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It’s a challenging thing to write about ordinary modern life and daily interactions with friends without making it seem frivolous. Part of me was unsure what to feel about “Conversations with Friends” by Sally Rooney at first because so much of the story casually follows the lives of a group of relatively privileged friends. The novel is narrated from the perspective of introverted young poet and university student Frances. She and her performance poetry collaborator/ex-girlfriend Bobbi befriend journalist/photographer Melissa and her semi-famous/effortlessly handsome husband Nick. Frances describes her time with this group of people as they attend book/art gallery launches, parties or holidays in France – all while conversing about politics, popular culture and gossip about each other. In particular, the story focuses on Frances’ challenging affair with Nick and the effect this has upon everyone around them. The novel builds a subtle power as it traces the disconnect between what we say, how we act and what we’re really feeling. She shows how it usually takes time and distance to really understand the meaning of what we felt and our friends’ different positions. It’s striking the way Rooney captures the sense of alienation we can feel within friendships where we often struggle to converse about the things that really matter.

This novel reminded me somewhat of Belinda McKeon’s recent novel “Tender” about the tumultuous friendship/affair a woman named Catherine had with her primarily homosexual friend James during their university years. It also felt in some ways similar to Eimear McBride’s “The Lesser Bohemians” about a young woman’s heart-wrenching tryst with an older actor. All these novels meaningfully portray the voices of refreshingly new young female perspectives on modern Ireland, but use quite different styles and focus on very different ideas. While ostensibly about romance, these stories are about women who aren’t as interested in establishing a long-term partner or husband as relating to their sexual partners as friends. They also poignantly portray the realities of sex in new ways. As well as recording conversations, Rooney includes different kinds of text messages or emails some characters send to each other. It’s easy to read different things into the phrasing of these communications and it feels familiar how Frances spends time puzzling over their real meaning as well as composing, deleting or not responded to certain messages. It’s also poignant how Frances encounters real difficulties in her life such a painful medical condition, her father’s alcoholism and strained financial circumstances, but finds it difficult to confide these matters to her friends.

Something that struck me about this novel was the way Catherine quite often feels emotionally slighted by Nick, but seldom thinks to consider the feelings of her ex-girlfriend Bobbi and how this affair might be impacting her. It seems like we often default to a state of victimhood where we feel we’re not receiving the attention we believe we deserve yet don’t realize how emotionally neglectful we’re being about people close to us that we take for granted. This leads to a lot of darkly searching questions about the real meaning of friendship and its limitations which is something I’ve been thinking about a lot since also reading Lionel Shriver’s new novella “The Standing Chandelier” so recently. I really appreciated the way “Conversations with Friends” shows how we don’t often understand our own feelings until we’re confronted with trying to communicate them to someone close to us. It’s a challenging, ever-evolving process, but this novel movingly shows how it’s one which can help us to personally grow and connect to each other. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSally Rooney
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I don’t often listen to audio books, but I decided to read “4321” this way because it’s over a thousand pages long and Paul Auster narrates the novel himself. For me, it’s definitely a different experience listening to a book (as opposed to reading a physical copy) and I doubt I would have finished reading this book if I weren’t listening to it. Not all long books justify their lengths and I don’t think “4321” does this - but that’s not to say there aren’t a lot of great things about this novel. I understand why Auster wrote it as such an epic. This allowed him to fully flesh out the central concept of the novel where we follow four different possible lives that a single adolescent boy might have lived if chance had steered him in one direction or another. The novel periodically flips between these alternate timelines so the reader experiences them all simultaneously. It’s effective in realizing the poignancy of Auster’s idea where one small twist of fate can change the course of a person’s life forever, but it weighs the overall novel down with so much detail and repetition (do we really need to read about this boy’s puberty multiple times?) that it makes the experience somewhat tedious.

If I read this novel in physical form I would undoubtedly have become distracted with the less engaging parts like the numerous geeky tangents about baseball and put the novel down. But listening to it I could let my mind drift and then re-engage when it gets to juicer or more fascinating sections. The set up for the novel is excellent where we learn about the different generations preceding the novel’s hero Archibald Isaac Ferguson with its many family deceits that feel like a fantastic Russian drama. At one point in his youth Archibald or “Archie” falls out of a tree and breaks an arm. This causes him to obsessively consider how things might have been different if he'd only reached a bit further of a branch or never climbed up the tree at all. From there, the four different threads of his life branch out. Each diversion also dramatically changes the course of life for his family as well. This plays out most poignantly with his parents who various stay together or separate. For instance, it was fascinating thinking how his father's misfortune might have allowed his mother to develop more as an independent individual and an artist.

However, a difficulty with dividing the story into different possible life routes is that Auster uses each of the four threads to ponder separate large scale social issues. So different threads variously explores issues like racism or sexuality, a sporting life vs the writing life, political engagement vs apathy. While there's nothing wrong with the content of these it began to feel a little too neatly divided for me and it seemed like the author was controlling the course of the story to consider these things rather than letting Archie's life flow in a way that felt more natural. I've heard Auster has claimed Archie's story isn't autobiographical, but the outline of Archie's life as a Jewish boy coming of age in the 60s on the outskirts of NYC does sync quite closely with Auster's. I wonder if this book would have been more successful if he'd written it as an autobiography where he considered several different plausible outcomes for his life if he'd made different choices. This would also make Auster's tangents about baseball or the writing process (he even includes an odd experimental short story which seems like something Auster might have written as a precocious younger man) feel more natural. As Archie comes of age throughout the 60s a heavy amount of references to larger social events are sprinkled throughout the text and sometimes these feel clunkily plonked in as if the author were grabbing at old news headlines found on microfiche. All these points of reference and the many lists of specific cultural films, writers and artists from the time could have been more naturally incorporated into an autobiography.

One interesting historical scene this novel included was poet Robert Frost's slightly improvised poem read for John F. Kennedy's 1961 inauguration.

