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As adults we can recall flashes of feeling and indulgent fantasies that we experienced as children, but these are inevitably wrapped in a kind of silk-smooth nostalgia. Even memories of intense anger and pain are altered by the distance of time because this past now has a context. When you’re child there is no context. So much of literature tries to simulate the actual feeling of childhood, but only manages a sentimental simulation. But something in Andrés Barba’s narrative gets it so exactly, eerily right that it’s as if (as Edmund White pronounces in his afterword to this novella) “Barba has returned us to the nightmare of childhood.” Reading the story of seven year old Marina and the children in the orphanage she’s taken to after her parents’ death made me feel all the chaotic roiling emotion and imagination of my youth again. “Such Small Hands” is an extraordinary experience and it’s so artfully done that I’m in awe of its brilliant construction.

Apparently this story is partly inspired by an incident in Brazil that occurred in the 1960s where a child in an orphanage mutilated another child and was found playing with their body parts. This novella doesn’t indulge in the gore that this occurrence makes you imagine. But it definitely unsettles by inserting the reader into an alternating series of perspectives that makes you feel the precarious line children tread between reality and fantasy. In the first part we follow Marina in the immediate aftermath of her parents’ sudden deaths. She’s bluntly told what happened after their car accident, but it doesn’t stick to her reality because she can’t understand its full meaning. Barba has a startling way of showing how language and the words adults use when speaking to Marina don’t correlate to actual things in her mind. Even when she’s told she’s being taken to an orphanage this has no meaning for her because she has no idea what it is.

Even more extraordinary is the process Barba describes when Marina tries to make sense out of the world. She’s taken to see a psychologist and finds that she can’t adequately describe her experiences or produce the desired response: “Whenever her memory failed her, she’d just invent a color and slot it between true things. That seemed to change the scene, to turn her memories into things that were solid, things you could take out of your pocket and put on a table.” It’s a brilliant way of describing how we create stories out of our experiences and how we find our existence slotted within a narrative. No matter how earnestly we try to stick to facts and honesty, our memories are inevitably textured by the language that we turn them into. Once that experience has been cemented into the words within a story it’s forever altered and we’re left wondering, as it’s later stated in the novella, “How is it that a thing gets caught inside a name and then never comes out again?”

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The narrative does something quite startling when Marina enters the orphanage and the perspective shifts to the collective account of the children she meets there. Amidst this chorus we view Marina as a pretty girl attached to a doll that the psychologist gave to her. She becomes the receptacle of all their envy, affection, jealousy and anger as they alternately love and revile her. Marina eventually initiates a game where at night the children take turns pretending to turn into dolls. The way in which Barba depicts this state of shifting from a child to a passive doll that is privy to all the whispered secrets and tumultuous emotions of the other children is absolutely extraordinary. It’s one of the most powerful shifts in perspective I’ve read since the first section of Jane Bowles’ weirdly wonderful “Two Serious Ladies” where a girl is subjected to a personalized religious ritual by another girl.

It seems so fitting that Edmund White provides a short afterward to this ingenious novella because he’s a writer that’s always been especially keen on evocatively describing the reality of childhood as he did in “A Boy’s Own Story” and the exquisite short story ‘Record Time’. At times, “Such Small Hands” made me recall the beautiful opening section of Virginia Woolf’s “The Waves” where imagination freely mingles with the selfish desires and expressive emotions of the six children - but Woolf uses a highly polished poetic tone of narrative to do so. Perhaps the greatest master of writing about the adolescent experience is Joyce Carol Oates who continuously brings us in her narratives back to an Alice in Wonderland state of being (a children’s story also referenced in “Such Small Hands”). The first section of Hilary Mantel’s brilliant memoir “Giving Up the Ghost” also vividly describes the experience of childhood in a way which is so arresting and familiar. Have you read any other books that accurately describe the experience of youth? I’d be very keen to hear about them.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAndrés Barba
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Even if it weren’t for the beautiful cover of this debut novel by Eli Goldstone, I’d still have been drawn to reading “Strange Beating Heart” because it’s partly set in Latvia. Some of my ancestors came from Latvia and I still have relatives there, but I’ve not yet visited. So I have a fascination with this location and I’m curious to read literature that’s set there. The story begins with Seb mourning the loss of his young artistic wife who died in a freak lake accident when her boat was overturned by an angry swan. Swans are really the most beautifully graceful looking birds, but they have the worst tempers; I was once chased up a tree by one! It’s striking that Seb’s wife Leda is killed by a swan because in the Greek myth Leda is a Spartan queen who is seduced by Zeus who comes to her in the form of a swan. The symbolism of swans is played out in different ways throughout the novel to express forms of vulnerability, eroticism and shape-shifting. However, this isn’t a fantasy or mythic story, but a poignant realistic tale of isolation, grief and estrangement.

