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: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/jul/22/nicola-barker-books-interview-love-island-happy

Posted
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.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesKopano Matlwa
4 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. 

Posted
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.

Posted
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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=33zfiYJzqss&t=224s

- Anyone in the world can read along
- Let us know your thoughts about each book through email at annaericbookclub@gmail.com, 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.

Posted
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: https://www.youtube.com/user/holliemcnish/videos

Posted
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!

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesElena Varvello
4 CommentsPost a comment

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.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMonique Roffey
2 CommentsPost a comment

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.

Posted
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.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesRachel Seiffert
4 CommentsPost a comment

 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.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesZoë Duncan
2 CommentsPost a comment

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

Posted
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.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesHari Kunzru
8 CommentsPost a comment