Like Haruki Murakami, Auster feels like the quintessential young reader's writer. This is the first book I've read by him in more than a decade. I read his novels heavily in my early 20s and that seems like the right time. By that I don't mean his writing isn't sophisticated. I found it really meaningful how “4321” naturally raises a lot of compelling questions about the nature of personality – how much is essential and how much is malleable? Also, the novel gets at the wonder of how a path in life can take such unexpected courses even when we think we can predict which way it will go. There are some excellent nuanced characterizations and psychologically insightful scenes. However, overall the voluminous detail and commitment to heavily fleshing out each thread of Archie's story tested my patience as it felt like it wanted to continue expanding endlessly rather than arching toward a natural end.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesPaul Auster
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Last year I read Louise Erdrich’s novel “LaRose”. It's the first book I’ve read by Erdrich. One of the things I found fascinating about it was the mixture of styles she uses and how one story line is quite fantastical/surreal where a pair of characters are continually chased by a decapitated head. So I was interested to find out how she would write about a future-set dystopian landscape in her new novel “Future Home of the Living God” where evolution reverses. People and animals start giving birth to more primitive beings so it’s like nature is winding back to some earlier genetic code. What follows is a suspenseful tale of society’s breakdown where pregnant women are sequestered as the rogue government desperately tries to discover why the next generation has this primitive condition. Readers will naturally liken this story to “The Handmaid’s Tale” for the way it explores through one woman’s perspective the way women’s bodies are controlled and used by a fascist regime. It definitely has those elements, but it reminded me more of Megan Hunter’s recent post-apocalyptic literary novel “The End We Start From” for the way it explores the meaning of family in a time of crisis. Erdrich succeeds on giving a compellingly new take on these issues as well as raising intriguing questions about faith, nationality, race and biology.

The story is told from the perspective of Cedar, a woman in her early thirties who is pregnant and writes this account to her unborn child (even though she fears her child could be born as a being too primitive to be able to read/understand it.) Cedar was raised by a white couple who adopted her and decides to go meet her birth mother for the first time in order to know if there are any genetic conditions that she and her unborn baby should know about. Since her birth mother is a Native American who lives on a reservation this also gives her an opportunity explore the heritage she’s had little contact with. Soon after, news starts coming in about women giving birth to primitive beings. With the central government’s collapse, society fragments into different factions and Cedar goes into survivalist mode. It also becomes necessary for her to go into hiding because all pregnant women are being seized by officials. Tension steadily builds over the course of the story – not only because Cedar fears being captured, but because the reader wonders what the baby will be born like as her pregnancy progresses.

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It felt confusing at some points of the story as I didn’t quite understand who was in charge of the country amidst the crisis, why women were being so forcibly corralled and what was happening in larger society. But Erdrich eludes having to create a laboriously detailed picture of the broader scenario she’s created by telling it all through Cedar’s limited second-person narrative. Cedar herself understands little of what’s going on, the internet and phones have stopped working and she’s only desperately trying to survive/give birth to her baby. It’s commented that “The first thing that happens at the end of the world is that we don't know what is happening.” So, while this story gets a bit unwieldy in some parts as it feels like the author could have gone into a lot more detail, the bulk of the narrative is a meditative account on Cedar’s part as she contemplates the meaning of motherhood and heritage.

Cedar also naturally considers the meaning of what's happening and broader issues concerning the development of human history. The story provokes an interesting look at the state of our current world as society struggles with issues of over-population, depletion of resources and large-scale environmental disaster. It's been said by some scientists that our intelligence as humans might have given us a temporary evolutionary advantage to become top of the food chain, but this could be a short-term aberration because in the long run its more primitive species which have the ability to survive over millennia: `'Dinosaurs lasted so much longer than we have, or probably will, yet their brains were so little. Meaning that stupidity is a good strategy for survival? Our level of intelligence could be a maladaptation, a wrong turn, an aberration.” So that evolution winds backward in this story might be a way of nature correcting our unfettered domination of the planet. Cedar contemplates how faith and artistic expression figure into our survival as a species and at one point surmises “I think we have survived because we love beauty and because we find each other beautiful. I think it may be our strongest quality.” The story creates a space in which to thoughtfully consider all these issues and how the choices we make will impact future generations.

A newspaper has previously remarked that “Erdrich is the poet laureate of the contemporary Native American experience.” This story also fascinatingly engages with issues of a reservation and how society's fragmentation allows the Native Americans on this reservation to reclaim land that originally belonged to their ancestors. So the novel also makes a wry social commentary on how such regression might allow an opportunity to correct the wrongs of past generations. Cedar herself grapples with feelings about her heritage and where she fits in society. Her journey through the oppressive circumstances of this story gives an interesting perspective on the propensity for violence within our species: “I know this: there is nothing that one human being will not do to another. We need a god who sides with the wretched.” This is a suspenseful, thought-provoking novel.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesLouise Erdrich
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It feels apt there’s a luminous diagram of a heart on the cover of this book of short stories since it’s a collection which brims over with emotional tales of family life. Christina, the narrator of the opening and closing stories, has a penchant for sour fruit so her parents nickname her “sour heart.” But this name also reflects the attitudes of the different girls who are all the daughters of American-Chinese immigrants at the centre of these stories. Their tales explore innocence lost and feelings that turn rotten as these girls variously witness severe bullying from other children, undergo sexual experimentation, abuse within the family, various levels of racism, extreme poverty, homelessness and alienation. Although there are some truly shocking scenes and events within this collection, it doesn’t read like a series of misery tales because the forceful idiosyncratic voices that drive these stories have such strength and vibrancy. These are frank, densely-detailed accounts of young women sifting through the past. Their testaments collectively ponder the meaning of home and family in order to understand the dynamics of their own hearts.

There are often stories within stories told throughout the book as the parents of these girls relate accounts of life in China and the struggles they endured to make a new life in America. Stacey’s grandmother in 'Why Were They Throwing Bricks?' recalls the violence her own past in ways which are often contradictory, but sweetly express a feverish affection for her grandchildren. What comes over in these tales and many of the other stories in this collection is that there is an emotional truth at their heart which may not be a literal truth. Yet, in the act of recollection there is a fierce exploration of how the severe circumstances which led to many of these families emigrating has impacted both the reality and the expectations placed on the children. For this reason, quite often the children at the centre of these stories rebel against their families. In ‘The Evolution of My Brother’ Jenny states “All I had wanted for so long was to be part of a family that wasn’t mine. To have an excuse to love mine less, an excuse to run away instead of staying so close all the time.” They long to be absorbed into another kind of American family, but find themselves tied to their Chinese heritage and how that informs their identities.

