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I had incredibly conflicted feelings while reading “Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine”. It focuses on loneliness – a subject I come back to continuously on my blog because it is, in part, a self-conscious exploration of that state. The beginning of this novel is prefaced by a quotation from “The Lonely City” by Olivia Laing, one of my favourite books from 2016 – so my expectations were incredibly high. Author Gail Honeyman has spoken about how her initial inspiration for the novel came from reading about an ordinary young adult who had an extremely solitary existence bouncing between work and home with no socializing in between. This is protagonist Eleanor’s routine life. She has a frosty relationship with her colleagues and no one to speak to outside of the office except for weekly phone calls with her belligerent and cruel mother. But, after watching a handsome singer at a gig, she’s inspired to change and camouflage herself “as a human woman” in order to make him fall for her. As she gradually emerges from her hermetic shell she’s forced to confront a painful past and all the emotions she’s suppressed for so long.

Although I’m really invested in the central subject and some sections were very moving, this novel ultimately didn’t come together for me because I couldn’t believe in Eleanor’s character. Even though she has no social contact and is a creature of habit, it doesn’t make sense to me that she’s entirely ignorant about many pop cultural references and aspects of society. It’s noted in the story how she’s someone who regularly reads the newspaper, listens to the radio and watches television, but she’s never heard of McDonalds, SpongeBob SquarePants or the dance YMCA. She’s completely at a loss as to how to conduct a transaction when ordering a takeaway pizza or buying a computer and when a beautician giving her a makeover asks if she’d like a smoky eye she replies she doesn’t like anything to do with smoking. Even for someone who lives in such an isolated way, it feels like she could glean a lot of this information and get an idea of how people interact from the media she consumes. But many times it feels like she’s literally an alien.

You could argue that she has some sort of developmental disability or personality disorder based on trauma or years spent in intense isolation. Or it could be she’s just really bad at social situation. She expresses at one point how she finds people unfathomable: “I often find that I don’t understand why they do and say things.” However, this doesn’t seem compatible with the fact that she’s highly intelligent and could deduce many things about how social situations work. Also, later on, she expresses how “by careful observation from the sidelines, I’d worked out that social success is often built on pretending just a little. Popular people sometimes have to laugh at things they don’t find very funny, do things they don’t particularly want to, with people whose company they don’t particularly enjoy. Not me. I had decided, years ago, that if the choice was between that or flying solo, then I’d fly solo. It was safer that way. Grief is the price we pay for love, so they say. The price is far too high.” So it’s not that she doesn’t understand social norms, but chooses to reject them. This seems inconsistent with her character’s actions and reactions throughout the novel where she literally doesn’t understand what people mean or why they act the way they do. 

Also, the tone of the novel felt quite uneven where I wasn’t sure if the author or Eleanor were being intentionally funny or not. At a funeral she considers the various ways that a corpse can be disposed of and she thinks how when she dies she’d like to be fed to zoo animals. She plans to write to the WWF to find out if this would be possible. It felt very difficult to know if instances like this were just supposed to be funny or if we were supposed to actually believe her outrageous naivety. Also, she expresses how much she loves reading and has a particular fondness for Jane Eyre, but later she remarks how she ends up reading dull manuals because she’s so entirely baffled as to how to find literature she’d enjoy and states “There are so many books in the world – how do you tell them all apart?” But someone who is as smart as she is and went to university surely would be able to guess that if she likes Jane Eyre so much she’d probably like to try reading some other classic fiction.

 For much of her life, Eleanor's closest companion has been a parrot plant.

For much of her life, Eleanor's closest companion has been a parrot plant.

On the positive side, there were some sections I found effective. In particular, I thought Eleanor’s relationship with money was portrayed strongly. She’s highly conscious of how much she spends and is scrupulous about contributing anything to social occasions such as buying people drinks. She describes how “if I were to run out of funds, find myself indebted, there is no one, not a single soul, on whom I could call to bail me out. I’d be destitute.” So it’d make sense that she’d be particularly anxious about safeguarding her personal finances. She's basically a high functioning alcoholic and when she experiences an instance of totally crashing on an all-out binge it's really powerful. I also appreciated the gentle way the author handles the way people react to Eleanor’s odd behaviour where some sneer/mock her and others approach her with more sensitivity. Her journey towards building somewhat stable friendships and accepting herself was well plotted. But Eleanor as a character didn’t feel wholly convincing to me. I also think the story would have been stronger if Eleanor’s hidden history wasn’t so melodramatic. It feels like it would have been more effective and relatable if she just happened to be an awkward introvert.

It’s interesting reading this novel now that it’s been out almost a year and gained some supporters as well as strong detractors. It was the winner in the debut fiction category of the Costa Awards and has been nominated for numerous other awards such as The Women’s Prize and the Desmond Elliott Prize. So it’s caused this book to come under a lot more scrutiny than a debut novel would usually get. I don’t think opinions could ever become as sharply divided as they were for the novel “A Little Life”, but this novel seems to be coming close.  

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesGail Honeyman
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I love it when a novel surprises me. I’m not specifically talking plot twists – although, this book does have a big one towards the end which I didn’t anticipate. It’s more that feeling when I’m reading a book and the writing is fine, but I’m not sure I see the point of the story. But then it gets to a section where it emotionally grips me and breaks my heart and pieces it back together bit by bit. The best example of this I always go back to is Colm Tóibín’s “Brooklyn” which made me flip and fall in love with it halfway through. But now I can say the same about Kit De Waal “The Trick of Time”. This novel slides effortlessly between the early and later life of Mona, a girl from Ireland who eventually moves to England and spends many years making elegant handcrafted dolls as well as emotionally assisting bereaved women in their grieving process. It’s a deceptively simple story that makes big statements about loss, relationships and the power imagination can play in rescuing us from the ravages of time.

One way this novel really pulled on my heart strings was by portraying some characters who are outwardly “difficult” but their prickliness is really a defensive guise shielding hidden psychological pain. A woman named Sarah visits Mona at one point and, though she is quite rude and dismissive, Mona persists in helping her because both women have experienced a similar sense of loss and Mona can sense how much she’s in pain. This astute, empathetic manner is really touching, but it’s also heartening to read about a character like Mona who is so essentially good that she’d selflessly give her time and attention to someone else rather than become embittered by her own anger and despair. This is something I also found so striking about another novel I read recently called “The Ninth Hour”.

 Mona and Karl visit Packington House, a 17th century mansion in Warwickshire

Mona and Karl visit Packington House, a 17th century mansion in Warwickshire

This novel also meaningfully engages with a question I’ve grappled with a lot in my life. It’s difficult not to let ourselves become preoccupied with thoughts about what might have been if we’d made different life choices or if chance had made us take a different path in life. Usually I’ve felt that getting lost in such musings is counterproductive as its taking you out of your immediate existence or the moment you’re living in. But this novel posits a different slant on this issue. Early in Mona’s life her father explains to her that there is a trick to time and throughout the book there are multiple examples of how people can indulge in imaginatively building alternate timelines for themselves – not necessarily as ways of escaping real life, but overcoming grief which feels otherwise insurmountable. So when Mona’s mother is very ill she engages her daughter in picturing how Mona’s life might play our or when a neighbour named Karl takes Mona to an antique fair they engage in playful musings about a luxurious lifestyle where the furniture around them fills an imagined stately home. It feels like this way of allowing ourselves to be manipulated by fantasy and the imagination can be a way of building a stronger sense of self as it allows us to simultaneously inhabit all the multiplicities of life.

