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As I described in a recent post about the novel “Our Lady of Alice Bhatti”, the Wellcome Book Prize is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year and I decided to explore this year's shortlist a bit more. One of the judges of this year's award is Elif Shafak and one of the shortlisted books is Ottessa Moshfegh's “My Year of Rest and Relaxation”. While I'm naturally drawn to reading more fiction than nonfiction, this award encompasses both kinds of writing so it's a good chance for me to read a nonfiction book I probably wouldn't have got to otherwise. The prize centres around new books that engage with some aspect of medicine, health or illness. Arnold Thomas Fanning's “Mind on Fire” recounts his lifelong struggle with mental health issues. He vividly describes the unwieldy chaos of manic episodes where extreme feelings and fantasies lead him to take drastic action as he careens through cities and airports shocking or outright terrifying people along the way. It's powerful how he conveys that to his manic mind he's following a logical course of action, but of course on the outside his actions are insensible. He also discloses the sensations of debilitating depression when he sometimes physically can't move and his thoughts revolve constantly around suicide. He eloquently expresses how all-consuming these states are and that “Within it there is no without it.” This illness not only wreaks havoc on his own health, but severely impinges upon the lives of his family and friends as well. Fanning powerfully documents his heartrending, difficult journey. 

One of the biggest difficulties in understanding manifestations of mania and depression is how these conditions can exist both as a mental health issue and normal human emotions. It's common for people who suffer from severe cases of this to not have it taken as a medical condition. Instead they are encouraged to buck up and smile instead of frowning as Fanning is encouraged to do by an acquaintance at one point. Fanning concedes that feelings may arise that “may be related to my bipolar disorder, but they are also common human experiences that I share with others. At times I am happy; at times I am sad and I suffer. I have good times, and not so good times. This is life, not illness.” The culmination of his journey marks a point he reaches where he's able to live a stable and productive life, but the extremity of his emotions in this period are very distinct from periods where he was unwell and unable to function. He cites the elements needed for recovery and wellness as being “therapy, medication, exercise, meaningful work (creative, as well as occupational) and a loving relationship and relationships with friends and family.” However, it's extremely difficult to achieve all of these things at once when resources such as money, health care or employment aren't available or support from friends or family isn't available. This combined with a stigma surrounding mental health issues and Fanning's own overwhelming feelings of self-defeat make his path to recovery a long and difficult one.

The book also meaningfully describes how recovery is never a state which will be absolute or constant. There are periods where he seems to have stabilised but due to changes in medication, pitfalls in his creative endeavours in playwriting and screenwriting career or his employment status and/or difficulties in his relationships or environment can send him spiralling into extreme episodes again. His story shows how the fear of relapse can add more anxiety to his state of being. Equally there can be a crushing sense of guilt surrounding the justified wariness from the people closest to him who've been negatively impacted by his breakdowns. Fanning's memoir poignantly conveys all these things and his overall journey gives a moving personal take on issues surrounding mental health. However, there were sections which lingered on details to do with his childhood, certain relationships or creative aspirations which detracted from the momentum of his tale and the impact of his message. I appreciate how he wanted to fully flesh out his life, but the focus at times strayed from the main focus of the issues involved. Nevertheless, I was touched by the honesty of his story and enlightened by the long winding journey of his struggles.

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The short punchy chapters which make up Sophie Van Llewyn's “Bottled Goods” have the feel of flash fiction. They are a sequence of snippets (usually in the form of diary entries or lists) in its protagonist Alina's life within communist Romania. Together they form a portrait of this period of the 1970s rife with paranoia and fear of the secret services. In this hostile environment Alina can't even trust her mother. Like in the novel “Milkman” it's best to go unnoticed in this fractured society. But both Alina and her husband Liviu come under suspicion when his brother defects to the West. Their relationship comes under strain as they feel pressure from the government and need to take radical measures to survive. While I appreciated the way this novel in pieces tried to create an impression of Alina's experience in an oppressive place, the novel didn't quite come together to me as it rushed over some emotionally complex situations and the fantastical elements of the story felt tacked on. 

The most vibrant and interesting character for me was Alina's eccentric Aunt Theresa who is in a privileged position with the government so can continue pursuing her religious and superstitious practices. I was also compelled by the inordinate pressure Alina and Liviu receive not just from the government but the other citizens surrounding them. A fairly minor infringement from a girl in Alina's class means she's subjected to torturous scrutiny and gossip from those around her. I was also moved by the way her relationship with Liviu sours when he's rigorously cross questioned by the authorities, but their marriage is too easily patched up and some incidents of trauma are handled too briskly. I was interested in how mother and daughter come to such a crisis that Alina was prepared to do anything to silence her, but sadly rather than adding a dynamic layer to this strife the fable-like element introduced detracted from the impact of this crucial part of the story. I wonder if this novel would have worked better as a single short story.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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When this year’s Man Booker International Prize longlist was announced it included French book “The Years” by Annie Ernaux. Some people scratched their heads at its inclusion – not because of its perceived quality – but because the English version was published in the UK by Fitzcarraldo with their recognizable plain white covers and blue lettering. This signifies it’s a book of essays or nonfiction (as opposed to their plain blue covers with white lettering which signifies it’s a work of fiction.) But the Man Booker International Prize is only open to fiction. What gives? Well, when “The Years” first appeared in its native French language it was classified as a novel. So apparently Fitzcarraldo asked the Booker if “The Years” could be submitted as a novel even though they originally classified it as nonfiction. The Booker accepted.

This titbit of gossip doesn’t matter, but it shows how the form of “The Years” doesn’t follow any neat classification. It’s part fiction, part essay, part autobiography. Personally, I don’t care how books are categorized or which shelf they sit on in a bookstore. What is important is how this revolutionary book conveys a sense of history, consciousness and national identity like no other book I’ve read before. Narrated in a unique collective “we” voice it follows a woman and those around her from post-WWII through to the current Information Age. In doing so it provides such a unique shifting sense of time as it speaks from the perspective of people in an era of rapid change. Also it regularly focuses on jarringly precise details that come close to poetry. Somehow it achieves the startling feat of being both intimately personal while also speaking as the collective voice of a generation. It’s extraordinary, beautiful and warrants prizes no matter what label it’s published under.

