“A new book?” my boyfriend asks when he sees me reading, as usual. “What’s this one about?”
I tell him it’s a book of poetry.
“Poetry?!” he frowns (half joking).
I try to explain how it’s a particularly engaging and fun collection.

The general public, even regular readers often view poetry as inaccessible or perplexingly elitist. But Hollie McNish is a great example of a modern poet with writing that’s so easy to relate to. It’s also smart, humorous, bawdy, political and socially-engaged. “Plum” is a book that also draws you into the author’s life. Many of the poems in this collection are headed by the age at which McNish produced them and the context within which they were written. This not only helps the reader understand the motivation behind them, but builds an ongoing narrative of a girl growing into a woman, a worker, a friend, a wife, a mother, a citizen and a poet. We see her change from a teenager working at a chemist’s who sniggers at customers buying condoms to being a woman feeling embarrassed about buying condoms herself. The collection as a whole beautifully captures a sense of McNish’s evolution as a person and a writer as her style changes over time.

There are poems about discovering sex, getting groped in bookshops, arguing with the television, learning other languages and the chaos of taking her daughter to a children’s party. They all draw the reader into McNish’s life and articulate so meaningfully the contradictions, inequalities and shame she sees in society. Her poetry is particularly strong at highlighting the often maligned working class who are diminished and patronized by politicians, the media and middle class. Rather than really trying to engage with their point of view, they are often talked down to "as the poor wait and rot labelled yobs by headline cops". The poems also enumerate McNish’s own experience working a number of different jobs which gives a special credence to the way she describes a waitress’ shift so strongly: “in the heat of her boredom and beckoning orders the hands of the clocks just keep slowing down”. It’s a tradition that the queen sends a birthday message to every person in the UK that turns 100, but McNish states plainly and powerfully how “the poorer you are the sooner the queen should write”.

I couldn't find any poems from this collection online but this poem 'Embarrassed' is from McNish's book "Nobody Told Me"

Many of the poems describe the body in a way which is frank and refreshing. It reminded me of Andrew McMillan’s collection “Physical” for the way she captures the oftentimes awkward way we inhabit all this flesh. McNish gets the humour and ridiculousness of our physical development as well as its poignancy when our roles in life change. She also doesn’t shy from highlighting how it feels like language fails to describe the full complexity of this. "Morphing into an adult's body feels so odd. I tried to capture it here, but I can't." She describes the way children are spoken to in a condescending way and (especially in the striking poem ‘Voldemort’) the way girls are commonly taught to be ashamed of their genitals in a way that boys are not. She frankly deals with sex with all its pleasures and pitfalls. It’s particularly fun when she inhabits the voice of Constance Reid from “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” to show her daily life and fulsome sexuality. And also, the powerful poem ‘Shrinking’ powerfully describes a modern day waitress dressed as “Alice in Wonderland.” As the book progresses, the poems grapple with how McNish is coming to terms with her own mortality noticing graying hairs or the slacking of her stomach after giving birth. The final section is dedicated to poems specifically about particular parts of the body in a way the creatively rounds out this very personal collection.

Unsurprisingly, McNish is a popular performer. I was lucky enough to see her read some poems at a Picador author showcase event and she captivated the audience. Not only does her animated language have the power to grip listeners, but she also has a direct and frank way of delivering her poems that seizes your attention. As well as encouraging you read this vibrant collection, I’d recommend that you go see her perform if she’s giving a reading near you. Of course, not many people will be able to do this but she has a YouTube channel where you can watch her reading several of her poems: https://www.youtube.com/user/holliemcnish/videos

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesHollie McNish

I can’t remember reading a thriller that is as eerily intense as Elena Varvello’s “Can You Hear Me?” This novel is partly a coming-of-age story and partly a mystery. It’s narrated by Elia who recalls the summer of 1978 when he was sixteen and living in a rural Italian town with his parents. His father Ettore Furenti was disconsolate and paranoid after being laid off from his job. The entire town was suffering from economic depression after the local cotton mill closed down, but Ettore’s behaviour became especially erratic as he spun conspiracy theories and disappeared from home for mysterious periods of time. At the same time, a local boy recently went missing and was later found murdered. The narrative alternates between Elia’s memories of that summer and a girl that Ettore has picked up in his car to drive to a remote location. Together these create a chilling account of an abduction and a boy desperately trying to come to terms with his dangerously unhinged father.

While this novel is obviously far removed from my own circumstances, the style and subject of Varvello’s story invoked a deep sense of nostalgia in me. Elia is a somewhat awkward young man who makes a loose friendship with a boy named Stefano. Their friendship develops organically. They don’t necessarily have a huge amount of shared interests but are pulled together more because of circumstances when there is no one else to spend time with. A lot of childhood friendships seem to be formed in this way and the only other book I can recall that got this so well is Tim Winton’s novel “Breath”. During their summer together they spend time swimming at a remote water hole. I have strong memories of doing something similar and the representation of this uneven friendship felt very real. But their companionship becomes complicated when Elia realizes he’s increasingly attracted to Stefano’s mother Anna. This gets even more emotionally complex when Elia realizes that his librarian mother Marta used to know Anna and scorns her.

While Elia tries to deal with these normal issues surrounding any young man’s development, he also grows increasingly wary of his father who believes that he’s been cheated out of a job and becomes increasingly absent from the home. Marta seems to bury her head in the sand about her husband Ettore’s behaviour and withdraw into herself. So this boy is mostly left to struggle with all of this on his own. Because of this, the story develops an increasing level of emotional poignancy as it goes on at the same time as it grows more unsettlingly tense. Varvello’s captivating writing style drew me in and had me gripped in that way that made me really resent having to stop reading it at the end of my commutes or lunch breaks. It’s a powerful book that reminds me of some of Joyce Carol Oates’ novels in the way that Varvello so effectively builds suspense amidst a plot involving friendship and embittered economical hardships. And (coming from me) you know that means I think very highly of it!