One of the longest stories which literally explores the present and past by flipping between 1966 and 1996 is ‘Our Mothers Before Them’. The earlier set tale is an account of how students in China empowered by the Maoist revolution rebel against and brutally persecute their teachers. The later date focuses on Annie who contemplates the opportunities her mother and father missed out on having to move to America and work hard to create a sustainable living. These dual stories embody the way the differing cultural and political landscapes have impacted the characters’ lives and why these individuals are filled with such contradictory, turbulent feelings.

Sour Heart is the first title published under Lena Dunham's imprint Lenny. Watch the author in conversation with Dunham.

As well as exploring the conflicts within families and the brutal challenges these girls sometimes face with people they encounter, there are many touching scenes of physical and emotional closeness. There are stories where the families imaginatively picture themselves as different parts of a hotdog or hamburger pressed together. Others show how the affection between family members change over time leading one girl to miss the stutter her brother grows out of and another to temporarily form a strong bond with a cousin still in Shanghai. But probably the most emotionally effective and moving story was the account of a grandmother’s different visits over the years in 'Why Were They Throwing Bricks?'

Part of what’s great about short story collections like “Sour Heart” and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s “The Refugees” is that they present a varied view of different kinds of immigrant experiences. Too often discussions about immigration lump people who have moved from one particular country to another into one generalized group. These books restore the individuality to these very different people’s lives and explore the way that the transition from one nation to another can have many different consequences. Jenny Zhang also gives a fascinating bit of puzzle work as some characters in the stories overlap thus creating a powerful sense of a particular universe where all these different stories are occurring. But an issue I had with “Sour Heart” is that the narrative tone doesn’t vary enough from story to story. Because they are all consistently densely-written and emotionally blunt, the different tales don’t always come across as distinct as they should. I would have been interested to see more stylistic differences and varying kinds of narration such as ‘Our Mothers Before Them’. The confessional authorial voice used in most stories undeniably is endowed with a special power that makes Zhang’s voice so refreshingly unique, but it also slightly detracts from what makes story collections so special.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJenny Zhang
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Social relations are tricky. Sometimes you have a natural rapport with a person. Sometimes you wish for a stronger friendship than someone wants to give you. Sometimes you receive attention from a person you have no interest in being friends with. Lionel Shriver has an unerring knack for cutting through social niceties and portraying the psychology of her characters in a disarmingly candid manner. In her new novella “The Standing Chandelier” she presents Jillian Frisk: a loud, opinionated, colourful woman with an artistic sensibility. She knows she rubs many people the wrong way but forges on regardless. She’s close friends with Weston who is more of a natural introvert. After years of this friendship, he develops a serious romance with a woman named Paige who can’t stand Jillian. Weston and Jillian’s once reliable friendship becomes threatened. This story asks many tensely awkward questions about our social natures, the emotional risks of intimacy and the limits of friendship.

Something really fascinating that Shriver does in this short book is play upon the readers’ sympathy for her characters. It strangely feels like you’re meeting them in a social situation so naturally make your own assumptions and judgements about them. Jillian is prone to vociferously declaring opinions and attitudes without stopping to consider the feelings of other people. At one point she rants about how surprising it is that idiosyncratic people form romances and ends with “timid Filipina housemaids with wide, bland faces and one leg shorter than the other. It was astonishing that so many far-fetched candidates for undying devotion managed to marry, or something like it.” This casually offensive statement made me naturally side with Paige who has a politically correct and censorious nature. But Paige’s method for slowly severing the friendship between Weston and Jillian begins to feel so cruel, I couldn’t help but empathize with Jillian’s desperate attempts to maintain familiar intimacies with Weston even when it’s clear he’s emotionally pulling away from her.

The pivotal object at the centre of this tale is an elaborate lamp which Jillian creates using bits of memorabilia from her life. She christens it “the standing chandelier.” As someone who refuses to “acknowledge the artificial boundary between fine art and craft” this creation is a work that she simply pours her heart into. It stands as an expression of feeling for all she wants to communicate but can’t because of her own sloppy form of social discourse. As the novella develops, it acquires a powerful meaning in the way that people optimistically share their innermost selves hoping to form a close connection. When this connection doesn’t last we’re left feeling achingly bereft as if a piece of ourselves and all that inner feelings we’ve shared have been stolen. That woundedness leads to cynicism and a view that “Human relations had a calculus, and sometimes you had to add up columns of gains and losses with the coldness of accountancy.”

I was caught off guard by what a tender and particularly moving form of loneliness Shriver portrays in this novella. The story encapsulates a solemn acknowledgement about the challenging complexity of human relationships. There’s an aching kind of melancholy caused from an emotional intimacy which has been severed and a sense of freefalling now that a support network has been lost. Shriver gets at this form of loss which goes beyond friendship or romance, but hints at that inner longing for a reciprocation of feeling which has been rebuffed or withdrawn. For such a short book “The Standing Chandelier” contains many powerful statements about all our various social connections and misconnections. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesLionel Shriver
2 CommentsPost a comment
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It’s been thrilling to see the recent high acclaim and popularity for Han Kang’s powerful distinctive writing. She won the Man Booker International Prize in 2016 for “The Vegetarian” and her novel “Human Acts” is one of the most devastating portrayals of the victims and survivors of mass warfare that I’ve read. Even though she’s been publishing fiction in her native South Korea since 1995, Kang’s writing has only recently been made widely available to a Western audience through Deborah Smith’s excellent translations. It feels exciting that there is such a large back catalogue which might still yet make it into English translation. “The White Book” is another fascinating new book by Han Kang that is uniquely different from those other two English translations, but encompasses some similar themes and familiar inflections of feeling. It could be classified somewhere between a novel, poetry and a memoir. It’s more like an artistic exercise to self consciously meditate on a colour by making a list of white things and then exploring the deeply personal memories and connections surrounding these objects. The result is an intensely emotional series of accounts that form an outline of losses which are invisible, but still palpably felt in the author’s life – especially that of Kang’s sister who was born prematurely and died shortly after her birth. 

