Every once in a while a new book will remind me how novels are really lawless. Of course, the very word novel means that every iteration of this form of storytelling makes its own rules. But some fiction like the jubilantly inventive books of Ali Smith or the wide experimental canvass of Joyce Carol Oates audaciously twist structures we’ve become accustomed to, subvert genres and play with language to produce exciting results. I was thrilled to find George Saunders’ first novel “Lincoln in the Bardo” accomplishes this as well. I’ve read some of his stories in the past, but this novel confirms for me that his high level of literary esteem is entirely warranted. He takes a melodramatic subject like Abraham Lincoln visiting his son’s grave and makes it profoundly emotional. He embraces clichés about the afterlife to create uproariously funny or terrifying scenes of possession, haunting and the judgement day. He picks out quotes from period documents and nonfiction, but interjects his own history between the lines. He writes dialogue as if this were a play to form a chorus of witnesses to the incredibly intimate scene of a father saying goodbye to his deceased boy. In short, he grabs the historical novel and flips it on its head.

Although their son Willie is suffering terribly from a case of typhoid, the Lincolns can’t cancel a grand party being thrown at the White House. During the night the stricken boy passes away and is put to rest in a graveyard – except his spirit doesn’t rest. He now exists in the realm of the Bardo which is a Tibetan word that means an intermediate state where the soul is still connected to earthly attachments before it can pass onto another life. Here the laws of nature are broken for the stricken spirits who dwell there so their physical characteristics are muddled with the strident emotions they experienced towards the ends of their lives. The two main spirit protagonists are deformed so that Hans Vollman is lumbered with a horrendous oversized erection from the marriage he never consummated with his young bride and the features of Roger Bevins III are crowded with a multiple ears, mouths and noses after his botched suicide. Along with the troubled spirit of The Reverend Everly Thomas, these beings seek to guide the young spirit of Willie in his afterlife.

There are a profusion of aberrations in appearance and behaviour for the many other beings that crowd this graveyard. Most especially, some spirits are locked in perpetual battles that have carried on into the afterlife such as a demonic couple with unholy cravings, a professor and pickle producer stuck in an endless circle of mutual adoration and a white supremacist that is endlessly beaten by the black man he demeans. In a nightmarish way, this portrait of the unsettled hereafter depicts our conflicts of class, race, romance and sexuality trapped in a painful circle. It's like endless episodes of those trashy sensational talk shows, but written in a way which is surreal and brilliantly insightful. There is a beyond which these spirits cannot move onto because they can’t let go of their attachment to these irresolvable struggles. The heartrending conflict at the centre of this book is the fight for the boy Willie’s soul between the spirits who want to usher him on to the next realm and the father who cannot let him go.

There have been other novels which have intelligently played out the psychological and social conflicts of existence in a version of the afterlife. Most notably, Hilary Mantel’s “Beyond Black” depicts a medium plagued by her own demons and Will Self’s “How the Dead Live” depicts a woman who died of cancer guided through the guilt-laden landscape of the hereafter. However, the book that most came to mind when reading Saunders’ novel was the ‘Nighttown’ or ‘Circle’ episode in James Joyce’s “Ulysses”. Not only is this also written like a play script, but it becomes a hallucinatory experience as the fears and passions of the protagonist are externalized. Similarly, in Saunders’ distorted physical plane traditional linear notions of time collapse and the ravenous ego runs riot. The ensuing chaotic drama is a physical realization of the unchained dark side of consciousness where every private part of being takes shape before our eyes. It’s an experience that is both liberating and utterly terrifying.

William Wallace "Willie" Lincoln

William Wallace "Willie" Lincoln

Gradually I began to feel that this eccentric narrative isn’t so much about its fascinating enormous cast of characters, but the quiet man at the novel’s centre which is Lincoln himself. Here is an individual trying to deal with a horrendous personal tragedy amidst leading a country in the early years of the Civil War. His thoughts and feelings aren’t ever depicted except for when some of the spirits briefly inhabit his body. Instead what we get are a multitude of perspectives about this mortal man at the centre of history’s maelstrom. Accounts quoted throughout the text alternatively depict him as a benevolent saint and the scourge who has torn the nation apart. The conflicting opinions range from Lincoln’s physical characteristics to his political policies. This juxtaposition of public views obliterate Lincoln’s mortality and turn him into a mythic figurehead, a controversial man who has gone on to be the celebrated national hero credited for breaking the chains of slavery. Yet Saunders re-endows Lincoln with the solemn dignity of a mere man in mourning by also showing him through the eyes of the souls that dwell in the graveyard. To them he’s only a gangly melancholy figure clinging to the body of his dead son.

