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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Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Spring Garden by Tomoka Shibasaki

A lyrical tale about the end of an era and the neighbours you don't really know

Spring Garden is a fascinating novella that articulates the isolation of contemporary city life though the idea of the evolving soil beneath your feet. In the hyper-real urban sprawl of Tokyo Tomoka Shibasaki presents a microcosm community of residents in a mid-century apartment block who are awaiting the building's demolition.

The residents know each other by sight but only begin to get to know one another as the threat of the wrecking ball becomes real. In Shibasaki's Tokyo there is a paradox; the closer people live to one another the more they inhabit private and separate bubbles.

Two of the residents, divorcee Taro and manga artist Nishi, form a new friendship as they are amongst the last few residents in the block. As they both lament the end of the era they struggle to come to terms with the speed of change in the city; the endless digging and rebuilding which has characterised post-war Japan. "Before that this area had been fields and woods, and the leaves and fruits and berries that fell every year, as well as the little animals would also have formed layers over time, sinking down ever deeper under the ground."

Through the pages of a old photography book the pair become obsessed with a house and garden nearby that illustrates the sense of loss they both feel about their own building. Taro in particular is a recognisable character; the bored salary man who is literally going through the motions until an obscure interest piques his attention.

Tomoko Shibasaki writes a thought provoking narrative in Spring Garden which Polly Barton translates into seamless English with aplomb. The novel won the Akutagawa prize in 2014 which marked Shibasaki as new writer to watch. Once again Pushkin Press have brought more great Japanese fiction to English bookstores.

Spring Garden by Tomoka Shibasaki and translated by Polly Barton published by Pushkin Press, 160 pages.     

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Japanese cover artwork

Sunday, 1 April 2018

The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa

Packs an emotional punch for a light novel

The Travelling Cat Chronicles is not the first Japanese novel featuring a cat that I have read and reviewed and nor will it be the last given the significance of the feline narrator in Japanese fiction. From A Cat a Man and Two Women (1936) to  The Guest Cat (2014) via Murakami classics like The Wind Up Bird Chronicle (1994) and Kafka on the Shore (2002) the role of the cat can be mystical and mysterious or domestic and mundane but is always knowing. In The Travelling Cat Chronicles Hiro Arikawa uses a cat to question themes around loyalty, friendship and isolation. But what is it about this book that has led to the label 'International Bestseller' with a film adaptation in the works?

The book was originally published in Japan as Tabineko Ripoto. The story appeared in serialisation between 2011 and 2012 in wildly popular weekly magazine, and cultural barometer, Shukan Bunshun. As such, the novel is regarded as 'light fiction' in Japan which builds on the post-war pulp fiction trend. That said, translation duties fall to literary stalwart Philip Gabriel, of Murakami fame, who has mastered the art of translating Japanese into English in an accessible yet characteristically Japanese style.

The story is episodic, ideal for weekly serialisation, and Arikawa switches the narration alternatively between young man Satoru and his cat Nana. This allows for effective storytelling from two distinct viewpoints. In the story Satoru saves abandoned and injured cat Nana who reminds him of a cat he had in his childhood. The pair live together blissfully for 5 years until Satoru announces that Nana can no longer live with him and that they must embark upon a journey to find a suitable new home for her.

Satoru sets out to visit all the important people from his life so far until he finds a new guardian for his cat. Old school friends and acquaintances rake up the past for Satoru who finds the experience tough from the off. Arikawa never really explains why Satoru is so isolated when he has clearly made connections in the past. Like a cat he seems to follow his own path with little thought to loyalty.

That is until the reason for Satoru's journey becomes clear for he is terminally ill and driven by a need to find a new home for Nana until he passes away. This later part of the novel is the most successful as you come to understand that Arikawa has been simply setting the scene for an inevitable farewell.

The friendship that exists between the two is vividly real and the heartbreak viscerally real. Gabriel's translation refrains for sentimentality and instead explores the bond that can exist between a cat and a human. Nana articulates Satoru's feelings throughout the book and allows him to come to terms with his own personal history. 

Though there are more successful stories about cats in the Japanese literature canon The Travelling Cat Chronicles packs an emotional punch for a light novel.  

The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa (translated by Philip Gabriel) published by Doubleday, 256 pages.     

