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Something unsettled me amidst reading Rachel Kushner’s novel “The Mars Room” which focuses primarily on a young mother named Romy Hall who has just been convicted for two life sentences. We’re given a highly detailed and unflinching look into the lives of an array of individuals who have been incarcerated in a California state prison for women. Scenes veer from instances of horrific violence and suffocating devastation to humorous depictions of the women’s characters and interactions. This tragicomic balance is no doubt both true to life and necessary for a novel’s structure, but it felt somewhat voyeuristic in a way that made me uncomfortable.

That there is a whole population of people locked away from public view and the justice system is fraught with problems is something that shouldn’t be ignored. I believe fiction can be a means by which we can better empathize and understand the lives of people who were born into and are trapped in circumstances radically different from our own. And I have no doubt about the sincerity or meticulousness of Kushner’s labour in creating a novel that sympathetically represents people whose voices are too often ignored or suppressed. But I felt there was something awkward about the way she’s rendered these lives with such artistic control by also incorporating different third person narrative strands about a few male characters. While it didn’t stop me from being emotionally engaged at points or admiring many of the insights “The Mars Room” gives, it left me somewhat estranged from what I felt the core of this novel was trying to do.

Kushner has spoken in interviews about her proximity to correctional facilities such as this, friends who are serving long prison sentences and how Romy’s background is similar to girls she knew in her own childhood. There’s a potent logic in how we follow Romy’s journey from first being processed into permanent incarceration where she reflects about large swaths of her coming of age in a side of San Francisco much different from the popular understanding of that city in the 70s and 80s. This is a place of gritty urban decay, poor education and violence that almost inevitably leads Romy into a life of drug addiction and working at a strip club. However, interspersed with her memories and present experiences in prison are accounts of a dirty ex-cop named Doc and a Thoreau-loving man named Gordon who encourages inmates to get their GEDs while occasionally getting too touchy feely. These sections didn’t make much of an impression on me other than making grand statements that Kushner couldn’t give in the confines of Romy’s tale and serving as devices to feed into the plot working towards the novel’s somewhat melodramatic conclusion.

The content and musings within these third person accounts about men are sometimes interesting but jar against the larger narrative about Romy and other female inmates. For instance, at one point Gordon muses how “A man could say every day that he wanted to change his life, was going to change it, and every day the lament became merely a part of the life he was already living, so that the desire for change was in fact a kind of stasis that allowed the unchanged life to continue, because at least the man knew to disapprove of it, which reassured him not all was lost.” The devastating logic of this is really meaningful and speaks to universal ideas about human nature. Nevertheless, it felt too often like Kushner was striving to faithfully balance the lives of men against the female population of the prison. The only instance where it felt really effective was towards the end in how she rendered the misogynistic thought process and self-justification of a male stalker. But overall the balance Kushner tried to strike faithfully depicting all her characters’ stories felt unwieldy to me.

 Romy recalls going to a museum and sees Henri Matisse’s painting ‘The Girl with Green Eyes’ which she feels connected to.

Romy recalls going to a museum and sees Henri Matisse’s painting ‘The Girl with Green Eyes’ which she feels connected to.

I gravitated towards Romy’s voice the most and wanted to stay with it. There are many punchy short lines which brutally convey the way a prison environment leads to paranoia and isolation: “You can’t believe anything people say. But what they say is all you have.” Kushner also has a skilled way of emotionally drawing you into this character’s experience and then stating how you are still really different. At one point Romy observes “A lot of history is not known. A lot of worlds have existed that you can’t look up online or in any book, even as you think you have the freedom to find things out that I cannot, since I don’t have access to the internet.” I admire the way she makes a large statement about the hidden aspects of history and then reminds the reader how Romy is excluded from trying to research information in the way we’re now accustomed to because she can’t search for things online. The way in which the reader is drawn into relating to Romy’s human experience but is also made aware of the significant differences in terms of opportunities and freedom is really powerful. I just wish Kushner had stayed true to that rather than striving to create a panoramic view of society like in a Dostoevsky book who she heavily nods towards in this novel.

For a different look at the lives and mentality of people in prison, I’d really recommend reading the anthology “Prison Noir” which is a collection of powerful stories written by people who are in prison or have been incarcerated.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesRachel Kushner
3 CommentsPost a comment
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Here are the six books shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize. I’m so thrilled to see “Washington Black” and “Everything Under” on the list, but quite disappointed that “The Water Cure” and “Normal People” didn’t make it. Like I explained in my post about “Milkman” there are parts of it which are so brilliant and mesmerising, but other sections were a slog to get through so I have mixed feelings about it. I also felt conflicted about “The Mars Room” for different reasons. But I am glad to see them both on the list because it means more people will be discussing them and giving their opinions. I’m currently reading “The Overstory”. And “The Long Take” is a novel I’m so intrigued by so I’m glad I have an excuse to go buy a copy now. It’s tough to say, but initially I feel like the winning book will be a race between Esi Edugyan & Richard Powers

How do you feel about the shortlist? If you want to watch more of my thoughts comparing nominated books and discussing the prize I made a video you can watch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=luSnqLHUkwQ&t=289s

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Like many people, I was hugely impressed by Sarah Moss’ previous novel “The Tidal Zone” for the way its story meaningfully drew the past into the pressing concerns of its characters in the present. She uses a similar technique in her new novel “Ghost Wall” but in a much more compressed form that combines a tense story with a strong statement about issues in modern Britain. Teenage Silvie is taken on a unique archaeological trip in Northern England by her parents along with a few students and a professor. Rather than searching for artefacts they seek to recreate the feeling of living in Iron Age Britain as closely as possible. This means wearing nothing but burlap sacks, foraging for what food they can in the forest and living in primitive shelters. It also includes antiquated rituals like building a wall out of skulls and other unsavoury acts which grow increasingly alarming and bizarre. The values that Silvie’s father holds are skewed towards an outdated ideal of masculinity and gender dynamics which Silvie gradually comes to question. For such a short novel, this book builds up to a thrilling and memorable conclusion.

Since the vote for Brexit there’s been a lot of discussion about what Britain means as a country and a concept. Silvie’s father is an extreme example of someone searching for an ideal form of citizenship which retains a cultural purity without any outside or foreign influences. He’s angry about “Foreigners coming over here, telling us what to think” and longs to return to some pre-Roman Celtic tribe: “He wanted his own ancestry, wanted a lineage, a claim on something. Not people from Ireland or Rome or Germania or Syria but some tribe sprung from English soil like mushrooms in the night.” Of course, such reactionary desire to inhabit some mythically primitive form of being British is exactly what stirs fear, xenophobia and isolationist thinking. Sarah Moss dramatically and poignantly shows how such inclinations are both spurious and absurd.

