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One of last year’s biggest literary breakouts was Leila Slimani’s Prix Goncourt winning novel “Lullaby” (known in the US as “The Perfect Nanny”). Her novel “Adele” was published in France before “Lullaby”, but it’s only now been translated and published in English. The heroine of this novel’s title is a journalist and mother with a steady husband. She appears normal and content, but running parallel to this stable life she has a secret existence filled with unruly passion and illicit affairs. She lazily does her job and barely musters the energy to get to the office every day. She resents her child and is turned off by her husband. All her passion is poured into furtive moments where men unleash their desire upon her because “Her only ambition is to be wanted.” This seemingly chaotic double life is untenable and there must be a breaking point.

Even though Adele’s case is extreme, her story is extremely relatable for the way we all harbour secret passions that we keep carefully concealed from those closest to us. She frequently resolves to turn her life around and devote more time to her husband and son, but finds herself drawn back into seedy behaviour because “Her obsessions devour her. She is helpless to stop them.” I admire how the psychological motivations for her behaviour are never neatly explained and there’s no clear-cut course of action or treatment to “solve” her habits. Instead, the novel shifts at one point to include the husband’s perspective more and shows how he has psychological hang ups as well which are preventing full intimacy and disclosure between them.

While it may not have the depth and poeticism of a novel like Garth Greenwell’s “What Belongs to You” which similarly explores the dynamics of someone driven by desire, I appreciated Slimani’s frankness in showing how eroticism can come to rule someone’s life. Adele isn’t driven by pleasure so much as a confrontation with mortality and a submission to the mechanisms of the body. This novel is a vivid study of how sometimes the relationships which are meant to support us are the ones which can lead to the annihilation of our innermost selves.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesLeila Slimani
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I was lucky enough to see an early screening of Barry Jenkins' film 'Moonlight' at the London Film Festival back in 2016. It was one of my favourite films of that year and I was thrilled that it won the Oscar for Best Picture a few months later – after Warren Beatty finally opened the right envelope! Jenkins new film is an adaptation of James Baldwin's “If Beale Street Could Talk” and I'm really looking forward to seeing it. But I always try to read a book before seeing the film version and I've been meaning to read more of Baldwin's writing for a long time. In college I read “Go Tell It on the Mountain”, “Giovanni's Room” and “Another Country” but I've not read anything since then. Somehow I forgot how forthright and emotional Baldwin's fiction is because I think this novel is absolutely extraordinary. 

“If Beale Street Could Talk” is narrated by nineteen year old Tish who has become pregnant by her fiancé Fonny who she's been close to most of her life. They've found their own place to live in Harlem and received a blessing from Tish's father to marry, but their plans collapse when Fonny is falsely accused of rape and imprisoned. Both their families try to pull together to get Fonny out of this dire situation, but they encounter many obstacles due to economic disadvantages and institutionalised racism. It's a heart-wrenching tale, but powerfully describes the bonds of family and romantic love in the most exquisitely beautiful way. 

Baldwin has a way of articulating in clear-sighted lucid prose his intense frustrations on a number of subjects. There are frequent cutting asides like this which slaps down the inflated egotism of a nation's spirit: “I must say that I don’t think America is God’s gift to anybody - if it is, God’s days have got to be numbered.” Another line feels so contemporary it's like Baldwin was critiquing the self righteous indignation of people on social media: “these days, of course, everybody knows everything, that’s why so many people, especially most white people, are so lost.” Passages like this burn with the intensity of sparks. Baldwin was a great essay writer and speech maker and maybe this comes through too strongly in a narrative meant to be narrated by a nineteen year old. Equally some later sections stray so far into other characters' points of view I wonder why he kept the entire novel in Tish's first person voice. Nevertheless, the dialogue and relationships between the characters in this novel felt entirely true. 

There's also a startling edginess to Baldwin's writing in how he portrays sexuality and frank heated exchanges. An early sex scene between a husband and his zealously religious wife is shown with surprising violence and expresses the unvoiced conflicts in their relationship. This contrasts so sharply with the mountainous passion expressed when Tish and Fonny make love. I was riveted by the arguments between the families which built to such a riotous show down it could have been a confrontation portrayed in a daytime talk show. It's also somewhat bracing to read how some racist and homophobic language is used by the characters. This makes total sense because it's of the era but you know that phrases such as “eyes like a Chinaman” and “the way his behind stuck out, his mother might have been a gorilla” wouldn't fly in a novel written today. 

Scenes of furious confrontation are balanced with touching moments of forgiveness and some scenes subvert your expectations such as when disenfranchised members of a community come together when Tish gets groped at a grocers. But alongside the high drama there are also many quiet moments of reflection that reveal the depths of great psychological complexity. For instance when considering her appearance Tish observes “People make you pay for the way you look, which is also the way you think you look, and what time writes in a human face is the record of that collision.” This is such a disarming way of considering how our image of ourselves and judgements by others about our appearance can mingle. 

What comes across most of all is how many of the issues Baldwin was writing about almost fifty years ago (this novel was first published in 1974) still feel relevant today. Perhaps that's why Barry Jenkins is bringing this story to the big screen now. I'm looking forward to watching it as well as Jenkins' next project which is turning Colson Whitehead's “The Underground Railroad” into a mini series. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJames Baldwin
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I often feel hesitant to read stories about writers writing because it can feel like the biggest cliché for a novel to be about the act of writing a novel. Of course, as someone who mostly lives through fiction I will gladly overlook what might be an eyerolling self-referential act for the pleasure of being in close company of another book nerd. And this novel goes in depth discussing the creative endeavour, our relationship to reading and dozens of fascinating quotes and references to writers such as Nabokov, Svetlana Alexievich, J.M. Coetzee and the now more obscure J.R. Ackerley. It’s also a commentary on our society’s evolving relationship to literature and the challenges of teaching creative writing in the era of political correctness. But I was caught off guard by how emotionally moved I was by “The Friend” by the time I came to the end of it.

