One of the reasons I enjoy following book prizes so much is that (as well as hoping to see books I’ve loved make their lists) they often introduce me to authors and books that wouldn’t have been on my radar otherwise. I think it’s fair to say that the general reading public had not heard of writer Fiona Mozley or her debut novel “Elmet” before it was longlisted for this year’s Booker Prize – partly because it wasn’t published yet. (Its release was pushed forward because of its listing for this prize.) This might turn out to be both a blessing and a curse because it will put this new author under a heavier amount of scrutiny and criticism than a debut novel would typically receive. “Elmet” has been published by John Murray under their ‘JM Originals’ list – an excellent series first launched two years ago that self consciously seeks to promote fiction that is “fresh and distinctive” and that also “provokes and entertains”. It’s the same list which also produced Jessie Greengrass’ extraordinary and award-winning book of short stories “An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to the One Who Saw It.” Now this series has put out another big prize contender. “Elmet” fits all those descriptive aims for the ‘JM Originals’ list perfectly. It’s a curiously eerie tale about a small working class community whose meaning expands to say so much more about society in general and builds to a thrilling climax.

Adolescent Daniel is wandering northwards begging for food and barely surviving. We’re given sections of his journey in italics and these are interspersed with longer passages about his unusual upbringing. He’s mostly lived a cloistered existence with his physically intimidating, strong-willed father John (who he only refers to as Daddy) and his older sister Cathy in a house that Daddy built for them in a remote copse. They’ve had little to no contact with larger society other than a smattering of locals including a woman who gives John’s children a limited home education that’s partly centred around reading obsolete instruction manuals. Their lives are mostly harmonious until the local landowner Mr Price comes knocking along with his arrogant, spoiled sons. Civil unrest is being waged by the predominantly poor locals who break their backs for the few wealthy members of the community. Although he sought a self-sufficient and quiet life in this remote location, Daddy gets roped into these struggles and their peaceful lifestyle is interrupted.

The novel is partly concerned with the mystery of what motivated Daddy to remove his children from larger society as he’s done. Tales of rogue survivalist fathers inflicting their extreme lifestyles on children have been the focus of a number of recent novels including Claire Fuller’s “Our Endless Numbered Days” and Gabriel Tallent’s “My Absolute Darling”. In both cases, the father figures are darkly disturbing, but here the father is surprisingly tender despite his radical life choices, violent history and domineering appearance. This gives an interesting slant on the story and raises compelling questions about how children should be raised in a society which is unequivocally unjust. In this circumscribed existence Daddy can better protect his children and raise them with values devoid of the larger society’s prejudices, but it also preserves their overall ignorance of the world: “Everything he did now was to toughen us up against something unseen. He wanted to strengthen us against the dark things in the world. The more we knew of it, the better we would be prepared. And yet there was nothing of the world in our lives, only stories of it. We had been taken out of our school and our hometown to live with Daddy in a small copse.”

One of the most intriguing results of their isolated existence is that this brother and sister grow up at a remove from traditional gender roles. Cathy likes to wander through the forest and tries to engage other boys in sport while Daniel is drawn to more domestic duties frequently doing the cooking and cleaning for the whole family. There’s a fascinating section where Daniel describes how he doesn’t consciously think about himself as one gender or another. It’s a striking way of portraying how we all primarily inhabit our lives as individuals devoid of identity labels which we’re often only made aware of when we come into contact with others who only initially see what’s superficial. Daniel’s path towards physical and sexual maturity is interestingly portrayed, but I would have liked to seen it explored even more in the narrative.

