I was drawn to reading this debut short story collection by the beauty of its deep-blue, silver-illustrated cover and the strength of blurbs from excellent cutting-edge writers Helen Oyeyemi and Sjon. These imaginative stories do feel in some fundamental way to be aligned with these authors because of the way they similarly bend reality to give new insight into society, language and our perceptions of the past. The subjects of Tharoor's stories are far-ranging from a town awaiting its imminent destruction by an invading army to a conqueror cursed with impotence to a Russian ship hedged in by icebergs. They span great swaths of time from soldiers conversing in a heated battle in 190 BC to diplomats from dying nations marooned on a luxury spaceship in a dystopian future. Yet, there is a curious unity between these invigorating and fascinating tales which ponder the evolution of our civilization by focusing on migration, storytelling and what's left in and selected out of recorded history: “Humanity, after all, was nothing but a library.”

Several stories consider the way in which different cultures intermingle by appropriating, borrowing, learning and stealing from each other. In some voyages the explorers set out to discover and plunder, but instead find their dreams of conquest stymied by violent confrontations with the unknown. The erratic and far-reaching story ‘Letters Home’ considers many kinds of these journeys all over the world which are cut short. There's a sense of possible touchstones between civilizations which are lost through accidental blunders and chance. The story 'The Astrolabe' features a captain who has lost his ship and crew before washing on the shore of a strange island. What could have been a tale like 'The Tempest' or Robinson Crusoe hands its story over to the island's native population who consider the captain's “advancements” and dramatically reject him. Other stories consider the cross-flow of cultures in more contemporary settings such as 'Cultural Property' where a student contemplates reclaiming an artefact found on a university campus or 'The Loss of Muzaffar' where a dazzlingly talented immigrant chef caters to a wealthy NYC family against the backdrop of 9/11.

Two compelling stories show a more academic meeting point between one person and another from dramatically different social and economic groups to consider issues of cultural appropriation. In the title story ‘Swimmer Among the Stars’ an elderly woman's voice is recorded by ethnographers as she is the last person to speak her native language. She considers how “Humans always lose more history than they ever possess.” Also, the story gives a deeply fascinating perspective on the social meaning of words and language's evolution. It incorporates the way folklore is imbued with personal and political stories. The story ‘Portrait with Coal Fire’ depicts a Skype conversation between a magazine photographer and a miner discussing how the meaning his life and family appear in photographs that were taken. There is some fundamental break happening in the translation between the subject, the photograph and the viewer which creates a “chronic voyeuristic relation” as described by Susan Sontag in her famous essay 'On Photography'. This conversation is further complicated by the translator who is necessary for the photographer to speak to his subject.

Iskandar in battle

Iskandar in battle

One of the most sustained sections of the book features a series of short retellings of legends from Arabic literature that depict Alexander the Great or Iskandar (as Muslim hero). Here the leader's insatiable lust for power and control over the world sees him rampage through different nations and even journey to the bottom of the ocean to claim it for his own. This conqueror's perspective is the opposite of the view we're given in 'Tale of the Teahouse' where we feel the increasing alarm of a city about to be invaded. Tharoor has a flair for depicting clashes for power and dominance that is both dramatic and meditative. His writing reminds me strongly of Jessie Greengrass' short stories – not so much in style, but the way they contemplate the philosophical meaning of how people throughout history have flung themselves out into the great unknown to reshape civilization and their understanding of themselves. “Swimmer Among the Stars” is a deeply thoughtful book as well as being a delight to read for its imaginative leaps in storytelling.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesKanishk Tharoor

I’ve had a copy of Linda Grant’s most recent novel “The Dark Circle” on my shelf since it was published in November, but for whatever reason I didn’t get to reading it despite being extremely moved by her previous novel “Upstairs at the Party.” So I was delighted to find it on the Baileys Prize shortlist as it gave me a great excuse to get it down and finally read it. Although this novel is very different from her previous one I was immediately drawn in by the eloquence of Grant’s prose with its excellent witty dialogue and vibrant characters. The story concerns a brother and sister (Lenny and Miriam) in 1950s London who contract tuberculosis. The city and social environment are vividly rendered where the continued deprivation of the war and effects of the bombings are still intensely felt. A very different scene is evoked when the pair are taken to a sanatorium in Kent which was once an exclusive facility for the privileged but it’s now taking in patients under the new national health care system. This creates an intermingling of people from all walks of life who are plagued by this illness and pining for a rumoured miracle cure. The result is a spectacular evocation of the passage of time and changing values through the lives of several fascinating characters.

The medical facility that's purportedly for recuperation feels like a truly stultifying environment. Patients are encouraged to be as inactive as possible to prevent themselves from getting too excited. They are prescribed to take in fresh, bracing air so many are set out on a veranda in the freezing cold weather. Most terrifying of all is an upper floor of children confined to their rooms and put in straight jackets if they become too active. Whilst purportedly giving their bodies a rest their minds rot from lack of stimulation. Yet, some of the patients form special connections based around interests like literature and music. There's a particularly forceful American character Arthur Persky who introduces an element of chaos into the strictly ordered facility. Gradually the stories of their particular backgrounds unfold amidst these interactions. New arrivals Lenny and Miriam are looked down upon as London working class Jewish people by some of the medical staff such as the terrifyingly named Dr. Limb. He feels that “the government had opened the door of the slums. It was difficult to be discerning about such an undifferentiated mass of humanity.” That there were such classist opinions about socialized health care in the early years of the system seems particularly striking when thinking about recent debates about funding for the NHS.

Miriam is a fan of films and movie stars. She particularly admires the beauty of Linda Darnell in 'Forever Amber'

Miriam is a fan of films and movie stars. She particularly admires the beauty of Linda Darnell in 'Forever Amber'

One of the most poignant stories in the novel is about a mysterious German patient named Hannah. She's someone who survived the horrors of war and brutal confinement only to find herself trapped within another institution with a terminal illness. Luckily she has a lover named Sarah who works for the BBC and exerts her influence to get a preciously rare experimental drug to Hannah. This sets in motion a chain of events which puts governmental scrutiny on how the facility is run. It was surprising and wonderful to find a lesbian love story at the centre of this novel. This is handled really sensitively where both women show a savviness to live how they want despite the prejudices of the time. They have a steadfast faith that “the new reality would emerge. It wasn’t a dream.”

