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On its surface “The Memory Police” feels like a typical dystopian novel about an oppressive military force. The narrator lives on an island where certain objects such as roses and music boxes totally disappear. Not only do these things vanish overnight but so do people’s memories of them. Anyone possessing or even recalling these things after they’ve been outlawed disappear themselves through the enforcement of an impersonal group known as the memory police. This leads people (such as the narrator’s mother who is taken away) to conceal objects which were supposed to disappear and people who remember outlawed things go into hiding. Events such as the systematic burning and destruction of outlawed objects have obvious parallels with historic fascist regimes. While it portrays this nightmarish world in a moving way, Yoko Ogawa’s novel isn’t as concerned with the mechanics of totalitarianism as it is with the philosophical mysteries of the human heart as well as the meaning and function of memory.

The narrator is a novelist and over the course of the book we also get snippets of a story she’s writing about a typist and her instructor. As the novel progresses the parallels between the narrator’s world and the typist’s world become surreally aligned as they seem to reflect her internal reality. While I found the sections of the narrator’s novel-in-progress somewhat intrusive at first they take on an increasing power as her reality grows increasingly bleak and restricted. The interplay between these stories is given a further complexity in how the narrator’s editor (only referred to as R) goes into hiding and tries to coax the narrator into remembering what’s been lost in the disappearances. It’s so interesting how this shows the complex process of memorialisation and prompts the reader to question things like: what’s vital to remember and what’s better to forget? How much do we imaginatively insert false memories into the truth of what occurred in the past? To what degree is our memorialization of certain things or people about our own ego rather than honouring what’s been lost?

From reading Ogawa’s previous novel “The Housekeeper and the Professor” it’s clear these complex issues about memory are ones which doggedly preoccupy the author. I admire how she explores them in surprisingly subtle ways and from different angles in her brilliantly unique novels. She also has an interesting way of approaching the parallel issue of romance – both romance between people and our romantic relationship with our own pasts. In “The Memory Police” there’s a lot of discussion about the heart and how “A heart has no shape, no limits. That’s why you can put almost any kind of thing in it, why it can hold so much. It’s much like your memory, in that sense.” When things disappear it’s described as leaving holes in the hearts of people who can’t remember them and, because their absence forms these “new cavities”, it drives people to destroy any remaining physical trace of the thing. It’s like destroying sentimental letters, photographs or mementos when a relationship ends or a person dies – as if that can cancel out our feelings of bereavement.

The narrator’s mother is a sculptor: “My mother had loved to sculpt tapirs, even though she had never seen one in real life.”

The narrator’s mother is a sculptor: “My mother had loved to sculpt tapirs, even though she had never seen one in real life.”

In contrast to the resistant attitude of the editor R, the narrator also has a long-time friend and supporter in a figure only referred to as the “old man”. Although he assists the narrator in hiding the editor and rescuing disappeared goods, he has a more apathetic attitude about the worrying frequency with which things vanish. He states: “The disappearances are beyond our control. They have nothing to do with us. We’re all going to die anyway, someday, so what’s the differences? We simply have to leave things to fate.” Paired with the disappearances of memories is an inertia and lack of resistance from most of the general population who simply comply. This echoes many examples from history where people are unwilling to defend their values, way of life and the lives of others when threatened by a perceived authority. I’m sympathetic to this dilemma and it’s a complex subject. I admire the way this excellent novel wrestles with these issues that we all face both as individuals and citizens of our communities.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesYoko Ogawa
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There’s an aching feeling of loneliness as well as a foreboding sense of danger throughout Hanne Ørstavik’s short, razor-sharp novel “Love”. The story concerns Vibeke and her son Jon who have recently moved to small town in the north of Norway. The narrative continuously switches focus between the mother and son’s points of view without any line breaks or indications that it’s changing. This produces the curious effect of a synchronicity and connection between the two so the border between them appears to blur. But, as the novel continues, it becomes apparent there’s a dangerous disconnect as they embark on independent journeys deep into the night meeting strangers and driving separately through the freezing near-empty landscape. Jon is about to turn nine years old and he’s expecting his mother to bake him a cake to celebrate, but her mind is decidedly elsewhere. Although there’s little plot, a quiet tension hums throughout each section making this a deeply meditative, haunting and curiously mesmerising novel.

I was reminded of Virginia Woolf’s novel “The Waves” when reading this book because there’s an intense interiority to both the mother and son’s sections – as well as a sense of ceaseless flow between them. However, there’s a pared down style to Ørstavik’s prose in her use of many straight-forward declarative sentences which is very different from Woolf’s more poetically charged writing. Nevertheless, I was struck by certain lines such as when Vibeke declares to herself “I’ll sheathe us both in speechless intimacy, until we’re ready for the abruptness of words.” This is the sort of subconscious speech similar to something Rhoda would say in Woolf’s novel.

Even though this novel mostly isn’t narrated in the first person, it feels like we’re so deeply embedded in the consciousness of each character as we’re aware of their fleeting sensory experiences. There are numerous succinctly accurate observations such as “He can feel in his nose when he breathes in how cold it is.” Anyone who has been in an extremely cold climate knows this feeling. I also felt a deep sympathy for the characters especially when Vibeke feels drawn to the solitude of reading: “She feels the lure of sitting with a good book, a big thick one of the kind that leave an impression stronger and realer than life itself.” It’s interesting how the novel plays out the tension each character feels of wanting to be alone but also desiring to make a meaningful connection with some unknown person.