The plot revolves around an unnamed female writer whose lifelong friend and mentor (who was also a writer and creative writing teacher) commits suicide. He leaves her his dog, an enormous Great Dane named Apollo. It’s a challenge for her to keep the pet because she lives in a tiny rent-controlled NYC apartment which doesn’t allow dogs. But she refuses to part with Apollo because he serves as both a connection to her lost friend and a source of emotional support that she increasingly hurries home to spend time with. Although you only get fragmentary glimpses of the narrator’s life and experiences her story builds to form a picture of an isolated individual struggling with issues surrounding mortality, loneliness and self-expression. But she also makes many wry and humorous observations about human nature and social behaviour. All this cumulative detail builds to form an understanding of her state of being while making poignant reflections on the human condition.

Her position in relation to her friend who committed suicide is also unique. He was married three times. Although the narrator is not one of his widows they shared an uncommonly close relationship and his actual widows treat her with a mixture of friendship, contempt and rivalry. This is shown humorously but I like how it also highlights that there are many relationships in our lives which don’t fall into neat categories of either family or romantic partnership. Yet, when it comes to something as significant as death, our relationship to that person can be devalued because there wasn’t a social label to certify its significance.

There’s also a fascinating chapter which is like a creative writing exercise she might assign to her students. In it she imagines an encounter between a woman and man who aren’t dissimilar to herself and her friend. Their discussion strays into a description of a novel the woman is writing about her fictional account of the man committing suicide. It’s a clever way of juggling with what’s true and what’s fiction. This emphasizes her point: “It is curious how the act of writing leads to confession. Not that it doesn’t also lead to lying your head off.” But it’s no less meaningful when the narrator finally succeeds in keeping the dog and develops an abiding connection with him. What’s undeniably true is the feeling of intimacy that the narrator craves to cling to even after losing her closest friend.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSigrid Nunez
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“Where Reasons End” is an imagined conversation between a mother and her 16 year old son after his suicide. The aching feelings of grief at the centre of this novel are made all the more intense knowing that the author herself lost a child to suicide. Yet their dialogue isn’t necessarily about why he ended his life and it’s not even about directly memorializing his life; it’s more an exchange about the nature of being and the way language gives structure to relationships. This tone isn’t surprising given Yiyun Li’s recent memoir “Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life” where the author discusses her own depression and suicide attempts. Like in her autobiographical writing, Li doesn’t cut to the heart of emotion but shades in its edges so you feel the bleeding heart of the matter more profoundly. The more their conversation persists the flimsier language feels: “None of the words, I thought, would release me from the void left by him.” As sobering and serious as all this seems, this mother and son make a perfect balance. When the mother’s musing becomes too lofty the son quickly and humorously brings her back to reality. In this way Li captures a beautiful dynamic which persists even after the son’s death.

Something which has always puzzled me is why teenagers typically express feelings of hatred for their parents. Even if it’s only fleeting and there’s an undeniably loving bond there, a parent is likely to hear from their child at some point “I hate you.” But midway through this novel the son (referred to as Nikolai even though that’s not his real name) describes his insurmountable feelings of inner conflict: “I’ve found a perfect enemy in myself.” Realizing how her son ultimately defeated himself, the mother dearly wishes he’d directed that hatred at her instead. It made me realize what a sadly necessary act of rebellion it is for teenagers to turn upon the parents who’ve nurtured them. Usually it’s not until a child’s teenage years that they become fully cognizant that they aren’t the centre of the world and life is full of insurmountable conflicts. How can an individual not feel angry realizing this? And how poisonous it is if the accompanying sense of defeat is directed only inward. Li captures this struggle so poignantly it reduced me to tears.

Many books have been written about grief and it’s often commented how an inner dialogue persists for the survivors. Li doesn’t try to explain the magical thinking that allows this conversation to continue, but simply presents it. The significance comes not from the fact of it but the circular logic which means it will always continue: “I’m muddleheaded, I thought, because I could go on thinking but would not reach any clarity: Which between hope and fear, had made life unliveable for him?” There’s a belief in the power of language which transcends the tragedy of the mother’s circumstance and though it may feel ultimately futile she continues to connect with him through this dialogue. Yiyun Li’s writing achieves a rare kind of honesty I’ve felt in few other writers except maybe Ali Smith and Max Porter. It’s the sort which is best read in private early in the morning when you have no distractions and are ready to have a frank conversation with yourself.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesYiyun Li
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Some books leave me with little to say except I loved the experience of reading them. Maybe I should leave it at that in regards to this particular novel. But it's funny because Anne Griffin's debut novel “When All is Said” is a story that's so dominated by story itself it doesn't invite the reader to do anything but listen in rapt delight. It's told from the perspective of 84 year-old Irish farmer and businessman Maurice who sits in a bar having several drinks to honour people who've had a significant impact upon his life. And the experience of reading this book is like that feeling of listening to an old man brimming with tales to tell: some wickedly funny, some heart-wrenchingly sad and some that come with twists so disarming they left me stunned. So by the end of the book I was left feeling like this man's life had washed over me. I was moved by all his disappointments, passions and sorrows. There's also a blissful sense of release because Maurice is someone who always had difficulty expressing his feelings throughout his life and found it challenging to communicate as he suffered from a learning disability. Like the inverse of a series of reminiscences at a funeral, his narrative at this very late stage in his life is the most beautiful tribute to the people who made him who he is and a profound kind of letting go. 

