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Sometimes reading quotes by authors I admire on the jackets of new books can very accurately indicate the experience I’m about to have. In this case, Emma Glass’ debut “Peach” comes festooned with a string of quotes by prominent authors from George Saunders who calls this a “dark poetic myth” to Laline Paull who describes how this book “shares literary DNA with Gertrude Stein, Herbert Selby Jr and Eimear McBride.” These get at the unusual quality of Glass’ writing, but this book’s radical style and approach to characters is wholly unique. It’s at once cartoonish and deadly serious. The story opens with Peach who has experienced a massive trauma and follows her in the proceeding days as she attempts to return to a state of normalcy. In doing so, Glass uses some shockingly innovative methods for getting at painful emotions and actions that can’t be described in a straightforward way.

The syncopation of Peach’s train of thought leads to a lot of word play and double meaning. When she feels her stomach growing she wonders “How big will I be before I burst? Cells linking, holding hands, making chains, chains winding, chains winding around my core. Spores sporing, pouring.” These emotive passages get at the uncommon way her imagination fuses with reality. Yet there are other moments which are straightforward and direct in expressing Peach’s reaction to her trauma. She describes how “I don't want to be a victim. One of those victims. Oh this awful thing happened to me when I was young. He stole a piece of me (said in a raspy, broken voice)”. It’s heartbreakingly tragic how throughout the story this self-consciousness prevents her from confiding in the characters closest to her especially when her violent encounter means that she’s trapped in a nightmarish present “I see his sadistic shadow now. I will always see it. Ingrained.” But her method of battling through this is extraordinary. It’s at once grotesque and hilarious and sad in a way I found utterly mesmerizing.

Just as the language in Peach’s thought process is slightly displaced, reality is also warped so that characters are at once human and embody the physical traits of their character name. Peach’s boyfriend Green is described as “shaking little leaves” when he laughs and his mouth is “mossy-soft.” Her infant sibling who is viewed as a jelly baby sweet is powdered by their parents with sugar. In a semi-comic scene in Mr Custard’s class the teacher must be formed from “yellow goop” into “Bits of arms, bits of legs, bits of bones but not really bones. Blobs” before a lesson on anatomy can continue. While this writing method might sound charmingly playful, it is also excruciatingly sinister when it comes to conveying the smell and appearance of Peach’s nemesis who stalks her. Glass’ absurdist technique of writing about characters is such an effective and new way of describing lost innocence.

Reading “Peach” is a highly unusual visceral experience whose subtleties I suspect can only be felt over time as the tendrils of this daring and imaginative narrative worm into the reader’s subconscious. Be prepared.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesEmma Glass
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The prospect of having children can be exciting, but also terrifying. Luckily, it's something I've never strongly desired so I'm satisfied in the role of uncle, godfather and sometimes babysitter to friends' children. However, some reasons I'd be frightened of having children (beyond a total ignorance of how to care for them) is a dread of making some irreparable mistake and also the inability of protecting them from experiencing pain at some point. Jessie Greengrass describes this as “the overwhelming fear of fucking up that having children brings, the awareness of the impossibility of not causing hurt like falling into endless water”. Her debut novel “Sight” is a reflection on the process of having children and why her narrator is particularly self conscious about the continuation of her lineage. But, more than that, it's a remarkably poignant meditation on the internal and external levels of our mental and physical reality. The narrator is a young woman who cared for her mother during her terminal illness and now faces the prospect of becoming a mother herself. She sifts through her personal past and considers the lives of disparate individuals such as Sigmund & (his daughter) Anna Freud, Wilhelm Röntgen (the first man who produced and published scientific studies of X-rays) and scientist/surgeon John Hunter. In doing so, she embarks on a journey into how she might allow her child to see the multiple layers of life and thus pass on an abiding sense of happiness.

As demonstrated in her superb short story collection “An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It”, Greengrass has a particular creative talent for not only plucking out and creatively reimagining unusual stories from history, but finding a wondrous pertinence in them. It's fascinating when talented writers can pair distinct elements of fiction and nonfiction to create a story which is still deeply emotional. Ali Smith also accomplished this in her novel “Artful” where she essentially took a series of her lectures and threaded them together around the story of a narrator who is grieving for (her or his – the narrator's gender is never specified) lost lover. It still worked as a piece of fiction for me because I felt drawn into the journey this narrator took towards a new understanding through intensely contemplating these different subjects. Greengrass similarly pairs her narrator's struggle with accepting the identity of motherhood by considering the multiple innovative methods particular historical figures took in seeing one's self: whether that be the bones of our bodies, the internal workings of a woman's womb or a method of understanding the unconscious mind.

Sometimes it's not what these figures found which the narrator identifies with, but their process. For instance, she speculates “if we could understand these moments and the weeks that followed them when Röntgen, alone, placed object after object in front of his machine and saw them all transformed, then we too might know what it is to have the hidden made manifest: the components of ourselves, the world, the space between.” In her connection with the challenges and moments of revelation these individuals experienced over a century ago their scientific practices act as touchstones and channels towards the narrator's own working towards a cohesive sense of being.

The sections where Greengrass recounts Freud's professional/familial relationship with his daughter Anna take on a very personal feel for the narrator. Her grandmother, who referred to herself as Doctor K, was a psychoanalyst so her ideas were directly inherited from Freud and influenced the icy grandmother-grandaughter interactions at her Hampstead Heath home. This challenging relationship combined with her mother's terminal illness heavily colour the narrator's complicated distress over the prospect of motherhood. They make her yearn for that clarity of vision which can be passed on, but she also acknowledges with caution that “the price of sight is wonder’s diminishment.”

X-ray of Bertha Rontgen's hand

X-ray of Bertha Rontgen's hand

One lovely moment in the book which will no doubt be highly relatable to avid readers/introverts is the default compulsion the narrator feels to read. At one point she states “I read not with any particular object in mind, nor really with the intention of retaining any information about the subjects that I chose but rather because the act of reading was a habit, and because it was soothing and, perhaps, from a lifetime's inculcated faith in the explanatory power of books, the half-held belief that somewhere in those hectares upon hectares of printed pages I might find that fact which would make sense of my growing unhappiness, allowing me to peel back the obscurant layers of myself and lay bare at last the solid structure underneath.” Part of the joy of this novel is in its inherent belief in the power that reading has to connect us to the past and ideas when we're grappling with life's challenges – even when we only turn to books in a disconsolate and disordered way.