Ørstavik also has a masterful way of depicting how reality is mixed with her characters’ imaginations. Jon frequently pictures himself engaged in some sort of adventurous battle or running from a phantasmagorical threat. Meanwhile, Vibeke continuously tests the romantic boundaries with a man named Tom she meets at a fun fair – but only in her mind. I found it so interesting coming to this novel after reading Andre Aciman’s recent “Find Me” which also presents several meaningful encounters with strangers. But in “Love” these meetings felt much more real to me because the bulk of the interactions which take place here are filled with awkward or uncertain silence. In this way the novel powerfully shows the singular way we navigate through the world and continuously negotiate our relationships with other people. It also captures an eerie sense of estrangement from those we’re supposed to be closest to.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesHanne Orstavik
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The BBC have published a list of 100 novels that shaped our world to mark the 300th anniversary of the English language novel. You can see the full list here, but I’ve also made a video discussing my reaction to the books listed, my feelings about the 42 that I’ve read and a couple more novels I’d add. Important to note that this is a list only about novels from the English-speaking Western world – so when they say “our world” they don’t mean everyone’s world. They’re quite clear about the parameters for making this list but I think it’s worth saying anyway since they’ve titled it this way. Overall, it’s quite an interesting and diverse group of books which incorporates a lot of recent titles and some slightly more obscure novels amongst more established classics.

It’ll be fun to watch the upcoming three part series on BBC 2 they’ve made about these books and others that have changed our culture and society by particularly focusing on the subjects of ‘Empire and slavery’, ‘women’s voices’ and ‘working class experience’. Of course, it’s impossible to quantify how much a novel has really “shaped our world” since it feels like books often only subtly change people's ideas over time or maybe expand their empathy in ways which aren't directly obvious. But I think the way certain stories or language or ideas from certain novels work their way into public and political dialogue can really have a big impact - both on popular culture and the values of society.

It's great the BBC are taken this initiative to get people discussing novels more and it’ll be great to see books discussed in depth on TV again! Of course, one of the best things about a list like this is hearing what books people think ought to be added onto it. What do you think about the novels on the list? What others would you add?

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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Without a doubt “Olive, Again” is one of the books I’ve been most anticipating this year. Elizabeth Strout is a favourite author of mine not only because she writes so beautifully and movingly about the lives of ordinary people, but I often feel a special personal connection to her fiction which is so often set in Maine - where I also grew up. This means her characters and their culture feel so immediately recognizable and familiar to me. However, such inside knowledge isn’t needed to appreciate the drama, comedy and astute insight found in Strout’s enthralling fiction. Certainly one of the author’s most beloved characters is Olive Kitteridge who first appeared in the 2008 “novel in stories” named after her. Olive is loveable in spite of or maybe because of being such an irascible, strong-willed individual. She’s the sort of character I love to read about but would be terrified to meet in real life.

Strout’s new novel picks up with Olive in her later years when she takes a new husband, makes an uneasy reconciliation with her son and transitions into old age. But, as is typical in Strout’s books and because this is another novel which also functions as a series of interconnected short stories, certain sections focus on other characters in Olive’s community as well. As I talked about in a video earlier this year, I love how this form of novel gives a more rounded picture of a group of characters since you get a series of individual perspectives but also better see their relationships and perspectives on each other. Later parts of this new novel bring certain characters together and you discover what happened to them after their individual sections conclude. In some sections Olive only makes a brief appearance or is referred to glancingly, but essentially this novel revolves around her.

One of the interesting recurrences in this novel are moments where characters are so shocked and unsettled by unexpected incidents that they remember them throughout their lives. It’s remarked how they can’t believe something happens and this disbelief makes it such a haunting experience for them that they don’t entirely trust their memory that it even occurred. This is such a true mark of individual experience in how certain occurrences like this will doggedly and inexplicably stick with us. We’ll obsessively think over them again and again like a puzzle we can never solve. It’s really moving how Strout captures this trait of human experience and how this creates an open-ended sense of life where there are no firm conclusions but only a series of unsettling mysteries which remain from our interactions with others.

A wonderful trait the author gives to Olive is a phrase where she’ll dismiss someone who disagrees with or ignores her by remarking “phooey to you.” While it’s a funny rejoinder, it also takes on a poignancy over the course of the novel in how it shows Olive’s essential alienation from other people and how rather than trying to find a more dynamic way to engage with them she’ll simply emotionally cut herself off. This leads to a relatable sense of loneliness she experiences and feels much more keenly as she grows older and must depend on other people more because she can’t remain as physically independent. What’s so clever about this recurring phrase of Olive’s is that it serves as a verbal tic the character possesses like Scarlett O’Hara dismissing objections people make about her actions by blithely stating “Fiddle dee dee” rather than seriously engaging with them. It’s an idiosyncrasy Olive possesses and something she must learn to mitigate if she is going to form meaningful connections with others.

While it’s often poignant how the novel shows her making this journey, there are moments when the message becomes too overt – such as when Olive finds a way to communicate with a Trump supporter she initially cuts herself off from. In instances like this it’s like the author is intruding upon the narrative too much to make a statement about how we need to form a dialogue between politically opposed individuals in the US. I’m not saying I disagree with this sentiment but in a novel it comes across as overtly didactic. Nevertheless, it shows a consistency of character since Olive is someone who always identified as a liberal democrat who angrily lashes out against republicans like the final section of the first novel “Olive Kitteridge” where Olive is outraged to discover Jack Kennison voted for George W. Bush.

Frances McDormand so perfectly embodied the character of Olive in the miniseries based on the first novel I’d love to see her reprise the role in an adaptation of this new novel.