One of the absolutely fascinating things “The Years” does is openly discuss its protagonist’s desire to write a book and the struggle to find the right form for doing so. Normally such self-consciousness can be distracting, but in this book it’s very poignant how it captures our desire to catalogue our experiences and lives in a way which will both memorialise them and articulate their true meaning. In fact, in the later part of the book she explicitly states the mission of why she’s written the book in this way: “By retrieving the memory of collective memory in an individual memory, she will capture the lived dimension of History.” She does this by referencing a number of photographs taken throughout the protagonist’s life and it’s through the lens of these different stages of an individual life that she touches upon the sensibility of a generation. For instance, with a picture of the adolescent girl she devises “that writing is able to retrieve here something slipping through the 1950s, to capture the reflection that collective history projects upon the screen of individual memory.”

I also felt I could strongly relate to how she discusses the process of maturity. As we age our perception of time and our own personalities change as well. As a precocious teenager she feels: “She has gone over to the other side but she cannot say to what. The life behind her is made up of disjointed images. She feels she is nowhere, 'inside' nothing except knowledge and literature.” This beautifully captures a sense of moving from childhood to a different form of engagement with society where we become preoccupied with intellectual questions rather than just looking at the world with wonder. Later there’s an especially poignant moment where she feels her life is passing her by: “She feels as if a book is writing itself just behind her; all she has to do is live. But there is nothing.” This so elegantly and tragically describes a heightened sense of self-consciousness where we see our lives like a movie or the story of a novel. And we feel that it’s being captured in some essential way, but in reality our experiences only exist on the periphery of other people’s and aren’t memorialized except in fleeting memories or photographs.

It’s so interesting how personal details are often only referred to in asides. We’re fleetingly aware the protagonist gets married, works, has children and gets divorced but these aren’t the central tenants of the plot. What this book is more concerned with is capturing the mood in stages of time and how this individual’s personality is informed by and reflects the changing society. The sense of a collective voice powerfully shows the social change and predominant ideology of a certain section of French society at different times. As she moves through the decades of the 60s and 70s there’s a growing sense of feminism and social progress. Later on there’s a critique of capitalism and material obsession in the 80s and a sense of how our relationship to world events changes with the advent of the Information Age. But there is also an expression of regressive values and xenophobia which periodically emerge in views about immigrants and Arabs. In response to acts of terrorism there are some jarring statements where its expressed “That people could murder each other over religion was beyond our comprehension. It seemed to prove that these populations had remained at an earlier stage of evolution.” Ernaux describes how these pervasive feelings of prejudice spread throughout cultures at certain times, the way in which sections of society can form elitist views and subject different cultures to a form of “otherness” which divides people in the country.

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I admire how daring the author was in self-consciously plotting out the book’s structure while also creating such an enjoyable and moving reading experience. I felt I could connect with the story so powerfully though it’s so wrapped up in a time, place and people very different from my own. The novel is beautifully framed at the beginning and end with certain images which seem plucked at random but have taken on such importance for the protagonist. There are several points in the book when she recalls the memory of a woman pissing out in the open and though it was just a fleeting observation it stays with her so vividly. I love how this reflects the way we can become obsessed with certain experiences or memories which linger in our minds – not because they have any great significance but they have been defined by our point of view. They are “the images of a moment bathed in a light that is theirs alone.” This shows how it’s not the fact of events in history which resound in the collective memory but our unique perceptions of them. This is one of the many brilliant ways this novel expresses so much about personality, time and the state of being.

Now that “The Years” has been shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize (and even though I still have three other books to read on the list) I hope Annie Ernaux wins.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAnnie Ernaux
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In this group of memoirist essays art and life intersect to create a powerfully moving portrait of cultural and personal change. It feels like this book has been a long time coming and in later essays Sinéad Gleeson refers to its gradual creation as well as obstacles which sharpened its focus. I’ve been familiar with Gleeson’s work as a journalist and a curator since she edited two stunning anthologies of Irish short fiction by women: “The Long Gaze Back” and “The Glass Shore”. So I was already familiar with her stance as a feminist and aesthete, but it wasn’t till reading this gripping and mesmerising book that I understood how her personal history partly informs her conversation with literature and the arts. The essays roughly follow the trajectory of her life from childhood to adulthood and the severely challenging medical issues she’s faced along the way. These health issues presented many heartrending and difficult obstacles, but they also gave Gleeson a unique perspective of the world around her as a woman, citizen, friend, mother and intellectual. She charts how her beliefs and feelings have evolved alongside the society around her. Certainly she’s lived through many personal challenges, but she’s never let them define her. Rather, they’ve inspired a deeper form of engagement with the world and fervent belief that “Art is about interpreting our own experience.”

I read these essays in chronological order and, while they would certainly be just as impactful read in isolation, it’s touching following her journey from a childhood as a devote Catholic visiting Lourdes hoping for a miracle cure to an adult political activist canvassing from door to door to help overturn Ireland’s abortion ban. We see different angles of her experiences with illness such as a rare disorder that caused her bones to deteriorate and later battles with cancer. She also recounts how her past illnesses created complications for her pregnancies. Her many visits to the hospital inform her ontological understanding of the body as a physical and social being. She perceives how “The pregnant body is not solely its owner’s domain. In gestating another person you become public property. The world – doctors, friendly neighbours, women in shop queues – feels entitled to an opinion on it.” Her experiences with doctors and legislation involving the body sharpen her resolve about the importance of individual autonomy and respecting what a person wants and needs.

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There are also many very perceptive assessments of the work of numerous visual and performance artists as well as writers. Gleeson poignantly reflects on her personal connection to their themes and subject matter. For instance, she describes how she’s moved by the work of Frida Kahlo as someone whose body was similarly physically restricted through medical procedures. She notes how “Immobility is gasoline for the imagination: in convalescence, the mind craves open spaces, dark alleys, moon landings.” Gleeson seeks out artists who meaningfully frame their experiences in a way that broaden the political conversation and offer moments of personal solace. The essay 'The Adventure Narrative' also honours cavalier women who have set out to explore the world since this is traditionally seen as a masculine activity – as explored in Abi Andrews’ novel “The Word for Woman is Wilderness”. But, aside from noteworthy female explorers and impactful women artists, Gleeson also chronicles the experience of women who have been left out of the history books such as in the essay 'Second Mother' where she memorializes the life of a great woman who inspired her passion for reading.

