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Sandra Newman’s “The Heavens” begins like a quaint modern love story about two individuals named Kate and Ben who meet at a “rich girl’s party” in New York City in the year 2000, but it steadily turns into a highly innovative and entertaining meditation on time, psychology, memory, reality, ambition and destiny. When Kate goes to sleep she finds her mind has melded with that of Emilia Lanier, the Elizabethan-era poet, member of the minor gentry and the person some scholars speculate to be the “Dark Lady” referenced in Shakespeare’s more “bawdy” sequence of sonnets. And when Kate wakes again she finds the world around her has changed in small and large ways. She becomes convinced she must manipulate history to try to save the world and change the present for the better – even though she runs the risk of making things worse. This is such a surprising and playful tale as well as being one which asks us to seriously question our relationship to history. It’s also a totally original and beguiling time travel fantasy.

The only other book I’ve read by Newman is her previous novel “The Country of Ice Cream Star” which imagines a post-apocalyptic future run by warring tribes of children. The author seems especially adept at creatively considering how our society might radically morph due to cataclysmic events. It’s also notable how Newman consistently includes a diverse cast of characters in leading roles - from her previous novel led mainly by African American and Latino characters to this new novel where the heritage of her protagonists are mixtures of Bengali, Jewish, Hungarian, Turkish and Persian. Other than simply representing the full breadth of society, this inclusion of a range of ethnicities and nationalities deepen our consideration of how notions of history are often highly politicised. Newman’s heroines also challenge our ideas about the roles women play in shaping the past, present and future.

One of the most pleasurable things about “The Heavens” is the way Newman playfully undermines Shakespeare’s stature as the most revered figure in Western literature. She’s spoken in an interview about how she purposefully wrote this as a “disrespectful version” of Shakespeare and when he first appears in the novel he’s referred to as “Sad Will”. This isn’t to say Newman doesn’t admire Shakespeare’s plays and poetry, but it’s both challenging and refreshing to think about a version of reality where Shakespeare might have only been a footnote of history and considered a minor poet. Indeed there were probably many writers – especially female poets such as Emilia Lanier who is credited as being the first Englishwoman to assert herself as a professional poet – whose creative writing didn’t fully survive through the ages because of chance or the happenstance of not being lauded in the way Shakespeare’s work has been throughout the centuries.

In this way the innovative plot of this novel raises compelling questions about the nature of ambition. What are we willing to sacrifice for the sake of our own legacy or for the betterment of society? And what does the betterment of society even mean? One of the most fascinating characters of the novel is Sabine, the “rich girl” who throws the party at the novel’s beginning. She has a high level of insecurity in the way she gossips and manipulatively speaks about other characters. But she also has good-hearted (if questionable) munificent tendencies in how she instigates charitable causes whether it’s housing a huge variety of wayward individuals or attempting to foster a more harmonious society by purchasing an entire impoverished town. These strands of the story seem to be questioning how adept capitalism is at “solving” some of the most pressing dilemmas at the heart of our civilization.

Emilia Lanier as painted by Nicholas Hill

Emilia Lanier as painted by Nicholas Hill

I’m so impressed by the way this novel carries out multiple timelines and strands of its story which weave in and out of various potential histories. She plays upon various thematically-linked pop cultural references including ‘Terminator 2’ and she notes in an interview how the genesis of the novel began a joke where it was pitched as “Highlander set in the era of Shakespeare”. Parts of the story also felt like it was playing with ideas similar to ‘The Matrix’ in questioning what version of reality is real. I think this novel also has a similarly creative approach to Joyce Carol Oates’ recent novel ‘Hazards of Time Travel’ in considering ideas of personal responsibility and how we shape history. And even though “The Heavens” contemplates so many bigger ideas and issues, it still works as an effective and compelling love story where we follow this couple’s unusual struggle to be together. It’s a novel that I know will warrant rereading in order to pick out the subtle way its characters and settings change through subtly manipulated different versions of the present.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSandra Newman
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When I can't sleep at night I have a habit of watching nature documentaries. At one point I found a programme that focuses on marsupials and there were two episodes on wombats. After discovering more about these rodent-like burrowers I was absolutely smitten and have become obsessed with watching videos about them ever since. It turns out I'm not alone as the Pre-Raphaelite artists of mid-nineteenth century London were also keen on these curious creatures – as described in this article about Dante Gabriel Rossetti's pet wombats. Elizabeth Macneal sent this to me because she is also a fan of wombats and one prominently features in her wonderfully immersive debut novel “The Doll Factory”. I always enjoy reading riveting Dickensian historical novels and Macneal's excellent book is at the same level as Sarah Waters' “Fingersmith” and Imogen Hermes Gowar's “The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock”, but when I encountered the character of Guinevere the wombat in “The Doll Factory” I fell firmly in love with it. 