At the centre of the story is Silvie who was named after an ancient British goddess Sulevia. She develops a friendship (and attraction?) to student Molly who is from Southern England. She is headstrong, dismissive of the group’s blatant machoism and hilariously bunks off from gathering edible weeds and berries to buy prepacked food from the local convenient store. Molly has grown up with very different values from Silvie who feels that it’s natural that “Children’s bodies were not their own, we were all used to uncles who liked to cop a feel given half a chance and mums who showed love in smacked legs.” But Silvie also refuses to be seen as a rural working class stereotype and is wary of patronizing views about their lifestyle. It’s a tense dynamic and it raises a lot of challenging questions for the reader about the difference between cultural sensitivity and doing what’s ethically right. These questions are just as haunting as the image of Bog People performing a sacrifice in the Iron Age which prefaces this short, razor-sharp novel.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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Sally Rooney is a writer that stands out as the voice of young Ireland. The natural milieu of her characters are intellectual college educated women and men in their teens and twenties. From her first novel “Conversations with Friends” to her new Booker longlisted “Normal People” she presents their stories about grappling with relationships and finding a place in society with deceptively straightforward prose. While this runs the risk of appearing to have a parochial view of the world, it moreover reads as emotionally honest and engaging in a way that few writers can pull off. This new novel is the story of Marianne and Connell who come from very different socio-economic backgrounds. Connell's mother works as a cleaner at Marianne's family home. The differences in class seem an inconsequential part of their relationship at first, but as they get older it has more of an effect on how they connect to each other. The story charts the staggered journey of their bond from 2011 to 2015. You can read this novel for the insights it gives into modern life and the plight of a section of an emerging generation, but it's moreover a modern romance which meaningfully engages the reader in the characters' growth as individuals and tantalizes with the question: will they or won't they get together? 

Before I recently read this novel I went to literary event and bumped into the excellent writer Ruth Gilligan who remarked how it's not been remarked in many reviews how at its core “Normal People” works as a really gripping romance story. I wonder if literary critics are hesitant to acknowledge this fact out of a fear that Sally Rooney will appear like a less intellectual writer. It's something Rooney herself seems to grapple with as her character Connell discovers Jane Austen's novels and the pleasure of an old fashioned romance story. “Normal People” is really an updated version of “Pride and Prejudice” or “Emma” for the way it takes seriously the struggle to find a real emotional connection amidst societal influences. It asks questions such as to what degree does social perception factor into our private relationships? How does wealth and power influence our connection to each other? In what way are our current relationships hampered by the emotional baggage of our pasts? But these larger questions linger in the background without intruding upon the pleasures to be found in the plot of Rooney's story. Marianne and Connell's relationship is on a par with that of the great tortured romances in literature like Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler whose evident passion for each other is also stymied by circumstance and tragic misunderstanding. 

Rooney has a particular talent for writing about the quiet emotional core and inner conflicts of her characters without any flourishes or elaborate language. This struck me following the journey of her character Frances in “Conversations with Friends” and it's even more powerfully portrayed in Marianne whose complex toxic family situation is slowly revealed over the course of the novel. At one point she observes of Marianne that “She wants to tell him things. But it’s too late now, and anyway it has never done her good to tell anyone.” Rooney describes in this powerfully understated way how the most significant things are often left unsaid and how we hinder ourselves from forming lasting connections out of a fear of truly revealing ourselves. At the same time she shows how the nature of being dictates we are all locked in a struggle between our inner and outer realities: “In just a few weeks’ time Marianne will live with different people, and life will be different. But she herself will not be different. She'll be the same person, trapped in her own body. There's nowhere she can go that would free her from this. A different place, different people, what does that matter?”

It feels like Rooney is deeply suspicious of the elitism of some literary circles. At university avid reader Connell develops a desire to become a writer himself but he's wary that the apparent insights fiction appears to give might be false. As someone from a working class background he's especially cognizant of how class factors into who consumes literature. When attending a reading he observes: “It was culture as class performance, literature fetishised for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys, so that they might afterwards feel superior to the uneducated people whose emotional journeys they liked to read about.” At the same time, literature is a method of creating a cultural dialogue that he still wants to participate in. But I wonder if this instance also gives an insight into why Rooney is so steadfast in writing about characters that are young, intelligent and Irish rather than imaginatively inhabiting the lives of people who are radically different from herself. I can't imagine Rooney writing about the plight of a Syrian refugee as Donal Ryan does in his accomplished novel “From a Low and Quiet Sea”. I imagine this would feel to her like an act for the sake of appearances and showily engaging in cultural dialogue. That's not to say Connell's feelings are necessarily her own, but that it's striking in the two novels Rooney has produced that she's stuck to writing about the lives and concerns of a limited set of people. This doesn't demonstrate a lack of imagination, but the conscious intent of a talented writer. 

Since Donal Ryan is also longlisted for the Booker prize, it also seems interesting to compare “Normal People” to another Irish longlisted title “Milkman” by Anna Burns. Rooney and Burns have very different styles of writing and focuses - “Normal People” is set in rural Ireland and Dublin while “Milkman” is set in Northern Ireland during The Troubles. But there's a striking coincidental parallel between the novels in that they both feature socially outcast female protagonists who read constantly to consciously escape their surroundings and develop relationships with men unwilling to label that relationship as committed. I don't know if this says anything significant about Ireland, modern social culture or the dynamic between men and women, but it's an interesting connection. While we can easily debate about the inherent worth of the Booker prize and the choices that the judges have made in their longlist this year, I enjoy how the prize has prompted me to read these new novels in close proximity to each other. But regardless of book prizes or literary culture in general, “Normal People” is a wonderfully engaging novel. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSally Rooney
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Daisy Johnson's debut book of short stories 'Fen' was a bewitching example of how modern-day real-world issues could be given a darkly imaginative fairy tale spin. So I've been greatly anticipating her debut novel which references both 'Hansel and Gretel' and the myth of Oedipus. Before reading it I went to see Johnson speak at a Waterstones event focused on modern reimaginings of myths (since it's a literary trope so in vogue at the moment given recent novels from writers such as Kamila Shamsie, Madeline Miller and Colm Toibin.) It was a relief to hear Johnson explain that she wrote “Everything Under” in such a way that no knowledge of the Oedipus myth is necessary to understand this new novel since my only familiarity with Sophocles' tragedy is mainly through the complex made famous by Freud. Nor have I read the original fairy tale of 'Hansel and Gretel' since I was very young. 

So I went into reading this novel focusing purely on the story itself rather than how it relates to these classic tales. I wasn't disappointed because I'm so drawn to the universal themes she writes about, her characters who are outsiders on the margins of society and her strikingly distinct writing style. The beginning is so powerful in how it beautifully describes the sense of how we are tied to a sense of home which has forgotten us. However, I was quite confused throughout sections of this novel which jump through large periods of time and between characters. The story involves adoptions, gender fluidity, the disorientating effects of dementia and an elusive mysterious river monster named 'The Bonak'. But, by the end of the novel, I was fully engrossed and moved by how the pieces of the story slid together to form an impactful conclusion. It's the sort of book which I know will benefit from a rereading now that I understand its characters/plot better and the classic myths which were reworked into its structure.