The way that Greengrass combines disparate elements from the past with her narrator's dilemmas is done with such fluidity that it reads with stunning ease. Like Virginia Woolf's writing it's often poetic and philosophical at the same time making statements such as “what are we if not a totality of days, a sum of interactions; and a glimpse of what is underneath the surface, the skeleton on which the outer face is hung, cannot undo the knowledge of skin but only give it context, the way it rises and falls, its puckering, its flaws.” This novel seeks to account for the unruly fluctuations of emotions and disparate elements which make up our existence. As a deeply introspective work of fiction it won't appeal to everyone because its drama is primarily in how it marks the subtleties of transitions in life (from child to adult, from daughter to mother.) But it does so in such a captivating and meaningful way that sensitive readers will find “Sight” utterly gripping and profound.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
4 CommentsPost a comment
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There’s something so wonderful about being wholly drawn into a richly imagined historical novel that both illuminates a somewhat forgotten or not-widely-known period of history and gives voice to people who are only glancingly referred to in the history books. Sally Magnusson does all this in her debut novel “The Sealwoman’s Gift” which recounts the abduction of over four hundred Icelandic citizens from their homes in the year 1627 by pirates from Morocco and Algeria. These prisoners were sold into slavery and a ransom for their release wasn’t obtained until several years later – by which point many of those abducted had either died, been irretrievably lost or converted/integrated into life along the Barbary Coast. Copies still exist of a famous account of these abductions written by a Reverend who was captured himself, but Magnusson focuses her novel more on the journey and inner-struggles of his wife Ásta. It’s noted how “others may have written their own accounts of captivity. Men, of course. Does it matter that nobody will know how it was to be a woman?” In doing so, this novel brilliantly engages with many of the heartrending conflicts a woman in Ásta’s position must have faced while also powerfully illuminating the cultural importance of storytelling and the complicated dynamics of love.

A number of years ago I visited Iceland and took a road trip around the country. It’s such a bizarre alien-like landscape with its flat volcanic-soil and coastal shores dotted with black & white puffins and their colourful beaks. I admired how the stark beauty and bleakness of this striking environment is powerfully evoked in this novel. But the author also brings to life the culture and daily life of its people from the production of Skyr (a yogurt-like foodstuff traditionally made from sheep’s milk) to the use of puffin bones to keep the kitchen fires going or the frequent retelling of Icelandic Sagas which are such a rich part of the country’s oral tradition. I also got such a strong sense of how the country basically operates as one small hardworking community. As Magnusson notes, it’s easy to empathize with how the kidnapping of over 400 citizens back in the 1600s would deeply traumatize the entirety of this sparsely-populated country. The story also conveys what an enormous culture shock it’d be for these very isolated Christian people who were abducted to suddenly be engulfed in the brightly-coloured multi-national predominantly-Muslim community of Algiers.

I’ve always been fascinated by the psychological implications of a diaspora, especially when people are forcibly removed from their native homeland or are forced to leave because of severe problems in their birth country. The real heart of this novel lies in Ásta’s dilemma as she’s suddenly left on her own in Algiers with a daughter and an infant son. Her rambunctious husband Ólafur is swiftly used as a negotiator between the Ottoman Empire that was seeking ransom for these slaves and the king of Denmark (because Iceland was under Danish rule). Throughout the many years of their separation Ásta is torn between maintaining her faith in their rescue and building a new life in this foreign land. This includes conflicted feelings about religion, loyalty to family and maintaining her own sense of cultural identity. There comes a point when the workings of time create a certain psychological distance from her homeland. Her existence beforehand becomes idealized and nostalgia takes on a life of its own: “memory is like that, always so eager to aid you in missing what you can no longer have and forgetting the rest.” Magnusson writes poignantly about how story-telling is a means of psychological escape from the horrors of reality as well as a way of maintaining a connection with one’s own culture and personal genealogical history.

Barbary corsairs

Barbary corsairs

The author also weaves into her story two somewhat fantastical elements and characters who tread the border between myth and reality. One is an eccentric old woman who has visions and believes herself to be a seal that has lost its skin and is consequently stranded on land in the shape of a woman. Another is an elf from the legends Ásta heard in her youth. At first I thought this later character was merely an eccentric quirk within the story or simply a fanciful notion within Ásta’s imagination, but his inclusion comes to powerfully represent her character’s inner conflict, her stymied desires and a representation of her own “otherness” as someone that doesn’t necessarily fit anywhere. These characters also show the way that our daily lives are composed of both the hard fact of reality and our subjective experience of the world.

As I neared the end of reading this tale it became something much more for me than simply a vividly-imagined historical novel, but a personally touching meditation on the choices we’re forced to make in life. Over the years we’re inevitably presented with crossroads where we must choose to take one path or another and it’s difficult not to be consumed with grief for the potential joys we’ve had to sacrifice in making these hard decisions. But Magnusson writes how “we cannot live in two worlds. And in lamenting too long what belongs in the other we bring upon ourselves and others only destruction.” In dramatically bringing to life Ásta’s story she sympathetically presents a fully rounded understanding of this turmoil and the importance of fostering the lives we’ve chosen. “The Sealwoman’s Gift” also powerfully shows the numerous and complicated repercussions of how the evil industry of slavery caused rifts in communities which have never been and can never be repaired. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSally Magnusson
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When I started this blog back in 2013 one of the very first books I posted about was Jim Crace’s novel “Harvest” which had such a subtly powerful impact on me that it strangely affected my dreams. Looking back on that I’m somewhat chilled to see I discussed the book in conjunction with a documentary about Donald Trump bullying his way into developing a golf course in Scotland. The nightmares I had at that time would have been much worse if I had guessed he’d one day gain the political power he possesses today! Something that I find so fascinating about Jim Crace’s writing is that he’s able to identify many of our underlying fears and anxieties about living in an ever-changing society and situate them in a time and place that are carefully removed from reality. Crace’s fictional landscape resembles our world, but you can’t locate it anywhere in history and its geographical location can’t be found on any map. His fiction is highly realistic in tone and utilises descriptions that feel authentic, but only in the way our dreams feel true in the moment we’re experiencing them.

Crace’s new novel “The Melody” focuses on fictional famous singer Alfred Busi who is entering his twilight years living in the dilapidated villa situated in a seaside town where he was born. His position as one of the town’s most prominent and respected citizens is changing to that of a relic from the past as he’s being honoured by a placement in the town’s Hall of Fame. In conjunction with this honour, he’s been invited to give a performance that’s meant to symbolize the crowning achievement of his career. But he’s unsettled by rumblings from strange animals who plunder the rubbish bins outside his house at night and one evening when he goes down to investigate this disturbance he suffers a brief attack by an unknown naked boy who is plundering his larder. This odd occurrence sets him off on a downward spiral as he becomes aware of an impoverished section of the community that represents a perceived threat to the more civilized citizens of the town. He also discovers there are designs to bring down the crumbling villa he shared with his late wife to make way for a swish new modern development. In this way, Crace dramatizes class conflict and the angst of modern life through the collapse of a grieving musician’s life.