Some photographs are interspersed between Kang’s short explorations of different white things and these add a poignancy to the concentration being dedicated to particular objects. Although each separate account of a white thing can often stand alone like a complete thought or memory, the book nonetheless builds a momentum as imagery starts to repeat and their meaning acquires a special resonance. For example, Kang is told her sister’s face was like a moon shaped rice cake. She recalls making dough for rice cakes and shaping them. Later she looks at the moon itself and recalls these cakes and imagines what her newborn sister’s face looked like. These images start to meld together like when purely white objects are placed together and seem to disappear into each other. Suddenly it feels like this absence is all around and has the power to make itself felt in any empty white space that appears. Kang also lists other absences like a man’s father who was lost on a hiking trip in the Himalayas or, more broadly, the casualties of war from the country she left and “the dead that had been insufficiently mourned.” In particular, this account of ‘Spirit’ feels very reminiscent of the anger and determination to memorialize victims which fills Kang’s novel “Human Acts.”

There’s also a familiar feeling of guilt and unworthiness which permeates much of the text. Objects can often stand for something significant in Kang’s life such as a validation for simply existing. So a “crisp cotton bedsheet” says to her “Your sleep is clean, and the fact of your living is nothing to be ashamed of.” The questions that beg to be asked are: why might her sleep feel dirty and why would she be ashamed to be alive. An insolvable conflict arises when Kang considers how if her sister hadn’t died as a newborn her mother wouldn’t have continued having children and Kang would never have been born. This instils a peculiar kind of guilt within the author who simultaneously mourns her sister, but is nonetheless grateful that her early death allowed Kang the chance to exist. Despite knowing logically that there can be no fault assigned to these events which led to her sister’s death and her survival, a burning sense of culpability still plagues Kang’s consciousness.

So it comes as a blissful relief at some points when certain white things don’t carry any such burdensome associations. There’s a very sweet and simple memory which accompanies sugar cubes and from this Kang declares “There are certain memories which remain inviolate to the ravages of time. And to those of suffering. It is not true that everything is coloured by time and suffering. It is not true that they bring everything to ruin.” This is a very important assertion within the collection because it’s a key to her understanding of how we project our emotions, sensibility and personal history into things. White is essentially a blank canvass. We can imaginatively fill it with anything we want and take anything from it that we want because there’s nothing really there. In the same way, our emotions don’t really exist except in the transitory moment. We can choose to let them control us or we can allow them to dissipate into that blank white space. This is an extraordinarily artful and beautifully meditative book. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesHan Kang
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Continuing on in her ambitious season-inspired chronicle of our times, Ali Smith opens “Winter” with the statement “God was dead: to begin with.” She continues on ringing the death bell for everything from modern day conveniences to systems of government to states of being. These pronouncements act like a wry commentary on the uncertainty many people now feel as citizens in a precarious world despite all the apparent advancements of civilization and culture. It’s also a clever play on the opening of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” and his declaration of Marley’s death as a precursor to the chilling introduction of his ghost. Just as Dickens was a fierce critic of social stratification, Ali Smith’s writing critiques the way in which society has become increasingly economically and politically divided. This new novel continues with some of the same themes as “Autumn”, but focuses on a Christmas reunion between a nature blogger named Arthur or “Art”, his mother Sophia who is a successful businesswoman and his estranged aunt Iris who is a political activist. Art also brings with him a stranger named Lux who adds an element of chaos and a uniquely different perspective.

The shadow of Brexit looms large in this story as does the alarming destructive force of that new president across the pond. References are scattered throughout to specific recent true events from a Tory MP literally barking at a female MP in the House of Commons to the Grenfell Tower tragedy to Trump telling boy scouts they’ll be able to say Merry Christmas (instead of Happy Holidays) again. She even makes a sly dig at the buffoonish conservative ex-mayor of London, Boris Johnson. These accounts from the news are all examples of political forces flaunting their power and brazenly asserting their arrogant dominance over women, the working class and non-Christians. Smith shows the way these instances filter into the consciousness of her characters influencing both their perspectives and the language of their dialogue. Sophia and Iris are polar opposites in their ideological points of view and frequently bicker. The character of Art is a common point between them and fascinatingly the two women even disagree over events concerning his youth. This isn’t only a novel about the present, but it frequently circles back to the past alighting upon connections and meaning and ideas which have been lost in the passage of time.

Smith’s writing is always imbued with a sense of humour. Her story begins like a Shakespeare-style comedy of concealed identity. Since Art is fighting with his girlfriend Charlotte and he promised his mother he’d bring her home for Christmas he hires Lux to pose as his girlfriend. This creates a series of absurd interactions and hilarious confusion. Sophia finds herself butting heads with institutions around her from banks to eye clinics with tragic-comic results. Individuals inevitably become alienated within regimental systems of dealing with people like Elisabeth's experience trying to submit a passport application in “Autumn.” As in all great comedy there is a tinge of sorrow and anger mixed in with the laughter. Out of a delightfully odd situation where Sophia is haunted by the ghost head of a child there arises a sober statement about ageing and a moving aspect about this character’s past interactions with the art of Barbara Hepworth.

Portrait of Barbara Hepworth by Ethel Walker

Portrait of Barbara Hepworth by Ethel Walker

The real ghost who seems to flit through this novel is Hepworth herself whose art and presence seems to permeate the story. This is sculptor whose smoothed-down natural materials frequently featured a hole through which to look through. There are a lot of elements to this story that have to do with nature and perspective. Art is the figure caught in the centre trying to reconcile his relationship with nature through writing on his blog amidst a corporate job tracking down copyright theft. Hepworth's sculptures feel like they organically rise within the narrative to insist on challenging the characters' perceptions. Later, Smith recounts the way a neglected painting by Ethel Walker was only recently identified as a rare early portrait of Barbara Hepworth as a teenager. Like a vision of the past, the woman herself resurfaces anew.