“Lincoln in the Bardo” is an experience like no other. By the end I truly mourned for the fascinatingly diverse cast of characters. The story is hilariously funny, frightening, devastatingly sad, and consistently surprising. It’s unquestionably disorientating to read at first, but soon it becomes utterly mesmerising so that by the end all I wanted to do was read it again from the beginning to pick up on all the nuances of character, bizarre feats of narrative and historical encounters it contains. It’s extraordinary.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesGeorge Saunders
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Being an immigrant gives someone a unique perspective on a country and its culture. I moved to England seventeen years ago and although I’ve lived here my entire adult life I don’t think I’ll ever feel wholly English. I’ve certainly been welcomed into the society, but I’m always conscious a national division exists. It was much easier for me to integrate into English culture because I’m American whereas someone coming from Eastern Europe like the narrator of Laura Kaye’s debut novel “English Animals” will inevitably face more challenges. I have conservative colleagues at my office who complain generally about immigrants destroying the country – despite one of them being married to an Eastern European and me being an immigrant but oddly I’m considered outside of this label. Sadly many people in London have these views as do many people in rural England where this novel takes place. This novel dynamically portrays the insular attitudes of some English people from the perspective of an outsider. It’s also a uniquely tragic love story.

Mirka moved to London from her native Slovakia, but she found the city somewhat oppressive so answered an ad to work within an English country estate. The novel begins with her arrive an indoctrination into this particular kind of English life. Like many grand old houses passed through generations of the aristocracy, this estate has run into financial trouble. The proprietor Sophie and her husband Richard have been working on a number of schemes to pay for the substantial costs of running the property. Mirka finds that she’s unknowingly being recruited to join Richard’s latest venture of running a taxidermy business called Nose to Tail. As Mirka grows accustomed to the peculiarly English life on this rural estate and the work, she finds she has a special talent for convincingly stuffing animals and develops a particular attachment to Sophie. Sophie and Richard are in many ways a friendly, modern-thinking couple, but they are also the products of a culture with particular customs and traditions. Straightforward Mirka finds it difficult to find where she really fits into this seductive country life. Her soul-searching dilemma prompts her to perpetually wonder “how would I know when a life was really mine? How did you know when you had found a home?”

Mirka skilfully depicts intricate scenes of English life in anthropomorphic models using small mammals.

Mirka skilfully depicts intricate scenes of English life in anthropomorphic models using small mammals.

Troubled love triangles have been written about in many ways before, but I admire the honest and compassionate way Kaye depicts this particular situation. Since her first romantic affair Mirka has always been certain about her desire for other women, but it’s this very clear-sightedness and unwillingness to pretend to be anything different that led to her exile from her family and native country. Now she finds herself embroiled in a romantic conflict with someone who is already in a long-term committed relationship but also “wanted everything.” Sophie and Richard’s permissive attitudes make Mirka feel at times like she’s wholly a part of their family, but in some crucial ways to do with class, nationality and sexuality she remains a perpetual outsider. These feelings are certainly reinforced by some of the small-minded locals who either look down or show open contempt for Mirka as an immigrant. However, Kaye also shows more liberal English individuals who welcome and respect people based solely on their character. 

In some ways this novel reminded me of both the novels “The Paying Guests” by Sarah Waters and “Skin Lane” by Neil Bartlett, but Kaye's book is less sinister than either of these. Her writing is much more straightforward and at times scenes can become bogged down in a minute amount of trivial detail. But the plainness of her writing style is also part of this novel’s charm and accurately reflects Mirka’s character: English isn’t her first language and she is doggedly transparent in her feelings. The imagery which Kaye builds in her depiction of the taxidermy work and the way people in the countryside relate to the natural world does build a subtly moving picture of a particular kind of national character. The English people that Mirka meets are so steeped in their national identity with its attendant manners and attitudes that she is like a perpetual observer who must always remain on the other side of the glass. As long as she’s kept on the outside she must continue to search for a home of her own.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesLaura Kaye

What place does art hold in our day to day lives? That's one of the questions at the centre of Sara Baume's second novel. Frankie is a twenty-five year old woman who has left her rented apartment in Dublin after studying art and working in a gallery. Finding it impossible to integrate into a working and social life as her uni friends have and concluding that “The world is wrong, and I am too small to fix it, too self-absorbed”, she retreats to her late grandmother's rural bungalow. She endeavours to create art on a daily basis and continuously quizzes herself finding thematic connections between incidents in her life and specific pieces of art. Her family come to visit and hover close by as they are concerned about her mental health. Frankie experiences depression and she becomes increasingly isolated because of her prickly demeanour. The author's debut novel “Spill Simmer Falter Wither” recounted the reclusive life of a man and his dog at the fringes of society. With this inventive and fascinating new novel Baume proves that she is the master of describing the intense poignancy of solitude within a noise-drenched world.

