At the beginning of Madeleine Thien's majestically epic novel “Do Not Say We Have Nothing” we meet Li-ling, a girl of Chinese descent whose family live in Canada. Her father Jiang Kai left in 1989 when she was ten years old to travel to Hong Kong where he eventually committed suicide. Li-ling can't begin to understand the full complexity of why her father chose to end his life until meeting Ai-ming, a young woman who leaves China after the historic student protests in Tiananmen Square which resulted in hundreds (if not thousands) of civilian deaths after martial law was declared. From Ai-ming's stories about her family and particularly her father Sparrow who was a musical student taught by Kai in Mao's communist China, Li-Ling embarks on a lifelong search for the truth about her father and the country her family came from. This ambitious novel spans fifty years of China's history recounting the heartrending impact the political system has upon a fascinating artistic family.

Li-Ling's journey of discovery is spread out over the novel. She notes how “It’s taken me years to begin searching, to realize that the days are not linear, that time does not simply move forward but spirals closer and closer to a shifting centre.” Reflecting this structure of time, the majority of the story refers back to earlier periods in the family's development. Although this felt somewhat confusing at first given the large cast of characters the story eventually became much easier to follow. It's engrossing reading how strong characters like Ai-ming's grandmother Big Mother Knife, a translator named The Lady Dostoevsky and Comrade Glass Eye survive through or manipulate a repressive system to come through and get what they want.

Because information is actively suppressed or destroyed by the Red Guards, documents accumulate significant value ensuring the people's stories and culture are preserved. A character called Old Cat states “All we have on this earth, all we are, is a record. Maybe the only things that persist are not the evildoers and demons (though, admittedly, they do have a certain longevity) but copies of things. The original has long since passed away from the universe, but on and on we copy.” The significant Book of Records is a document which is painstakingly hand copied to be passed along through generations, across continents and periods of strife. It's an epic tale told in parts which has been broken up and scattered during the social and political upheaval of Chairman Mao’s revolutionized China. But it also represents the embodiment of our culture, the stories which cannot be forgotten though many people prefer to forget them or would actively try to silence them. Encoded within the handwritten variations of this book are the stories of the people who proceed it. Thien's story recounts the dramatic lengths to which the characters seek ‘To escape and continue this story, to make infinite copies, to let these stories permeate the soil, invisible and undeniable.’

The book also shows how there is a special freedom in music to express emotion and personal history in a way words can't. Thien writes how “Sound had a freedom that no thought could equal because a sound made no absolute claim on meaning. Any word, on the other hand, could be forced to signify its opposite.” The Chinese censors can't strictly interpret the music that the characters produce as anti-revolutionary, but they can stop it by branding it as a bourgeois luxury. Sparrow is a talented composer who is forced to work for many years in a factory. It's tragic reading about how his and many other people's natural talents are suppressed and squandered for the sake of a strict system focused on organized industrial production.

Thien has a particularly beautiful way of writing about the way music affects her characters. When Sparrow hears Bach he feels that “the notes collided into him. They ran up and down his spine, and seemed to dismantle him into a thousand pieces of the whole, where each part was more complete and more alive than his entire self had ever been.” It's moving how music reaches the characters on an emotional level freeing them from their particular circumstances. Sparrow's niece Zhuli feels “Inside her head, the music built columns and arches, it cleared a space within and without, a new consciousness. So there were worlds buried inside other worlds but first you had to find the opening and the entryway.” It's inspiring how the characters need for this music supersedes the dictates of the political system that tries to suppress it so sheets of music are hidden beneath floorboards waiting to be resurrected and played again at some later point.

Bach on a Chinese stamp

Bach on a Chinese stamp

Frequent references are made to Russian composers and the stories of the musicians involved in this novel in some ways parallel the difficulty these Russian artists experienced under their own communist system. Earlier this year I read Julian Barnes' “The Noise of Time” where he brought Shostakovich to life and showed how music is an art form capable of triumphing over time. Zhuli plays the music of Prokfiev, a “disgraced Russian” and this makes a beautiful touchstone between two characters living under repressive political systems separated by space and time who find freedom and expression in music.