I have a particular passion for watching nature documentaries – particularly late at night when I’m struck by sleeplessness. Somehow this voyeuristic connection with the lives of animals and the physical world helps lull me into a state of abandon and unconsciousness. Something I’ve learned from these documentaries is that, although winter is a time of scarcity for many animals, it’s also a time in which predators such as wolves thrive best. Since they find it easier to prey on the elderly, young or sick, it makes killing easier at this time of year. Therefore, winter is a time that requires a heightened level of vigilance and care. Ali Smith’s “Winter” is a heart warming encouragement to come together, to question, to watch out for each other in these cold times when carnivorous powers seek to consume and discard those that are most vulnerable. It’s a reminder to give ourselves time in a fast-paced world where we never feel like we have enough time: “That’s what winter is: an exercise in remembering how to still yourself then how to come pliantly back to life again.” It’s also a reminder that the spectre of nature is ever present and will regenerate to crawl over and crumble every wall that’s built.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAli Smith
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I’ve been a fan of watching Jen Campbell’s histories of fairy tales on her YouTube channel for some time. She gives fascinating descriptions of the dark content and themes of these stories which have been passed down through generations and illuminates how the original tale is often far different from a Disney interpretation. So I was incredibly eager to read this series of original modern-day fairy tales she’s written in her first collection of short fiction “The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night”. These are stories about fantastical situations such as purchasing hearts online, capturing ghosts to sell on the black market, a hotel where the guests sleep in coffins and a far away planet that acts as a time capsule. These distorted versions of the world often inventively shed new light on our emotional reality by ruminating on conditions such as love, jealousy, greed and the origin of existence. It makes this book such a richly rewarding and pleasurable reading experience.

Integral to these tales is the compulsion for storytelling itself. Characters read about stories, tell each other stories or make up stories themselves. Some are riffs on established fairy tales, bible tales or mythology that poignantly comment on the central thread of story. So a story about teenage pregnancy recounts a version of ‘Hansel and Gretel’ that creates a powerful connection to ideas about food and nourishment. Another story incorporates aspects of ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ to comment upon a lost friend and a sense of freedom. Others invent whole new kinds of tall tales to bring chaotic emotions and unwieldy feelings into some sort of order. These beautifully show the way classic stories can be incorporated into and made relevant to our everyday life and how we can write ourselves into the myths we inherit. Campbell also often incorporates snippets of oddball history like the ritualized consumption of hearts or unusual natural science like an icefish with transparent blood. The real and unreal mingle on the page to show the complex way in which we perceive, interpret and make sense of the world around us.

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The visual arts also provide another portal of understanding for some characters. The endearing story ‘Jacob’ is composed in the form of a letter a boy writes to a weather woman looking for special insight and he recounts a trip to a museum where he was overwhelmed by a painting that depicts when God flooded the earth. The deeply moving story 'Margaret and mary and the end of the world' describes how a pregnant girl goes to view Dante Rossetti’s Ecce Ancilla Domini and meditates on the condition of womanhood. In that painting the angel Gabriel is strikingly depicted as having his feet on fire and the artist modelled the ambivalent figure of Mary on his own sister, the writer Christina Rossetti whose extended poem ‘Goblin Market’ is such a wondrous joy.

Quite often when artwork is depicted in novels I feel a compulsion to actually go view that piece of art as I did reading Ali Smith’s “How to Be Both” and Neil Hegarty’s “Inch Levels”. So I felt the same in this instance wanting to see Rossetti’s painting in person. I took the bus to Trafalgar Square to see it at the National Gallery (since it’s currently on loan there from the Tate). Something quite randomly wonderful happened on my journey where I was listening to Rebekah Del Rio’s song ‘No Stars’ on a loop. This track has been frequently drifting through my mind since I saw it performed in Twin Peaks The Return. While listening to this I read Campbell’s title story ‘The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night’ about a couple speculating on both the creation of the universe and the start of their relationship at 3AM. When Evelyn asserts that in the beginning there was nothing but stars Julian critiques her by replying that stars aren’t nothing. Evelyn corrects herself saying there were no stars. This fit so perfectly with my listening not only in the repetition of there being “no stars”, but in the way both the song and story solemnly consider the meaning of a relationship. It was a fun little coincidence. 

The imaginative exuberance of this collection makes it such an enjoyable and stunningly fascinating book. Some of the stories like ‘Animals’ or ‘Aunt Libby’s Coffin Hotel’ revel in gothic delights and build plots of dramatic tension. Others such as ‘Plum Pie. Zombie Green. Yellow Bee. Purple Monster.’ and ‘Human Satellites’ more abstractly provoke you to consider new ideas and perspectives. Then others make arresting points about the nature of war or the stigma surrounding deformity while immersing the reader in a trip to a gay pride celebration in Brighton or a tour around an aquarium. Jen Campbell’s writing sits snugly alongside such excitingly inventive modern short story writers such as Kirsty Logan, Jackie Kay, Daisy Johnson or Ali Smith.

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Like many people I was always aware of the infamous rhyme about Lizzie Borden (giving her mother forty whacks), but knew absolutely nothing else about her or the brutal murder case. So it was fascinating naively plunging into Sarah Schmidt's dramatic fictional version of this twisted family tale. “See What I Have Done” begins right in the middle of that blood-soaked day on August 4, 1892 where Andrew Borden and his second wife Abby are found dead in their home having been hacked repeatedly with an axe. The story revolves between the perspectives of Lizzie, her older sister Emma, the household maid Bridget and a young man named Benjamin. Their accounts surrounding the days before and after the horrific murder gradually piece together to form a complex puzzle. The tension builds as we come to understand this strained household environment and broken family. This was such a wonderfully atmospheric story that teases the senses and drew me into this chilling murderous situation. 

It’s extraordinary the way details about the scent of rotting pears or mutton soup are described to add to the sinister air of the story. The Borden household came to feel fully realized in my imagination as I not only became very familiar with how the property looked, felt and smelled, but also understood the difficult dynamic between everyone who lived there in the days running up to the murder. Lizzie is an combative young woman often desperate for attention and affection. Her sister Emma grew tired of attending to her and was filled with regret about opportunities she’s missed out on because of her loyalty to her sister. She tries to make a new life for herself by leaving but this has caused Lizzie to grow even more unstable. Her domineering father and uptight mother-in-law take increasingly brutal measures to assert their authority, but only succeed in antagonizing Lizzie and Irish servant Bridget. This is a household situation that builds to an explosion.