I also really appreciated how this novel frankly deals with the subject of miscarriage in such a complex and moving way. It’s always felt to me like a somewhat taboo subject that’s not often talked about or perhaps it’s something I’ve never been that aware of as a man who has never been with a pregnant partner. But several years ago I was startled to find that some women close to me had experienced miscarriages which I hadn’t previously known about. It’s entirely understandable that something so sensitive isn’t brought up except in certain contexts and, of course, this is why many pregnant women don’t tell many people about their pregnancy until a certain stage, but it feels important that there’s more dialogue about something which can have long-term emotional consequences. “The Trick of Time” handles this beautifully and in such an effective way. I was entirely engrossed in the novel and moved by its very touching ending.  

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesKit De Waal
4 CommentsPost a comment
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It feels surprising that “Miss Burma” is perhaps the least known novel on this year’s Women’s Prize longlist when its plot and the origins of its story are so sensational. Perhaps its initial publication made a bigger splash in the US, but I’ve seen many people in the UK remark that they had not heard of this book before its prize nomination. The blurbs on its cover from accomplished authors such as Viet Thanh Nguyen and Garth Greenwell certainly speak highly of the regard this novel is held in. It’s Charmaine Craig’s second novel, but prior to becoming a writer she was an actress who notably played the live-action model upon whom the animated character of Disney’s Pocahontas was based off from. The story of  “Miss Burma” and the central character of Louisa were based on Craig’s mother who had a truly epic life as a beauty pageant winner, famous Burmese actress and political revolutionary. Both Louisa and her family were intimately involved in the complicated social and political changes that occurred in the recent history of Burma (presently known as Myanmar.) Charmaine Craig reimagines her family’s harrowing story which parallels this turbulent 20th century period that involved a break from colonialism, warring ethnic groups, invasion/interference from numerous foreign powers and the military leadership of the country after a coup d’etat in 1962.

One of the great missions of this novel is to evoke the presence and struggle of the indigenous peoples of Burma who were systematically stripped of their cultural heritage and were subject to acts of genocide. Many ethnic groups have struggled to establish a presence and voice within the country’s government in the past century. At one point a character feels how “His opinion didn’t matter, because Burma’s peoples didn’t matter. Burma mattered only so far as it posed a problem for the countries that did matter. America, China, Russia.”  “Miss Burma” focuses in particular on the plight of the Karen people who were subjected to frequent attacks and oppression. Some Karens waged a war against the central Burmese government demanding either representation or the establishment of an independent Karen state. The bulk of the story follows the tumultuous marriage of Benny and Khin, Louisa’s parents. Although their coupling begins in the most innocent and romantic way, their lives include tremendous strife as well as some periods of success as the country and its people are ravaged by war.

The story includes very powerful sensory descriptions of Benny and Khin’s plight. These range from the fetid conditions and rat-infested cells that Benny is imprisoned within to the smell of Khin’s own sweat as she arduously hauls good to sell on the open market so that she can afford to feed her children. I was moved by the depiction of a relationship that is dragged through so much conflict and how this influences the characters’ actions as well as the transformation in how this couple view each other. This combined with the meaningful internal conflict many characters feel about what direction the country should take amidst riotous political strife made the novel really come alive for me. Most notable are evocative scenes where Benny paces in his study while scribbling his thoughts and audibly debates with himself while his bewildered family witnesses his mental fragmentation. Benny and Khin strategically plan on putting their daughter Louisa forward to win beauty competitions to first become Miss Karen and then win the country-wide title of Miss Burma. Because of her mixed race heritage Louisa subsequently becomes an “image of unity” in the press as well as a celebrity figure subject to insidious tabloid speculation. This platform that Louisa achieves allows for strategic manoeuvring between political figures and gradually Louisa takes a revolutionary stance.

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It is jarring in some sections how the author curiously breezes through dramatic changes in periods of her characters’ lives. For instance, during a period of stability Benny achieves a great amount of financial success running a number of businesses. This all happens quite quickly in a few paragraphs after a long section of his living with Khin in near destitution. Equally, Louisa’s success in pageants which springboard her into celebrity status and film stardom happens so quickly its as if they required hardly any effort from her or her family at all. Perhaps for a historical novel that uses material which is so personal to its author, Craig felt that certain sections of the characters’ lives were predetermined so she didn’t need to show the challenges these individuals faced in achieving their success or the tension of what might have happened if they’d failed. Instead she is much more concerned with the intricacies of the social meetings of political figures and the very tense uncertainty of different characters’ national loyalties.

I didn’t always understand the complex politics and conflicts involved in this novel. So in some sections I did feel a bit bewildered and in some ways it was perhaps too ambitious for the author to try to contain so much about the warring factions and complex motives of different parties. I didn’t find this to be a huge problem because I’m glad it’s encouraged me to read more about Burma’s fascinating history. But it did draw me out of the story at times. However, the novel really resonated when I felt the weight of expectation put on Louisa’s shoulders as she’s moulded into a symbol who becomes cognizant of the privilege of her role to take a stance and enact change herself. It’s intriguing how Charmaine Craig remarked in an interview that she originally wrote this novel focusing on her own relationship with her mother. This final novel feels quite far removed from that more personal story as it primarily delves into the lives of Craig’s grandparents. Though it would have made it a huge epic, I would have liked to see the story carried through to the author’s own times and her mother’s later life while sacrificing some of the political conspiracy elements. I feel like this would have made the novel resonate more as a personal story rather than an inside history of Burma.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesCharmaine Craig
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It’s really exciting seeing the international book community experiencing a surge of interest in Latvian literature. I’m aware that there is a vibrant literary scene in Latvia, but translations of new Latvian fiction are slow in making their way to the West. So I was thrilled to read “Soviet Milk” by established author Nora Ikstena. This book won the Annual Latvian Literature Award in 2015, but has only just been translated and published in English. The story alternates between the perspectives of an unnamed mother and daughter over a number of years from 1969 to 1989. They have a tumultuous relationship with each other and both struggle to find their place in society because this was a period of time when Latvia was still under Soviet rule. The mother is a skilled doctor specializing in female fertility, but finds life in the communist system stiflingly oppressive. Equally the daughter struggles to grow and nurture her developing intellect in such a regimental system. This is a moving and achingly poignant story of an unconventional mother-daughter relationship and a country undergoing radical social change as Latvia regains its independence.