Grant has a fascinating way of writing a historical novel that is conscious of future developments. During the narrative she'll sometimes refer to future novels that will be written or events that are simultaneously happening elsewhere which the characters can't know anything about. This creates a compellingly rounded view of history and a hopeful tone for how civilization is progressing despite the provincial attitudes of some people in the institution. It also lays the groundwork for the later parts of the novel which skip forward into the future at a point where the horrors of tuberculosis have largely been forgotten. It's skilful how Grant does this while also faithfully and vividly rendering a feeling for the 1950s milieu with its misguided medical practices and rumblings of anti-semitic attitudes. Individuals are forced to take drastic action to help themselves in some really dramatic and arresting moments. Certain scenes are described so sharply that they are particularly memorable. For instance, the grim way Lenny and Miriam's father died is something that I'll never forget. “The Dark Circle” is a gripping and finely detailed story.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesLinda Grant
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Because I’m such a big fan of the prize, I’ve tried to read the entire longlist of the Baileys Prize for the past several years. It was always a massive undertaking since the longlist used to include 20 novels. But, just when I thought the longlist had been cut down to a more manageable 12 novels, the announcement of the 2017 longlist revealed the judges had still chosen 16! So I haven’t been able to get to all the titles on the short time between the March 8th longlist announcement and the shortlist announcement on April 3rd. It’s been a particularly busy time for me as I’ve also been judging The British Book Awards, chairing a discussion about the new film adaptation of ‘The Sense of an Ending’ and going through the process of buying a new flat.

However, I have read a number of the longlisted novels and I'm still making my way through a couple more. I can now see why the judges had such trouble eliminating books from the list because it’s truly a really strong group of novels. Nevertheless, Anna James and I got together to debate the books on the longlist and come up with our shortlist predictions. You can watch that video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wT4oEQ0lwi4

It’s interesting how “The Lonely Hearts Hotel” is turning out to be a novel as controversial as “A Little Life” which was shortlisted for last year’s prize. I'm having extremely engaging debates about the novels longlisted with the shadow panel I'm on. I only succeeded in guessing 3 novels correctly for my longlist predictions (but then I only limited myself to 12 guesses). So I’m hoping I do better with these shortlist predictions. Click on the titles below for my full reviews.

What novels do you think will be shortlisted?

The Gustav Sonata - Rose Tremain
Do Not Say We Have Nothing - Madeleine Thien
The Lesser Bohemians - Eimear McBride
The Essex Serpent - Sarah Perry
The Power - Naomi Alderman
Stay With Me - Ayobami Adebayo

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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Second novels are notoriously difficult to write. A new writer can produce their fiction without the weight of expectation, but once a first novel comes out there is a demand for a follow up which trips up many of the most talented writers. So it’s really great to see that the Royal Society of Literature dedicates a prize exactly to this category of book with The Encore Award. I’m particularly excited by this year’s shortlist as I’ve read all these novels and can highly recommend each of them. I won’t even begin to predict a winner; it’s simply enough to say these are highly accomplished novels that represent a wide variety of styles and subject matter.

I’m particularly pleased to see two novels on the list which specifically include complex and well-rounded transgender characters: “The Sunlight Pilgrims” and “The Lauras”. It’s so rare that this happens in fiction! Also, something I greatly admired about “The North Water” was the way this hyper-masculine environment of a whaling ship includes a sensitively-portrayed gay character. There’s also the challenge to Victorian gender stereotypes in “The Essex Serpent” and a heartbreaking portrayal of a male child’s sexual abuse in “The Lesser Bohemians”. And, it has to be said, “Beast” disarmingly portrays a man so stripped of civilization in his pared down isolated existence he might not even be human anymore. Having also read most of these authors' first novels it's fascinating to see how their writing is evolving. Click on the titles below to read my full thoughts about these wonderful novels. The winner of the RSL Encore Award 2017 is announced April 5th.

Have you read any of them and what novel do you think should win?

The Sunlight Pilgrims - Jenni Fagan
Beast - Paul Kingsnorth
The North Water - Ian McGuire
The Lesser Bohemians - Eimear McBride
The Essex Serpent - Sarah Perry
The Lauras - Sara Taylor

There’s something so irresistible about a story where old people behave badly. Maybe it’s because we all wish we had the right to say exactly what we feel without worrying about future consequences. “The Woman Next Door” focuses on two elderly neighbours Hortensia and Marion who live in a small upscale community in South Africa. Both are professionally successful independent women, but they don’t get along at all and don’t feel the need to pretend to get on. This leads to a lot of amusing confrontations and bitchy banter, especially at the neighbourhood meetings which are more glorified social occasions than gatherings to talk business. However, both these women are experiencing severe personal problems whose difficulties are amplified by their advanced age. On top of this claims are being made upon the land around them as compensation for the slaves of past generations who inhabited this area. They grudgingly become more reliant upon each other to navigate these difficulties, but that doesn’t mean either of them are willing to burry the hatchet.

Omotoso has a skilful way of describing the mindset of elderly life showing how it is not simply a time of accumulated regret but also a time where certain desires still burn just a brightly. Loss is something that both of the women have to deal with perpetually: “time was wicked and had fingers to take things.” Hortensia and Marion are very proud individuals. Their sense of dignity is lost when they are increasingly unable to take care of themselves because of physical or financial problems. To deal with this they have to improvise, strike bargains with each other and strategically manipulate those around them. All the while they churn over memories of their development and the choices they made in their lives which are recounted in passages throughout the novel. 

I also really liked what a unique view of human relationships this novel gives. It lays out how (despite appearances) people can be quite selfish and superficial. Omotoso describes this quite well when recounting Marion’s feelings for some other neighbours called the Van Struikers: “Because she didn’t like them, Marion had made them her friends, attending all their soirees, noticed that behind the money their marriage was a sham and took comfort in this.” It’s cruelly honest how people can quite often take pleasure in the suffering of others not only to bolster their own egos but because it pulls the curtain back on the facades some people put up. This also plays out in how Marion deals with her long-serving housekeeper. In one scene it’s described how she discovers the housekeeper has been buying a better quality toilet paper than Marion herself buys. So she feels the need to buy better toilet paper for herself henceforth. This is not only a fine example of how someone can be ridiculously petty, but also the way in which Marion asserts her superiority as a member of the white upper class.

An interview with author Yewande Omotoso.

A continuous bone of contention between Hortensia and Marion is their racial difference. As a black woman of Caribbean descent who was raised in England and lived for some time in Nigeria, Hortensia is especially attuned to the hypocritical attitudes of certain white people that proclaim they aren’t racist, but their actions say something very different. Marion’s skewed sense of equality is inherited from her previous generation’s prejudices. It’s described how for Marion “there was no one to ask about what was real history and what was not. Her parents weren’t in the business of telling these two kinds of histories apart; they weren’t in the history business at all.” She didn’t have access to a rounded view of the past with its multiplicity of view points. So when she’s suddenly confronted with the truth of what actually took place on the land they inhabit she’s jolted into certain horrifying realizations.