It’s skilful how Mozley kept me hooked throughout this story’s unusual situation, dropping clues so that I could gradually and satisfyingly piece things together and ramping up the tension in a way which kept me on edge. Who could say what her prospects are for advancing in the competition for this year’s Booker Prize which includes so many astounding novels? But I’m glad to have been introduced to a writer whose vision is so unique and shows such tremendous promise. I hope Mozley continues to publish more.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesFiona Mozley
4 CommentsPost a comment

I have very conflicted feelings about “Reservoir 13” by Jon McGregor because I admired so much about its technique and ingenuity, but I often wasn't engaged by the story in that satisfying way I hope a novel will make me feel. The novel centres around 13 year old Rebecca Shaw who goes missing and the effect her disappearance has on the local village. It traces the reverberations of this occurrence for over a decade recording small slices of the villagers' lives and the changing seasons as well as speculation about what happened to Rebecca or “Becky” or “Bex.” In this way, the novel accurately reflects what it's like to be vaguely aware of a missing girl and periodically see references to her in the media over time. It's poignant how a missing child never ages, but remains a peripheral presence in our consciousness while we continue to grow and change. Despite computer generated sketches that speculate how Rebecca might look if she aged, the villagers mentally see the girl preserved in her youthful form and she exists fundamentally as a haunting unanswered question.

McGregor depicts a large cast of characters in a glancing way where we receive intimations about life developments, but never delve into any one character's psyche very deeply. Over a long period of time we see friends make plans for the future, follow different paths in life and reunite for awkward catch-ups. Marriages break up, optimistically come back together and fizzle out again. In this way, the novel gives the most extraordinarily accurate sense of village life where we have a vague awareness of major life changes for a certain group of people, but never truly get to know them. A novel which produces a similar effect (but has a very different style and nature) is Joanna Cannon's “The Trouble with Goats and Sheep” which also concerns a community's reaction to a missing person. It makes a poignant commentary about the natural way we socialize, make assumptions about others and never get the chance to truly engage with them on a meaningful level. It’s also really beautifully written but there are lots of mundane details about the multitude of characters’ lives alongside details that clue you into larger issues those characters are dealing with. Because I didn’t feel like I really knew the characters in depth, I cared about those mundane details even less than I would in a novel where there are a few central characters I got to know really well. If that were the case, I’d be okay with treading water waiting for a more interesting plot development or psychological insight. But, in “Reservoir 13” I felt like I didn't grasp who many of the characters were until page 200 or so – at which time there was so little of their story left in the novel it's like I barely ever knew them at all.

No doubt a rereading would yield a more fruitful understanding of the characters involved. The first time I read Virginia Woolf's “The Waves” I had difficulty distinguishing between the six central characters – partly because the oddball poetic language blurred them into one at first. It's only been through multiple re-readings that each character has crystallised into a distinct individual with many layers of psychological depth. In the long run, that made the novel feel so much more rewarding and also turned it into my absolute favourite novel. The comparison between these novels is apt because McGregor's novel also follows a small group of adolescents' lives as they grow up and in doing so poignantly captures the flow of time and paths in life. Woolf also traces how the sun rises and crosses the sky in her novel while McGregor gives equal weight to changes in nature. Frequently descriptions of characters' lives are interspersed in the same paragraph with an observation about developments in the lives of local animals like birds and foxes. So while we witness characters give birth, change jobs and suffer, we also witness over the years bats who breed, feed and hibernate. This gives an even more fully rounded portrait of what it's like to live in a community.

 Each section begins with a new year and a description of fireworks in the village. 

Each section begins with a new year and a description of fireworks in the village. 

Alongside descriptions of specific characters McGregor also refers to the lives of peripheral individuals in a striking way. A man moves to the village and people think of him as “the widower” even though no one knows the specifics of his situation. It turns out that his wife isn't dead at all; they are merely separated. Yet, the community still think of him as a widower and never get to know many more details of his life. The false impression about him has been cemented in the public's consciousness in a way which is both tragic and comic. A similar impression is given of the missing girl's parents who are viewed from a distance in a way that we can see hints of their painful conflict, but don't really fully understand or know them. A different but equally meaningful effect is created when we get a slight understanding of the domestic abuse a mother receives at the hands of her mentally/behaviourally-disabled child or the fear of a woman who escaped a painfully destructive marriage or a man's conflicted feelings about his son's homosexuality. Other characters are hesitant to intrude upon these characters personal lives making the reader feel the excruciating sting of isolation.