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesElena Varvello
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It’s always fascinating when an author writes about wildly different subjects from book to book. The last novel by Monique Roffey I read was “House of Ashes” which was a devastatingly intense and complex account of a coup which takes place on a fictional Caribbean island. Her new novel “The Tryst” focuses on a short, all-consuming affair between a married couple and a mysterious woman. The result is a dynamic look at the dangerously hazy borderline between the erotic imagination and real-life sexual exploits. In particular, it prompts us to wonder about the role sexual fantasy plays in long-term relationships. Should such impulses be voiced or acted upon? If so, will our partner be repulsed, offended, intrigued or titillated? Or, if these impulses are kept private or repressed what are the consequences? It’s a tricky and delicate subject matter as many couples privately struggle with issues of sex. Roffey offers fascinating insights with this outrageously imaginative tale of untamed lust and a fantasy that quickly turns into a nightmare.

Bill and Jane have been together many years and fallen into familiar routines. Although both of them have healthy sexual appetites, passion has never been an element of their marriage. Jane harbors sexual fantasies about random men while Bill is left perpetually pining for his wife who won’t engage with him in the bedroom. Jane tragically feels that "I was trapped inside a monogamous world, inside my marriage, and inside myself." When they are out drinking one evening they encounter Lilah, a strange woman of small stature who possesses great allure and a boisterous attitude. Soon all three of them are consumed with sexual desire and they embark on an escapade, but each believes they are in full control of the situation. The narrative switches between each character’s perspective showing how each of them frequently misinterprets the motives and responses of the others. This makes a really interesting portrait of a sexual encounter where so much is based on signals which can be horrendously misinterpreted. It also poignantly shows how the outcome of realizing sexual fantasies is far different from how we imagined. Lilah is not what she seems and the plot buzzes with scenes which are rampantly sensual and fantastical. The riotous and explicit encounter between these three unhinges them and radically transforms them all forever.

Several years ago I read George Bataille’s influential and wickedly perverse bonk-fest “Story of the Eye” for the first time. It left me with a lot of mixed feelings. Roffey’s characters are just as willfully perverse as Bataille’s – especially Lilah who brags "An old Jesuit priest taught me how to touch cock." It’s interesting how Roffey gives an alternative view of a couple exploring their untamed desires within a much more domestic setting. Also, as Bataille uses a lot of egg imagery, so does Roffey invoke this potent symbol where Jane traditionally purchases a decorated egg for her husband as an ironic gift. She muses: "I wasn't sure if I didn't want children, or didn't want children with Bill. Each egg I gave Bill made me question this more. I saw the eggs as potent reminders of this failure on my part." Lilah takes these gifts and uses them in a suitably depraved way. Where Bataille’s book felt at times unrelentingly debauched without any specific purpose, Roffey is much more focused in her depiction of whether a marriage can survive a full-scale journey into the uncharted landscape of the sexual imagination. This book is also very much an entertaining story about demonic elemental forces wreaking havoc in our humdrum reality.

I found it really moving how Roffey shows her characters’ tentative relationship with their sexual fantasies. People so often find it difficult to know how to manage desire. In particular, Jane is frequently overwhelmed and consumed by her sexual fantasies but seems so hesitant about acting upon them or admitting them to her husband. In one section when relating her unconscious desires she reflects that "The dreams happened of their own accord, tumbling out on the backs of other dreams. I would wake in another man's arms, my husband inches from me, his body big and warm." That sense of having another person so physically nearby, but psychologically so far away is touching and powerfully realized. Sex is difficult. Always. “The Tryst” robustly embraces the challenge of looking at it in all its complexities. It’s also a novel with a surprisingly hopeful message – at least, it’s hopeful for everyone except for the couple’s unfortunate tomcat named Choo Choo.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMonique Roffey
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Back in 2011 when riots flared up in England, I remember riding home late at night on a bus that had to be diverted because Brixton was in chaos. Everyone on that bus was charged up with the news scrolling through their phones and checking social media for bits of information. It's interesting how when any major events like this happen in our local areas now a collective conversation occurs, but only within our circumscribed social groups and rarely with people we're actually sitting next to on public transportation. In the ensuing weeks the news was filled with people asking why this happened. Certainly the police shooting Mark Duggan sparked it off, but there must have been a lot of tension there already to provoke widespread arson and looting. Olumide Popoola certainly doesn't attempt a definitive answer to this complex question or speak for all the youth involved, but her engaging and vibrant novel “When We Speak of Nothing” represents something of the younger generation who felt under-represented and unheard. The author writes: "When we speak of nothing we don't end the silence." Moreover it's a heartrending tale of friendship, the British working class, first love and queer BAME (Black Asian & Minority Ethnic) youth culture.

Best friends Karl and Abu are on the brink of adulthood. They are at that crucial time of rapid intellectual, physical and emotional development. This is conveyed in part within the narrative through subjective definitions where particular words take on special meaning for these boys. They have a growing consciousness of the world outside the small social group of their friends and the bullying wannabes who hassle them. They live in the Kings Cross area of London. Abu grows to see his environment in a rounder context: both the past of this place which at one time in history housed slave-traders and the future of this place undergoing large-scale regeneration which will inevitably squeeze out people from his social-economic group. Alternatively, Karl keenly feels a division of his national identity when he's given an opportunity to meet his estranged father who lives in Nigeria. The majority of the novel is divided between Abu in London and Karl in Nigeria where both young men undergo radical changes and their connection to each other is severely tested. The author shows the particular dynamic of their communication infused with modern slang within disjointed texts and online chats. Their story is a wonderful tribute to how friendship can be more tight-knit than family.

What's particularly special about the way their connection is represented is that Karl's queerness isn't an issue until people outside their circle make it an issue. We feel his character and personality as unique in itself outside of any question of gender. There's no conflict in identity for Karl or the people who love him; the only conflict comes from outside of that. Some of the most emotionally charged scenes come when Karl, after much delay, finally meets his father and doesn't receive the welcome he wanted. Popoola conveys the crushing vulnerability of a child in this position, but also the beautiful way some strangers instantly accept him for the person he is. She powerfully shows the way people in Karl's position can receive wonderful support, but must still continually negotiate public knowledge of their full identity.