“Do Not Say We Have Nothing” builds to the agonizingly brutal instance of the student protests in Tiananmen Square. Having experienced the lives of this family through all the social and political developments of the country proceeding this tragedy, it's context and meaning is brought much more vividly to life. It shows the complexity and enormous scale of the protest. Big Mother observes how “In this country, rage had no place to exist except deep inside, turned against oneself.” After years of suppression, feelings which had been turned inward are brought violently out into the open. This novel is a tremendously enlightening and immersive story told with great skill and poetic beauty.

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For gay people like me, it’s disheartening growing up without seeing examples of long term same-sex love reflected in the books we read and the films we watch – never mind seeing it actually realized in the world around us. I was raised in rural Maine where there were few gay people. It was extremely difficult to come out of the closet although I consider myself lucky to have known supportive people and I had a much easier time than many. If I'd been born ten years earlier it would have been much more difficult. During my teenage years in the mid-90s I became sexually aware and eagerly looked for stories about various kinds of queer experience. However, the majority of examples I saw on television/films or read about in novels were comically-presented/hopelessly-single camp men or “deviants” who endlessly cruised without settling down, died from AIDS related illnesses and could not experience any real romance that didn’t end in bleak tragedy. These stories needed to be told (as long as they were told sensitively). But how could I envision a love life for myself based only on examples of broken romance? Matthew Griffin's beautiful debut novel “Hide” tells a story that I hungered for as a teen: a layered and nuanced lifelong romance between two men. But this is more than simply a gay romance; it's a novel about how love transforms over large stretches of time and the different roles partners play during difficult periods of life.

Frank and Wendell meet after WWII in North Carolina. Frank served in the war and Wendell works as a taxidermist. Amidst their burgeoning romance within a small community, they are aware of the dangerous consequences if they were to be open about their feelings for each other. Instead of risking familial rejection, public condemnation, possible imprisonment and/or psychiatric institutionalization they choose to retreat to an extremely isolated house in the country and never allow anyone to know that they are together. When they must be seen together they pretend to be brothers. An incident like the occurs at the novel's beginning when Frank who is in his eighties collapses in their garden from heart trouble. Told from Wendell's perspective, we see over the course of the novel the heart-wrenching struggle as Frank continues to deteriorate both mentally and physically. Interspersed with the increasing strain of their daily lives are accounts of their relationship over the decades and the sacrifices they've made isolating themselves from the rest of society.

Amidst descriptions about Wendell's profession stuffing animals there are some strikingly memorable images of the body's physical reality and the emotional resonance of dealing with it. This leads to some arresting statements about the surface of things: “It's the skin and the skin alone that makes any of us worthy of love or kindness. Underneath it we are monsters, every living thing.” There is something profoundly beautiful and sombre about revelations made from working with the body and what this means for identity in the case of Frank's condition. Griffin is bracingly honest about the stress caused from the slow physical/mental breakdown of ageing and the antagonism it creates. It's so skilful how he shows the power of their relationship not only through moments of moving tenderness but in the intimate forms of cruelty which can only be enacted by a couple who really love each other.

The extreme discretion of their relationship requires them to say very little about themselves to anyone outside of their carefully guarded circumscribed domestic life. They find that “The best lies, we’d learned, don’t ask you to say a word. They practically tell themselves.” This anonymity prevents them from fully engaging with their communities but also cuts them off from their families. At one point during their many years together Frank's aunt attempts to make contact with him as he is her favourite nephew, but Frank staunchly deflects any chance for a meaningful connection even when it seems she might be sympathetic to the truth of their situation. He decides the risk is too great.

