Nicola Barker’s novels consistently surprise and puzzle me with their wide-ranging subject matter, discursive style and wondrously mind-bending sensibility. She’s a writer frequently in tune with what’s happening now whether it’s memorialising a magician’s 2003 performance art in her novel “Clear” or investigating the contemporary cultural and ethnic landscape of England through the life of a boorish pro-golfer in her novel “The Yips.” So it feels like another creative feat that she sets her new novel “H(A)PPY” not just in a dystopian future, but in a post-post apocalyptic time. Here she charts the journey of a musician named Mira A as some inner rebellion forces her to question the meaning of freedom, creativity, individuality and, yes, happiness itself. The result is a fascinating tale which speaks strongly about our modern times and demonstrates impressively daring narrative ingenuity.

Far in the future after society has been ravaged by a number of disasters, the general population has been reigned into a state of consistent harmony by plugging their lives into a continuous stream and an overarching graph which monitors and stabilizes their lives. All basic needs are cared for with clothes that instantly fit to meet a wearer's needs. Sexual frustration isn't an issue because people's genitals have shrunk down to virtually nothing due to an evolutionary process. Unhappiness has been ironed out from the populace through something like that age-old Buddhist adage: ‘if one can eliminate desire/attachment, one can eliminate suffering.’ Any inconsistent or strong feelings are flagged in the narrative of this collective grid and Barker shows this by actually changing the colour of the text on the page. Words that might incite chaotic emotion such as arrogant or embarrassment are subject to a “pinkering” effect. This System corrects such inconsistencies in its population through chemicals or, in extreme cases, ominous-sounding clamps fitted around the head.

The modern parallels are immediately obvious in that (if you use social media) you are frequently contributing to and participating in a continuous collective narrative of text and images. While ostensibly this should be an arena for open/free-thinking debate, we must ask ourselves sometimes how much we both monitor each other and ourselves, modifying the language we use and what we post to fit in with each other or not be too disruptive. No one wants to be subject to an online backlash. Yet we participate because we want to participate just as Mira A wants to cleanse her narrative stream in order to be equanimous. She believes in the righteousness of what are called “the Young” who exist in a subdued present state of perpetual harmony. But an issue keeps arising where her affirmation of a H(A)PPY state persists in “disambiguating” and “parenthesising.”

Mira A has begun to form her own narrative in the text of this book and that's where the trouble arrises. This sets her existence in a timeline. If you are cognizant of the past and thinking about the future you are subject to the interplay between memory, imagination and the present time you live in. Here is the chaos of consciousness which is never stable, but always shifting and surprising and raising more questions. We try to make sense of the world when there is no sense to be made which is why some of us are obsessed with reading so much, but no matter how many books we read they will never be enough. Instead, we're perpetually considering other narratives and letting these mingle with, inform and colour our own. When Mira A finds herself unable to stop the flow of her narrative someone who challenges her observes “What is behind the blind alley? you scream. What is the mystery? What is the secret? 'But these are empty questions. There is no secret here, no mystery, just empty speculation.'” There is no definitive answer or ultimate knowledge, but we keep asking questions, reading about other lives and telling our own stories.

A performance by Agustin Barrios. In her preface, Barker suggests listening to his music while reading this novel.

Mira A finds herself embroiled in a struggle between someone who is trying to stabilize the System and someone who is trying to break it with a revolution called “The Banal.” No matter how ardently and frequently she chastises herselfwith the phrase *TERRIBLE DISCIPLINE* her narrative continues, her behaviour becomes increasingly erratic and random streams of information flood in. She's haunted by and seeks to riff off from the music of Agustín Barrios who was a Paraguayan virtuoso guitarist and composer from the early 20th century. Like a Google search which plunges us into a rabbit hole of infinite information his music leads to interjections about the colonial history of Paraguay, the suppression of its native language and social oppression. Add to this a haunting sense of Mira A's connection to a distant red planet, a bizarre twin self (Mira B), a brown-eyed girl in a photograph, a cathedral constructed out of phrases and a sinister mechanical canine named Tuck and the story gets very weird. About halfway through this novel it becomes totally wild where the text leaps off the page, changes font, inflates, overlaps, fizzles, twists backward and shades into different colours. Mira A even dips her finger into the text to form cryptic hieroglyphic shapes.