Equally, Abu is frequently made aware of his racial “otherness” when travelling in London especially when the riots begin. When news of this starts to spread he receives this comment on a bus: "'You people are a disgrace.' He had heard that so many times it made him laugh. Sometimes it was said out loud, like here. Most of the time it was the state. You. People. A threat." Not only does this diminish his identity as an individual, but adds to his justified concern about being perceived as a threat simply because of his skin colour. In this way Popoola gives a strong sense of a segment of British youth being alienated from a society which excludes them and this is what contributes towards "the city out of control because the country was out of control because the whole banking thing had gone like, way mad. Because none of them had much to be good for." 

“When We Speak of Nothing” makes an excellent fictional companion to the powerful book "The Good Immigrant" for the way it speaks about alienation amongst minority groups within the UK. I think this is a novel which a wide audience will enjoy, but particularly appeal to a younger readership who will identify with both the language used and issues raised. It's wonderfully engaging and has a distinctive, refreshing voice that strongly speaks about the world we live in now.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesOlumide Popoola

It’s sobering to look back on my post about mid-year favourite books in 2016 and recall how depressing the global news was at that point. Who’d have thought things could turn even more sour a year later? More than ever I’m convinced it’s important to celebrate good things like great new books being published and delve within them to understand the perspective of people and characters whose lives are so different from our own. This isn’t an act of escape from the world; it’s a way of embracing it!

I’ve read 45 books so far this year. My reading feels like it’s slowed down recently because life has been so busy. I feel really privileged to receive so many new and forthcoming publications, but I’m continuously struck with guilt that I don’t have time to read (let alone review) them all. I am aware it’s a good problem to have! But I’m glad I can at least mention all the wonderfully promising new books I want to read in regular “Book haul” videos that I film for my Youtube/Booktube channel. So (while this mid-year list is far from comprehensive) I hope I’ll have time to read more of the exciting other new books published this year which sit temptingly on my shelves at some point soon.

Here are my top ten books of the year (so far.) All of them except the anthology “The Good Immigrant” were first published in 2017. Click on the titles at the bottom to read my full thoughts about each of these outstanding books. You can also watch a video of me briefly discussing each of these books here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HSkLuQ10uPA

In past years, I ran a competition that worked so well I want to do it again.
Here’s how to enter:
-    Leave a comment letting me know the best book you’ve read so far this year (it doesn’t have to be a recently published book).
-    Leave some kind of contact info (email or Twitter/GoodReads handle).
-    At the end of July I’ll pick one of your suggestions and send that person one of my favourite books from the below list below.
-    Open to anywhere in the world.

I’m really curious to know about the best books you’ve read this year so whether you want to be entered in the competition or not please let me know in the comments below. But also let me know if you are intrigued to read any of my choices.

The Good Immigrant by Nikesh Shukla
The End We Start From by Megan Hunter
Dear Friend From My Life I Write to You in Your Life by Yiyun Li
One of the Boys by Daniel Magariel
Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo
A Book of American Martyrs by Joyce Carol Oates
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
A Boy in Winter by Rachel Seiffert

Whenever I read a description of another new novel dealing with The Holocaust I feel a little twinge of uncertainty. Despite being one of the most horrific acts of genocide in the past century it’s a subject that’s been covered in countless novels. Is there anything new to say about this atrocity? Of course there is. Many novels from Audrey Magee’s “The Undertaking” to Ben Fergusson’s “The Spring of Kasper Meier” have proven this to me. But never has a novel I’ve read about this period of history felt more relevant and close-to-home than Rachel Seiffert’s new novel “A Boy in Winter.” I’m conscious that this has a lot to do with the current politics of our world, but I truly recognized in this story situations and patterns of behaviour that feel very near. Seiffert has fictionally dealt with this era before in her debut book “The Dark Room” which is composed of three novellas connected to the war and set in Germany. This new book is set in a small village in the Ukraine over a period of a few days in late 1941 when the Nazis come marching through “cleansing” the community of its Jewish population. It’s stunningly told and it’s a devastating story, but it also speaks so powerfully about the world we live in now.

Seiffert has the most unique and powerful way of conveying the inner sense of a character’s emotions using only external descriptions. It’s something she did so expertly in her previous novel “The Walk Home” (which was one of my favourite books of 2014) and she does it again in this new novel with an adolescent Jewish boy named Yankel. Different sections of the book focus on different characters, but the author doesn’t often shine a spotlight on Yankel. Instead, we get a sense of him through other characters such as his father who has been put in a hellish temporary holding cell by the Nazis or a young woman Yasia who takes in Yankel and his younger brother. We get descriptions of the way Yankel carries himself, his stance or the movement of his eyes, but even though the reader is not often keyed into what he’s thinking we get a real emotional understanding of him from the author’s evocative external descriptions. Seiffert does this in a way which is powerful and quite unique. The arc of his story and the semi-tragic transformation he goes through in order to survive is brilliantly told.

This is an incredibly beautiful and impactful novel, but a slight problem I had with it is an instance where a certain character who is conscripted into the Nazi forces leads the reader through the way that Jewish people were processed. There’s nothing wrong with Seiffert’s descriptions of these scenes and their impact is devastating, but it clearly felt like his character was being used simply as a device to show what the author wanted to show rather than what his character would naturally encounter. However, a striking thing about this section is the way she describes the Nazis basically forcing each other to drink while they conduct their brutal and horrific executions. It gave a powerful sense of the way many of these soldiers had to use alcohol to deaden their humanity in order to perform the atrocious duties they were ordered to perform.

The central question of this novel asks what you would do if you were faced with the choice of following the evil will of an oppressive government or being severely punished for refusing to participate. It prompts you to ask yourself what you would do if neutrality wasn’t an option. Seiffert shows the complexity of this question through a number of different characters including non-Jewish Ukranians and a German engineer who takes a remote position in the army because he wants to avoid this moral dilemma but finds himself forced to make a horrific choice. The lines between an individual’s right and wrong become blurred when they are forced to ask themselves: “where was the wrong in staying alive?” It’s a haunting question.