At first the mother and daughter’s sections are separated by years of time as the mother describes her childhood and the very different landscape of Latvia during WWII. Meanwhile the daughter describes the painful experience of feeling unwanted and being raised by her grandmother and step-grandfather because her mother is incapable of caring for her. Gradually their narratives come together until they occur in a simultaneous time period. It’s ironic that the mother specializes in reproduction, yet finds no motivation to mother her own daughter. She feels “I had carried and given birth to a child, but I had no maternal instincts. Something had excluded me from this mystery, which I wanted to investigate to the very core, to discover its true nature.”

 Nora Ikstena

Nora Ikstena

In some ways it feels like the mother can’t nurture her daughter because she can’t inhabit a fully rounded identity under the Soviet system. She’s an intellectual who hordes works of literature that have been banned and experiences severe mental health problems. The daughter is equally intelligent and as she grows discovers how her curiosity is equally curtailed by a regime that seeks to instil only a Soviet-approved point of view. People who don’t fit into the system such a brave poet who tries to teach school children an alternative point of view or the mother’s friend Jesse who might be intersex or transgendered are winnowed out.

The novel filters such a rich view of Latvian history through three generations of characters. Although we only get the perspectives of the mother and daughter, we’re also given snippets of the grandparents’ points of view. Having lived through so much oppression the step-grandfather resignedly feels: “one shouldn’t dwell on the past. Nothing would change here. The Russian boot would be here for ever.” However, as the daughter comes of age she becomes aware that a new age is finally coming where Latvia can achieve independence from Russia once again. However, there are potent and ever-present reminders of the severe violence and tragedies that the Latvian people experienced. Even in a field of growing crops it’s remarked how “Cabbages, beetroot and potatoes to provide for our Soviet pigs would grow abundantly here, for bodies from military executions fertilized the soil.” There is a striking sense of progression within the novel where the physical bodies of the people and their stories persist through succeeding generations. It illuminates the distinct personalities of certain characters in how the weight of history impacts them, but also shows a cumulative sense of national identity.

Interview with Nora Ikstena

Eric:
I greatly enjoyed reading this novel - particularly because I have Latvian heritage and distant Latvian relations, but I know little about this part of my family’s history. The story poignantly focuses on different generations of Latvian life, history and social change. What was your initial inspiration for the novel?

Nora:
In 1998, I wrote my first novel Celebration of Life. It tells the story about the daughter going to her mother’s funeral after not knowing her mother all of her life. I got the first copy of my novel on the day of my own mother’s funeral. That was also the day when I started to think of Soviet Milk. It took 20 years. It’s my most important novel, as it's very personal for me. It's a real story about a mother's and daughter's complicated life under the Soviet regime in Latvia 1969-1989. It’s near to autobiographical, but I think this is honest to share your own life experience with readers. It was important for me to tell this story not only for readers in Latvia but also across borders.

Eric:
Milk takes on many complex metaphorical meanings where it isn’t always something nutritional or life-giving, but which might also be tainted or bitter. How did the image of milk as a symbol evolve for you while writing?

Nora:
Milk, especially mother’s milk, is an essential liquid of life. In my novels it becomes poisoned milk because the mother does not want to give it to her daughter. She does not wish the same life in a cage for her daughter, as she has. At the same time it is a metaphor – poisoned milk of our homeland, for what we were drinking during the Soviet occupation. It is also very poetical – in Latvian folk songs called ‘dainas’ we have many sayings about milk. For example – water is warm like milk, or ‘milk rivers’ or Milky Way in universe.  It is all went together in my novel.

Eric:
I found it fascinating how traditional family roles are somewhat subverted in the story where the daughter often takes on a mothering role. This subversion is emphasised by the fact we never learn the characters’ names so it’s as if they are locked in these identity roles which don’t accurately suit them. Did you always plan to leave the central characters in the novel unnamed?

Nora:
No, that is first time in my writing I leave central characters unnamed. And I did it on purpose. I wanted to generalize the story. The story is inspired by my life, but it’s also a story about anyone who has experienced love and loss, and that battle of trying to bring someone back to life. These people in search of the truth, who in the process struggle against the everyday life, its troubles and joys, and the reversals of fortune. It's a story about a cage and freedom, about endless love, and about life that is larger than literature.

Eric:
The mother’s friend Jesse is such a compelling character who takes on a kind of family role as she has been rejected by her own family and peers. What inspired this story line of someone who is intersex or has gender confusion?  

Nora:
Jese comes from my favourite Christmas song – I know the beautiful rose that blossomed from the heart of Jese. For my mind Jese is a symbol of unconditional love. Spiritual love. Somebody in between man and woman, soul and flesh. Jese is true and devoted. Pure love.

Eric:
Some classic novels of Western literature such as Moby Dick and 1984 are referenced throughout the novel as subversive books read in secret. Do you know of many instances of forbidden literature being secretly shared while Latvia was under Soviet rule?

Nora:
There were many instances of forbidden literature, because the role of literature in Latvia is enormous. We are nation of readers. It has been like this all the historical times (and I am sure will be in future.) I can give an examples of two translations: 1984 by Orvell and Ulysses by Joyce into Latvian. Both were translated by Latvian exile translators and published in 1950s by the Latvian exile publishing house in Sweden. Then some copies were secretly passed to Soviet Latvia. For many intellectuals these underground copies were like a Bible at that time. Imagine that you can have a copy of Ulysses for three reading days? People went to jail for reading such a book. At the same time our national poetry was a huge part of Latvian expression during the Soviet rule – with hidden and obscure meanings, it offered a subversive insight and poets were at the heart of this subversive expression, and thousands of people would come together in the street to hear their voice.

Eric:
It feels as if each of the three generations represented in the novel aren’t entirely aware of the many social and political challenges faced by previous generations. Do you feel children in Latvia today are more aware of the complex history their elders lived through?

Nora:
Literature plays an in important role in Latvia, particularly in the way it allows us to share our history through a personal perspective. There is a new series in Latvia called ‘WE.XX Century’ which explores different aspects of our history through 13 novels. These are all best sellers – with the old and the young – as fiction is such a powerful way of communicating our past and our country, which has forged its independence in the beginning of it and lived through the horror of two world wars, followed by Soviet era, and dramatic regaining of independence.


Soviet Milk is published in the UK by Peirene Press, translated from the Latvian by Margita Gailitis. The Baltic countries – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – will be the Market Focus for the London Book Fair 2018 (10th – 12th April). Nora Ikstena is the Latvian ‘Author of the Day’

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesNora Ikstena
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I hugely admire a book that can be so brazenly sexual and plunder the depths of personal experience to tease out meanings that are profound and revelatory. Richard Scott’s book of poetry “Soho” demonstrates a full frontal engagement with queer experience while vigorously searching for a gay lineage and history to connect to. In its opening poem 'Public Library, 1998' the poet performs an Orton-Halliwell stunt of defacing library books to insert the “COCK” and gayness into literature as well as highlighting queer subtext. The final long poem ‘Oh My Soho!’ documents a search for that history in the present-day manifestation of a queer community that feels in some was disconnected from its past. There’s a potent anger in how “We’re a people robbed of ancestors – they were stolen, hooded, from us” through stigmatisation and death by criminalization and disease, but also how reformed queer identity has become: “We, too, are not immune to this shameful progress; us homos are no longer revolting!” The double meaning of this line is blistering in its recognition of progress, but at the expense of behaviour which has been sanitised by heteronormative practices and a lack of political engagement. Scott seamlessly treads between the personal and political to create poetry that burns hot pink. This poetry gripped me, turned me on, made me teary-eyed and left me grinning.