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Promo poster for the upcoming film adaptation

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Spring by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Life affirming stuff from the master of autobiographical fiction

Spring is the third in Knausgaard's Seasons Quartet penned for his unborn daughter. The first two books, Autumn and Winter, were a unique and personal encyclopaedia of miscellany; random musings around things that a father needs his daughter to know. In Spring however, we find a different Knausgaard explaining the family circumstances into which his new daughter will be born. 

The book tales place over the course of a single day which, as it happens, is Walpurgis Night when Swedes celebrate the arrival of Spring with singing and bonfires. With baby very nearly due emotions are running high and the reality of child number four leads to inevitable reflection. Knausgaard is renowned for revolutionising autobiographical fiction with his series My Struggle and with Spring he is back on form.

The book's key scenes take place in classic Knausgaard style. The family are staying at Ingmar Bergman's guest house on the island of Fogo when he wife's illness takes a significant change for the worse. Linda has been diagnosed with bi-polar and at times struggles to even get out of bed leaving Karl Ove to keep the wheels of family life turning alone.  

Knausgaard's idiosyncratic talent in articulating the mundane is evident throughout. On a literary festival visit to Sydney he is kept awake by jet lag and viewing the city through the dark and rain he is reminded of Bergen. In another scene Knausgaard is driving through the countryside when he is struck by a profound anxiety about his own ability as a father "It will turn out fine in the end, don't you think" he reassures himself. Life can be hard, we're told, but its always worth living.

Spring ends with a hopeful epilogue which sees Knuasgaard in a new place and with a new routine. There is always hope.

Both Autumn and Winter were intimate and frank but in Spring we find Knausgaard at his most soul baring in a work about the things that matter most to the man. Life affirming stuff from the master of autobiographical fiction.

Spring (Seasons Quartet 3) by Karl Ove Knausgaard published by Harvill Secker, 192 pages.     

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Monday, 26 March 2018

The 7th Function of Language by Laurent Binet

Sophisticated, post-modern and occasionally fun

I admit I hadn't given Roland Barthes, 'the father of semiotics', much of a second thought since University yet there I was in Hatchard's St Pancras bookstore seeing his knowing portrait on the front of Lauren Binet's new novel The 7th Function of Language. I was transported back to reading his seminal book Mythologies (1957) in an attempt to keep my Masters thesis on track.  

The novel is based on a real historical event in 1980 in which Barthes was knocked over by a laundry truck on the Rue des Ecoles in Paris after having lunch with Francois Mitterrand (then socialist candidate for the French presidency). Whilst the event itself did take place the novel imagines a fictional world around the incident in an international conspiracy romp somewhere between Dan Brown and Ian Fleming.

Investigating the case are Detective Jaques Bayard and young semiotician Simon Herzog who join forces to investigate their murder theory whilst uncovering the secrets around Barthes claim that there exists a 7th function of language; that of powerful and all controlling persuasion. The adventure takes the pair from gay saunas to literary salons as they encounter the grand-fathers of postmodernism, Michael Foucoult, Jean-Paul Satre and Umberto Eco hopping around the globe from Paris to Bologna, Venice and Ithaca. With the KGB and Bulgarian secret service also in hot pursuit the pair run into trouble at every corner. Its exhausting, occasionally hilarious but on the whole all a bit too confusing.

Binet's blend of crime and academia leaves the reader at risk of being a little short changed. Those looking for a high octane thriller will want more from the Logos Club story line and might find the narrative plodding in places whilst those craving a dose of semiotic theory will find that the novel only scratches the surface.

Where Binet does succeed however,  is in building a work of fiction around a real life event. With social media driving fear and distrust around 'news' (and 'fake news') Barthes theories around the use of language and symbols to change behaviour and minds is startlingly relevant. The result is a curious novel about 1980s academia that's firmly in the zeitgeist.

The 7th Function of Language is a sophisticated, post-modern and occasionally fun novel from a Prix Goncourt winning author whose attention to period detail (including lobsters on leashes) is worthy of Barthes himself.

Translation duties fall to Sam Taylor who is on somewhat of a roll this year having also translated Lullaby by Leila Slimani.
The 7th Function of Language by Laurent Binet and translated by Sam Taylor published by Harvill Secker, 400 pages.     