A character named Gretel is at the centre of the story which primarily focuses on her quest to understand the past she's consciously forgot and find her mother Sarah who she's been estranged from for many years. The reason for Johnson's jigsaw style of storytelling seems to be rooted in a belief of how memories are necessarily distorted and also on a philosophy of life which is asserted by a character named Charlie. He claims that “life is sort of a spinning thing. Like a planet or a moon going round a planet… Sometimes it’s facing one direction but only for a second and then it’s spinning and spinning, revolving on its base so fast it’s impossible to really see. Except sometimes you catch a glimpse and you sit there and you know that’s what it would have been like if things had gone differently, that is the way it could have been.” Her characters can clearly envision different paths for their lives but find themselves curiously fated to follow trajectories that lead to dissolution and loneliness because of the bodies, families and circumstances they are born into. They are fettered by the past rather than liberated by a deeper understanding of it: “The past was not a thread trailing behind us but an anchor.”

It's interesting how Gretel's profession as a lexicographer seems to be a reaction against the instability of her upbringing where she and Sarah were so isolated they created a language for themselves: “They cut themselves off from the world linguistically as well as physically. They were a species of their own.” It's a compelling example of the way groups of people continuously splinter off from society, form cultures of their own and fold back into larger civilization to better inform and transform it. Just like time and language, gender and sexuality are never constant things in this novel. I really appreciated the complex way Johnson shows how her characters feel their way into inhabiting their bodies and expressing who they really are. Unlike most coming of age stories, there's a dark-edged violence to the anticipation of sex for Gretel when her mother Sarah gives a condom demonstration using a knife which tears through the material. Johnson excels at creating disturbing and tantalizing imagery which shakes the reader out of a complacent understanding of the world and this novel is a wondrous black gem of a book.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesDaisy Johnson
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It felt somewhat surprising to me that the fact a graphic novel has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize for the first time has proved to be so controversial. I don't believe there's ever been any rules in the prize's guidelines saying a graphic novel can't be submitted and if none have been listed for the prize before I can only assume that publishers haven't submitted many in the past since they are only allowed to submit a very limited number of books. It feels like there's been an elitism and snobbery expressed by some who don't believe graphic novels are as great an art form as pure prose fiction. I get the point if people feel that reading a graphic novel is a totally different experience from reading a novel composed entirely in prose, but I think it's great that the prize is challenging people to read different forms of story telling and it might introduce some to an entirely new genre. I've certainly not read that many graphic novels before, but have really appreciated ones by Art Spiegelman, Alan Moore/Melinda Gebbie, Howard Hardiman and Chris Ware. So I'm glad the prize has introduced me to Nick Drnaso's work because I found “Sabrina” to be quite a powerful and bracingly melancholy read about current American society. 

A woman named Sabrina has gone missing. The novel focuses on the lives of Sabrina's sister Sandra and her boyfriend Teddy as they try to deal with her sudden absence and the aftermath when the shocking truth of what happened to her is revealed. The drawings which accompany the dialogue and text are very understated in how they convey the scenes with little detail or facial expressions in the characters. In the context of the story this has the odd effect of imbuing them with even more emotion because its all submerged and the characters are stuck in a state of inaction/confusion. Many of interior and outdoor spaces portrayed are also very muted or stark as if the environment is just as barren and sombre as the characters who are dealing with their grief. The conversations are clipped and awkward as the well meaning people in Sandra and Teddy's lives try to console them. All this evokes a tone of stripped down emotion as the characters are surrounded by a jaded society that's become accustomed to a bombardment of horrific news and a culture rife with conspiracy theories. Ironically, the only colourful and busy images in the book are reproductions of scenes from children's activity books which suggest a world of motion and light that's in stark contrast to the inertness of reality.

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The story also involves a man named Calvin who takes his old friend Teddy in and tries to help him deal with his sudden loss. Calvin works in computer security for the US military and is trying to formulate a plan to relocate so he can be closer to his ex-wife and daughter. While his actual job doesn't involve any combat he spends his time out of work playing video games with his colleagues that simulate military battles and he keeps guns locked away in his house so that he's “well-protected if anyone tries anything.” This combined with radio broadcasts and disturbing threatening letters sent to Sandra and Calvin suggest how society has become so consumed with paranoia about intangible threats. But the only threats that are actually portrayed in the stories are the ones which come from within when the characters are under so much anxiety that they appear to contemplate harming themselves or others. As part of his job, Calvin must routinely fill out a medical evaluation survey which is designed to gauge his mental health. While his stress levels fluctuate in his answers portrayed on these forms throughout the book he never admits to thoughts of depression or any personal circumstances which might affect his duties. Why would he when he knows it would risk his employment and possible promotion? So it gives the feeling that there are structures in place to try to support people's emotional health, but in reality little attention is given to the intricacies of their wellbeing.

Small details in the drawings poignantly portray the fraught condition of these character's lives. For instance, Calvin and Teddy basically live off from fast food and its highly suggestive how Calvin often brings home bags with a smiling star on them which could stand in for any generic fast food brand but which you know won't provide them with much nourishment. Also, nighttime or nightmare scenes are drawn in such a way that evocatively invoke a sense of space where the characters are wrestling with the unwieldy complexity of their feelings. While the overall tone of the novel is quite dark and sombre there are some lighter moments as well in the form of a slanket which Calvin has become accustomed to wearing or a vending machine at work which breaks down so much it's become an office gag. There are also many moments of simple kindness shown throughout the story which gives a hopeful sense for our ability to be our best selves in situations where we aren't so physically removed from each other. Running alongside the story of Sabrina's disappearance is that of Calvin's cat who vanishes without the characters noticing. This neglect parallels with the way Calvin has become so estranged from his daughter that his ex-wife tells him not to bother attempting contact anymore. It suggests how we can sometimes be careless about the things and people that matter to us most until we suddenly realise we've lost them for good.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesNick Drnaso
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When I was very young one of my favourite books was “James and the Giant Peach”. I can still remember the vivid descriptions of James tasting a peach which made me crave the fruit for years to come. For some reason I never read more of his famous tales for children, but of course I was familiar with the stories from popular films like ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ and ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’. What’s so interesting about Dahl is that his imaginatively off-kilter way of presenting the world shines through these dark fable-like stories that often involve some lesson about morality. I only became aware that Dahl also wrote stories for adults with Penguin’s recent publication of new series of books of short stories grouped under particular topics. It’s fascinating how Dahl’s distinct style still shows in these tales but they concentrate more on adult themes such as ambition, power, madness, cruelty and lust. I read the collection which centres around “Trickery” and hence each story involves a certain twist where different characters’ attempts to deceive cause them unexpected trouble. These play out in a series of creative and engaging ways which make them an absolute pleasure to read.