Frances McDormand so perfectly embodied the character of Olive in the miniseries based on the first novel I’d love to see her reprise the role in an adaptation of this new novel.

I appreciated how the novel uses different stories to trace the transforming moral values of the culture over many years and different generations. One section concerns a daughter who returns home to inform her parents she works as a dominatrix and that a documentary has been made about her. Meanwhile, her father participates in Civil War re-enactments to physically inhabit an idea of the past. This contrast of activities creatively shows how we test the limits of our identities by inhabiting different modes of being. It also shows how there have been so many changes to what’s deemed permissible in society over time such as an elderly woman who recounts how she was stigmatized when she was a teenager for producing a child out of wedlock, a wife who has an affair with her therapist and a daughter who is estranged from her father after coming out as a lesbian. I’m glad the novel delves into these very different experiences by using this form of a “novel in stories” because it gives a more panoramic picture than if we were only limited to Olive’s point of view.

There’s been a lot of cynicism expressed recently regarding literary novels such as “The Testaments” and “Find Me” that are sequels to previous books. But I’ve enjoyed how each of these books creatively carries their stories forward. It’s like visiting past friends and catching up with them. It also allows for a more expansive portrait of these complex characters and the communities they inhabit – just as Strout has done previously with her character Lucy Barton who she picks up with again in the sequel “Anything is Possible”. Reading “Olive, Again” also speaks to my experience as a person who has changed and grown since first reading about Olive Kitteridge over a decade ago. Like Olive, I’ve had a lot of new experiences since then but I’m not sure I’m particularly any wiser; life just goes on. I loved having this chance to fictionally meet Olive again. More than that, this is a novel filled with so much humanity and exhibits a rare honesty about our relationships and individual foibles.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson

Vesna Main’s novel within a novel is mostly composed of a conversation between a husband and wife who discuss the wife’s novel-in-progress about a husband (Richard) and wife (Anna). Their daily chats often begin with the casual question “Good day?” – hence the title of this book. The wife’s novel is about how Anna discovers that Richard has been visiting prostitutes for years and the subsequent breakdown of their relationship. The writer and her husband discuss the moral complexity of this situation and its emotional impact on all the characters involved. And while listening to her describe details of the plot and characterizations, the husband grows increasingly frustrated at the liberties the wife takes in borrowing names and situations from their real life and putting them in her novel. The line between fact and fiction blurs so there’s an intriguing suspense where the reader wonders about the truth of this couple’s life. But it also raises questions about the dynamic interplay between the imagination and sex as a physical act. While this might all sound too meta-fictional and self-conscious, there’s a wonderfully comic tone to the situation as well as a poignancy in certain sections where there’s a clear disconnect or breakdown between them.

Relationships, fidelity and sex are infinitely complex subjects – that’s why there are so many novels about them! So I admire how this novel approaches these issues in a refreshing style which shows how they can be entangled with the fragility of our egos. In a way, the wife and husband’s dilemmas are entirely imagined (like the child in Edward Albee’s play ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) and the drama that plays out from their conversation is in some ways for the sake of drama itself rather than any real betrayal. We form narratives in our heads about the multitude of relationships we have with people and these can become dangerously fixed in stone. Main’s story shows how these relationships can be tested out in our minds before being played out in reality or forgotten. But the novel also takes seriously the perspective of the prostitutes and one in particular named Tanya. The wife and husband’s conversations regarding plotlines about them show how our attitudes towards prostitution are wrapped up in judgements and how uncomfortable we are openly discussing sex in our society.

The novel also obviously plays a lot with issues to do with creative writing itself and the function which fiction serves. When do stories feel true to life and at what point do they become cliched? Do we need to sympathise with characters in order to have empathy for them? Should fiction be read as a veiled form of autobiography or a work entirely created in the imagination? These are all questions “Good Day?” raises and toys with in a compelling way. Like “We Are Made of Diamond Stuff” this is another novel I was compelled to read because of its listing for this year’s Goldsmiths Prize. It certainly takes an innovative approach in dealing with common plotlines about relationships and twisting them on their heads. And there’s a deliciously teasing way in which this novel ultimately asks if we’re writing our own stories or are our stories writing us?

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesVesna Main
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I've been wanting to read Isabel Waidner for a while, but the recent Goldsmiths Prize shortlisting of their novel “We Are Made of Diamond Stuff” encouraged me to finally buy a copy. Because it's an award which honours books which “open up new possibilities of the novel form” I was prepared to read something experimental but I think this must be one of the most original novels I've read for some time. This novel is ‘Stranger Things’ fan fiction while also being an avant-garde form of social commentary. It’s at once fantastical and as real as grit caught in your teeth. These dualities might feel too testing for the reader if it weren’t for the wonderful sense of humour this novel possesses in satirising the dominant institutions and ideologies which inhibit its protagonists. In its playfulness it carves an opening in the world for its narrator and Shae who work for minimum wage in a hotel on the Isle of Wight. They ally themselves with or battle against the logos of corporate institutions which come to life as well as contending with the manager who withholds their wages, the locals who exclude them and the government which restricts their access to citizenship. Seeing the world through their point of view this story questions the meaning of belonging and nationality in a way which is poignant and personal. 