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It’s humorous how Crace even takes the joke of his fictional counter-reality into the acknowledgements of this novel. Here he claims to have consulted a biography of Busi, the estate of his family, old issues of the town’s newspaper and also he “thanks the people of…” In not completing this sentence he affirms that this town isn’t specifically located anywhere despite references in the book to real place like Long Island or fancy foodstuff from different real nations. It’s like this quality of verisimilitude in Crace’s fiction is inviting the reader to experience his novel as if it were a play; audience members are always aware that they are watching a play, but if it’s sufficiently moving it will feel true. So Crace’s odd tale has all the marks of our reality, but it’s really occurring in some unconscious realm. There is an inflammatory journalist who seeks to stir in his readers repugnance and fear of the poor with his exaggerated reports of the threat they pose. A community is sanitised and gentrified as wildlife and homeless people are forcibly relocated. It feels like some version of these things happen all around us, but we’re usually only privy to it through second-hand information just like the citizens of Crace’s fictional town. It’s an extraordinary style of writing subtly bending place and time in a way that I don’t think many other authors have done – except perhaps Kazuo Ishiguro in his masterful novel “The Unconsoled”.

That’s not to say I think Crace is always successful in the special way he crafts his novels. While “Harvest” had a propulsive dramatic intensity to it, “The Melody” meanders somewhat and it doesn’t feel like there’s as much at stake. I thought the most effective parts are when Crace writes about Busi’s process of mourning and missing his wife: “The darkness held and always would the wife that he had loved and lost.” It’s also very powerful when he writes about how the limits of our circumstances disallow us from creating the art we’re capable of: “Some melodies are never meant to find their words.” Also, the overall tone of the novel is effectively unsettling and odd. However, the bulk of the story’s action feels too consumed with Alfred Busi’s ill-advised roaming and reconciliations that aren’t quite earned. Crace’s writing always has a graceful beauty to it and his style is utterly fascinating, but I don’t think “The Melody” is quite as strong as some of his previous novels.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJim Crace
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Part of what excites me about reading a debut author’s book is the originality of voice I might discover. The short fiction in “Her Body and Other Parties” by Carmen Maria Machado is so wild and inventive with an impressive variation in structure and subject matter shown from story to story. Often they branch into supernatural or surreal territories where women fade away into the stitching of designer dresses or the spirits of dead prostitutes with bells for eyes haunt a female detective. One story takes place in a post-apocalyptic landscape where the narrator numbers the amount of lovers she’s had, another occurs at a housewarming party that goes awry and one is centred around a clothing shop which seeks to “terrify our patrons into an existential crisis.” But, while this fiction often spills into a wonderful absurdity, I frequently felt an emotional resonance which made it seem very real. Throughout the narrators or characters are disarmingly assertive which gives these tales a confidential and urgent tone: “you may have heard some version of this story before but this is the one you need to know.”

Many of the stories take a different slant on the complications of desire and sex, often describing lesbian affairs or relationships. They also involve complicated ideas about women’s bodies, femininity and the way women present themselves. One that deals with this explicitly is ‘Eight Bites’ where a woman gets “bariatric” surgery in an effort to get thin after all her sisters have already done so. She asks in this “Will I ever be done, transformed into the past tense, or will I always be transforming, better and better until I die?” This is such a fascinating take on the philosophical tension between becoming and being. It’s so exhausting how our lives are frequently concerned with trying to lose weight, get fitter and eat better. Machado has a talent for dredging up all this anxiety which sounds like a low hum throughout our lives. The protagonist of the fable-like ‘The Husband Stitch’ insists that a certain adornment on her body cannot be touched like a private bit of the self that must be preserved and when this is violated she literally comes undone. Another story ‘Real Women Have Bodies’ shows women wilfully melding into designer clothes in a way that seems to provoke questions about the importance we place on fashion and commodities to enhance our sense of self-worth.

I was surprised at how Machado could stir in me feelings of nostalgia with precise descriptions of a thing or sensation I haven’t felt in a long time. For instance, she describes “hard candies twisted in strawberry-patterned cellophane” which I can recall and visualise so precisely as if their colourful wrappers were more exciting than the taste of the candy itself. Or, at one point, a character remembers being a child sitting in front of a humidifier and breathing in the dense mist being pumped out. It’s fascinating how she can use these descriptions to reach back in time to our former selves recognizing in them a more vulnerable or innocent state in our lives. One of the most sombre instances of this is the story ‘The Resident’ where a writer travels to an artists’ residency which happens to be situated on a lake where she spent time as a child camping with a troop of Brownies. Her creative process seems to compel her to physically confront her younger, more awkward self and produces an almost complete breakdown.

As with all the greatest absurd fiction, humour treads closely alongside darker sensations of dread. There are some wickedly funny and original descriptions of people from “a man mean as Mondays” to someone accused of being an “aggressively ordinary woman.” There's also many amusing commentaries on modern life: “Benson is sure that her smartphone is smarter than she is, and finds it deeply upsetting.” Quite often I felt compelled to read on just because I was fascinated to see where she'd take the story next. When it felt like the stories were becoming too ridiculously unhinged I'd come upon a line which felt startlingly heartfelt: “something inside of me is breaking, I am a continent but I will not hold.” Not only does her narrative frequently burst into odd and unfamiliar territory but the form of the story itself is often a revelation. This ranges from instructions that the listener of this tale should cut the reader's hand to the novella ‘Especially Heinous’ which takes the form of episode/season summaries for a supernatural detective television show. Only occasionally did it feel like the stories became so abstract as to be completely alienating like some sections of the stories 'Mothers' and ‘Difficult at Parties’. But, overall, this is a collection filled with such wondrous delights and sharp edges that I revelled in the experience of reading it.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
2 CommentsPost a comment
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The novel “Kintu” by debut novelist Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi has been frequently compared to Yaa Gyasi’s hugely popular “Homegoing” because of its structure as an African family epic. However, “Homegoing” begins in the Gold Coast of West Africa (now Ghana) and “Kintu” takes place in the Buganda kingdom (today known as the Republic of Uganda). Makumbi’s ambitious tale begins in 1750 when Kintu Kidda, the leader (Ppookino) of the Buddu Province, travels with a group of men to swear loyalty to the new king (kabaka) of the entire Buganda kingdom. Kintu demonstrates what a savvy politician he is making alliances and also balancing his time between his many wives that he’s taken for political reasons. A tragedy occurs concerning Kintu’s adopted son Kalema and this sets in motion a series of calamities surrounding his favoured wife Nnakato and his heir Baale. It also sparks a legendary curse upon his family which is still felt amidst his descendants who we meet when the book leaps forward in time to the recent past. As the novel relates the backstories and present conflicts of several of these descendants we gradually understand why the clan attempts to reform and finally put this curse to rest. This deeply compelling and fascinating story describes the way oral history and local mythology continues to play a part in the daily lives and complicated political attitudes of people in Uganda today.

I was impressed by the way Makumbi organised the stories and characters in a way which is mostly easy to follow despite the intricate complexities of this tale. As with most big epics, it helps that there is a family tree at the beginning of the book to refer back to. Nevertheless it can be difficult to keep track of them all because (like when reading a big Russian saga) many characters have a few different names or nicknames. One character’s name is actually changed multiple times between his birth and his independent decision as a teenager to take a different surname. Matters are complicated a bit more because many of the characters are twins so it can be hard at times to sort out the relationships between people and the multiple branches of this large family. But Makumbi has that wonderful gift as a storyteller of drawing you into the immediate dilemmas of her characters so it’s like you can imaginatively see them in a three-dimensional way and, even if you don’t immediately grasp their exact placement within the family, you are still gripped by the drama of their situation.