Although these stories are definitely for adults, Dahl’s sensibility is particularly suited to a child-like mentality. That’s not to say it’s naïve but it’s a perspective of wonder that shows how our imaginations continue to play a heavy role in our everyday lives even when we’re older. This can especially be seen in very short pieces that begin and end this collection. In the stunningly beautiful opening story ‘The Wish’ a boy plays a familiar game where he traverses sections of a carpet that has different coloured patches. He jumps between patches as if avoiding lava or snakes. Soon it begins to feel all too real and it’s as if his feverish imagination has overtaken his reality. Dahl demonstrates how this also occurs for adults as well in many different fascinating situations where characters believe their ingenious methods of trickery can manipulate things for their benefit. For instance, poachers try out a new method of trapping pheasants, a man in a foreign country tries to sleep with another man’s wife and daughter, a passenger displays unexpected talents, a couple attempt to conceal a diamond that unexpectedly comes into their possession. But our ability to control the world and other people often isn’t as strong as we think. Events go awry and we often get bitten back.

 Episode from Alfred Hitchcock Presents inspired by a Dahl story.

Episode from Alfred Hitchcock Presents inspired by a Dahl story.

One particularly interesting story induced a feeling of déjà vu for me. ‘Mrs Bixby and the Colonel’s Coat’ is about a philandering wife who attempts to conceal from her husband an expensive gift that her lover gave her. When I was younger I loved watching the short and clever series of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. As I was reading the story it started to feel increasingly familiar and I finally realized that this was one of Dahl’s many tales which was turned into an episode from this Hitchcock series. Dahl’s writing is well suited for Hitchcock since his stories so frequently involve a fun twist and this story is no exception. It’s also an example of a story which hasn’t aged that well or contains a method of writing that would fall under greater scrutiny today. It begins with a paranoid rant about the deception and greed of women which is obviously meant to be satirical. But occasionally the language Dahl uses for discussing women or people of different ethnic identities might come across as insensitive or cringe-worthy to some modern readers – particularly in the story ‘The Visitor’ which contains a lot of degrading references to Egyptians and Arabs. It’s true that these are all made through the subjective perspective of a particular character so can’t necessarily be attributed to Dahl’s point of view. But they are used in the structure of the story to create a feeling of menace and it’s this narrative strategy by the author that comes across as somewhat xenophobic. I’m sure the tone of this writing wouldn’t have mattered to most readers at the time it was published but it seems worth pointing it out now and stating that it’s mainly confined to this particular story in this collection.

I think this all adds another interesting element to the stories about how fear and prejudice can play into the way adults can imagine illogical threats coming from people and places outside their experience of normality. When writing about this its only right for Dahl to bring in people’s complicated opinions and prejudices as long as its done in a way which still respects the humanity of all the characters rather than just as a means of serving the plot or making a cheap joke. Regardless of these issues, it’s easy to enjoy these stories for their ingenious ways of showing how people can entrap themselves in sticky situations when they consciously attempt to deceive. Sometimes I could guess what the twist of the story would be before it happened, but part of the pleasure in these types of tales is anticipating how it might play out and then seeing how things are actually resolved in the story. I think Dahl’s fiction is particularly suited to being read aloud so people can share in that anticipation as it unfolds. The tales in “Trickery” have sparked my interest in reading the other volumes of Dahl’s stories in this beautifully designed new series.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesRoald Dahl
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It’s my 40th birthday today and recently when going through some old folders I came across this list I made in 1999 when I was 20 years old. It’s a ranking of my 100 favourite books at that time. While I was at university and instead of going to parties or socializing I’d spend many hours in the library where, in addition to reading, I’d spend time making lists of my favourite books or literary graphs charting out when key books were published in relation to each other. I know, what a geek! But I’ve had fun going through this and trying to figure out which of these books still stand up as my all-time favourite books and which I’ve either forgotten or realize I’ve only chosen because it makes me look like a smarter reader.

One of the interesting findings I’ve had from working on the ‘Rediscover the Classics’ campaign with the reading analytics company is how people choose whether to recommend a book because of the perceived worthiness of its content or reputation. So we’ve found that quite often when readers consume a new romance or thriller as part of a test campaign they will respond they really enjoyed reading it but wouldn’t recommend it to friends (presumably because it’s seen as a guilty pleasure.) Conversely, some readers indicated they didn’t enjoy reading some of the classics we’ve offered, but still state that they’ll readily recommend them. So it’s interesting how social perceptions play into the books we want to talk about and discuss with other readers.

It got me thinking about how I’m sure my 20 year old self put some books on this list because I felt like I had to because they are such revered classics or it’d make me look like a smarter reader. I hope that these days I’m less concerned about how people will react when I say a book is my favourite, but it’s difficult to know how much social perception factors into these types of decisions. From the list below I’d say “The Waves” absolutely still ranks as my favourite book since I’ve continued rereading it both in physical form and on audio book. Some other books that I love and still rank highly in my mind are “Crime & Punishment”, “Blindness”, “Ragtime”, “Song of Solomon”, “Keep the Aspidistra Flying”, “Invisible Man”, “The Age of Innocence”, “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”, “A Handful of Dust”, “Ladder of Years”, “Bartleby the Scrivener”, “The Earth”, “Madam Bovary” and “Mrs. Caliban”. Others like “Moby Dick”, “Underworld”, “Bleak House”, “The Stranger” and “On the Road” I’ll admit to having put on for more pretentious reasons. I know I’d have to reread a lot of these to know for sure, but it’s still fun to look through them and think about it.

If I were to make a new list now it'd obviously include many different books from authors I've read over the past two decades like Joyce Carol Oates, Ali Smith, Nadeem Aslam, Jean Rhys, Elizabeth Strout, Colm Toibin, Rachel Seiffert, Jessie Greengrass and Edmund White.

I think it’s really interesting how our memories of books change over time and it’s difficult to know when you revisit them if your interpretation of it changes because you have different social perceptions now about reading or if you’ve changed. Let me know if we share any favourites from my list below. Also let me know if you’ve ever made any personal favourite book lists like this and if you’ve revisited them when you’re older.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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The narrator of “Milkman” has the geekishly endearing habit of reading while walking wherever she goes. This 18 year-old wills herself to be completely removed from her time and the unnamed city in Northern Ireland she inhabits by concentrating on novels from the 19th century. Her desire to be elsewhere and invisible is understandable given that the atmosphere around her is extremely tense. She lives amidst The Troubles where there are car bombs, executions, surveillance and stringent (spoken and unspoken) rules in place where everyone must carefully navigate the “religious geography”. But she’s not able to fully extricate herself from her surroundings. One day at the beginning of the novel she becomes very conspicuous when she’s accosted by a shady character known as Milkman. Thereafter she’s the subject of vicious assumptions and suspicion. The way this novel rigorously catalogues and artistically renders the frustration and injustice of being raised within a divided war-torn country is admirable. Unfortunately I often found the actual experience of reading it to be frustrating and tedious at times, but I was carried through by sparks of genius that periodically shined throughout the story.

