Friday, 20 March 2020

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones

'My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist', Tayari Jones begins as she means to go on by immediately dropping us in to the heart of the action with real urgency.

Silver Sparrow is the new and much anticipated novel from Tayari Jones who achieved massive success and critical acclaim with her novel American Marriage (2019). Coming off the back of such a landmark novel was never going to be easy but in Silver Sparrow we are back in the type of domestic drama that Tayari Jones articulates so effortlessly.

For her epigraph, Jones choses a poem by Natasha Tretheway A Daughter is a Colony to set us up for a journey about what it is to be somebody's daughter and, furthermore, to be somebody's secret daughter.  

Like American Marriage, the narrative in Silver Sparrow is told through multiple voices but interesting in this new work is the way two half-sisters, Dana and Chaurisse, tell their own stories. In alternating chapters they tell the historic backstory of how their parents got together as if through their very own experience. 

In concurrent stories of family secrets and deception the girls' own perspective on how they came to be in the world mythologises their father and highlights the heroism and self-curation that exists in the way we tell our own stories. Jones understands the way histories are shared and uses this technique to shine a light on the complicty that exists in bigamous relationships. 

The novel is most successful in exploring the theme of bigamy from the perspective of the women most closely involved, in this case the second wife and 'secret' daughter. The parts in Dana's mother's salon, The Pink Fox, are particuarly immersive into the authentic world Jones creates. 

Convincing messy family drama told with real class. 4 star

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones published by Oneworld Publications 368 pages

Thank you to One World for the advanced review copy and for supplying the below extract from an interview with Tayari Jones.

What was your inspiration for Silver Sparrow?

I have always been intrigued by the idea of half sisters. I have two sisters with whom I share a father, but we each have different mothers. They were born before my father met my mother, and they grew up in another state and led completely separate lives from me and from each other. When I was a little girl, with only brothers, I used to fantasize about having two big sisters far away who would love me, dress me up, listen to me talk, et cetera.

The link between my own personal obsession and this fictional story was inspired quite accidentally. While enjoying a night out with a bunch of friends, we were discussing one of the many cases you hear abouta man dies and the other grieving widow shows up with her stair-step kids. One of my girlfriends looked up from her margarita and said, You know, he had to have some help from the inside. You cannot get local bigamy off the ground unless one of the women is willing to work with you.It was all I could do to keep from running out of the bar to get home and start writ- ing. The first line, “My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist,jumped into my head, as clearly as though someone had spoken into my ear.

Sunday, 1 March 2020

The February Shortlist

The February shortlist....

‘My key works but you won't let me in’
Tayari Jones, 'American Marriage' 5/5

Last month's stack featured award winning fiction from the USA's Tayari Jones, a debut novel from Chinese writer An Yu and a state of the nation tome from Jonathan Coe but first the follow up to The Atocha Station (4 star review here) by Ben Lerner. 

The 10:04 by Ben Lerner
‘Like a poem... neither fiction nor nonfiction, but a flickering between them’. Lerner’s autofiction is addictive but annoyingly slow in places. Mini essays on Whitman and Reagan’s address after the Challenger disaster standout 3/5

Middle England by Jonathan Coe
A well-read romp through life from the 2012 Olympics to the referendum and beyond. Rich observation and wit make for a cosy suburban tonic to McEwan's 'The Cockroach'. Coe fans will meet old characters from 'The Rotters Club' but new fans will find faces they certainly recognise 4/5

American Marriage by Tayari Jones
‘My key works, but you won’t let me in’ A brilliantly crafted story about being the ‘wrong race in the wrong place’. Nuanced, contemporary and relevant 5/5

Braised Pork by An Yu
An Yu’s new novel portrays a young women alienated in Beijing following the unexplained death of her husband. With a debt to Murakami the journey from the city to Tibet is packed with magical realism and late night drinks. Succinct but never curt 5/5

Tuesday, 11 February 2020

The January shortlist

The January shortlist....