Story-telling and the way stories morph over time is such an integral part of this novel. I found it quite moving how the book begins by showing the reality of the legendary Kintu and his family and then moves to the present where his tale has been mythologised and takes on different versions. The way the “curse” manifests within the lives of his different descendants reflects poignantly on their situations either as a religious fanatic whose sect is rapidly shrinking, a scholar who lived in political exile throughout the heinous killings of Idi Amin’s regime, a woman haunted by a sexual attack or a man terrified that he may be HIV+. The differences between these characters reflect the wide diversity of attitudes, beliefs and economic positions of citizens in Uganda today. Class conflicts felt between the Tutsi population and other groups reverberates from Kintu’s time all the way through to the present. But I particularly appreciated how many of the characters stand out as individuals (not just representatives of specific social issues). For instance, there’s a particularly powerful depiction of a strong warrior leader during Kintu Kidda’s time whose bisexuality is practiced openly and a daughter of the family in the current time period who is a notorious military leader.

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I enjoyed the way “Kintu” incorporates history into the present day lives of its character as a way of showing how people in Uganda might differently express their sense of national identity. As a country that gained independence from Britain in the early 1960s and then suffered from a military coup and a dictator's rule in the 70s, different political parties have warred between whether the country should remain a republic or revert to their distinct pre-colonial kingdoms. At one point a character explains: “After independence, Uganda – a European artefact – was still forming as a country rather than a kingdom in the minds of ordinary Gandas. They were lulled by the fact that Kabaka Muteesa II was made president of the new Uganda. Nonetheless, most of them felt that ‘Uganda’ should remain a kingdom for the Ganda under their kabaka so that things would go back to the way they were before Europeans came. Uganda was a patchwork of fifty or so tribes. The Ganda did not want it.” Makumbi's novel provides a compelling overview of Uganda's internal struggles over national identity while also drawing the reader into the particular conflicts that her dynamic characters face.

“Kintu” is a novel that requires a lot of concentration, but contains many delights, psychological insight and drama that I found consistently entertaining while providing a compelling look at a fascinating country.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
2 CommentsPost a comment
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It's amazing when a novel can create such a strong sensory experience and all-encompassing atmosphere within its prose that you feel like you're imaginatively entrenched in this fictional world. There have been few books I've read in recent years that have done this as powerfully as Danny Denton's new novel “The Earlie King & The Kid in Yellow”. He describes a post-apocalyptic Ireland that experiences constant rain so that whole sections of the country begin sinking into the sea, the agricultural industry is destroyed and 92.46 per cent precipitation counts as the “thinnest and firmest in yonks. A bare tremble.” People can only witness the sun in videos, UV booths or sun rooms. One character keeps a slug as a pet. The seas are so polluted fish are poisonous and there are mutant green dolphins. There's an overwhelming sense of dampness and darkness and rot. Many pages of the novel are covered in sketches of rain and occasionally we're given sections from a play script which appears on the page like a water-soaked document. People in Dublin live in fear of a gang lord known as The Earlie King while the police look the other way. Believers flock to the West to worship a miracle statue of the Virgin that has foretold the end of the persistent downpour. Denton powerfully evokes this feeling of a drowning Ireland in order to dramatize a country in a state of crisis. In doing so he produces an immersive story as well as a striking commentary on institutional corruption and the information age.

In a way, it feels like this book has all the elements of a young adult novel. It's a kind-of post-apocalyptic fiction with an adolescent boy hero at its centre who seeks to undermine the oppressive powers that be. One of The Earlie King's underlings, a boy who is around 13 years old and wears a yellow rain jacket, plots to steal the King's granddaughter for reasons which only become apparent over the course of the narrative. But, like Sandra Newman's epic “The Country of Ice Cream Star”, this novel invents its own language rhythms and idioms in a highly sophisticated way. It's formed partly from current Irish dialect and partly from an invented slang to fit with a lingo appropriate to this dilapidated world. So rain jackets that must be worn constantly outside are known as “skins” and a form of television commonly watched is known as the TeleVisio. There are even invented alcoholic beverages and drugs which are frequently referred to. Meanwhile, The Kid in Yellow (whose true name we only discover towards the end) is a kind of repository of literature as he can recite from memory lines from Shakespeare, Goethe, Yates, Michael Hartnett and other poets. Although he doesn’t entirely understand the meaning of their lines, this language lives on through him as do numerous local fables. Storytelling is important throughout the novel, not least of all because (like Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”) the entire tale of “The Earlie King & The Kid in Yellow” is being told at some future point through the perspective of a local detective, “the last Irishman” who partially witnessed this catastrophic drama unfold.

A statue of the Virgin Mary stepping on a serpent foretells the end of the rain.

A statue of the Virgin Mary stepping on a serpent foretells the end of the rain.

Although we don’t see what the world has become in this future point where the primary tale has transformed into myth, it can be presumed that this new nation has moved beyond this gang-run society trapped in a glut of information. One of the themes Denton is preoccupied with is a current general belief that the information age will allow our society to progress to a state of peace and tranquillity. It’s as if we’ve been lulled into believing that the bounty of knowledge we can find through internet searches will allow us to achieve enlightenment. One character named Jeri has a theory that in seeking to know everything we discover that “knowledge didn’t produce an answer as to why we couldn’t find peace. Why we were here.” People find that they are just as confused, fragmented, discontent and alone as ever. Hence the constant rain is a kind of symbol for how clouded our vision remains despite this easy-access to knowledge: “There was so much in the world that was mysterious, all of it held just beyond the rain, or piped just beneath the city’s surfaces.” It becomes apparent that “This country is slowly disappearing. The whole world is falling to pieces. Time is accelerating and cracking apart, and after almost three thousand years of praying none of the organised religions has been able to stop that. None of the sciences either.” So the Kid in Yellow - as well as a vigilante arsonist, a local alcoholic mystic, a chronicler of the gang’s violence and a spectre known as Mister Violence – take steps to trigger a large-scale transformation to move society to a new stage.