This is a novel that you either play along with or get turned off by. I enjoyed the crazy ride. If you are continuously fascinated by but overwhelmed and dispirited with the boundless streams of information to be found online (like I frequently am) Barker reflects this well. At the same time I was moved by the way the story evokes questions about the interplay between our stream of thoughts and our online social timelines. Consciously or not, we try to cultivate and control online personas by the information we choose to share or manipulate or withhold or erase. Mira A wants to simply fit in and be happy, but her personality has crooked edges. It's only through embracing our differences and contradictions that we're able to feel fully ourselves. Despite innately knowing this we keep trying to regulate ourselves and control the way people perceive us. That's what makes this fantastical novel feel so prescient and real.

Read a fun interview with Nicola Barker here:

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesNicola Barker
4 CommentsPost a comment

Immigration is such a heated political topic in Britain - especially since the Brexit vote last year - that it's interesting to consider how other countries have experienced waves of anti-immigration sentiments in recent times. Kopano Matlwa's “Evening Primrose” is set in a post-apartheid South Africa where a growing wave of xenophobia causes an especially brutal period of cruelty and violence against foreigners. Not only are Zimbabweans, Nigerians, Somalis and Chinese immigrants targeted, but those who support them are derided, threatened and attacked. The novel is written as a series of journal entries by a good-hearted, but conflicted young woman named Masechaba. When the novel opens she's just graduated from medical school and she's quickly introduced to how harsh it is working within South Africa's healthcare system. Her feelings of frustration are exasperated by suffering from depression and the grief of recently losing a close family member under tragic circumstances. Becoming an anti-xenophobia campaigner empowers and fills her with hope, but it also leads to unforeseen events that produce crushing heartache. Her story is a moving account of faith, friendship, a deeply conflicted society and finding the right path in life.

It's not till the end of the novel that you discover the reason why it's called “Evening Primrose.” I rather like it when novels (like Marlon James' “A Brief History of Seven Killings”) do this as it feels like a special secret which only a dedicated reader is allowed to know. But it's interesting that this novel was published in South Africa with the title “Period Pain.” When Masechaba recounts her painful years of puberty and the extreme difficulties having her period caused her it becomes clear why this alternative title is entirely valid. Reading about these experiences made me cross my legs and understand how privileged I am as a man not to have endured this challenging stage of development. Masechaba didn't choose to study medicine for idealistic reasons but to seek help to deal with her unusually heavy amount of menstrual bleeding. Although she goes into the profession thinking they'd only help people she's quickly disillusioned because of how many people doctors aren't able to save. It leads her to feel that doctors are “Murderers, all of us. Murderers.”

Masechaba's conflicts feel all the more intense due to the directness of the narrative. Journal entries naturally contain a lot of raw emotion which is usually edited out in other forms of communication. It also adds an element of much-needed light relief to the many dark aspects of this book because she can sometimes be gossipy and humorous in her accounts. Writing the novel in journal entries also has its drawbacks where some sections rush through and skip over events. Other forms of narrative would go into more detail which would help emotionally prepare the reader for certain startling revelations. But the novel-as-journal also introduces a level of complexity to Masechaba's psychology as the person she's directing these entries to changes over the course of the book. Each section is proceeded by a quote from the bible and much of the novel shows her own reckoning with and questioning of God. Other entries are directed towards her artist brother Tshiamo. But the reader is always aware that this is a really deep meditative conversation that she's having with herself. Her quest to establish a stable and solid sense of identity is intensely felt, especially when she's utterly lost: “I don't know who I am anymore. I don't know what defines me. I feel like a failure.” The great beauty and pleasure of this novel is that she ultimately finds strength of character from an entirely unexpected source.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesKopano Matlwa
2 CommentsPost a comment

Surely the Greek myth of warrior-king Agamemnon and his downfall must be the story of the most dysfunctional family in history. In his most recent novel “House of Names” Tóibín reenacts this dramatic tragedy, but doesn’t focus on the perspective of the great conqueror of Troy who horrifically sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia to the gods in order to ensure his victory. Instead he flips between the accounts of Agamemnon’s scheming wife Clytemnestra, imperious daughter Electra and young son Orestes. Moving between their points of view he shows how their downfall is fuelled by their various ambitions and craven need for revenge. If you’re not familiar with the details of this myth I’d advise you not to search for their stories online prior to reading this novel (as I unfortunately did) or you’ll ruin the blood-soaked plot. However, the power of Tóibín’s invention isn’t in plotting out this ancient story (whose details he seems to mostly stay faithful to) but in how he vividly imagines the points of view of these more marginalized figures of the myth and letting their voices color the well-worn tale. 