Their reclusive life not only requires losing out on family life but also any lasting record of their love. At one point Wendell realizes “when we’re gone, nobody will remember any of it. Nobody will see our photos and marvel that we, too, were young once; nobody will wonder about the things we never told them. It will be as if none of it ever happened.” It's a grave tragedy that their love story can't be a part of the narrative of their families or society. It's lost to succeeding generations. Many gay boys like me would have felt less alone growing up knowing that someone from a previous generation in my family had been in a same-sex relationship. A simple photograph of two men from the past with their arms romantically around each other would have been a profound revelation.

It's a worthy task of novelists today to reclaim the love experienced by previous generations of gay people through imaginative stories. It inserts back into our culture what must have happened but what we can never know about because it could only exist in silence. A series of authors have differently approached this in their recent writing from Patrick Gale's “A Place Called Winter” to Sjon's “Moonstone”. Matthew Griffin's extremely moving book is a wonderful addition to this burgeoning canon of literature. “Hide” is an elegantly written and powerful novel. It's important that succeeding generations of gay people have more stories like this.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMatthew Griffin
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Last month I responded to the Try a Story TAG on Youtube to read the first story of five different collections and “Vertigo” was one of them. Whether “Vertigo” is a book of stories or a novel is something which could be debated. Many of the sections/chapters/stories follow a woman at various stages in her life: travelling without her husband, dealing with her mother's death, attending an engagement as an esteemed professional. It might be the same character or different women. Few personal details or names are given, yet Joanna Walsh gets at the heart of her protagonist's life so that you feel immediately involved in her story. She does this through an innovative and compelling style which shifts your perspective to let you see the fully rounded truth of emotional experience. These finely-crafted vignettes give a refreshing and sometimes startling perspective on our ever-shifting identities.

There is a fascinating attention to physical detail and space throughout this book. Quite often there will be descriptions about the exact placement between the narrator and other people in a cafe she might happen to be in, the dynamics of the room and the environment outside. It's as if the protagonist is desperately trying to establish a presence wherever she's located in order to affirm and better understand her place within and relationship to the world. This is similar to when we're trying to comfort someone when they are upset by saying “There there.” This is a way of conveying “You are there” or “You are not lost.” These spatial descriptions often occur in instances when there is reason for the character to be highly distressed such as knowing that her husband might be having an affair or waiting for news about a sick child's prognosis.

Walsh's use of space extends from the physical world to the interior. She writes about the sky and water as a reflective surface. A woman window shops in Paris and it's noted of the clothing on display: “come December the first wisps of lace and chiffon will appear and with them bottomless skies reflected blue in mirror swimming pools.” It makes me think about how we try to reflect each other in style and dress, how we try to present ourselves as one thing until we begin to believe that the presentation is the reality and how people only see the exterior but sometimes see hints of untold depth. Later in ‘Summer Story’ it's observed that “there were puddles that looked deep and reflected the sunwashed sky.” These images create a strong sense of the physical world as well as building a meaningful feeling for how social personality is constructed.

In ‘Claustrophobia' there is a sense in which family is both a comfort and a thing of dread. Walsh has an interesting way of approaching the concept of home where she states “Home is a rehearsal, by which I mean a repetition like in French: both what’s behind the curtain and in front of it, a cherry cake studded with the same surprise on repeat. It confirms itself; it must confirm itself.” It's challenging to think of home as not the main event but a repeated series of actions and reactions to create consistency. Eventually we begin to believe that the comforts of domestic bliss are not a construct but real or an inevitability. When this is not confirmed, when members of that home go off script (as they do in some stories where there is family illness or a wife discovers her husband has been meeting women online) then these well ordered, repeated narratives of daily life become severely disrupted. The title story ‘Vertigo’ speaks powerfully about the fear of settling into domestic happiness. Yet the final story 'Drowning' seems to suggest that its only through a flirtation with the infinite alternative possibilities of life that we can find real comfort in making a home.