Naturally, because Maurice has lived so long, he has observed many physical and social changes to his country. Like in John Boyne's “The Heart's Invisible Furies”, part of what's so mesmerising about this man's story is to realize how much things can change in the course of a lifetime. It's shocking now to read how several decades ago a very young man like Maurice who comes from a desperately poor family could go to work on an estate and receive such horrific verbal and physical abuse from the lords of the manor. And this shows so poignantly how feelings of hurt and a desire for revenge can come to dominate a man's life. Maurice also describes why he's had such trouble emotionally opening up and being forthright about what he wants in life: “People didn’t really do that back then, encourage and support. You were threatened into being who you were supposed to be.” For a new generation that's raised with gentle words of encouragement and a sense that you should become the person you're supposed to be, it's quite sobering to realise how difficult it'd be to grow up under such strict tutelage.

Part of the immense pleasure I found in this novel is in it's all-encompassing Irish-ness. And no man is more Irish than Maurice: a straight talking self-made man of the Earth, loyal to his wife, likes a good drink and tells a spellbinding tale. His sensibility mixes humour with sorrow, humility with the grandiloquent and irony with the utmost sincerity. These dualities make his tales so bewitching and pleasurable to read. Perhaps he sums up his own feelings for the people closest to him best when describing the relationship that existed between his wife and her mother: “There was a love but of the Irish kind, reserved and embarrassed by its own humanity.” But here in this novel he finally divulges his experiences and unvoiced feelings to commemorate all the details of his fascinating life.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAnne Griffin
4 CommentsPost a comment
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Like many people, I was fascinated by the surreal atmosphere and ambiguous meaning of Argentinian writer Samanta Schweblin's novel “Fever Dream” when it first appeared in English a couple of years ago. Now a collection of her short fiction has just been published and it's of a similar sinister vibe with odd twists of logic that often veer into near nightmares. Here are stories of children that transform into butterflies, businessmen who are turned into farm hands, a dissatisfied wife who meets an amorous merman and a daughter whose new diet consists solely of consuming living birds. This subject matter could easily feel whimsical if it were written by another author, but Schweblin maintains elements of psychological truth so this fiction continues to feel real even if it's filled with the fantastical. Her stories often feel like puzzles where the meaning is tantalizingly close and I could solve it if I could just work out the intricately constructed design she's skilfully created. But, of course, these stories offer no definitive answers – just glimpses of the inexpressible fears, desires and carnage which simmer just under the surface of our everyday reality.

The way Schweblin approaches common themes from an unlikely angle brings out a new kind of emotional honesty. So subjects such as infidelity, miscarriages, eating disorders, spousal abuse, body image and depression are explored in these stories but in a way which defamiliarises the way we commonly think about them. Although the stories are fantasies they deal with serious issues. For instance, in the story 'Preserves' a woman whose unborn child dies in uterus goes through the process of pregnancy with the support of her family even though they know the child will be stillborn. It shows how the idea of a new child forms so fully in the minds of the family its due to be born into and becomes part of their lives even before its arrival. So the story considers how to deal with feelings of mourning which can arise in this tragic situation common to many families. It's a different kind of magical thinking from what Kit De Waal describes in her novel “The Trick to Time”.

Another story which had a strong resonance for me was the titular tale 'Mouthful of Birds' which describes the perspective of a father whose daughter begins only consuming living birds and refuses to engage in discussions. He's separated from his wife and when the daughter is left in his care he witnesses her deteriorating health because he doesn't want to support her barbaric new diet. In one of the few instances when the daughter speaks she asks if her father loves her and in this moment there is so much unexpressed longing and sorrow as she desperately tries to find a way to control her crumbling family and situation.

The way Schweblin approaches her subject matter feels most poignant when it’s teased out in her longer stories. I felt some of the less successful and least impactful tales were also some of the shorter pieces such as ‘Butterflies’ and 'Rage of Pestilence'. In these it seemed like a central concept was compressed too explicitly into surreal imagery. Some stories also stretch too far into the oblique and become twisted up in a convoluted structure such as 'Olingiris'. Schweblin’s ideas come more alive when they are situated in longer stories such as ‘Headlights’ where brides left on the roadside congregate into a vengeful swarm or 'Heads Against Concrete' where a narrator’s violent impulses, emotional disconnection and racial prejudice are translated into “high” art. Better yet, some of the most eerie tales are where the central object of the story remains entirely unseen and unnamed such as a couple’s desperate attempts to “capture” a child in 'On the Steppe' or a village of vanished children in 'Underground'.

Samanta Schweblin & writer Valeria Luiselli in conversation

Not all the stories in this book are so outrageously bizarre. Some such as 'Santa Claus Sleeps at our House' and 'The Test' are so deeply ensconced in the narrator’s perspective that reality seems to be shifting around them due to innocence or guilt. Still others movingly capture people’s concealed emotions such as 'The Size of Things' where a rich, successful man steadily regresses while inhabiting a toy shop. Other stories grope at understanding the unknowable emotional condition of others such as a man that suffers from depression in 'My Brother Walter' or the story ‘Irman’ where the death of a man’s wife swiftly leaves him perilously helpless.