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I was engaged in this story not just because of the tense mystery about who committed the murders, but also the emotionally touching way Schmidt wrote about the complicated arrangement of the Border house. It’s a place so saturated with frustration and tragic miscommunication that each character is left feeling very isolated. Equally, Benjamin’s family situation provides an interesting parallel where neglect leads to a tragically desperate situation. Before the crime ever occurs there’s a sense of untenable loss concerning the girls’ deceased mother and feelings which have never been resolved. The story describes not only the grizzly consequences of a home that is severely emotionally broken but gets at the tenderness of “That grief inside the heart” of the characters. In many ways, this makes “See What I Have Done” a haunting and memorable novel.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSarah Schmidt
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Recently I was discussing with someone what makes good historical fiction. The kind of historical novels I love most are those that build stories out of footnotes in history to give you a different perspective on a particular time period. There are often little intriguing details you come across in historical accounts which obviously have larger stories to tell. It provides such a tempting jumping off point for an author to fictionally fill in the gaps within history books. Pursuing the question of why these gaps exist is itself an interesting question that can also be explored in the telling. So it’s not surprising that Andrea Camilleri was intrigued by the fact that the widow donna Eleanora became the viceroy of Sicily in 1677 for only twenty seven days after her husband’s death and how there are only a few references to the radical progressive reforms she tried to enact in that short time. He’s built out of this a wonderfully gripping, comic and fascinating tale of a cunning woman who took a position of great power and her struggles amidst the reigning corrupt patriarchy of the time.

Camilleri mostly focuses on the perspectives of the male officials of the court rather than Eleanora herself. For the majority of the novel she exists in the background as a spectral figure and is even described as hovering. It’s as if, like the moon, she rises as a powerful presence in the night to illuminate the reigning darkness. The cycle of the moon lasts exactly as long as Eleanora held her position as viceroy – hence the novel’s title “The Revolution of the Moon.” The way in which we read about the lives of these corrupt officials scrambling to shore up their power and maintain their wealth/positions amidst Eleanora’s changes makes much of this novel satirical in tone. It’s a comedy that exposes the arrogance and pettiness of these princes, rich merchants and members of the clergy who are suddenly put into a tailspin as they might finally be persecuted. But, like the best satire, this tone of narration comes from a place of real anger as Camilleri depicts the way these men’s actions exploit the working class and abuse vulnerable women and children.

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The plot intriguingly follows the difficulties in persecuting these entitled men and a great tension arises as to whether they will slyly evade punishment before Eleanora is removed from power. It was also interesting learning about how the governing of Sicily functioned at this time of history. There was a complicated arrangement by which the king of Spain ruled over the country, but never had direct involvement in its politics which were all handled by viceroy. That viceroy’s position was also partly controlled by the pope. It meant that Eleanora had to be very careful negotiating between the powers, the influential patriarchy and the will of the Sicilian people. Camilleri depicts the strategies of the opposing sides like a tense game where each is trying to outwit the other. It’s amazing Eleanora was able to enact humanitarian changes and weed out some of the blatantly corrupt as she did in such a relatively short time period! I can’t help thinking her story is somewhat reminiscent of that of Lady Jane Grey who almost a century later would rule as Queen of England for only nine days. It’s a sad fact that many progressive women in history who would have made excellent leaders were swiftly removed from office by ruling powers more interested in maintaining the status quo. 

Last month I started reading Boccaccio’s “The Decameron” but I was put off by what felt like an overriding misogynistic humour throughout many of the stories. (I made a whole video here asking how we ought to read problematic classics.) Part of what made me love reading “The Revolution of the Moon” so much was the way Camilleri similarly depicted the cruel reality for many women and working class at this time of history and how their subjugation was tied in with the laws of the nation. I felt Boccaccio made their downtrodden condition into the basis for humour without exploring these characters’ humanity. But Camilleri shows the plight of the disenfranchised and how many were eager for social change. He also makes the arrogant patriarchy into the butt of the joke rather than those who are their victims. It makes this novel into an inspiring, heartrending and thoroughly enjoyable read. 

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I’m often drawn to writing that acknowledges the awe one feels as an individual gazing at the universe but from an entirely secular perspective. The world and the fact of existence seems spectacular enough without attributing it to any grand design. (Nevertheless, I fully respect people who draw wisdom, comfort and community from different kinds of faith.) In her latest collection of poetry “All We Saw” it feels like Anne Michaels is beckoning the reader to join her on a spiritual journey that is entirely unconnected with religion. Her pared down poems describe the path of life as if travelling in a boat. She frequently makes pithy observations about the difficult process of cherishing our experiences without being too attached to them, especially with how this is done in writing and visual art. Her poems shift back and forth from the personal to the broadly objective to explore the tension of savouring what we love, but also learning to let it go. 

The book begins and ends with longer poems, but smaller ones are sandwiched in between. The final poem in the fifth section ‘Ask Aloud’ struck me most as simulating something like a prayer. In the bold statement “To love another more than oneself. To know this is to know everything” Michaels seems to be forming a mantra through which to live. She asks a series of questions and rather than assuming there are answers she declares “Not surmise. Sunrise” as if certain kinds of truth can only be understood fully by looking at nature. Imagery of the natural world repeats and crops up in various poems where knowledge can be better gleaned from the physical world rather than through a process of deduction or received wisdom. The poem ‘You Meet the Gaze of a Flower’ also acts as a kind of entreaty or prayer about confronting life head on. Nature can also encompass a sense of emotion which can’t be expressed in words: “how much that hope hurt and yet purple dusk, yellow winter sky”. I love the way in which you’re suddenly thrust from a place of deep personal feeling into the expanse of a colourful skyline.

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Point of view can shift in fascinating and moving ways throughout a single poem in Michaels’ writing. This probably occurs most dramatically in the poem ‘Bison’ where the description moves from the creation of a picture to inhabiting that picture to the dying artist who created the picture. The focus switches so fluidly it’s breathtaking to be drawn through it and creates a thoroughly unique resonance. This is very different from the blunt emotion to be found in ‘I Dreamed Again’ which describes how we can get lost in dream states where loved ones who are now deceased can physically exist in our lives again – something like what Joan Didion describes in her memoir “The Year of Magical Thinking.” Such longing for a connection with another is consistent with the existential panic that can result from absolute solitude. In her poem ‘Not’ she seems to assert that we possess innumerable uncertainties in life but we can be certain we are not alone when another person is with us. I also like speculating whether this poem is a play off from Samuel Beckett’s famous piece for the theatre ‘Not I’ and offers a different kind of answer from the loveless life of the narrator in that dramatic monologue.