All this means that I've been really moved thinking about what Jon McGregor did in the structure and style of this novel. It's a revelatory depiction of what it means to live in a community and society. But, at the same time, when I was actually reading it I found my mind so often drifting to other things and I found it difficult to concentrate on. McGregor's successful stylistic choices effectively convey powerful meaning, but at the expense of a wholly immersive story. So it depends what kind of reading experience you're after. If you want a book you can meditate on and get more out of by reading it a second time around, “Reservoir 13” is a great book. But it's not the kind of novel that pulls you into the text so that you entirely forget that the world exists around you – at least, it didn't do that for me reading it for the first time.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJon McGregor
14 CommentsPost a comment

Any dramatic or violent shift in society will mean that the lives of ordinary people are drastically affected. When country borders are redrawn people must also redraw their sense of identity. Some will survive this shift and some won’t. Shobha Rao writes about a large group of loosely connected individuals whose lives have been changed or residually affected by the Indian subcontinent being partitioned into the countries of India and Pakistan in 1947. These are short stories which can definitely be read independently, but this book exists in that murky realm between the novel and a collection of short stories. Part of the book’s power comes from seeing how certain characters appear differently in stories which don’t focus on them. But each story brings to the forefront the concrete life-altering changes caused by Partition in a fascinating variety of forms.

Rao’s characters embody a wide spectrum of individuals from men to women, from the wealthy/powerful to the poor/helpless, from gay to straight or somewhere on the spectrum in between, from Hindu to Muslim to agnostic and from young to old. It’s certainly not necessary to read them in order, but since I did so I could detect the way some themes or ideas would recur in different forms throughout the book. Where in the story ‘The Merchant’s Mistress’ a female servant triumphs over the lord and memsahib of the manor, the story ‘The Mehsahib’ shows a similar situation but the servant’s triumph feels much more morally complicated. A woman’s grief over the death of her baby in ‘The Lost Ribbon’ resonates much differently from the grief felt by a woman taken on holiday by her husband to try to save their marriage in the story ‘Curfew.’ These show a vibrant array of personalities and how common experiences will have different repercussions depending on each character’s individual responses to them.

One of the most engaging things I found throughout the book was how Rao shows a variety of sexual identities. The first two stories ‘An Unrestored Woman’ and ‘The Merchant’s Mistress’ include female characters Neela and Renu who are housed together in a camp for women that have been outcast or left without means because of the loss of their husbands. The physical connection they find together isn’t explicitly sexual but involves complicated feelings of romance, desire and love. Another story ‘The Imperial Police’ is from the perspective of Jenkins, a British officer stationed in (what is today) a city in Pakistan. He falls for one of his subordinates named Abheet Singh who is a Sikh, but isn’t able to fully articulate this desire to him and discovers a very different perspective on Abheet’s life after he’s killed in a violent community skirmish. I always find it fascinating to read about sexuality presented in complex ways within stories, but this collection also includes different perspectives on heterosexual marriage and the problematic challenges these couples face.

I was particularly interested in reading this alongside Arundhati Roy’s “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” as both authors sought to explicitly depict the repercussions of Partition for a wide variety of individuals. While Roy’s novel is more an overarching look at society and explicitly political, Shobha Rao’s stories focus much more on the preoccupations and individual conflicts within particular moments in her character’s lives. Some are directly involved in Partition and some are not. The story ‘Such a Mighty River’ explores the life of an old man suffering from a form of dementia where he wanders the streets searching for his long-deceased wife. He’s been removed from time and circumstance in a curious way, yet he’s drawn back into it when a former prostitute he once visited and her cohorts decide to hold him hostage. However, the story ‘The Opposite of Sex’ is about a character named Mohan, one of the surveyors responsible for literally drawing the borders between India and Pakistan. He decides to use this power for his own selfish means with tragic results. Then there is the story 'Unleashed' which is far removed from India and involves a woman named Anju who lives in America in a drunken, depressed state which is reminiscent of a Jean Rhys novel.