I was utterly entranced by this book. It’s incredibly brave to write so openly about such personal subject matter. In writing so thoughtfully about her life Gleeson compellingly explores many larger ideas and issues, showing how they connect to a shared sense of culture and society. For all the heartache and struggle these essays cover, this is also a wonderfully optimistic and uplifting book that ought to be treasured.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSinead Gleeson
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From the description of this novel I thought it would be a standard mid-late life crisis story about a man contemplating what his ambition and success really amount to. But it turned out to be something much more subtle and nuanced than that with a clever twist at the end. Park Minwoo was raised in a working class neighbourhood surrounded by poverty and gang violence, but became a successful architect heading his own firm. Parallel to his story is that of Jung Woohee who is a 29 year old playwright and director struggling to earn a living by working the night shift at a convenience store while trying to realise her artistic ambitions. What’s so moving about these two story threads is the way they intertwine to say something much larger about how our values and desires can become so twisted over the course of time. While working to create a good life for ourselves and those closest to us we become enmeshed in society’s progress which has a way of paving over history and people who fall by the wayside. This novel says something powerful about how our collective and personal values change over time. 

Something I appreciated most about this novel was the detailed account of Woohee’s difficulty in making a living. She’s forced to work outside regular working hours for below minimum wage and live in substandard accommodation because if she makes any legal complaint she’ll lose her job and shelter. Instances of injustice like this occur all the time, but largely go unacknowledged and I appreciate fiction that deals seriously with this plight. Also, though Minwoo is now in a privileged position he’s portrayed in a complex and sympathetic way where his life is overcast with loneliness. An old friend is reintroduced into his life when he receives a request to call Soona who was the most desired girl in the small village of Moon Hollow where Minwoo grew up. He hasn’t had any contact with her for years. Now letters from her awaken memories of his childhood and make him consider how his achievements turned out very differently from what he expected. My initial confusion about why two different characters had the same name was eventually quelled when the intricate plot finally unfolded in a disarming and thought-provoking way. This is a book whose greater meaning will linger with me.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesHwang Sok-yong
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It’s especially exciting as a reader when I start a novel and immediately feel engrossed by the story. This is a difficult thing to accomplish because it’s not just the content that needs to grip me but the style and tone of the narrative have to confidently guide me into the fictional world being presented. But I did feel wholly inside the story of “You Will Be Safe Here” by Damian Barr starting with the prologue where a teenage boy named Willem is forcibly taken by his parents to a sinister institution in 2010 and this feeling continued into the first chapter when a woman named Sarah describes her fear at the sight of distant smoke in 1901 as she knows this means military forces are nearing her farm. 

So begin the stories of two different South African individuals at opposite ends of a century. This immersive novel explores the egregious fact of British-run concentration camps during The Second Boer War and camps in the present day designed to toughen up white young South African men who are deemed too effeminate or soft. These institutions are prisons that go by different names because they are purportedly for their inhabitants’ safety and improvement, but they’re really a slow form of torture. Through their pernicious practices we see warring ideologies about what makes the South African national identity and the unfortunate individuals who are the casualties of this political battle. It’s a heartrending tale, but it’s filled with so many beautifully realized moments that I didn’t want to look away and could relate to these characters’ stories (even though they are far different from my own life.)

A largely unknown truth this novel presents is the history of how the British operated concentration camps in South Africa from 1900-1902. Most people (including me) think of concentration camps as a Nazi invention during WWII, but prior to that they were implemented during the Second Boer War as a British military strategy to break up guerrilla campaigns. Civilian homes were destroyed and the inhabitants were herded into these poorly run camps to prevent the Boers resupplying from a home base. Thousands of civilians died in these overcrowded camps – mostly because of malnourishment and disease. This was shocking to discover and the story vividly brings us into the reality of what it was like to be interred in one of these camps. Though they weren’t designed as death camps that’s what they became for many. The novel movingly shows that there was cruelty but also moments of human kindness, friendship and a complex community spirit which arose in the face of adversity. 

Being immersed in this history, it was difficult to see how Barr would create a bridge between this tale from the past and the one set in the near-present day. But the way he connects the two is gracefully done as we recognize characters between the two sections and see how the politics of the past can still be felt today. The thing which really drew me to Willem’s character is his bookish nature as he prefers spending time in the library at school rather than playing sports. Stories present an escape from his present where he’s ruthlessly bullied and ostracised. But what I most admire about the way the author handles Willem’s character and his storyline is that he’s not shown to have any particular sexuality though he’s labelled by his father and other boys as a “moffie”. Whether he’s still uncertain about his sexuality or keeps it private isn’t a concern for the reader and this better highlights how the issue is really the standards of masculinity all boys in this environment are being held to. Equally, a friendship Willem develops with another boy is delicately and complexly handled when it could have so easily become a cliché in the hands of a less talented writer.