The title poem which concludes the book touches back on water imagery found in the beginning. It also harkens back to a kind of communal spiritual practice where she states “we had only to bend our heads as if reading the same book open between us”. To surmise that the same truth about all the manifold experiences and emotions of life can be understood by looking at the natural world is a beautifully optimistic one. Yet, I also like how she seems to intimate that horizons can create a false belief. A skyline gives the illusion that there is an endpoint when in actuality it will continue on no matter how much you run towards it – just like our images of future happiness will inevitably dissolve because we will always desire more. The book “All We Saw” is a beautifully spare and artful creation.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAnne Michaels
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As adults we can recall flashes of feeling and indulgent fantasies that we experienced as children, but these are inevitably wrapped in a kind of silk-smooth nostalgia. Even memories of intense anger and pain are altered by the distance of time because this past now has a context. When you’re child there is no context. So much of literature tries to simulate the actual feeling of childhood, but only manages a sentimental simulation. But something in Andrés Barba’s narrative gets it so exactly, eerily right that it’s as if (as Edmund White pronounces in his afterword to this novella) “Barba has returned us to the nightmare of childhood.” Reading the story of seven year old Marina and the children in the orphanage she’s taken to after her parents’ death made me feel all the chaotic roiling emotion and imagination of my youth again. “Such Small Hands” is an extraordinary experience and it’s so artfully done that I’m in awe of its brilliant construction.

Apparently this story is partly inspired by an incident in Brazil that occurred in the 1960s where a child in an orphanage mutilated another child and was found playing with their body parts. This novella doesn’t indulge in the gore that this occurrence makes you imagine. But it definitely unsettles by inserting the reader into an alternating series of perspectives that makes you feel the precarious line children tread between reality and fantasy. In the first part we follow Marina in the immediate aftermath of her parents’ sudden deaths. She’s bluntly told what happened after their car accident, but it doesn’t stick to her reality because she can’t understand its full meaning. Barba has a startling way of showing how language and the words adults use when speaking to Marina don’t correlate to actual things in her mind. Even when she’s told she’s being taken to an orphanage this has no meaning for her because she has no idea what it is.

Even more extraordinary is the process Barba describes when Marina tries to make sense out of the world. She’s taken to see a psychologist and finds that she can’t adequately describe her experiences or produce the desired response: “Whenever her memory failed her, she’d just invent a color and slot it between true things. That seemed to change the scene, to turn her memories into things that were solid, things you could take out of your pocket and put on a table.” It’s a brilliant way of describing how we create stories out of our experiences and how we find our existence slotted within a narrative. No matter how earnestly we try to stick to facts and honesty, our memories are inevitably textured by the language that we turn them into. Once that experience has been cemented into the words within a story it’s forever altered and we’re left wondering, as it’s later stated in the novella, “How is it that a thing gets caught inside a name and then never comes out again?”

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The narrative does something quite startling when Marina enters the orphanage and the perspective shifts to the collective account of the children she meets there. Amidst this chorus we view Marina as a pretty girl attached to a doll that the psychologist gave to her. She becomes the receptacle of all their envy, affection, jealousy and anger as they alternately love and revile her. Marina eventually initiates a game where at night the children take turns pretending to turn into dolls. The way in which Barba depicts this state of shifting from a child to a passive doll that is privy to all the whispered secrets and tumultuous emotions of the other children is absolutely extraordinary. It’s one of the most powerful shifts in perspective I’ve read since the first section of Jane Bowles’ weirdly wonderful “Two Serious Ladies” where a girl is subjected to a personalized religious ritual by another girl.

It seems so fitting that Edmund White provides a short afterward to this ingenious novella because he’s a writer that’s always been especially keen on evocatively describing the reality of childhood as he did in “A Boy’s Own Story” and the exquisite short story ‘Record Time’. At times, “Such Small Hands” made me recall the beautiful opening section of Virginia Woolf’s “The Waves” where imagination freely mingles with the selfish desires and expressive emotions of the six children - but Woolf uses a highly polished poetic tone of narrative to do so. Perhaps the greatest master of writing about the adolescent experience is Joyce Carol Oates who continuously brings us in her narratives back to an Alice in Wonderland state of being (a children’s story also referenced in “Such Small Hands”). The first section of Hilary Mantel’s brilliant memoir “Giving Up the Ghost” also vividly describes the experience of childhood in a way which is so arresting and familiar. Have you read any other books that accurately describe the experience of youth? I’d be very keen to hear about them.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAndrés Barba
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Even if it weren’t for the beautiful cover of this debut novel by Eli Goldstone, I’d still have been drawn to reading “Strange Beating Heart” because it’s partly set in Latvia. Some of my ancestors came from Latvia and I still have relatives there, but I’ve not yet visited. So I have a fascination with this location and I’m curious to read literature that’s set there. The story begins with Seb mourning the loss of his young artistic wife who died in a freak lake accident when her boat was overturned by an angry swan. Swans are really the most beautifully graceful looking birds, but they have the worst tempers; I was once chased up a tree by one! It’s striking that Seb’s wife Leda is killed by a swan because in the Greek myth Leda is a Spartan queen who is seduced by Zeus who comes to her in the form of a swan. The symbolism of swans is played out in different ways throughout the novel to express forms of vulnerability, eroticism and shape-shifting. However, this isn’t a fantasy or mythic story, but a poignant realistic tale of isolation, grief and estrangement.

"How can those terrified vague fingers push The feathered glory from her loosening thighs? And how can body, laid in that white rush, But feel the strange beating heart where it lies?" - W.B.Yeats

"How can those terrified vague fingers push The feathered glory from her loosening thighs? And how can body, laid in that white rush, But feel the strange beating heart where it lies?" - W.B.Yeats

Seb finds his wife’s loss overwhelming and it leads him to increasingly irrational behaviour. When he happens across a series of unopened letters addressed to his wife from a man in Latvia he embarks to Leda’s home country to discover more about his late wife’s past. His journey to the countryside where Leda came from reveals how little he really knew about his wife. But it’s not presented as if Leda harboured some deep shameful secret. The story raises is more concerned with unsettling existential questions about how much or little we ever really understand about the partner we make a life with. The account of Seb’s journey is interspersed with diary entries from Leda about her youth and eventual move to the UK. This is an interesting structure which reminded me slightly of the recent novel “Swimming Lessons” where the story alternates between letters from a missing woman and an account of her family in the present.