Overall I loved getting lost in these tales with their refreshing flavour for the absurd. They brim with a vibrant creativity and I admire the way they offer a warped counter reality to life.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson

It’s the start of this year’s book prize season and I love perusing all the lists the judges to create to see what they choose to highlight. One of my favourite prizes of late is the Swansea University International Dylan Thomas Prize – whose shortlist I so avidly followed last year. It was great to see poet Kayo Chingonyi receive the prize last year for his debut collection “Kumukanda”. The Dylan Thomas Prize is awarded to what the judges deem to be the best published literary work in the English language written by an author aged 39 or under.

This year’s longlist has just been announced and it’s got that perfect mix of books I’ve read and admired, books I’ve been meaning to read and a few books I’ve not come across before. On the list are eight novels, two short story collections and two books of poetry. Two that I’ve read and that were also listed for this year’s Costa Book Awards are “Normal People” by Sally Rooney and “Soho” by Richard Scott. Rooney’s immense popularity as one of the most exciting new voices in Ireland today is well deserved and Richard Scott’s disarmingly beautiful and emotional poetry still vividly sticks with me. It’s also wonderful to see the excellent Sarah Perry honoured for her most recent novel “Melmoth” and writer Emma Glass for her wickedly creative slim debut novel “Peach”.

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I’m eager to try reading some of the other books listed before the shortlist is announced on April 2nd. This year’s winner will be announced on May 16th. It’s also fun to note that one of the judges of this year’s prize is writer Kit De Waal!

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Have you read any of the books on this year’s longlist or are you curious to try some of them now?

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
4 CommentsPost a comment
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Even though she ostensibly played a writer on TV, I first became aware of Sarah Jessica Parker’s real life passion for books a few years ago when she posted on Instagram about reading Lisa McInerney’s “The Glorious Heresies”. At the time I had great fun joking with Lisa how this novel could be developed into a “Sex in the City”-style TV show set in Cork because its gritty world of gangs, prostitution and drugs was so ridiculously far removed from the upscale life of sipping Cosmos and designer shoes depicted in that series. But Parker has taken her perceptive eye for great literature to the next level by starting her own imprint SJP under the publisher Hogarth.

I was particularly keen on reading “Golden Child” by Claire Adam, the second novel published by this imprint (in the UK it’s published by Faber & Faber) because it came adorned with blurbs by authors I really admire like Daniel Magariel and Sara Taylor. It’s a moving story of a family in Trinidad who have twin sons, one who develops into the most academically gifted boy in the Caribbean and the other who experiences severe learning difficulties. When one boy goes missing the novel turns into a tense mystery and kept me gripped wondering what was going to happen. But the heart of this novel revolves around questions about favouritism in families and the meaning of sacrifice for a child’s future.

It really pulls on my heartstrings when I read about children who are cast in a certain role within a family and forever carry the burden of those expectations. This works both ways for children who are generalised to be either smart/stupid, responsible/reckless, entertaining/dull or a whole host of opposing roles. The fact that the boys in this story are twins makes the contrast between them all the more vivid as well as the fact that they aren’t treated equally. What this novel shows so powerfully is that children don’t fit into one mould or another, but have unique personalities and quirks which ought to be considered in helping them to achieve their full potential. Only a kindly Irish priest named Father Kavanagh takes the time to see the value in the “problem” child Paul. I do wish more time had been spent fleshing out the character of his twin brother Peter and mother Joy, but the novel mostly focuses on Paul and his father Clyde.

Even though my sympathy naturally went with the children in this story it’s admirable how their father is still so complexly and engagingly depicted. He’s somewhat trapped in a family that’s torn apart by squabbling over inheritance and ardently wants to do the best for his children – despite categorizing them. As a working class man he knows the real value of money and doesn’t want to miss elevating at least one of his children out of the circumstances he was raised in. But he’s put in an impossible and dramatic position where he feels like he has to choose between them. The environment of his rural neighbourhood in Trinidad is depicted as crime-ridden where each house requires security devices and guard dogs to protect the families within.  At the same time, the author portrays the warmth, humour and (oftentimes gossipy) nature of the community.

This is a cleverly structured novel that powerfully portrays the complexities of family life and the difficult choices made in a strained environment.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesClaire Adam

I’ve been raving about how Marlon James’ new novel “Black Leopard, Red Wolf” is one of the publishing events of the year and that it will no doubt be one of the best novels of 2019. Anticipation for this brilliant and radical book has been building like none other! Well, I am thrilled to offer you the chance to win a pair of tickets to see Marlon James discuss “Black Leopard, Red Wolf” at the Southbank Centre in London on February 25th AND win two advance copies of the novel.

  • To enter, all you have to do is leave a comment below with the answer to this question:

    Which novel by Marlon James won the 2015 Man Booker Prize?

  • A winner will be chosen through a random number generator.

  • Terms & Conditions are listed below.

I am so excited to see Marlon James interviewed about this book at the Southbank Centre – especially after reading the recent profile on him discussing it in The New Yorker. Believe me, this is a novel like none other! Be sure to check out my review and response video about reading an early copy to see why I think this novel is so special.  The event will take place during the UK publication week of “Black Leopard, Red Wolf” so this is your chance to get early copies of the novel as well as see the author himself. Good luck!

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  • Terms & Conditions:

1.The prize will consist of two tickets to 'Marlon James: Black Leopard, Red Wolf' on Monday 25 February at Southbank Centre's Queen Elizabeth Hall + two proof copy of the novel Black Leopard, Red Wolf

2.There is no purchase necessary to enter. 

3. The prize draw opens Friday 25 January and closes Tuesday 29 January, 23:59. 

4. The winner will be contacted directly by Southbank Centre.

5. The prize draw is open to residents of the UK aged 18 or over except employees of Southbank Centre, their families, or anyone professionally connected to the giveaway either themselves or through their families.