One of the things which struck me most was the layers within layers of exclusion that Waidner identifies. In their efforts to create a pride float these characters come to question the meaning of pride itself when Pride celebrations are commandeered by capitalist institutions or right-wing members of the queer community. Rather than uniting groups of people this ironically forms more divisions and it prompts the rhetorical question “How many times can you divide a minority culture?” They seek to connect these disparate groups in art and optimistically form a fashion label which will cross social boundaries. They also identify with and draw inspiration from contemporary non-mainstream writers and marginalized figures such as the poet Tommy Pico, Dennis Cooper and Tonya Harding. In forming this dialogue they seek to better identify the historical processes by which class divisions are upheld and interrogate the meaning of nationality. As someone who has also taken the 'Life in the UK' test in order to become a citizen these are issues I've personally grappled with as well. I appreciated and enjoyed the inventive way Waidner created a story which theatrically plays out these ideas on a fabulous stage. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesIsabel Waidner
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Since I’m so accustomed to reading novels I sometimes find it a challenge to get in the right mindset to read a book of poetry because my instinct is to look for a narrative. In a way, I didn’t have to adjust this instinct to read Ilya Kaminsky “Deaf Republic” because there’s a definite overarching story and the book even begins with a list of “dramatis personae”. It takes place in an unspecified village during an unspecified time period. The village has been occupied by military forces who publicly execute citizens. The focus is not so much on the ethos or machinations of this oppressive regime but the fate of a family of puppeteers, the lives of the local population and their frequent passivity to resist the war on their doorstep. When a boy is shot and killed the sound of the gun causes the villagers to go deaf. Like Jose Saramago’s novel “Blindness” the collective absence of this sensory experience powerfully symbolizes the limitations of people’s empathy and a dangerously wilful ignorance. These poems consider issues to do with individual political responsibility through resonate imagery and flashes of dramatic action/inaction. Though the narrative has the feel of a fable, the first and final poems are unmistakeably contemporary in their American setting with references to greed in “our great country of money” and our silent witnessing of gun violence.

The book’s form is somewhere between a parable and play, but it’s definitely structured as a series of individual poems. Though I followed the arc of the story by reading it through from beginning to end these poems still function as stand-alone pieces. As the theme would suggest, many poems consider sound or the absence of sound. It’s especially poignant how a gunshot is not described as such but as a haunting image: “a sound we do not hear lifts the birds off the water.” Over the course of the book the lack of what’s audible creates a deep sense of interiority “silence which is a soul’s noise” as well as a terrifying reverberation of guilt for people who don’t speak up: “We let them take him, all of us cowards. What we don’t say we carry in our suitcases, coat pockets, our nostrils.” It’s moving how this describes the way remaining silent out of fear can make these unuttered words stick to us. Kaminsky also describes the way inaction can sometimes speak louder than being the one brave enough to raise an objection: “no one stands up. Our silence stands up for us.”

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Another innovative aspect to this book is the way it incorporates pictorial representations of (an invented) sign language. These hand gestures are initially defined so that by the end of the book when a group of signs are shown together we understand what this private silent language is saying. This is such an inventive way of conveying poetic meaning without words. It shows how we are forced to invent other forms of language to communicate when we can’t speak about what’s socially or politically unacceptable. In this way over the course of the book language begins to feel squashed into different localized and personal arenas: “I teach his children’s hands to make of anguish a language – see how deafness nails us into our bodies”.

“Deaf Republic” contains a powerful message about the real danger of not speaking up when faced with unconscionable policies or oppressive actions. It readjusts the meaning of the ensuing devastation so that it is owned by the viewer rather than something which he passively sees: “There will be evidence, there will be evidence. While helicopters bomb the streets, whatever they will open, will open. What is silence? Something of the sky in us.” When faced with such destructive life-threatening dangers the choice between self-preservation and political action disappears. This collection is saying it’s time to speak up.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesIlya Kaminsky
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Well this was a result I never expected! What a shock when chair of the judges Peter Florence announced there would be two winners of The Booker Prize this year because they are “two novels we cannot compromise on.” And it was a further surprise when those winners were announced to be “The Testaments” and “Girl, Woman, Other”. Maybe it’s the year of doubles with the recent Nobel Prize in Literature being awarded to both Olga Tokarczuk (for 2018) and Peter Handke (for 2019) – a decision which was controversial in a different way. Certainly there’s a strong love and respect that many readers have for Margaret Atwood, but it seems a curiously unnecessary thing for her to share the award with Bernadine Evaristo. Atwood herself said when receiving the prize “I kind of don’t need the attention.” Her stature and popularity will be little affected by this win, whereas it will be a huge boost to Evaristo who has produced several well-regarded novels but doesn’t have the same kind of national or international reputation. In the press conference after the award was announced Evaristo said “I’m not thinking about sharing it. I’m thinking about the fact that I’ve got here with it.”

I’m thrilled that “Girl, Woman, Other” has won the award since I loved this novel so much. Given the enormous anticipation for “The Testaments” I assume most people who were desperate to read it have now done so. Hopefully, those readers and readers who follow The Booker Prize winners to guide them in what to read next will now read “Girl, Woman, Other” as well. I’m eager to continue discussing it and plan to reread it at some point. I don’t think the prize being awarded to two authors detracts from the significant fact that Evaristo is the first black woman to win the Booker, but it would have been nice if she’d been able to stand in the spotlight on her own.

Personally I feel that if the award had to go to two novels I would much preferred to see it given to Lucy Ellmann and Bernadine Evaristo because I thought “Ducks, Newburyport” is a more accomplished novel than “The Testaments” and she’s an author whose reputation equally deserves to be enhanced. However, there is hope in the fact that “Ducks, Newburyport” is also shortlisted for The Goldsmiths Prize – an award that rewards fiction which breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form. While “The Testaments” is an engaging and moving read it certainly doesn’t do anything wildly inventive in its structure or style. Maybe recognition from The Goldsmiths Prize will highlight how “Ducks, Newburyport” is such an edgy and exciting novel while also being a deeply pleasurable read.