It's interesting that I happen to be rereading Jean Rhys' books at the moment because the tone of many of these stories is somewhat similar to her novels. Walsh frequently gives a wry look at the hard facts of life whether its a narrator noticing the ironically cheery images on the outfit of a medical profession or a beleaguered woman in Paris looking for affirmation in the admittedly superficial pleasure of clothes shopping. In particular ‘Summer Story’ shows a woman who knowingly debases herself in a search for affection and passion: “With all the time I have, I could learn a language, I could read a book, I could write a book. In the end I walk nowhere and the wind gets up wand the rain starts and it is still too early to go to his party.” There is a keen sense of aimless wandering which the narrator knows can't build to anything meaningful and putting faith in possibilities which she knows will bear no fruit.

Perspective shifts from story to story so that we see the central woman or women from different angles. This shift changes the feeling between each section so it's sometimes painfully intimate or at other times more objectively detached. One of the most comic stories ‘Young Mothers’ takes a satirical edge on motherhood in a way similar to Helen Ellis' hilarious book “American Housewife” from earlier this year: “we looked after our young selves, awarding ourselves little treats – cakes, glasses of juice or wine – never too much.” It's narrated in the collective which is a perfectly suited format to convey how these new mothers unite to infantilize themselves as a way of halting the process of ceding youth to the next generation they've created.

“Vertigo” frequently makes you linger on certain lines to consider the possible interpretations and the full impact what's being said. It's artful how this doesn't disrupt the flow of each section or story but allows you to engage with the emotional dilemmas more fully. This is a strikingly original, thoughtful and creatively executed book.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJoanna Walsh
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Last month I posted an announcement about the Jean Rhys Reading Week that will be taking place from Monday 12th to Sunday 18th September. In essence, it’s a week centred on reading and discussing the work of this remarkable writer.

During her lifetime, Rhys published five novels: Quartet (1929); After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (1931); Voyage in the Dark (1934); Good Morning, Midnight (1939); and Wide Sargasso Sea (1966). She also wrote several short stories – a number of collections have been issued and are still available to buy secondhand if you’re willing to hunt around. There is a series of letters too, plus Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography.

The wonderful Jacqui who blogs so insightfully about books at JacquiWine’s Journal kindly invited me to co-host the reading week with her. Poppy Peacock (who writes about books at poppy peacock pens) and Margaret Reardon (another long-standing Rhys fan) will also be helping us with a couple of activities during the week. Between the four of us, we’re planning to cover pretty much all of Rhys’ work to give a broad view of her oeuvre. We’d love as many readers as possible to get involved by reading one of more of Rhys’ books (or even a relevant biography).

With a few weeks to go before the start of the week, here is an overview of what will be happening during the week and how you can get involved. Ideally we’d love you to read something by Rhys (or a book connected to her work) and then to share your thoughts about it via one or more of the following routes:

•    If you have a blog, you could write a review or article about the book and post it there.
•    Alternatively, share your thoughts on GoodReads. We’ve set up a ‘Jean Rhys Reading Week’ Group on GoodReads with a discussion topic for each book, plus one on Rhys’ life
•    Tweet about it on Twitter using the hashtag #ReadingRhys
•    Add your comments to other readers’/bloggers’ reviews/posts which will be going up throughout the week

You can post your reviews and comments at any time from 12th-18th September, it’s entirely up to you.

To give you an idea of what each of us will be focusing on, here’s a schedule for the reviews/posts we are planning to issue during the week.

