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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