It was also thrilling to attend The Booker Prize ceremony for the first time this year and witness all the excitement in action. I had a wonderful time speaking with journalists, publishers and authors including Lucy Ellmann and Elif Shafak. It was a thrill to see such a grand event being held in the name of literature and regardless of the controversy I’m glad that the prize has sparked so much discussion and engagement with all the excellent novels listed this year. Whoever wins a book award doesn’t matter to me as a reader because what the prize has already done is encourage me to read both “Girl, Woman, Other” and “Ducks, Newburyport” – I’m not sure I’d have got around to reading either novel without the prize’s encouragement. And now I can continue encouraging other readers to pick up these great books as well. You can watch my video about attending the Booker Prize ceremony here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RqNe4R4K7bg

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With our current political preoccupations concerning citizenship, immigration and nationality there’s a lot of talk about borders. (What borders will be formed between the UK and Europe?) But in Benjamin Myers’ recent novel “The Offing” the borders directly referenced are invisible lines in the natural environment. The title refers to “That distant stretch of sea where sky and water merge. It’s called the offing.” These are borders that we only imagine exist because of our subjective point of view. And the novel begins with 16 year old Robert Appleyard stepping out of the borders of his small Northern coal mining town, the place where he’s been raised to believe he should spend his life working in the pits that men in his family have toiled in for generations. But he’s determined to see something of the world first. What he discovers is a point of view and way of seeing which is very different from what he’s known in his circumscribed existence. During his journey he meets and befriends Dulcie, a reclusive and highly-cultured older woman who doesn’t play by society’s rules. Myers presents in this beautiful tale conversations which cross borders of class, gender, sexuality and nationality to speak about the importance of preserving our individual voice and creative spirit – especially during times of political strife.

The novel begins like a fable or quest story where a young man embarks out into the unknown and this gives it a timeless feeling at first. I know from reading Myers’ brilliant novel “Beastings” that his prose frequently gives a sense that the story could have occurred in any time or place. But, as Robert encounters more people, he sees families who have lost sons in the war and there’s talk of fighting Hitler. It’s interesting getting a story set around WWII where the characters are so removed from it but still feel the reverberations of its impact. Robert is puffed up with nationalist spirit, but Dulcie cautions him against categorizing groups of people solely on their national identity. She explains how it leads to otherness and borders between people which leads to war: “Nationalism is an infection, Robert, a parasite, and after years of recession many were willing hosts.” Although this isn’t an overtly political novel, I found it really powerful how Myers describes ways of seeing beyond the rhetoric of government and social structures to show how these are illusions.

This point of view is embodied in the character of Dulcie who is so spirited and funny while having a sometimes spiky edge and a secret past. I felt really sympathetic to the narrator because I would have similarly gravitated to and been eager to learn from someone like Dulcie who casually refers to her close acquaintance with Noel Coward. I enjoy how their friendship develops in tentative steps as both Robert and Dulcie are guarded with their feelings and hesitant to admit they need other people. Myers is excellent in capturing the subtly of emotions in characters who aren’t very outwardly emotional. There’s also a dramatic tension which builds as the mystery surrounding Dulcie grows when an unpublished manuscript of poetry is unearthed.

Dulcie frequently makes Robert nettle tea.

Dulcie frequently makes Robert nettle tea.

Another great strength of this novel is in the evocative and poetic way it describes the natural world – which is another consistent characteristic of Myers’ writing. Not only is Robert’s journey through the English landscape beautifully described, but it’s a form of tunnelling into history and shows it to be a repository of the past: “the cliffs were in a perpetual state of reshaping, where chimneys and scarps and shelves periodically fell crumbling, and where time was marked not by years or decades or centuries, but by the re-emergence of those species trapped in the clay here: the ammonites, haematites and bracken fronds pressed flat between the pages of past epochs. Each was a bookmark placed in Britain’s ongoing story, and the land itself was a sculpture, a work in progress.” I admire how this positions the landscape not as a possession to be claimed and fenced off, but an artwork which is shaped by inhabiting it.

Reading “The Offing” I got that satisfying sensation where my curiosity gradually built to a rapt attention and I felt wholly enveloped and charmed by the story. It speaks poignantly about the importance of moving beyond the life which you’re assigned to discover who you really are and what you want. It’s also a tribute to the enduring power of poetry.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesBenjamin Myers
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The story begins with a missing teenage girl named Lydia Lee and, while this mystery may sound like the premise of a thriller, “Everything I Never Told You” focuses more on the interior lives and complex relationships of the girl’s family members. Celeste Ng describes how Lydia maintained an image of being a popular and successful student, but in reality was a loner who was failing at the science and math courses which her mother Marilyn pushed her to excel at. Like many families, there’s harmony on the surface but dark undercurrents to the lives of these characters. Over time they’ve become so accustomed to not speaking about personal pain and emotional need that they become in some essential ways unknown to each other. The hidden nature of their lives becomes untenable when faced with the enormous tragedy of Lydia’s disappearance. Gradually we learn about their unexpressed desires and unacknowledged pain – especially in regards to both overt and more subtle racist treatment the children receive as the only mixed race children in their Middle-American town.