This is a really enjoyable novel which balances a story about two warring neighbours with darker subjects of betrayal, complicated forms of racism and the perilous position of elderly people who have no support network. It’s unfortunate that not all the plot points (such as the petitions for land claims and the story of an illegitimate child) aren’t developed quite as fully as they could have been because the narrative is so weighted down by flashbacks to the women’s life stories. As interesting as these back stories are they pull the reader out of the drama happening in the present. It’s also a shame that we’re not given more about how these professionally successful women achieved the unusual status that they did. And no matter how much Omotoso tries to steer the story away from being a "two bitter old neighbours who are really frenemies" tale it seemed to be just that in the end. Nevertheless, it’s a refreshing and interesting novel featuring characters we seldom get to read about.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesYewande Omotoso
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I always feel nervous when I hear that a great novel is being made into a film. It’s a risky business as I don’t want the pleasure of the reading experience soured if the movie is unfaithful to the characters and ideas of the book. However, some of my favourite novels such as Michael Cunningham’s “The Hours” and Christopher Isherwood’s “A Single Man” have artfully been made into very fine films. When I was invited to a preview screening of an adaptation of Julian Barnes’ “The Sense of an Ending” I was intrigued because I only vaguely remembered this book. I read it back in 2011 when it won the Booker Prize. However, the details of the story were sketchy in my mind – especially because it’s such a short novel. So I reread it last weekend and was newly astounded by the power of this book. It says so much about the way we perceive personal and social history, how the past can take an idealized form from endlessly retold anecdotes and how fallible identity can feel when lost details of the past re-emerge. I found it especially interesting going back to this novel after having read Barnes’ most recent novel “The Noise of Time” which looks at the question of history and free will under social pressures from a different angle.

The novel is broken up into two sections that are told from the perspective of Tony Webster. He recalls his teenage school days, an early relationship with an enigmatic young woman named Veronica and a friendship with earnest fellow student Adrian. His memories surrounding them are safely encased in a subjective understanding of the past. The first section of the book self consciously questions the meaning of history and how we perceive it by recounting debates that happened in his classroom. Adrian poses the theory that “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.” This significant statement is repeated in the novel and plays out in the plot. Leaping forward in time, the novel’s second section shows Tony in his advanced middle age feeling secure in who he is and what happened in the past. But that’s all undone by his creeping uncertainty about his recollections and a missing document that was bequest to him. Suddenly his sense of self is crumbling amidst his attempts to reconnect with Veronica and desperately scrambling to understand the truth about the past.

Having just read the book, I felt wary about going to see this adaptation for two reasons. Firstly, it’s risky seeing a film straight after having read the book as it might feel dull seeing the same story played out on screen that you just experienced on paper. Secondly, because this novel is written from the perspective of an unreliable narrator, I couldn’t see how hazily remembered events could be shown in visual flashbacks without presenting them as what actually happened. Luckily, my worries proved to be totally unfounded because not only does the film of this novel faithfully interpret the story and overarching ideas of the book, but it made me think about the novel in a fascinating new way.

All the characters in Barnes’ novel feel slightly indistinct because you’re so embedded in Tony’s thought process. However, seeing these characters on-screen I could actually see how the actors added depth and complexity with subtle gestures and expressions. For instance, the character of Sarah (Veronica’s mother) played by Emily Mortimer comes across as much more energetic and flirtatious. Whereas Charlotte Rampling (who plays the elder version of Veronica) can switch her expression from steely to sinisterly amused with a slight twitch of her mouth. Similarly, seeing the elder version of the character of Tony performed by Jim Broadbent the viewer understands how prickly and unlikeable he appears. In the book, Tony came across to me as a slightly charming and benign presence. This is in sharp contrast to the younger version of Tony who is wonderfully played by Billy Howle who shows the character at a stage in his life when he was still a vulnerable and bolshy youth. Of course, these performances are giving an interpretation of the characters, but it made me think about the story and ideas of the book in an entirely different light.

The elder version of Tony recalls his past throughout various points in the movie and this elder version of himself gradually starts to actually enter this history. At other times actions are mirrored by the younger and older version of the character. This is done in a subtle way which adds emotional depth to Tony’s desperation to understand what actually happened and the pain of his nostalgia. Tony’s subjectivity is still reflected in the film because certain events play out in an ambiguous way. He’s never entirely sure the meaning of what some people said to him or the motives of their actions. This felt very true to life for me in the way that we endlessly mull over certain events of our life considering what happened from different angles until the facts themselves seem indistinct. It’s really moving in the film how Jim Broadbent shows Tony’s journey from a position of self-satisfied certainty and emotional-standoffishness to someone who is more sensitive to the ambiguities of his own past. The only element of the film which I didn’t feel worked as well was the slightly sentimental tone that the movie takes towards the end – something which felt crammed in to give a heart warming feel.

Overall, the filmmakers made a lot of clever choices and most text-to-film changes improved how the story worked visually. Also, there's a wonderful scene that takes place in Foyles on Charing Cross Road - always a treat for book lovers to see! After the screening I met with a group of book bloggers and writers to discuss how the film worked as a book adaptation. It was a really lively and interesting conversation as everyone was really engaged and excited by how well the book worked as a film. I was particularly struck by how the writer Isabel Costello mentioned how differently the novel affected her reading it a second time later in life. “The Sense of an Ending” is one of those novels which can be revisited continuously as it will take on a different resonance with accumulated experience. I think the same will be true for watching and re-watching this adaptation. It feels so rare that seeing the film of a great novel can actually enhance the reading experience, but the new movie of ‘The Sense of an Ending’ accomplishes this beautifully and made me eager to read this profound book again.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJulian Barnes
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There’s certainly been a lot of book prize news recently, but The Green Carnation Prize which celebrates books by LGBT authors is an extremely special one! I was honoured to be a judge the last time it was awarded where we selected Marlon James’ epic “A Brief History of Seven Killings” among an extraordinarily good longlist.

