and journalist Leo Benedictus. The hardback version is published with minimal cover art with the perennially inquisitive question 'read me' on the back which creates real standout in bookstores.

The novel takes some time to get into but there is a brilliant moment when you realise that this is the work of a stalker leaving notes about his methods, botched attempts and above all his motivations. As the result of a substantial inheritance from a rich Aunt he is able to fund a lifestyle of monitoring and surveillance. Inevitably this results in black humour but more often the narrative strays into the deeply creepy.

Like American Psycho (1991), Consent draws the reader in to the mind of a psychopath but unlike Bret Easton Ellis best work Benedictus also introduces a third person narrative concerning Frances, the un-named stalker's latest obsession. On the one hand we observe the stalker planning his surveillance whilst at the same time experiencing the life of the subject, Frances from an alternative perspective.

Consent is a pacy and chilling thriller about our voyeuristic obsession with other people. The narrative structure pays off in the end and is summed up perfectly by Leo Benedictus in his online commentary about boring novels; 'Why should the experience of reading a novel correspond as closely as possible to the experience of living life? You don't build a sandcastle to make it look like the beach'

Consent by Leo Benedictus published by Faber, 240 pages

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Monday, 14 May 2018

The Comforters by Muriel Spark

Defines modernity in post war fiction

The recent celebrations around the 100 year anniversary of Muriel Spark's birth have done much to shine a light on the Spark canon. As one of the most original voices to emerge from mid-century Britain Spark's work can often be overlooked beyond the career defining The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961).

The Comforters (1957) was Spark's first novel published to glowing reviews from contemporary giants Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene no less. Waugh's quote 'brilliantly original and fascinating' is still included in reprints today. So what is it about The Comforters that convinced Spark to take up full time writing? 

At its best The Comforters defines modernity in post-war fiction with its concern for the nature and authenticity of the 'author'. Spark's protagonist Caroline Rose is a writer who begins to hear voices, and then the tapping of a typewriter, leading her to believe that she is actually living inside a novel. Spark was interested in hallucination, having herself experienced the side affects of diet drug Dexedrine, but its the existential novel within a novel idea that really works in The Comforters and is picked up expertly in the new introduction by fellow Scot Ali Smith.

Elsewhere in the novel are themes that haven't aged quite as well. Spark's own interest in Catholicism comes through strongly in the story which will leave some readers disinterested.

All in all The Comforters is an interesting read from a writer not afraid to rip up the rule book. Perfect to read as an introduction to Muriel Spark's work before diving in to The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960) and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

The Comforters by Muriel Spark published by Virago, 208 pages

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Saturday, 28 April 2018

A Natural by Ross Raisin

Profoundly realistic; more Premier Inn than Premiership

In Ross Raisin's new novel A Natural he portrays life as an outsider in the sanguine world of lower league English football. This is a life more Premier Inn than Premiership nevertheless, the monochrome backdrop plays a crucial role in the story Raisin tells about one footballer's career.

Tom Pearman is obsessed with his job; the training, the nutrition, his relationship with team mates and his profile in online fan forums. Having been let go from a top league academy he now finds himself as a big fish in a small pond but there's a problem, Tom's gay. 

The story slowly unfolds with the match day rhythm of the footfall season.  Tom is a loner and an introvert who keeps to himself in the digs he shares with team mates. When it comes to the game he takes his craft seriously, conforming to the norms required to meet the Chairman and Manager's expectations, yet all the time a new relationship is forming with the club groundsman Liam. Raisin's prose is subtly dramatic  'Desire racked him, mixing, as he looked instinctively over his shoulder, with the certainty that it would always be like this - vigilant, precious, forbidden'.

Other perspectives are provided from, Eastern an older player returning to the club to play out his career and his wife Leah, though these are distractions as the story firmly belongs to Tom and Liam. Raisin is most successful in his profoundly realistic portrayal of life living in digs, in cheap hotels and in the changing rooms of provincial football clubs, in this case the simply named 'Town'.

This is not a novel about a great romance but a story about the reality of being gay in a highly codified world of heroes and villains that simply can't except an outsider. The frustration is that Tom is as embroiled in the code as the often ignorant fans. Its this desperation that leaves a sense of loss at the end.

With Raisin's early novel God's Own Country having been adapted to the screen last year he is building a reputation for creating startlingly realistic portrayals of gay relationships that really resonate with audiences. For a similar does of realism try Guapa by Saleem Haddad and The End of Eddy by Edouard Louis.

A Natural by Ross Raisin published by Vintage, 352 pages

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Monday, 23 April 2018

Elmet by Fiona Mozley

Unforgettably poetic; a stunning debut

Elmet is the debut novel from British writer Fiona Mozley which went on to be shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker Prize. Although missing out on the award to George Saunder's Lincoln in the Bardo making the shortlist was a huge achievement for a new writer.

The novel is told from the perspective of Daniel, a 14 year old boy who is being raised along with is his sister Cathy in an arcadian forest haven by their father in the West Riding of Yorkshire. The title of the book references the 'last independent Celtic kingdom in England' going some way to explain the type of sylvan childhood Daniel's father wants to provide for his children away from mainstream education, removed from popular culture and hidden from the threatening eyes of neighbours.

Daniel and Cathy's world, distant and removed from other children, is brilliantly conceived by Mozely as the setting for a story about family, loyalty and coming of age. Daniel's father is a bare knuckle fighter notorious and feared throughout Yorkshire yet Mozley portrays him with a deeply protective instinct when it comes to his offspring. Though he is brutal and unforgiving his defensive nature is like that of a mother and father combined.

Mozley's writing is skillfully and unforgettably poetic in places bringing to mind the ethereal landscapes of fellow Yorkshire writers, the Brontes. In other places the florid descriptions and metaphors are overwrought and would have benefited from an edit. On balance Mozley can be forgiven for giving us such an inventive story. 

The bigger problem is with Daniel who is, in places, unconvincing as a 14 year old boy. The voice Mozley gives him airs on the effeminate with a tenderness not, perhaps, expected in a young boy. The way he processes what's happening around him belies the lack of formal education and life experience that his story suggests. 

After all is said and done Elmet is a stunning debut perfectly summed up by the Sunday Times as 'Hansel and Gretel meets the Godfather'. Fiona Mozely can write tender family drama and savage brutality like an accomplished old hand.

Elmet by Fiona Mozley published by John Murray, 320 pages

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