The father James is the child of Chinese immigrants and has worked hard to achieve a position as a professor, but struggles to be accepted as fully American despite being born in this country. The mother Marilyn is equally academically gifted, but didn’t receive opportunities to fulfil her scholarly promise. Nor did she obey her mother’s wishes not to marry an Asian man leading her to be estranged from both her family and her ambitions to become a doctor. As such both parents place different kinds of pressure on their children to succeed in ways they were not able to in their own lives. However, there is also a lot of tenderness in their attempts to connect and encourage their children. There’s a heart breaking scene where James buys a Christmas present for Lydia hoping she’ll appreciate it but realises how badly he’s disappointed her. Equally Marilyn frequently buys Lydia scientific texts hoping to inspire her, but her daughter has no interest in them. I found it moving how James encourages his children to keep up with the latest trends and fashions even though he was hopelessly disconnected from what’s really happening in the children’s world. The parents obviously mean well, but they don’t realise the negative pressure they place upon them.

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There’s a tragedy at the heart of this story but I appreciate the way Ng creates an optimistic picture whereby the family can take steps to be more upfront about their feelings and form deeper connections to each other. Perhaps one of the most important characters is the youngest child of the family Hannah. Though she’s largely silent and doesn’t play much of a dramatic role she’s very observant and watches the changes occurring within her family life. I felt I could strongly relate to her in the way she often feels like an outsider, yet finds this advantageous in some ways as she’s not subject to the same pressures to conform. I appreciate how this novel shows that there can be a terrible silence at the centre of many families which prevents them from supporting each other in the ways that they should and how important it is to accept the unique qualities of every member of the family rather than trying to make them become something they’re not. I was encouraged to finally read this novel since it’s Ng’s debut and I just went to see her speak at the Southbank Centre in London a couple days ago. She has a powerful way of writing about families, motherhood and the pain of being made to feel different.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesCeleste Ng
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There are some novels where I instantly feel connected to the narrator as if he were an old friend. Something about the way Ann Patchett presents her central character of Danny Conroy in her new novel “The Dutch House” hooked me to his consciousness. Maybe it's the tone of his wide-eyed innocence and ignorance as he looks back at his childhood, family life and the home he was cast out of. It's a sensibility I can relate to now that I'm in my early 40s and think back to the mysteries of my early life wondering why certain decisions were made. Danny and his sister Maeve grow up in a grand house with a prosperous father, but their mother abandoned them in their childhood. When their father marries a new woman named Andrea who brings her own two daughters into the house, the Conroy children feel themselves growing even more estranged from their aloof father. In their teenage years they are unceremoniously ousted from their family home and must fend for themselves. Danny recounts this story and the haunting way he and his sister often linger outside the house they've been cast out of ruminating about the past and the truth about their family. In a way, every adult must feel this way reflecting on what Joyce Carol Oates calls “the lost landscape” of childhood. Patchett also poses a number of tantalizing mysteries about this particular family which kept me gripped and I admire the subtle way she raises lingering questions to do with the meaning of family, belonging and home. 

The Dutch House of the title was purchased by Danny's father very cheaply in an auction after the family who built and inhabited it fell on hard times and eventually died out. He moves his whole family into this place which still contains all the furnishings and possessions of the previous owners. I like how on top of Danny's wonder about his own family circumstances there's the added mystery of the family that came before them. All their dramas and tribulations seem seared into the structure of the house so that we only see hints of it. This too feels very relatable in the way that we move into a new residence without knowing the story of those who lived their before but we have this odd intimacy with the people who proceeded us because we're inhabiting the space they lived their lives in before. But in Patchett's novel this has a kind of gothic feel as portraits of the previous family adorn the walls staring the Conroy family in the face and co-existing with them. It also has a bigger meaning when thinking about issues to do with capitalism, ownership and how the people who come to possess land and houses aren't always the people who are “justified” in inhabiting them. After all, aren't auctions and “bargain” prices on houses just legal ways of taking advantage of other people's misfortunes and unfortunate circumstances?

Patchett also perfectly frames a feeling of uncertainty and chaos in Danny's life. He grew up accustomed to a certain lifestyle and a belief in what he would become. But because things take an unexpected turn he's suddenly rudderless and doesn't know what direction he'll take: “There are a few times in life when you leap up and the past that you’d been standing on falls away behind you, and the future you mean to land on is not yet in place, and for a moment you’re suspended, knowing nothing and no one, not even yourself.” It's so powerful how Patchett captures this feeling of being suspended in nothingness and being tormented by a terrible unknowningness.

There's also a terrifying sense in the novel that no matter how bonded we feel to our families they can turn out to be strangers. Since their mother left them early on and their father is so emotionally distant, there's an absence of the love which is supposed to make Danny and Maeve feel secure. They're profoundly disconnected from their parents. So much so that Danny wonders if they're a family at all: “It sounded so nostalgic when he said it, the three of us, as if we had once been a unit instead of just a circumstance.” Even though the brother and sister find trust and rely on their relationship to each other, there's a sombre and haunting sense of loss that their parents never gave them this security. Danny also realises that the bitterness they feel about this becomes an addiction: “We had made a fetish out of our misfortune, fallen in love with it.” So part of their periodic vigilant sessions sitting in a car watching the house they grew up in is clinging to that sense of injustice while silently accusing their parents of abandoning them since their parents aren't there to emotionally stand trial.