The new longlist for books published in 2016 has just been announced and for me it hits the perfect balance between excellent books I’ve read, books I’ve been meaning to read and a couple surprises of books I know very little about. It’s wonderful to see Will Eaves’ incredibly distinctive memoir in fragments recognized alongside David France’s comprehensive and personal account of individuals involved in fighting the AIDS crisis. Kirsty Logan’s stories are so beautifully inventive as is Kei Miller’s richly immersive novel about a community in the outskirts of a Jamaican city. I’m especially pleased to see one of my favourite modern poets John McCullough on the list. And, even though I read Garth Greenwell’s book back in 2015, I still often think about this moving novel which gives such a radical new perspective on desire.

It’ll be exciting to follow the shortlist which will be announced on April 28th and the winner which will be announced on May 22nd. Click on the titles below to read my thoughts about some of the books I’ve already read and reviewed.
What books on the list are you most interested in reading?

London Lies Beneath by Stella Duffy
The Inevitable Gift Shop by Will Eaves
How to Survive a Plague by David France
What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell
A Portable Shelter by Kirsty Logan
Spacecraft by John McCullough
Augustown by Kei Miller
Where The Trees Were by Inga Simpson
Straight Jacket by Matthew Todd
Our Young Man by Edmund White

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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It’s been a long time since I’ve felt as conflicted about a novel as I am about “The Lonely Hearts Hotel” by Heather O’Neill. This is a book which arrestingly portrays the brutal abuse of women and orphans with the fantastical touch of a fairy tale. It creatively shows how children’s imaginations can colour their world as a defence against the horrors of their reality. The narrative is strewn with fascinating concepts and imagery that made me frequently pause to think about their meaning. Yet, as compelling as I found the writing in this book I felt at times deeply uncomfortable with the way issues such as physical/sexual abuse, prostitution and drug abuse sat within the humorous/whimsical style of the novel. I have no doubt the author takes these issues very seriously and I could feel behind the magical flair a lot of anger for the injustice experienced by vulnerable children, women and the poor. However, I continuously questioned throughout my reading whether this is the most appropriate way to portray traumatic experiences. I think the point was to raise questions and it certainly did that for me. At its heart, this novel is as deeply provocative and unsettling as the highly intelligent fiction of Angela Carter.

“The Lonely Hearts Hotel” begins in the early 1900s with the unfortunate stories of two young mothers whose boy and girl wind up in a Montreal orphanage. The majority of the book follows the development of these children Rose and Joseph (who everyone calls Pierrot). Although boys and girls in the orphanage are kept separate by the strict nuns who oversee them, Rose and Pierrot develop a deep bond and form a curious kind of double-act with acrobatics, dancing and improvised piano playing. The jealousy of a manipulative third party creates a split between the pair and they are finally physically separated when Pierrot is adopted by an encouraging elderly wealthy man and Rose is employed as an indulgent governess to the children of a notorious gangster leader. Their stories spiral into bizarre and surprising adventures that take them through the Great Depression, but are always tinged with the sorrow of their lost burgeoning romance.

It’s so intriguing how O’Neill writes about the experience of childhood. It’s particularly striking how she describes the way adolescents develop their use of language and claim it as their own. She observes how “Although the two had only known harsh terms and words of discipline, they had managed to transform them into words of love.” The way in which the children use words with each other redefines that language as something empowering rather than something used as a weapon to diminish them. They also possess the innate powers of creativity, talent and imagination to build themselves out of the desultory circumstances they were born into.

Throughout Rose’s upbringing she imagines a large bear who dances with her. This image is just as innocently charming as it is alarming suggesting that danger continuously orbits around the girl. This is reinforced by the statement that “A young girl’s body is the most dangerous place in the world, as it is the spot where violence is most likely to be enacted.” Just as girls are in danger of being violated, the author also shows the way a young boy’s developing body is vulnerable to the predatory control and manipulation of those who are older and in a position of power. The author shows how a boy’s early experiences of sexual abuse continue to affect him throughout his life leading to difficulties with intimacy and drug abuse. I was particularly struck by how she describes his continuous craving for drugs even after he sobers up like a taxidermist’s reanimated wolf corpse which stalks him. It’s no wonder that Rose surmises at one point that “Childhood is such a perverse injustice, I don’t know how anyone survives it without going crazy.” Interestingly, Eimear McBride also considers the long-lasting trauma after a young man’s sexual abuse in an entirely different style within her novel “The Lesser Bohemians” (which is also longlisted for this year’s Baileys Prize).

Along with the stories of Rose and Pierrot's eccentric behaviour, there are scenes where flowers complain to one another and a timid rat expresses his nervousness about moving to the big city. By invoking fantasy, O’Neill appears to be be saying that a childish sense of wonder and ambiguity are essential elements in maintaining a morally just world. People who dominate and attempt to control others believe they are justified in doing so because they are fixed in their own certain reality. She writes: “Perhaps the most dangerous people in the world are the ones who believe in right and wrong but what they ascribe to ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ is completely insane. They are bad with a conviction that they are good. It is that idea that is the impetus behind evil.” Even though Rose and Pierrot experience the most brutally harsh realities of life, they retain their faith in the power of a youthful creativity which gradually morphs as they grow into sophisticated artistic expressions in music and performance.

Something I have difficulty with in novels that describe ambitious forms of artistic expression are overzealous reactions to those performances. That’s something which happens frequently in this novel which includes children’s acrobatics, avant-garde performances by clowns, an eccentric clown and dance revue and an intricately composed song. They all enthral anyone who experiences them. Although large crowds can certainly be enraptured by great art, it becomes slightly irksome reading about the success rate for every kind of performance in this novel which elicits over-enthused reactions. This doesn't take into account the grounding factors of artistic failure and the general indifference of the general public - which is sadly more often the result of creative endeavours.

Rose is such a compellingly forthright character. She explores what intrigues her, exudes a large amount of charm and shows an intellectual savviness. Not only does she fearless do what's necessary to survive enormous difficulties but maintains her principles at the same time. Then there is a prostitute who is (appropriately) named Poppy who is a habitual drug user and continuously takes the wrap for other prostitutes. She exhibits a masochism where “She wanted the ugly rage and depravity that came with love.” O’Neill writes in a really fascinating way about women's relationships with their bodies, sex and rivalry with other women.