Danny Denton is an invigorating and inventive debut author whose voice is a welcome addition to the chorus of new Irish writers making powerful statements about the current state of Ireland. It feels like a new wave in Irish fiction has been felt in full force since the property bubble burst and a financial crisis ensued after 2007. Writers such as Lisa McInerney, Lucy Caldwell, Gavin McCrea, Danielle McLaughlin, Colin Barrett, Gavin Corbett, Kevin Barry and Mike McCormack have creatively addressed different sides of the fallout of this economic downturn in their fiction which ranges from short stories to historical novels to more experimental prose. Now Denton has created a vision of the country which is struggling to find a way forward and seeks to find establish social systems which can represent and support all of its people – not just “the city’s rich or the city’s corrupt”. The original structure of his book frames this drama in such a fascinating way. But, most of all, “The Earlie King & The Kid in Yellow” is also a moving story of a tragic love affair and disillusioned youth.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesDanny Denton
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For a period in my early 20s I worked as a caregiver to mentally handicapped adults who lived in halfway houses. These extraordinary women and men all required a varying amount of care, supervision and companionship. Often the work felt rewarding and enlivening, but sometimes it could be overwhelmingly upsetting and draining. In those dark moments it felt futile and insignificant. I mention this only because something I think Alice McDermott captures so powerfully in this novel is the sense of ambiguity that comes with the compulsion to “do good” vs the daily physical reality of providing care. The novel follows one family’s involvement with a nunnery in NYC where this band of Sisters regularly go out into the community to collect money for the poor, provide service to those in need and intervene in troubled situations. “The Ninth Hour” primarily follows the life of a girl named Sally born in a tragic situation and her heartrending struggles with faith and helping others in her journey to adulthood.

McDermott has a beguiling way of writing so eloquently about very dark scenes. The opening section is about a man’s suicide, but alongside the cold truth of his actions she imbues her prose with all the desperately conflicted feelings he has as he takes this decisive act. She ends this section in the most fascinating way by revealing the narrator is a collective group of descendants from this man. The novel traces the successive generations that follow this tragic man while also exploring the Sisterhood that assists this family in peril. I found this confusing at some times as it’s slightly difficult to decipher the relationships of some characters and the timeframe which any particular section is placed within. But it ultimately builds to a comprehensive picture of a family tree that could have so easily died out if fate had altered its course and the Sisters hadn’t been there.

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The work of the nuns is accompanied by a lot of morally ambiguous situations. Here the dogmas of faith are tested against the real needs of people in a changing society. Some of the nuns follow their own sense of goodness and others stick to the “rules” of religion as have been traditionally practiced. I was struck by the complex way McDermott writes about how faith is uniquely expressed in different individuals. Sister St. Saviour comes across as a quiet pioneer whose sense of justice for women overcomes misogynistic authority: “In her thirty-seven years of living in this city, Sister had collected any number of acquaintances who could surmount the many rules and regulations – Church rules and city rules and what Sister Miriam called the rules of polite society – that complicated the lives of women: Catholic women in particular and poor women in general.” It’s so heartbreaking how she’s portrayed as someone who works tirelessly when she sees people in need even if she’s already physically and mentally exhausted herself. I admire the complexity the author gives to these characters and their faith and shows the personal impact their devoted service has upon them.

It felt like one of the points of this novel is to restore feeling back into the cold branches of a family tree. McDermott states at one point in the narrative that “History was easy: the past with all loss burnt out of it, all sorrow worn out of it – all that was merely personal comfortably removed.” To really know and understand the struggles that Sally endures before producing a family, the story vividly shows her painfully calamitous train journey to become a nun in Chicago and the excruciating service she provides to a bad-tempered disabled woman. I was entranced by her journey and the conflicts she worked through to arrive where she belongs. This is the first time I’ve read Alice McDermott and I’ll be eager to read more.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAlice McDermott
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RuPaul's Drag Race has found a global audience in recent years and I've been a huge follower of it since the third season. It's still one of the highlights of my life hearing RuPaul praise my blog on his podcast. (You can listen to the audio of this at the bottom of my intro page here.) The widespread fandom of this show has popularised drag as an art form again so it seems like the right time to look back at some of the most significant drag movements of recent history. The documentary 'Paris is Burning' captured instances of the fiercely outrageous ball culture in NYC in the mid-to-late 1980s. One of the figures memorialised on film was a drag queen named Venus from the house of Xtravaganza, the city's first Latino drag house. In his debut novel “The House of Impossible Beauties”, Joseph Cassara fictionally recreates Venus' story as well as tales about some of the other queens who were central to this drag family. It sympathetically follows the way these marginalized individuals were often ostracised by their families, but found sisterhood and support from fellow queens. Together they created and defined a sub-culture all their own. There are many moments of high drama and camp fun, but Cassara also emphasizes the hard gritty reality of their lives which involved prostitution, habitual drug use and AIDS. The novel skilfully invokes the aesthetic and feel of the era with a language and dialogue heavily inflected with Spanish phrases and drag lingo that totally draws the reader into this bygone world.

Part of the motivation behind creating the Xtravaganza drag house was that queer Hispanic individuals didn't feel like they could belong in the other drag houses at the time. A character named Hector notes in letter to a choreographer he admires “someone told me that you can’t join if you’re not black. I thought, Well, gee, I’m not black – but I certainly ain’t white. Especially if I’m talking Spanish, all the white people in Manhattan look at me like I might as well be black.” It's dismaying how a lot of queer culture that often satirizes and separates itself from mainstream straight culture still carries many reactionary prejudices within it. So some individuals within these drag houses exhibit signs of racial segregation, sexism and homophobia. As a result, Hector and drag queen Angel dream up and form a Latino drag house all of their own. The novel charts sections of this House's history from the early 80s to the early 90s.

Venus Xtravaganza in 'Paris is Burning'

Venus Xtravaganza in 'Paris is Burning'

Cassara's style of storytelling is somewhat choppy in how it portrays scenes from a particular time period, often introducing readers to new characters and then tunnelling back to give his characters' backstories. Significant scenes or events are often left out and only referred to and this usually strengthens the impact of the tale. For instance, one character's death from AIDS is only brought up in dialogue and the immediate aftermath of the death is shown in very brief flashes. It would have been entirely unnecessary to show the full journey of this character's death from diagnosis to the funeral. His death is felt all the more keenly because it's only a part of a tapestry of loss from this time period. The persistent and pernicious presence of the disease in the characters' lives is handled very well as is the near universal rejection the queens feel by their families (with the notable exceptions of Angel's supportive brother and Juanito's grandmother who indulges his penchant for dressing up.) However, it feels like there are one too many backstories of how male characters are rejected by their families because of their femininity. Instead, it would have been good if there were more scenes showing the drag balls themselves as there is only one instance of a competition portrayed in the narrative despite multiple trophies that adorn the shelves of the House of Xtravaganza.

This novel is a striking tribute to those who endeavour to create and inhabit beauty as a way of transcending the gruelling reality of life. It would have been easy to make it about over-the-top fabulousness and girrrlish ki ki. I admire how Cassara portrays the real dangers and precariousness of these drag queens' lives and pays tribute to their strength and artistry, but also acknowledges their occasional flaws and superficiality. There are many instances of humour from the challenges of wearing a snake as an accessory to how one queen notes that “The biggest shame in the whole world was that coke wasn’t a vegetable.” But, although the novel is true to life in representing how the majority of these queens' hard lives came to bleak ends, the narrative sometimes gets bogged down in the harshness of their persistent suffering in a way that felt very reminiscent of Yanagihara's “A Little Life”. It's difficult to imagine how lives marked by such tragedy could be told otherwise, yet I was left longing for some more levity towards the end. Nevertheless, it's an enthralling experience following these queens' powerful stories and I love how Cassara has dynamically brought them to life.