#ReadingRhys Schedule:

Monday 12th September
•    Welcome to #ReadingRhys, plans for the week + After Leaving Mr Mackenzie – Jacqui (at JacquiWine’s Journal)
•    Welcome to #ReadingRhys, plans for the week + Good Morning, Midnight – Eric (at Lonesome Reader)
Tuesday 13th
•    Tigers are Better-Looking (short stories) – Jacqui (at JacquiWine’s Journal)
Wednesday 14th
•    Voyage in the Dark – Eric (at Lonesome Reader)
Thursday 15th
•    The Left Bank (short stories) – Jacqui (at JacquiWine’s Journal)
•    Quartet – Poppy (at poppy peacock pens)
Friday 16th
•    Wide Sargasso Sea – Eric (at Lonesome Reader)
Saturday 17th
•    Good Morning, Midnight – Margaret (at newedition.ca)
•    Smile Please – Eric (at Lonesome Reader)
Sunday 18th
•    Rhys’ Letters: 1931-66 – Poppy (at poppy peacock pens)
•    An additional post TBC – Eric and Jacqui

Between the four of us, we’ll be taking responsibility for visiting your blogs, the relevant GoodReads threads and reading comments on Twitter etc. At the end of the week, we’ll pull together some brief summaries of everyone’s responses to the books with a view to posting these on our blogs and the GoodReads group area during w/c 19th September.

So that’s the plan for the week. You can post your reviews and comments at any time, and we’ll visit when we can. Do add the banner (near the top of this piece) to your own posts as and when they go up and feel free to add it your blog if you’re planning to participate. Please use the #ReadingRhys hashtag in any Twitter comms about the event.

Good Morning, Midnight Giveaway!

As a little incentive, we have 5 copies of the brand new Pocket Penguins edition of Good Morning, Midnight to giveaway. For a chance to win one of these prizes, please tell us what you’re planning to read for #ReadingRhys week by commenting below.

The giveaway will run until midnight on Thursday 25th August (UK time) after which time we will select five winners at random. It’s open to everyone worldwide, so please feel free to enter wherever you live. Do include a note of your contact details in your comments, either an email address or Twitter/GoodReads handle. Good luck!

We’re really looking forward to discussing Rhys’ work and we hope you will join us during the week.

In the meantime, if you have any comments, queries or suggestions for the Jean Rhys Reading Week (#ReadingRhys), please leave a comment here or get in touch with one of us via Twitter. We tweet at @JacquiWine, @lonesomereader, @poppypeacock and @2daffylou.

Happy #ReadingRhys!

 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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I’ve had a copy of “The North Water” for ages and part of me wishes I’d read it in the midst of winter to add atmosphere to the reading experience. It’s an immersive story so full of vivid descriptions it made me shiver as if I were trapped in a snowstorm and wrinkle my nose as if I could smell the pungency of sailors long at sea. This dramatic account of a treacherous ocean voyage follows a Yorkshire whaling ship, the Volunteer, as it journeys up the coast of Greenland into the arctic during the mid-1800s. An Irish surgeon named Patrick Sumner, who has a murky past working in the army in Delhi, joins the vessel’s crew as they set out to hunt whales and skin polar bears. But others on the crew have alternative motives for the voyage including Captain Brownlee, first mate Cavendish and a terrifyingly violent harpooner Henry Drax. As they journey into the treacherous iceberg-laden seas Patrick and the crew face perils both within and outside of their ship. This novel is a gripping adventure story of the highest order which gives a penetrating look into the darkest acts that men are capable of.

There are plenty of thrills, but it is not simply about heart-racing scenes. I think McGuire is doing something more sophisticated in this account of the strife his characters encounter when they venture out into the raw and untamed elements. Here a person’s identity is indelibly tied into their daily actions which involve life or death decision making. Patrick reasons that “Only actions count, he thinks for the ten thousandth time, only events.” It’s these events at sea which define these sailors’ identities. Rather than meditating on purpose or how to go forward in the future there is only meaning in how these men conduct themselves under highly pressured circumstances. Later Patrick reasons “It is a grave mistake to think too much, he reminds himself, a grave mistake. Life will not be puzzled out, or blathered into submission, it must be lived through, survived, in whatever fashion a man can manage.” The test of will these sailors pit themselves against determines whether they survive and only then does life shape into meaning.