I have a feeling I'm going to be puzzling over this novel for a lot longer. I felt delighted by how bizarre it was at points, but also unsettled by how casually it could draw in very dark themes. It certainly goes to show me that I shouldn't judge a book by it's cover. Since I hadn't read this author before or anything about this novel when I'd previously seen “The Lonely Hearts Hotel” I thought by the name and the cover that it'd be a frivolously sentimental novel, but it has a lot of deep twisted depths to it. The Baileys Women's Prize longlist invariably introduces me to a book I wouldn't have read otherwise, but gives me a lot to think about. I'll be particularly interested to hear what other people who have read this novel think.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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History must be filled with gay love stories whether they were lived in secret or in the open. Although literature and history books are filled with heterosexual love stories, few stories of same-sex couples have been passed down through generations. So I think one of the great opportunities of historical fiction can be to imagine the lives and stories which we have no record of and that have, most probably, been selectively left out of history. Recent novels such as “Hide” by Matthew Griffin and “A Place Called Winter” by Patrick Gale have meaningfully explored stories of long-term gay relationships and the unique challenges and opportunities they faced in their respective time periods. Sebastian Barry does the same in “Days Without End” with the story of an Irishman named Thomas McNulty who escapes the Irish famine to become a soldier in 19th century America where he meets another handsome soldier named John Cole. But Barry’s inspiration for this novel comes from a specific incident and takes a very unique slant on a historical gay relationship.

I saw Barry give a reading from this novel and he explained how some time ago he noticed that his son was becoming increasingly depressed. One day the son finally confessed to Barry and his wife that he’s gay and he experienced a lot of prejudice for this. So part of what Barry wanted to do in this story was imagine a time and place where his son could have a loving same-sex relationship, build a family and not have to live with the institutionalized prejudices of today’s society. This may seem contradictory when many Western countries have increasingly liberal laws about gay rights, but these values don’t always filter down into smaller communities - especially among teenagers. Barry feels that there were different kinds of opportunities for gay couples in mid-1800s America to live (if not entirely openly) more peacefully without today’s virulent prejudice. Of course, homosexuality wasn’t openly condoned and people faced many other life-threatening challenges during this politically turbulent time as he recounts in detail in the novel. Thomas states how “We were two wood-shavings of humanity in a rough world.”

This is the first novel I’ve read by Sebastian Barry, but I understand it’s part of a group of books that deal with the McNulty family. It seems like a novel that can stand entirely independent on its own without having read the others. Thomas arrives in America without any connection to his relatives except for the memories of their slowly dying which haunts him later in the book. Here he must forge a future for himself entirely on his own and one of the few work opportunities available to a young man such as himself was to become a soldier in the US military. He’s sent to fight in the bloody battles of the Indian War and then later with the North during the American Civil War. The overwhelming impression of Thomas’ impassioned and vivid accounts of these conflicts is how they are populated by soldiers who are victims of their circumstances; they are fighting in wars not out of ideological convictions but because they have no other choice.

It’s particularly moving how Barry writes about the way Thomas is mindful of “the enemy.” He observes that “There’s no soldier don’t have a queer little spot in his wretched heart for his enemy; that’s just a fact. Maybe only on account of him being alive in the same place and the same time and we are all just customers of the same three-card trickster. Well, who knows the truth of it all.” Like all wars, the armies are filled with young men trapped in the conflicts of history. It’s easier for them to fight without conscience when the opposition is markedly different from them such as the Native Americans they fought against. However, Thomas takes a different perspective when battling against the armies of the South which were also in part made of young immigrants or the sons of immigrants: “It is not like running at Indians who are not your kind but it is running at a mirror of yourself. Those Johnny Rebs are Irish, English and all the rest.” Barry really movingly portrays the consciousness of this soldier caught in these battles who is in some fundamental way only killing other versions of himself.

The novel also gives a fascinating perspective on gender and sexuality. Hyper-masculine environments such as army camps and mining towns found improvised ways of providing men with romantic/erotic stimulation. Thomas and John join a sort of cabaret where they entertain audiences of men while dressed in drag. This allows for transformations to occur: “In Mr Noone’s hall you just was what you seemed. Acting ain’t no subterfuge-ing trickery. Strange magic changing things. You thinking along some lines and so you become that new thing.” There’s a kind of liberation in this where people aren’t constricted by traditional identity markers but can become what they want to be. It also provides crucial training for Thomas when later in the story he can utilize passing as a woman to disguise himself. Equally, it’s poignant how Thomas contemplates his own sexuality and feminine qualities where he considers these to be “Just a thing that’s in you and you can’t gainsay.” While the meaning of conflicts being fought in the battlefields remains ambiguous for Thomas, the conviction he and John feel about their desire and love for each other is certain.

History consists of a series of neatly organized dates. The American Civil War lasted from 1861 to 1865 but you can’t begin to feel the experience by just reading this. One of the most powerful things about Costa Book Awards winner "Days Without End" is the extremely dramatic sense Barry gives to the soldier’s experience who doesn’t know when this conflict will end. For Thomas “World is just a passing parade of cruel moments and long drear stretches where nothing going on but chicory drinking and whisky and cards. No requirement for nothing else tucked in there. We’re strange people, soldiers stuck out in wars.” They are perpetually caught in an uncertain present. Barry writes strikingly about this sense a high-stakes moment with no end to it. The dramatic tension builds throughout the novel as the reader wonders if Thomas will have any future other than this.

Although I loved this novel, I retrospectively had some really strong feelings about the way the publisher presented and promoted it. You can watch my video discussing this here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=asWSOLCWKII

Many book award lists have been announced recently, but one I’m particularly excited about is The British Book Awards or Nibbies. I was kindly asked to be one of the judges in the Fiction category and it’s a cracking list. I’ve reviewed most of these books and you can read my thoughts about them by clicking on the title links below or watch my handy video giving short summaries of the prize and each novel listed. It’s going to be very interesting meeting with the judges soon to choose a winner as the novels are a diverse group of contenders. It’s also worth noting there are many more interesting nominations on the Bookseller's British Book Awards site in other book categories as well as in publishing categories from literary agents to booksellers to libraries. I’m particularly excited by the Debut Fiction category as I’ve extremely enjoyed three books on that list: The Girls by Emma Cline, The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon and What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell. Winners will be chosen in each book category and then on May 8th, the night of the awards ceremony, an overall winner will be crowned. I’d really like your opinions so if you’ve read some of these books who do you think should win?

The British Book Awards / Nibbies 2017 Fiction Book of the Year Shortlist

The British Book Awards / Nibbies 2017 Fiction Book of the Year Shortlist

The Sellout by Paul Beatty
The Muse by Jessie Burton
This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell
The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
Cartes Postales From Greece by Victoria Hislop
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

The British Book Awards / Nibbies 2017 Debut Fiction Book of the Year Shortlist

The British Book Awards / Nibbies 2017 Debut Fiction Book of the Year Shortlist

A novel about a reclusive ex-film star may sound like it will focus on sensational glamour rather than an emotionally-effective story, but “This Must Be the Place” is engrossing and extremely moving. Maggie O'Farrell creates a woman named Claudette who walks away from her famous director husband and a successful acting career to live in the remotest possible Ireland retreat and weaves her tale into the stories of many other fascinating characters. Most notably it charts her relationship with Daniel who deals with the complicated family he had with his first wife, an unresolved secret from his past and a growing substance abuse problem. Each chapter focuses on a specific character related to this couple. It leapfrogs back and forth through time to form impressions of their dramatic and tumultuous lives. The cumulative effect of this very readable novel is a kaleidoscopic portrait of the way chance and coincidence influence the most important decisions of our lives.