6. The winner will be required to provide a contact email for Southbank Centre to facilitate transfer of the prize. Contact details will not be used for marketing purposes unless there is opt in and will not be shared with any third party except for the purpose of delivering the prize 

7. The prizes are as stated in the competition text, are not transferable to another individual and no cash or other alternatives will be offered. Tickets are not transferable to any other Southbank Centre event

8.The prize will be allocated in the winner's name and must be collected by the winner in person at Southbank Centre 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
28 CommentsPost a comment
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It’s been a few years since I read Lissa Evans’ excellent novel “Crooked Heart”, but I remember loving her vivid characters and witty writing style. So when I heard that her new novel is a prequel to this earlier book I become intensely curious. “Crooked Heart” opened with a poignant description of Mattie, an aging intellectual who was very active in the Suffragette movement, before describing the journey her ward Noel takes out of London to escape the The Blitz in 1940. “Old Baggage” tells Mattie’s story prior to when the boy Noel came to live with her and depicts Britain at an interesting stage of its political history.

It’s 1928 and many people - including some of the women involved in the Suffragette movement - feel that their overall aims have been achieved because of the new Equal Franchise Act which granted equal voting rights to women and men at the age of 21. However, Mattie is still frustrated by other inequalities between the sexes which persist and there’s also worrying fascist groups gaining in popularity – one of which is led by a former Suffragette. Mattie is the most endearing sort of stickler (who I admire but would be terrified to meet in real life) as she persists in delivering lectures to mostly bored crowds and has a new scheme to empower lackadaisical local girls by marching them through the heath like young activists/explorers. While this all makes it sound like a novel top heavy on history and politics it really doesn’t read that way. Rather, it’s a warm-hearted, comic and ultimately poignant portrayal of a group of women trying to balance their personal desires/values against the limitations of society at that time.

Although the story is a prequel, it felt like no prior knowledge of Mattie was necessary to enjoy this story of her and her household known as “The Mousehole” in Hampstead. It earned this nickname because it was a refuge for suffragettes to recover in when they were released from prison after hunger strikes in what was known as the Cat and Mouse Act. But now Mattie’s only stalwart companion in the house is Florrie Lee who is nicknamed “The Flea.” They are just friends but Florrie possesses latent romantic feelings towards Mattie. Her unexpressed sexuality is subtly described with a lot of feeling and care: “she loved Mattie. Living with her in simple friendship might be akin to dancing the Charleston when what you really ached for was a slow waltz – but the music still played; it was, in its way, still a dance.” It’s interesting how even though Mattie is such a progressive there were social issues even she wasn’t prepared to fight for in this era of history or, perhaps, she wasn’t even aware of them.  

What’s so clever about this novel is the way Evans gives such a compelling and many-sided look at politics from this period, but they are threaded so expertly into the plot they don’t obstruct the pleasure of the story. I found myself heartily engaged in scenes such as Mattie chasing a thief through a fairground or delighting in some deliciously cutting turns of phrase such as when Mattie describes a girl as being “zestless as a marzipan lemon”. Only after reading certain scenes did I think back and reflect on the way complicated social issues were built into the framework of these characters’ stories. It made me consider the difficult personal sacrifices individuals must make for a higher cause and how challenging it is to gain a historical perspective on a time period when you’re living through it. The story also subtly shows how political ideas influence people and reverberate over the greater span of time.

Many other writers would show the grit and agony the Suffragettes went through when starving themselves to protest against flagrant inequalities and the men in power who refused to do anything to change them. Instead, Evans refers to this and shows its continuing impact in Mattie’s dogged attitude lecturing and teaching anyone she encounters. I think this displays an admirable restraint in a writer because the impact of these activists’ self-sacrifice is no less intensely felt and we get a more complex picture of how seismic social changes have a multi-layered effect over time. While it’s important not to blinker ourselves against the horrors of history there can be an anaesthetizing effect when fiction gives detailed descriptions of harrowing situations. So it’s a difficult thing to make readers feel the heat of that anger while not making them want to close themselves off to the reality of it, but this is something Evans does very well.

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Evans also delivers that wonderful pleasure readers can get from reading about characters in situations where social rules are flagrantly disregarded. There’s a memorable scene in a jail where Mattie (as a victim of a crime) is expected to behave in a certain way, but her principles and resentment over the way police abused Suffragettes hilariously prevent her from complying and make her follow her own independent corrective actions. Her persistence and obstinacy to the cause exhausts nearly everyone around her, but she’s not immune to change. The story shows how her attitudes incrementally transform as she must temper her personality to allow for other people’s feelings.

While the primary journey of this novel was such a delight to read, I did feel that the story didn’t deliver an entirely satisfying conclusion for several strands within it. There are some periphery characters who we’re given touching private moments with, but their individual dilemmas feel slightly left behind in the greater sweep of Mattie’s story. She’s undeniably the centre of the novel and she’s such a mesmerising figure she deserves to be the focus. But when she reaches a certain crisis point and fall from grace it feels like everyone else is somewhat short-changed in the process of her redemption. However, the pleasures of this novel are manifold and the skill demonstrated in rendering history in such a lively, complex way is so admirable. It also felt especially moving at the end of “Old Baggage” reading about the genesis of a substitute parent-child relationship which changes so dramatically at the beginning of “Crooked Heart”. Mostly I admire Lissa Evans’ creative and imaginative style of writing about ornery characters in a way that makes me love them.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesLissa Evans
6 CommentsPost a comment
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This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Wellcome Book Prize, an award which celebrates fiction and non-fiction that engages with some aspect of medicine, health or illness. The intention of the prize is to raise public involvement and debate around the subject of medicine and health. It’s such a unique focus amongst book prizes whose categories are more general. The prize is indelibly linked to the extraordinary institution that is the Wellcome Collection. This is a free museum and library in central London which engages with the public about issues of health and is a rich resource for many. For instance, Jessie Greengrass wrote the bulk of her novel “Sight” (one of my favourite novels from last year) while working and conducting research in its library – something which is very evident in the text from the way it engages with the history of medicine.