 

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJoseph Cassara
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Living in England my whole adult life has given me a feel for some of the characteristic quirks of Englishness. It’s not a mistake that some national identities get associated with certain stereotypes and emotional repression is definitely a badge commonly worn in this great nation. Reading this reissue of David Seabrook’s “All The Devils Are Here” it felt to me like this book exemplifies this condition better than any book I can recall - except for maybe the recent novel “First Love” where it felt Gwendoline Riley was determined to show the reader every stain in her dirty laundry without letting us know how she really felt about this filthy heap. Seabrook’s book treads the line somewhere between memoir and journalism as it records his wanderings through several seaside towns in Kent and discloses some of the seedier stories connected with this landscape. He flits between many subjects such as T.S. Eliot’s nervous breakdown, an institutionalized artist who committed patricide and the furtive entanglements of several gay writers, actors and athletes. However, he discloses virtually no detail about his reasons for treading so desolately through these haunted streets despite hints of being in a state of personal crisis. As a raconteur of scarcely-remembered odd personalities and tragic events, Seabrook is often compelling and makes intriguing connections. But, as a chronicler of the dynamics of his own heart, he’s an utter failure.

Reading this book felt akin to listening to someone’s odd collection of stories at the pub after he’s had a few pints. And, after he alights upon a subject to capture your attention while breathing boozily into your face, he wrangles you into joining him down an alleyway to stare at a stained wall where some atrocious event occurred fifty years ago. There are flashes of significance and curious wonder to his tales which will no doubt have a different impact upon readers depending on your interest in the subject. Personally I was smitten by the bizarre story of artist Richard Dadd whose family seemed plagued by mental illness and whose confinement in a psychiatric hospital resulted in a proliferation of bizarrely symbolic paintings. And Seabrook’s theory that this murderous artist’s life story might have been an influence for Charles Dickens’ incomplete final novel is alluring. I was equally drawn to the odd status of Robin Maugham and his ambition to follow in his uncle William’s footsteps. But sometimes the stories he told were convoluted and switched so suddenly I found them difficult to follow. And, to be frank, some stories which might have been sensational news items in their day have now faded so much as to feel like they’re barely smouldering anymore.

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One thing that drew me into reading this genre-defying book is the hints of alienation Seabrook seems to feel as he wanders down a passage or stairwell to happen upon some grand old estate which has now been divvied into sensible flats. He seems almost hypersensitive to the locals he happens to pass, conversing little with anyone and gloomily lingering at points of interest not found on any tourist map. I was wondering if he would eventually divulge the real state of his mind and heart at any point especially when he settles down with his friend Gordon. But, instead of engaging in any meaningful exchange, we’re privy to this aging windbag’s ramblings about the penis sizes of various men (and even the girth of a statue’s cock) and other gay gossip about people who are notorious only within an incestuously small social circle. Gordon reminds me of some men I’ve met in old-fashioned English private members clubs who possess an odious level of self-regard while pining for the good old days of British imperialism when men of his ilk used underage foreign boys as sexual playthings. Just when the book becomes overwhelmingly tedious, Seabrook breaks away from Gordon to go cruising in a local pub. Here he admits “Let's face it, there are things I haven't mentioned. Private matters. They're on me all day long.” Yet, instead of divulging any more he mildly hopes for a quickie with a man who brings the story back to the semi-tragic figure of a camp film star.

In a way it feels fitting and especially haunting that Seabrook’s book should entirely withhold the complex deeper emotions that are evidently wrapped up in his wanderings. It’s like he’s a figure who embodies much of the unofficial history of this area, but he’s doomed to linger on the outskirts of the present day’s lively party like some rapidly-fading ghost. But it’s so difficult to connect with or care about him or the past which he’s evidently desperate to memorialize without having been given a window into his heart. You could argue that the sketchy outline of his own character that we’re left with is more powerful than a detailed figure – like the narrator of Rachel Cusk’s ultimately frustrating novel “Outline”. But, as a reader, I long to feel some closeness to really understand where an author’s coming from and what makes him worth listening to.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesDavid Seabrook
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One of my goals this year is to read more poetry and I feel lucky to have started with a new book which totally gripped me with the intensity of its voice. The poems in “Don't Call Us Dead” by Danez Smith have the urgent force of a rallying cry. They pay tribute to individuals and groups who will not be silenced no matter how much they are oppressed, incarcerated or killed. Specifically Smith speaks powerfully about the experience of being a gay African American: how skin colour can lead someone to be targeted by the police or alternately excluded/fetishised in the gay community. These are poems drawn from somewhere very personal. They sometimes play off from lyrics from musicians like Billie Holiday or Diana Ross and use a unique variety of forms to convey meaning as much in their structure as they do in the choice of words. Like all great poetry it can be interpreted a number of different ways, but there is a clarity of self here which definitely has something to say.

Something that connected me to these poems so strongly is the way that Smith frequently makes broad statements while also drawing the reader into the emotional core of his reality. He states “i am a house swollen with the dead, but still a home.” How brilliantly this expresses the architecture of being! That we can encompass all who've come before us and/or those who haven't survived, but our very structure is designed to accommodate this Genealogy and invite others in to experience it. I was continuously jolted by how startlingly personal these poems felt but I also frequently stopped to contemplate how their meaning is so beautifully expansive. Smith speaks for himself as well as others when he writes a line with such dazzling beauty like “let's waste the moon's marble glow shouting our names to the stars until we are the stars.”

The Black Lives Matter movement has revolutionized our dialogue for speaking about both institutionalized and rogue violence inflicted upon black communities. The very spirit of not letting the deaths of young black men like Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown pass without testifying to their injustice and how they are endemic of systematic racism seems wrapped up in the line “don't fret, we don't die. they can't kill the boy on your shirt again.” But Smith is also conscientious of the fact that many people who die or experience stultifying oppression aren't memorialised in such a way: “i'm not the kind of black man who dies on the news.” This is because there is also a death of spirit which isn't visible and which is more broadly felt by groups of people continuously ground down. He expresses this so powerfully in the line “some of us are killed in pieces, some of us all at once”. There are also moments when Smith doesn't hesitate to give his poetry a startling directness “reader, what does it feel like to be safe? white? how does it feel to dance when you're not dancing away the ghost?”