It’s difficult trying to describe my feelings about this book because its dense style is the thing that makes it a great as well as a challenging read. Both the author’s use of language and the text on the page is so tightly packed in it’s as if all the narrator’s irresolvable thoughts and emotions have exploded out. One publicity blurb I read described her writing as like that of Eimear McBride meets Edna O’Brien which is totally apt. Her writing isn’t as fragmented as McBride, but it does give the feeling of wading through a very thick body of water. I get how this reflects the narrator’s dilemma of being trapped in this community and the personal injustice she suffers being dragged into politics she wants no part of. It’s effective while conveying moments of fierce anger and wry comedy. However, there are also long periods of the narrative where I felt so bogged down with descriptions of the conduct and rules for existing in such strained circumstances that I was put off from reading any more.

The readability of the novel isn’t helped by the fact that almost everyone’s proper name is withheld as if naming them might dangerously implicate them in some way. Again, this is an effective technique for conveying the milieu of the narrator’s city and it does serve as an important part of the plot but it makes it quite difficult to fully envision the characters as rounded human beings. Where this element did feel effective for me was in the comic portrayal of the narrator’s younger sisters who are a single chorus of voices seeking to control the narrator by repeating edicts dictated by their “mammy” and sporadically showing a distinct sophistication beyond their young years. It also comes as a relief later on in the novel when central characters who feel so emotionally muted demonstrate hidden depths and concealed desires rather than just being unnamed beings.

There were certain sections which seized my attention and I spent a lot of time rereading them to try to fully take in their rich complexity. For instance, there’s a passage about the danger and difficulty of standing out as an individual in this combative landscape: “part of normality here was this constant, acknowledged struggle to see. I knew even as a child – maybe because I was a child – that this wasn’t really physical; knew the impression of a pall, of some distorted quality to the light had to do with the political problems, with the hurts that had come, the troubles that had built, with the loss of hope and absence of trust and with a mental incapacitation over which nobody seemed willing or able to prevail. The very physical environment then, in collusion with, or as a result of, the human darkness discharging within it, didn’t itself encourage light. Instead the place was sunk in one long, melancholic story to the extent that the truly shining person coming into this darkness ran the risk of not outliving it, of having their own shininess subsumed into it and, in some cases – if the person was viewed as intolerably extra-bright and extra-shiny – it might even reach the point of that individual having to lose his or her physical life.” This is a beautiful and heady way of describing the nature of growing up in this violent environment and coming to understand that the standard code of practice which no one dares oppose is the thing which is strangling the humanity out of this community.

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Another exquisite section lays out the duality of existing in this conflicted city: “There was no getting away from views and of course, the problem was these views between the areas, between one side and the other, were not just the same. It was that each was intolerant of the other to the extent that highly volatile, built-up contentions periodically would result from them; the reason why too, if you didn’t want to get into that explosive upsurge despite your view which you couldn’t help having, you had to have manners and exercise politeness to overcome, or at any rate balance out, the violence, the hatred and the blaming – for how to live otherwise?  This was not schizophrenia. This was living otherwise. This was underneath the trauma and the darkness a normality trying to happen.” This is such a complex way of conveying the inner struggle people feel in this environment, but following the author’s circuitous logic can be too laborious at times.

Mostly what pulled me through “Milkman” was the deep sense of empathy I felt for the narrator. She must suffer the indignity of being characterized as a certain type of person by her family, friends and community just because a disreputable thug sidles up to her without an invitation. I really felt her turmoil as once the public opinion had been decided there was no way for her to escape it. All she wants is to remove herself from it, but there’s no way for her to escape this toxic environment. The trauma that results from being forcibly pulled into such a self-conscious drama is poignantly reflected in her viscous narrative. I just wish it was able to maintain its effectiveness while also being more readable.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAnna Burns
8 CommentsPost a comment
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When considering the immeasurable evil of slavery it’s difficult to fully fathom the ramifications it had amongst so many individuals' lives. Not only were people’s freedom and lives brutally curtailed, controlled and cut short, but their talent and potential was also squandered. Esi Edugyan evocatively portrays the life of George Washington Black or “Wash”, a character with the aptitude to be a great artist and scientist were he not born into slavery on a Barbados plantation in 1818. But she grants him the potential to partially foster his talents when he comes under the apprenticeship of an eccentric scientist who is the brother of the plantation owner/overseer. What follows is a fantastically imaginative, heartrending and compulsively readable tale of his journey and growth into early adulthood. It’s a richly immersive story that also powerfully shows the perspective of slaves who feel “We had been estranged from the potential of our own bodies, from the revelation of everything our bodies and minds could accomplish.” This psychological state is complexly rendered as are the way characters surrounding Wash fail to fully empathize with him and understand the ramifications of slavery. “Washington Black” is an astounding novel.

Edugyan perceptively shows the way that the development of children are so atrociously twisted growing up in slavery, how relationships become perverted and emotionally disrupted. Not only does she portray this in her protagonist but it’s also poignantly rendered in the character of a slave girl who is seen only fleetingly, but Wash observes at one point that she has become pregnant and we’re left to horrifically wonder how this eleven year old’s pregnancy came about. The author also sympathetically shows the challenging emotional state of a boy going through adolescence where new feelings of stimulation are so often mixed with a sense of shame: “I would wake aroused against the sheets, feeling all at once thrillingly alive in my skin, and ashamed.” Wash encounters many challenges that prevent him from feeling pride in either his body or mind. His journey is both an inner struggle to fully foster and own his natural gifts as well as a physical quest to survive the confines of his restricted circumstances. Amidst the immediate action of Wash’s trials, there are intriguing mysteries in the background which gradually unfold over the course of the book.

 Detail from a 1657 map of Barbados, showing plantations and escaped slaves.

Detail from a 1657 map of Barbados, showing plantations and escaped slaves.

I also really appreciated the beautiful writing in this novel, particularly when Edugyan is portraying the natural world and Wash’s scientific study of it. Maybe I just have an affinity for scenes in stories that take place under water, but just like Egan’s “Manhattan Beach” there’s a stunning scene in this book when Wash dives underwater and discovers a liberating space. Edugyan writes “How luminous the world was, in the shallows. I could see all the golden light of the dying morning, I could see the debris in it stirring, coming alive. Blue, purple, gold cilia turned in the watery shafts of light slicing down. In the gilded blur I caught the flashing eyes of shrimp, alien and sinewy… all this I let drop away, so that I hung with my arms suspended at my sides, the soft current tugging at me. The cold sucked at me and the light weakened, and I was finally, mercifully, nothing.” It’s as if the only place Wash can be liberated from the constrictions of his identity is in this alien underwater world where he can never truly belong.