Watch Shobha Rao discuss her collection and read from the story 'Kavitha and Mustafa'

One of the most memorable stories for me was ‘Blindfold’ where Bandra is a woman stripped of any prospects or livelihood, but she decides to muster what funds she can to found a brothel. This is a woman whose course in life was severely disrupted because of the repercussions of Partition, but who chose to survive and earn money to better the lives of her children through the exploitation of girls and women she buys from impoverished farmers. While her decision brings her temporary security and prosperity, it ultimately destroys her in both her estrangement from her children and a particular girl she purchases who cunningly asserts her independence. It’s fascinating how the issue of selling sex is represented here when compared to how it’s played out in the story ‘The Road to Mirpur Khas’ where a wife named Arya decides to sell her body when she and her husband face starvation.

In these stories, Shobha Rao powerfully represents a variety of experience all the way from the formation of the borders between India and Pakistan in 1947 to the present day where a woman of Indian descent contemplates what was lost along the way. They are at turns harrowing and heart-warming, but all utterly absorbing. 

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesShobha Rao
2 CommentsPost a comment

One of the most horrific of human betrayals must be the abuse of a child by a parent. Not only does this warp a young person's development, but normalizes cruelty to the degree where a child might then inflict it upon others and themselves. Debut novel “My Absolute Darling” by Gabriel Tallent gives a startlingly new and heart-wrenching look at the way a child is made to feel dependent upon her father's abuse. Fourteen year old Julia is raised by her single father Martin in a rundown house on the California coast. The only other familial contact she has is with her decrepit but kindly grandfather, Daniel. She goes by the nickname 'Turtle' but Martin more often affectionately calls her 'Kibble' or 'My Absolute Darling.' Martin is very scholarly and often reads philosophy, but he’s prone to paranoia as he has extreme survivalist beliefs. Their shack is filled with an arsenal of weapons which he frequently trains Turtle in using. She’s a very adept student who can load, clean and accurately fire a range of guns. As Turtle prepares to go to high school and grows older, their isolated home life becomes more strained and intolerable. This is a mesmerizing story full of courage, dramatic scenes and insight into the formation of a severely damaged young individual’s identity.  

Tallent has a curious writing style which treads somewhere between a hyper-realized reality and an elevated intellectual drama. The story is highly attuned to the natural world. Frequently scenes are filled with rich descriptions of the plants and animals that surround their rural house. This reminded me of the kind of detail found in recent novel “The Sport of Kings” by C.E. Morgan or the pastoral scenes found in books by Émile Zola. Turtle’s psychology is presented in a complex way to show her skewed perspective of the world that’s been tainted by Martin’s oppositional personality and overbearing ideology filled with hate towards women. For instance, when she sees a well-meaning girl at her school she thinks: "I will grow up to be forthright and hard and dangerous, not a subtle, smiling, trick-playing cunt like you." The blunt unmediated reality of her inner and outer life are so forcefully presented, yet the trajectory of her story and interactions with others feel more akin a highly stylized drama. The closest comparison I can make is to the film ‘The Night of the Hunter’ which pays close attention to the details of nature and children’s loss of innocence under an insidious masculine figure. It’s both concretely realistic and saturated by an elegiac filter that makes it feel mythic.

The most fascinating way the novel deviates from being truly naturalistic is in the social interactions Turtle has with a couple of boys she meets on a hike. Brett and Jacob are just a little older than her, yet they are so learned that they frequently drop literary allusions into their discussions and reference classic literature. This is a consistent trope throughout the novel with Martin who often applies philosophical stances to their situations or even how he names a hated spider that inhabits their house Virginia Woolf. It’s through the friendship that Turtle strikes up with Brett and Jacob that the reader is keyed into a whole level of society surrounding her which Turtle is excluded from. The landscape which felt totally wild, untamed and impoverished through Turtle’s eyes reveals itself as an ordered and privileged place filled with affluent houses and valuable property. This realization forcefully smacks the girl: "Turtle has always known that other people grew up differently than she did. But she had, she thinks, no idea how differently." It’s tremendously powerful how the author presents this shift, yet it also felt slightly jarring. Brett and Jacob’s characters are so idiosyncratic that it’s difficult to believe the bond they hurriedly form with the aloof and combative figure of Turtle.