One of the things that makes Frankie so relatable is the way she internalizes snippets of recent news or things she sees in films. There are popular incidents from recent memory she notes such as published aerial photos of the last “uncontacted” tribe in the world and news of the Malaysia Airlines flight which disappeared. These incidents take on a special significance for her speaking to how she is disconnected from larger society. Also, she recounts watching Herzog's documentary Encounters at the End of the World which records the filmmaker's time with scientists in Antartica. There is a poignant moment towards the end of the film where a “deranged” penguin inexplicably wanders away from his colony to the mountains, isolation and death. Frankie seems to wonder if she is like this lone individual, an aberration of her civilization destined for loneliness. This reminded me strongly of Jessie Greengrass' short stories for their similar philosophical contemplation about the meaning of solitude within an icy landscape.

Each chapter recounts and reproduces the photographs Frankie takes in the countryside. She takes photos of dead birds and small mammals she encounters to reflect “the immense poignancy of how, in the course of ordinary life, we only get to look closely at the sublime once it has dropped to the ditch, once the maggots have already arrived at work.” It's somewhat shocking as a reader to be confronted with these photos of dead animals to consider their sentiment and macabre beauty. They are things which most people would turn away from if they encountered them on a ramble through nature. But Frankie sees significance in these and many other things she comes across, considering how they might be artistic expressions of deeper ideas about the state of existence.

It may sound like this novel is too ponderous or fixated on the grim facts of life, but there are also touches of dark humour that relieve it from being too bogged in seriousness. Frankie's perspective can turn surprisingly funny especially when she thinks about religion. At one time she recalls a priest she knew who seemed so “priestly” it was impossible to imagine him as human under his cassock and instead being like a Russian doll of clerical clothing. In another scene she gets her hair cut and reflects how the experience de-personalizes us: “Here in the hairdresser’s, we are all ill-defined, inchoate. We are all but ankles and shoes, wet necks and wet foreheads.” The usual conversational chatter the hairdresser tries to make is quickly rebuffed by Frankie. Her refusal to engage in social pleasantries often has a humorous effect for her brutal honesty when “people don’t like it when you say real things”, but it's also unsettling for how cruel she can be to a doctor at a mental health centre or to her own mother calling to wish her happy birthday.

Frankie sees in Van Gogh's Wheatfield with Crows "An angry, churning sky, tall yellow stalks, a grass-green and mud-brown path cutting through the stalks, tapering into the distance; a line made by walking."

Frankie sees in Van Gogh's Wheatfield with Crows "An angry, churning sky, tall yellow stalks, a grass-green and mud-brown path cutting through the stalks, tapering into the distance; a line made by walking."

There is something refreshingly inventive about Baume's writing which resists using traditional metaphors or descriptions. A pet peeve of mine is reading overused creative writing tricks that imbue objects with sensory feelings like calling a sponge “lemon yellow.” However, Baume describes a Christian leaflet that Frankie is given as “stomach-bile yellow” and a rising sun as a “a prickly auburn mound.” These meaningfully reflect her character's state of mind as well as showing a humorous contempt for trying to invoke pleasant imagery. Frankie also forthrightly declares herself outside the narrative of a novel or film stating “The weather doesn’t match my mood; the script never supplies itself, nor is the score composed to instruct my feelings, and there isn’t an audience.” This goes against the prevailing feeling of our age that we live our lives as if we're the stars of our own reality shows or that we're in a book or film where the sky is imbued with poetic descriptions and music accompanies the emotion of our encounters. Of course, ironically, Frankie can't escape the fact that she is a character in a novel: there are emotive descriptions of the sky and Frankie listens to Bjork on high volume while she's travelling.