‘But when you boil a story down, you end up with something macabre. All stories end the same way, don’t they?’ Rebecca Makkai

The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai (2018)

Alternative chapters set in 1980s Chicago and Paris in the mid 2000s chart the AIDS crisis and the impact on one particular family. Epic in scale and forensic in detail yet not fully achieving the emotional depth the subject really deserves 3/5

Until the Coffee Gets Cold
by Toshikazu Kawaguchi (2018)

A brilliant premise that shines a light on the challenges of an ageing society and the shadow of dementia. But the novel is flawed by a tripartite structure that feels written for the stage. Hoped for more from a Japanese bestseller 2/5

Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner (2011)

Ben Lerner’s brand of auto-fiction won’t be for everyone but this is an original novel about a poetry student (and flâneur) floating around Madrid, visiting the Prado, reading Lorca, faking Spanish and contemplating the purpose of life. What’s not to love? 4/5

Under The Net by Iris Murdoch (1954)

Iris Murdoch’s evergreen debut novel is as fresh today as when first published in 1954. Episodic comedy wrapped up in philosophical criticism; the novel explores the unexpected on the streets on London. One to read and read again 4/5

Tuesday, 17 December 2019

Find Me by Andre Aciman

"We weren’t courting each other but an implicit something seemed to hover between us"

The anticipation around Andre Aciman’s follow up his 1995 novel Call Me By Your Name was palpable from the moment the work was announced. Not only did the film adaptation fuel demand for more from Elio and Oliver but the excitement around the possible film sequel sent fans into a frenzy. With the hard-back book now published the question is whether all the hype is worth it?

In Find Me Aciman tales us back into the cultured and acedemic world he first created in the original novel but the first chapters pick up the story with Elio’s father at the centre. On a train journey he meets and, almost unfeasibly, falls in love with an enigmatic woman on the seat opposite. Admittedly this is literary fiction but there is something unrewarding about a couple meeting in such a way. Its almost lazy.

Later in the novel we catch up with Elio who is working as a classical musician in Paris. He is lost and reflective about the relationships of this past, most notably with Oliver, but nevertheless he meets and falls in love with an older man who he meets at a concert. Again, a leap in imagination is required to accept this relationship for what it is. Given the tenderness and longing Aciman created in Call Me By Your Name we know he can write beguiling prose but in Find Me such passages are few and far between.

It takes until the novel’s final chapter for Elio and Oliver to meet up in scenes which are finally reminiscent of the original novel and the subsequent film. The trouble is that it’s barely worth the wait. Is ‘Find Me’ a bad novel? Perhaps not but it does suffer from over selling by the publishers who are so desperate to give audiences what they want.
Let’s hope the film adaption, which will certainly need a more developed screen play, doesn’t suffer the same fate. 2 star

Read a review of Aciman’s Enigma Variations here.

Find Me by Andre Aciman published by Faber and Faber 256 pages

Tuesday, 26 November 2019

Painter to the King by Amy Sackville

"And somewhere the painter, still, observing"

Amy Sackville's novel Painter to the King fictionalises the life and career of Diego Velasquez the official and favourite court painter to Spain's Philip IV.

Through both biographical and art history elements Sackville brings to life the meteoric rise of the talented painter who moved from Seville to the court of Madrid in pursuit of artistic success. 

Enabled by the drama of the court and the audacity of the King, Velasquez has opportunity to paint quotidian scenes from the inner sanctum of the court as well as grand portraits of the King himself used to control the population and to raise funds for war. Sackville's portrayal of Velasquez is one of a confidante to a king with unlimited access to both the private and public life of the Monarch; "And somewhere the painter, still, observing".

Occasionally the narrative is interrupted by the voice of the author as she follows in Velasquez's footsteps through modern Madrid. This device is confusing at first but works in the context of a historical novel which never loses sight of its unique and distinct voice.

Less successful are the thumbnail black and white details from the paintings which are reductive and unnecessary given that even the simplest of searches will reveal the world of Velasquez on screen 4⭐️

Painter to the King by Amy Sackville published by Granta Books 336 pages

Thursday, 14 November 2019

The Cockroach by Ian McEwan

"A novella for our times"

'That morning, Jim Sams, clever but by no means profound, woke from uneasy dreams to find himself transformed into a gigantic creature'

The Cockroach takes Kafka's Metamorphosis as the starting point for a novel about a man who turns into cockroach, only in McEwan's world this man is the Prime Minister. With a country bitterly divided by an existential decision, in this case it's the economic theory of Reversalism, a dysfunctional government struggles to find any semblance of a solution.

