Friday, 21 September 2018

By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham

"The Mistake is coming to stay for a while"

By Nightfall was first published in 2010 after the 1998 Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Hours. In this novel, Cunningham’s protagonist is successful 40 something New York art dealer Peter who lives a middle class metropolitan life with his wife Rebecca in an upmarket part of town. Peter’s life revolves around gallery openings and visits to wealthy clients who might just buy another piece for their ostentatious collections. But for Peter something is missing. Enter Rebecca’s younger, drug addict and Yale drop-out brother, Mizzie, "The Mistake is coming to stay for a while".

By Nightfall is, in many ways, a contemporary retelling of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice but to Michael Cunningham’s credit there is more to this novel than meets the eye. Cunningham builds on the trope of the uninvited guest to create a novel about ageing, about success and about letting go.

Just as von Aschenbach is captivated by the young Tadzio in the Lido of Venice, Peter is inexplicably drawn to Mizzie in a way that leads him to question everything in life around him. Is Peter’s affection paternalistic, an intense form of comradeship or is it something else? 

By Nightfall includes countless narrative and stylistic references to Mann’s work but Cunningham updates the idea with more grit and post millennial modernity. The novel is brilliantly structured and his New York society, more Rodin at The Met than pretzels on Broadway, is beautifully crafted. By Nightfall is a great read about the diversions that occur in life.

By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham published by Fourth Estate, 256 pages

Monday, 17 September 2018

A bit less taming and a lot less shrew

Vinegar Girl is part of a project curated by Hogarth Press which sees modern writers retell and re-imagine some of Shakespeare's most popular work. In this case The Taming of the Shrew (1590) gets the Anne Tyler treatment in this novel which relocates the story from Padua to modern day Baltimore. 

Anne Tyler knows that audiences are more than familiar with the source material whether via Shakespeare's play itself or through myriad adaptations from Cole Porter's Kiss Me Kate to the Hollywood romcom 10 Things I Hate About You. So, rather than retell the story Tyler deconstructs the elements and rebuilds the narrative for a contemporary audience with a more developed view of gender politics. 

The eponymous Vinegar Girl is  Kate Battista daughter of a scientist at Baltimore's Johns Hopkins University. When Dr Battista needs to find a way to extend the visa for his star student research assistant, Pyotr, he conceives of a plan to have him marry his daughter. This re-imagining of the courtship into a green card  marriage is believable, credible and Tyler-esque but results in a bit less taming and a lot less shrew  

Kate is headstrong, working as a teaching assistant she is frequently in trouble for speaking too honestly to the children in her care, but her demands are for the most part accepted by Pyotr which limits the humour and tension that Shakespeare creates between Petruchio and Katerina. Gone are the polarised gender roles that so defines The Taming of the Shrew. 

Though Kate's sister Bunny does appear in the story she plays a much reduced role to Shakespeare's Bianca which is an oversight as the novel could have retold the story with much greater depth. Vinegar Girl is an enjoyable read but best considered in its own right rather than as a retelling of The Taming of The Shrew for which it falls short. 

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler published by Hogarth, 272 pages

Friday, 14 September 2018

The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh

A brave and ambitious novel

Sophie Mackintosh holds no punches in her debut novel The Water Cure. Having won both The White Review's short story prize and the Virago/Stylist short story competition in 2016 for her first full length novel Mackintosh tackles the theme of patriarchy head on. 

The novel takes place on a fortified though dilapidated island where a father, know as King, raises his daughters safe from the toxic masculinity of the world outside. The girls are raised with the profound belief that any contact with men could kill them.

The dystopia of the world beyond the island is highlighted by the frequent arrivals of women who wash up on the coast of the island seeking help and salvation from the water cure itself. King and his wife, the girl's mother, maintain the safe haven of the island through an extreme form of ideological protectionism that is threatened only with the arrival of three shipwrecked men.