So, to help celebrate this prize’s anniversary, I decided to peruse its history of entrants and read a book that was shortlisted for the prize in 2012. “Our Lady of Alice Bhatti” by Mohammed Hanif is a darkly comic novel that begins with the novel’s titular hero Alice being interviewed for a nursing position at the dilapidated Sacred Heart Hospital for All Ailments in Karachi. It’s a chaotic establishment where blood is sold, medicine is pilfered and nurses are regularly molested (in one vividly horrific scene Alice defends herself with a razor blade). Alice implements simple hygienic procedures which improve the health of many patients, but as a medical facility its run more on faith than it is on science. So when an apparent miracle occurs people flock to the establishment in the hope of being magically cured. It’s a struggle for the rational, but Alice’s main dilemma is overcoming the stigma against her lower caste and Christian background. She seeks to rise above her origins, but things go badly awry.

Hanif’s writing brings the vibrancy and humanity of the city and Pakistani society to life as well as its manifold problems. Running parallel with Alice’s story are the shady dealings of the Gentlemen’s Squad, a police unit that uses strong-arm tactics and is basically a law unto itself. Teddy Butt a bodybuilder (and body waxer) is a freelance thug-for-hire who does odd jobs for them. Alice marries and attaches herself to him in the hope of gaining his protection but when their relationship becomes untenable she finds herself in even more danger. The story shows the absurdities of institutions which are run on reactionary ideas – most poignantly in the hospital’s approach to healthcare both by patients and doctors. The book’s final prologue is a heartrending lament that includes an indictment made by Alice’s father who highlights distinctions between those are deified in our society and those whose memories are besmirched. It’s a compelling and forceful novel.

I’ll be especially interested to follow the prize this year as the chair of judges is author Elif Shafak. A longlist will be announced in February, followed by a shortlist in March and the winner later in the Spring.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMohammed Hanif
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What a wholly-immersive wild adventure this novel is! Going into it I knew Marlon James has a talent for writing intricate sweeping tales from having read his previous novel “A Brief History of Seven Killings”. That book greatly enhanced his international prominence having won the Booker Prize in 2015. That same year I was one of the judges of The Green Carnation Prize and we also selected his novel as a winner - not just for the magnificence of his storytelling but the meaningful inclusion of gay characters and gay sex in this Jamaican story about the attempted assassination of Bob Marley and drug trafficking.

“Black Leopard, Red Wolf” is very different from that previous book yet still retains James’ unique style, sensibility and alluring mischievousness. Touted as an ‘African Game of Thrones’, it describes a fantastical medieval adventure involving warring kingdoms, witches, giants, shape-shifters and a quest for a missing child. But it’s all firmly rooted in African mythology, language and history. There have been significant examples recently of storytelling whose narratives aren’t wholly based in an Anglo-Saxon past but draw instead upon traditions in African culture. From Tomi Adeyemi’s “Children of Blood and Bone” to Akwaeke Emezi’s “Freshwater” to the phenomenally successful film Black Panther, these tales insist upon the presence of African lore and pay respect to its cultural history whose influence has largely been absent from Western narratives. Marlon James does the same while creating a riveting journey that has all the marks of a fantasy novel but also explores sophisticated ideas about the meaning of storytelling and explicitly adult themes about ambition, relationships, sex and violence.

Recognizing this novel is a significant shift from his more realistic mode of writing, James remarked in an early interview about this novel that “I wanted to go back to being a fantasy geek!” Part of what I loved about reading this book is that it made me feel like a boy again and recall a time when I frequently got lost in magical adventure novels where the world was entirely unpredictable and quickly transformed in spellbinding ways. Books in this mode are such feats of the imagination that they require a character list and detailed maps to help the reader’s journey through this complicated new world. “Black Leopard, Red Wolf” includes such aides and this adds to the nostalgic pleasure of embarking on what you know will be a knotty and richly-detailed odyssey.

The story’s hero Tracker becomes estranged from his family and tribe finding a more meaningful connection with a band of rejected deformed children called The Mingi and the charismatic Leopard (who alternately takes the form of a beast or man.) After being endowed with an extremely powerful sense of smell and magical protection from an anti-witch, Tracker (alongside a band of mercenaries and powerful beings) are recruited by a slave trader for a special mission to find a boy who mysteriously disappeared. The significance of this boy and his circumstances remain uncertain even as more details about him are uncovered during a quest which takes many years. Throughout his journeys Tracker encounters enchanted forests, mighty men engaged in gladiatorial fights, a neglected library master, evil shadow beings who walk on ceilings, a possessed village, flesh-eating monsters, doors that act as portals to other parts of the continent, tribes of witches who trade in children’s body parts and fantastical kingdoms. It’s a head-spinning adventure and one which expertly balances mysterious encounters with high intrigue.