In one of my favourite poems 'Sandcastles' a scene plays out where a family at a playground is encroached upon by a “tall gent”. The narrator self-consciously migrates between the identities of the people there to engage in furtive public toilet sex or become a nurturing influence to a girl building sandcastles or become the girl playing in the sand. So there is a mind-blowing simultaneous embodiment of these contrasting feelings of perversion and innocence. One of the most gut-wrenchingly emotional poems 'crocodile' describes what it is to have survived sexual trauma “I have died already and somehow survived” but tragically being made to feel like your tears are not valid. Several poems describe the negotiation between the childhood self and the fully-cognizant sexually-active adult. Some focus on how childhood abuse can be transformed into adulthood fetishes like in the poem ‘under neon lights my arms glow scar-‘ while others explore dark feelings of self-loathing “I hated still hate this body”.

Other poems have a much more light-hearted nature and poke fun at the cult of poetry such as 'Permissions' which invokes the community of chap books and poetry slams where poets freely fuse together imagery to titillate, disturb, connect or grieve “collecting rapey verse like a tramp pocketing bin-butts”. Another poem sees the poet critiquing himself for co-opting theorists and writers after having just presented a series of poems re-imagining the love poetry of Verlaine and splicing in quotes from writers such as Walt Whitman, Kosofsky Sedgwick, Mark Doty, Michael Foucault and Jean Genet. Scott lambasts himself ‘shame on you faggot for bending whitman to your will” in a way that endearingly shows he’s not taking himself too seriously while writing about serious things.

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Throughout the book there is a rigorous engagement with sex, the body and desire. These include feverish poems which celebrate the act such as ‘slavic boys will tell you’ whose format on the page takes on the evocative shape of a mushroom. But frequently there is a sense of sex being mixed with violence or death. One of the most striking is the poem ‘you slug me and’ whose startling invitation “ask the terrible questions of my flesh” describes how violence in sex can be a means towards self-discovery. Another poem ‘you spit in my mouth and I’ takes on a Jean Genet-like mentality to discover levels of beauty in sexual degradation. An entire section of the book includes poems focusing on shame as a complex attendant to sex, especially for gay people. Scott describes “those pre-grindr days when loneliness stung like a hunger” and how “my head's a cloud and my heart's a puddle”. The triumphant final poem ‘Oh My Soho!’ describes the desultory sensation “I’m chock-full of shame, riven with dark man-jostling alleyways, a treasure map of buried trauma.” An ever-recurring need for sexual gratification makes it seem as if we are condemned to a state where “this desperate place... is your home now”. But the poem 'the presence of x' epitomises Scott’s rejection of religion and “heteronormative bullshit” out of a commitment to “believe in sex the blue hours you've spent fucking me the bruises you left on my arms”. This results in an individual who gazes askance at society to resolutely declare “I am the homosexual you cannot be proud of”.

It’s so heartening to see a fresh generation of poets like Richard Scott, Andrew McMillan and Danez Smith whose writing engages with the dimensions and politics of queer identity in refreshing new ways. I loved reading this playful, moving and riotous poetry collection. 

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesRichard Scott

“The language of violence, spoken by the powerful of all nations, erased distinctions beneath the surface.”

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Kamila Shamsie's extraordinary and engrossing novel “Home Fire” is in many ways about getting beneath the surface of headlines to show the complexity of people, situations and otherness. This is the story of a family that has been splintered apart. Isma Pasha took responsibility for raising her younger twin siblings after their mother's early death and the disappearance of their father. The novel begins with Isma finally taking steps to live her own life and continue her education in America now that her brother Parvaiz and sister Aneeka are older. But Parvaiz's disconnection with his own family's past leads him into a dangerous situation. Paired with this family's story is that of Karamat Lone, a man who has been appointed the British Home Secretary and his son Eamonn. Karamat has gained political clout by spouting rhetoric that will gain him favour with white conservatives. But Eamonn's involvement with the Pasha family leads Karamat into a situation where he must choose between family and his political ambition. Shamsie subtly reworks the story and ideas of the Greek tragedy Antigone into a contemporary landscape where the question of national identity has become so divisive. It's a dramatic and engaging tale that totally gripped me.

Although I've read this novel several months after it was first published its subject matter is still striking relevant. On the morning that I finished reading this book I opened BBC News to see a story about two British-born men who joined the Islamic State and had their British citizenship revoked. One thread of Shamsie's story parallels such an instance, but gets behind the sensationalist and fearmongering media headlines where people have been demonized as terrorists or sluts to deal with the complexity of individual experience. It also opens with the very real experience that many people of Middle Eastern descent face when travelling between Britain and America where they are subjected to extensive searches at the airport. This made me recall Riz Ahmed's powerful essay in the anthology “The Good Immigrant” about the self consciousness and sense of guilt this induces. “Home Fire” shows up how British politicians often speak about cross-cultural respect and inclusivity, but many legal practices and procedures encourage division and induce feelings of otherness.

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However, an interesting issue came up for me since I happened to read this novel directly after reading Ahmed Saadawi's “Frankenstein in Baghdad” which is on the longlist for the Man Booker International Prize. I like to follow prize lists so I'm trying to read some titles from this as well as all the books on the longlist for the Women's Prize for Fiction. But it struck me how major plot lines for both these novels are about terrorism and of their respective prize lists they are the only titles by authors of Middle Eastern descent. This raises a question for me about representation since it seems striking that the only novels by Middle Eastern writers that are being lauded in these British prizes are about headline issues. The same could be said about the 2017 Booker Prize longlist which Shamsie was also nominated for alongside Mohsin Hamid whose novel “Exit West” is about immigration.