The narrative is told through the eyes of the three girls with each taking a chapter either individually or in pairs. Mackintosh writes with a macabre tone reminiscent of Angela Carter's short stories, indeed The Water Cure itself is a short novel punctuated by chapters from different perspectives.

Though the set up is original and highly compelling, detail around how the family found themselves on the island is scarce. At times the brevity of the prose creates chasms that leave you left to fill in the gaps yourself. Whether a deliberate attempt to emphasise the lack of answers that the girls find themselves in or the result of over editing is unclear.

The Water Cure is a brave and ambitious novel that is cements Sophie Mackintosh as a major new voice in British literature.  Possibly a Man Booker winner.

The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh published by Hamish Hamilton, 256 pages

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

So Much Life Left Over by Louis de Bernieres

The awkward middle child

Louis de Bernieres has reached a particular point in his career that many writers simply never reach. Not only can he pour over enthusiastic reviews of his bestselling novels or meet spirited fans at literature festivals the world over but he can leverage his success self-referentially by including characters from his earlier work in new novels. This is both a crowd pleasing device that takes readers back to works such as Captain Corelli's Mandolin (1994) and Notwithstanding: Stories from an English Village (2009) but also works to feed the narrative with a richness that can only come from a seasoned storyteller.

De Bernieres's new novel So Much Life Left Over is the second part of a trilogy that began with The Dust that Falls from Dreams (2015) and explores the years following the First World War from the perspective of one particular family. The novel begins with the death of a baby which sets off a chain of events between Ceylon and at home in England. 

At its best So Much Life Left Over is Dickensian in scale with its multi-generational narrative and attention to period detail. But at times the story is annoyingly plodding and too aware of its own de Bernieresness. Rambling letters only serve to unnecessarily slow the pace which is otherwise full of compelling and likeable characters, some of which we know very well. But here's the rub, can a novel that deliberately refers to previous works really stand on its own? 

Have we reached peak de Bernieres? So Much Life Left Over may end up being the awkward middle child of a triumvirate bookended by better works.

So Much Life Left Over by Louis de Bernieres published by Vintage, 288 pages

Thursday, 30 August 2018

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

Daring, honest and authentic

There are moments in Man Booker nominee Ottessa Moshfegh's new novel that bring to mind some of Bret Easton Ellis's best work. 'Ambien plus Placidyl plus Theraflu. Solfoton plus Ambien plus Dimetapp'; as the unnamed protagonist in My Year of Rest and Relaxation meticulously lists the cocktail of pills she has taken to aid her sleep the grooming regime of fellow New Yorker Patrick Bateman is brought to mind. 

Moshfegh's decision not to name her protagonist means she becomes an every-woman for post Millennial New York at the time in and around the inauguration of President George W Bush. There are hints of Eileen in the relationship with Reva who, along with Whoopi Goldberg, is one of the few constants in a life lived in between drug induced comas. This is a novel that very much responds to the self help obsession over the last couple of decades.

Characters in the novel are few but brilliantly crafted. No less in the case of therapist Dr Tuttle, 'herself a piglety shade of pink' who casually enquires 'Do you have a family history of non-binary 

The narrative moves quickly and builds to a dramatic and unforgettable conclusion that changes everything. My Year of Rest and Relaxation is daring, honest and authentic.

My Year or Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh published by Jonathan Cape, 289 pages

Sunday, 12 August 2018

The Year of the Hare by Arto Paasilinna

A comedy fable about one man's journey into the wilderness with a hare up his jumper

The Year of the Hare begins with the moment journalist Kaarlo Vatanen finds his life knocked off course by a young hare. As his car swerves to avoid the leveret on a quiet country road Vatanen is concerned that he has injured the animal and can't help himself stopping to find out.

Like Alice's White Rabbit the hare leads Vatanen on a picaresque adventure miles away from his structured professional life. The hare asks for little other than a ready supply of fresh leaves and protection from the oven, after all hare is skinned and eaten in rural Finland,  yet he offers Vatanen a mirror with which to view his own life.