"How can those terrified vague fingers push The feathered glory from her loosening thighs? And how can body, laid in that white rush, But feel the strange beating heart where it lies?" - W.B.Yeats

"How can those terrified vague fingers push The feathered glory from her loosening thighs? And how can body, laid in that white rush, But feel the strange beating heart where it lies?" - W.B.Yeats

Seb finds his wife’s loss overwhelming and it leads him to increasingly irrational behaviour. When he happens across a series of unopened letters addressed to his wife from a man in Latvia he embarks to Leda’s home country to discover more about his late wife’s past. His journey to the countryside where Leda came from reveals how little he really knew about his wife. But it’s not presented as if Leda harboured some deep shameful secret. The story raises is more concerned with unsettling existential questions about how much or little we ever really understand about the partner we make a life with. The account of Seb’s journey is interspersed with diary entries from Leda about her youth and eventual move to the UK. This is an interesting structure which reminded me slightly of the recent novel “Swimming Lessons” where the story alternates between letters from a missing woman and an account of her family in the present.

The effect of Goldstone’s novel is more melancholic because rather than building to a revelation or feeling of independence, these scattered diary entries seem to ask if we can ever really be understood or known to ourselves or others. Not only does Leda come across as a stranger to her husband, but also to her unstable mother and other people who are supposedly close to her. There are also wayward figures of an enterprising German woman, a lonely B&B landlady and a hunter who frequently drinks himself into a stupor. While Seb’s interactions with them and struggles with the language inevitably produce some comic effects, it also adds to his lingering sense of isolation. Both the primary stories about Leda’s early life and Seb’s quest through Latvia build to dramatic conclusions, but this novel felt much more concerned with raising questions about identity rather than creating a thickly plotted tale. It’s an emotionally complex and unsettling book.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesEli Goldstone
2 CommentsPost a comment
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Andrew Michael Hurley is something of a genius in how he amps up the creep-factor in his writing about isolated rural traditions and village secrets. His phenomenally-successful novel “The Loney” was certainly one of the most atmospheric novels I read last year. New novel “Devil's Day” also produces that unsettling feeling which makes you fearfully look over your shoulder late at night. The narrative artfully plays upon superstitions and anxiety to draw the reader in. John returns to the remote Lancashire sheep-farming community he was raised in for the funeral of his grandfather “The Gaffer” and the annual local Devil's Day celebration. This is a ceremony where the devil is at first tempted in to spare him ravaging the sheep and then expelled back out into the barren moors. Meanwhile, John's pregnant wife Katherine is frequently bothered by a persistent rotting smell, there's a sick ram in the barn, local girl Grace exhibits psychic powers, an act of arson burns a large plot of land and a father recently released from jail has gone missing. This accumulation of details all build to make the reader frantically wonder what's really happening. Is there something supernatural about this environment or are these bizarre occurrences merely messing with our perception? The story builds to fantastically tense scenes and an eerily climatic ending.

This wouldn't be possible if it weren't for Hurley's talent for suffusing his story with a rich amount of detail. The landscape is magnificently described and the intricacies of farming life are vividly rendered. There's a certain beauty to this age-worn setting and its proud community, but there's a sense of ever-present dilapidation to it as well: “Living on farms was one endless round of maintenance. Nothing was ever finished. Nothing was ever settled. Nothing. Everyone here died in the midst of repairing something. Chores and damage were inherited.” The author describes the physically-taxing nature of farming life and how little profit there is in it. He also renders how this creates a long-lasting effect on people over time: '“The valley made placid men stubborn, just as it made ageing men older.” Hence, it's little wonder that John was drawn to move away and make a life for himself elsewhere. But his return to his homeland makes him to reconsider his family legacy and whether he should continue established traditions.

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The thing which elevates this novel into being something other than a finely-rendered spooky story are the heartfelt questions about family life that it raises. Are we obligated to honour our ancestors by carrying on with their work or are we free to set out on our own? This is played out through John's narrative but his story which sifts between the past and present comes with hitches which gradually make us question his motives, viability and certain facts about his personal history. There are beautifully poignant moments when he considers how few details we can actually recall in our memories: “Like salt boiled out of water, these things remain. Everything else has evaporated.” We can draw multiple conclusions out of the fragments we get from John's past and the ending of the story. Like all the best riveting narratives whose exact meaning remains elusive, this novel has left me wanting to discuss it with other people so we can collectively try to tease out an answer for what really happened.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
4 CommentsPost a comment
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It’s been quite a ride following the Man Booker Prize this year from the astounding quality of the novels on the long list to the heated race between the six books on the short list. When I first read “Lincoln in the Bardo” in March I was completely awestruck by this unique and powerful reading experience. So it threw me into such a quandary about whether this should win or Ali Smith’s wonderfully rambunctious and relevant “Autumn.” Of course, last year’s surprise winner “The Sellout” taught me how difficult it is to gauge what the judges might decide. So it felt equally plausible that this year’s winner could have been the accomplished novels “Exit West”, “History of Wolves” or “Elmet.” The oddball for me this year was Paul Auster’s “4321” which I’ve still not finished reading. There’s a lot to admire about it, but it seems overlong and the novel’s concept means that some of it feels quite repetitive. It must have been a really difficult decision picking a winner, but I’m glad Saunders' novel got the award. The chair of judges Lola, Baroness Young commented “The form and style of this utterly original novel, reveals a witty, intelligent, and deeply moving narrative.” 

Special presentation editions made for the shortlisted authors

Special presentation editions made for the shortlisted authors

With Ali Smith at the Guildhall

With Ali Smith at the Guildhall

I spotted Mohsin Hamid chatting with the Duchess of Cornwall

I spotted Mohsin Hamid chatting with the Duchess of Cornwall

Last night I was lucky enough to be invited to the pre-reception drinks before the award announcement at the Guildhall. There was a beautiful display of special editions of all the shortlisted novels. These unique designs really capture the spirit of the books. I decided to root for Ali Smith to win especially after the powerful reading she gave at the Booker shortlist readings on Monday night. It literally brought tears to my eyes hearing her describe the mood of the country in her narrative. There were hundreds of people in the Royal Festival Hall audience and it struck me how accurately she had captured all the complex and contradictory feelings of the country and how everyone in that room recognized and related to her words. Ali has told me before that her spirit animal is a pink armadillo so I had a special t-shirt made with an illustration of this adorable creature surrounded by Autumn leaves. She was wonderfully calm and sincerely talked about how it doesn’t matter who wins since they are all such excellent novels. That certainly chimes with why I love a prize like the Booker because the real pleasure of it is debating the different qualities of several great novels. I also went to some of the publishers’ parties and right up to the announcement I was still discussing the books on the list with people, many of whom had a different favourite. The prize is also an opportunity for me to place a cheeky little bet which I did right after this year’s longlist was announced. I went with my instinct that George Saunders would win and it’s paid off!

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I’m already looking forward to what new gems will come up on next year’s Man Booker International Prize as well as the main prize!

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
6 CommentsPost a comment
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This novel was published at the perfect time for me. I'd read Arundhati Roy's sprawling new novel “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” over the summer. While I admired so much about her impassioned writing, I was disappointed that she didn't concentrate more on the full story of Anjum, an intersex character or hijra whose story begins the novel. Then, more recently, I read Shobha Roa's book of short stories “An Unrestored Woman” for the Anna & Eric Book Club and one of the stories which struck me most was 'Blindfold' about the madam of a brothel who purchases young girls to turn them into prostitutes. Both these stories left me eager to better understand characters like these and learn more about these aspects of Indian society.

Coincidentally, Anosh Irani's “The Parcel” is essentially a blend of these two tales as it follows a character named Madhu, a 40 year old hijra whose years of prostitution in the notorious Kamathipura red light district are behind her. While she lives in a household with other intersex individuals, she's been reduced to begging on the side of the road to earn money. Madhu also works for Padma, a fiercely independent madam of a local brothel. Madhul helps new girls (who are frequently purchased from their families in Nepal) to adjust to a life in prostitution and accept their new situation. The novel follows the way she indoctrinates of one such ten year old girl and the dramatic changes that occur within the house of hijras where she resides. It’s an arresting and incredibly thought provoking story that totally gripped me.

The author presents such a difficult dilemma for the reader from the very beginning novel. Madhu is someone who has been rejected by her family and encountered brutal challenges throughout her life just to live as a woman. This makes her very sympathetic. Yet, she embarks on a job to indoctrinate a new girl to Padma’s brothel by psychologically, physically and sexually breaking her in. These torturous actions amount to the most heinous kind of mental manipulation; at one point she says to the new girl Kinjal (referred to as a parcel and kept in a cage): “Each time you think of your mother, I want you to hold these bars and ask yourself one question: What feels more real, your mother or these bars?” Her process for breaking this girl’s spirit is intended to make Kinjal’s miserable fate more bearable than if she were thrust into a bedroom and subjected to multiple clients. That’s how Madhu reasons it is an act of charity to train them. It’s also meant to ensure the girls don’t fight back and consequently they will be more valuable for the brothel’s business.

Of course, this process of training Kinjal is incredibly harrowing to read about and Madhu’s actions are sickeningly sinister. But gradually her logic is revealed. This is someone who has fought with her body for her whole life: “The body was the enemy. The more you loved it, the more you thought of it as a part of you, the more it blackmailed you.” She’s had to learn to mentally separate herself from her physical being. Madhu has also been socially and economically dependent on the charity of other people as she’s held within such contempt by the majority of society. It’s fascinating how the author goes into the history and cultural attitudes towards hijras who are religiously held in high esteem for possessing special powers, but simultaneously they are social outcasts and frequently reviled. Madhu’s goal is to drill Kinjal in abandoning all hope because Madhu has learned that hope is more of a hindrance for people in their dire condition. That certainly doesn’t make her logic right or her actions permissible, but it does make them understandable. It made me so eager to follow Madhu’s journey to see whether or not her beliefs would change, learn more about her past and discover what would happen to Kinjal.

Photo by Shahria Sharmin

Photo by Shahria Sharmin

Irani also has a fascinating way of portraying the city of Bombay (later Mumbai) in a state of economic, social and religious flux. Property moguls are snatching up the dilapidated buildings in their area for developments: “Bombay hadn't yet become its savage sister. It was bubbling and brewing toward its new avatar, but hadn't fully imploded.” These purchases often mean the owners can move away with a bundle of money, but the poor (particularly hijras and prostitutes) are left with nowhere to go after being ejected from their long term residences. This has a personal effect upon Madhu and her gurumai, the elderly hijra who became a mother figure/mentor for Madhu and recognized what Madhu was before she knew it herself. These larger changes within the city have an impact on their lives and it gives the story a thrillingly tense momentum as the date for Kinjal’s initiation with her first client draws near

 “The Parcel” is such a fantastically moving novel. Madhu’s story raises so many meaningful questions about identity, social responsibility and the plight of those who are rendered voiceless. As different as I am from Madhu and despite some of her contemptible actions, I found myself falling in love with her character. It’s so easy to take for granted being born into a gender that feels like it naturally suits you. Irani powerfully describes Madhu’s path towards becoming a woman and the painful consequences of standing up for who she is. I love literature like this and Sara Taylor’s novel “The Lauras” that provoke us to question our assumptions and understanding of gender lines. Irani pulled me into Madhu’s experience and really made me feel the full complexity of her life. This is undoubtedly one of the most heartbreaking and fascinating novels I’ve read all year. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAnosh Irani
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We are so accustomed to thinking in terms of national identity and borders between countries it’s interesting to wonder how we’d see each other if these things became truly porous. That seems to be the mission of Mohsin Hamid’s extremely thoughtful and compelling novel “Exit West.” It’s an exercise in what would happen if the barrier between one country and another were no longer a passport control line, but simply a door that opens from a residence in one country to a residence in another country. In this story these portals between nations appear with increasing frequency. It turns strangers around the world into literal neighbours and frees passage for thousands of refugees who want to build a life for themselves elsewhere. It’s a stroke of imaginative daring similar to what Colson Whitehead brilliantly achieved in his novel “The Underground Railroad” where this fantastical plot device makes us re-conceptualize our standard sense of reality and allows wild possibilities within the story. But this is also very much a novel about love, the way it changes over time as we change and how different environments can radically alter our relationships.

One of the most striking things about this story is that only two characters are named. These are Nadia and Saeed, the couple whose journey we follow throughout the novel. The author is very aware of how a name doesn’t just signify a person, but also often denotes a particular economic status, religious background, cultural tradition and global region. So, while the few different countries they magically enter are named, their war-torn city of origin is not. By withholding names from this place and the many people introduced in the story Hamid demonstrates a second way of making us reconsider our preconceived notions. The great danger with performing these feats of storytelling is that the novel becomes more about the concepts built into the author’s structure and less about the reader’s emotional connection to the story.

While the structure and Hamid’s occasionally laboured sentence structure was jarring at first, I found myself drawn into the romantic trajectory of Nadia and Saeed’s lives together. They are an interesting pair where Nadia is a biker keen on partaking in recreational drugs, but continuously wears traditional black robes wherever they go despite being non-religious. This produces an interesting reaction from people, particularly later on in the novel where some assume her clothing means she’s living under oppressive men when really it’s her choice. Saeed has a more conservative nature and struggles with the question of faith, but I found myself really connecting to him since his most longed-for dream is to visit the deserts of Chile to stargaze in their clear skies – something I myself have dreamed about since seeing the powerful documentary ‘Nostalgia for the Light.’

Hamid depicts the ebb and flow of this couple’s strong relationship through a long period of time. It felt similar in some ways to Alain de Botton’s recent novel "The Course of Love" in how these stories expose all the gritty reality of long term relationships. At times this style of showing the different stages of love through time can get too close to an intellectual exercise. But Hamid introduces an interesting element where he considers the way our environments impact our relationships. He describes how “personalities are not a single immutable colour, like white or blue, but rather illuminated screens, and the shades we reflect depend much on what is around us.” So while Nadia and Saeed naturally change as they age their ideas and desires also alter with the different places they come to live in when stepping through portals into other countries. Naturally, these changes also come to affect their relationship in dramatic ways.

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Another striking thing this novel does is powerfully represent a city being overwhelmed and held under the sway of a new extremist order. The nameless city Nadia and Saeed grew up in is slowly overtaken by insurgents and the author captures so well the sense in how normality is gradually altered: “War in Saeed and Nadia’s city revealed itself to be an intimate experience, combatants pressed close together, front lines defined at the level of the street one took to work, the school one’s sister attended, the house of one’s aunt’s best friend, the shop where one bought cigarettes.” This felt very realistic in how they witness people with certain names that are associated with a particular denomination being hunted down and paranoia becomes rife where everyone is aware of being monitored (both by neighbours and a series of drones which police the city.) The powerful 2014 film ‘Timbuktu’ gives a similarly striking sense of what it’s like to live somewhere which becomes overwhelmed by strict new ideologies that are rigidly enforced and significantly alter or destroy the day to day lives of ordinary people. The way Hamid shows this in his novel raises poignant questions about how different people react in tense periods of social and political upheaval.

While the situations and global changes that the author imagines in this novel are radically destabilizing, something I really admired about it was the level of optimism that Hamid maintains. Often when we think about the larger issues this story raises we can only conceive of society collapsing or destroying itself. Yet, Hamid offers another point of view stating how “the apocalypse appeared to have arrived and yet it was not apocalyptic, which is to say that while the changes were jarring they were not the end, and life went on, and people found things to do and ways to be and people to be with, and plausible desirable futures began to emerge, unimaginable previously, but not unimaginable now, and the result was something not unlike relief.” This is a story which allows for possibilities that are hard to imagine when facing the grimness of the news every day. Obviously immigration is a touchy political subject, but I admire the way “Exit West” challenges us to think about this from different angles and makes us reconsider them through a particular couple’s dramatic journey.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMohsin Hamid
7 CommentsPost a comment
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My experience of reading “History of Wolves” by Emily Fridlund was different from how I read most novels. I read the entire book aloud to my boyfriend while we were on a recent road trip around New England. He prefers to drive and I enjoy the benefits of being the passenger who gets to choose the music and snack idly while looking out the window. But I also enjoy the experience of reading aloud for the way it makes reading a more communal experience. I always find the humour buried in the prose of so-called “literary fiction” is heightened when read aloud like watching a comedy film in a movie theatre rather than sitting on your own. This is a novel about quite bleak subjects. Narrator Linda reflects on two striking cases from her teenage years. Firstly, her teacher Mr Grierson was put on trial and accused of having sexual relations with a student. Secondly, a four-year old boy named Paul she babysat died under suspicious circumstances. Linda obsessively mulls over the details of these cases and her involvement surrounding them, but her sardonic perspective took on a funny edge while I read her narrative aloud. So, while some people’s responses have criticised Linda as being too unlikeable, I often found her really engaging and fascinating.

It’s also been remarked by some reviewers how Fridlund’s writing bears similarities to that of the great writer Marilynne Robinson. There’s a certain way in which she writes detailed observations in her scenes through one character's perspective that captures everything from the natural environment to other characters’ physicality. In doing so, she gets at the complex psychology of the people involved without ever actually going into their consciousness. But, you feel like you understand them completely and understand the dynamics of the situation because you are so thoroughly rooted in the narrator’s unflinching gaze. This is especially true in this novel when Linda recalls the final days leading to Paul’s death and the actions and dialogue of his parents. There’s also a strong distinction Linda draws between the way she recalls things and the way they are presented in trials.

This creates a complex picture prompting questions about what is really true. It also asks things like: What’s our subjective experience vs what we imagine to have happened? What is morally right vs what is legally right? What happens when freedom of belief impinges upon the safety and livelihood of other people? Linda seems determined to settle answers for these questions, but poignantly considers how “Maybe there is a way to climb above everything, some special ladder or insight, some optical vantage point that allows a clear, unobstructed view of things. Maybe this way of seeing comes naturally to some people, and good for them if it does. But I remember it all, even now, as if two mutually exclusive things happened… Though they end the same way, these are not the same story. Maybe if I’d been someone else I’d see it differently. But isn’t that the crux of the problem? Wouldn’t we all act differently if we were someone else?” She’s so thoroughly entrenched in her own understanding of the past that it’s as if the subjective and objective are fused into one.

In some particulars of these two cases she was the only witness to certain events and was the only one to interact with the people involved. But, of course, her point of view is inflected with her own prejudices and emotions so the reader is left wondering how that has coloured her view of the past. Linda was an outcast through much of her childhood as she was the child of the only remaining members of a religious intentional community that petered out by the time she became a teenager. Her determination to attach herself to Paul’s mother Patra and create a secret bond with Mr Grierson feels quite poignant considering how much she loathed her counter-culture parents and all they embodied. This can’t be discounted when considering Linda’s recollections, yet she seems to be insisting her memory is the only real truth.

Some will no doubt find “History of Wolves” frustrating for its relentless plodding through detail like a court case trying to reconstruct an event. Yet, I think there is a lot of pleasure to be had too from Linda’s sly stance and advantageous position as an outsider. I found it to be an engaging and quietly philosophical novel which gives an interesting take on a so-called “difficult” character. 

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesEmily Fridlund
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I haven’t read any of Jennifer Egan’s fiction before although I’ve always meant to get to her Pulitzer Prize winning “A Visit from the Good Squad” – especially after enjoying so much the varied selection of stories found in the “Best American Short Stories 2014” anthology which Egan guest edited that year. I’ve heard the way Egan handles time in her writing and her method of structuring a story is quite experimental. So it was somewhat surprising to discover that “Manhattan Beach” is constructed like a much more traditional historical novel, but one that is done so powerfully well it reads as a totally innovative and striking take on NYC life during WWII.

The story centres around the life of a young woman named Anna who works in the Naval Shipyard factories and her determination to become a diver working on the submerged hulls of ships and underwater pipelines. Running through the novel is the mystery of what happened to her father Ed who vanished from their family life leaving Anna and her mother Agnes alone to care for her severely physically and mentally disabled younger sister Lydia. She seeks answers about her father’s fate from Dexter Styles, an influential local gangster who, despite his power, finds himself precariously caught between a godfather-like crime boss whose network of schemes he oversees and his respectable high-society father-in-law. Anna and Dexter’s lives intersect and they separately reach a crisis point which requires them to radically alter their lives. It’s an atmospheric tale bouncing between sparkling star-studded gangster-run clubs to the plight of shipwrecked sailors to the murky bottom of Wallabout Bay. It’s as captivating in its portrayal of a working class single woman as it is in the way it shows larger American societal shifts amidst cataclysmic wartime losses.

Egan’s descriptive prose are so engaging. These include evocative observations about life working in a wartime factory, the social order of navy life and the complex workings of the criminal underworld. But there are also subtle portrayals about physical development. For instance, when Ed is an adolescent it’s remarked: “He’d turned twelve, tall and scrawny, fastened together with muscles like leather thongs.” It’s especially poignant when Egan shows Anna’s attempt to form an emotional connection with Lydia who is physically limited in how she can communicate. There are also beautifully profound moments when Anna finally dives underwater and experiences an entirely different world free from the complexity of life on the surface. It’s almost like the readers’ senses are adjusted alongside Anna’s so we can experience a vision of clouded water and the sounds inside her diver’s helmet.

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Something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently are the ways prejudice is portrayed in novels and the degree to which we can distinguish a character’s perspective from the authorial voice. There are several scenes where uncomfortable remarks are made about different immigrant communities in NYC, but it was clear that these are mediated through the perspective of Dexter and are bound with this character’s social prejudices. It becomes even more evident that this is the case when Dexter at one point comes to interact with Lydia and he refers to her only as “the cripple.” This shows how he really doesn’t consider her an individual and can’t see past her disability or consider her humanity. It’s all the more tragic when Ed recalls spending time with a young Lydia and the acute shame and disgust he feels towards his daughter’s condition. Egan also writes compellingly about the complex commanding order of shipmates and how traditional social orders amongst different racial groups are scrambled in this unique environment.

Like all great historical fiction, this novel has something to say about the world we’re living in right now. When Dexter’s father-in-law is speculating about America’s position in the global community he surmises “our dominance won’t arise from subjugating peoples. We’ll emerge from this war victorious and unscathed, and become bankers to the world. We’ll export our dreams, our language, our culture, our way of life. And it will prove irresistible.” Today, consumerism has run rampant and personal debt threatens to throw us all into a tailspin again at any moment while stripping the environment down to the bone. It’s interesting to consider the ways in which America’s global influence could have been different after the war if the forces in power were motivated by something other than profit.

“Manhattan Beach” was overall a joy to read and it includes a sassy, free-thinking aunt named Brianne who ultimately became my favourite character.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJennifer Egan
9 CommentsPost a comment
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Since Hollinghurst’s debut novel ‘The Swimming Pool Library’ in 1988, he’s published a new book in approximately six year intervals. This is enough of a gap for each new novel by this much-lauded writer to feel like an event. His 2011 novel ‘The Stranger’s Child’ was a long ambitious story spanning a period of time from the First World War to close to the present day. In chronicling the transition of time, he charted how the reputation of a poem and its poet transform over many years and subsequent generations. In this new novel ‘The Sparsholt Affair’ Hollinghurst has adopted a similar narrative strategy that’s slightly more compressed spanning The Second World War to close to the present day. The story begins with a literary club in Oxford and the infatuation some members have for a sexually-appealing conventionally-masculine young man named David Sparsholt who is intent on enlisting in military service and settling down into a traditional marriage to his sweetheart. The subsequent sections leap forward in time to show the legacy of portraits and sexual scandal in a circumscribed social world of British society. In doing so, Hollinghurst creates a fascinating depiction of how reality doesn’t change but the frame around it and the way we view it significantly alters over time. In particular, the novel focuses on how views on homosexuality have evolved to alter the way in which individuals perceive themselves and negotiate their public identity as well as their sexual desire. It’s a tale that develops a unique power with its rich accumulation of detail and gains momentum as time slides forward to show the complexity of characters’ relationships and their legacies.

It’s interesting to compare this novel with John Boyne’s most recent novel “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” which similarly leap-frogs through the past century showing how changing attitudes about homosexuality personally impact the characters involved. However, Boyne’s novel is much more concentrated on a single gay man’s transforming self-perception in tandem with social and political events/progress in Ireland. Hollinghurst presents a much broader canvas with more shades of sexuality from bisexuality to a lesbian couple intent on having a child to gerontophilia. That’s not to say either of these novels is better or worse: they just have a different scope, writing style and way of chronicling shifts in social perceptions about sexuality. Where Boyne posits how his character of Cyril thrives and benefits from social development, Hollinghurst shows how the UK’s decriminalisation of homosexual acts in 1967 came too late for some individuals to ever recover from.

I read this as part of a mini bookgroup I belong to with writers Claire Fuller & Antonia Honeywell. We had an excellent discussion about it over lunch.

I read this as part of a mini bookgroup I belong to with writers Claire Fuller & Antonia Honeywell. We had an excellent discussion about it over lunch.

‘The Sparsholt Affair’ is something of a slow-burning novel. The accumulation of detail in Hollinghurst’s precise and eloquent writing takes on an increasingly profound meaning as the novel progresses. As time moves forward, we make connections, discover coincidences and uncover the surprising fates of a number of characters. In this way the author wonderfully captures, as he describes it at one point, “all the teasing oddity and secret connectedness of London life.” These interactions frequently involve the way sexual desire is either expressed or repressed. In fact, Hollinghurst persistently represents how these desires surge up in day to day life and “the hot-making magic of those sudden but longed-for moments when sex ran visibly close to the sunlit surface.” Early on, this largely takes the form of small circles of gay men who lust after an outwardly straight man. This felt problematic to me at first because straight-chasing is such a cliché of gay culture but it took on a greater degree of poignancy when contrasted with how Hollinghurst represents the expression of desire towards the end in more contemporary times. Now that there’s social media and hook-up apps the fulfilment of that once suppressed or misdirected desire feels like it’s tantalizingly within reach. But this raises poignant questions. How does the expression of desire transform in different social contexts? To what degree does power factor into the enactment or withholding of sex? Where is the overlap between desire and emotion?

These are all powerful questions which were also raised from an entirely different point of view and different context in Garth Greenwell’s “What Belongs to You.” Despite Hollinghurst’s novel being suffused with the melancholy of emotional and sexual disconnect, there are many funny observations made throughout and much of it is ultimately quite hopeful. It also feels brave in a way to be asking questions about what’s been hidden in the past and why the reality of what happened is still unnameable. At one point a character wonders “Things had happened, not quite named before; why not name them now?” This story shows how important it is that our perceptions evolve alongside those of the society around us.  

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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If you want to tap into the most cutting edge fiction today, the Goldsmiths Prize (now in its fifth year) is one to watch. It was started in 2013 by Goldsmiths, a university in south London and the prize seeks to celebrate creative daring, reward fiction that breaks the mould and extends the possibilities of the novel form. Obviously, like any prize, it’s subjective. This isn’t a definitive list of all the excitingly experimental things being published today, but it gives a good guideline and it’s become one of my favourite prizes since past winners Eimear McBride’s “A Girl is A Half-Formed Thing”, Ali Smith’s “How to be Both”, Kevin Barry’s “Beatlebone” and Mike McCormack’s “Solar Bones” count among some of my favourite novels in recent years. And isn’t it funny that the previous two winners are both Irishmen who have the word “bone” in their book titles? Those Irish are so morbid! Ha!

I’ve read four of this year’s six shortlisted novels. I really admired both Sara Baume’s “A Line Made by Walking” and Nicola Barker’s “H(A)PPY”. I had very mixed feelings reading Jon McGregor’s “Reservoir 13” but in reflection I’ve found it a really moving novel and I’d be eager to read it again. I’m as baffled about what’s so good about Gwendoline Riley’s “First Love” now as I was when it was shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction earlier this year. It made me angry how withholding the narrative of this novel felt, but obviously others appreciate it much more. I’ve heard mixed things about Will Self’s novel “Phone” but I’ve appreciated his fiction in the past and I’m eager to read it. I hadn’t heard of “Playing Possum” by Kevin Davey before this prize and I love it when book prizes introduce me to writers’ work I wouldn’t have come across otherwise.

You can also watch me discuss my thoughts about the shortlist and experimental fiction here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xKbujRtyLWg

What do you think of the list? Do you like experimental fiction? Are you intrigued to read any of the books from the shortlist? It’s difficult to say, but I’m betting that “Reservoir 13” or “A Line Made by Walking” will win. Do you have a prediction?

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The protest surrounding the 1999 Seattle meeting of ministers from the World Trade Organization is a tragic event that raised awareness of the anti-globalization movement. Thousands of protesters blocked the streets leading up to where the meetings were due to take place. They faced serious police opposition as authorities forcefully tried to disperse the crowds using tear-gas and pepper spray while making many arrests of protestors and innocent bystanders alike. It’s truly shocking watching videos of policemen lifting the scarves covering protestors’ heads and spraying toxins directly into their faces. The complexity of this incident is heightened by the wide range of groups involved in the protest, but most were motivated by agendas involving fair labour policies, anti-capitalism and environmentalism. Author Sunil Yapa brings this clash to life in his novel “Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist” which is a dramatic depiction of this November day involving fictional characters of the Chief of Police, his estranged biracial son who becomes a part of the protests and several people involved in various sides of the conflict. He inserts individual stories and histories into this landmark event which has often been obfuscated by the confusing array of issues surrounding it. In doing so, he creates a poetically-charged and energetic tale that raises meaningful questions about our individual responsibilities as global citizens.

This novel raised a lot of personal feelings for me as it prompted me to wonder about my own stance as a citizen. In my late teenage years I spent a lot of time reading about and researching intentional communities and spent some time on one such place in Virginia. I was eager to strive towards a communal level of self-sufficiency while continuing to be an active part of society but not submitting to the trappings of a capitalist lifestyle where we often buy products that were produced by underpaid labourers in foreign countries or items that were produced in a way that overtaxes the environment. But, like most people, I got so caught up in getting a job and making a home with my partner to continue taking such a radical stance on the way I live within society. Sometimes I wonder how complacent this makes me and if I should take a more active role in living in a way which doesn’t have larger unseen negative effects upon the world.