The novel is immediately captivating as it describes the tale of the Whittle sisters who work in a doll shop where they painstakingly fashion and paint dolls under the watchful gaze of the bullying proprietress. One sister named Iris who has a misshapen clavicle aspires to become an artist and practices her painting in secret. There's also Silas who is a peculiar taxidermist who fashions curiosities out of animal carcases which he sometimes sells to artists to use as models for their painting. Connecting these two characters is a crafty and sensitive ten year old boy named Albie who is saving to buy himself a new set of teeth while also trying to navigate the hard city streets doing odd jobs like procuring material for the doll shop or animal carcases for Silas. Their stories are set against the 1851 Great Exhibition in London and the atmosphere is evoked with such excellent detail so that you feel the chaos, excitement and gritty realness of the city at this time.

Iris becomes involved in a movement of artists (which includes Gabriel Rossetti) during this period who self-consciously identified themselves as the PRB and sought to use intense colours, abundant detail and complex compositions in their artwork. She develops her craft while simultaneously working as a model for a particular artist. Macneal intelligently describes her difficult position as a woman in this period as she is shunned by her family for not sticking to a more traditional role and as a creative individual whose work won't be considered fairly alongside her male contemporaries. The plight of women is also depicted in the lives of different prostitutes (including Albie's sister) who are largely treated as disposable.

Drawing by Gabriel Rossetti of Jane Morris and his wombat Top

Drawing by Gabriel Rossetti of Jane Morris and his wombat Top

Something this novel does so powerfully is capture the psychology of a character so steeped in his misogyny he doesn't recognize the violence he unleashes upon women as a crime. We follow his vile logic imagining scenarios of how he expects women to react to him so that when they act differently in reality he feels entirely justified in the violence he inflicts upon them. This is a chillingly effective technique of narrative which reminds me of the final section of Rachel Kushner's “The Mars Room”. While Macneal vividly captures a sociopath's logic, she describes with equal power Albie's good-hearted viewpoint. Though he may seem abrupt and evasive on the outside he has deep feelings and sympathy for the women closest to him. Something Macneal does so well in creating her characters is show how their words and actions don't always convey how they really feel about the people in their lives. In this way the author creates a lot of dramatic tension because we can see how people's pride and stubbornness can obstruct them from fostering the relationships they really desire.

I was thoroughly engaged and gripped throughout this powerful story which is written with such intelligence. It creatively meditates on the subjects of art and obsession – and if you happen to be a fan of wombats you'll be enthralled by the role one plays in the plot as well as the hilarious ingenuity of a character who writes a poem from the perspective of a remorseful wombat!

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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I really like book prizes which include both fiction and nonfiction because it encourages me to read something other than novels. This year's Rathbones Folio Prize shortlist includes two books of nonfiction and one book of poetry. I'm especially keen to read Ashleigh Young's “Can You Tolerate This?” which are essays exploring subjects such as isolation and debilitating shyness. But it also includes a few familiar novels which have also been listed for other prizes such as “Ordinary People” which is currently on the Women's Prize shortlist, “There There” which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and “Milkman” which won the Man Booker Prize last year. 

In a way it's ironic that Anna Burns is on this list since the Folio Prize was initially set up in 2014 as a counterpoint to the Booker Prize because the founders of the Folio Prize considered the Booker to be leaning towards popular fiction over literary fiction. That “Milkman” won the Booker and is also on this year's “Women's Prize” shortlist really testifies to the cultural impact and popularity of this novel. When “Milkman” was first published in the Spring of 2018 it went largely unnoticed, but its inclusion on multiple book prize lists have made this novel one of the most bestselling and talked about in the past year! This is partly why I love book prizes which can really elevate a novel's status when so many great books get lost amidst a profusion of new publications. 