Danez Smith reads 'Principles'

This collection is also a poignant testimony to the way romance and sex are experienced by a black gay man. Some poems speak directly about how race and skin colour are listed as turn on or turn offs on dating/hookup profiles. Yet there are gorgeously romantic instances in poems which yearn for a transcendence of these imposed boundaries: “if love is a hole wide enough to be God's mouth, let me plunge into that holy dark & forget the color of light.” The poem 'seroconversion' has the most innovative and creative way of eviscerating identity to describe a conflagration of coupling that results in radical transformations and self-divisions. Smith doesn't shy from the raw power and sensuality of gay sex “praise the endless tub of grease” or the numbing anonymity of it “i'm offered eight mouths, three asses & four dicks before i'm given a name”. Still others pay tribute to instances of aching personal hurt: “I was his fag sucked into ash his lungs my final resting place.”

Smith's poems are also very cognizant of the effect AIDS and STDs have upon the gay community. There's a bracingly sympathetic moment when someone is waiting for test results and pleas “ask him to wait before he gives me the test results, give me a moment of not knowing, sweet piece of ignorance, i want to go back to the question”. Then there are a number of structurally innovative poems such as 'it's not a death sentence anymore' where the words of this sentence are whittled down the page until you're simply left with “a sentence” with spaces in between. This speaks so powerfully about a shift in common thinking that because being HIV+ doesn't instantly equal death anymore, it shouldn't be such a concern. 'blood hangover' fiercely forms what Smith calls “an erasure” of Ross' popular song to acknowledge the serious after-effects of sex. Elsewhere the words “my blood” and “his blood” are repeated until they collide and rapturously mingle on the page in the poem 'litany with blood all over'. It's so heartening seeing these complex issues explored in Smith's poems while also capturing the joy, romance and steaminess of gay sex. I admire how new young poets like Smith and Andrew McMillan are so thoughtfully exploring layers of queer life in their writing. 

I was totally captivated by the urgency and power of “Don't Call Us Dead”. These are poems that are, of course, political and personal at once. They have an invigorating clarity while also being complex enough to yield multiple meanings from rereading. Most refreshingly, this is poetry which feels of the moment.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesDanez Smith
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Basing a psychological thriller around a nanny who murders the children she cares for makes for a terrifyingly effective sensational story, but where “Lullaby” by Leila Slimani really excels is in its sophisticated take on classism, privilege and isolation in modern-day Paris. The novel opens with the discovery of young children Adam and Mila who have been slain by their nanny Louise. How Louise came to become an integral part of this family’s life and felt driven to this gruesome end is deftly explored throughout the story. Busy professionals Myriam and Paul grow increasingly distanced from the care of their children and the upkeep of their home once they hire Louise. The tension between the couple’s personal and professional relationship with the hired help is tested over time until the nanny’s position as an intimate familiar within the household becomes untenable. This is a fast-paced gripping tale that raises a lot of provocative questions.

It’s interesting how when a horrendous tragedy like the one depicted in this novel occurs one branch of public opinion will inevitably ask “How could the mother let this happen?” Obviously this a judgemental and loaded question, but if it’s going to be asked why don’t people also ask how the father could let this happen. It points to a continuing misogynistic view that it’s the mother’s position to care and protect for children. Slimani sensitively portrays how Myriam finds her passion at being a talented and skilful lawyer outweighs her desire to participate in the daily parenting of her children. Since Louise is so talented and capable in her domestic work eventually “Myriam lets herself be mothered.” Since Myriam’s husband Paul is equally ambitious in his career it presents a dilemma that many parents must face when trying to balance family life with their professions. Yet, the reality is that many hired child minders come from low-income or impoverished backgrounds where nannies have to abandon caring for their own families to work caring for other children. This creates a conflict where both the parents and the child-minders are driven into an emotional quagmire.

I had the wonderful privledge of having lunch with Leila Slimani.

I had the wonderful privledge of having lunch with Leila Slimani.

I found it particularly effective how Slimani portrayed the struggles of the circle of nannies who Louise encounters. Her friend Wafa who works as a child-minder is in such a desperate situation she’s basically been reduced to indentured servitude or slave labour. She remarks to Louise: “They pay my rent, but in exchange I can never say no to them.” This power dynamic is complicated by the intimate relationships which develop between the carer and the children/parents. Nannies are treated in some ways as part of the family, yet they are also an employee. Louise’s purportedly liberal-minded employers are only prepared to extend their empathy for Louise’s particularly precarious situation to a certain extent. At the same time, it’s entirely understandable that these hard-working parents don’t comprehend Louise’s situation and it’s believable that Louise tries to hide the reality of her situation. The tragedy at the heart of this novel is that we live in an imbalanced capitalist system where the privileged want to believe they’ve hired a Mary Poppins, but nannies are obviously real and complicated individuals. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesLeila Slimani
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Many books focus on romantic affairs, but it takes something special to shed new light on this common subject. Two of my all-time favourite novels that explore the dynamics of an affair are Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence” and Anne Enright’s “The Forgotten Waltz” which both feel so searingly honest in portraying the complicated emotions of all three of the people involved. Jamie Quatro’s “Fire Sermon” adds an entirely new dynamic charting the trajectory of an affair over her protagonist Maggie’s lifetime. Shifting back and forth through time, the story recounts the beginning of her marriage to Thomas, the intense moment when she and poet James decide to go to a hotel together and the complicated aftermath. In a series of letters (sent and unsent), conversations with a therapist and recollections of moments from Maggie’s life she searches for meaning and an understanding of her choices. Since she was raised religiously and continues to study religious texts, her reasoning is inflected with a complicated spiritual dynamic. The novel builds to a powerfully heartfelt and intense communion with the self.

Part of what drew me to reading this novel was Garth Greenwell’s enthusiastic endorsement of it. His novel “What Belongs to You” is one of the most striking and intensely-felt meditations on desire I’ve ever read.  Although the relationship dynamic Quatro portrays in her novel is entirely different from Greenwell’s story, these novels equally capture the complicated emotions we’re subject to when we find our desires pulling us towards actions and decisions we can’t understand. After giving birth to two children Maggie finds she doesn’t sexually desire her husband anymore, but often submits to sex with him because she feels “Her body isn’t hers anyhow, a toddler and an infant attached like appendages.” The tragedy of this feeling is compounded by her husband Thomas’ ardent desire to find some way to sexually reconnect with his wife which wavers between sympathetic suggestions to brutality. However, when Maggie meets James the passion is urgently felt.

In her first letter to James she quotes C.S. Lewis "A book sometimes crosses one's path which is so like the sound of one's native language in a strange country, it feels almost uncivil not to wave some kind of flag in answer."

In her first letter to James she quotes C.S. Lewis "A book sometimes crosses one's path which is so like the sound of one's native language in a strange country, it feels almost uncivil not to wave some kind of flag in answer."

It feels significant that the intense desire Maggie feels for James occurs before they even meet. After reading some of his poems she writes to him, they strike up a communication and eventually plan to meet. In their written dialogue she observes how “in these talks, I feel I’m discovering, or recovering, a deeper self, something at the core of my being.” Maggie connects with a part of herself that feels like its been lost from years of domestic routine culminating in children, a companionable marriage and stable home. James’ life exactly mirrors Maggie’s in many ways. So their connection isn’t entirely about an intellectual or sexual desire for each other but a wish to reclaim a unified sense of self that isn’t fragmented by the attachments which make up their daily lives. This draw towards an internal unity is reflected in the way she remarks how “The fact of their bodies – her own, James’s – had seemed beside the point. As if mouths and tongues and limbs were only in the way, something they had to get through in order to get to something else.”