I read this novel as part of a mini-book group I’ve formed with the writers Antonia Honeywell and Claire Fuller. We discussed it over lunch and had a fascinating conversation, but it’s quite special in that it’s the first book (out of the three we’ve read together so far including “The Underground Railroad” and “Mothering Sunday”) that all three of us were overwhelmingly positive about. Antonia and Claire are astute critics so the fact they both liked this novel so much is high praise! Rachel Seiffert is an incredibly talented writer and I find her writing moving in a way that is hard to describe. But it’s safe to say I’d recommend that everyone should read this timely historical novel.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesRachel Seiffert
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 I felt such a strong emotional connection with Zoë Duncan’s debut novel “The Shifting Pools.” She imaginatively articulates something in the content and structure of this book that I’ve been grappling with for a long time. I’ve often wondered how it is that the fear and pain we feel after experiencing trauma (whether that means being hurt emotionally or physically or unexpectedly losing the people we’re closest to) transforms the way we perceive and process the world. It’s like a kind of poisonous fuel that kindles our creativity in ways which are both beautiful and terrifying. It colours our sense of reality and allows us to cope.

The author shows this process in telling the story of a girl named Eve whose idyllic childhood in her Middle Eastern home comes to a violently abrupt end. As the sole survivor of a brutal attack, she grows up and makes a new life for herself in London but finds her sense of reality has been inexorably altered. Her subsequent journey is utterly surprising and captivating. Duncan’s narrative effortlessly moves between the internal and external reality of this deeply traumatized individual. It’s as if she finds a new language to express the inexpressible. This heartrending story will transport you to an imaginative new landscape that expresses the true nature of our everyday reality.

The novel alternates between Eve’s emotionally-brittle life in London, a fantastic land beset by malevolent darkness, anxiety-fuelled dreams and quotes from a wide variety of music, poetry and nonfiction. This might sound like a chaotic juxtaposition of elements, but they are built naturally into the story in sync with Eve’s journey towards living with her past and fully inhabiting herself as an individual. When Eve first arrived in the UK after the horror of her loss she’s taken to live with her aunt and uncle. It’s unfortunate that her aunt Vi “was a firm believer in life forging on ahead as a remedy for all ills.” While this (very English) coping method enables Eve to carry on in her life it suppresses her complex emotions. These seep out in the forms of dreams and a turbulent alternate world which she eventually physically enters.

The danger with representing such corners of the subconscious in a novel is that they can become laden with superficial symbolism. I know a lot of readers are understandably bothered when a story stops to describe the dream of a character. But, in this case, it felt to me like Eve’s dreams beautifully and dramatically demonstrate the ever-present sense of panic which pulses beneath the surface of her being. They show a disarmingly creative variety of themes which also fascinatingly demonstrate the fluidity of identity. Within Eve’s dreams she changes effortlessly between being a girl, a mother and a boy. This poignantly conveys how at heart we’re not tied to being any one gender or age or role within a family. This reminded me somewhat of Susan Barker's magnificent novel "The Incarnations" where a couple are reincarnated over centuries and change frequently from men to women in each new life.

Photograph by Hannah Lemholt

Photograph by Hannah Lemholt

The author also acknowledges within the story how the fantasy drama of rescuing an innocent girl named Alette from dark forces transparently relates to Eve’s emotional turbulence. When Eve returns from her imagined world of Enanti at one point her cousin remarks “A quest was typical, she said, a perfect symbol of our need to find something precious. And saving Alette was deeply linked to my guilt over Laila. Even I had known that, as I was dreaming.” I bought into this fantasy world because it felt so real to Eve’s struggle and the author interlaces Eve’s adventure with a displaced people with such fascinating ideas. It does become problematic at certain points in the novel where the flow of Eve’s story must be interrupted to explain the “rules” of this fantastic landscape. However, this doesn’t detract from the power of Eve’s transformation as a person.

Part of the reason why I loved this novel is that it harkened back to when I was a teenage boy reading fantasy adventure stories like Terry Brooks’ Shannara series, but it brings a sophisticated psychology and real world currency to an unreal world. On the outside Eve looks like a conventional person but she muses “Perhaps if I had looked like an outsider, the sense of dislocation I felt would not have jarred so much. But nothing marked me out.” She carefully hides her physical and emotional scars, but because she conceals the imperfect parts of herself she tends towards erratic and self-destructive behaviour. Her path towards acknowledging and living with her past is a journey which gripped and moved me. This is a novel rich in heart. It beautifully shows how we creatively reinvent ourselves and the world around us in a way which liberates us from the cruelties of reality and those who seek to diminish us.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesZoë Duncan
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I’ve been taking time with the poems in this collection for a couple of months. This is such a short book, but I often find I need to be in the right headspace to really hear what a poet is saying. Since I read so much fiction I find it difficult not to read a narrative into a collection of poems. Not that there’s anything wrong with doing this, but it feels to me like the primary aim of poetry isn’t to tell a story that can be easily summarized. It’s more like an artistic arrangement of language that should wash over you. Nevertheless, if I had to describe an overarching theme to the moving poems in this collection I’d say it’s about dealing with a mother’s death. The collection is prefaced by a quote from Freud: “The loss of a mother must be something very strange.” The poems frequently delve into the complex psychology of trying to understand this sometimes embattled relationship, especially after death. A cluster of the poems at the centre of the book give nods to Freud. Just how or why the mother died isn’t entirely clear although there are indications of self-harm or suicide: “People you love can be removed from the world (They can remove themselves).” But the overarching impression of these poems is of someone dealing with that grief, reflecting on the condition of loss and the way she still carries the presence of this lost mother.