There is something wonderfully indulgent in McGuire’s powerful descriptions of the hyper-masculine environment of seafaring living. It’s full of gritty honesty about bodily smells and functions not to mention the hyper violence which is inextricably a part of hunting the ocean and arctic plains. Although it may turn a reader’s stomach at times it unquestionably makes the story come vibrantly alive. However, there are also lines of tremendous grace and beauty, especially when McGuire describes the landscape: “The black sky is dense with stars and upon its speckled blank, the borealis unfurls, bends back, reopens again like a vast and multi-coloured murmuration.”

The sailors also encounter communities of Inuit people in Greenland.

The sailors also encounter communities of Inuit people in Greenland.

Since the majority of the novel takes place on the ship there are very few female characters. There is nothing polite or politically correct about these hard men whose language is full of racial invectives and disdain for women. It’s a pleasure when these men come under critique themselves such as the wonderful line: “Pigs grunt, ducks quack and men tell lies: that is how it generally goes.” Yet, the author skilfully draws distinctions between men who are ruled by selfish instinct and those who have more of a sensitivity and moral conscience. There’s also a refreshing representation of a homosexual sailor who is neither a “pansy” nor someone who suppresses/denies his sexuality, but finds himself in an extremely difficult situation when events take a dark turn.

Periodically throughout their journey Sumner reads from The Illiad. It’s interesting that he mediates upon this book rather than the Odyssey which is the journey he more inhabits. Yet, it’s appropriate as the character is plagued by memories of what happened during his time at war in Delhi. The victims in this story (whether they be people in war or animals slaughtered during hunts) take residence in the minds of the men who manage to survive these battlefields. It creates a haunting message about the transformation of personality when men are involved in the most harrowing conditions imaginable. This novel is a true experience: brutal and completely gripping.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesIan McGuire
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One of the reasons why this book blog is called LonesomeReader is I want it to be an ongoing exploration of what loneliness means. People who can be termed as introverted or shy have a tendency to feel greater degrees of loneliness as they aren’t able to easily connect to others or socialize as naturally as more extroverted groups. Many who feel this way think of themselves as indistinct and unnoticed, standing on the sidelines or a wallflower. “Harmless Like You” begins with Yuki, an adolescent girl living in New York City in the late 1960s. She’s someone who often holds her feelings inside, but they seep out in creative ways through different artistic mediums with how she experiences colour and sees the world in a distinct way. The novel flips between the decades of Yuki’s development as a person and artist and a time in 2016 when a young man named Jay travels to Germany to inform his estranged mother Yuki about his father’s death and the house that was left to her. Their stories combine to form a powerfully emotional tale about family connections, self esteem and personal expression.

As a girl, Yuki thinks of herself as so invisible that not even the perverted man who flashes women on the street notices her. Because she sees herself as so separate from others she feels she has no impact on them. But a quiet presence can have just as powerful or a greater effect than someone who makes themselves loudly known. Since she’s not able to express her feelings to people her silence sometimes acts as a destructive force towards others and herself. It leads to the dissolution of her relationships with her parents who move to Japan, her only childhood friend Odile who pursues a modelling career and a man who later tries to earnestly love her. There’s a moving scene after her first sexual experience when she recalls her father hitting her knuckles when she was forced to memorize poetry, but she’s not able to speak about this with her partner. Opportunities for nurturing emotional connections are lost because Yuki is unable to express how she feels.

Her silence also leads her to not tell anyone about the abuse she receives within a difficult destructive relationship. There are strong descriptions of how “she’d been knocked out of herself. A screaming ghost girl, with teeth of orange glass, hovered above the body.” Yuki develops a fractured sense of self which makes her emotionally withdraw even more from other people. Yet she pursues further techniques for trying to artistically render her complex feelings in painting and photographs. Looking at a photograph of civilian girl victims in Vietnam, Yuki’s partner remarks how they are harmless like her. This makes a deep impact on Yuki in how she is seen externally by some white Americans to be a completely benign presence. The novel shows a complex understanding of how passive people subtly enact their own influence.