 

In one section, Daniel and his son Niall travel to the eerie and unusual salt flats of South America.

In one section, Daniel and his son Niall travel to the eerie and unusual salt flats of South America.

O'Farrell has a fascinating way of mapping out the lives of her characters in this novel. Each chapter is sub-headed by a name, year and location so you know with certainty where you are, but only through the course of the narrative do you understand why this point matters so much. The focus varies from stories about Daniel’s son Niall’s painful struggles with a severe eczema condition at a special dermatological clinic to Claudette’s sister-in-law Maeve’s journey to China to adopt a daughter. Through these fascinating individual stories we gain impressions of what’s happening in Daniel and Claudette’s lives as well. My only quibble is I wish the author had included a section on Daniel’s first wife rather than so many peripheral characters towards the end. It felt like she was the only major character that remained sketchily drawn where the others were fully rounded. Multiple sections are told from Daniel’s point of view as he seems to have the most trouble finding where he really belongs. However, the only section which focuses on Claudette’s perspective is narrated in the second person so, although we’re entirely with her, we remain outside her consciousness. This distancing effect from her character is mirrored in another section where we’re given photographs of vital objects from her film career that are being auctioned, but which cleverly tell the story of her relationship with the cerebral Scandinavian film director Timou.

I think people who enjoy Anne Tyler’s books would also really appreciate this novel. O'Farrell has a similar way of realistically portraying the quirks, humour and heartache of family life. She also touches upon the complex way we come to define ourselves through the perspectives of others. In particular, she beautifully describes the way those who love us see us in an idealistic light which in turn reinforces our own self confidence: “What redemption there is in being loved: we are always our best selves when loved by another.” The story meaningfully shows how complex relationships can be and that we’ll inevitably follow lots of indirect paths in life, but how powerfully changed we are when honest connections are made. “This Must Be the Place” is a skilfully written novel with a lot of heart.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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What an immensely pleasurable joy it is reading “The Essex Serpent” by Sarah Perry! I’ve been eagerly anticipating this novel since it was first published last year. I heard such high praise from friends and reviewers I trust and it was Waterstone’s book of the year. I’m greatly relieved that it lives up to the hype. This richly detailed Victorian-set novel with gothic inflections and distinctly vibrant characters gives the feeling of a modern-day book by Charlotte Brontë or George Eliot. Set over a year it follows the widow Cora Seaborne’s excursion to the rural Essex village of Aldwinter which buffets the edge of the gloomy Blackwater marshes. Cora has amateur archaeological inclinations and becomes excited by the secrets this location might hold after rumours and paranoia spread among the inhabitants that a prehistoric beast roams the waters. Strange sightings are reported, bodies are found, children turn hysterical and people go missing. It’s full of suspense as the mystery gradually unfolds, but also skilfully presents competing ideologies of science vs religion and reason vs faith through the actions and sensibilities of the characters. More importantly it shows how these perspectives aren’t necessarily dogmatic and that “far from there being one truth alone, there may be several truths, none of which it would be possible to prove or disprove.” This is a novel which delivers highly on adventure and romance to form an intelligent, moving story.

Cora experiences a sense of independence and freedom now that she’s released from her marriage. She no longer makes much effort with her appearance and can pursue what solely interests her. In particular, she feels liberated from gender constrictions stating “The wonderful thing about being a widow is that, really, you’re not obliged to be much of a woman anymore.” This allows her to express her intelligence and also begin to understand what she desires for the first time (rather than always projecting what her late husband desired.) She’s accompanied by her longtime companion Martha, an ardent socialist who harbours a secret attraction to Cora. At Aldwinter Cora is introduced to the local reverend William Ransome and his luminous wife Stella. The burgeoning romantic relationship that develops between Cora and William is especially interesting because it’s based primarily on their different ideas and competing perspectives as well as physical attraction. Perry is especially good at portraying the complexity of relationships where the boundaries of gender and friendship are blurred.

Although the novel is framed around the notorious gigantic serpent which may or may not be terrorizing the villagers, it’s more about what reality people choose to believe. Some ascribe to values based around superstition, others live by principles from religious texts and others aspire to forge a new understanding of the world based upon scientific findings. What Perry does so magnificently is imbue how the characters perceive their environment based on these perspectives of the world. To Martha who is cognizant of social and economic imbalances “It seemed… that the city’s bricks were red with the blood of its citizens, its mortar pale with the dust of their bones; that deep in its foundations women and children lay head-to-toe in buried ranks, bearing up the city on their backs.” But wealthy George Spencer who dabbles in the medical field expresses that “sometimes I think we must be walking on shoals of bodies without realising it and all the earth’s a graveyard.” While Cora, with her faith in archaeological discovery, feels that “all the earth was a graveyard with gods and monsters under their feet, waiting for weather or a hammer and brush to bring them up to a new kind of life.” These views of the world around them overlap and form a complex picture of not only the changing landscape, but the evolution of the people and wildlife that inhabited it.

Based on the legend of the Essex Serpent which first appeared in a local pamphlet in 1669

Based on the legend of the Essex Serpent which first appeared in a local pamphlet in 1669

Alongside the compelling story and complex characters, the novel is especially enjoyable for the deeply emotive language Perry uses in her descriptions. At some times she expresses a Virginia Woolf-like sensibility where a room literally comes alive when the characters enter it: “Light picked out channels cut in crystal glasses and glossed the polished wood of the table, and Stella’s forget-me-nots bloomed on their napkins.” The descriptions show a playful use of language and convey a very definite sense of mood. I don’t think I’ve read about such a powerfully expressive sense of atmosphere since Andrew Michael Hurley’s eerie and suspenseful “The Loney”. It’s also impressive how this keen sense of detail brings to life the natural environment of Essex which is a county that is somewhat forgotten or maligned these days.