While I personally had mixed feelings about “Milkman” it's one I want to revisit on audio book since many have said this makes it a really different reading experience. I'm also especially interested in reading the novella “West” which has been so popular amongst many readers but also has some severe critics. And I'm especially keen to read “Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile” which looks like an expansive historical novel narrated from the perspective of an elderly maidservant. It's one I'd never heard about before this prize listed it. 

Have you read any of these books or are you curious to now? The winner will be announced on May 20th.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
9 CommentsPost a comment
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In a way I felt a special connection with this novel centred around a location so familiar to me. Diana Evans’ “Ordinary People” is set roughly a decade ago – spanning between the year of Obama’s election to the year of Michael Jackson’s death - in an area of south London very close to where I live. So I could instantly visualize the landmarks, parks and even the bus routes she references. Her characters eat in some restaurants I’ve eaten in and even if a restaurant wasn’t named I still knew which one she meant based on her description of the tables. That’s how close to home it was for me! 

The novel is truly saturated with details about London life because it recounts with great specificity tube journeys, walks and daily life in the capital amidst the stories of two couples whose relationships are in a state of flux. Both couples have children. Each of them finds the ordinariness of daily existence is gradually draining away their sense of individuality and their ability to dream of any other way of life. In this context it makes sense that Evans loads her novel with such a density of detail because it allows the reader to fully visualize and feel the texture of their lives weighing upon them. A working father named Damian has a panic attack amidst his stultifying routine of getting a sandwich on his lunch break. A freelance journalist and mother named Melissa feels like she’s suffocating staying in her house day after day. And all Evans’ vividly specific descriptions enhance the sense of their reality but it also runs the risk of boring readers by drowning them in the mundane.

Part of me loved how London life was being evoked and memorialised in this way. But I also felt impatient at times because there’s very little plot in this novel other than tracing the small moments of daily life where characters grow increasingly detached from their roles as parents and spouses. Even though I felt a small thrill at recognizing so many locations and aspects of London life, there was no urgency in the narrative. Evans’ writing is so elegant in its wry commentary on her very convincing characters’ situations. She can frame the oppressive nature of a deteriorating relationship in a short simple line: “They lived in two different houses in one small house.” Or she can mordantly describe the sinking feeling an adult can feel listening to her mother chat endlessly about banal things: “The more they talked, the more the world receded, they were sinking, the dungeon was going down deeper, and deeper.” All these succinct observations made the novel a pleasure to read, but every time I put the book down I didn’t feel a pressing need to return to it.

Another difficulty I had with the novel was how it makes it seem like long term relationships are completely incompatible with having children. There’s no question that the difficulty and stress of raising children can put a strain on a couple’s enduring affection for each other. There’s an achingly sad scene in the book where a couple try to recapture a sense of romance by going on a date which becomes horrifically awkward. But I feel there must also be many moments of pleasure to be had in being both a spouse and parent. I don’t have an issue with how Evans’ specific characters might find this duality untenable, but there are no examples of an alternative point of view. This could have been shown in the lives of peripheral characters to give a hint of a different opinion. Evans even blatantly states at one point that “relationships and children simply don’t belong in the same place.” I feel like this perspective is too narrow as I’m sure many people have found fulfilment and an enhanced sense of identity in maintaining both aspects of their life simultaneously.

There’s a lot to admire in this novel and I appreciated what Evans was doing. No doubt many people will be able to relate to the melancholy way its characters muse upon how daily life can become oppressive: “Sometimes, in the lives of ordinary people, there is a great halt, a revelation, a moment of change. It occurs under low mental skies, never when one is happy.” It’s interesting how her characters project their emotions onto their social and physical environment making life feel absurd and trivial. I just wish she had also captured some more of the beauty and joy that can be had in what’s steady and familiar. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesDiana Evans
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I’ve took some time calming down from the shock of the shortlist decision for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. Few people expected this particular group of novels! It was a lot of fun discovering what was on the list alongside Anna James which you can watch in this video we made together. But we were both stunned that two of our favourites “Ghost Wall” and “Lost Children Archive” weren’t included and I was really disappointed not to see one of my favourite novels from last year “Swan Song” on the shortlist. I’d also spent a lovely morning on Saturday discussing the longlist with a shadow panel I’m on that includes Antonia Honeywell and Eleanor Franzen. They were also big fans of Moss and Luiselli’s novels. Eleanor wrote a really impassioned response to the official shortlist on her blog here and Antonia spent a morning discussing the list and prizes on her Monday morning radio book show on Chiltern Voice. Our shadow group formed our own shortlist out of the longlisted novels which you can see in the photo of us here. Personally, I stand by our choices over the official ones selected.