It’s somewhat funny looking back to my last review of a Tóibín novel when I read “Nora Webster” a few years ago. In the first line I comment that “his stories seldom involve high drama.” It’s like the author took that challenge and recreated a story with nothing but wickedly sensational drama! Tóibín’s great talent has traditionally been in writing domestic dramas where nothing much happens but we feel the angst of the characters’ life decisions so intensely that their stories become utterly profound. However, in recent years, he’s changed his tactic by harkening back to classic tales to expand our understanding of these old stories and imbue them with a modern sensibility. This is what he did by taking on the daring and weighty task of writing “The Testament of Mary.” Strangely, this brief novel where the mother of Jesus gets to have her say had little impact on me - although I absolutely loved the staged monologue starring Fiona Shaw holding a live vulture! However, I was enthralled reading “House of Names” for both it’s fiery action and sensitive take on a family ripped apart amidst their power struggle.

Agamemnon mostly comes across as a blandly driven man who “was an image of pure will.” The real conflict exists with his wife and children who are understandably overwrought by emotions because of the heinous actions of their family members. It’s interesting how the stories of Clytemnestra and Electra turn to meditations on faith. They separately struggle with their belief in the gods and how the gods’ actions play upon human emotions. Clytemnestra considers how “they distracted us with mock conflicts, with the shout of life, they distracted us also with images of harmony, beauty, love… And when it ended, they shrugged. They no longer cared.” Whereas Electra thinks “Perhaps the gods keep the memory of death locked up in their store, jealously guarded. Instead, the gods release feelings that were once pure or sweet. Feelings that mattered once. They allow love to matter since love can do no harm to the dead.” Tóibín intensely portrays their struggle between being servants to the will of the gods and exerting their own willpower in changing the course of fate. The narrative also charts what seems to be a societal shift from a polytheistic civilization to one which is more atheistic – as well as a change from feudalism to one which isn’t so domineering towards serfs and slaves.

Pierre Narcisse Guerin's 1822 painting 'Clytemnestra and Agamemnon'

Pierre Narcisse Guerin's 1822 painting 'Clytemnestra and Agamemnon'

Probably the most sympathetic character in this drama is young Orestes who finds himself a pawn in his family’s scheming until he’s a bit older and takes things into his own hands. Strangely, his account is the only one which isn’t actually narrated in the first person. Like Madeline Miller’s beautiful novel “The Song of Achilles”, the character of Orestes allows Tóibín to highlight this character’s homosexuality (which is suggested in some versions of this myth, but which Tóibín makes overt). There’s no question that Orestes falls in love with a man in this story, but he’s unable to explore the romantic implications of this due to societal constraints. While it’s considered quite natural in this society for leaders to have late-night rendezvous with guards, these affairs are never carried out in domestic partnerships. Tóibín powerfully depicts the tragedy and isolation which results from this.

The most poignant aspect of “House of Names” is tied to its title. Amidst all the devastation and bloodshed in this society, people’s existence doesn’t end neatly with their deaths. Instead they literally carry on in ghost-like forms to haunt the spaces where the intense dramas of their lives occurred. The way in which Tóibín portrays this is unsettling and strange and much more subtle than the raucous and magnificently-rendered graveyard found in Saunders’ recent “Lincoln in the Bardo.” But while Tóibín’s characters are still alive they frequently emphasize and assert their names as if everything about their being is tied up in these monikers. If their names are lost or forgotten then they will be lost to history and this makes the characters question if their existence has any significance at all. Through this Tóibín meaningfully probes if it’s better to be remembered for your actions (whether heroic or hateful) or if living without notoriety and letting your name be forgotten is preferable. 

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesColm Toibin
6 CommentsPost a comment

When I was a teenager one of my favourite authors was Eugene Ionesco – I was much more into theatre/ playwriting at that time than I was into reading novels. One of his most famous plays “Exit the King” depicts a belligerent king who sees his kingdom and followers literally disappearing around him. Yuri Herrera’s novel “Kingdom Cons” shows a similarly absurdist sensibility and medieval-in-nature drama to discuss contemporary existentialist issues. But rather than focus on the perspective of the tyrannical ruler, Herrera’s protagonist is an artist/musician named Lobo who ingratiates himself into becoming a part of the court of a “king.” In reality this king is the leader of a drug cartel, but the descriptions of his followers (a witch/heir/doctor/commoners) and the manner of their business all hark back to a mythic time centuries ago. The gritty realism of gang warfare is mixed with a language that invokes vast royal kingdoms grasping for power. Lobo seeks to find his place and maintain the authenticity of his songs amidst these bloody battles to maintain control.