Frankie's actions are extreme as she's experiencing a severe form of depression, but her thought process and inclinations are highly relatable. The decision to engage with or remove yourself from society is something many people wrestle with on a daily basis and we can shelter our inner being in a multitude of ways. The question of whether isolation is a more honest form of living or a surefire way to descend into madness is meaningfully explored in this novel and the recent novel “Beast” by Paul Kingsnorth. What's overwhelmingly touching about Frankie's view is her steadfast belief in the redeeming influence of art over any institutionalized belief system like psychiatry or religion. She feels “art remains the closest I have ever come to witnessing magic.” So she clings to this belief in the power of art to connect her to humanity and raise her out of the mire of existence no matter how deeply alone she becomes.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSara Baume
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I’ve been reading some really long novels recently so I like to keep a book of short stories to read on the side. I’m very glad I picked up this new collection by Viet Thanh Nguyen despite not having yet read his debut novel “The Sympathizer” which won multiple awards including the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. All of these stories touch upon the Vietnamese immigrant experience in America from different perspectives – frequently with characters forced to leave their native country. Many involve people who were directly affected by the Vietnam War or people who are still affected by it second hand based on the experiences of their parents. Their day to day lives are still weighed down by the recent history and trauma of severing ties with their native land to create a new life for themselves in America. This produces fascinating situations where characters wrestle with finding a cohesive sense of identity based on economic status, nationality, race, sexuality and gender. These exquisite stories are so impressive for being both profound and compulsively readable.

Generational clashes often play an important factor such as the story ‘The Americans’ where a former air force pilot locks horns with his daughter Claire who settles in an entirely different culture. Or in ‘Someone Else Besides You’ a regimental father who vandalizes the car of his son’s ex-wife demonstrates a different form of emotional repression. But these stories also show a tremendously moving fluid sense of identity where people are caught between their Vietnamese and American selves. Nguyen shows this so artfully in his characters that range from a ghost writer, to a peddler in fake merchandise, to a young woman who was given the same name as her older American half sister to a young refugee who is taken in by a gay couple in 1970s San Francisco. Their dramatic situations play out the tension between paths in life laid out for them and ones which they forge on their own.

A professor who suffers from dementia is given a copy of a Picasso painting which reflects the confusion he has about his wife's identity.

A professor who suffers from dementia is given a copy of a Picasso painting which reflects the confusion he has about his wife's identity.

The economic disparity between nations and levels of society greatly influence the lives of these characters as well. Some characters are determined to compensate for what they were forced to leave behind: “His ambition was to own more books than he could ever possibly read, a desire fuelled by having left behind all his books when they had fled Vietnam.” Stories and story telling between the characters also play an important role. In ‘Black-Eyed Women’ it’s observed that “In a country where possessions counted for everything we had no belongings except our stories.” Part-factual/part-embellished tales of life in Vietnam are passed down through generations. There is a definite divide between the narrative of those who escaped persecution in their homeland and those who remained in oppressed circumstances where dissent requires time in “re-education” camps. The reader is prompted to wonder what is “authentic” about national identity or the lives we live particularly in the story ‘The Transplant’ where compulsive gambler Arthur receives a liver transplant from an Asian man and ‘Fatherland’ where a Vietnamese woman returns to her homeland to visit her father’s second family. How much do nations owe to compensate for the wrongs of wartime, what obligation do countries have to take in those that have been forced to flee their native land and how do you assimilate people caught between two wildly different cultures? These queries subtly raised throughout the stories feel highly pertinent to the broader discussions of many nations.

It’s interesting getting a different perspective of the long lasting effects of the Vietnam War after having read Robert Olen Butler’s novel “Perfume River” last year. This considered the aftermath of the war over generations from a white American perspective. Nguyen shows how some Asian characters living in the United States still feel the war in their day to day lives like in the heartrending story ‘War Years’ where the battle against the Communists is still very personal for an ardent woman struggling with irreconcilable loss. It leads the narrator to note how “while some people are haunted by the dead, others are haunted by the living.” The overall effect of these stories is subtly haunting because the perilous positions and existential dilemmas of the characters feel so emotionally real. Nguyen skilfully plays out the ambiguities of these situations in which no one can ever feel settled or fully at home.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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I’ve greatly admired Nadeem Aslam’s writing since I read his 2004 novel “Maps for Lost Lovers” which focused on an immigrant Pakistani community in the north of England. There is something so striking about his use of imagery which conveys the feelings of his characters and expresses the ideas which they are wrestling with. His novels are intricate, layered with diverse references and wrestle with pressing political dilemmas, but at the heart of his writing are compelling dramatic stories of individuals simply trying to live and love each other in challenging circumstances. It feels like his new novel “The Golden Legend” is his most violent and heartrending yet. It’s set in Pakistan and concerns several individuals caught in the middle of a fraught religious struggle. An architect named Nargis hides a dangerous secret which she must reckon with when her Christian friends Helen and her father Lily find themselves embroiled in a serious conflict with the strict Muslims of the community. Together with a young ex-militant man named Imran from Kashmir, they escape to a forgotten place of refuge – inevitably they are unable to remain hidden from the larger world forever. 