Looking at the list as a whole, it’s great to see that it includes a racially diverse group of authors. Only one debut novel is included and the books were all put out by a variety of publishers. However, what’s most surprising is that the judges chose some novels with quite similar themes considering that both Barker and Miller’s novels are retelling of Greek myths from a female narrator’s point of view. Also, Evans and Jones’ novels deal with the breakdown of relationships in a modern time period. Usually the groups listed include a wider breadth of themes. Of course, looking at the novels’ subjects and styles more closely does reveal more variations. Aside from content and looking at reputation, it feels a bit disappointing that novels such as “Milkman”, “An American Marriage” and “Circe” which have all been so popular and sold so well should be getting more attention over lesser-known gems that I loved reading such as “Swan Song” and “Praise Song for the Butterflies”.

Antonia, Eleanor and I with the six novels (by Moss, Luiselli, McFadden, Broder, Greenberg-Jephcott and Miller) that we selected as our shadow panel shortlist.

Antonia, Eleanor and I with the six novels (by Moss, Luiselli, McFadden, Broder, Greenberg-Jephcott and Miller) that we selected as our shadow panel shortlist.

It’s really tricky trying to guess what novel might win from this list. It’ll be quite significant if “Milkman” goes on to win having already won the Booker Prize last year. In a way it’s excellent that this novel which was fairly obscure has gone on to be one of the most talked about books in the past year thanks to these two book prizes. But I personally had some issues with the circular nature of the narrative style which made Burns’ novel drag for me. One of my personal favourites from this list at the moment would be “Circe” and I’m sure many readers will love it but if she won it’d be quite surprising since she’s won this prize before. It’d be quite a funny and lovely coincidence if “Ordinary People” won the Women’s Prize this year because at this book prize’s party last year I was speaking to Sarah Waters who mentioned that her favourite recent novel was Evans’ book. Of course, I’ve not read Braithwaite’s novel yet and not completely finished reading Evans’ either so I might still change my mind about my own favourite. I’m glad there’s more to discover and debate about these books. Nevertheless, considering the outcry from some people in reaction to the shortlist I think this year’s selection will go down as one of the most controversial in the prize’s history! What do you think of the list? Are you eager to read any that you haven’t yet?

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As I described in a recent post about the novel “Our Lady of Alice Bhatti”, the Wellcome Book Prize is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year and I decided to explore this year's shortlist a bit more. One of the judges of this year's award is Elif Shafak and one of the shortlisted books is Ottessa Moshfegh's “My Year of Rest and Relaxation”. While I'm naturally drawn to reading more fiction than nonfiction, this award encompasses both kinds of writing so it's a good chance for me to read a nonfiction book I probably wouldn't have got to otherwise. The prize centres around new books that engage with some aspect of medicine, health or illness. Arnold Thomas Fanning's “Mind on Fire” recounts his lifelong struggle with mental health issues. He vividly describes the unwieldy chaos of manic episodes where extreme feelings and fantasies lead him to take drastic action as he careens through cities and airports shocking or outright terrifying people along the way. It's powerful how he conveys that to his manic mind he's following a logical course of action, but of course on the outside his actions are insensible. He also discloses the sensations of debilitating depression when he sometimes physically can't move and his thoughts revolve constantly around suicide. He eloquently expresses how all-consuming these states are and that “Within it there is no without it.” This illness not only wreaks havoc on his own health, but severely impinges upon the lives of his family and friends as well. Fanning powerfully documents his heartrending, difficult journey. 