A British-run concentration camp during the Second Boer War

A British-run concentration camp during the Second Boer War

This novel came with a huge amount of expectation. Not only was Damian Barr’s first book a compassionate and insightful memoir about growing up in the time of Thatcher. But he also regularly hosts the most impressive and glitziest literary salon in London where the guests he interviews include some of the best and most famous writers of today. Interacting with such literary greats puts a lot of pressure on this host to create a first novel that's really something special, but the result is so original, impactful and mesmerising to read that it's a real triumph. I've been lucky enough to get to know Damian a bit over the years and I always feel a lot of anxiety reading something by a writer I know because if I don't enjoy it I need to awkwardly explain to them I don't think it's their best (or pretend I've not found time to read it.) So I was thrilled to discover what a genuine joy it was reading this story and what an impressive, finely researched, artfully constructed novel it is! It's really made me rethink how I look at history – the many ways victorious nations conveniently forget their failings and crimes when teaching world history. I also felt such a connection to the characters that they're going to linger in my imagination for a long time.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesDamian Barr
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I’ve always found something tragically endearing about men who abandon their lives to go in search of themselves. For instance, I’m fascinated by the painter Paul Gauguin who virtually abandoned his middle class family to live and work on his art in self-imposed exile in French Polynesia. You could say there’s a philosophical tension here between a man’s expression of his free will and his obligations to his family, but it stinks all over of masculine arrogance and pride. It’s understandable that an individual wants to be fulfilled, but rather than take constructive steps towards achieving a more satisfactory existence so many men violently tear themselves out of their self-created environments to “find themselves” and start anew. Often women are left with the fallout of their rapid exit: paying their debts or caring for their children. Such is the case in Marion Poschmann’s “The Pine Islands” which begins with husband Gilbert Silvester waking from a nightmare that his wife has cheated on him. He viciously confronts her though there is no evidence of an indiscretion. Consumed by his paranoid fantasy he abruptly flies to Japan to follow a the classic poet Bashō’s pilgrimage through the rural north of the country. Poschmann hilariously skewers the manly vanity of his chaotic journey while taking seriously his ontological quest for meaning.

There’s an atmosphere of humour running throughout the novel as Gilbert pigheadedly marches on his desperate way through the carefully ordered society of Japan. He’s running away from Mathilda ignoring her numerous calls or only engaging in brief cryptic phone conversations. But, at the same time, he frequently writes her letters reflecting on the artistic quests of past poets in a way that betrays his intense need for a tender connection and desire for his intellectual ideas to be respected. Gilbert’s never achieved the success he longed for as a scholar of the representation of beards in art and film. His failure isn’t surprising given his pretentious and crackpot theories on the way beards are perceived and culturally fashioned by homosexuals through the centuries. So his sojourn to Matsuishima (the bay of pine islands) to escape the entrapments of life and compose the most delicately distilled poetry feels more like a way of evading his own feelings of failure rather than progressing to a higher state of being.

Along the way, Gilbert also encounters another man in crisis named Yosa. When Gilbert interrupts Yosa’s plan to commit suicide he takes him on as a companion and guide by convincing Yosa he should at least defer his self-annihilation until he’s in a suitably beautiful location. Their connection is quite touching as they are in a way both cases of men who’ve failed society’s expectations for achieving success and a certain kind of masculinity. Yosa even goes so far to mask his failure by wearing fake beards. This is also a means of consciously alienating himself from the thriving professional men around him who don’t maintain any facial hair if they want to be taken seriously. The trajectory of Gilbert and Yosa’s friendship is touching because it shows how they should really find a bond in their different feelings of alienation, but instead fail to connect because of their masculine pride.

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It’s interesting how Poschmann’s writing starts to emulate the poetic striving for profundity of its protagonist as the story progresses. It’s difficult to know if this is the author’s voice or Gilbert’s consciousness seeping through: “They sat on the train as the landscape slid easily by, leaving station after station in their wake. Stationary travelling, action without action. Or a dull, unconscious drifting, like tattered leaves on the wind.” Gilbert becomes so intent on fashioning haiku poems in the atmospheric settings he visits along Bashō’s trail that it makes sense the story takes on this tone – equally the narrative becomes more hallucinatory as Gilbert increasingly loses the plot. But it does pose a challenging dilemma for the reader to know whether to take these reflective observations seriously or not. I felt it was a shame the novel never fully expresses a justified anger at Gilbert’s monstrously self-centred and casually abusive behaviour but instead opts to take him seriously. But overall, I interpreted this novel as a cunning form of satire and immensely enjoyed this aspect of it.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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“Remembered” begins with a newspaper clipping from 1910 recounting a tragic event where a black man drove a streetcar into a Philadelphia department store. We then follow the near hallucinatory experience as the driver Edward's mother Ms Spring rushes to his side in the hospital alongside the ghost of her sister Tempe. Though this calamitous day is already filled with drama and intrigue where Edward is accused of intentionally crashing the streetcar amidst his rumoured involvement with the distempered local union, his story is only the backdrop for the time Ms Spring spends with him. The novel primarily concerns her disclosing to her son the true story of his origins and her own challenging journey from being born as a slave on a plantation to freedom. She feels it's important that he knows and understands this personal history because “Most of what I’m about to tell you ain’t in no history book, no newspaper article, no encyclopedia. There’s a whole heap of stories don’t ever get told.” This novel tells a story which is moving and surprising in many ways showing the complex mentality and relationships which develop amidst the horrors of slavery. It's an impactful, uniquely told tale.

I really admire it when an author is able to portray a situation of grave moral complexity through characters who take egregious action because they are in extreme circumstances. I've not read many novels that dare to depict such a story. One of the only examples I can think of is Anoshi Irani's tremendous novel “The Parcel” which is told from the point of view of a hijra who considers it her duty to psychologically prepare newly purchased adolescent girls for a life of sexual slavery. Here a character performs an evil task but she is doing it out of charitable necessity because the only other option (as she sees it) is death. A character of equal complexity is depicted in Yvonne Battle-Felton's novel in the figure of Mama Skins. She's determined to prevent more children from being born into slavery on the plantation and takes extreme measures to stop this from happening. It presents a great challenge for readers because they are at once sympathetic to her struggle but horrified by her actions. Yet this is a point of view which needs to be voiced to better understand the individual realities of our complex socio-economic environment. The heartbreak comes not just from the poisonous reality of slavery but the way individual options become so warped.

Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that the nation's transition from slavery to freedom wasn't smooth or easy. Another remarkable thing this story does is show through Spring's story how information was withheld and manipulated while the Emancipation Proclamation took time to be implemented across the nation. The author has an impressive skill for conveying both the sensory and social atmosphere of Spring's journey, but there are times when the vigorous action of the circumstances becomes confusing to follow. What works impressively well is the supernatural element of the spirit of Tempe who accompanies her sister Spring. Such an element in a novel can sometimes feel tacked on or cliched, but here feels touching and natural to her experience. There's a powerful energy which propels the story forward as Spring recalls it through the difficult hours of Edward's time in hospital. This is a courageous, passionate and rousing novel that demands we consider the complexities of history.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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Helen Dunmore was a British writer who produced an impressive amount of work over the past thirty years with dozens of novels, children's books, short stories and poetry collections. She's someone I always meant to read but never got around to. Sadly she died in 2017, but the following year her final poetry collection posthumously won the Costa Book Awards Book of the Year. Since I'm currently reading the novels longlisted for this year's Women's Prize I thought I'd go back and read Dunmore's “A Spell of Winter” which won this award's very first prize in 1996 (when it was known as the Orange Prize.) The story is told from the point of view of Catherine who grows up in a country estate with her brother Rob and their grandfather. Their father is housed in an asylum and their mother is a figure of local scandal who lives in France. The children are never told exactly what caused their family to splinter apart so they grow to rely solely on each other in this circumscribed world. But as they enter adulthood the close bond they share must be left behind though Catherine ardently wants things to remain the same. There are some very surprising twists in this novel and I'm still not entirely sure what to make of it. 

The novel is mostly made up of Catherine's sensory experience as she describes her life in the estate and changing relationships with people associated with it. There are a lot of beautiful descriptions and clever glimpses of psychological insight. These include humorous descriptions such as a comment about how the girl's teacher dresses so darkly: “Miss Gallagher could make a sunny day look like a funeral.” Or there are sometimes larger insights such as this description about how Catherine relates to history: “The past was not something we could live in, because it had nothing to do with life. It was something we lugged about, as heavy as a sack of rotting apples.” In this way, the sharp observations and melancholy tone of the story reminded me of Marilynne Robinson brilliant novel “Housekeeping”.

Though the plot takes a couple surprising turns in a way that builds a lot of suspense, I found the end of the novel to be somewhat disappointing and lackadaisical. It's odd because it feels like it ends at what should be a very dramatic point, but instead of feeling gripped it felt like a glum inevitability. I'm not someone who often gets overly concerned with plot as I can enjoy beautiful writing and rich descriptions of everyday experience. But ultimately I found it hard to relate to or understand Catherine which left me feeling somewhat underwhelmed and mystified by the book as a whole. I'll be curious now to go back and read what people made of this novel at the time since it was a prize winner. And, though this novel wasn't an entirely satisfying experience, I'll be very curious to read more of Dunmore's writing in the future.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesHelen Dunmore
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The short stories contained in Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah debut collection “Friday Black” have a startling way of mixing everyday realism with the fantastic. Many characters are working class individuals struggling to keep their families going while labouring in retail or the night shift at a warehouse. But at the same time they can also be imbued with powers from a Twelve-tongued God, become a spirit who knows how to quell the murderous impulses of bullied boys or a 14 year old female super killer who survives daily nuclear explosions. Violence abounds throughout the stories. There are crazed shoppers who kill everyone in their way to get to sale items and there are groups who commit bloody acts of violence in retaliation for racially-motivated murders. The author amplifies some of the most contentious social issues of today in scenarios which are sadly not far from the truth. Everything from gun control to racism to abortion to genetic engineering are integrated into warped versions of reality giving a new view on these hot topics. The stories are powerfully imaginative while being darkly funny as well as heartbreakingly emotionally honest.  

Some of these tales worked better than others for me. I admire how in 'The Finkelstein 5' the story switches back and forth between two narratives. One half portrays a court trial where a white man is exonerated for beheading five black children with a chainsaw. The other half is from the perspective of a narrator who becomes part of a “Naming” gang that tortures random white people while calling out the names of the slayed black children. It felt really effective how this dual story describes a society where facts and truth have become so twisted up in the willpower of belief. The defence lawyer says at one point “if you believe something, anything then that's what matters most. Believing. In America we have the freedom to believe.” In a justice system that has allowed so many rank instances of injustice to go unpunished, it’s tragically unsurprising that some feel vigilante justice is the only option available. But this story gets at the ambivalence of such a path while delivering a riveting tale that’s a cross between an episode of Black Mirror and The Purge film series.

Not all of the stories conjure up wild fantasies or show instances of extreme violence. Another story ‘The Lion & The Spider’ also uses an alternating dual narrative where in one half a father tells his children stories based in Caribbean folklore. The other half shows a young man left to care for his ailing mother while finishing school and working a job after the father unexpectedly leaves for a long period of time. This creates an emotionally-charged atmosphere within the story as feelings of youthful innocence are paired against the onerous responsibilities of a premature adulthood when a father shirks his duty. Some of the most touching moments in this collection come when well-meaning children are forced into being carers for their parents such as a young man who takes his father to a labyrinthine hospital in 'The Hospital Where' or a young man who wants to win a jacket for his mother in a sales-driven retail competition.

The violent chaos of a Black Friday sale.

The violent chaos of a Black Friday sale.

Sometimes the creative slant the author takes on certain issues doesn’t work quite as smoothly. 'Lark Street' describes a man who comes under the accusatory gaze of his girlfriend’s aborted twin foetuses. While the story takes seriously this emotionally harrowing dilemma it felt like it revelled a little too freely in the grotesque nature of such a scenario. Equally 'Light Spitter' which describes an instance of a campus gun slaying relies a little too heavily on conventional ideas of angelic influence – even with the twist that even the “irredeemable” has a moral core. Still other stories have a surprising degree of repetitive elements like the diligent mall employees in both 'How to Sell a Jacket as Told by IceKing' and ‘Friday Black’. But the later title story felt much more successful in hilariously playing up what’s become the most ridiculous post-Thanksgiving annual retail tradition.