It would be easy to write a lot about many of the other fascinating characters that populate this novel. It feels like Cora’s son Francis may have some form of autism as he has a regimentally ordered mind and emotionally detached personality. Cora’s friend Luke Garrett is a surgeon who pioneers controversial new practices. The ginger-haired girl Naomi Banks possesses unruly powers and passions. Stella and William’s precocious daughter Joanna understands how exerting authority with confidence can get people to follow you. Their lives intersect in fascinatingly dramatic ways, but I don’t want to go into too much detail to avoid giving the plot away. Suffice it to say, the fact that they are so memorable is a testament to how distinctly original Perry makes her characters. Many surprises and delights are to be found in this book. “The Essex Serpent” is as intricate and beautiful as its cover.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSarah Perry
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Jaroslav Kalfar’s debut novel “Spaceman of Bohemia” has been compared to the extremely popular novel “The Martian” but Kalfar’s novel is far superior. I understand the comparison: both novels are about lone men in space whose solitary “Robinson Crusoe” style adventures find them stranded on their journeys of exploration. While it's enjoyable for some of the plot and scientific detail I thought “The Martian” mostly came across as repetitive and it's suffused with a particularly foul stench of macho bravado. By contrast, “Spaceman of Bohemia” is thoughtful, continuously compelling and says something intelligent about the progress of civilization.

The hero is Jakub Procházka, an astrophysicist with a speciality in cosmic dust which makes him the perfect candidate for the Czech Republic’s first mission into outer space. A comet from another galaxy has streamed through our own solar system leaving a curious cloud between Venus and Earth which has stained our night time sky purple. An opportunistic Czech minister sees a chance for his nation to enter the space race and collect samples of this strange material by sending Jakub on his solitary mission on a second-hand space shuttle. The results are bizarrely thrilling, unexpected and turn into a personal journey which prompts Jakub to survey his position in his own nation’s tumultuous history.

Jakub's journey turns him into a national hero which is particularly significant because of his family's tumultuous history. His father was a Soviet Union stooge when the country was under Communist rule. He engaged in such nefarious activities such as ratting out on neighbours and torturing anti-government prisoners. When the communist regime collapsed in 1989 Jakub's father lost his status and power. Even peripheral members of the family such as Jakub and his grandparents were vilified and discriminated against because of his father's actions. In a particularly harrowing scene they are forced to leave their house: “We leave books that have escaped Austro-Hungarian burnings, German burnings, Stalinist burnings, books that have kept the language alive while regimes attempted to starve it out. We can bring only so much.” This gives a powerful sense of the struggles of common people who've lived in this country which has been bandied back and forth in the fight for political power. The sad result is a gradual deterioration of culture and traditions.

Jakub and Lenka have intimate scenes at the Prague Astronomical Clock - the oldest working astronomical clock in the world.

Jakub and Lenka have intimate scenes at the Prague Astronomical Clock - the oldest working astronomical clock in the world.

The hope is that Jakub's mission will radically transform the Czech Republic into a leading nations of the world – a dream that quickly sours. Over the course of his dramatic expedition it becomes clear that this journey is much more soul-searching than Jakub first thought. The novel meaningfully considers personal ambition versus personal wellbeing and the private life versus the public life. It's observed how “In one book, your father is a hero. In another book, he is a monster. The men who don’t have books written about them have it easier.” Rather than remaining anonymous, Jakub embarks on making himself into the pride of the nation to eclipse his father's shame, but he loses his beloved wife Lenka in the process. Amidst the dramatic action of his space journey he considers his life with her and what he's lost by letting the weight of his family and his nation's history overwhelm him.

Kalfar is particularly good at enhancing his story with a lot of grit and humour while steering the plot into unexpected avenues. Things get bizarre; there is a lighthearted tension between Jakub's physical and psychological reality. But the story meaningfully shows his gradual growth as an individual emotionally reckoning with the past. Along his journey the book captures all the majesty and wonder of the solar system in a way which manages to be both probingly philosophical and highly playful. It considers the elements of chance, time and how “The slightest gesture makes up our history.” “Spaceman of Bohemia” is a vibrantly pleasurable read that provokes lingering questions about identity and destiny – as well as giving you a craving for jar of Nutella.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJaroslav Kalfar
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Rarely have the social pressures to produce children been conveyed with such intensity as in Adébáyọ̀'s debut novel “Stay With Me”. Yejide and Akin are an intelligent, beautiful and prosperous couple living in modern day Nigeria. In the year 1985 it looks like they are set for a promising future, but no matter how hard the couple try they cannot conceive a child. The narrative alternates between the points of view of Yejide and Akin. They convey the multi-faceted strains on their relationship as their family and society demand that they produce children. They go to extreme measures to do so and there are multiple shocking plot twists along the way. Amidst the personal crisis that this couple experience, the political leadership of the country is in a precarious state forcing them to make choices which they wouldn't in more stable circumstances. This well-paced drama skilfully conveys the different dilemmas faced by women and men when the importance of conceiving children is placed above all else.

Although Yejide is an educated woman who runs a successful beauty salon it's the perception of her husband's family that Akin financially supports her. No matter how capable she is the fact that she's a woman will always place her at a lower status to that of the man. The overwhelming impression over the course of the novel is that according to the family Yejide's body is not her own, but merely an instrument to bring in the next generation. It's typical for couples to feel under strain from the previous generation to produce children, but the interference here is so much greater where Yejide is subjected to physical examinations from the family and they arrange for Akin to have a second wife when she doesn't become pregnant quickly enough. The worst challenges Yejide faces to her relationship are from Akin's mother and Funmilayo, the woman selected as Akin's second wife. It's a sad consequence of a patriarchal social system that women begin to oppress each other and feel that they must compete with one another.

Even when a woman has a child her body and life are not her own. It's perceived that “a mother does not do what she wants, she does what is best for her child.” So whether she has a child or not, Yejide never feels like she fully controls her own destiny. Matters are not helped when Yejide's own family line is uncertain because her mother died early in her life. She states “the point was that when there was no identifiable lineage for a child, that child could be descended from anything. Even dogs, witches or strange tribes with bad blood.” Yejide's own father had multiple wives and no matter how much she's favoured by the man, the fact that her mother's lineage is unclear makes her a rogue element in this family line. When social status is such an important factor it doesn't matter how capable an individual is; without a strong family tree to support you you will always be condemned.

While the challenges for a woman in this society are manifold, the author equally shows the enormous expectations and problems faced by men. Akin is fiercely in love with Yejide and truly only desires her, but he's pressured to accept Funmilayo as a second wife whether he wants to or not. This compels him to treat her badly and although Funmilayo is presented as a scheming individual, I felt sympathetic to her precarious position. The author also dramatically shows the depths a man will sink to in order to conceal his vulnerability. The demand that he produce a child compels Akin to plot against and lie to his wife. Gradually the levels of deception and self-deception are revealed over the course of the story. The characters are under such strain to perform correctly in their social roles they begin to convince themselves that the reality of the situation is different from what it is. It's observed how “the biggest lies are often the ones we tell ourselves.”