This novel fully engages with the highly-charged social and political landscape of Pakistan. It depicts an extraordinary amount of violence including civilian deaths under covert American missions, the burning of Christian homes, the persecution of Muslims who are deemed not Muslim enough, journalists slaughtered by jihadi, suicide bombers and a man sentenced to death for blasphemy just because he ‘liked’ a disrespectful comment made about Muhammad on Facebook. But Aslam shows the intricate web of motivations which feed into these horrific acts. People can self-righteously justify any number of atrocities when faith is mixed with hidden motives such as revenge, the quest for power or financial/political kickbacks.

Aslam also reflects: “It felt strange to think this about a place that could be so violent, but most of the time there was a deep desire to avoid confrontation in Pakistan. Ordinary people wished to be left alone, and wished to leave others alone, finding pockets of love and comfort within the strict laws that governed them. They had been owned and abused so often that at the most basic level ownership and abuse meant nothing at all. It did also mean, however, that the loud, belligerent individuals and groups could remain unchallenged.” The citizens who live within a society so embroiled in conflict will inevitably feel swayed to do whatever will allow them to live most peaceably. They are also the products of a particular history and that inheritance informs everything about their being.

Acts of violence aren’t only inflicted against people in the novel, but towards that history itself. When Nargis is cornered and intimidated in her home a precious book is slashed. Instead of disposing of this she uses golden thread to try to stitch it back together. This is a self-consciously meditative act imitating Kintsugi: the art of mending pottery with lacquer mixed with powdered gold. The line where the pottery is broken is emphasized in the mending because “Some things were more beautiful and valuable for having been broken.” The same is true for the individuals who survive these conflicts, who lose people they love most in life and still demonstrate acts of touching humanity. It’s observed of people displaced in the midst of battle that “old women held daises next to the faces of children suffering in the cold air, the yellow centres giving off a light that was believed to control difficult breathing.” This is what Aslam captures so beautifully in his writing: small acts of caring which raise people out of their perilous circumstances.

In one scene a character listens to 'Blue Bell Knoll'

Something I connected with most strongly in this novel was the way Aslam meaningfully portrays internal conflicts of identity. Several of his characters pretend to be something they are not because of an overwhelming amount of persecution. Some Christians find it easier to pass as Muslims in this community and sometimes it’s necessary to hide one’s religious background to avoid oppression/arrest/execution. But the grave danger of such concealment is that it might be uncovered. An unknown person broadcasts people’s secrets to the entire city over a loudspeaker. In another shocking scene, men are examined by officers to see if they are circumcised to prove whether or not they are trustworthy Muslims. Aslam shows how dangerously corrupt systems of government and societies can become when people are persecuted simply for belonging to a particular group rather than because of their actions.

Another grave consequence of denying an essential part of your identity is the way in which it produces feelings of extreme isolation. This is true whether it’s concealing something important in how you publicly present yourself to society or with people you love in private. Aslam observes how “Loneliness was such a terrible thing, it was said, it made even God cry out to man.” So some of the most tender and beautiful lines of this novel are when the writer depicts scenes of enduring love borne out of honesty: “There was order, safety and happiness, and there were veins of leaves dried sentimentally in books; and there was one asking the other to choose something from a restaurant menu for both.” As fractious as the society in this novel appears, Aslam artfully portrays remarkable touches of humanity. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesNadeem Aslam

Having read Boyne's heartrending novel “A History of Loneliness” a little over two years ago, I was extremely keen to read this new novel which is certainly his most ambitious publication thus far. At over six hundred pages “The Heart's Invisible Furies” follows the life of Cyril Avery from his dramatic birth in 1945 to 2015. It's a novel that's truly epic in scope as it incorporates significant moments in history from the 1966 IRA bombing of Nelson's Pillar in Dublin to the recent referendum to permit same-sex marriage in Ireland. Boyne captures climatic shifts in societal attitudes over this seventy year period. For those who experience Irish life from day to day and suffer terribly from the constrictive ideologies of its domineering institutions, it feels as if nothing will ever change. As one character puts it: “Ireland is a backward hole of a country run by vicious, evil-minded, sadistic priests and government so in thrall to the collar that it’s practically led around on a leash.” However, surveying the societal shifts over a full lifetime through Cyril's point of view, the reader is able to see how things do slowly change with time especially through brave individuals who make themselves heard.