Part of the reason these poems feel so painfully personal is the way the daughter narrating can sometimes lambast herself for not being self sufficient and for needing a mother that she can’t have. There’s also a frustration at not being able to accurately translate into language all the riotous emotion which accompany this state of being as in the poem ‘Drunken Bellarmine’: “I cannot make manifest this collection of feelings, but look at me: I want to be loved for the wrong reasons. I mean I want to be hated for the right reasons. I have been lonely.” There’s the anguish of being left alone even though she intellectually understands death and accepts this, but it can never be fully accepted. This causes her to perceive the mother as both a care-giver and a tormenter. She imagines the mother sneering down at her “We all have to die sometime, Your Majesty”

This creates a dialogic within the narrator where she understands the departed mother’s point of view, but she can’t reconcile the reality of it. This creates within her a split sense which prompts Berry to write some of her more technically ambitious poems. Some take the form of scripted plays where there is a conversation between Me One and Me Two. It also inspires a lot of imagery looking at water or reflective surfaces where the inner and out life blur into each other. Other poems suggest how she retreats infinitely inward like in the poem ‘Two Rooms’ where she exists “in a room inside a room” and only once within these walls within walls can she feel “safe.”

From a localized story of grief, these poems expand out to meaningfully consider larger issues of love and relationships. The fact that the people we love are capable of surviving without us can feel like a betrayal. Although we’re aware these feelings are entirely selfish it doesn’t detract from the pain of knowing people’s lives can carry on without our being a part of them. In the poem ‘Once’ which narrowly trails down the page she writes: “I sent my loved ones away & kindly they went I imagined them active in my absence & it was like rehearsing my death their capacity for survival was thus proved & mine too insultingly so”. The converse perspective of this is that we are also able to survive without our loved ones if forced to do so and if we can find the strength to carry on. The final poem ‘Canopy’ beautifully encapsulates a possible strategy for doing so.

I really connected with this collection. These are poems worth lingering over.

You can hear Emily Berry read her poem ‘Everything Bad is Permanent’ here: https://soundcloud.com/faberbooks/everything-bad-is-permanent

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesEmily Berry

It feels like one of the great functions of literature can be to give a voice to people who have been rendered voiceless through whatever pitfall in history. The same can be said for music which can so powerfully convey the stories of entire groups of people whose voices have been suppressed, ignored or erased by those in power. This is certainly true with the history of Blues music which was originated by African Americans in the Deep South and continued to grow and evolve through generations and decades of black oppression in America. In Hari Kunzru's latest novel “White Tears” he tells the story of an emotionally-arresting Blues song rediscovered by a pair of earnest young musicians and the dramatic effect it has on their lives. But this isn't a simple story about musical admiration or influence. Kunzru posits the compelling idea that a sound once uttered resonates indefinitely throughout history and he weaves this concept into a fascinating detective story which slides into the surreal. It’s a novel that makes powerful statements about race, privilege and the long-lasting resonance of music.

The narrator Seth meets Carter Wallace at university. He’s humbled that Carter wants to be his friend because this dreadlocked, tattooed, trust fund boy is so popular and comes from an extremely wealthy family. But they connect over music and Seth’s tech-savvy ability for capturing sound and turning it into beats and rhythms. Unsurprisingly, Carter is the black sheep of his corporate-driven family, but he’s still allowed money enough to found their music production business once they leave school. Their creative fusion of forgotten Blues and Jazz tunes with modern songs garners them a lot of attention including from an incredibly successful new pop artist that wants to pay tribute to bygone music eras. But Carter becomes obsessed by a particular song that Seth happens to record in passing. It leads them on a strange path into the past and a musical genius that’s been lost in history.

Charley Patton "Banty Rooster Blues" (1929)

There’s a steadily growing tension within the novel about the way these two white boys become attached to a black music tradition. Are they demonstrating an admiration for it or appropriating it? Seth feels that “our love of the music bought us something, some right to blackness, but by the time we got to New York, we’d learned not to talk about it.” Because they are passionate about it, they feel themselves to be in touch with the culture that created it. Seth also recalls a kind of friendship he made with a white male co-worker, Chester Bly, who was an avid Blues record collector and actively sought out forgotten musician’s work: “They were like ghosts at the edges of American consciousness. You have to understand, when I say no one knew, I mean no one. You couldn’t just look something up in a book. Things were hidden. Things got lost. Musicians got lost.” Seth sets out on a journey of discovery for music, but finds himself immersed in a culture and people that he doesn’t understand and didn’t even knew existed within his own country. Here things get very odd within the narrative.

The novel eventually transforms into a hallucinatory story where the boundaries of identity become blurred and history plays back upon itself. Seth becomes caught in a loop of time as if he were in a Beckett play: “I look down at my hands. I have always been looking down at my hands, but as in a dream when you find yourself unable to read text or tell the time, they are vague.” I found this style-shift somewhat alarming and disconcerting at first, but it eventually became really emotionally resonant for me. The later part of the book feels something like a Cesar Aira novel. The story of a man who has been greatly wronged erupts through the chaotic breakdown of Seth’s life. So it becomes partly a tale of possession and partly a revenge tale and partly a testament to an entire race of people that’s been continuously oppressed throughout American history. “White Tears” is a resonant and peculiarly haunting novel.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesHari Kunzru
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I’ve been following this wonderful book prize for a long time. In the past two years I’ve felt very certain about who will win the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction – and I’ve been right! Yay Ali Smith & Lisa McInerney! But this year I think it’s really tough to guess. There are five incredibly strong novels on this list (and one which made me go huh?) I could go through and list reasons why I think one book will be chosen above another, but to be honest it’s too close to call and I don’t think there’s a way of gauging a proper prediction. If I screw my thinking cap on really hard I’d deduce that Naomi Alderman’s “The Power” will win. But if I listen to my heart it’s telling me Madeleine Thien’s “Do Not Say We Have Nothing” will win. So that’s the best guess I can make.

Who do you think will win? Are there any on the shortlist you’re still aching to read? Or have you studiously made your way through the entire list? 

I had brunch with the shadow panel organised by Naomi this morning and we had a good long chat about our own shortlist and chose one novel as our own panel winner. Our pick will be announced on Tuesday and the real prize's winner will be announced on Wednesday, July 7th! I'll be going to the ceremony and I'm very excited to see who will win. 

An exciting announcement this past week is that in the future this prize will be known as simply the 'Women's Prize for Fiction' rather than the Baileys Prize, as Baileys will now just be one of multiple sponsors. 