There's a pleasure to the style of Patchett's story which has a fable-like feel and is in some ways a kind of modern Cinderella tale. But it also feels modern and relevant in how it reflects on deeper issues to do with our changing society by detailing how families have been made and disintegrated amidst larger economic fluctuations. The novel also creates a new kind of storytelling for which there isn't a precedent in how their mother leaves them for so long because “There is no story of the prodigal mother.” So, unlike “The Odyssey” which is driven more by a roaming father's ego and lust for conquest, their mother Elna's story is driven more by a compulsion to nurture a broken world rather than the children she's given birth to. I admire how these deeper meanings build throughout a novel which (on its surface) is quite a simple story with little plot, but after spending an extensive amount of time in Danny's consciousness I deeply felt their resonance. It proves how Patchett is an incredibly skilled and accomplished novelist.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAnn Patchett
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I always look forward to Bookshop Day in the UK as it makes a good excuse to visit local bookshops and pick up some titles I’ve been meaning to buy. This year it’s on October 5th and I’m already making a list to take with me to the shops. Bookshop Day is a campaign put together by Books Are My Bag which is a wonderful organization that encourages people to shop at their local bookshops.

They also work with National Book Tokens to host the BAMB Readers Awards which is now in its 4th year. I love that this book prize is curated by bookshops and chosen by book lovers. The shortlists for the Awards’ several categories have been announced today. You can see them all here and cast your vote on which book should win the Readers’ Choice Award: https://www.nationalbooktokens.com/vote

I’m taking a special look at the Poetry category for the BAMB Readers Awards because I always mean to read more poetry but tend to stick to novels. Today is also National Poetry Day in the UK! So I’m glad the award gives me a great prompt to discover new titles and this shortlist includes a fascinating range of poetry. “The Black Flamingo” by Dean Atta is about a mixed race teen who is going to university and his process of becoming a drag queen. “The Girl Aquarium” by famous booktuber Jen Campbell weaves dark fairy tales and issues to do with the possession of body and the definition of beauty into poetry. “A Year of Nature Poems” by Joseph Coelho & illustrated by Kelly Louise Judd considers changes to do with animals and emotional states over the course of a year. “The Flame” by famous singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen features his last collection of poems which he compiled in his final years. “Poems to Fall in Love With” by Chris Riddell pairs new illustrations against new and old poems by a range of writers from Sappho to Hollie McNish. “The Poetry Pharmacy Returns” by William Sieghart is a sequel which details how different poems can be applied to “treat” the human condition.

Let me know if you’ve read any of these poetry titles, what you think of the shortlists in each category and if you’re planning on visiting a particular shop on Bookshop Day!

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
2 CommentsPost a comment

I always enjoy going to events at the Southbank Centre in London as they often feature discussions with some of the best authors in the world. In the second half of October they are hosting the London Literature Festival which is in its 13th year. Among the events featured are two writers currently shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize and this is your chance to win tickets to see them.

Bernardine Evaristo will be in conversation with Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi on October 20th: https://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/whats-on/138680-bernardine-evaristo-jennifer-nansubuga-makumbi-2019

Elif Shafak will be in conversation with Louise Doughty on October 22nd: https://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/whats-on/138293-louise-doughty-and-elif-shafak-conversation-2019

I’ve been following the prize closely this year and have now read all six shortlisted novels. In my opinion, two of the strongest contenders are Evaristo and Shafak. So, to celebrate this year’s London Literature Festival and the Booker Prize, I’m giving away two pairs of tickets to each event as well as a copy of each book. This is a great opportunity to get a more in-depth personal understanding of the authors and their excellent novels.

To enter, simply comment below with the name of the author whose event you’d like to attend and contact details (either an email address or social media handle). The giveaway ends on October 6th after which I’ll randomly select two winners for these events. T&Cs listed below. Good luck!

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T&Cs:

1.The prize will consist of two tickets to 'Bernardine Evaristo & Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi' on Sunday 20 October at Southbank Centre's Purcell Room + one copy of Bernardine Evaristo's novel Girl, Woman, Other. 

A separate entry will be awarded two tickets to 'Louise Doughty and Elif Shafak in Conversation' on Tuesday 22 October at Southbank Centre's Purcell Room + one copy of Elif Shafak's novel 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World  

2.There is no purchase necessary to enter. 

3. The prize draw opens September 29th and closes October 6th, 23:59. 

4. The winner will be contacted directly by Southbank Centre.

5. The prize draw is open to residents of the UK aged 18 or over except employees of Southbank Centre, their families, or anyone professionally connected to the giveaway either themselves or through their families.

6. The winner will be required to provide a contact email for Southbank Centre to facilitate transfer of the prize. Contact details will not be used for marketing purposes unless there is opt in and will not be shared with any third party except for the purpose of delivering the prize 

7. The prizes are as stated in the competition text, are not transferable to another individual and no cash or other alternatives will be offered. Tickets are not transferable to any other London Literature Festival event or any other Southbank Centre event

8.The prize will be allocated in the winner's name and must be collected by the winner in person at Southbank Centre

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I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t come across Gayl Jones’ writing before learning about this new edition of “Corregidora” being reissued by Virago Modern Classics. It was originally published in 1975 with the help of Toni Morrison who was working as an editor at Random House at the time. Morrison famously stated “that no novel about any black woman could ever be the same after this” and the influence “Corregidora” had on Morrison is very evident. It certainly must have partly inspired her novel “Beloved” as Jones’ novel similarly shows how the past intrudes upon and shapes the present by invoking voices from earlier generations who suffered under slavery. 