In its very title this book asks a powerful open-ended question about all the people in history who possessed innate talent and intelligence, but whose skin colour and status dictated whether they realized their potential or were forced to squander it. Even though it’s a historical novel it makes a powerful political statement naming its slave hero after the first US president. In this era after Obama’s presidency it seems horrifically regressive that the current president is someone who only achieved his position through money and an old-world sense of superiority. It feels like Edugyan is challenging us to consider under what terms we want to found our future: superficial details or real capability? There are so many impactful themes and ideas in “Washington Black”, but what makes the novel so gripping are the surprising twists the story takes that left me desperate to discover what will happen next.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesEsi Edugyan
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Winton is a writer particularly skilled at showing the hidden emotional depths of hard men for whom sentimentality seems anathema. Reviewer Cathleen Schine described Winton as a “practitioner of what might be called the school of Macho Romanticism.” Many of his male characters are strong on the surface, conceal their feelings through silence or crude talk and refuse to divulge the emotionally complicated aspects of their past. Jaxie, the teenage protagonist of Winton’s new novel states “Our stories. We store them where moth and rust destroy.” I found Winton’s previous novel “Breath” utterly captivating in this respect for the way it describes the tentative friendship between two solitary boys and their desire to surf. “The Shepherd’s Hut” focuses on the life of another hard-edged teenage lad who is in the midst of a crisis. The novel is structured almost like a thriller opening with Jaxie gunning it down a rural road in a speeding vehicle and the novel gradually unfolds to reveal how he got to this point. He’s someone left without any support network having been slighted by his community and born in an emotionally and financially impoverished household. He refers to his abusive father as “Captain Wankbag” and after a shocking accident, Jaxie is left to fend for himself in the Australian wilderness. His journey and the connection he makes with a reclusive hermit is a sobering take on the erosive effects of solitude, but also the ultimate tenacity of the human spirit. 

Boys like Jaxie are understandably designated as troublemakers for their harsh language and aggressive attitudes. He describes how his behaviour led to him being so ostracised and feared by his fellow classmates and teachers at school, they felt relieved when he dropped out. He describes how his energy can’t be contained “Christ, you could burn a skyscraper down with what’s in me.” As difficult as he must be in person, it’s also challenging for the reader to like at times for the disparaging way he refers to “blacks” and “poofs”. But he’s someone that’s grown up in an isolated environment dominated by straight white people. As abrasive as Jaxie is, it’s still easy to have empathy for him. He feels he must be totally self-reliant after his mother died from illness and no one came to his aide when his father beat him multiple times. But going alone in the wilderness and in life brings many perils with it. His plight trying to survive is arduous and bloody. Winton's writing evocatively captures the terror of self reliance.

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As challenging as it is being on his own, Jaxie encounters different challenges when he meets and bonds with a mysterious old Irishman named Fintan living in a secluded old hut. There's a painful hesitancy as the men don't know whether they can trust each other either with their physical or emotional safety. Winton gets so well how difficult it is to form connections with other people because it means making yourself vulnerable: “It’s a dangerous feeling getting noticed, being wanted. Getting seen deep and proper, it’s shit hot but terrible too. It’s like being took over. And your whole skin hurts like you suddenly grew two sizes in a minute.” The psychological journey these two go on feels deeply meaningful and I connected with the story so strongly in the way it demonstrates how people hide themselves in different ways. The novel powerfully shows how there is a kind of security in solitude, but also a price to pay for going it so perilously alone.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesTim Winton
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This is the first novel by Norah Lange to be translated into English and it’s just been published by the wonderful independent press And Other Stories. It was written in Spanish and originally published in Argentina in 1950. In her day Lange was a celebrated member of the Argentine literary scene – especially the avant-garde Buenos Aires group of the 20s and 30s. Throughout her life she famously hosted many literary salons and associated with writers such as Jorge Luis Borges, Pablo Neruda and Federico Garcia Lorca. She was awarded a Grand Prize of Honor by the Argentine Society of Writers having published poetry, memoirs, nonfiction and novels. Yet, she’s barely known outside her native country for reasons which César Aira’s introduction to the book and James Reith’s recent article in the Guardian interestingly suggest. It’s thrilling to discover a novel like “People in the Room” because, although I studied avant-garde literature at university from Borges to Alain Robbe-Grillet to Tristan Tzara, there were few female writers of this era included on the course list outside of Gertrude Stein and Nathalie Sarraute. It’s somewhat alarming to think that Norah Lange was there all the time, but most North American and European readers had no access to her work.

As characteristic of the innovative art and writing from this time, “People in the Room” pushes the boundaries of character and narrative where we’re given few specific details about the protagonist and her situation. Instead the reader follows her labyrinthine train of thought as she voyeuristically observes three women in their thirties through a window across the street from where she lives. Her obsession with these neighbours leads to endless speculations about their potential status as criminals or tragic figures or secretive heroines. Curiously, though she makes tentative contact with the women, she doesn’t want to discover any actual facts about them – not even their names. It’s as if her observations can transform them into an endlessly tantalizing array of fictional characters of her own creation: “I knew, if I was patient, I could have their finished portraits just the way I liked finished portraits to be: for them to be missing something only I knew how to add”.

Maybe it was the frequent references to portraits and three women that made me fleetingly think of the portrait of the Brontë sisters as I was reading the novel. But it was thrilling to discover when I read in Aira’s introduction (which I only did after I finished reading the novel so as to avoid any spoilers or interpretation of the text before I’d experienced it myself) that Lange had publicly stated she was partly inspired by Branwell’s famous portrait of his sisters where a ghostly painted out figure looms in the background. There’s a popular romantic conception of the Brontës living a cloistered existence of literary creativity that seems to chime with this story. But “People in the Room” also doesn’t shy from exploring darkly troubling concepts as well. Throughout the book Lange refers to portraits as if to fix a version of the women in place before excitedly creating another portrait which shows them in a different light. But this leads to an unwieldy multiplicity: “She seemed to possess many portraits, as if constantly adding them to the hidden gallery of her own face; as if arranging, on the four walls of the drawing room, in order, the story of her face.” It’s fascinating how these descriptions naturally inspire ideas about our psychology and William James’ concept of how we have a different personality for each person we know. It suggests that no matter how dedicated we are in observing or spending time with one another we can never really know one another completely.

 Branwell's portrait of the Bronte sisters

Branwell's portrait of the Bronte sisters

Alongside these fascinating ideas, there’s a compelling ambiguity throughout the text about the narrator herself. She’s a teenager on the brink of some great change who is directed by her family at one point to take a trip elsewhere. Yet, rather than meditate on her own state of being or future, she continues her frenzied focus on the women across the way who might be entirely in her imagination or mannequins or women involved in their own unknowable preoccupations. It’s as if she wants to preserve something about her creative process and imagination before yielding to the responsibilities and limitations of adult life. There’s a sombre tone to this enterprise “it would always be as if she was gathering memories beside a plot reserved for a grave.” There are frequent macabre references throughout the novel to death or the narrator’s expectation/desire/fear that the women she observes might soon die. Perhaps if they are dead she can better preserve her own idea of them without the messy complication of their real personalities. There’s a disturbingly bleak sort of romance to this which she describes stating “when I was fond of people I always imagined them dead.”