If this all sounds familiar you'll enjoy McEwan's intelligent satire on Britain in 2019. For literary fans the Kafka adaptation is a bit of a misnomer as there is little beyond the opening scene. 

So contemporary is this novella that the publishers must have literally been stacking the shelves as the ink dried. 3⭐️

The Cockroach by Ian McEwan published by Vintage 112 pages

Sunday, 10 November 2019

The Wolf and the Watchman by Niklas Natt Och Dag

"Dark Scandi-Noir through unique, and authentic, lens"

Niklas Natt Och Dag's debut novel was a huge hit when published at home in Sweden as 1793. The novel's success with readers is doubtless Natt Och Dag's blend of the darkest elements of Scandi crime thrillers with the best aspects of historical fiction. The result is a detective novel like no other on the bookshelves.

Natt och Dag is uniquely positioned to write a novel set in 18th Century Stockholm given that he can trace his own lineage to one of the oldest aristocratic families in Sweden. These are dark times for Stockholm, with Europe gripped by the aftermath of the French Revolution, the establishment is rocked and social unrest creates an atmosphere of fear.

The Stockholm presented in the novel is a filthy city of crime, filth and poverty brought to life credibly in settings such as 'The Perdition', a pub with a  mural on the wall barely visible through the soot  in which 'Peasants and burghers, noblemen and priests, join hands around a skeleton who is playing a fiddle as black as tar'.

The story is told from the perspectives of several characters whose truths overlap in the narrative. Amputee war veteran Mickel Cardell is first to discover a body in 'The Larder', a lake just South of the city walls. This macabre scene sets the tone for a story that is brutal, violent and horrific throughout. Mickel's investigative partner is brilliant young lawyer Cecil Winge who is so ill with consumption that this case could be the one and only chance for him to make a name for himself.

At times the story loses track at it wends and weaves through Anna Stina's story in the workhouse but stick with it as the plot neatly comes together when the identity of the body is revealed. A strong stomach is required for some of the most macabre scenes, make no mistake.

Dark Scandic-Noir with through a unique and authentic historical lens  4⭐️

The Wolf and The Watchman by Niklas Natt Och Dag published by John Murray 416 pages

Tuesday, 29 October 2019

Quichotte by Salman Rushdie

"I'm black and white in a full colour universe"

Salman Rushdie's Booker Prize nominated novel Quichottte (pronounced key-SHOT) is a contemporary road-trip novel inspired by Cervantes' Don Quixote (1605). In Rushdie's update a pharmaceutical salesman 'of Indian origin, advancing years and retreating mental powers' sets off, with his son Sancho, across America in search of his obsession, Bollywood actress turned TV star Salma R.

The road-trip itself takes in myriad towns across the US allowing Rushdie the perfect opportunity to use his literature to comment on Trumpism, celebrity culture, climate change, xenophobia and the opioid crisis. As a state of the nation piece this is insightful, intelligent and, at times, highly entertaining writing with  level of satire that Cervantes would doubtless applaud. Yet with Salman Rushdie there is typically more at play. 

The road-trip is framed as a story within a story about a second rate spy writer, with the pen name Sam DuChamp, who creates the character Quichotte and his son Sancho who is invisible to everyone but his father. This narrative flourish, with a nod to the Cervantes source text, proves essential as the story becomes increasingly fantastic - at one point a talking cricket appears to console Sancho in a tribute to Pinocchio, later the inhabitants of one town transform into mastodons, the mammoth like creatures whose fossilised remains turn up across North America, as their ideology becomes increasingly prehistoric. 

If there is a problem with Quichotte it is that Rushdie tries to do too much with the story. Though there are road trip elements the novel has more in common with the surrealist melancholy of Haruki Murakami or Franz Kafka; 'I'm black and white in a full colour universe' Sancho realises as he tries to understand his nature. 