One of the most striking things about this book is the consistent feeling that working class young people are frequently forced to compromise their values and education in order to make a living. Sometimes individuals must play into racial stereotypes or swallow their pride in the face of blatant racism in order to maintain their jobs. There are also asides which testify to being made to feel otherness: “A nurse called out sounds that we understood as her attempt to pronounce our last name.” Such feelings are most dramatically described in the story 'Zimmer Land' where an employee submits to being the continuous victim in violent role playing scenarios that are purportedly about “interactive justice engagement”. This story cleverly portrays the hypocrisy of profit-driven initiatives that claim to teach morality but actually perpetuate stereotypes and bigotry. I’m impressed how daring and forceful the author is in creatively describing instances of painful injustice and social inequality. He’s certainly an impressive new author well worth paying attention to.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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I’ve always been fascinated by couples who frequently argue but still have a solid long term relationship. As someone who thrives best in romances which are calm and stable, the sort of fiery atmosphere around relationships filled with cycles of fierce arguments and amorous make ups is perplexing to me. So I felt fully absorbed following the story of Roy and Celestial who are at the centre of Tayari Jones’ “An American Marriage”. They are prone to bickering because of issues to do with ambition, money, pride and jealousy. Nevertheless the intense bond they share in their relatively new marriage promises a long and fruitful life together – until a fateful night when Roy is accused of raping a woman and sentenced to a long term in prison.

Having just recently read James Baldwin’s “If Beale Street Could Talk” I was conscious of the superficial parallels in the stories of these two novels where a promising relationship is shattered when a young black man is incarcerated for a crime he didn’t commit. However, Tayari Jones’ novel is distinctly different in its style and focus. Much of the text is composed of letters during Roy’s time in jail. It’s so interesting reading stories told in epistolary form because they show how the characters shape their own truth. Roy and Celestial earnestly communicate their thoughts to each other, but also subtly try to get the upper hand. So the arguments which have always been a part of their relationship continue as they both change and grow in environments vastly different from each other. Roy becomes more hardened as he’s subjected to the strain of prison life while Celestial thrives as an artist and entrepreneur creating specialist dolls.

Following this couple’s letters is a really moving and dramatic way of depicting how people in a loving committed relationship can grow apart and become alien to each while still retaining an ardent bond. Interspersed with their separate accounts are the points of view from family members and a man named Andre who becomes an important part of Celestial’s life during Roy’s absence. There are also a lot of dramatic twists! Secrets from the past surface and unexpected occurrences shape their journeys in a way which made this a gripping story. A number of teasing ambiguities are also left in the readers’ mind and you’ll be eager to discuss it with other people who’ve read it. Because of this I’m not surprised Oprah chose it for her book club last year.

Something this novel does really powerfully is show how the fact of Roy and Celestial’s race naturally has an impact upon their lives – especially living in a society where black men are often charged for crimes simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time – but it doesn’t wholly define who they are or the nature of their relationship. It’s impossible to say how their lives together would have played out if Roy hadn’t been incarcerated for years. But the story meaningfully describes how the close connection between these two ebbs and flows as they change as individuals over time. Roy, Celestial and Andre all have such distinct, finely-detailed characters so I felt like I could really hear their voices and understand their different points of view by the end of the novel. In this way the book came alive for me and really tugged on my heart strings.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesTayari Jones
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Sometimes the most divisive books are the most interesting or, at least, the most fun to discuss. The furore surrounding Yanagihara’s massively successful novel “A Little Life” sparked dozens of articles, hundreds of impassioned reviews and countless spirited discussions between readers. Perhaps Melissa Broder’s “The Pisces” hasn’t caused as big a storm, but plenty of people who’ve read it have very strong opinions about it – both positive and negative. There was a lot of anticipation surrounding this debut novel. Usually it feels gauche to quote the number of followers an author has on Twitter, but it’s interesting how Broder’s Twitter account @sosadtoday with it’s 800K followers invokes a tone of voice so similar to the nature of Lucy, the narrator of “The Pisces”. Indeed, the sort of clipped dour statements made on Twitter “reality has never been my favorite” or “so how do you, like, be a person?” are the kind of mopey reflections Lucy often makes throughout the book. But because this is a story we’re given a lot more depth to the existential feelings which inspire these quips and how they fit into the life of a wayward grad student who goes to live on Venice Beach in LA and has a fantastical romantic encounter.

Lucy is writing a dissertation on Sappho or, rather, avoiding working on the dissertation amidst the breakdown of a long term relationship. She falls into a gloomy state where she schemes to get back the boyfriend that she no longer wanted and spends the little money she has on astrological and psychic readings. Her wealthy sister offers her a period of recuperation and reflection by having Lucy housesit in her beautiful beachside residence and watch after her dog Dominic who she thinks of as her child. This offer also comes with the stipulation that Lucy attend group therapy to deal with her anger and sexual compulsions. Lucy does so, but develops a combative attitude towards many of the women in her group and engages in desultory sexual encounters which leave her unsatisfied - until she meets a mysterious man on the beach.

I think the majority of objections to this novel come from Lucy’s unlikeable character who is frequently severely judgemental towards other people (especially women) and in the book’s frank portrayal of sex and sometimes unsavoury nature of our bodies. But while she’s a deeply troubled and oftentimes ornery character I don’t think she’s unsympathetic. She’s someone who gets hung up on gloomy thoughts and she acts out because she can’t understand why everyone isn’t equally effected by them: “Why were some sadnesses so much more permissible than others? Why did it seem like everybody was going to be okay but me?” I appreciate how a lot of her interactions are composed of spontaneous acts of self-creation. Quite often she’ll say or do something to another person without any awareness of her own motivation behind the action. This felt true to life in the way we’ll deal with people in destructive ways but find it difficult to psychologically understand why we’re acting this way without a serious amount of reflection.

Also, Lucy isn’t someone who could be considered a “good feminist” as she actively seeks the attention from men to validate her existence and actively sneers at women in her support group who frequently feel victimized. She wonders “Who was I if I wasn’t trying to make someone love me?” and puts herself through multiple humiliating or degrading circumstances letting men sexually use her in order to feel that she has worth or value. I can understand why this sort of character would irritate or anger some readers. But I think it’s understandable how people can fall into a cycle of seeking casual sex in the hope of achieving validation but finding it inevitably leads to disillusionment because what they really want is an emotional connection rather than a physical one. The sex portrayed is often ugly because it’s not about a romantic connection or even achieving fleeting physical pleasure with the person she’s with but using them as a substitute to give her life meaning.