This novel prompted me to think about how so many people are trapped in this condition. Also, when there are major clashes like this specific example everyone brings their own emotional baggage and historical issues with them. So the protest wasn’t just a conflict of two opposing ideologies about how society should be run, but is a wide-scale intermingling of emotionally-charged points of view. The characters include a wayward young man who has spent three years travelling the world, a woman who used to be involved in eco-terrorism, a police officer who had been involved in the LA riots and an economist from Sri Lanka trying to get a deal signed off. Yapa writes about them in a way which brings the weight of their pasts into the present. At times this does come across in a way which is slightly clichéd, but overall it is moving and effective.

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One part which particularly struck me was when a character named Victor recalls his deceased mother and the books she left behind. Yapa describes how “He schooled himself from the boxes. He liked to read… liked the idea that he had inherited more than his dark skin and dark hair from the woman who disappeared… And for a moment the loneliness that was always with him left him alone.” I found it so emotional how this showed the way this legacy of knowledge can be passed down and that he could be comforted by the same words and ideas which his mother found so inspiring. This makes what subsequently happens to these books all the more shocking and upsetting.

“Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist” ultimately traces the line where our concepts and ideals about what we want our society to be are tested with our bodies and physical safety. The protestors at this event put themselves in danger and unfortunately suffered from a tragic mishandling of public order. This novel is a testament to that bravery and gives a dynamic view on how we can better understand these clashes which will continue to occur in times of political instability. I'd particularly recommend this novel to anyone who appreciated Ryan Gattis' novel "All Involved".

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSunil Yapa
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I started this blog exactly four years ago. In a way it feels like my little safe haven away from the noise of normal life where I can mull over what I’m reading to my heart’s content. I’m truly grateful for people who want to engage with me discussing what they’re reading too. Now that I’ve built up quite a back catalogue of reviews one of the best things is when someone has just finished reading a book I read years ago and comments on that old post. Suddenly, my thoughts and feelings for that book come rushing back to me while we have a discussion in the present. Having that sort of connection helps assuage the feeling of loneliness which always goes with reading and makes it much more fun. It’s a lovely thing.

Since I like to mug for the camera and come up with creative ways of photographing myself with what I’ve been reading, I’ve also built up quite an album of book selfies. So here’s a selection from the past four years. Thanks for reading my blog and watching my Booktube videos and let me know what you’ve been reading lately… I always love hearing about what good books I’m missing out on.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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I came to a funny realization when I was a large way through reading “The Woodcutter and His Family” by Frank McGuinness; this is a novel about James Joyce and his family. That should have been obvious. The thing is I don’t often read the descriptions on books. I prefer to plunge in. On the back of this novel, it first describes it as a story about a writer dying in Zurich in 1941. I only read these few sentences before starting the novel itself but if I’d continued I’d have noticed the name James Joyce. As it was, I started reading and continued on while only occasionally thinking that these people sound similar to James Joyce and his family. But although I've read Joyce’s major books, I know little about the famous author’s life beyond that he had poor eyesight, lived in Paris and had a daughter who suffered from mental illness. However, before I finished this novel I was listening to an Irish podcast called Bookish which is run by two booksellers. They mentioned this upcoming novel about James Joyce and it suddenly clicked that this was indeed who I was reading about. Obviously this cast the story in a more sensational light given Joyce’s rockstar status as the godfather of Irish literature and one of the great Modernist writers of the 20th century. But it didn’t change my feeling of it being a beautifully written, tender and psychologically-complex story of family life.

In recent years, there have been a number of novels which take the reader “inside” the lives of the 20th century’s most lauded writers including “Arctic Summer” by Damon Galgut, “Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald” by Therese Anne Fowler, “The Master” by Colm Toibin and “Mansfield, A Novel” by C.K. Stead. But, rather than focusing solely on Joyce’s perspective, Frank McGuinness gives equal space in his novel to son Archie, wife Bertha and daughter Beatrice (named differently from Joyce's actual family) before plunging into James Joyce’s point of view. Of course, each of these family members is defined in their relation to the great writer and reference his impending death so there’s no doubt that he’s the central focus of this story. However, the meat of each family member’s tale delves more into their own personal obsessions and feelings about other family members. These show a touching respect for the problems that each individual faced and created a composite portrait of the wildly different takes on family history each member retains.

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No doubt, a lot of Joyce fans will enjoy this personal and poetic take on the lives of James Joyce and his family members. In particular, in James’ section it delves into his notoriously luke-warm personal interactions with Proust. Joyce hilariously refers to Proust’s magnum opus as “Cooking for Phantoms.” But it also lingers on Joyce’s strong feelings about his parents and his conflict with Bertha over Beatrice’s treatment. The section from Beatrice’s perspective is particularly fascinating for the idiosyncratic and coded way she views the world. While I’m not sure the final story of Joyce’s artful depiction of their family life was necessary, it nevertheless provides a moving ending. More than its depiction of the great writer, this is a novel which gracefully encompasses so much of what makes Irish literature mesmerising. “The Woodcutter and His Family” is suffused with a bewitchingly morbid sense of humour and voices which insist on being heard.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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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.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesFiona Mozley
2 CommentsPost a comment
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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.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJon McGregor
5 CommentsPost a comment