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Sunday, 25 March 2018

The Only Story by Julian Barnes

"Most of us have only one story to tell"

Julian Barnes's new novel The Only Story returns to familiar literary territory, following last year's The Noise of Time is which Barnes explored the life of composer Dmitri Shostakovich in a fictional biography. The protagonist in The Only Story is Paul a characteristically Barnesian soul who, as an older man, reflects on a largely unfulfilled life. For The Only Story, Barnes choses a quote from Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language (1755) as the epigraph "Novel: A small tale, generally of love".

The novel is made up of three parts. The first, told in the first person, takes place in the 1960s and sees 19 year old Paul meet and fall in love with a much older woman, Susan, who he meets at the village tennis club. Scandal rocks this Metroland commuter-belt village where an uncomplicated social system exists; "For each ailment there was a simple remedy". In spite of this the relationship develops and Susan leaves her husband, Gordon, and moves up to London to live with Paul in a flat.

In the second part, years pass and the age difference between the two becomes more pronounced as Paul is mistaken for Susan's lodger or nephew on a number of occasions. Over time Susan succumbs to steady and profound alcoholism which Barnes describes vividly but never bitterly thanks in part to Susan's gin-soaked friend Joan who honesty articulates the loneliness of being the older 'other' women. When Joan becomes widowed by her yapping dogs your heart breaks. Paul stands by Susan stoically; "We don't talk about our love; we merely know that it is there, unarguably, that it is what it is".

The third section is perhaps the most successful. Told in the third person Paul reflects on his own personal story and on the nature of love itself; "Perhaps love could never be captured in a definition; it could only ever be captured in a story". Just when you're beginning to wonder whether we need another novel about a older white male looking back on his life you remember that this is Julian Barnes who writes irresistibly prose with emotional accuracy that's rare to find in modern literature.

The Only Story is actually a story about four people; Paul, Susan, Joan and Gordon who have all failed in love in one way or another but isn't that the point? As Paul notes, then crosses out and re-writes, "It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all".

Dr Johnson's description remains intact, The Only Story is very much a small tale, generally of love.

The Only Story by Julian Barnes published by Jonathan Cape, 224 pages.     

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Thursday, 22 March 2018

We Were the Salt of the Sea by Roxanne Bouchard

An alluring ode to the ocean

Less than ten pages in to Roxanne Bouchard’s novel We Were the Salt of the Sea I'm consulting Google Maps to locate the Gaspe Peninsular, the setting of this new crime thriller. Turns out Gaspe is an outlying region of Eastern Quebec at the mouth of the mighty St Lawrence river on which sits both Montreal and Quebec City and what an enigmatic setting it turns out to be curtesy of Bouchard's lyrical pen.

We Were the Salt of the Sea is Bouchard’s fifth novel though the first to be translated from French into English. Translation duties fall to the capable hands of Canadian resident francophile David Warriner. 

The novel concerns Montrealer Catherine Day who arrives in Gaspe in search of the truth. Catherine is on a personal voyage of discovery to understand more about her birth mother by immersing herself in the town and the community her mother called home. 

Early action comes in the form of a woman's body dredged up in a fisherman’s net. The body is that of Marie Garant, a nomadic and elusive sailor known to all in the town as a mysterious beauty. So begins the crime aspect of the story. Detective Sergeant Joaquin Morales arrives on the scene with a bizarre back story about moving to Montreal from Mexico city which could have been more fully developed. In any case the investigation itself proves to be more of a side story to Catherine’s self discovery which is more interesting. 

Catherine meets the town’s inhabitants in cafes and along the wharf and almost one by one they reveal increasingly tantalising knowledge which Catherine soaks up like a briny sponge. She is at once in awe of the sea and afraid of the secrets it conceals as the truth ebbs and flows like the tide. The novel is clearly well researched, Bouchard herself lives in Quebec and learned to sail on the St Lawrence, but at times begs the question; when does authenticity just get in the way of the story? Bouchard’s attempt to capture the quebecois dialect is at times distracting, at least when translated into English, and wouldn’t have been missed if toned down a little.

At its best We Were the Salt of the Sea is an alluring ode to the ocean and to the secrets that lay beneath the waves. As a crime novel it lacks pace but as a novel about self discovery it is more successful.   
We Were the Salt of the Sea by Roxanne Bouchard and translated by David Warriner published by Orenda Books, 300 pages.     