I'm not criticising these authors for their choice of topics or story lines. All three of these novels are excellent in their own right, include dynamic individual characters and explore things other than these headline issues. And I'm not trying to lambast these prizes or the publishing industry. Perhaps it's simply a coincidence that these prize-nominated books are dealing with topics that many Westerns instantly associate with Middle Eastern countries and people of Middle Eastern descent. And in many ways these novels powerfully show the complexity behind these topics. It just makes me question why we're not also celebrating and reading more Middle Eastern authors who write about different aspects of Muslim and Middle Eastern life. One of the things I most admired about Elif Shafak's recent novel “Three Daughters of Eve” was its portrayal of very different kinds of young Muslim women in Britain. As a reader, I'd like more of this and a greater plurality of literature. I hope to read more books that show multifaceted aspects of BAME communities and individuals. I spoke about this in my recent Reading Wrap Up video and asked for more book recommendations so I'm pleased to see several comments from people suggesting more Middle Eastern literature. This is just something I thought worth pointing out since I read “Home Fire” in this particular context. Completely aside from this or maybe because it vigorously deals with such topical issues, I think Kamila Shamsie's novel is incredibly distinct, beautifully written and an extraordinarily engaging story.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesKamila Shamsie
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Set in the aftermath of America’s invasion of Iraq, “Frankenstein in Baghdad” portrays a city disintegrating under the strain of sectarian violence and dodgy leadership as the national military and American forces unevenly strive to establish order. Buildings are crumbling, families are moving out of the country and, after a junk dealer stitches together the body parts of bomb victims, this newly formed monster sets out on a killing rampage. I read this novel because it’s on the longlist for this year’s Man Booker International Prize. It’s particularly fascinating for me reading this modern reimagining of Frankenstein after having so recently read Mary Shelley’s classic novel. It’s notable how the novels are framed in a similar way. Shelley’s novel is a story about an explorer recording a dying doctor’s dramatic supernatural story. Saadawi similarly creates a story within a story about a man who wrote a novel after listening to the outrageous story he hears on a recording device. The way both Shelley and Saadawi’s novels are structured remove the reader slightly from the obviously fantastical elements of their stories and turn them into something more symbolic. Where Shelley concentrated more on themes of science and ambition, Saadawi is more concerned with creating a powerful message about the perpetual violence which is steadily destroying a great historic city.

One of the things which makes this novel so wonderfully engaging is its intricate and fascinating depiction of a community populated by quirky individuals. There’s a pious old lady who lives with a mangy cat and who is dismissed by many in the community as crazy. Her family, estate agents, furniture salesman and even a government housing project are trying to convince her to sell her stately home stuffed with antique furniture and art, but she stubbornly stays in place waiting for the return of her son who was probably lost in battle many years ago. There’s an ambitious journalist who finds himself inducted into high society and introduced to powerful government officials after a recent promotion. Amidst these newfound rings of privileged knowledge and covert dealings he finds it difficult to know who to trust. There’s an astrologer with many faces who advises a dodgy government agency about likely future acts of violence occurring in the city. It all builds to a complex portrait of a community beleaguered by unclear leadership and beset by perpetual random acts of violence.

This is what makes the undead patchwork monster or “Whatsitsname” so poignant as he’s an amalgam of all the vengeful feeling and backstabbing which is utterly destroying this city. At first his mission to avenge the deaths of all the victims he’s made up from has a clear plan of action. But, as time goes on, he understands his existence can’t persist without adding new pieces to himself whether they are hapless victims or not. The notion of innocent and guilty becomes very muddled – just as it is for any person of a particular nationality whose country has been embroiled in a complicated history of political battles and religious strife. This figure of a mythic rampaging monster who can’t be killed becomes a poignant symbol of ever-present spirit of violence which lurks in the shadowy corners of our society. This is a highly perceptive, original and strong novel. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAhmed Saadawi
2 CommentsPost a comment
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This year is the 10th anniversary for The Swansea University International Dylan Thomas Prize. It’s interesting how this book prize is open to writers from anywhere in the world writing in English who are aged 39 years or younger. Revered poet Dylan Thomas died when he was only 39 years old which is why this prize is intended to encourage young writers.

Last year’s winner was Fiona McFarlane for her book of short stories “The High Place”. I haven’t got to reading that yet, but I’m glad to see I’ve read all but one of the books that have been shortlisted for this year’s prize! It’s a very strong list (with the exception of Gwendoline Riley whose frequent shortlisting for various book prizes bewilders me. But, given how much this book has been lauded, it's probably me and not the novel, right?) However, I’m thrilled to see Carmen Maria Machado on the list whose extraordinarily inventive short stories I enjoyed reading so much recently. Also, it’s nice to see debut author Gabriel Tallent getting some recognition because “My Absolute Darling” is such a striking novel. The only poetry on the list is by Kayo Chingonyi whose writing so powerfully explores a dual sense of national identity. A prize of £30,000 will awarded to one of these six authors on May 10th.

I’m hoping to go see all of the shortlisted authors at an event which will be held at the British Library on May 8th – tickets are here if you’re interested.

Click on the below titles to see my full reviews of the books I’ve read. I’m hoping to get to reading Emily Ruskovich’s debut novel which I’ve heard such good things about.

Have you read any of these books and which one would you pick to win?

Kumukanda by Kayo Chingonyi
Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
First Love by Gwendoline Riley
Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney
Idaho by Emily Ruskovich
My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent

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There's something so pleasurable about getting fully immersed in a big epic novel and Kate Mayfield's new “The Parentations” had me wrapped up in its story for days. It skilfully delves into fascinating pockets of history while building a story about the tense relationship between a group of characters who have gained a kind of immortality. While there is a fantasy element to the story of a life-sustaining liquid drawn from the tectonic cracks of Iceland's lunar-like landscape, the novel is also infused with dark gothic overtones involving a pair of reclusive wealthy sisters whose lives have been beset by tragedy, a manipulative woman who learns the art of hypnotism & mesmerism and a red-haired artistic boy subjected to torturous experiments. But other sections of the book have a Dickensian feel with a superstitious girl named Willa taken from a gloomy orphanage and a depiction of the notoriously brutal Millbank prison in London. As the story progresses over the centuries it also shows London's transformations through seasons, wars, a fluctuating economy and redevelopments. All this is wrapped in an overarching tale about a boy's heartrending separation from his mother to keep him safe and protect an ancient secret for evading death.

Mayfield has a skilful way of engaging with the politics of different ages through the personal stories of her characters. Beginning in Iceland, a ground-breaking secret about a wondrous elixir becomes the point a conflict between a group of Icelandic farmers and a wealthy Danish family intent on stealing this secret for themselves. Iceland was still under Danish rule at this time and the story of this struggle in some ways mirrors the lengths of time it takes for a nation to achieve full independence from a foreign monarchy's rule. Then there are the sisters Verity and Constance whose privileged Catholic family were forced to hide their beliefs in times after the English Reformation. It's interesting how the faith and degree of piety of each sister transforms over the ages of their extended lives. There's also the story of Jonesy, a Chinese boy taken on as an apprentice after he was won through gambling. Jonesy's homosexuality leads him to engage in different furtive encounters while England still criminalized same sex acts. His story powerfully portrays the desolate state of mind a gay man must have felt when being continuously persecuted for his impulse to love.