Jay has a cat named Celeste. "The one thing a hairless cat shouldn't do is hairball."

Jay has a cat named Celeste. "The one thing a hairless cat shouldn't do is hairball."

Yuki’s son Jay is a new father who has inherited some of his mother’s traits. Emotional connections are difficult for him as well – especially with his newborn son of whom he remarks “I’d never dreamed of leaving my wife until this creature came into our lives.” He only achieves a sense of emotional stability in his connection with his elderly cat Celeste. Having never known his mother, he’s kept inside many feelings about her and their broken family until he travels to Germany to finally meet with her. This encounter allows for the possibility of more open emotional connections in both of their lives.

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s debut novel contains a lot of moving descriptions of how colour relates to emotion. At times Yuki experiences a synaesthesia so when she’s taken to a movie cinema the buttered popcorn connects with her partner: “The sweet yellow smell was Lou.” Many chapter headings begin with a description of a particular colour and its complex meaning. In a similar fashion the way Yuki experiences colour tempers how she relates to and feels the world around her. This creates a sophisticated portrait of an artistic sensibility and the story cleverly shows the influence introverted personalities have upon the world. “Harmless Like You” is an extremely moving and imaginative novel.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson

I read graphic books so rarely, but every time I do pick one up I wonder why I don’t read more. Maybe it’s because usually only the most acclaimed and, presumably, high quality ones reach me. Whatever the case, this first volume of Riad Sattouf’s graphic memoir about his childhood growing up in Libya, Syria and France is absolutely mesmerising. It depicts his experiences under the parentage of his academic Syrian father Abdul-Razak and his French mother Clementine. His father’s ideals and pride about his heritage are complicated by the real world challenges he and his family encounter living under the rule of Gaddafi in early 80s Libya and Hafez al-Assad’s Syria a few years later. Gradually his principles change and he aspires to fashion his young blonde-haired son Riad into the Arab of the future.

Quite often the dialogue which accompanies illustrations of Riad’s experiences combine with very short snippets about political developments of the time. This intelligently puts these scenes in context and gives a welcome insight into the state the family lives under. Also, considering the father’s attitudes alongside our own historical knowledge about the outcome of some of the leaders and regimes he mentions makes this a bracing read. Sections of the book are shaded various colours to differentiate the nations that they are living in: blue for France, yellow for Libya, pink for Syria and (briefly) green for Jersey. I admired how these colours sync with Riad’s descriptions of the different environments of these various locations. The expressive design of the illustrations also beautifully reflect the emotional mood of the story – particularly during some vividly rendered dream sequences and a scene where Riad’s grandmother licks his eyes!

Wonderful touches of humour abound throughout this book including Clementine’s description of Georges Brassens as a French God leading Riad to visualise the singer every time someone mentions God to him. There are also sympathetic portraits of family relations and Riad’s impressions of a series of misfit or bullying other children. Some scenes depict chilling flashes of violence which springs up against animals and people. At other points a fascinating tension appears when the family comes under the sway of competing ideologies – particularly in the virulent anti-Israeli attitudes impressed upon children. For instance, toys Riad and two friends play with in Syria show the Syrian toy soldiers in heroic poses and the Israeli toy soldiers in treacherous poses. These attitudes demonstrate the growing conflict winin Abdul-Razak of whom it’s noted “He said he wasn’t religious, but he constantly defended the Sunnis. According to him, the Sunnis were always right.” His cultural and national pride mingles with the dogmatic principles of religious doctrine so he comes to teach Riad things such as “Satan likes to hide inside women.” Reading about the father’s gradually transforming ideas makes me really tense to read how he will develop in the second volume of this graphic memoir.