When reading this novel I was reminded of Lisa McInerney's novel “The Glorious Heresies” which also has a tragic romance at its centre. Although these two novels are set in very different societies, they both show the insidious way the dominant ideologies of their countries put undo pressure on personal relationships. “Stay With Me” contains a gripping story that intelligently portrays the longterm destruction of a relationship from choices made under pressure from the family and community that surround Yejide and Akin. Although it contains a lot of serious and compelling themes, the story is full of such vibrant characters and fascinating surprises it's a very pleasurable read.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAyobami Adebayo
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Oates’s writing has always surveyed the social landscape of American culture, but recently her novels have become more sharply defined by the most significant political debates in the country. These include her novel The Falls which fictionalizes the infamous Love Canal environmental tragedy, My Sister, My Love which fictionalizes the media sensation of JonBenet Ramsey’s story, Carthage which explores the overcrowded penitentiary system and The Sacrifice which fictionalizes the case of Tawana Brawley who was allegedly the victim of racist police brutality. These dramatic stories consider how class, politics, religion, law and the media shape the pressing ideological conflicts within American society. A Book of American Martyrs directly addresses the highly controversial subject of abortion. It begins with the execution of abortion doctor Gus Voorhees and his volunteer driver by zealous pro-life protestor Luther Dunphy who is affiliated with the Army of God, a Christian terrorist organization. The novel recounts this incident from a variety of perspectives, the lives of the victims and the shooter as well as the way it affects their families in the decades that follow. In doing so, Oates artfully presents a nuanced account of the tragic consequences of bad logic and extreme opinions.

The title is a play on the 16th century text Book of Martyrs by John Foxe which was an influential polemic recounting the sufferings of Protestants under the Catholic Church in England and Scotland. Oates similarly shows subjective points of view on the sacrifices and perceived injustices suffered by the protagonists by presenting italicized first-person accounts from a variety of peripheral characters. These testimonies build to a chorus of opinions surrounding the case and transform mere individuals who died because of their beliefs into icons of a particular cause. Despite repeated threats made against of his life, Gus Voorhees bravely persevered working in women's clinics in areas of the country that actively protested against abortion. Luther Dunphy realised he was giving up his life by executing the abortion doctor he considered a murderer so that “in some quarters, among avid Christians, Dunphy was revered as a kind of hero, a ‘soldier of Jesus’ and a ‘martyr.’” In this way, subsequent to their fates, both men transformed from mortals to symbols within the public consciousness.

In the first half of the novel Oates shows how both these men are more complicated than the ideas that they come to embody. Luther and his wife Edna Mae’s youngest daughter Daphne is born with a debilitating mental handicap. She dies in a car crash which may or may not have been an accident; the question which Luther can’t even seem to ask himself is whether it would have been better to abort this daughter before her birth if they were aware of her severe handicap. Rather than pursue the intricacies of his problems he becomes more pious and secretly satisfies his sexual cravings in clandestine meetings with women in motels. Here is the grating hypocrisy of the zealous: Luther condemns women who get abortions while not taking responsibility for having sex with anonymous women. It reveals an innate sexism within arguments about abortion. Alternatively, Gus seeks to assist women from Christian backgrounds that are fervently opposed to abortion. But, in one case, he finds himself publicly accused of coercing a woman to abort her baby after she begged him for assistance. The question of choice is considered from many different angles through the various strands of both men’s lives.

The novel also shows other forms of martyrdom in figures such as Voorhees' driver Timothy who is also shot down. Later in the novel his daughter angrily declares “It was VOORHEES that was the martyr. On the anti-abortion websites it was stated that Timothy Barron’s death was COLLATERAL DAMAGE and in a war COLLATERAL DAMAGE is to be regretted but not to be avoided.” Although Timothy was merely a bystander in this conflict and his loss interjects another level of moral complexity, ironically his death fades more quickly in the minds of the public. In a sense, the widows of both Gus and Luther sacrifice themselves to the memories of their husbands. Edna Mae becomes addicted to pain killers and strengthens her resolve as a pro-life Christian participating in a macabre spectacle where aborted fetuses are recovered from abortion clinics and buried. Conversely, Gus's widow Jenna withdraws entirely from her children to devote herself to legal work even at the expense of her wellbeing: “the more ravaged Jenna appeared, the more of a martyr.” In both cases the family unit is obliterated as a result of grief and the continuing ideological battle.

The eldest daughters of both families inherit the fallout from the conflict their parents were embroiled in. The second half of the novel is primarily concerned with following their journeys as young adults. Luther’s daughter Dawn is sympathetically portrayed as a victim of physical and sexual assault at her school. Her sturdy physique and endurance for pain prompt her to fight back and transform herself into a promising welterweight boxer with the name D.D. Dunphy Hammer of Jesus. As a deeply solitary individual, she persists in her faith despite being rejected by Edna Mae. Some of the most tender and heartfelt scenes in the novel are when Dawn shyly tries to connect with women she admires, possibly out of a latent homosexuality. Gus’s daughter Naomi enjoys the privilege of education and more financial security, but her upbringing is no more emotionally secure than Dawn’s. She scrambles to create a personal archive memorializing Gus’s life and only achieves a meaningful family connection in her estranged grandmother Madelena Kein, a professor of philosophy, and a complex challenging figure Karl Kinch. It’s possible for the reader to reconsider the entire narrative as being the product of Naomi’s research after we learn that she aspires to become a documentary filmmaker.

Despite the way individuals flounder and are felled amidst the deeply divisive ideological battle at the centre of this novel, the enduring impression of this finely detailed story is hopeful. The new generation may have been wronged and abandoned by the proceeding one, but these brave daughters hunger for insight and connections across the divide nonetheless. They find it difficult to work through the prejudice they’ve inherited and their challenging development is laced with grief so that even the sound of a walking stick on a hike can conjure the pain of everything that was lost with their fathers. However, they possess an innate curiosity and resilience which Oates is particularly skilful at portraying in young female characters. A Book of American Martyrs doesn’t seek to answer the question of how extremism can be overcome, but memorialize how individuals can evolve to see past the views of their limited perspective to that of another. 

This review also appeared on Bearing Witness: Joyce Carol Oates Studies

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson