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