The greatest power of this novel is in its evocation of Turtle’s development and conflicted psychology. Her father insults her horrifically leading her to hate her personality, her intellect and her body. At one point she thinks "the slit is illiterate - that word undresses her of all that she has knotted and buckled up about herself; she feels collapsed – every bitter, sluttish part of her collapsed and made identical to that horrible clam." Yet she thinks his behaviour is justified and she mentally defends him: "she thinks, you are hard on me, but you are good for me, too, and I need that hardness in you.” Martin alternates physical, mental and sexual abuse with declarations of how much he values her and how they stand as a pair in opposition to the world. This makes Turtle feel that she has no purpose or value outside of this enclosed severely dysfunctional relationship. The author shows how this inner conflict plays out through torturously tense scenes and how painful it is for Turtle to imagine a life without her father’s dominant presence: "She thinks, I don't even know what all right would look like. I don't even know what that would mean."

Watch Gabriel Tallent discuss his inspiration for writing My Absolute Darling.

Other recent novels such as Hanya Yanagihara’s “A Little Life” and Eimear McBride’s “The Lesser Bohemians” have shown the long-term effects of abuse for difficult individuals. But I think “My Absolute Darling” gets a fascinating new angle on this harrowing issue capturing the powerful emotion of a damaged individual’s trajectory. Tallent shows the way a person’s instinct can help guide her towards realizing what’s right for her life. Even though this is an intensely dramatic and sensational story that’s definitely nothing like my own life, I found myself connecting with and relating to Turtle’s shifting internal logic. It’s challenging to reconcile the way you perceive and value yourself in relation to how others’ react to you. Learning to take on and process what others make you feel without letting it distort your sense of being is monumentally difficult. “My Absolute Darling” inhabits this struggle so powerfully.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesGabriel Tallent
3 CommentsPost a comment

Oh how I fretted starting this novel so weighted with expectation! It took Arundhati Roy twenty years to write this second novel after the phenomenal success of her first Booker Prize-winning novel “The God of Small Things.” Add to that the fact that the author is an astute political campaigner and activist who writes extensively about Indian politics and society – which I know little about. Add to that the murmurings I’d heard about the novel’s complexity and someone who told me she had to put this novel down because, despite the beauty of the writing, the sheer extent of references was overwhelming. So I frequently picked up this book and ran my hand over the cover, read the back and put it back on my shelf. But two things prompted me to finally start reading “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness”: it’s long listed for this year’s Man Booker Prize and a lovely booktuber named Annie at ‘Am I Write?’ offered to buddy read it with me. I’m so glad I was finally pushed to read it two months after its publication. While this novel is definitely a challenging read, it is also an intricately layered, surprising and wondrous depiction of a society in transition. And how glorious to find growing out of the story of this great civilization in turmoil a tender shoot of hope!

What surprised me the most since I’d avoided reading any reviews of this novel is that one of the central characters we’re introduced to at the beginning was born intersex. Anjum has both male and female genitals, but was raised as a boy. In her adolescence she leaves her family to live as a woman and joins a haveli filled with other intersex and trans people. They are a collective and family and become even more so when Anjum adopts an abandoned child named Zainab. When she takes this three-year old girl in: “Her body felt like a generous host instead of a battlefield.” It’s so beautiful and moving the way this individual whose family feel disgraced by her and who is scorned by the majority of society finds a way to pour her love into caring for someone instead of allowing herself to be crippled by being branded as a hijra outcast. However, we quickly learn that in her later years Anjum leaves her haveli called Khwabgah (the House of Dreams) to live in a graveyard where she gradually establishes a home for herself and eventually forms a community of individuals displaced by social conflict. She has a wonderfully unprejudiced view when taking people in stating: “I don’t care what you are… Muslim, Hindu, man, woman, this caste, that caste, or a camel’s arsehole.”