I also felt strongly compelled by the character of Clovis who grew up in the most humble of circumstances in rural Iceland. Her method for escaping such a dire, humble life is to take advantage of every situation she can and shore up power to ferociously protect herself. While she's rightly portrayed as a villain it's also interesting how her story shows the way an individual's survivalist instinct can ultimately lead to a particularly somber kind of isolation. It's fascinating how this novel can explore a different kind of character development as its protagonists lives are stretched out over centuries rather than decades. In some ways the characters change and develop in radical ways, but also retain essential elements of their personalities and belief systems. At times this challenging method of narrative doesn't feel like it can fully explore all the challenges such a situation would produce. Some dramatic situations feel a bit rushed and too reliant upon coincidence. But, on the whole, Mayfield maintains an admirable control of the characters' evolution in sync with the long stretch of time that the novel covers and the story is consistently engrossing. “The Parentations” builds a wondrous panoramic view of history and disparate groups of people united like a family over centuries.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesKate Mayfield
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This novel made me feel nostalgic. Set at Harvard in the mid-to-late 1990s Elif Batuman’s “The Idiot” follows a freshman named Selin as she navigates the uncertain territory of college life, young love and finding a direction in life. I went to college at this exact same time in Boston (at a much smaller, non-ivy league school) and shared many of Selin’s experiences of starting to use email for the first time and riding on the T or the MBTA subway around the city. Selin comes from a privileged Turkish background and vaguely wants to be a writer (although when her first short story is published she finds no joy in it and even feels embarrassed.) She studies literature and languages: Russian, in particular. A large portion of this novel is taken up with the intricacies of campus living and then follows Selin to Hungary where she attempts to teach English in small villages. It’s plot is somewhat aimless – just as Selin’s life is somewhat aimless as she grapples to find meaning and purpose. This is the kind of book that is bound to frustrate and bore some readers (I definitely felt this way through some parts), but it also has a bewitching sense of humour and an endearingly oddball sensibility.

Something I really enjoyed in the first section of this novel were periodic exercises in Selin’s Russian class that involved learning the language through ‘The Story of Nina’. This is the journey of a fictional character named Nina who seeks to find a man that she loves who has moved away to work. There’s a special kind of absurdity in exercise books about characters acting out situations for the benefit of demonstrating grammar and phrases for students of language. They state things in non-realistic and obvious ways. This was the basis for Eugene Ionesco’s classic absurdist play ‘The Bald Soprano’ where two English couples out of a ‘learn English textbook’ The Smiths and The Martins converse in a way that is increasingly bombastic and fragmented. Selin feels an odd connection with Nina’s ongoing saga: “Of everything I had read that semester, ‘The Story of Nina’ had somehow spoken to me the most directly, and had promised to reveal something about the mysterious relationship between language and the world.” It shows how Selin isn’t just seeking an academic career, but longs to better understand an individual’s relationship to their experiences and how those experiences are coded in language.

Selin also tests the interplay between language and life in a relationship she develops with fellow-student Ivan. Although they know each other in reality, they form a different kind of intimacy through email exchanges. It’s somewhat ironic that Selin wryly comments that heroines in great Russian novels and even ‘The Story of Nina’ are about heroines who primarily obsess over a man. Yet, that’s exactly what Selin does as well. But this is only natural in someone who has just gone to university, hasn’t had sex and becomes preoccupied with the idea of romance. It’s her draw towards Ivan which compels her to travel to Hungary to teach in a programme that Ivan is connected to. This estrangement intensifies the displacement Selin already feels in her new adult life. She describes how “being alive felt like some incredibly long card game where you didn’t know if the point was to get cards or lose them, or what you had to do to get cards or lose them.”

 Selin states that "I finally identified with a painting in the Picasso Museum. Titled 'Le Buffet de Vauvenargues'"

Selin states that "I finally identified with a painting in the Picasso Museum. Titled 'Le Buffet de Vauvenargues'"

Batuman has a knack for describing the awkward transition into adulthood with unerring accuracy. For instance, as we grow older we develop a very different feeling for the passage of time. Selin describes at one point how “I kept thinking about the uneven quality of time – the way it was almost always so empty, and then with no warning came a few days that felt so dense and alive and real that it seemed indisputable that that was what life was, that its real nature had finally been revealed. But then time passed and unthinkably grew dead again, and it turned out that that fullness had been an aberration and might never come back.” This reflects how as adults we start to become much more aware of the transitory nature of large life events and how the deadness of time in between can be compounded by an increasing awareness of our own mortality. 

The kinds of pleasures and insights found in “The Idiot” feel like they would vary depending on where the reader is in life and also someone’s reading mood. I’ve heard responses from students who have identified so strongly with this novel and consequently loved it. Academic life is curiously removed from reality which causes a sense of crisis in some students who might suddenly realise like Selin that “I really didn’t know how to do anything real. I didn’t know how to move to a new city, or have sex, or have a real job, or make someone fall in love with me, or do any kind of study that wasn’t just a self-improvement project.” While this novel gave me a lot of nostalgic twinges, many of the student experiences are far removed from my reality so I couldn’t help feeling impatient with long passages obsessing over the dynamics of social groups or the tedium of waiting for the cafeteria to open. At times I enjoyed sinking into the meandering feeling of it and the dry humour of Selin’s observations, but, as it’s such a long novel, it often felt like it indulged in these experiences too much.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesElif Batuman
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This short and powerful nonfiction piece by Valeria Luiselli is such a poignantly constructed insight into the immigration crisis/debate in America now. Luiselli relates her experiences working as a volunteer interviewing thousands of children from Central America who have been smuggled into the United States and are seeking residency/citizenship. She asks them questions from an intake questionnaire created by immigration lawyers that will play a large part in determining if the children will be granted status to remain or face deportation. Going through the questions one at a time she explains the way the immigration system is designed to keep as many people out as possible without accounting for these children’s vulnerable situation or America’s role in the creation of this crisis. At the same time, she relates her personal experiences as a Mexican immigrant whose own ability to work was restricted because of a delay with her visa. It’s an achingly personal book that makes a strong political statement. It skilfully asserts something that shouldn’t need to be stated, but which we need to be reminded of in a political climate that overwhelmingly seeks to vilify immigrants: that these are children who have suffered through hell and that by treating them as criminals we are only adding to their trauma.

Luiselli’s justified anger and frustration about the situation these children find themselves in is palpable throughout the book. As a volunteer whose main job is to translate the children’s answers and who can do nothing to assist or change the outcome of their cases she feels that “It was like watching a child crossing a busy avenue, about to be run down by any of the many speeding cars and trucks”. It’s striking how government policies don’t seem to recognize the human faces that Luiselli meets, but implements decisions based on strategic ways of restricting vulnerable children’s ability to fairly state their case and strip them of their humanity. In fact, it was shocking to learn how the Obama administration worked with the Mexican president to implement immigration policies in Mexico to more effectively prevent immigrants from other Central American countries from getting to the US in the first place. Given the current president’s stance on immigration from Central America it’s terrifying to think how even greater walls are being created to keep out children who face continuous abuse, slavery or death in their own communities.

People in the US are made to feel that these problems belong to the Central American countries, but the issues of drug wars, arms trade and gang violence are intimately tied with US history and its policies. Luiselli reminds us how “No one suggests that the causes are deeply embedded in our shared hemispheric history and are therefore not some distant problem in a foreign country that no one can locate on a map, but in fact a transnational problem that includes the United States – not a distant observer or passive victim that must now deal with thousands of unwanted children arriving at the southern border, but rather as an active historical participant in the circumstances that generated that problem.”

