Wednesday, 24 October 2018

Normal People by Sally Rooney

Normal People (Hardback)

'Boy meets girl' disrupted in a modern romance

Sally Rooney’s Man Booker nominated novel is a modern romance set largely in Dublin but beginning near Sligo with two teenagers, Connell and Marianne. The two get to know one another as Connell’s mum works as a cleaner in the mansion where Marianne lives with her distant mother and abusive brother. The pair form a secret relationship bound together by the discovery of sex.

Connell is smart, perceptive and firmly a part of the in-crowd whilst Marianne exists awkwardly on the fringes. The pair hardly acknowledge one another at school let alone admit to their relationship.

Later the pair both move to Trinity College in Dublin to study. Though Marianne is his constant, their relationship becomes increasingly on and off again as they navigate a new and uncertain social scene. This is where Rooney’s writing is at its most poignant capturing the everyday insecurities and self-doubt that many experience. For Connell the uncertainty of modern love is more pronounced as he struggles to fit in with the college social scene and finds relationships, with anyone other than Marianne, empty and wanting.

Amongst the many salient themes that Sally Rooney raises in the novel are mental health and social mobility but most successfully she captures Connell’s coming of age from determined and confident teenager in Sligo to hesitant and insecure student at Trinity College. In this respect the novel is as much bildungsroman as literary fiction.

Normal People is an effortless read in which the boy meets girl trope is disrupted for a world in which the boundaries of friendship and romance are blurred.

Normal People by Sally Rooney published by Faber and Faber, 288 pages

Monday, 22 October 2018

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

Convenience Store Woman (Paperback)

A clever novella that Challenges age and gender stereotypes

Along with ubiquitous vending machines, brightly lit convenience stores are a staple of Japanese urban landscapes. From snacks and drinks to umbrellas and crisp white shirts the likes of Hudson, Family Mart and 7 Eleven are always on hand to get you through the working day or to get you out of a fix.

Despite their functional esteem, working in a convenience store is not regarded as a viable or aspirational career. Consequently, employees are a transient bunch with a tenure of months rather than years. Convenience Store Woman is about an employee, Keiko, who bucks the trend by devoting years in service to her community. But is Keiko's loyal servitude masking something about her own life?

The key theme in the novel is around the value placed on service roles in Japan versus white collar career positions. Even her own family urge her to get a 'proper' job suggesting that she has needed therapy since a childhood incident that that left a black mark by her name.

Keiko wonders what life would be life if she does conform to the lifestyle expected of her. In an attempt to take control of her own life Keiko begins a relationship with Shiraha, a fellow convenience store worker, whom she agrees to live with but ultimately she struggles to resist the role of servitude that she is so proud to hold. At one point, having given up work, she finds herself rearranging products on the shelves to improve their appeal.

In Convenience Store Woman Sayaka Murata successfully flips the status on the ever-present sound of "Irasshaimase" which is what, in fact, keeps mega-cities like Tokyo working. This a clever novella that challenges gender and age stereotypes whilst shining a light on a society coming to terms with its own problems with over-work.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata and translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori published by Portobello Books, 176 pages

Monday, 15 October 2018

Sabrina by Nick Drnaso

Read in one sitting but remember for much longer

Nick Drnaso made history this year when his novel Sabrina was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. As the first graphic novel to make the long-list Drnaso has broken the Man Booker mould in a work that pushes boundaries in storytelling and in style.

The story begins in Chicago with a young girl, Sabrina, cat sitting for a friend and chatting to her sister. The tone is suburban and quotidian with little indication of what's to come. Next we meet Teddy who arrives in Colorado to stay with his friend, Airman Calvin, whilst he recovers from a break up.

The pages that follow meticulously present a troubling story about a missing girl and the conspiracy theories that circulate virally online as the story breaks in the media. At all times the narrative is executed beautifully in the simple lines of Drnaso's illustrations that are beautifully expressive.
The medium allows for the awkward silences between Teddy and Calvin to really resonate. There are frames without any dialogue that linger with profound realism. Likewise the muted colour palette or pale pinks and beige effortlessly conveys the banality of strip-light life in Colorado.

Sabrina is a novel for 2018; with its themes of social media and 24hr news cycles Drnaso knows how to use existing social tension to tell a story. But its the theme of trust, and specifically who to trust. that makes this novel a story of our times.  

Drnaso is a huge talent that I suspect has a bucket full of stories in his head

Sabrina by Nick Drnaso published by Drawn and Quarterly, 204 pages

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Palm Beach Finland by Antti Tuomainen

Pink flamingos in the Winter

A few chapters in to the latest Antti Tuomainen and you'll be forgiven for thinking you'd lost the plot. Palm Beach Finland concerns a visionary (read crazy) property developer attempting to recreate Palm Beach in chilly Finland. But that's not all, this dreamland then becomes central to a murder investigation. Jan Nymen is sent from the covert National Central Police to investigate amongst the plastic palm trees and rubber rings at the 'hottest beach in Finland'.

Palm Beach Finland is everything you'd expect from the writer of last year's The Man Who Died (2017), with Tuomaimen you get crime and caper all wrapped up in a decidedly Finnish packet. In this case a murder mystery novel with black humour as witty as pink flamingos in the winter.

Tuomainen has a distinctive style which David Hackston must work really hard to adapt into English, hats off to him. At times the surreal humour gets in the way of the narrative which is more driven by the unique setting that any any of the characters.That said Palm Beach Finland is a fun read for crime fiction fans looking for something to brighten their Autumn stacks.

For Tuomainen at his darkest try a different piece of Finnish Noir with The Mine (2015) but for now at least the bright cover art of Palm Beach Finland will cheer up your bedside table this October

Palm Beach Finland by Antti Tuomainen published by Orenda, 300 pages

Friday, 5 October 2018

The End of the Moment We Had by Toshiki Okada

So much human emotion in a highly stylised and succinct novella

Toshiki Okada's The End of the Moment we Had is a straight forward novella about two people who meet and experience a short lived yet hyper-intense relationship. But in this novella the narrative is only part of the experience as Okada's writing style, which combines elements from both fiction and theatre, steals the show. 

At the beginning of the novel we meet a group of six guys heading for a night out in the Roppongi district of Tokyo. They brag and banter with each other as they make their way into club but at a certain point the narrative locks onto one of the men in particular as he watches a performance in the club and then meets a girl.

Just when we're settled onto a single narrator Okada switches again though this time its to the girl. As the pair leave the club Okada establishes that this is a story about one couple amidst the teeming population of Tokyo.  

As news breaks of the US led air-strikes on Baghdad and the streets of Tokyo hum to the crowds of anti-war protests the couple retreat to a love hotel which becomes a home for their relationship to play out. Once the door to their room is closed they forget the world outside as the love hotel becomes a simulacrum for a world distilled down only to sex and conversation.

Just as the love hotel is an idiosyncratic Japanese concept so to is Okada's style of writing which covers so much story and so much human emotion in a highly stylised and succinct novella.  Another brilliant slice of Japanese fiction brought to the UK by Pushkin Press.   

The End of The Moment We Had by Toshiki Okada published by Pushkin Press, 128 pages