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Embedded within this rich tale is a complicated same-sex romance centring around the close connection between Tracker and Leopard. Both are prone to jealousy when Tracker takes up with a chief officer and Leopard has an affair with his bowman. James has spoken before about how he emigrated from his native Jamaica partly because of the homophobic violence there. Leopard remarks at one point how “There are lands where men who love men get their cocks cut off, and are left to bleed to death.” It feels bold and significant that the author continuously includes highly-detailed gay love stories as prominent aspects of his narratives as a way of being true to his experience and insisting these stories have a visible place in broader storytelling. So not only does James orientate readers into largely untapped folklore traditions but he also highlights how same-sex relationships are an equally valid part of African history and mythology.

James also features the ways in which misogyny and rape are inevitable parts of warfare. Battles involve trading in bodies and forced servitude. He shows how sex isn’t always about sexuality but can be a tool in ploys for power and economic dominance. He notes how “the gods gave us nipples and holes and it’s not the cock or the koo, but the gold in your purse that matters.” As a hero, Tracker fights with the sensibility of a vigilante. But the novel fascinatingly probes his own shortcomings as a man questioning whether he has a latent hatred of women and if his violent acts are motivated more by revenge than achieving a sense of larger justice. This complexity of character and display of self-scrutiny makes him much more conflicted than your average fantasy story hero.

While witnessing Tracker’s complex development and following his epic tales, we’re aware that this entire novel is a testimony he’s delivering to an inquisitor in a trial about the fate of the lost boy. This is only the first novel in a proposed trilogy James is writing so this framework is part of a larger story being told and provokes larger metaphysical questions about the meaning of truth. Tracker is aware that we should “never take the story of any god or spirit or magical being to be all true. If the gods created everything, was truth not just another creation?” He doesn’t accept the authority of the divine or any leader who claims to have the backing of divine forces. In fact, Tracker is determinedly sacrilegious as one of his favourite quips is “Fuck the gods!” He’s cognizant that folklore is a decidedly mortal compulsion. If the process of relating history involves infusing it with a purpose and plan then there can’t be any one honest account of the past – including his own. He further asks “What is truth when it always expands and shrinks? Truth is just another story.”

Since this book is only the first story of a much larger tale, I’m already eager to see how further instalments will enhance a broader understanding of this new complex world filled with competing dynasties that James has created. One of the most fascinating characters in this novel is Sogolon who is also called the Moon Witch and has her own complicated motivations for finding the missing boy. James has already established that the next novel will be told from her perspective so it’ll be fascinating to see how her account will offer a radically different point of view on the events covered in the first book. The author has proven how adept he is at depicting very different but equally convincing voices with the multiplicity of first person accounts in “A Brief History of Seven Killings”. So, while the scale of this planned “Dark Star Trilogy” is truly epic, I have faith he’ll be able to deliver a well-rounded and fully-realised vision of enormous stature. In this first instalment it’s stated how “The world is strange and people keep making it stranger.” I feel like the more we see of this world the weirder it will get and the truer it will seem.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMarlon James
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Many book lovers have fond childhood memories of going to the library and discovering there the wondrous breadth and power of great storytelling. Early in “The Library Book”, author Susan Orlean gives a moving personal account of her burgeoning passion for literature found in the library and also the quality time spent there with her mother as they’d take regular trips to borrow new books. It’s her memories and ardour for the institution which prompts Orlean to explore the bizarre mystery surrounding the horrific fire in Los Angeles’ historic Central Library which occurred on April 29, 1986 and destroyed approximately 400,000 volumes or 20 percent of the library’s holdings. She gives a vivid account of the incident and the case surrounding it - especially the investigation of Harry Peak who was suspected of starting the fire. Moreover, Orlean meditates on the LA library system’s history as well as how libraries are institutions central to many communities. Although it recounts a very bleak incident, this book is ultimately hopeful in describing the resiliency of libraries and books because people’s desire for them keep them alive: “The Library is a gathering pool of narratives and of the people who come to find them. It is where we can glimpse immortality; in the library, we can live forever.”

Some of my favourite sections of the book are her descriptions of the endearingly quirky people who have organized and run the library system in Los Angeles since its inception in 1872 and the diverse librarians who run it today. It’s bracing discovering how the management of the library was at times wrestled out of the hands of more capable female librarians because the library board believed it was a job for men. There were also bizarrely prescriptive rules in place early on for patrons who were discouraged from reading too many novels or they were labelled as “fiction fiends.” Naturally, as society became more progressive, so did the rules of the library and the ways in which it served the community from the city’s homeless to being more accessible to children, immigrants and the disabled. It was also compelling reading about how libraries have embraced the arrival of the information age and the challenges of updating how information is stored and disseminated to the public. It made me feel for librarians who get asked some of the most bizarre questions imaginable by the public every day.

Orlean spent a lot of time conversing with people who work in many different functions within the library: not just librarians who check books in and out, but people who organize the stock, transport books, guard the library and run community programmes. In this way reading this book felt like getting a tour of the institution itself. Seeing so many levels to its running and management felt similar to watching Frederick Wiseman’s 2017 documentary Ex Libris: The New York Public Library. Orlean’s book is also a great conversation starter about what libraries mean to us personally. In this way, it’d be a wonderful companion to reading Ali Smith’s “Public Library” which is a book of short stories as well as a series of testimonies by authors and publishers who’ve found libraries springboards in fostering their passion for literature.

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I also found it fascinating reading about some of the LA Central Library’s most famous patrons including Ray Bradbury who frequented the library in his youth. It’s ironic that the institution which fostered a love of reading for the author of “Fahrenheit 451” would eventually lose so many of its books due to fire decades after this classic novel’s publication. While the mystery surrounding the cause and reason for the destructive fire of 1986 is at the centre of this book, its heart is a celebration of libraries and the people who are devoted to them. “The Library Book” feels like the most wonderfully intimate conversation for book lovers. But it also meaningfully grapples with the struggles that libraries face. Like many places in the world, libraries in the UK are facing increasing budget cuts despite the number of patrons increasing (according to a recent BBC report). I loved using and borrowing from my local library when I first moved to the UK. In recent years I’ve frequented places like The British Library and the London Library for special exhibits like a celebration of Jean Rhys or book prizes such as The Young Writer of the Year Award. But I’d like to return to libraries more frequently for the objects they’re founded upon: books!