Rather than continuing to primarily focus on Anjum’s story (as I wished it did), the novel branches out to encompass a multiplicity of characters from many different parts of society. Roy introduces a dizzying array of people all connected with particular political movements, social clashes or devastating disasters. These centre largely around a location of vast protest called Jantar Mantar. In the centre of this vast amount of voices of dissent, a baby is abandoned and kidnapped. Who this baby is, where she came from, why she was left and what happened to her is gradually explained over a few hundred pages. But built around her story are the tales of people still caught within the repercussions of Partition, national/religious battles and especially the conflicts within Kashmir, the northernmost part of the Indian subcontinent. The novel mostly focuses on a group of people who knew each other in childhood and worked together in a theatrical production in their youth, but have gone on to take different sides in the political struggles. It charts their various romances, quests for revenge and how they’re helplessly drawn into conflicts that seem to have no end.

 Roy describes how amidst war: "Still the Amaltas bloomed, a brilliant, defiant yellow. Each blazing summer it reached up and whispered to the hot brown sky, Fuck You."

Roy describes how amidst war: "Still the Amaltas bloomed, a brilliant, defiant yellow. Each blazing summer it reached up and whispered to the hot brown sky, Fuck You."

Something that really carried me along while reading this complex novel is the beauty and disarming nature of Roy’s prose. This is something that Annie (my read-along buddy) noted as well. There are frequently bizarre metaphors and descriptions which really caught my attention. For instance, there is an owl which is compared to a Japanese businessman. There’s also a character that is compared to the voice of Billie Holiday: “Not the woman so much as her voice.” At other points she has a disarming way of drawing the reader into the character's particular experience: “She could hear her hair growing. It sounded like something crumbling. A burnt thing crumbling. Coal. Toast.” These odd descriptions have a way of reaching across national and cultural boundaries to draw you into the intense dissociation from reality the character has in a moment of crisis. Roy also has an acute sense of the tragic ironies which frequently exist in this society such as an air-conditioned mortuary: “The city’s paupers who lay there in air-conditioned splendour had never experienced anything of the kind while they were alive.” The narrative frequently also serves as social commentary making observations about how it's always women and children who are oppressed and abused the most in class, religious and political warfare.

It's true, the novel’s story isn’t straightforward and it will reference a lot of things most Western readers probably won’t be familiar with. Even though I occasionally would look up terms or events, I largely resisted this temptation because I preferred to immerse myself in the flow of the story and let certain things remain mysterious for the time being. Now, I can go read up more about them. But I got to a section of the novel where I think Roy really points out why she can’t write a straightforward story. This is from one character’s notebooks: “I would like to write one of those sophisticated stories in which even though nothing much happens there’s lots to write about. That can’t be done in Kashmir. It’s not sophisticated, what happens here. There’s too much blood for good literature.” I think Roy probably feels the same way. She is far too knowledgeable about everything that’s going on in India, its immense history and complicated politics to write a simple story. As such this novel probably isn’t what you’d classify as “good literature” in a traditional sense because the story goes all over the place. But at the same time, Roy revolutionizes the form of the book to fit all the multitude of things going on inside her head. And, after all, that’s what the novel is for – it keeps reinventing the form to suit the subject matter and the outlook of its author.

It takes dedication, patience and time to read this novel properly. But it encompasses a vast amount of heartfelt compassion for humanity so I'm immensely grateful for the journey it took me on.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesArundhati Roy
4 CommentsPost a comment

Any tale that describes an American’s permanent move to the UK or Ireland will immediately grab my attention because of my connection to this experience. In Molly McCloskey’s novel “When Light is Like Water” Alice travels to Ireland to live and work there while she figures out what to do with her life. She ends up falling in love and setting there. It’s so difficult to resist the charms of Irish men! However, the majority of the novel relates an account of the dissolution of her marriage through an affair and her present life sorting through her emotionally-broken past. In doing so, McCloskey creates a powerful account of the complexities of Alice’s wayward love life and the difficult grief-laden process of moving forward when she’s lost the people who are closest to her.