Click on the titles to read my full reviews of the shortlisted books and/or watch this video where the fabulous Anna James and I break down the Baileys Prize 2017 shortlist: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ziwhLux3pqQ

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien
The Power by Naomi Alderman
Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo
The Dark Circle by Linda Grant
The Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan
First Love by Gwendoline Riley

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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It’s not often that I loathe a novel. Even if I don’t jell with a book I’ll most often quietly put it aside thinking someone else might get something out of it. But reading Gwendoline Riley’s novel “First Love” made me angry. You may think this strong emotional reaction would mean it’s worth seeking it out for yourself. You’re by all means free to do so, but I think you’d be wasting your time because I don’t think this novel has anything to say. The reason it stirs such malice within me is because I think it’s a terrible missed opportunity. It portrays the life of a writer named Neve, her marriage to an older man Edwyn, the difficult people on the fringes of their lives and their vicious arguments. The central question of this book is: why are the people we love horrible to us sometimes? It’s an aching concern that almost all of us will experience to varying degrees throughout our lives. But this novel offers no answers. It is instead a claustrophobic tedious story which purposely withholds letting you know the central characters, but still flaunts all the violent machinations of their egos leaving the reader feeling like they’ve been emotionally vomited over.

I felt like Gwendoline Riley didn’t give any sense of understanding for her characters and therefore she didn’t earn the right to thrust in my face all of their dirty laundry. I’m not saying I don’t want to read about unlikeable characters or that it isn’t right to pay witness to the horrendously cruel way so-called “loved ones” can hurt us or that I want a nice rounded explanation of why people can be so nasty, but I need some context or frame within which to understand them. It’s explained how Neve is a financially unstable writer whose father was abusive, whose problematic mother didn’t support her and who experienced tumultuous relationships prior to marrying her cantankerous and misogynistic husband. However, this story was not properly fleshed out by the author and did not let me understand the experiences Neve has gone through. Instead she flits from one brutal encounter and argument to another.

Later on she considers the pointlessness of reflection and trying to understand the past:

“Time doesn't help. You forget, for years, even, but it's still there. A zone of feeling. A cold shade. I barely drink now, but when I do, sometimes I see so clearly how nothing's changed. Not one thing. About who I am and what I am. I don't have to be drunk. When I least expect it, my instincts are squalid, my reactions are squalid, vengeful. And for what? What am I so outraged by? Little mite with a basilisk stare. Grown woman. My parents were hopeless. And? Helpless, as we all are. Life is appalling. My father ate himself to death. Isn't that enough? A year before that, in a short email to my brother he mused,
'Should I tell you/shield you? The latest. Peri-anal abscesses! Pain unimaginable!'
Won't that do?”

My response to this (which I felt like shouting at the book) is: No! That won’t do. I get that Neve is conflicted and struggles with self-loathing, but I feel like I'm not given her full point of view or a meaningful understanding of her past. And without getting a sense of a character’s sense of being I feel alienated from her struggles rather than sympathetic to them.

Neve and Edwyn have circular arguments where he berates her for her actions and a single evening when she came home as a messy drunk. This sort of emotional abuse within a relationship feels very real. Years ago I saw the pair of documentaries ‘Domestic Violence’ and ‘Domestic Violence 2’ by Frederick Wiseman. In one of them there is a gruellingly long sequence where late at night a husband endlessly criticizes his wife while she pleads with him to simply let her sleep. It’s horrible, but the faithfully-recorded length of this repetitious encounter drives home the reality of this poisonous relationship in a way which is incredibly moving and heartbreaking. Conversely, the circular arguments between Neve and Edwyn don’t give the same effect because they aren’t given any context. Edwyn is simply brutal and Neve simply takes it. Edwyn speculates she might think of him as a stand-in for her horrible father. It even comes into question whether Edwyn even exists; he might be a psychological phantom Neve uses to beat herself up. But these possibilities aren’t given the proper amount of space in the text to be effective.

The one exception to the sketchily drawn characters in this novel is Neve’s mother who is incredibly difficult and troubled and has a lack of willpower, but feels like a more fully rounded character. I appreciated the scenes with her and felt like I got her as a person because she presented to Neve a version of her own past and her point of view. She’s not a reliable narrator in these speeches. Her recollections are, of course, filtered through her own prejudices, but I get that and it made me curious to reading about her as a flawed individual. However, I didn’t get this at all from Neve or Edwyn or Neve’s ex Michael. They spew vitriol without any meaningful reflection. Yet, their stories unfortunately make up the bulk of this short novel.

Even though this is such a short novel, if I weren’t reading it because it’s part of the Baileys Prize shortlist I wouldn’t have bothered finishing it. I don’t think I would have lost anything by not getting to the last page. I don’t think the ending provides any more insight or poignancy than the rest of the novel. Frankly, I’m a bit baffled as to why it’s on the shortlist and why other people have responded so positively to it. I’m going to keep reading other reviews to see what I’ve missed about it. For a different point of view, read a positive review at Naomi’s TheWritesofWomen or Eleanor’s thoughts on why she hoped it’d be on the shortlist at ElleThinks. Or you can watch why Anna most definitely didn’t like this book in our Baileys shortlist prediction video. It will be fascinating to hear Gwendoline Riley’s own thoughts about her novel at the Baileys Prize shortlist readings on Monday. If you’ve read it, I’d love to know your thoughts in the comments below.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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One of my highlights from last year’s reading was participating in a Jean Rhys reading week. So when I saw that Waterstones Gower Street is doing a ‘Forgotten Fiction’ reading group where they’ll be discussing Jean Rhys’ “Voyage in the Dark” as well as Lynne Reid Banks’ seminal book first published in 1960, I jumped at the chance to read this classic novel for the first time. Before I even started reading I felt a big bout of nostalgia as I realized Reid Banks also wrote one of my favourite children’s books “The Indian in the Cupboard.” This imaginative drama takes place in a child’s bedroom where he can bring his toys to life and I connected with it so strongly when I was young. It’s interesting to now read Reid Banks’ gritty realist novel that represents the experience of being a single young woman whose father has thrown her out of their home for being pregnant. The novel incisively portrays the social prejudices the heroine Jane faces and the internalized shame she feels as a consequence, but also how her strength of will helps her endure and establish a new life for herself.