Threaded throughout this book is the request from Luiselli’s daughter to know how the stories of these immigrant children end. Of course, all of their stories are just beginning so in response she says “Sometimes I make up an ending, a happy one. But most of the time I just say: I don’t know how it ends yet.” I greatly admire the clear-sighted observations found in this book and its tremendous heart. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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It’s so interesting reading Mary Shelley’s hugely influential novel “Frankenstein” after having so recently read Margaret Cavendish’s fantastically bizarre “The Blazing World” since both of these novels begin with a journey to the North Pole. I’ll need to read more about Shelley’s life and influences, but I assume having published her novel 152 years after Cavendish’s she must have been somewhat influenced by it – not just by the story’s action but the engagement she makes with scientific and philosophical ideas. Although, I have to say, Shelley’s novel is far more immediately engaging and readable for the incredibly gripping and sympathetic plot she created. While doctor Frankenstein’s infamous creation may have been reduced to an unreasonable monster in popular culture, in the novel he’s incredibly sensitive and articulate. It’s the fact that society sees Frankenstein’s creation as a monster that turns him into a monster rather than there being anything inherently evil about him. For this reason, I can see why this novel has really stood the test of time. As the ultimate tale of an outsider to society, it has a universal resonance and its meaning is still powerful today – for instance, Guillermo del Toro credited and thanked Mary Shelley when he won best director at this year’s BAFTAs for his film ‘The Shape of Water’.

I was encouraged to finally read this novel because of my involvement in curating the “Rediscover the Classics” project for the company JellyBooks. I talk more about this project and how you can join in with it in this video. It gives a great excuse for finally getting around to reading some much-lauded books. It feels especially poignant reading “Frankenstein” this year because it’s been exactly 200 years since it was first published. That a novel written so long ago can still feel so fresh and relevant is astounding. It’s no wonder that this book makes such a great choice for classrooms because young people can naturally relate to and understand the intense feelings it expresses of being an outsider – and the language it uses is very easy to read. There are so many moral and social issues raised in the plot that can be considered from different angles. It considers notions such as ambition, artificial intelligence, community, education, revenge, righteousness and many more.

It’s interesting how Shelley frames her story within the correspondence between a captain named Robert Walton with his sister Margaret. By beginning and ending the novel with his perspective it’s like she keeps this dramatic tale at arm’s length and invites the reader to consider how they would react if they came across a monstrous giant being chased through the arctic by his tortured and resentful creator. It’s also interesting how Robert insists how lonely he has become in his journey towards the North Pole in his quest to achieve some success and fame. This parallels with Frankenstein’s creation who expresses such an achingly intense feeling of loneliness in being rejected by anyone he encounters because they are repulsed by his hideousness. Frankenstein’s drive to achieve scientific recognition led to him creating an independent being that he quickly discarded. It’s as if Shelley is stressing how important it is to maintain empathy when attempting to realize our ambitions because we can easily forget about other people’s feelings in our drive towards achieving success and furthering the progress of civilization.

 A depiction of Frankenstein's creation in a film from 1910.

A depiction of Frankenstein's creation in a film from 1910.

Something I found curious about the story is when Frankenstein’s creation describes his experiences living nearby a family that he observes over many months without revealing himself. It’s touching the way she describes his appreciation for this tight-knit family and the way that he learns the elements of language and society through observing them. He beautifully expresses the propulsive force of learning: “Of what a strange nature is knowledge! It clings to the mind when it has once seized on it like a lichen on the rock.” But he also interestingly describes learning about other cultures through their subjective understanding. When describing the colonization of North America and the slaughter of Native Americans he expresses how he “wept with Safie over the hapless fate of its original inhabitants.” But he also learns disdain for “the slothful Asiatics” which are so characterized because of a complicated sub-plot to do with their family involving slavery in Turkey. It seems curious how there is empathy for one nationality, but a sharp condemnation and stereotyping of another. Certainly the politics surrounding both these areas of the world understandably lead to such broad characterisations for this particular family. But I think this shows how the family's subjectivity induces them to make generalisations about people based on nationality. It adds to the novel’s broader message about not rejecting other people because of outward appearances. 

I didn’t expect “Frankenstein” to be such an emotional and heart breaking story. The isolation and misery of doctor Frankenstein’s creation is so powerfully depicted. It feels especially cruel that the creation is never given a name, but only referred to by the doctor as “the fiend” or “monster”. To deny someone a name feels like essentially depriving them of their own humanity. But the way the creation describes so vividly his feeling of longing, rejection, despair, anger and regret makes him one of the most dynamically realised humans I’ve ever read about. This is such a powerful book that I now feel eager to explore much more about Mary Shelley’s life and the many permutations of this narrative that have been created since this story’s inception 200 years ago.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMary Shelley
4 CommentsPost a comment
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Ever since I read Danielle Dutton’s novel “Margaret the First” which fictionalizes the life of Margaret Cavendish and Siri Hustvedt’s extraordinary novel about a misunderstood female artist “The Blazing World”, I’ve had a fascination with this pioneering writer of the 17th century and wanted to read her books. Earlier this year I attended a feminist book club meeting about Dutton’s novel and that reignited my interest in Cavendish. In the lead up to the announcement of this year’s longlist announcement for The Women’s Prize for Fiction, it seemed like a great time to explore this intrepid figure’s writing. “The Blazing World” was first published in 1666 and is often considered a forerunner to both science fiction and the utopian novel genres. It’s a totally bonkers story of a woman who is stolen away to the North Pole only to find herself in a strange bejewelled kingdom of which she becomes the supreme Empress. Here she consults with many different animal/insect people about philosophical, religious and scientific ideas. The second half of the book pulls off a meta-fictional trick where Cavendish (as the Duchess of Newcastle) enters the story herself to become the Empress’ scribe and close companion. It was impossible for me to read this novel without thinking of Dutton’s text which gives an impression of the real struggles Cavendish faced in her life as well as her eccentric personality.

I found the first half of the novel quite difficult to follow although I was entranced by the bizarre concepts and “chopt Logick” that it contained. The Empress is ruthlessly methodical in quizzing her anthropomorphic subjects who are the leaders in their field of study. It’s like she’s investigating the current trends in thought to either approve or reject them. Cavendish was privy to the debates and meetings of some of the most prominent minds of her era so it feels like in her novel she’s mulling over many new concepts and trying to connect disparate ideas. In her wilfulness the Empress demands that telescopes be destroyed because she calls them “false informers” and dissolves her society of Lice-men who are Geometricians because she finds “neither Truth nor Justice in their Profession.” It felt to me like her ruthless decision-making and domineering mentality were Cavendish’s reaction to being made to feel relatively voiceless amongst the egotistical learned men of her time. This could be a simplistic interpretation of her creative reaction and I don’t mean to undermine the seriousness of the ideas Cavendish works with in her novel.

Cavendish explores many fascinating concepts throughout the text concerning the natural world both at the macro level of astrology and the micro level where she seems to be striving to articulate a concept of subatomic physics. In one section she states “both by my own Contemplation, and the Observations which I have made by my rational & sensitive perception upon Nature, and her works, I find, that Nature is but one Infinite Self-moving Body, which by the vertue of its self-motion, is divided into Infinite parts, which parts being restless, undergo perpetual changes and transmutations by their infinite compositions and divisions.” It feels like she’s speaking here about the behaviour of matter and energy and gravitational forces. 

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As the ultimate leader, the Empress also contemplates how people should be ruled. I found it interesting how she rejects the idea of ruling through tyranny because she recognises its short-term effectiveness: “for Fear, though it makes people obey, yet does it not last so long, nor is it so sure a means to keep them to their duties, as Love.” Not only does she absorb and sift through scientific and political ideas, but also references many different religions and sacred texts to play off from before the Empress decides to write her own religious text or Cabbala. The Empress hilariously wants to summons the spirits of some of the greatest minds in philosophy and science such as Aristotle, Pythagoras, Plato, Galileo or Hobbes, but it’s decided that they would be too “self-conceited” to agree to be her scribe. So instead she summons Cavendish herself. Neither are content to simply reside within this fantastical world so they create worlds within this world to travel to and the Empress appoints a “Spirit to be Vice-Roy of her body in the absence of her soul.”

In the novel there’s a frequent insistence upon the formation of one’s own imaginative world as a means of escape in a way that makes me feel Cavendish must have felt either bored or suffocated by the actual life she was trapped within. It felt as if the Empress’ freedom and vast riches played off from the fact Cavendish’s much older husband experienced varying amounts of financial and political trouble throughout their marriage. Dutton’s novel also suggests how Cavendish had such a restless spirit, boundless level of creativity and a monumental ego that she often felt discontent with the limitations of her reality. She also craved fame and sought it out by dressing outlandishly and self-publishing many books. Cavendish’s taste for fashion and cultivating a distinct image are reflected in the novel as well when the Empress daringly seeks to make a flashy garment made from “star-stone”. I think it’s safe to assume that if Cavendish were alive today she’d be a habitual social media user and would take countless selfies. Everything about her unique and multi-faceted personality suggests that she was someone who struggled with the many limitations of her time. 

“The Blazing World” is such an intriguing oddity that I found it a totally absorbing and bewildering read. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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There a special delight in having read an author’s debut novel when it first came out, then reading her follow up novel and discovering common themes and patterns which occur in fascinating variations in both books. A wonderful quality of Cannon’s writing is to create a complex picture of a community in how these networks of people both support each other and can help relieve feelings of isolation/loneliness. She describes how “There is a special kind of silence when you live alone. It hangs around, waiting for you to find it. You try to cover it up with all sorts of other noises, but it’s always there, at the end of everything else, expecting you.” But her stories show how neighbours and friends can assuage these difficult feelings.

Cannon’s debut novel “The Trouble with Goats and Sheep” portrayed a neighbourhood with an absence at its centre. A woman goes missing and two intrepid girls are determined to discover what happened to her. Conversely, in her new novel “Three Things About Elsie” the story centres around an assisted living apartment complex where a new resident arrives, but he might not be who he claims to be. Florence is convinced he’s someone from her past and she sets about trying to uncover the truth about his identity with her lifelong friend Elsie. Cannon’s sensitive narrative shows the large impact that small gestures of goodwill can have, the intricate complexities and labyrinthine nature of memory and the story is thickly drizzled with a warm coating of nostalgia.

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In a way, this novel feels like the most wonderful kind of old lady drag act. I frequently find myself watching The Golden Girls and wishing I could inhabit these characters or wishing I could sit at a window staring out at a landscape while saying in a melancholy voice “It all happened so long ago…” There’s an attraction to being at a point in your life where you can remain comfortably entrenched in your belief systems and feel free to say whatever you want and not give a fig what anyone thinks. That’s not to trivialize the pitfalls and hardships which come with aging and Cannon certainly honours this struggle. There are many solemn observations about the pains of growing old: “it’s only when you get old that you realise whichever direction you choose to face, you find yourself confronted with a landscape filled up with loss.” But Florence also exhibits the wry sense of humour and stubbornness of a wizened character who many people would revel in watching and enjoy imagining themselves as. It’s a thorough delight reading about her quirky point of view. There’s also a tinge of sadness in reading about her later years as her grasp on the past and her present mind is gradually slipping away. 

As with many stories that have a central mystery, this novel comes with a big twist. I could guess fairly early on what the main twist would be, but I don’t think that’s a mistake of the narrative because it only adds to the pensive mood of Florence’s condition. The chapters alternate between unravelling the suspicious aura surrounding new arrival Gabriel and counting the hours of a day when Florence has fallen down and can’t get back up. Cannon poignantly uses these two strands of the story as a way of describing the plasticity of memory and how Florence has come to reform the past in her mind: “It’s the greatest advantage of reminiscing. The past can be exactly how you wanted it to be the first time around.” The real mystery of this novel is how Florence has come to fool herself and alter her memories to suit what she needs to believe. It builds to a touching conclusion and I admire how Cannon is able to fill her stories with so many pithy observations about the human condition as well as a lot of heart.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJoanna Cannon
2 CommentsPost a comment

I’ve said it before, but it really does feel like the first holiday of a year when the longlist for The Women’s Prize for Fiction gets announced. It’s one of my favourite book prizes and I love reading/discussing/debating all the titles this award honours. It’s particularly exciting that the prize this year is known under it’s new title The Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Baileys Prize.) Some weeks ago I made a video with my friend Anna about what books we’d like to see on the longlist for the prize. Between us we guessed 9 of the 16. You can watch me discuss my reaction to this year’s longlist here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C-DCtqkk_78&t=27s

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After I finish reading Joanna Cannon’s novel I’ll have six more on the list to read. I’ll be meeting with Naomi from TheWritesofWomen and other members of our Shadow Group to discuss the longlist and pick our own fan favourite shortlist/winner for the prize. So there’s a lot of fun discussion to come! Let me know in the comments what books from the longlist you’re eager to read or what you’d like to see win. The official shortlist will be announced on April 23rd and the winner will be announced on June 6th.

A lot of people will bemoan the fact Ali Smith’s “Winter” isn’t included on this list and its absence is a great shame. I have no special inside knowledge or insight into the judging process, but I’d just point out that we don’t know if the novel was even submitted for the prize. Novels that are eligible aren’t always put forward for a prize and there can be any number of reasons for this. That’s just part of the mysterious alchemy of book prizes!

For the books that I’ve already read and reviewed you can click on the titles below to see my full thoughts.

H(A)PPY by Nicola Barker
Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan
Sight by Jessie Greengrass
When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife by Meena Kandasamy
Elmet by Fiona Mozley
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt
A Boy in Winter by Rachel Seiffert
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
The Idiot by Elif Batuman
Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon
Miss Burma by Charmaine Craig
The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gower
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
The Trick of Time by Kit de Waal