One of the biggest difficulties in understanding manifestations of mania and depression is how these conditions can exist both as a mental health issue and normal human emotions. It's common for people who suffer from severe cases of this to not have it taken as a medical condition. Instead they are encouraged to buck up and smile instead of frowning as Fanning is encouraged to do by an acquaintance at one point. Fanning concedes that feelings may arise that “may be related to my bipolar disorder, but they are also common human experiences that I share with others. At times I am happy; at times I am sad and I suffer. I have good times, and not so good times. This is life, not illness.” The culmination of his journey marks a point he reaches where he's able to live a stable and productive life, but the extremity of his emotions in this period are very distinct from periods where he was unwell and unable to function. He cites the elements needed for recovery and wellness as being “therapy, medication, exercise, meaningful work (creative, as well as occupational) and a loving relationship and relationships with friends and family.” However, it's extremely difficult to achieve all of these things at once when resources such as money, health care or employment aren't available or support from friends or family isn't available. This combined with a stigma surrounding mental health issues and Fanning's own overwhelming feelings of self-defeat make his path to recovery a long and difficult one.

The book also meaningfully describes how recovery is never a state which will be absolute or constant. There are periods where he seems to have stabilised but due to changes in medication, pitfalls in his creative endeavours in playwriting and screenwriting career or his employment status and/or difficulties in his relationships or environment can send him spiralling into extreme episodes again. His story shows how the fear of relapse can add more anxiety to his state of being. Equally there can be a crushing sense of guilt surrounding the justified wariness from the people closest to him who've been negatively impacted by his breakdowns. Fanning's memoir poignantly conveys all these things and his overall journey gives a moving personal take on issues surrounding mental health. However, there were sections which lingered on details to do with his childhood, certain relationships or creative aspirations which detracted from the momentum of his tale and the impact of his message. I appreciate how he wanted to fully flesh out his life, but the focus at times strayed from the main focus of the issues involved. Nevertheless, I was touched by the honesty of his story and enlightened by the long winding journey of his struggles.

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The short punchy chapters which make up Sophie Van Llewyn's “Bottled Goods” have the feel of flash fiction. They are a sequence of snippets (usually in the form of diary entries or lists) in its protagonist Alina's life within communist Romania. Together they form a portrait of this period of the 1970s rife with paranoia and fear of the secret services. In this hostile environment Alina can't even trust her mother. Like in the novel “Milkman” it's best to go unnoticed in this fractured society. But both Alina and her husband Liviu come under suspicion when his brother defects to the West. Their relationship comes under strain as they feel pressure from the government and need to take radical measures to survive. While I appreciated the way this novel in pieces tried to create an impression of Alina's experience in an oppressive place, the novel didn't quite come together to me as it rushed over some emotionally complex situations and the fantastical elements of the story felt tacked on. 

The most vibrant and interesting character for me was Alina's eccentric Aunt Theresa who is in a privileged position with the government so can continue pursuing her religious and superstitious practices. I was also compelled by the inordinate pressure Alina and Liviu receive not just from the government but the other citizens surrounding them. A fairly minor infringement from a girl in Alina's class means she's subjected to torturous scrutiny and gossip from those around her. I was also moved by the way her relationship with Liviu sours when he's rigorously cross questioned by the authorities, but their marriage is too easily patched up and some incidents of trauma are handled too briskly. I was interested in how mother and daughter come to such a crisis that Alina was prepared to do anything to silence her, but sadly rather than adding a dynamic layer to this strife the fable-like element introduced detracted from the impact of this crucial part of the story. I wonder if this novel would have worked better as a single short story.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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When this year’s Man Booker International Prize longlist was announced it included French book “The Years” by Annie Ernaux. Some people scratched their heads at its inclusion – not because of its perceived quality – but because the English version was published in the UK by Fitzcarraldo with their recognizable plain white covers and blue lettering. This signifies it’s a book of essays or nonfiction (as opposed to their plain blue covers with white lettering which signifies it’s a work of fiction.) But the Man Booker International Prize is only open to fiction. What gives? Well, when “The Years” first appeared in its native French language it was classified as a novel. So apparently Fitzcarraldo asked the Booker if “The Years” could be submitted as a novel even though they originally classified it as nonfiction. The Booker accepted.

This titbit of gossip doesn’t matter, but it shows how the form of “The Years” doesn’t follow any neat classification. It’s part fiction, part essay, part autobiography. Personally, I don’t care how books are categorized or which shelf they sit on in a bookstore. What is important is how this revolutionary book conveys a sense of history, consciousness and national identity like no other book I’ve read before. Narrated in a unique collective “we” voice it follows a woman and those around her from post-WWII through to the current Information Age. In doing so it provides such a unique shifting sense of time as it speaks from the perspective of people in an era of rapid change. Also it regularly focuses on jarringly precise details that come close to poetry. Somehow it achieves the startling feat of being both intimately personal while also speaking as the collective voice of a generation. It’s extraordinary, beautiful and warrants prizes no matter what label it’s published under.