Sappho & Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene

Sappho & Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene

Her fantastical encounters with a merman which might be real or a fantasy show how she’s attempting to break this cycle. She’s trying to form a better relationship with herself first because she can’t really love someone else without loving herself first. One of the most effective things about this novel is how it shows the ways we avoid and distract ourselves from what we’re feeling. She states “This is just what people did now. We went from emotion to phone. This was how you didn’t die in the 21st century.” Rather than deal with the mess of our emotions we find it easier to casually project our despair or anger or frustration outward and cast around hoping for any small bit of attention from social media. So I felt this novel represented an exaggerated form of our compulsive neediness and an aspect of modern life where we frequently feel adrift.

While I felt this central message was meaningful there were aspects of the novel which weren’t quiet successful. The most glaring annoyance to me was in the character of Claire who becomes Lucy’s closest friend from group therapy. She’s an interesting individual with an insatiable sexual desire and streak of depression. Claire is also British but the way Broder uses English idioms within her speech feels so forced and untrue that I couldn’t believe in her character at all. It may seem like a minor gripe but she becomes quite an important character in the story and the way she’s portrayed is so clumsy. Nevertheless, I thought the novel as a whole worked in how seriously it takes Lucy’s existential angst and the complicated dynamics of sexual relationships.  

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMelissa Broder
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It’s heartening to see that readers have developed more of a taste for translated fiction lately. A recent study shows that in 2018 there was a 20% rise in sales of translated literature. This includes appearances on the best seller lists from familiar names like Haruki Murakami and Elena Ferrante, but also some newer names like Sayaka Murata and Elena Varvello. In tandem or maybe because of this there’s been a growing interest for the Man Booker International Prize which has grown in prominence since its inception a few years ago. I’ve seen a number of prediction lists for what might be on this year’s prize and I think many will be surprised by the titles which have actually made this year’s list.

I’m glad to see there’s a broad spectrum of books from around the world represented on the list as a whole. Past years have been somewhat Europe-centric, but this list includes titles from Central America, South America, the Middle East and Asia as well as books from European countries. There’s also a good gender balance of authors represented with eight female authors on the list. So I think a lot of people will be very happy with the judges’ selections and enjoy exploring many of the surprises it contains. One slight downside is that two of the titles “The Pine Islands” and “The Faculty of Dreams” won’t be published in the UK until after the shortlist announcement on April 9th so if they don’t make that reduced list it’ll be a shame people don’t have access to them now.

I’ve only read the books by past nominee Samanta Schweblin and the newest title from last year’s winner Olga Tokarczuk. But I’ve heard of a few of the books on the list from authors Annie Ernaux, Hwang Sok-yong, Jokha Alharthi and Juan Gabriel Vasquez. With less than a month to go before the shortlist is announced on April 9th I think it’s highly unlikely I’ll read all these books but I’m most keen to read “The Years” which topped several people’s best books of the year lists last year and “Celestial Bodies” which I’ve seen some rave reviews for. Since it’s book prize season there’s a lot on my TBR pile but I’m really hoping to read several of these before the winner is announced on May 21st.

What books from this list are you drawn to? Have you read any which you’d really root for to win? Let me know in the comments below!

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Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi (Oman), translated from Arabic by Marilyn Booth

Love in the New Millennium by Can Xue (China), translated by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen

The Years by Annie Ernaux (France), translated by Alison Strayer

At Dusk by Hwang Sok-yong (South Korea), translated by Sora Kim-Russell

Jokes for the Gunmen by Mazen Maarouf (Iceland and Palestine), translated from Arabic by Jonathan Wright

Four Soldiers by Hubert Mingarelli (France), translated from French by Sam Taylor

The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann (Germany), translated by Jen Calleja

Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin (Argentina and Italy), translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell

The Faculty of Dreams by Sara Stridsberg (Sweden), translated by Deborah Bragan-Turner

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (Poland), translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

The Shape of the Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vásquez (Colombia), translated from Spanish by Anne McLean

The Death of Murat Idrissi by Tommy Wieringa (Netherlands), translated by Sam Garrett

The Remainder by Alia Trabucco Zerán (Chile and Italy), translated from Spanish by Sophie Hughes

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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I tried reading Olga Tokarczuk Booker International Prize winning novel “Flights” last year. I really tried. But, although I could appreciate what an engaged and intelligent writer Olga Tokarczuk is, I just wasn’t enjoying the book's fragmented nature. So after 60 pages I regretfully shelved it to try again another day. Therefore, I was so delighted when I immediately connected much more easily with the story and protagonist of her most recent translated novel “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead”. Here a teacher/caretaker/translator named Mrs Duszejko dwells in a remote Polish village during the dead of winter when most of the community’s inhabitants have left for the season. One snowy day she and her neighbor (who she calls Oddball) discover their only other immediate neighbor (who she calls Big Foot) dead in his home. She soon believes this is part of unusual murder plot orchestrated by the animals of the woods who are motivated by revenge. Mrs Duszejko is wonderfully eccentric. She rigorously consults astrological charts, dresses up as a wolf for the mushroom pickers’ ball and sometimes encounters the ghosts of her mother & grandmother. She surmises that “the best conversations are with yourself. At least there’s no risk of a misunderstanding.”

Unsurprisingly, the surrounding villagers and police force (who she frequently writes to with her ardent conspiracy-theories) don’t take her very seriously and consider her a kook. She’s very aware of this, but is steadfast in her opinions even though she seems to have manic-depressive tendencies. As the title of the novel would suggest, she’s prone to a lot of bleak self-reflection. At one moment she might reflect “one day we shall all be nothing more than corpses” and the next “How great and full of life the world is.” She feels somewhat like a deliciously bleak Jean Rhys character - but less drunk and unconcerned with romance. Mrs Duszejko even goes so far as to postulate “that sorrow is an important word for defining the world. It lies at the foundations of everything, it is the fifth element, the quintessence.” Through the lens of this idiosyncratic woman’s sensibility, we’re introduced to a way of viewing the natural world, society and human relationships from a refreshing new perspective. 