Getting brief clues about the narrator herself at different points in the text makes “People in the Room” a mystery wrapped in a mystery. I enjoyed the many layered and oblique ideas this book holds. It’s a novel which ought to be read alongside Norah Lange’s contemporaries for the fascinating concepts it explores and the way the curious story pushes the meaning of narrative. But it’s also a compelling exploration of the process of writing itself. The women are the narrator’s malleable characters which she endlessly enjoys reshaping, imbuing with her own psychology and destroying in a perverse godly act when she can no longer control them. It’s a novel that can be read in many different ways and would no doubt benefit from multiple rereadings. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesNorah Lange
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Patrick Gale's new novel “Take Nothing With You” is a refreshing new take on a coming of age story. At the beginning we first meet the protagonist Eustace in his later years. At this stage of his life he's begun a promising new relationship with Theo, a fairly senior army officer stationed far away, and, though their connection has progressed from a dating app to regular Skype conversations, they've not yet met in person. But Eustace has also been diagnosed with cancer and needs radiation treatment which requires him to remain in temporary solitude within a lead-lined room where he can take nothing with him that isn't disposable. It's the first example of how the title of this novel resonates so strongly throughout a life marked by stages which require abandoning physical things and one form of identity to progress onto another. The bulk of this tale is concerned with Eustace's childhood and adolescence as he discovers a love of music and other boys. The story poignantly demonstrates the courage that is required to declare your true desires and to express your creativity even if it goes against the grain of the majority. It also shows the importance of role models to foster young people’s creativity and to assist in helping them to grow and flourish.

Eustace discovers a love of playing the cello during his childhood and he’s lucky enough to come under the tutelage of a passionate musician named Carla Gold. She serves as an important mentor in training him to develop his natural skill and passion. But financial pressure and discord in his parents’ marriage creates problems for Eustace in realizing his full potential. Although the story is focused on Eustace I appreciate how Gale takes care to sympathetically refer to the struggles of his parents as well. They face their own challenges and must sacrifice things to move forward in their lives or make compromises. Another example of this is the father of Eustace’s friend Vernon who is struck by a paralyzing illness. Here is another example of someone who must cruelly progress in life without things which feel like an essential part of his identity. I also appreciated how Eustace’s relationship with his mother is depicted in such a complex way. Gale writes some startlingly lines to describe the realms of what remains unknown between mother and son: “He had never seen his mother naked and never seen her bank statements.” Considering the dramatic things which occur in their relationship with each other, I imagine rereading this novel will make reading earlier scenes between them feel even more impactful.

 Detail of a painting from 1671 by Abraham van den Tempel

Detail of a painting from 1671 by Abraham van den Tempel

The story also sympathetically shows Eustace’s sexual development and how he gradually comes to terms with his homosexuality. Two male friends of Carla serve as mentors in a very different capacity, not just in how they educate him about gay culture, but from the fact of their existence living openly as a gay couple. Without this kind of example in his life, Eustace would have certainly found it difficult to imagine relationships other than the ones he forms in his early sexual experimentation with boys only interested in homosexual acts as a form of physical gratification or a power game. It’s also interesting to note how in one section Gale gives a survey and critique of gay fiction at this time of the late 20th century. Writing by Thomas Mann, Gore Vidal, EM Forster, James Baldwin, Gordon Merrick and Edmund White were crucial in openly bringing the stories of gay men into novels, but they had their limitations and only represented a narrow scope of experience: “The men in all these seemed to be uniformly handsome, virile, rich and expensively educated but they came to believe in their right to happiness and the stories ended with them neither punished, unhappily married nor dead. The novels had about them a strain of self-mythologizing breathlessness, full of precious feminine references which confused him.” Gale’s writing feels to me like an additional crucial voice in gay fiction for the way he poignantly describes the varied ways gay men can survive amidst oppression without compromising essential parts of their identities – as he did in his moving novel “A Place Called Winter”.

Beyond the detailed and captivating descriptions of Eustace’s growth as a musician and a gay man, this novel is an evocative account of the experiences of childhood and the different methods we use to piece together how the adult world works in our own way. In one section it describes how Eustace tries to visualize the different counties in England based on a map he had in a game when he was younger. It’s these sorts of references which we mentally go back to in order to make sense of the physical and emotional landscape in front of us. I thoroughly enjoyed this touching and captivating novel.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesPatrick Gale
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It’s so bizarre when reading one novel after another to discover coincidental and surprising connections between them. Right after I finished reading Madeline Miller’s “Circe” I started reading Sharlene Teo’s debut novel “Ponti” since it’s one I’ve been anticipating and I wanted to finish it before going to the latest Lush Book Club hosted by Anna James. I soon realized one of the main characters is called Circe as well. While it’s a really evocative name from Greek mythology, it’s certainly not a common one so it was a fun surprise. But this is just an incidental comment about my process of reading what turned out to be a novel that’s so distinct and engrossing.

Since its publication earlier this year, “Ponti” made a splash on social media after receiving a briskly cutting review in the Guardian from Julie Myserson who criticised the “writing workshop” feel of certain scenes and the “limitations of creative writing courses.” In particular she objects to the turns of phrase in sections narrated by Circe whose somewhat self-consciously crude language is actually a crucial part of her character. The review sparked a flurry of responses defending both the value of writing courses and the creativity Teo demonstrates in this complex novel. It was good to hear that Teo herself felt unperturbed about the criticism when Anna asked her about it at the book club discussion. She sensibly sees the value in the debate for how it encouraged people to discuss her novel more and how it also raised interesting issues surrounding creativity/writing courses. I simply note all this because, despite Myserson’s dismissive tone about the book, I found “Ponti” to be refreshingly original and emotionally arresting. 

Teo uses such an interesting structure for “Ponti” which rotates between three different characters’ perspectives in three different decades. This felt slightly disorientating at first until the story so compellingly began to fit together. For a part of the book I couldn’t help longing to only remain with Szu whose story follows her in the early 2000s navigating her awkward teen years and friendship with Circe. Szu also lives under the shadow of her more glamorous mother Amisa, an obscure film star whose only role consisted of acting in a trilogy of cult horror movies but she now makes a living as a con artist psychic alongside Szu’s auntie. However, as the novel progressed the revolving perspectives and connections combined to create a thrilling momentum. The way its told says something quite poignant about the meaning of time, memory and grief. In one section a character observes how “Grief makes ghosts of people. I don’t just mean the ones lost, but the leftover people.” In a way, Amisa, Szu and Circe are all living ghosts who are unable to fulfil their potential because of disappointments or trauma that they’ve experienced.