One of the absolutely fascinating things “The Years” does is openly discuss its protagonist’s desire to write a book and the struggle to find the right form for doing so. Normally such self-consciousness can be distracting, but in this book it’s very poignant how it captures our desire to catalogue our experiences and lives in a way which will both memorialise them and articulate their true meaning. In fact, in the later part of the book she explicitly states the mission of why she’s written the book in this way: “By retrieving the memory of collective memory in an individual memory, she will capture the lived dimension of History.” She does this by referencing a number of photographs taken throughout the protagonist’s life and it’s through the lens of these different stages of an individual life that she touches upon the sensibility of a generation. For instance, with a picture of the adolescent girl she devises “that writing is able to retrieve here something slipping through the 1950s, to capture the reflection that collective history projects upon the screen of individual memory.”

I also felt I could strongly relate to how she discusses the process of maturity. As we age our perception of time and our own personalities change as well. As a precocious teenager she feels: “She has gone over to the other side but she cannot say to what. The life behind her is made up of disjointed images. She feels she is nowhere, 'inside' nothing except knowledge and literature.” This beautifully captures a sense of moving from childhood to a different form of engagement with society where we become preoccupied with intellectual questions rather than just looking at the world with wonder. Later there’s an especially poignant moment where she feels her life is passing her by: “She feels as if a book is writing itself just behind her; all she has to do is live. But there is nothing.” This so elegantly and tragically describes a heightened sense of self-consciousness where we see our lives like a movie or the story of a novel. And we feel that it’s being captured in some essential way, but in reality our experiences only exist on the periphery of other people’s and aren’t memorialized except in fleeting memories or photographs.

It’s so interesting how personal details are often only referred to in asides. We’re fleetingly aware the protagonist gets married, works, has children and gets divorced but these aren’t the central tenants of the plot. What this book is more concerned with is capturing the mood in stages of time and how this individual’s personality is informed by and reflects the changing society. The sense of a collective voice powerfully shows the social change and predominant ideology of a certain section of French society at different times. As she moves through the decades of the 60s and 70s there’s a growing sense of feminism and social progress. Later on there’s a critique of capitalism and material obsession in the 80s and a sense of how our relationship to world events changes with the advent of the Information Age. But there is also an expression of regressive values and xenophobia which periodically emerge in views about immigrants and Arabs. In response to acts of terrorism there are some jarring statements where its expressed “That people could murder each other over religion was beyond our comprehension. It seemed to prove that these populations had remained at an earlier stage of evolution.” Ernaux describes how these pervasive feelings of prejudice spread throughout cultures at certain times, the way in which sections of society can form elitist views and subject different cultures to a form of “otherness” which divides people in the country.

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I admire how daring the author was in self-consciously plotting out the book’s structure while also creating such an enjoyable and moving reading experience. I felt I could connect with the story so powerfully though it’s so wrapped up in a time, place and people very different from my own. The novel is beautifully framed at the beginning and end with certain images which seem plucked at random but have taken on such importance for the protagonist. There are several points in the book when she recalls the memory of a woman pissing out in the open and though it was just a fleeting observation it stays with her so vividly. I love how this reflects the way we can become obsessed with certain experiences or memories which linger in our minds – not because they have any great significance but they have been defined by our point of view. They are “the images of a moment bathed in a light that is theirs alone.” This shows how it’s not the fact of events in history which resound in the collective memory but our unique perceptions of them. This is one of the many brilliant ways this novel expresses so much about personality, time and the state of being.

Now that “The Years” has been shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize (and even though I still have three other books to read on the list) I hope Annie Ernaux wins.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAnnie Ernaux
4 CommentsPost a comment
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In this group of memoirist essays art and life intersect to create a powerfully moving portrait of cultural and personal change. It feels like this book has been a long time coming and in later essays Sinéad Gleeson refers to its gradual creation as well as obstacles which sharpened its focus. I’ve been familiar with Gleeson’s work as a journalist and a curator since she edited two stunning anthologies of Irish short fiction by women: “The Long Gaze Back” and “The Glass Shore”. So I was already familiar with her stance as a feminist and aesthete, but it wasn’t till reading this gripping and mesmerising book that I understood how her personal history partly informs her conversation with literature and the arts. The essays roughly follow the trajectory of her life from childhood to adulthood and the severely challenging medical issues she’s faced along the way. These health issues presented many heartrending and difficult obstacles, but they also gave Gleeson a unique perspective of the world around her as a woman, citizen, friend, mother and intellectual. She charts how her beliefs and feelings have evolved alongside the society around her. Certainly she’s lived through many personal challenges, but she’s never let them define her. Rather, they’ve inspired a deeper form of engagement with the world and fervent belief that “Art is about interpreting our own experience.”