Of course, sex is not just about the act itself. One of the most striking scenes is when Maggie and James undress to really see each other and observe how their bodies are aging. Part of their connection is based on reconciling with the fact their bodies are naturally transforming. It’s striking how Quatro captures the way coming to terms with one’s own desirability is a large part of our sexual connections. It’s as if only honestly seeing ourselves reflected in another’s eyes and still feeling wanted can induce peace of mind about our aging flesh. There are many other factors which also contribute to her desire for an affair with James, but many of them are to do with developing a deeper connection to and understanding of herself. So it seems natural that Maggie contemplates the meaning of meditation frequently and how this practice of speaking with oneself is realised in different religions which alternately seek to extinguish the self (as in Buddhism) or a unification with God (as in Christianity). What’s consistent in Maggie’s search throughout her life is a desire to communicate whether that be with her husband, James, God or herself. “Fire Sermon” beautifully charts this ongoing dialogue she maintains as a method of parsing the unruly desires which tug at her existence. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJamie Quatro
3 CommentsPost a comment
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In a small community where everyone knows everyone it's common for someone who is slightly different to feel sharply isolated. In “Girl in the Snow” Danya Kukafka focuses on three distinct characters who are misfits within their Colorado suburb and the way this unlikely trio are brought together when a teenage girl named Lucinda is found dead in a playground one winter day. This novel is a thriller and mystery about how this popular local girl died, but it's moreover an exploration of the way people become estranged from the friends and family who surround them.

Kukafka has a poetic sense of constructing powerful psychological details. An intensity of feeling is distilled into the way characters develop unique patterns for understanding the world. This is most powerfully rendered in her two main teenage characters Cameron and Jade. Quiet, artistic and haunted by the spectre of his disgraced absent father, Cameron comes most vividly alive when he wanders his neighbourhood streets at night looking in at the lighted windows of the houses around him. He thinks of this nocturnal roaming as his 'Collection of Statue Nights' where the people he surreptitiously observes become fixed in place and relatable. During the day he's scorned and mocked by his classmates, but at night they are framed in their windows and at a safe distance. In particular, he's fixated on voyeuristically watching Lucinda's bedroom window and the fact he's produced countless drawings of her proves very suspicious following her death.

Overweight and irascible Jade doesn't mourn the loss of Lucinda so much as the strong friendship she felt with Lucinda's ex-boyfriend Zap. Jade and Zap were equally awkward as children and plotted to escape their town together one day, but Zap has grown into a sporty and confident teenager while Jade is an outside rebel. Her self esteem is continuously crushed under the psychological and physical abuse she receives from her mother. Jade longs to make emotional connections with people but instead of verbalizing this she plots within her head a continuous script for a screenplay she calls 'What You Want to Say But Can't Without Being a Dick.' Here she revises scenes in her head to broach things people don't dare to say in everyday life. However, in reality people see her simply as an angry rude teenager.

Jade comments at one point that everyone has a physical spot they go to when they want to be alone to be who they really are. For policeman Russ this is a mountainous area where he can watch the sunrise. Unlike Cameron and Jade who developed imaginative methods for psychologically removing themselves from their untenable situations, Russ preserves for himself a contemplative physical space that he used to spend time in with his ex-colleague who was also Cameron's father. Here they were able to edge towards desires they couldn't begin to express in normal life. I was moved by the way Kukafka renders these characters' different coping mechanisms and ways of carving out spaces where they can escape social stigma and pressures.

There are inflections in this story of Twin Peaks where a beloved beautiful teen is found dead, a secret diary is discovered and her murder reverberates throughout the community. But unlike that stylistic show laden with symbolism, Kukafka's story evokes the strange ways in which we can become isolated amidst groups of people we see day after day. She sympathetically exhibits the way this causes individuals to become locked within their own internal reality that the people around them can't understand. The same is true for Lucinda whose true story we only glimpse through the perspective of those people who knew her. This is a vividly written and finely plotted novel that warmly beckons you into the lonely lives of its characters.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesDanya Kukafka
2 CommentsPost a comment
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It’s curious to think about the strange bond that we share with our romantic partner’s exes. Nobody else knows our partner so intimately in their habits, strengths, faults, secrets and sexual proclivities. Yet these exes typically remain people entirely unknown to us in reality (unless our partners happen to still see them frequently). So it’s fascinating how Lily Tuck writes about this unique bond in her new novel “Sisters” where the unnamed narrator describes her preoccupation with her husband’s ex-wife. Although they barely ever encounter each other in real life this ex-wife’s presence is felt everywhere from the memories her husband maintains to the teenage step children in the house. She feels oddly bound to the ex-wife like a sister, but her feelings are largely antagonistic and competitive. Tuck writes about the narrator’s obsession with this ex-wife in deft, sharp prose which allude to her complicated emotions rather than spelling them out. This is powerfully effective and the fast-paced story works up to a gripping climax.

It feels like Tuck’s method of writing this novel is particularly modern in the manner of Rachel Khong or Jenny Offill. The prose are so pared down that some pages only contain a single sentence which nonetheless resonates like the force of a great bell chime. Also, the story builds up indirectly where the narrator often goes off on tangents describing research about a particular thing like the romantic entanglements of writers Mario Vargas Llosa or Vaclav Havel or a line from a Philip Roth novel. It’s clever the way this italicised research will follow directly on from a point in the story. For instance, the narrator’s step-daughter describes how her mother recently had a romantic getaway with a man in a chateau in France and the next page gives a marketing description of the chateau in a way that the narrator has obviously sought out. The fact that she furtively tries to recreate a three dimensional idea of the ex-wife’s life betrays more about her own character and preoccupations than it does about the ex-wife. This assembly of fragments tantalizingly combine to a portrait of obsession and insecurity. 

 The ex-wife plays the piano (something she was only able to pursue after her divorce). She plays Chopin's Nocturne Op. 15, No. 2 in F sharp

Whenever the narrator refers to the ex-wife she describes her as she or her in italicised writing. The italics saturate these pronouns with so many conflicted feelings it’s like you can hear the narrator saying them aloud with sarcastic or hate-filled venom. Yet, also lingering behind her musings about this ex-wife and her husband’s first marriage there is a melancholy and longing to understand the man she’s with. It betrays an aching insecurity about the stability of their relationship. “Sisters” has a haunting quality to it in the way it describes our inability to really know or understand our romantic partners because there will always be aspects of their past and present unknown to us. For such a brief novel, it’s especially impactful and filled with deep-feeling resonance. Although this is her seventh published novel, it’s the first book I’ve read by Lily Tuck and I’m now keen to read more.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesLily Tuck
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