Thursday, 30 August 2018

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

Daring, honest and authentic

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 12 August 2018

The Year of the Hare by Arto Paasilinna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 6 August 2018

The Darkness by Ragnar Jonasson

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 3 August 2018

The Last Children of Tokyo by Yoko Tawada

A original fable based in a near future dystopia

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

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

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

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

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

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