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Sunday, 25 February 2018

Lullaby by Leila Slimani

A psychological thriller about any parent's worst nightmare

The premise of Lullaby is wickedly effective; how would you respond, as a parent, when your baby is harmed by the very person you trusted to protect them? The story begins with a murder; a shocking and chilling premise that creates real pace from the off but does knowing 'who did it' from the beginning pay off in the end?

In Leila Slimani's novel successful French-Moroccan lawyer Myriam and her husband Paul, in the up-market 10th Arrondissement of Paris, employ a nanny to take care of their daughter and baby son. Myriam is a brilliant lawyer who 'always dreamed of courtrooms'. Whilst preparing for the bar exam she obsessed about the trial of serial killer Michel Fourniret, L'Ogre des Ardennes, who murdered 8 women and girls between 1987 and 2001. Yet Myriam openly welcomes Louise, a relative stranger, into her family's lives.

Before long the family become dependent, the kids adore her and boundaries between nanny and friend begin to blur.  Louise, a white women in her 40s travels in to town each day from the sprawling banlieus on the outskirts of the city to work. At the park she struggles to fit in with the other nannies who view her with caution being culturally distant from the other Asian and African women. Myriam hadn't wanted to employ a North African nanny 'she had always been wary of what she calls immigrant solidarity'.

As the story builds we see glimpses of doubt from both Myriam and her husband; when Louise stays over in the family house, though they are away on holiday, the couple are unnerved and when Louise encourages Myriam's daughter to try make-up Paul is furious. But the kids love their nanny, 'She is Vishnu, the nurturing divinity, jealous and protective, the she-wolf at whose breast they drink'.

If there is a problem with Lullaby it lies in the absence of any real explanation for the murder. Louise's apparent break down is barely covered and her motivation is left to the reader to determine. In truth, Lullaby is less about the murder and more about a new and contemporary perspective on Paris in which immigrant stereotypes are subverted. This refreshing view point surely goes some way to explain why Slimani is so successful at home in France and an ambassador for the French language having been recruited by President Macron. 

The book cover effectively heightens the hype around this novel, the baby blue blouse and the title Lullaby at first seem whimsical until you read the copy 'The baby is dead. It took only a few seconds' and suddenly you're appraising the cover. The Peter Pan collar in the artwork is frighteningly reminiscent of Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby (1968). Lullaby sold by the bucket loads in France and now works just as dramatically in translation into English by Sam Taylor.

Lullaby by Leila Slimani and translated by Sam Taylor published by Faber and Faber, 224 pages.     

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Friday, 9 February 2018

Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong

A poet clearly in control of his medium

This year's winner of the TS Eliot prize for poetry is a startling and unique new voice that will doubtless make waves at home in the US and all around the World. Ocean Vuong's highly personal collection of poems, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, is a post-modern collection of lyric and prose poetry around the themes of war, sex and immigration.

Ocean Vuong's biography goes someway to explain his distinct voice. Born in Ho Chi Minh City in 1988 he made his way to the US as a refugee. As the first person in his family to speak English proficiently his achievement in this book is extraordinary. Night Sky with Exit Wounds includes the heart beats of other Vietnamese poets, namely Nguyen Chi Thien, but its Vuong himself who uses the English language in his own way to tell his truth. Night Sky with Exit Wounds is Vuong's debut full-length collection and was first published in the US in 2016.

The work blends classic Western prose poetry with Far East influences, shades of Tanka and Haiku, to create a post modern form that rejects traditional forms and structures. Most of the work is set in the US though there are glimpses of an earlier life in Vietnam.

Brooklyn's too cold tonight
& all my friends are three years away.
My mother said I could be anything
I wanted - but I chose to live.

Vuong cleverly uses a number of graphical devices to bring his voice to life from the minimalism of Seventh Circle of Earth which is reduced down only to notes to the broken cadence of Of Thee I Sing.

Vuong isn't afraid to reveal his influences, the collection's notes and acknowledgments contain myriad references from American/Indonesian poet  Li-Young Lee through to Luther Vandross, Ocean Vuong is a writer clearly in control of his medium.

A finger's worth of dark from daybreak, he steps
into a red dress. A flame caught
in a mirror the width of a coffin. Steel glinting
in the back of his throat, A flash of white

Discover Ocean Vuong's work here and via the clip below

Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong published by Jonathan Cape, 96 pages.     

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Monday, 5 February 2018

The White Book by Han Kang

An intensely personal blend of fiction, autobiography and stark photography

'Swaddling bands, newborn gown, salt, snow, ice, moon, rice, waves'; The White Book is a meditation on the colour white from Booker International Prize winning Korean author Han Kang. Over the course of 130 or so pages of short prose pieces Kang weaves together seemingly individual responses to a list of white things 'With each item I wrote down, a ripple of agitation ran through me, I felt that yes, I needed to write this'.

With its blend of fiction, highly personal auto-biographical elements and stark monochrome photography this is an experimental and immersive novel without a clear narrative structure. That said, the book is thematically cohesive and elegantly structured.  

Translating duties again fall to the talented Deborah Smith who not only brings the prose to life in English but effortlessly captures the significance of the colour white in Korea to readers. As one of the five cardinal colors, stemming from principles of Confucianism and Buddhism, white has particular symbolic significance in Korea. White is still worn for weddings, new years, celebrations and funerals; a theme with Kang explores through the birth and death of the narrator's elder sister. 

Kang began to work on The White Book whist undertaking a writing residency in Warsaw. The city itself, ravaged by World War II, provokes distant memories from her own family history which Kang faces head on in. The book begins with 'swaddling bands' and ends with 'shroud' as the narrator reflects on her elder sister, her onni, who was born and died 2 hours after being born. 'This life needed only one of us to live it', the narrator reflects.

The book moves at pace and at times you'll want to reread passages and whole sections to savour the images and meaning Kang conjures from a simple object like a grain of rice or a feather. The White Book is an intensely personal and moving book about the fragility of life told through the purity and austerity of the colour white. 

The White Book by Han Kang published by Portobello Books, 130 pages.     

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Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Slow Boat by Hideo Furukawa

A niggling sense of deja vu in this literary remix

A short way in to Hideo Furukawa's novella Slow Boat you might recognise a niggling sense of deja vu; an unnamed narrator comes to terms with his reality, trapped in the metropolis of Tokyo, which he recounts through the lens of his three most significant relationships. Furukawa'a novella Slow Boat is in fact a remix, yes it says so in the cover notes, of a short story by Haruki Murakami, Slow Boat to China, which appears in English in his collection The Elephant Vanishes (2003). 

In Murakami's story an unnamed narrator recalls the three most influential Chinese people he has met in his life and muses over whether he will ever see China himself. Furukawa uses Slow Boat to China as a starting point for a new story that picks up on some of the themes introduced by Murakami begging the question; how far can a contemporary Japanese writer really stray from the mighty Murakami?

Furukawa's novella contains Murakami tropes throughout;  the musical references, the loner narrator and the idiosyncratic women (like Knife girl and Areola girl), he meets along the way but don't be fooled, this is far more than mere literary homage. 

In both stories Tokyo is presented as a mega city navigated by sprawling subway lines but Furukawa explores this theme more acutely. In  Slow Boat the circular Yamamoto line protects the inner sanctum of the city much like the fortifications of Edo period Tokyo and is one of several physical barriers to overcome when escaping the city. Following two failed attempts to leave our narrator essentially gives up and decides to open a restaurant. The venture is about finding personal space and sanctuary; 'an autonomous region ... a place to fill with the music and smells and flavours that Tokyo can't handle'.

The three relationship stories are interspersed with chronicles, we find out the reason later, that demonstrate time passing in the story which begins from a teenage perspective and moves through to that of an adult. This adds another dimension to the story that is distinctly Furukawa in origin. The world around is changing and yet the city continues to exert a gravitational pull.

Slow Boat packs a punch for a short novella and David Boyd's translation feels natural and pacy in spite of the narrators own concern about the effectiveness of his story; 'I wonder if the Japanese language can do justice to my dreams now?' Whether viewed as a remix, an homage or as a stand alone novella, Slow Boat delivers and showcases Hideo Furakawa as a major voice in J-Lit.

Slow Boat by Hideo Furukawa and translated by David Boyd published by Pushkin Press, 128 pages.     

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