This is a very short novel and Herrera’s writing leaps between vast cerebral subjects to peculiar tangents. I was really up for an absurdist take on gang violence and the artist’s sensibility, but unfortunately this book didn’t come together for me. It felt too erratic and passed too quickly. Lobo’s struggle about how far he should compromise in order to gain the favour of the king and enjoy everything that goes with privilege is compelling: “he kept telling himself that to lie for Him was worth it, it was”. But this doesn’t develop as substantially as it could. It’s let down further by the sense that as an artist Lobo sees himself as fundamentally better than everyone else around him: “The only special one was him.” This really put me off his character and I found the arc of his journey sadly devolved into an unnecessary quest to save his lover.

The question of an artist’s role in society is compelling, especially when artists are under pressure to manipulate or use their artwork for political purposes. This issue was explored so powerfully in the novels “The Noise of Time” by Julian Barnes and “Do Not Say We Have Nothing” by Madeleine Thien which used real historical incidents within their stories. I think it would be possible to meaningful explore similar themes in a fantastical or absurdist landscape, but Herrera doesn’t quite accomplish this in a novel so brief and cryptic. It felt particularly disappointing to me since I’ve heard lots of great things about this writer and was so eager to try one of his books. But even though “Kingdom Cons” didn’t work for me, I’d still be interested to try reading his earlier novels.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesYuri Herrera
4 CommentsPost a comment

My friend Anna James and I frequently chat about great new books we’re reading. We’ve collaborated on a few videos in the past talking about new releases or the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. Well, we’ve been plotting for ages to start our own book club and it’s finally happening.

In the great tradition of Oprah's Book Club in the US and Richard & Judy in the UK, we've formed a book club because we want to galvanize people into reading and discussing books that we love! We've selected 8 titles published in 2016-17 which are now out in paperback. At the end of each month from July-October 2017 we'll record a video where we'll discuss 2 books from the list. We'd LOVE for you to join in!

Watch this video intro to learn more:

- Anyone in the world can read along
- Let us know your thoughts about each book through email at, social media, our GoodReads group or making your own blog posts/videos reacting to the books.
- Also post any questions, reactions or topics of discussion you'd like us to talk about in the video

The books are:
Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan by Ruth Gilligan
Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta
All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan
An Unrestored Woman by Shobha Rao
The Arab of the Future by Riad Sattouf
Bone Gap by Laura Ruby
The Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Shukla
Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist by Sunil Yapa

At the end of July we'll record a video on The Good Immigrant & Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan

Thanks for reading along with us!

Neel Mukherjee may have narrowly missed out on winning the Booker Prize when his previous novel “The Lives of Others” was shortlisted in 2014, but someone ought to give this writer a crown just for writing such impactful openings in his novels. In both that book and his new novel “A State of Freedom” I was moved, surprised and totally gripped after reading the first twenty or thirty pages. The vignettes which open these novels are separate from the main plots but have the ability to capture a reader’s attention and emotionally set the tone for what’s to come. In the case of this new novel, we meet a man who returns to India after living in America for a long time with his son in tow. On their travels to tourist sites he has a conflicted sense of identity seeing his native country through Western eyes. He has feelings of guilt mixed with anxiety and disgust. Then something so surprising and eerie occurs that I became hooked. The novel goes on to describe the lives of a few different individuals whose stories connect in fascinating ways. It’s a sweeping story that makes a complex but highly readable portrait of the state of modern India, economic inequality, classism and national identity.

Although the novel deals with a lot of serious subjects and has many brutally heartrending scenes, a lot of the book is saturated by the warm sensation of cooking. In the second section, an unnamed character makes annual visits to his family in Bombay after he’s permanently settled in England. He’s writing a book about regional Indian cooking because he asserts “Indians have always known there is nothing called Indian food, only different, sometimes wildly and thrillingly different, regional cuisines. This is a fact that has been flattened out in the West.” So he develops a special interest in his parents’ Bengali cook Renu and frequently gossips with his mother about her and their maid Milly. We’re given a strong sense of the flavours of their meals and aromas like fennel, cumin, fenugreek, nigella and mustard seeds which permeate their kitchen. These descriptions are not only evocative of sensory experience but the author delineates the origins of dishes, their attachment to particular sections of society and the way recipes are passed down through generations. This character’s desire to acquire this information and neatly present it for a British audience begs questions about cultural appropriation or cultural/class tourism as he delves further into Renu’s humble origins and the slum she inhabits.