I read these essays in chronological order and, while they would certainly be just as impactful read in isolation, it’s touching following her journey from a childhood as a devote Catholic visiting Lourdes hoping for a miracle cure to an adult political activist canvassing from door to door to help overturn Ireland’s abortion ban. We see different angles of her experiences with illness such as a rare disorder that caused her bones to deteriorate and later battles with cancer. She also recounts how her past illnesses created complications for her pregnancies. Her many visits to the hospital inform her ontological understanding of the body as a physical and social being. She perceives how “The pregnant body is not solely its owner’s domain. In gestating another person you become public property. The world – doctors, friendly neighbours, women in shop queues – feels entitled to an opinion on it.” Her experiences with doctors and legislation involving the body sharpen her resolve about the importance of individual autonomy and respecting what a person wants and needs.

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There are also many very perceptive assessments of the work of numerous visual and performance artists as well as writers. Gleeson poignantly reflects on her personal connection to their themes and subject matter. For instance, she describes how she’s moved by the work of Frida Kahlo as someone whose body was similarly physically restricted through medical procedures. She notes how “Immobility is gasoline for the imagination: in convalescence, the mind craves open spaces, dark alleys, moon landings.” Gleeson seeks out artists who meaningfully frame their experiences in a way that broaden the political conversation and offer moments of personal solace. The essay 'The Adventure Narrative' also honours cavalier women who have set out to explore the world since this is traditionally seen as a masculine activity – as explored in Abi Andrews’ novel “The Word for Woman is Wilderness”. But, aside from noteworthy female explorers and impactful women artists, Gleeson also chronicles the experience of women who have been left out of the history books such as in the essay 'Second Mother' where she memorializes the life of a great woman who inspired her passion for reading.

I was utterly entranced by this book. It’s incredibly brave to write so openly about such personal subject matter. In writing so thoughtfully about her life Gleeson compellingly explores many larger ideas and issues, showing how they connect to a shared sense of culture and society. For all the heartache and struggle these essays cover, this is also a wonderfully optimistic and uplifting book that ought to be treasured.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSinead Gleeson
2 CommentsPost a comment
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From the description of this novel I thought it would be a standard mid-late life crisis story about a man contemplating what his ambition and success really amount to. But it turned out to be something much more subtle and nuanced than that with a clever twist at the end. Park Minwoo was raised in a working class neighbourhood surrounded by poverty and gang violence, but became a successful architect heading his own firm. Parallel to his story is that of Jung Woohee who is a 29 year old playwright and director struggling to earn a living by working the night shift at a convenience store while trying to realise her artistic ambitions. What’s so moving about these two story threads is the way they intertwine to say something much larger about how our values and desires can become so twisted over the course of time. While working to create a good life for ourselves and those closest to us we become enmeshed in society’s progress which has a way of paving over history and people who fall by the wayside. This novel says something powerful about how our collective and personal values change over time. 

Something I appreciated most about this novel was the detailed account of Woohee’s difficulty in making a living. She’s forced to work outside regular working hours for below minimum wage and live in substandard accommodation because if she makes any legal complaint she’ll lose her job and shelter. Instances of injustice like this occur all the time, but largely go unacknowledged and I appreciate fiction that deals seriously with this plight. Also, though Minwoo is now in a privileged position he’s portrayed in a complex and sympathetic way where his life is overcast with loneliness. An old friend is reintroduced into his life when he receives a request to call Soona who was the most desired girl in the small village of Moon Hollow where Minwoo grew up. He hasn’t had any contact with her for years. Now letters from her awaken memories of his childhood and make him consider how his achievements turned out very differently from what he expected. My initial confusion about why two different characters had the same name was eventually quelled when the intricate plot finally unfolded in a disarming and thought-provoking way. This is a book whose greater meaning will linger with me.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesHwang Sok-yong
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It’s especially exciting as a reader when I start a novel and immediately feel engrossed by the story. This is a difficult thing to accomplish because it’s not just the content that needs to grip me but the style and tone of the narrative have to confidently guide me into the fictional world being presented. But I did feel wholly inside the story of “You Will Be Safe Here” by Damian Barr starting with the prologue where a teenage boy named Willem is forcibly taken by his parents to a sinister institution in 2010 and this feeling continued into the first chapter when a woman named Sarah describes her fear at the sight of distant smoke in 1901 as she knows this means military forces are nearing her farm. 