“The Arab of the Future” is a tremendously engaging story of family life. It’s also a fascinating personal insight into differing cultural attitudes, the physical reality of living under two distinct Arab leaders and how national/social/religious ideologies filter through the consciousness of a wide-eyed adolescent. It’s a heartfelt, refreshing take on growing up in unique circumstances. I highly recommend reading it before the next volume of this trilogy is published in the UK in September by Two Roads.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesRiad Sattouf

It begins like a caper story. A young man named Carlos went missing from a family dinner when he stepped out to use the bathroom and never returned. An investigator is given the case to track him down. But his search almost immediately folds in upon itself when he starts searching the restaurant/Carlos’ office and interviewing people connected to him. The woman he speaks to who he believes is Carlos’ mother is not really his mother and many people at his office are only actors hired to look like productive employees. A scientist named Isabella analyzes traces of Carlos’ biological makeup and expounds upon an increasingly improbably multitude of chemical factors which could have led to him departing. The borders of reality collapse as the investigator struggles to analyse, research and report. Nothing is what it seems. The closer you look at things the more the world becomes an absurdist fantasy. Martin MacInnes’ compelling debut novel is a story of existential crisis and irreconcilable loss.

There’s a wonderful fluidity to MacInnes’ writing so that, although his narrative makes surprising tonal shifts from the comic to the horrific to exhaustively detailed analysis, I felt entranced by his skewed perspective of the world. It all resonates with how the investigator is not just searching for a missing person but for a way to wholly capture experience. By the time all the details are accounted for, time has moved on and the moment has passed and we must mull over it all again trying to faithfully recreate/understand it. If you think of these things as obsessively as the investigator then “it was a marvel, he thought, that any of them managed to do it all, to get from one day to another, to keep everything going just like that.” The novel artfully expresses the fallibility of memory and the clunky mechanics of consciousness. It’s interesting reading this so soon after César Aira (a quote on the cover compares this novel to his work) because Aira equally uses dream-like logic as a way of highlighting the futility of accurately representing reality.

The investigator frequently looks for a more primal understandings of human motivation and behaviour as a way of explaining our actions. Many chapters of this novel are prefaced with quotes from a fictional book about tribal behaviour. The second half of “Infinite Ground” entails the investigator’s travel to “the interior” of a forest where he believes Carlos has slipped away to. Here he embarks on tours to find others who have become lost in this wilderness as well as searching for more authentic modes of life. Hilariously reality here turns out to be as simulated as that in urban life. This is also where the investigator becomes more psychologically revealing as his civility is stripped slowly away. Some time ago he lost his wife and instead of dealing with her loss he seems inspired by Isabella’s proposition that “If it were up to me I would spend my whole life digging up the lost civilization of a single vanished person. There would be no end to the project, Inspector. No end to what may be discovered.” Instead of narrowing down possibilities, the investigator opens his mind to an infinite amount of them. It becomes apparent that “He was out of his depth in a case he couldn’t understand and would never resolve.” This was never about finding out what really happened to Carlos, but accounting for the totality of life when we’re caught in the unstoppable flow of time.

This is an experimental novel whose imagery and ideas challenge our modern sensibilities. In an age when our understanding of other people’s lives are mediated through how they are represented on social media it seems more pertinent than ever to question how we can really understand or know about another’s experience. At the same time there is something pleasingly retro about the novel’s style and earnest manner (perhaps because its action isn’t located in any specific time or place). It harkens back to post-modern literature like Joyce Carol Oates’ phenomenal novel “Mysteries of Winterthurn” which is more about the process of investigation than the crime itself. No matter how objective we try to be in understanding the world it is always refracted through a personal perspective leading the investigator of MacInnes’ novel to see he was “so naïve as to believe in the authenticity of the investigation and the autonomy of his own role.” The totality of the investigator’s being is caught up in searching for answers (which might be why he has no name), but he can only start to see what’s true when he looks hard at himself.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMartin MacInnes
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