The relationships between all three of the characters is so sensitively composed. It felt bracingly honest how Szu and Circe develop a bond, but their connection slips away as soon as Szu needs Circe the most. They aren’t simply misfits within their school who form a friendship over being outcasts. Their relationship constantly shifts and reforms just as they are building and reforming a sense of identity in these crucial teenage years. Circe reflects that “The truth is Szu and I told half-fictions to each other. We were complicit in our mutual exaggerations.” Teo captures so well the sense of story telling between friends as a self-mythologizing enterprise and an exploration between the lines of candour/confession and emotional truth/historic accuracy. She also shows the heart breaking way friends can outgrow one another.

 It was lovely meeting Sharlene Teo at the Lush Book Club

It was lovely meeting Sharlene Teo at the Lush Book Club

Equally, Szu’s relationship with her mother Amisa is movingly portrayed as Szu feels such pride in her mother’s acting career despite it being short lived and unsuccessful. In one of the most striking scenes Szu desperately tries to interest a classmate in Amisa’s films even when the girl obviously doesn't care. It felt strikingly realistic how Szu feels a mixture of pride and repulsion for her mother. For whatever reason, Amisa doesn’t feel the kind of bond with her daughter where she can gain any satisfaction from the daughter’s admiration. Instead she shuns Szu and hunkers down in her bitterness at not having achieved the kind of fame that her potential suggested she might reach. This disconnect between mother and daughter is heart wrenching, especially in the way their relationship ultimately plays out. There’s also an unsettling poignancy in the way Amisa’s film role was that of a female vampiric ghost from Malay mythology. A version of the legend relates how the Pontianak originated from a child being stillborn. In this novel it’s ironic that here’s a child capable of loving her mother, but instead Amisa selfishly only longs for the love of the wider world. Her ego is what makes her become a kind of monster.

It's a deeply engaging reading experience. Overall, I feel “Ponti” is strikingly sophisticated in how it creatively incorporates a well-known trope from horror movies to say something meaningful about the tragic disconnect which can occur in our most important relationships.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSharlene Teo
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It’s fitting that Alexia Arthurs’ debut collection of stories has an epigraph from Kei Miller who writes so compellingly and inventively about national/racial Jamaican identity. In particular, his writing is often concerned with perception, self-perception and storytelling traditions. Arthurs’ lively and invigorating short stories engage with similar ideas through the diverse perspectives and tales of many different individuals. These men and women have moved from Jamaica to America or moved back to Jamaica after living in America or are first generation Americans with Jamaican ancestry. Many of these individuals feel a tension in being caught between these two nations. Their values, desires and goals have been gradually modified having lived within both cultures and this naturally makes the characters question where they fit within either country and how they interact with different communities. Arthurs depicts a wide range of points of view from the intimate thoughts of a college girl to an elderly man who holds a longstanding secret to a resentful twin brother to a lesbian who returns to Jamaica for a friend’s wedding to a pop star preoccupied with the sudden death of one of her dancers. In skilfully depicting a rich plurality of voices Arthurs raises challenging questions about how we define ourselves and the assumptions we make about others.

It’s also noteworthy that Zadie Smith gave a blurb for Arthurs’ book calling it a “thrilling debut collection” considering how Smith’s most recent novel “Swing Time” has subjects and themes that so closely mirror Arthurs’ story ‘Shirley From a Small Place’. Where Smith writes about a famous white singer (loosely inspired by Madonna) who has a mixed race assistant, Arthurs writes about a famous black singer (loosely inspired by Rihanna) who has a white assistant. These plots obviously have a sensational side to them fictionalizing the intimate lives of celebrities, but in depicting such figures they show an amplified version of the conflicts central to their stories. Arthurs’ pop star Shirley has achieved the sort of recognition and success in America many Jamaicans dream of, but she’s also subject to the projections and scrutiny of the general public. It results in a distancing from the people who have been closest to her all her life, particularly her conservative mother Diane. But it also gives Shirley a stronger identification with the meaning of home in relation to Jamaica. The way their relationship changes and how it makes Diane re-evaluate her own image and desires interestingly plays off from the previous story in the collection ‘We Eat Our Daughters’ where several children relate tales of the domineering mother they never fully understood.

The collection also fittingly begins with a story about a character who consistently makes assumptions about different people and then must readjust her understanding of them after actually interacting with them. In ‘Light-Skinned Girls and Kelly Rowlands’ Kimberly feels a natural kinship with Cecilia because she’s one of the only other black girls in her freshman class. But Cecilia comes from a very different region and socio-economic background so their attitudes and perceptions about race are very different. There’s a melancholy poignancy in how the girls are unable to really see each other because they inhabit their racial identities so differently. In another story Arthurs also highlights how Americans often cling to people who come from similar backgrounds to themselves out of fear. She wryly observes “America, the land of diversity, where people talk to who they think it’s safest to talk to.”

Characters in several of the stories make strategic decisions about who they want to befriend or have a romantic relationship with based on someone’s race, but find it’s an individual’s values rather than their skin colour which ultimately determines whether they are compatible. For instance, unmarried teacher Doreen tries to formulate a relationship with another Jamaican man in America because of their similar backgrounds despite warning signs he might not be the one for her. There’s also often a weary awareness of how white characters will make assumptions about black characters and dictate how race should determine their position in society: “She was the kind of white person who would never let me forget my blackness – she would detail oppressions to me as though I hadn’t lived them.” These examples all highlight the tragic way people react to each other based on appearances rather than really listening to what someone has to say.

 Characters in different stories refer to eating cornmeal porridge

Characters in different stories refer to eating cornmeal porridge

‘Slack’, one of the most stylistically daring stories in the collection, shows multiple perspectives of characters reacting to the deaths of two young twin girls in a water tank. It felt reminiscent of the technique Marquez uses in his novella “Chronicle of a Death Foretold” where a proliferation of talk about a death makes it seem as if the death was always inevitable. Athurs’ story also makes a searing indictment of the perceptions surrounding the term “slack” which is used to describe women who exhibit loose morals by having affairs with multiple and/or married men. The mother of the drowned girls Pepper is referred to as such, despite the fact she was only an adolescent herself when she became pregnant and no blame is affixed to the older married man who had sex with her. It’s a term and attitude which recurs in several of the stories highlighting how people also frequently form judgements based on gender.

The title of this book has such a playful double meaning since it can be posed as a statement as if the book is like a "how to" manual, but it also functions as a question - one particularly relevant to Jamaicans who move to America. There’s such a proliferation of vibrant characters and compelling situations in all the stories found in “How to Love a Jamaican” that make it a mesmerizing and highly enjoyable read. What I appreciate most about the many perspectives Arthurs brings to the table is that she raises so many issues and questions without offering any easy answers. She merely represents these varied and idiosyncratic voices while respecting their passion and humanity.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAlexia Arthurs
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