The effect of Goldstone’s novel is more melancholic because rather than building to a revelation or feeling of independence, these scattered diary entries seem to ask if we can ever really be understood or known to ourselves or others. Not only does Leda come across as a stranger to her husband, but also to her unstable mother and other people who are supposedly close to her. There are also wayward figures of an enterprising German woman, a lonely B&B landlady and a hunter who frequently drinks himself into a stupor. While Seb’s interactions with them and struggles with the language inevitably produce some comic effects, it also adds to his lingering sense of isolation. Both the primary stories about Leda’s early life and Seb’s quest through Latvia build to dramatic conclusions, but this novel felt much more concerned with raising questions about identity rather than creating a thickly plotted tale. It’s an emotionally complex and unsettling book.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesEli Goldstone
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Andrew Michael Hurley is something of a genius in how he amps up the creep-factor in his writing about isolated rural traditions and village secrets. His phenomenally-successful novel “The Loney” was certainly one of the most atmospheric novels I read last year. New novel “Devil's Day” also produces that unsettling feeling which makes you fearfully look over your shoulder late at night. The narrative artfully plays upon superstitions and anxiety to draw the reader in. John returns to the remote Lancashire sheep-farming community he was raised in for the funeral of his grandfather “The Gaffer” and the annual local Devil's Day celebration. This is a ceremony where the devil is at first tempted in to spare him ravaging the sheep and then expelled back out into the barren moors. Meanwhile, John's pregnant wife Katherine is frequently bothered by a persistent rotting smell, there's a sick ram in the barn, local girl Grace exhibits psychic powers, an act of arson burns a large plot of land and a father recently released from jail has gone missing. This accumulation of details all build to make the reader frantically wonder what's really happening. Is there something supernatural about this environment or are these bizarre occurrences merely messing with our perception? The story builds to fantastically tense scenes and an eerily climatic ending.

This wouldn't be possible if it weren't for Hurley's talent for suffusing his story with a rich amount of detail. The landscape is magnificently described and the intricacies of farming life are vividly rendered. There's a certain beauty to this age-worn setting and its proud community, but there's a sense of ever-present dilapidation to it as well: “Living on farms was one endless round of maintenance. Nothing was ever finished. Nothing was ever settled. Nothing. Everyone here died in the midst of repairing something. Chores and damage were inherited.” The author describes the physically-taxing nature of farming life and how little profit there is in it. He also renders how this creates a long-lasting effect on people over time: '“The valley made placid men stubborn, just as it made ageing men older.” Hence, it's little wonder that John was drawn to move away and make a life for himself elsewhere. But his return to his homeland makes him to reconsider his family legacy and whether he should continue established traditions.

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The thing which elevates this novel into being something other than a finely-rendered spooky story are the heartfelt questions about family life that it raises. Are we obligated to honour our ancestors by carrying on with their work or are we free to set out on our own? This is played out through John's narrative but his story which sifts between the past and present comes with hitches which gradually make us question his motives, viability and certain facts about his personal history. There are beautifully poignant moments when he considers how few details we can actually recall in our memories: “Like salt boiled out of water, these things remain. Everything else has evaporated.” We can draw multiple conclusions out of the fragments we get from John's past and the ending of the story. Like all the best riveting narratives whose exact meaning remains elusive, this novel has left me wanting to discuss it with other people so we can collectively try to tease out an answer for what really happened.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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It’s been quite a ride following the Man Booker Prize this year from the astounding quality of the novels on the long list to the heated race between the six books on the short list. When I first read “Lincoln in the Bardo” in March I was completely awestruck by this unique and powerful reading experience. So it threw me into such a quandary about whether this should win or Ali Smith’s wonderfully rambunctious and relevant “Autumn.” Of course, last year’s surprise winner “The Sellout” taught me how difficult it is to gauge what the judges might decide. So it felt equally plausible that this year’s winner could have been the accomplished novels “Exit West”, “History of Wolves” or “Elmet.” The oddball for me this year was Paul Auster’s “4321” which I’ve still not finished reading. There’s a lot to admire about it, but it seems overlong and the novel’s concept means that some of it feels quite repetitive. It must have been a really difficult decision picking a winner, but I’m glad Saunders' novel got the award. The chair of judges Lola, Baroness Young commented “The form and style of this utterly original novel, reveals a witty, intelligent, and deeply moving narrative.” 

Special presentation editions made for the shortlisted authors

Special presentation editions made for the shortlisted authors

With Ali Smith at the Guildhall

With Ali Smith at the Guildhall

I spotted Mohsin Hamid chatting with the Duchess of Cornwall

I spotted Mohsin Hamid chatting with the Duchess of Cornwall

Last night I was lucky enough to be invited to the pre-reception drinks before the award announcement at the Guildhall. There was a beautiful display of special editions of all the shortlisted novels. These unique designs really capture the spirit of the books. I decided to root for Ali Smith to win especially after the powerful reading she gave at the Booker shortlist readings on Monday night. It literally brought tears to my eyes hearing her describe the mood of the country in her narrative. There were hundreds of people in the Royal Festival Hall audience and it struck me how accurately she had captured all the complex and contradictory feelings of the country and how everyone in that room recognized and related to her words. Ali has told me before that her spirit animal is a pink armadillo so I had a special t-shirt made with an illustration of this adorable creature surrounded by Autumn leaves. She was wonderfully calm and sincerely talked about how it doesn’t matter who wins since they are all such excellent novels. That certainly chimes with why I love a prize like the Booker because the real pleasure of it is debating the different qualities of several great novels. I also went to some of the publishers’ parties and right up to the announcement I was still discussing the books on the list with people, many of whom had a different favourite. The prize is also an opportunity for me to place a cheeky little bet which I did right after this year’s longlist was announced. I went with my instinct that George Saunders would win and it’s paid off!

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I’m already looking forward to what new gems will come up on next year’s Man Booker International Prize as well as the main prize!

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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