Although Jane works at a decently-paid job, after her father expels her from their house she moves into a seedy and bug-infested boarding house in Fulham. She feels that “In some obscure way I wanted to punish myself, I wanted to put myself in the setting that seemed proper to my situation.” The attic room she takes has an odd L-shape and twines around the room of her neighbour John, a black musician who increasingly becomes a devoted friend. Unfortunately, I couldn’t help wincing at Jane’s descriptions of John who she claims at different times to have an “animal” smell and a “negro odour.” This is symptomatic of a present-day difficulty with this novel. Although Jane’s position of being an unmarried pregnant woman who refuses to get rid of her baby must have been quite a radically liberal stance in her time, the way she describes people of colour and gay people is problematic and cringe-worthy.

Early on in the novel when she was working within an acting troupe she describes her antagonistic relationship with a gay actor who fancies her boyfriend Terry. She and Terry make out in front of this gay man to show him that they are “normal” and that he is not. Later on she visits a curry house and remarks how the Indians who serve her smile “in an enigmatic Eastern way.” It’s interesting thinking how progressive it must have been at the time to portray homosexuals and racial minorities in any way within a novel. However, no one could write such descriptions now without being considered bigoted. But, in a way, I’m glad that Jane’s provincial point of view is so blatant as it highlights her unconscious prejudices and how they contrast so sharply against the prejudice she receives as an unmarried pregnant woman in this time. She’s sympathetic and friendly with the racial and sexual minorities that she meets in the novel, but she was probably totally naïve about the way her attitude denigrated these people. Interestingly she seems more conscious of the effect her ex-boyfriend Terry’s anti-Semitic attitude has on her Jewish neighbour Toby.

None of this detracts from this novel’s moving and well portrayed story. Some of the strongest scenes show how powerless and vulnerable a woman in Jane’s situation was made to feel. She goes to visit a doctor to confirm her suspicion that she’s pregnant and she recounts how he realizes that she’s unmarried and therefore “he looked at me reproachfully. I stared back at him, feeling suddenly angry. I hadn’t come to him to be looked at like that. He wasn’t my father, it was nothing to him. But I couldn’t think of any stinging words to say; I just sat there, feeling angry and humiliated.” The scene devolves into an even more egregious situation. I felt totally outraged that someone in such a perilous situation should be lambasted with such moralistic judgement and shady medical practices in this era before the 1967 Abortion Act in England. Of course, the most biting and cruel scenes are when she receives contempt for accidentally becoming pregnant from her own father and the man she later falls in love.

Jane feels an overwhelming sense of shame when she understands the full extent of the public’s opinion of her: “I was right in the middle of a moment of truth, and it was still and quiet and empty in there, as it is supposed to be in the heart of a tornado.” However, the novel is certainly not all bleak as she also experiences wonderful moments of sympathy and kindness from strangers, a friend and another family member. Nor are doctors all bad once she manages to find a sensible one. It’s encouraging to read a story about someone who can survive and thrive despite the social stigma which has been attached to her – much in the same way as Joyce Carol Oates portrayed in her novel “We Were the Mulvaneys.” Where Reid Banks’ novel really excels is the complex way she shows how Jane can overcome her own self-loathing about her situation and transform it into a source of strength. I'm looking forward to going to the reading group and considering the parallels and differences between Jean Rhys' writing and Reid Banks'.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson

Last weekend I had the unique experience of staying at a beautiful historic library that’s also a B&B. How cool is that? The Gladstone’s Library is in North Wales and it’s a public library that anyone can join. It was founded by William Gladstone who was a prime minister that served for four terms, but he was also an insatiable reader. He arranged before his death for his enormous collection of books to be converted and housed in a custom-built library and fascinatingly over 11,000 books in this library have his annotations inside them. The library also has a literature festival and an author-in-residence program, but I’d really recommend it as a place to go for a reading getaway. The rooms are cozy, there are several secluded spots to curl up and read around the property and it’s like a grand old house with lots of hidden bookish treasures to discover. Ridiculously, I brought many of my own books to read while there, but didn’t get through nearly as many as I wanted to. I stayed there two nights reading “Anything Is Possible” by Elizabeth Strout, “Tin Man” by Sarah Winman and some stories from Kathleen Collins’ collection “Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?” If you want to watch a video I made about the journey you can see it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rAloR8A3Cms

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson

Elizabeth Strout’s new novel “Anything is Possible” is the follow up and something of a continuation of her 2016 novel “My Name is Lucy Barton.” In a way it feels as if she is self consciously playing with the structure of the novel to capture an individual’s state of being from different angles. While the former gave fragments of Lucy’s life all centred around the recollection of a hospital visit from her mother, this new novel works more like a collection of interlinked short stories revolving around individuals connected with Lucy’s early life. These are people from the place of her deprived youth in rural Illinois. Many are struggling with issues of continuing poverty, obesity, isolation or emotional insecurity – even those who grew to be financially successful or married someone wealthy are still scarred by the privation of their younger years. Lucy Barton is the big local success story as she’s been in the media because she has a new book out (something of a memoir) which is also displayed in the local bookstore. She hovers in the consciousness of many of these characters prompting feelings of admiration, tenderness, jealousy or resentment. Around the gravitational pull of the (mostly) absent figure of Lucy, we’re given snapshots from these people’s later lives to create a tremendously powerful portrait of a community.

It would be somewhat useful to have a chart to plot out all the links between people portrayed in this novel as I found myself flipping back and forth to get the connections. This wasn’t a problem for me, more like an engaging puzzle. It will also be especially interesting to go back to the first novel to see where some characters have been mentioned previously. However, I don’t think it’s necessary to read “My Name is Lucy Barton” before reading this new novel. It can quite safely stand on its own as there’s no vital information lacking and each individual’s story is complete in itself. Some have nothing to do with Lucy at all, but others lean heavily on memories or opinions about Lucy. However, for readers who want to know more about Lucy Barton, there are some startling and heartbreaking revelations about her past. But overall the stories are wide-ranging from a celibate guidance counsellor to a Vietnam War vet involved in a complicated relationship with a prostitute to a B&B owner who is not to be trifled with. This is one of those books like Sara Taylor's “The Shore” or Yaa Gyasi's “Homegoing” that deals with characters individually so that it might feel like you're reading interlinked short stories, but an overarching conception and worldview binds the text together as a novel.