There are times when Rushdie's own voice becomes over-bearing as the writer of the novel speaks about the spy thriller writer who has written a story about a salesman, its exhausting. Nontheless, overall Quichotte is an expertly told story that rides the zeitgeist like a modern day Don Quixote. 

Remarkable, challenging and thought provoking 4.5⭐️

Quichotte by Salman Rushdie published by Jonathan Cape 416 pages

Saturday, 26 October 2019

The Need by Helen Philips

"That's what fossils from dead lineages are.... messengers from alternate realities"

A desperately busy mother finds herlself stretched to the limits. Childcare and breast-feeding demands vie for attention with the strange fossils she is unearthing at work as a paleobotanist; an ancient coke bottle, toy soldiers with monkey tails, a bible with all devine pronouns changed to 'she'. 

When an intruder enters the family home we're left wondering ,is this the reality or the work of an over whelmed mind?

Disturbing, fascinating and utterly unique 4⭐️

The Need by Helen Philips published by Chatto and Windus 272 pages

Saturday, 19 October 2019

Lie With Me by Philipe Besson

"I am this young man there, in the winter of Barbezieux"

Philippe Besson's Lie With Me is a beautifully written love story told from the perspective of a writer who is transported back to school by a chance encounter in the bar of a hotel.

The flashback part of the story is set in a small town, Barbezieux, in France in 1984 where an awkward seventeen year old boy Philippe gazes at his school mate Thomas as he leans against a wall with his 'shaggy hair, the hint of a beard and a serious look'. Barbezieux is 'from a bygone era, a dying city, a past without glory' yet in this unlikely setting a passionate relationship develops between the boys. 

The structure of the novel is well conceived. A middle aged Philippe spots a young man who immediately transports him back to his first experience of love at school. The young man, Philippe discovers, is Thomas's son Lucas. 

That such events were to unfold in this unremarkable town to this unremarkable boy are told with innocence by Besson whose prose is never over the top. Both passion and shame are vividly portrayed with understated intimacy.

The fact that the novel is translated from the French by Eighties movie icon, and francophile, Molly Ringwald is a boon. 

A tender and innocent book you'll want to read in one sitting 4⭐️ 

Lie with Me by Philippe Besson published by Penguin 160 pages

Monday, 14 October 2019

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

A few short words about an epic read

Herman Melville's literary landmark novel, Moby Dick (1851), is a whale sized read. Not only are the 720 pages themselves daunting but a cursory flick through reveals just how dense Melville's writing is combing literary fiction with essay and encyclopaedia in a unique tome. So what is the experience of cracking the spines on a novel like Moby Dick today?

First up the novel is a classic adventure story with action, heroes and episodic thrills as novice seaman Ishmael joins an experienced whaling crew lead by Captain Ahab. From Nantucket to the South China Sea Captain Ahab obsessively leads his crew across the globe in search of the legendary great white whale Moby Dick.

The crew of The Pequod itself are a diverse group of men. Whalers from New England work alongside harpooners from the Pacific and sailors from Asia. For a novel set in the 1850's Melville's cast are drawn from especially distinct backgrounds but its the relationship between narrator Ishmael and crew mate Queequeg which is the most interesting. Early in the novel the pair agree to share a bunk and to essentially live together in a same sex marriage; "He pressed his forehead against mine, clasped me round the waist, and said that henceforth we were married". Over 100 years before the US Enterprise, The Pequod was leading the way on diversity and inclusion.

Perhaps the most memorable element of the experience is losing yourself in a truly immersive book. Melville expertly allows the reader to see the world through the eyes of Ishmael whose naivety and youth permit the switch from prose fiction style chapters to the essays. In this way we learn about the World, about the 'taxonomy of cetecea' and the intricacies of whaling through the eyes of a young man who is literally a sponge.

Everything about Moby Dick is exceptional no less its legacy given that Melville himself died in obscurity in 1891 before the book was celebrated as a classic.  

Broad in ambition and rich in achievement 5⭐️ 

Moby Dick by Herman Melville published by Penguin Classics 720 pages