The story of this novel is relatively simple, but the psychologically-insightful and evocative writing is what make this tale come vibrantly to life. McCloskey is highly attuned to relationships in communities, social groups and in romantic partnerships. She observes how "There is nothing like the presence of an outsider to heighten one's enjoyment of being an insider." This statement could readily be applied to a foreigner who enters a community or someone new that’s introduced to a circle of friends. It shows how our connections with others are reinforced by a kind of smug familiarity when an unknown entity enters the ring.

The primary focus is Alice’s affair with a man named Darragh and the emotional repercussions this causes on all sides. It’s presented as if this romantic betrayal was almost inevitable but the impact upon Alice and the way she processes it comes to her as a surprise: "I had always imagined adultery would feel shadowy and whispered, a world in black and white, all cobblestones and dripping eaves, but what it felt like was being always on the run, everything breathless and fractured and a little ridiculous." Rather than being caught up in the sensationalism of it, Alice is disarmed by how it’s exhausting and embarrassing having an affair. It tinges her retrospective account of her relationships with these two men with a special kind of melancholy as if this is an example of the inevitable solitary nature of life.

The author makes sharp observations about the way we are in some ways strangers within our own relationships. When describing her connection to her husband she states "there are currents that operate independently of us and of which we seem remarkably ignorant." When you’re part of a couple it so often feels like there is an energy to it which both participants are entirely unaware of as over time it moves between states of psychological/physical/sexual closeness and distance. Equally, the novel makes astute observations about the strangeness of encountering someone we once had a strong connection with: "Why is it that what we so often find on meeting someone we’ve loved seems not a residue or an after-image but a feeling more like foolishness?"

When reading this book I was strongly reminded of Anne Enright’s masterful novel “The Forgotten Waltz” which recounts a woman’s romance with a married man. Not only does Enright also dissect the moment by moment swings of emotion which accompany acts of infidelity, but she also shows how the Irish nation transforms in the background of her story. McCloskey does something similar as Alice witnesses the country change over a few decades. She observes how “Ireland at the end of the eighties often resembled was a place celebrating, insistently, its own collapse, and there was a certain dignity in that, a triumph even." and carries on through the early 2010s when the country experienced its ill-fated property boom. But McCloskey also casts her gaze further afield as Alice’s journalism takes her to Africa and her observations of society there make a sharp contrast to her impressions of Ireland.

“When Light is Like Water” is a deftly told story of painful heartache told as if looking through soiled panes of glass.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMolly McCloskey

The story of “Mirror, Shoulder, Signal” by Dorthe Nors is fairly simple on the surface. Sonja is in her 40s living in modern-day Copenhagen and working as a translator of sensational Scandinavian crime fiction by Gosta Svensson (who is compared to Steig Larsson). Her occupation as a translator allows the author to explore thoughts about the nature of writing: “Language is powerful, almost magic, and the smallest alteration can elevate a sentence or be its undoing.” Sonja is learning how to drive at an academy although she’s self-conscious that she’s older than most of the people in her class. The story follows her lessons on the road, her experiences receiving treatment from a New Age-type masseuse Ellen and reflecting on memories of her family/childhood. Sonja feels in some curious way cut off from both her past and future so struggles to navigate her way through a nebulous present. What begins as a light and comic tale gradually turns much darker and soul-searching.

The beginning of this book reminded me of the start of Evelyn Waugh’s novel “Scoop” which shows a socialite’s madcap car ride through the streets of London. Sonja isn’t a very good driver and from Nors’ descriptions you can almost feel the car careering through the streets of Copenhagen narrowly escaping multiple accidents. Her education is not helped by her instructor in the passenger seat Jytte who smokes, frequently seizes control of the car and makes xenophobic/racist comments. As she’s disturbed by this behaviour she switches instructors to the centre’s owner Folke and a romantic tension forms. As Sonja’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic it becomes clear how lonely and troubled she really is although on the surface she appears completely calm.

 Sonja finds it relaxing to visit Western Cemetery in Copenhagen.

Sonja finds it relaxing to visit Western Cemetery in Copenhagen.

It feels like Nors wrote this novel partly as a self conscious foil to the kind of Scandi crime that Sonja translates. Her character feels slightly contemptuous of the genre and the people who avidly read it. She remarks that politicians who like taking these books on holiday will happily “rub themselves in SPF 50 and wallow in evil like it’s a party.” In contrast to the tales of violence and intrigue that she translates, Sonja’s story is something much more considered and subtle. Nothing extraordinary happens to her, but the schism which exists between her and her family – especially her sister Kate is intensely felt: “If Sonja and Kate were apples, you’d say that they’d fallen on two different sides of the tree.” Rather than explosive action, it’s only in unsent letters she writes and a telephone call to Kate that you’re really given a sense of how unhinged Sonja really is.

Sonja obsessively mulls over details of her childhood. There is a feeling of nostalgia and sense of loss that I think a lot of people feel especially if in adulthood they’ve moved away from where they were raised: “the place you come from is a place you can never return to. It’s transmogrified, and you yourself are a stranger.” Some descriptive details come up multiple times (such as a sandwich made from brown sugar pressed into bread). In particular, she frequently recalls a past visit to a strange fortune teller in a curry tunic that somehow obstructed her moving forward in her life: “If you don’t believe in the occult, you can’t guard against it, Sonja realizes. And if you do believe, you’re in deep shit.” I couldn’t quite make out why this encounter was so significant to Sonja, but it’s disallowed her from maturing into a healthy adult. Instead she’s trapped in this slightly infantile state where she can’t emotionally relate to many people or, indeed, drive no matter how earnestly she tries to learn. As it progresses the story has a curiously melancholic and haunting effect. Although “Mirror, Shoulder, Signal” didn’t feel entirely satisfying, it was an intriguing and thoughtful novel. 

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesDorthe Nors
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Naturally I’m excited to see what will be on this year’s Man Booker Prize longlist, but I wasn’t going to post my predictions until Frances at NonSuch Book prompted me to on twitter. So what the hay? Here’s my wish list. It’s fun to guess! We discussed whether Mike McCormack’s exceptionally beautiful novel “Solar Bones” was eligible for this year’s prize since it (controversially) wasn’t last year when it was first published by Irish publisher Tramp Press. Librarian Robert Pisani chimed in on twitter writing that it is eligible this year because it’s now been published by Canongate Books in the UK. I’m hoping it can make the list because even though it scooped up the Goldsmiths Prize I think it still deserves wider recognition.

I should have more free time this summer so I’m hoping to read the entire longlist. I’m still long-faced about Beatty’s fascinating-but-flawed “The Sellout” winning last year over Thien’s “Do Not Say We Have Nothing” but I have high hopes for one of the exceptional novels listed below winning this year’s coveted award. Books eligible this year must have been written in English and published in the UK between October 1st 2016 and September 30th 2017. The longlist will be announced on July 27th at 0:01 BST, the shortlist on September 13th and the winner on October 17th.

The longlist can include 12 or 13 novels – I’ve gone with 14 which I know is cheating but I couldn’t whittle it down anymore. The judges have a hard decision on their hands! I’ve not read “American War” yet but heard such high praise I’m making it my wild card. I have a feeling the choices this year will be centred more heavily around politics. But what do you think? What novels do you want to see on this year’s Booker Prize list?

A State of Freedom by Neel Mukherjee
A Boy in Winter by Rachel Seiffert
The End We Start From by Megan Hunter
One of the Boys by Daniel Magariel
The Dark Circle by Linda Grant
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry
A Book of American Martyrs by Joyce Carol Oates
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
The Power by Naomi Alderman
Autumn by Ali Smith
Solar Bones by Mike McCormack
American War by Omar El Akkad

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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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

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesNicola Barker
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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
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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
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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: 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.

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

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesHollie McNish