“Corregidora” is the story of blues singer Ursa Corregidora. At the beginning of the novel she suffers a terrible injury after being thrown down the stairs by her jealous husband Mutt. The novel traces their tumultuous relationship over the years while Ursa recounts her early and later life. Interspersed throughout her story are accounts from previous generations of Corregidora women who can only relate the history of their difficult lives by talking to their daughters because physical records of their subjugation have been purposefully destroyed: “She said when they did away with slavery down there they burned all the slavery papers so it would be like they never had it.” Ursa carries the evidence of this past in the stories she’s received and she feels guilty that she can’t continue passing it on because she can’t have children. Both she and this novel are filled with the weight of history.

There’s a blunt honesty to Ursa’s story. I was frequently startled by the candour of the dialogue as well as the sex and violence portrayed. This is in sharp contrast to the figure of Ursa herself who is frequently passive and quiet – so much so that characters often chide her for being so listless. Yet this perfectly exhibits her crisis. Weighed down by the past and how it manifests in men’s attitudes towards her in the present makes her inert. The only way she can express how she’s really feeling is in song: “When do you sing the blues? Every time I ever want to cry, I sing the blues… What do blues do for you? It helps me to explain what I can’t explain.” Her music is the one thing she has that completely belongs to her when she feels the previous generations in her blood “we’re all consequences of something. Stained with another’s past as well as our own. Their past in my blood.” And her body and genitals are claimed as possessions by the men she’s with. Being so totally occupied she strives to achieve independence and her journey is artfully portrayed. 

Ursa is the embodiment of her family's past. So much so that they nearly become one another: “It was as if their memory, the memory of all the Corregidora women, was her memory too, as strong with her as her own private memory, or almost as strong.” This shows the way trauma can be carried and felt from one generation to the next. But Ursa is also her own woman and it's absorbing following the way she builds her own life and stays true to her music. The complexities of her uniquely powerful story are captured here with rare honesty and insight.

My reading experienced was informed and influenced by the particular copy I read. Since this is a novel about passing stories on, the publisher had the clever idea of passing a single proof copy amongst several readers to annotate and comment in it as they read along. My copy had notes from two different readers who underlined passages and wrote their thoughts in the margins. I appreciated the connections they made and the ideas they discussed next to the text. It made this quite a unique communal reading experience or maybe it reinforced how reading is both an individual and a communal experience. Anyway, it was an interesting way to experience the story.

I'm also so curious to know more about the author Gayl Jones now. She's still living but is reclusive, doesn't grant interviews and hasn't published anything new in twenty years. Her life has been incredibly dramatic including fleeing from the US for many years to escape a crime her husband committed and being involved in various protests. It's sombre to think her life has been troubled as that of her character in “Corregidora.”

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesGayl Jones
2 CommentsPost a comment
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I’ve been wondering lately: why keep blogging when no one reads blogs anymore? Of course, that’s not completely true because you are reading this now. I still get nice comments occasionally – even on books I posted about months or years ago from readers who have just experienced the book and want to discuss it (these are the best!) And probably most people who read blogs do so passively without commenting at all which is totally fine and understandable.

I guess I feel that no one reads blogs anymore because when I started blogging six years ago many of my “contemporaries” who used to regularly update their book blogs only post occasionally or not at all these days. Certainly there are still great bloggers I read regularly like JacquiWine, ALifeInBooks, Books & Bao and Years of Reading Selfishly. But many people only discuss what they’re reading on social media by posting a picture with a few words about it. For instance, the wonderful writer Max Porter will occasionally post a picture of a pile of books and write nothing more about them than “Good books.” This sometimes seems sufficient and it’s good that people pay attention to these posts because he has impeccable taste.

Many bloggers have also moved on to host events at literary festivals, open bookshops or publish their own books – which is all wonderful to see! And here I am still geekily posting about what I’m reading week after week even though no one may be reading it. So, in a way, I feel like the guy who hangs around at a party long after it’s over looking for someone who will finish a bottle of wine with him. This has created a different kind of loneliness to the one I initially felt when I first started this blog and had no one with whom to discuss what I’m reading.

I continue to have this yearning sensation and hope for a connection with other readers when I put my thoughts out there. I’ve just a memoir by Tove Ditlevsen and in describing her feelings of isolation in childhood she writes “I always dream about meeting some mysterious person who will listen to me and understand me.” I guess I still long for this. Though I’ve had many wonderful discussions with readers online, digital connections are often fleeting.

Certainly any social eco-system functions in this transient way – especially online ones. Groups of people connect for a period of time and then gradually disperse, grow apart, move onto other things. And new blogs still pop up all the time. And the media keeps changing – I’ve certainly enjoyed the pleasure of being part of BookTube and Bookstagram in addition to blogging. And there are always new readers hungry to discuss a good book. This is lovely and encouraging. But I still get a solemn feeling now and then that all I’m doing is talking to myself – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

The best thing about keeping a regular book blog is that it demands I sit down (often for hours) trying to articulate exactly what I think and how I feel about a book. There’s a deep pleasure in doing this rather than letting that rich reading experience disintegrate and be forgotten. In the six years since I started this blog the internet has grown even more fast-paced and consequently our attention spans get shorter and shorter. But writing blog posts and reading them demand extended contemplation. Good blog posts give much more than a simple star rating and I value bloggers who still thoughtfully write out their complex reactions to books. Because the experience of reading a book makes us think and feel so many things I believe they deserve a more nuanced reaction than a simple thumbs up or thumbs down.

That’s why I value this space for quiet reflection as well as the room it grants for meaningful discussions with other readers. So thank you for reading and thank you for being a reader.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
52 CommentsPost a comment