A Qalandar and his bear.

A Qalandar and his bear.

The story veers sharply when the next section describes a baby bear which emerges into a village out of the wilderness. A poor man named Lakshman burdened with caring for his family and his absent brother’s children takes possession of the bear which he names Raju. He alights upon a money-making scheme to train the bear in the tradition of some wandering ascetic Sufi dervishes who make their bears “dance” for the amusement of the public. In reality, the methods used to get these bears to “perform” requires torturous techniques and Lakshman is aware that this practice has been outlawed. Nevertheless, he and Raju set out on a journey to make their fortune. It’s a sad, poignant and tense tale as Lakshman believes he develops an emotional connection with his bear, but the reader is highly aware that the bear’s animal nature persists despite being violently tamed.

One of the biggest luxuries that divide people into different classes and levels of privilege is access to education. The novel takes a surprising turn when the next section describes the back story of the maid Milly, her impoverished childhood and conversion to Christianity. The family and many local villagers convert because they are promised “a big sack of rice. It was food for a month.” Although Milly shows a natural flair for learning and enjoys reading with a passion, her education is abruptly cut off at the age of eight when she’s forced to travel far away to work as a maid.
“‘And school?’ she [Milly] asked in a small voice. ‘Studying?’
‘Nothing doing,’ her mother replied impatiently. ‘Studying. What is that for a girl?’ You’ll be more useful bringing in some money. Now shut up.’”

Naturally, being a lover of reading this scene felt particularly heartbreaking. But it also made me inwardly cheer as Milly tries to find secret ways to continue reading in her new places of employment. 

We follow the agonizing condition of Milly’s life as she works for a variety of households. Earlier this year, I read Anne Brontë’s first novel “Agnes Grey” which recounts the life of a humble governess as she works for a series of middle/upper class families. It feels like Mukherjee uses the same method here, depicting a servant in a variety of settings to both satirize the behavior of a girl’s privileged employers and expose the egregious abuse heaped upon the servant class. While Brontë’s depiction might have been scandalous at the time, Mukherjee’s is even more so now for the way he shows Milly is not only oppressed but turned into an imprisoned slave.

"The world transformed - in the burnished gold of the winter afternoon sun, the umber-red sandstone used for the whole complex at Fatehpur Sikri seemed like carved fire, something the sun had magicked out of the red soil in their combined image and likeness."

"The world transformed - in the burnished gold of the winter afternoon sun, the umber-red sandstone used for the whole complex at Fatehpur Sikri seemed like carved fire, something the sun had magicked out of the red soil in their combined image and likeness."

Running parallel with Milly’s story is that of her childhood friend Soni who suffers devastating losses due to illness. This highlights another important schism between classes of society: access to healthcare. Through emotional scenes in a rural underfunded and understaffed hospital the author powerfully depicts how “Illness was a luxury for the rich. Illness had reduced everyone here to a beggar.” Soni’s tragic circumstances prompt her to join the “People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army” – a radical Maoist armed group bent on overthrowing the government. This brushes against the Naxalite movement which Mukherjee explored so fascinatingly in “The Lives of Others.” In this story it makes a sharp contrast between the paths that Milly and Soni take in life and elucidate the central preoccupation of the novel: what choices do we really have in determining our personal freedom?

The final section, yet again, goes somewhere else entirely and demonstrates a complete stylistic change as well, but poignantly circles back to earlier story lines. It builds to a spectacular tale that prompts uncomfortable questions about the degree to which our own independence impinges upon or inhibits the freedom of others. Mukherjee excels at describing evocative details of particular places, but also movingly comments upon universal conditions such as friendship and aging: “Childhood friendships were often like that – intense in presence and in the present tense, remote and unreachable in absence.” His characters are so memorable not only because he movingly captures the arcs of their development, but lets us feel so intensely that given a twist of fate their stories might be our own.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesNeel Mukherjee
6 CommentsPost a comment

“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:

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!

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesElena Varvello
4 CommentsPost a comment