The hare is a brilliant device which Paasilinna uses to create pace and to introduce new characters that drive the narrative on through various misadventures culminating in a chase over the border into the Soviet Union. The characters the pair meet along the way each in some way challenge Vatanen's perspective of the pretence that was the life he left behind.

The cover art on this new paperback edition perfectly captures the spirit of the novel. Though originally published in 1975 the story is a fresh as a daisy. The preface explains that the translation was slightly tweaked for the 7th edition in 2006 but at heart the structure and humour of the text remains unchanged. The novel has already been translated into 18 languages and appeared on the best-seller list at home in Finland and in France where a film adaptation was also produced.

This is the only book you'll read this year about one man's journey into the wilderness with a hare up his jumper. 

The  Year of the Hare by Arto Paasilinna and translated by Herbert Lomas published by Peter Owen, 144 pages

Monday, 6 August 2018

The Darkness by Ragnar Jonasson

The nights are darker, the snow drifts deeper and the crimes more brutal

Ragnar Jonasson is a crime fiction tour de force. Whilst holding down a successful portfolio career (Jonasson works as a lawyer, a copyright lecturer and a translator) he managed to deliver Nordic Noir gold with his Dark Iceland series featuring Ari Thor. As translator of Agatha Christie's work into Icelandic he has a unique insight into the mind of a crime writer but over the past few year Jonasson has established his own distinct voice. 

The Darkness marks the first appearance in English of Jonasson's protagonist Hulda Hermannsdottir. Hulda is a retiring cop being given the final push by her unsympathetic boss who reluctantly lets her investigate one last case before she retires. At 64, Hulda is older that other crime fiction leads but she's wiser and her dreams and fears are richer than those of younger characters. The truth is, Hulda Hermannsdottir is pure crime fiction perfection and Jonasson knows just how to to write a high paced thriller around her final weeks on the force.

The Darkness finds Hermansdottir reopening a cold case concerning a young Russian asylum seeker who was found dead from a suspected suicide. Unhappy with the way the case was concluded Hermannsdottir lifts the lid on the story and finds a link to the case of another missing girl. As her investigation continues she anxiously considers her own future in retirement and her new friendship with Peter. Could he be what she needs to finally put to bed the ghosts of the past?

Jonasson takes the crime fiction tropes we recognise and administers them with a sharp injection of Icelandic chill. The nights are darker, the snow drifts deeper and the crimes more brutal.

Read The Darkness now before the follow up which is due for publication in 2019
The Darkness by Ragnar Jonasson and translated by Victoria Cribb published by Michael Joseph, 336 pages

Friday, 3 August 2018

The Last Children of Tokyo by Yoko Tawada

A original fable based in a near future dystopia

Yoko Tawada's recent work Memoirs of a Polar Bear is a unique novel narrated by three generations of one polar bear family. In The Last Children of Tokyo we're in more conventional hands, from a storytelling point of view, but Tawada's unique vision is just as strong.

The two protagonists, 100 year old retired author Yoshiro and his young grandson Mumei, represent the two extremes in Tawada's Neo-Japan. With the working aged population all working in agriculture in Okinawa, Tokyo is comprised of elderly but spirited morning joggers and fragile and sick youngsters. 

"Exposure to multiple health hazards from prolonged habitation"; Tawada's vision of Tokyo is bleak. Climate change, political isolationism, disease and economic regression have left society in dysfunctional place in which the old are having to care for their ill-equipped grandchildren. This is an interesting take on the issues facing an ageing society. Whilst contemporary Japan focuses on AI solutions to care for the elderly Tawada speculates that its the young who are ultimately weak and vulnerable.

Aside from the dystopian aspects some of Tawada's city vision could prove to be prescient. Whilst cars continue to choke the streets of Shibuya today it is more and more conceivable that we'll reach 'peak car' in the not too distant future.

Tawada's satire is sharp and inescapable and could be explored over far more pages than this novella. Would be great to read a graphic novel adaptation just as the cover art suggests.