Set right in the middle of the novel is the story of Angelina, a grown woman who is estranged from her husband and goes to visit her seventy-eight year old mother Mary who lives in Italy. The pair converse about their lives, family and local gossip while awkwardly realigning their mother-daughter relationship as they haven’t seen each other in a number of years. Their intimacy stands out in sharp contrast to “My Name is Lucy Barton” where the extended conversations between mother and daughter were considerably icier. Yet, Mary and Angelina’s relationship is also strained as it feels like the daughter (the youngest in their large family) has never been able to grow out of her childish role. She desires something intangible from her mother just like Lucy Barton, but neither of these women can ever fully articulate what this thing is. The way that Strout relays their interactions and meditations about this strange state of being is moving and thought-provoking. I can’t help but feel she’s making a grander statement about mother-daughter relationships by juxtaposing Angelina & Mary's conversations with Lucy & Lydia's, but I feel like I’d need to reread both novels to fully grasp the implications of this.

Mary always believed that Elvis Presley was her secret friend though she had never once seen him.

Something that Strout does so exquisitely in this novel is portray the way in which people quietly maintain private beliefs throughout their lives. For instance, a man in one section believes that the disaster of his barn burning down was the will of God. Another woman believes that when her final daughter was born she recognized her instantly – whereas her other children felt like strangers at birth. These beliefs are intensely private and it would feel profane for the people who possess them to utter these ideas aloud. They are acknowledged to be totally illogical, yet they seem to guide their lives and influence their value systems like some private form of mysticism. It feels to me like many of us maintain these whimsical beliefs or superstitions which are admittedly absurd but still inform the core of our being. Strout illuminates how these occur in several of her characters' lives. They're examples of why a somewhat fanciful inner life exists simultaneously with the stark reality of our outer lives.

Although many of these stories are filled with vicious conflict there are intensely beautiful examples of kindness and sensitive reflection. Strout gets people's gritty characters while also recognizing the elegance with which everyone imagines a better future for themselves, but inevitably falls short because the world is never what we really believe it to be. One character muses “How did you ever know? You never knew anything, and anyone who thought they knew anything – well, they were in for a great big surprise.” Lucy Barton is viewed by many in her town as a success story, but part of the price of that success is never being able to return to the past. No matter how hard Lucy tries to reconnect with her origin or write about the “truth” of it, she can't fully engage with it. If she'd had a different constitution her story could have been the stories of any one of these people from her humble hometown. But she was determined to make her own way forward.

 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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Something about the liquid imagery and cryptic title drew me to this novel. London has a big Brazilian community so I was curious to read about that cross-cultural experience as well. The novel centres around Andre, a Brazilian man in his later years who has lived his whole adult life in the UK. But he was raised in a privileged white upper-middle class family in Rio de Janeiro. There his family had a maid or an “empregada” named Rita and her mixed-race daughter Luana who also served the family. Andre hasn’t had contact with Luana for many years, but recently he’s received letters from her and it’s forced him to revisit a past which he’s denied throughout his life. Gradually the story of his tumultuous teenage years is revealed and the reason why he’s so stridently distanced himself from his country of birth and his family. It’s a novel that comes with a gripping twist which creates a complex picture of love.

In its concept this book is somewhat similar to Julian Barnes’ novel “The Sense of an Ending” for the way the story forces a man to radically reconsider the dramatic choices he made in his youth. It also teasingly questions our perception of what’s happening around us in relation to how those events are cemented in our collective idea of history. Andre reflects “Young people don’t know the importance of things when they’re happening, but when those images still play in your mind long after your hair’s gone grey and your belly slack, that’s when you know.” It’s fascinating the way events which seem trivial or circumstantial can inflate into having a greater importance we never could have attributed to them at the time. Andre discovers certain facts about the past and what was lost which make him see his life in a more rounded way and develop an empathy for other people’s perspectives.

Chico Buarque 'Tatuagem' - Andre's mother's favourite song. "She sang 'Tatuagem' often; sometimes whistled it. Its melancholy tune could be heard, distantly, all over our flat in Ipanema."

Part of what motivated Andre’s emotional decisions in his youth was the sudden death of his mother which we learn about quite early in the novel. It left a teenage Andre and his younger brother to be raised by his workaholic father Matheus so that they lived in an entirely male household. Andre’s sharp memories of his mother are beautifully rendered: “Even now, I can see my mother and hear her loud voice, her heels clicking on the floor. She’s like a pop song, the melody and lyrics imprinted in my mind.” There also existed in their household the female presences of Rita and her daughter Luana, but there’s an awkward tension here as they navigate the intimacies of home life, the formality of the women as servants and the developing sexual attraction between Andre and Luana. The dynamic of these relationships highlight the strident class system in place in Brazil at that time.

Matheus worked as a plastic surgeon and it’s also interesting to see the way the class of people their family socialized with was so obsessed with appearance and beauty. However, Andre’s father also had a clandestine after-hours job delivering abortions. Abortion is a controversial issue and laws concerning it are in the process or being amended – where traditionally abortion has only been legal there if the pregnancy puts the woman’s life in danger or if that pregnancy was the result of rape. However, these issues aren’t explored in the novel and I would have been fascinated to read about them – especially as a counterpart to my recent reading of Joyce Carol Oates’ novel “A Book of American Martyrs.” The middle of Sauma’s novel lags somewhat as its concerned more with mundane details about tensions in Luana and Andre’s relationship rather than these more complex social issues. However, I can see why the author chose to focus exclusively on the issue of their affair because otherwise it would have become a very different kind of novel. And when the twist comes in this book I was wholly invested and thoroughly gripped. After this point the revelations unfold thick and fast. It’s a promising debut novel and I hope to read more by Sauma in the future.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesLuiza Sauma
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