The novel begins in 1945 when the local priest discovers that Cyril's sixteen year-old unmarried mother Catherine Goggin is pregnant. He publicly denounces her, physically throws her out of the church and orders her to leave their small farming town in West Cork. Inexperienced and nearly penniless, she bravely makes her way to Dublin where she decides to give Cyril up for adoption after giving birth to him. Cyril is raised in the home of Charles and Maude Avery who are two very different, charismatic and highly original characters. Charles is a wealthy and powerful businessman with many vices including gambling, womanizing and alcoholism. Maude is an irascible reclusive chain-smoking writer who produces a new novel every few years and delights in how few copies get sold “for she considered popularity in the bookshops to be vulgar.” In a hilariously memorable scene recounting her only public appearance, she reads her entire novel to the audience without stopping until everyone leaves the bookshop in exhaustion. Although these characters are an absolute delight to read about, they make frightful parents treating Cyril more as a lodger than a son and continuously reminding him that he's “not really an Avery.”

Each section of the novel leaps forward seven years showing Cyril’s development and struggles throughout his entire life. It’s speculated that our lives dramatically change in seven year periods of time. The philosopher and mystic Rudolf Steiner hypothesized that there are significant changes in human development in seven year cycles that are linked to the astrological chart. Scientists say that every cell in the human body is replaced every seven years meaning that biologically we become completely new human beings. One of the most touching things about “The Heart's Invisible Furies” and why it justifies its length is how it shows how orphaned Cyril is not limited to one set path in existence, but has multiple opportunities to grow and change over the course of his life. Sometimes he makes poor decisions and other times he realizes his full potential over these seven year strides. The priest who banished Catherine and her child borne out of wedlock condemned them to a life of shame and misery. Although they both periodically suffer throughout their lives, they survive and flourish. Their story is a great testament to how the human spirit overcomes the narrow-minded dictates of society.

Through Cyril’s perspective the novel gives a personal view of some the most horrific social and historic events in his lifetime including fatal homophobic beatings, a teenager kidnapped and mutilated by IRA members, concentration camp survivors, the sex trade in Amsterdam, the stigma of AIDS and its early epidemic in NYC and the September 11th attacks. These subjects are treated seriously and sensitively portrayed. However, the novel is nowhere as bleak as this list makes it sound. It’s often a very comic story with vibrant scenes and memorably idiosyncratic characters. Boyne uses a satirical wit and Dickensian social eye when writing about characters such as Mr Denby-Denby, a flamboyant civil servant, or Mary-Margaret Muffet, a conservative uptight Catholic girl, or Miss Anna Ambrosia who gets monthly visits from her “Auntie Jemima” and dismisses Edna O’Brien’s books as “pure filth.” These characters brilliantly reflect the social attitudes of their respective time periods and show up their ludicrous ingrained systems of belief. It’s moving how many characters reappear periodically throughout the years and Boyne shows how they either change or obstinately stick with their provincial points of view.

One of the most important aspects of the novel is Cyril’s homosexuality and the severe difficulty of growing up as a gay man in Ireland during his lifetime. Cyril develops an early love and lust for his boyhood friend Julian. But where heterosexual Julian can be flagrantly sexual and voracious in his female conquests, Cyril’s sexual experience is confined to cruising and he’s constantly terrified he’ll be found out. He feels an “overwhelming, insatiable and uncontrollable lust, a yearning that was as intense as my need for food and water but that, unlike those basic human needs, was always countered by the fear of discovery.” It forces him to make dishonest choices and romantically engage with women when he really longs for a relationship with a man. One of the greatest obstacles his character must overcome is learning to be honest about who he is, especially to people who will appreciate and value him regardless of his natural desires. Other gay characters in the novel have diverse ways of either concealing or expressing their homosexuality: “Ireland, a country where a homosexual, like a student priest, could easily hide their preferences by disguising them beneath the murky robes of a committed Catholic.”

Nelson's Pillar after the 1966 IRA bombing

Nelson's Pillar after the 1966 IRA bombing

Even as some gay characters begin to live quite openly in later years, Cyril struggles to freely express himself or confide in people he should trust. It’s touching how the long-lasting deleterious effects of being made to feel like an outcast or deviant in society manifest in the ways the characters relate to each other or shut each other out. It produces an overwhelming sense of isolation, something that Cyril recognizes when he encounters another character late in the novel: “It's as if she understood completely the condition of loneliness and how it undermines us all, forcing us to make choices that we know are wrong for us.” This movingly describes the way people who’ve been ostracised by society can hurt themselves and others. Yet, there are moments when characters can form a unique unity and bond over their estrangement when it’s acknowledged that “We're none of us normal. Not in this fucking country.”

The title of the novel comes from an observation that theorist Hannah Arendt made about W.H. Auden “that life had manifested the heart's invisible furies on his face.” It’s an apt way of describing this novel which is an intense, poignant and vivid account of a man’s hidden conflicts. His personal development fascinatingly coincides with that of his country. What’s especially impressive is the artful way that Boyne conveys an awareness of other characters’ inner struggles only through their action and dialogue. It makes for a convincing portrayal of a diverse social landscape with lots of dramatic and gripping scenes. It’s a breathtaking and memorable experience following Cyril’s expansive journey. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJohn Boyne
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Every time I read a book of poetry I wonder why I don’t read more poetry. I was prompted to read this collection after it won the poetry category of the Costa Book Awards and I’m so glad I picked it up. The title “Falling Awake” feels apt as Alice Oswald has a dizzying way of turning the world upside down, making it fresh and inverting expectation with her stunningly beautiful acrobatic language. Many of the poems in this collection focus on nature whether that includes animals, insects, the weather, the setting/rising sun or the transformation of the seasons. A few draw in references to figures from Greek mythology such as Orpheus and Tithonus. Their inclusion melds with the tone of the other poems giving a striking perspective on time’s movement and how we perceive the world as it flows around us.

Most of the poems are quite brief, but the most sustained poem is at the end of the collection and is written as a sort of performance. It concerns Tithonus, son of a water nymph who asked Zeus to make him immortal. His wish was granted but he continued to grow old so he persists through life and we’re told that we can hear his “babbling” thoughts for a period of 46 minutes with an accompaniment of music. This poem seems to encapsulate the major themes of the entire book which often presents consciousness as if it were a Samuel Beckett play. The thoughts and physicality of the subject are raggedy: “so the voice stumbles and the feet can’t get comfortable and the eyes flicker” but still time persists “first this: the sound of everything repeating / then this: the sound of everything repeating”. It gives a powerful sense of the claustrophobia Tithonus feels stuck in the nightmarish scenario of living in a decrepit state for infinity. But at the same time we can relate to it because like him we wake up day after day, contending with a world which partly changes but mostly stays the same.

These same sentiments are echoed in ‘Dunt: A Poem for a Dried-Up River’ where “a Roman water nymph” seeks to change limestone into a river. I believe Oswald is describing a statue in this poem which is frozen in place with legs and one arm lost. But nevertheless, this being is caught in a repetitious state and continuously fails. There remains the expectation that things might change or work at any moment with the continual prompt to “try again” and “go on”. Again, this feels very reminiscent of Beckett’s writing. In ‘Evening Poem’ I wondered if Oswald was at all influenced by Marghanita Laski when she states how someone appears “as if you’d sprung from the horse-hair of a whole Victorian sofa” which felt similar to Laski’s novel about a woman who falls asleep on a chaise-longue and wakes up in Victorian times. Several poems convey this sense of tumbling through time which is both limited and infinite or slightly disordered like the state between sleeping and waking.

I felt one of the most powerful lines in the book came towards the end of the Tithonus poem. Tithonus describes that there is “the makeshift character that springs from speaking and looking on and letting everything pass and then the loneliness of being left here endless lost to my lethargy like a dripping tap”. This so beautifully encompasses the nature of being, how identity is formed through our interactions with the world and how there is a quiet centre to life once we are alone again. It makes me feel how no matter the intensity of our connections with other people or how fully formed we might appear in their eyes, each of us are ultimately a primal kind of being when left on our own. Only a few of the poems give a sense of community or a polyphony of voices such as ‘Village’ where a number of voices express the devolvement of civilization as if the world is being returned to nature.

