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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Wednesday, 18 April 2018

I Love You Too Much by Alicia Drake

Terriblement Beau

Part way in to the first chapter of I Love You Too Much Alica Drake achieves exactly what we hope for as readers of literary fiction. We're completely immersed into the world which she creates inside the 16th Arrondissement of Paris, the name itself used as a shorthand for wealth and power in France. So powerful are her observations of life in this prestigious district that you can literally feel the breeze in the Jardin de Luxembourg and the scent of the perfume counters in Bon Marche. Alicia Drake has a deep understanding of the way Paris functions which she uses as a convincing backdrop to the narrative she creates.

I Love You Too Much is Paul's story.  Paul is 12 years old and lives with his mum Severin and her new boyfriend Gabriel. Paul's father, Phillipe, is close by; his parents having separated shortly after Paul failed to make the grade at the school his parents had intended to send him to. Both parents are consumed with the way they look, Severin squeezes beauty treatments in between meetings and conference calls and Phillipe obsesses about training for triathlons. Performance and success are everything. 'My Dad does it for fitness, to be hard and win, and my mum does it to be beautiful, to be thin and win'; Paul muses.

Unable to meet his parents expectations, Paul feels his own sense of failure acutely until he meets a kindred spirit in Scarlett. This is classic coming of age stuff. Paul's meeting with Scarlett whilst with his Mum at a thalassotherapy weekend in Dinard provides Paul with a new perspective from which to view his own life. Is it time to rewrite the narrative his parents, and grand-parents, have previously controlled?

As Paul's relationship with Scarlett develops he becomes increasingly empowered leading to a key scene at his Father's flat where he witnesses Phillipe in a situation he wouldn't have wanted his son to see. Both Philippe and Severin's truths are exposed as nothing more than pretence as their bourgeois values begin to crumble.

If there is a problem with I Love You Too Much is not so much with the story as it is with Paul himself. At times he seems wise beyond his years with a level of empathy not ordinarily associated with 12 year old boys. Scarlett and Severin are much more carefully constructed as characters.

The narrative speeds towards a resolution at break-neck speed and Drake could have but the brakes on in places. Perhaps this is the cadence of drama in the 16th Arrondissement? That said, I Love You Too Much is a great read about the inherent flaws in trying to meet expectations.  

For more contemporary literature set in France read Lullaby by Leila Slimani or The End of Eddy by Edouard Louis.

I Love You Too Much by Alicia Drake published by Picador, 256 pages

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Thursday, 12 April 2018

Hotel Silence by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir

Can Jonas fix the Hotel Silence screw by screw?

Hotel Silence is a charming and original novel about a man mending his own wounds by helping others. Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir won The Icelandic Literature Prize in 2016 for the book which also went on to be chosen as Best Icelandic Novel by booksellers in Iceland. Thanks to Pushkin Press the novel has now been translated into English.

The story is in two parts, Flesh and Scars, for this is a story about broken people and healing. Jonas has been left by his wife, his mother is suffering with dementia and his daughter has her own busy life to lead so he decides to take a trip; a new start and an opportunity to clear his head. Rather than two weeks in the sun Jonas decides to travel to a crumbling hotel in an unnamed city recovering from the ravages of war. His travel brochure describes an ancient mosaic and hot springs at the hotel which he believes will provide just the distraction he needs.

Jonas's shock at the state of the hotel and the desperation of the people struggling to keep it open soon gives way to a sense of hope. Can Jonas help fix the Hotel Silence one screw at a time?

Ólafsdóttir uses a really evocative metaphor for the theme of rebuilding and redemption that runs through the novel. Hidden beneath the hotel lies the ancient mosaic and hot spring that the brochure promised but it needs painstaking restoration to bring back to its former glory. Jonas brings together a team to get the job done smashed piece by smashed piece;  in the end its the relationships Jonas forms with the other residents of the hotel that is his greatest accomplishment.

The narrative contains quotations from poems by Jonas Thorbjarnarson which provides an evocative Icelandic context to this unique novel. Even in translation the richness of Auður Ava's prose is evident as she breathes life into Jonas, an utterly charming literary hero.  

Hotel Silence by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir published by Pushkin Press, 218 pages.     

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Thursday, 5 April 2018

White Chrysanthemum by Mary Lynn Bracht

A narrative that is equally bleak and hopeful

In White Chrysanthemum Mary Lynn Bracht sets herself an epic task; how to convey the overlooked history of women during the Japanese occupation of Korea in the 1940s. Specifically Bracht shines a light on the role of the Korean 'comfort women' who were kidnapped from their homes and families to work as sex slaves during the conflict. This is a subject steeped in politics, gender discrimination and cultural misunderstanding yet in the novel Bracht creates a narrative that explores this forgotten history in a richly human way.

The novel is based on the stories of two women. Hana is a young Haenyeo (diver) girl taken from her home on Jeju island in 1943 by a Japanese officer to work in a brothel. Emi is Hana's younger sister who escaped the same fate thanks to the sacrifice of her older sister. Now an old lady, this story is set in 2011, she reflects on the life she avoided and the sister she lost in 1943.

Hana's story is painful to read, Bracht reveals in detail the life of the Korean girls exploited for sex on a daily basis. They surrender everything in the name of the Emperor and are left with only meagre rations and left-overs and the chance to launder their clothes once a week. When one particular officer, the brutal Morimoto, proposes to escape to Manchuria with Hana she obeys only as she feels she is his captive. Hana imagines how might use her skills as a diver to survive; "She would carve out his heart as if it were a pearl tucked deep inside an oyster's flesh". In Manchuria she is left in the care of a family who are kind but Hana is inevitably unable to trust them living in permanent fear of being raped again.

In 2011, Emi travels to Seoul to stay with her son and daughter who live much removed from her own life on Jeju Island. Emi is compelled to travel in order to see a new memorial statue that has been unveiled to commemorate the sacrifice the comfort women made. In a beautifully written section Emi speaks to her children about Hana and the sacrifice she made.

Telling the story from the perspective of the two women effectively humanises the story. Both Hana and Emi represent an entire generation of women in Korea whose lives were irreparably impacted by their experiences during the occupation and Mary Lynn Bracht very adeptly conveys the story in a narrative that is equally bleak and hopeful. Read more about the significance of the colour white in Korean culture in The White Book by Han Kang.

White Chrysanthemum by Mary Lynn Bracht published by Chatto and Windus, 320 pages.     

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