That’s not to say I agree with most of Mrs Duszejko’s cockeyed theories or philosophies and I don’t think we’re meant to buy into her ideas. For instance, she has an odd reverence for angry impulses believing that “Anger makes the mind clear and incisive, able to see more. It sweeps up the other emotions and takes control of the body. Without a doubt Anger is the source of all wisdom, for Anger has the power to exceed any limits.” This goes against the common adage that anger can make us blind to the truth. At another point when thinking about her neighbor who is a writer (who she calls the Grey Lady) she suggests: “people like her, those who wield a pen, can be dangerous... such a Person is not him or herself, but an eye that’s constantly watching, and whatever it sees it changes into sentences; in the process it strips reality of its most essential quality - its inexpressibility.” It’s enjoyable how Tokarczuksimultaneously pokes fun at the endeavour of writing and a particularly dour perspective on the literary impulse. 

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Mrs Duszejko herself is often consumed with literature as she helps her sensitive younger friend (who she calls Dizzy) to translate the letters of William Blake. Each chapter is headed by a quote from a Blake poem and it's interesting how these ideas meld with Mrs Duszejko's thoughts. She seems intent on creating theories through which this community that's dominated by patriarchal rule can exist more harmoniously with nature: “People have a duty towards Animals to lead them - in successive lives - to Liberation. We’re all traveling in the same direction, from dependence to freedom, from ritual to free choice.” Certain words are capitalized in her sentences highlighting when she's defining these terms for her philosophical systems of thought. In this way, she strives towards elaborate theories which no one takes seriously and this prompts her to take alternative action.

I really enjoyed this intriguing story and portrait of an idiosyncratic personality. There’s a dry sense of humour at the heart of it which I really appreciate. It's prompted me to want to go back and try reading “Flights” again because Tokarczuk has such a unique point of view.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesOlga Tokarczuk
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“Lost Children Archive” must have one of the most unusual structures for a novel that I’ve read in a long time. It seems natural that Valeria Luiselli’s first novel written in English would chiefly concern the plight of immigrant children as her extended essay “Tell Me How It Ends” so powerfully laid out this harrowing dilemma. Since politicians often turn immigration into an abstract political debate, Luiselli has a tremendous ability for highlighting and reminding us how this is above all a human rights issue and makes us see the humans effect. The ramifications for children who are adrift and literally wandering blindly through this landscape with stringently guarded borders are incalculable because when they become lost in a political system “They are children who have lost the right to a childhood.” In this novel she expands this understanding and creates an artful story which traverses time and space to illuminate a new way of looking at what happens when our society loses its children.

At its centre, this is a road trip novel about a husband and wife driving with their son and daughter across America. They’re engaged in a project to capture and record the sounds of the country to better understand its nature of being. The couple’s relationship is also disintegrating and the closer they come to their destination the closer this family comes to separating. What begins as a deeply-felt intellectual reflection about the ways we negotiate children’s place in our lives turns into a tense search for those who have gone missing with hallucinatory twists. It sounds confusing and I’m still puzzling over the experience of it, but this innovative novel shines with so much humanity I found it utterly compelling and engaging.

Luiselli writes endearingly about private moments of family life – especially when confined in the restricted space of a car for most of the day. There are funny moments which take the mother out of her brooding and serious concern: “Children’s words, in some ways, are the escape route out of family dramas, taking us to their strangely luminous underworld, safe from our middle-class catastrophes.” It’s interesting how there’s a sense that this family is somewhat new to each other since both the father’s son and the mother’s daughter are children from previous relationships, but their bond and connection to each other is so strong. There is also a constant feeling of their anonymity since none of these family members are named (except for the girl who is nicknamed Memphis by the son when they pass through the Tennessee city.) The mother who narrates the first half of the book frequently makes up stories about their lives to tell the strangers they meet amidst their journey. So all these aspects of the book build a sense that they are both everyone and no one belonging everywhere and nowhere.

One of the ways the parents try to entertain (and distract) the children during their long car rides is to play an audio book of “Lord of the Flies”. The narrative of Golding’s tremendous novel has a powerful effect on the son who takes the story’s messages about struggle and survival to heart. But it also shows how Luiselli is forming a dialogue with the narratives of classic stories to come to a new understanding of how we structure society and the core values that should serve as the base of its foundations. “Lost Children Archive” additionally references and converses with the ideas of writers such as Walt Whitman, Jack Kerouac and Susan Sontag. There’s also a fictional book called “Elegies for Lost Children” in the mother’s possession which she reads aloud from and it’s quoted from at length in the novel itself. It’s the story of a band of children’s struggle to arrive at a new home while riding atop dangerous trains and being led by tyrannical guides.

Photo by Nan Goldin. “When I see the people of this country, their vitality, their decadence, their loneliness, their desperate togetherness, I see the gaze of Emmet Gowin, Larry Clark, and Nan Goldin.”

Photo by Nan Goldin. “When I see the people of this country, their vitality, their decadence, their loneliness, their desperate togetherness, I see the gaze of Emmet Gowin, Larry Clark, and Nan Goldin.”

These stories are narrated aloud and they meld with radio news they listen to about the growing Mexican-American border crisis and reports of undocumented migrant children being flown out of the country. The mother is particularly preoccupied with these children’s futures, but the father is more concerned with the past as their ultimate destination is the southwest where he wants to search for any lingering sounds of decimated Native American tribes. In a sense the parents are tragically outside of the present and their anxiety over how to document the experiences of these displaced people reflect a general feeling that “Something changed in the world. Not too long ago, it changed, and we know it. We don’t know how to explain it yet, but I think we all can feel it, somewhere deep in our gut or in our brain circuits. We feel time differently… We haven’t understood how space and time exist now, how we really experience them. And until we find a way to document them, we will not understand them.” Equipped only with their instincts and some boxes of scattered maps, books and tools, the family are on a quest to learn how to capture this experience of the present. Until then, their ultimate endpoint and sense of home remains perilously uncertain – just as it does for all of us.

This is an absolutely fascinating, clever and complex novel which takes seriously the personal impact of politics and gives a new way of looking at the bonds of family.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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