“Falling Awake” is filled with curious insights into how we perceive the world around us, the cyclical rotation of days and the sometimes hazy border between the conscious/unconscious mind. Reading Oswald’s poems is invigorating because it makes you want to listen more closely.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAlice Oswald
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It's deeply frightening and upsetting how politically divided society is at the moment. When different factions are so convinced about the certitude of their own ideas and beliefs conflict is inevitable. Religion continues to be at the centre of many battles, yet in her new novel Elif Shafak creates the character of A.Z.Azur, a controversial Oxford professor who encourages dialogue across religious belief systems as he believes that too many people suffer from what he calls “The Malady of Certainty”. Every term he holds a selective seminar whose sole purpose is to probe the philosophical meaning of God. However, at the centre of this story is Peri, a highly intelligent Turkish woman who is confused about what God means to her. Enrolled in this seminar alongside her are friends Shirin, a bisexual woman with an Iranian background who considers herself “as British as a treacle tart but as out of place as a stuffed date cake” and Mona, a politically-engaged woman of Egyptian descent who is an ardently devout Muslim. These three women are referred to as “the Sinner, the Believer, the Confused.” They are individuals caught in a state of flux between different nations, faiths and ideologies. Shafak creates a deeply meaningful, extremely relevant and riveting tale about the role belief plays in these modern women's lives.

The novel opens on a typical day in 2016 when Peri is living as a mother in Istanbul driving with her daughter to a high-class dinner party. It's been over fifteen years since she studied at Oxford and the life she's settled into is very different from her idealistic university years in England. She and her husband socialize with powerful businessmen (some of whom are involved in dodgy deals) and an image-conscious class of women who “paraded their handbags like trophies won in faraway battles.” When caught in traffic Peri puts her own handbag in the backseat where it's stolen by a thief. Rather than accept the loss, she decides to do something drastic about it and this sets off a chain of events that prompt her to take action in life. The narrative switches back and forth between this extraordinary day and the back story of Peri's life. It recounts the sharp ideological divides which existed in her family home between her devout mother and non-practicing father as well as her elder brother Umut who is a Marxist targeted by the government and younger brother Hakan who is an “irredeemably religious and excessively nationalistic” journalist. Endearingly, Peri escapes from the dramas of her household by voraciously reading because she “found solace in literature… Books were liberating, full of life.” This leads her to do exceedingly well in school and secure a place studying at Oxford.

In Peri’s childhood home “There were portraits of the national hero everywhere; Atatürk in his military uniform in the kitchen, Atatürk in a redingote in the living room, Atatürk with a coat and kalpak in the master bedroom”

In Peri’s childhood home “There were portraits of the national hero everywhere; Atatürk in his military uniform in the kitchen, Atatürk in a redingote in the living room, Atatürk with a coat and kalpak in the master bedroom”

At the heart of the novel is Peri's quest for answers to irresolvable questions about her identity and faith. She's haunted by a jinni or spirit in times of distress which takes the form of a child's face. There is a dark truth about her past which she can't surmount and move on from despite trying to fashion a new future at university. A dramatic event in Oxford causes her to abandon her progressive life there and settle into a more traditional role as a wife in Istanbul. This is very different from how she envisioned her life, but she's not blind to the contradictions and hypocrisy of the society around her – especially those who are zealous in their nationalism and religion. Humorously she observes that “There were plenty of people who fasted during Ramadan both to renew faith and to lose weight. The sacred dovetailed with the profane.” The inequality between men and women remains a particular concern where she wonders “Was religion an empowering force for women who otherwise had limited power in a society designed for and by men, or was it yet another tool for facilitating their submission?” Peri desires to proudly be an active part of her faith and homeland without submitting to the oppressive dictums of those in power.

It feels particularly important to read dynamic and complex portraits of Muslim women's lives right now. Considering that the US has just enforced a policy temporarily blocking border entry for anyone from specific Muslim-majority countries, reading about the perspectives of Muslim lives prevents them from becoming a faceless other. I related to a lot of the specific and general conflicts Peri faced in this story despite her background and life being so different from my own. Elif Shafak writes a wonderfully immersive story with complex, nuanced characters. Irrespective of the current political climate, this is a compelling and accomplished novel in its own right. But I particularly admire how this novel and others such as Chinelo Okparanta's “Under the Udala Trees” and Ali Smith's “Autumn” address the current political climate of their societies and artfully suggest practical ways to create dialogue between fractious groups. “Three Daughters of Eve” is an original and memorable story.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesElif Shafak