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSusan Orlean
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When the Costa Book Awards shortlists were announced recently I was surprised to discover I hadn’t read any of the books listed for the first novel category. So I quickly sought to rectify that and picked up “Pieces of Me” by Natalie Hart without knowing anything about it (which is the most delightful way to approach books sometimes.) It’s an engrossing story of a British civilian named Emma who works in Iraq where she meets an American military man named Adam who she marries. Emma’s dual narrative alternately describes the formation of their relationship in this high-pressured foreign environment and their subsequent time living in Colorado dealing with the many-sided repercussions of war. Hart describes with great power the psychological trauma of war and the complicated grief of losing people in combat. She also dynamically explores how this can lead some people to hastily and tragically stigmatize people from different nationalities and religions. Overall, the story explores Emma’s struggle to overcome her sense of dislocation and understand how examining the many parts of her experiences can help her determine the best way forward. I got fully caught up in the heartrending dilemmas of this novel – especially as it reached its thrilling and surprising conclusion. 

I’ve read so few novels that deal with the impact of modern warfare upon the military and their families. The only other book I can recall is Lea Carpenter’s excellent “Eleven Days” which explores the relationship between a mother and son. “Pieces of Me” is divided into three parts which frame the stages of Emma and Adam’s relationship before, during and after his re-deployment to Iraq while she tries to make a life for herself in America. Each stage comes with its own anxieties and issues showing how the pressures of active duty certainly aren’t restricted to the times when people in the military are in combat. It’s alarming how the repercussions of war can so insidiously intrude upon the relationship between people who love each other. Emma describes how “Iraq has invaded. The space between us has been occupied.” The story explores how difficult it often is for people who’ve experienced combat to express the emotions which arise from their trauma. Instead they become locked in a pernicious silence which leads to misplaced anger and self-destruction.

The story gives a balanced view of the hardships of servicemen in the American military and their families as well as Middle Eastern refugees who've been granted asylum in the US. But it also beautifully shows the sense of community and bonds that arise between people in these groups as they endeavour to deal with how war has impacted their families and friends. Emma tries to be a link between disparate groups and do her best to help people, but the friction this sometimes causes makes her question “do we end up helping at all, or just make things worse – for others and ourselves?” The novel soberly acknowledges the insurmountable challenges for an individual when trying to solve the world's problems, but that there are small contributions that can be made to help individuals. It's a resonant and heartfelt novel.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesNatalie Hart
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When I put out a call for what 2018 books I should read before the end of the year, one of the most popular suggestions people made was “Educated” by Tara Westover. This was listed on many people’s books of the year lists – not only book bloggers and booktubers, but everyone from Michelle Obama to Bill Gates. So expectations were high, but I wasn’t let down. This is an extraordinary story and an artfully composed memoir. Westover relates her tale of growing up in an extremely religious Mormon fundamentalist family with a domineering survivalist father in rural Idaho. Her childhood is so removed from the larger world she doesn’t go to school and her birth was never even registered. But in her teenage years she takes her first steps to starting formal education and integrating into society. The conflict of this break from her family and establishing her individuality is so heartrending, but it’s also inspiring in the way it shows how a person’s innate intelligence and resiliency can help them grow into the person they are meant to be.

I’ve previously read some impactful novels (notably Claire Fuller’s “Our Endless Numbered Days” and Gabriel Tallent’s “My Absolute Darling”) about unstable fathers who try to live in a self sufficient way because they are convinced society is coming to an end and they force their daughters to live in a sheltered way with them. But reading a real account of someone who really grew up in an atmosphere of paranoia and fear was so striking. It really shows the danger both physically and mentally of tearing people away from larger society. For most of Tara’s childhood, her father scrapes a living together collecting and selling metal from a junkyard and he forces his children to work alongside him. He often actively dissuades his children from wearing protective gear which leads to many gruesome injuries. Just as shocking is her mother’s work as a midwife where she uses only natural, home-brewed medicine and faith practices.

Reading about the real physical danger that children born in these situations are exposed to is terrifying enough, but what’s worse is how badly Tara and other children are prepared for dealing with the outside world. It’s a form of abuse that can’t be measured because the debilitating effects aren’t always immediately apparent. Only when Tara goes to college does she understand how sheltered her life has been. Her father believes “College is extra school for people too dumb to learn the first time around” but Tara quickly understands how having no schooling gives her no frame of reference for things which are obvious to other people. For instance, she naively asks in class what the Holocaust was when it comes up in a discussion.

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Tara and some of her siblings are naturally drawn to escaping the circumstances of their childhood to connect with the larger world while others stay in place. The defectors of the family not only discover more about society, but about how harmful some of the practices they lived under were. Tara and some of her siblings learned to live with the frequent physical abuse they suffered from an older brother. Consciously or not, her family built a narrative about his pattern of violent behaviour to normalise it and it’s only when Tara gets outside of it that she can see how abhorrent it really is. It’s harrowing reading about her journey towards being able to tell her own story: “My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.” But this memoir is ultimately hopeful in testifying how individuals can rise above their circumstances and learn to speak for themselves – even if it means they must leave everything they’ve known and believed behind.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesTara Westover