The Last Children of Tokyo by Yoko Tawada and translated by Margaret Mitsutani published by Portobello Books, 144 pages

Sunday, 29 July 2018

Room to Dream by David Lynch and Kristine McKenna

An epic blend of biography and memoir

Room to Dream is a doorstop sized tome dedicated to the career of film maker, visual artist and auteur David Lynch. As you'd expect from the 'outsider's outsider' Room to Dream is about as far from conventional biography as can be. In Lynch's take on his own life he has writer Kristine McKenna forensically piece together the narrative based on interviews with over ninety of Lynch's family and colleagues. In between each of McKenna's chapters Lynch responds with his own take on the story at times in conflict and at other times grateful for McKenna's detail which Lynch himself fails to recall.

The result is an epic blend of biography and memoir which avoids the pitfalls of an unreliable narrator by allowing a 360 degree view of the story. 

David Lynch's career is a dazzling portfolio from the spotlight of Hollywood and the scrutiny of Cannes through to his discovery of transcendental meditation and patronage of Polish art festivals. Yet its his early years in mid-west mid-century America that offers more than a glimpse into some of the tropes that recur throughout his career from Blue Velvet through to Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive

The book explores the team of long-term collaborators who form a close-knit community around Lynch from actors Laura Dern and Kyle McCloughlin to composer Angelo Badalamenti. Though Lynch is at times distant and unfaithful his collaborators consistently speak of a tenderness, a loyalty and an understanding that is unique. 

Room to Dream is a triumph in that it pulls together a body of work from a true auteur whose work is, often times, not properly understood until years after it was originally created. Regrettably, few film makers could survive today from such a string of commercially unsuccessful films yet Lynch managed to navigate a career on the very edges of the mainstream. 

Room to Dream offers front row seats on a journey into the life of one of the most creative minds of our lifetime.

Room to Dream by David Lynch and Kristine McKenna published by Canongate Books, 592 pages

Monday, 23 July 2018

Quicksand by Malin Persson Giolito

What exactly did Maja do or not do?

Malin Persson Giolito's Storst av Allt won Best Swedish Crime Novel 2016, the Glass Key Award 2017 and the prestigious Prix du Polar European on 2018. Quicksand is the English version, translation duties falling to Rachel Willson-Broyles, published to much hype last year.

Persson Giolito's premise is both contemporary and prescient. Following a school shooting massacre the narrative follows teenager girl Maja who is tried in court for her involvement along with her now dead boyfriend Sebastian. If Nordic Noir traditionally lives on the rain drenched streets of Stockholm, Quicksand is more prep schools and ponies but that's not to say that Person Giolito goes soft on suspense. Maja makes an intriguing anti-hero but what exactly did she do or not do? 

The opening scenes are amongst the best in the book. The action begins with the massacre itself and a bloody school room with 5 dead bodies and one girl, Maja, still alive. Persson Giolito reveals only enough to lead into the story and holds back on the reveals until later. In contrast to most crime fiction Quicksand is Maja's story rather than that of the detective or lawyer.

With Swedish crime fiction being so perennially loved by readers across the globe Persson Giolito's approach marks a step change from the much loved format of Nordic Noir. The narrative unfolds in episodic mode with chapters that flip backwards and forwards in time. The cover artwork on the paperback looks as if the book has already been adapted for the small screen.

Persson Giolito's career as a lawyer ensures that the narrative is authentic and believable but at times becomes a little procedural. More time could have been spent in the build up to the court scenes, the parties with rich kid Sebastian for example, rather than with the prosecution itself. The problem with Quicksand is that the main character Maja is one dimensional and for the most part difficult to empathise with. The court room scenes present her as little more than a spoilt teen yet the story itself potentially has so much more to offer.

Crime fans will, no doubt, disagree. 

Quicksand by Malin Persson Giolito (translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles) published by Simon & Schuster UK, 416 pages

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