So begin the stories of two different South African individuals at opposite ends of a century. This immersive novel explores the egregious fact of British-run concentration camps during The Second Boer War and camps in the present day designed to toughen up white young South African men who are deemed too effeminate or soft. These institutions are prisons that go by different names because they are purportedly for their inhabitants’ safety and improvement, but they’re really a slow form of torture. Through their pernicious practices we see warring ideologies about what makes the South African national identity and the unfortunate individuals who are the casualties of this political battle. It’s a heartrending tale, but it’s filled with so many beautifully realized moments that I didn’t want to look away and could relate to these characters’ stories (even though they are far different from my own life.)

A largely unknown truth this novel presents is the history of how the British operated concentration camps in South Africa from 1900-1902. Most people (including me) think of concentration camps as a Nazi invention during WWII, but prior to that they were implemented during the Second Boer War as a British military strategy to break up guerrilla campaigns. Civilian homes were destroyed and the inhabitants were herded into these poorly run camps to prevent the Boers resupplying from a home base. Thousands of civilians died in these overcrowded camps – mostly because of malnourishment and disease. This was shocking to discover and the story vividly brings us into the reality of what it was like to be interred in one of these camps. Though they weren’t designed as death camps that’s what they became for many. The novel movingly shows that there was cruelty but also moments of human kindness, friendship and a complex community spirit which arose in the face of adversity. 

Being immersed in this history, it was difficult to see how Barr would create a bridge between this tale from the past and the one set in the near-present day. But the way he connects the two is gracefully done as we recognize characters between the two sections and see how the politics of the past can still be felt today. The thing which really drew me to Willem’s character is his bookish nature as he prefers spending time in the library at school rather than playing sports. Stories present an escape from his present where he’s ruthlessly bullied and ostracised. But what I most admire about the way the author handles Willem’s character and his storyline is that he’s not shown to have any particular sexuality though he’s labelled by his father and other boys as a “moffie”. Whether he’s still uncertain about his sexuality or keeps it private isn’t a concern for the reader and this better highlights how the issue is really the standards of masculinity all boys in this environment are being held to. Equally, a friendship Willem develops with another boy is delicately and complexly handled when it could have so easily become a cliché in the hands of a less talented writer.

A British-run concentration camp during the Second Boer War

A British-run concentration camp during the Second Boer War

This novel came with a huge amount of expectation. Not only was Damian Barr’s first book a compassionate and insightful memoir about growing up in the time of Thatcher. But he also regularly hosts the most impressive and glitziest literary salon in London where the guests he interviews include some of the best and most famous writers of today. Interacting with such literary greats puts a lot of pressure on this host to create a first novel that's really something special, but the result is so original, impactful and mesmerising to read that it's a real triumph. I've been lucky enough to get to know Damian a bit over the years and I always feel a lot of anxiety reading something by a writer I know because if I don't enjoy it I need to awkwardly explain to them I don't think it's their best (or pretend I've not found time to read it.) So I was thrilled to discover what a genuine joy it was reading this story and what an impressive, finely researched, artfully constructed novel it is! It's really made me rethink how I look at history – the many ways victorious nations conveniently forget their failings and crimes when teaching world history. I also felt such a connection to the characters that they're going to linger in my imagination for a long time.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesDamian Barr
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I’ve always found something tragically endearing about men who abandon their lives to go in search of themselves. For instance, I’m fascinated by the painter Paul Gauguin who virtually abandoned his middle class family to live and work on his art in self-imposed exile in French Polynesia. You could say there’s a philosophical tension here between a man’s expression of his free will and his obligations to his family, but it stinks all over of masculine arrogance and pride. It’s understandable that an individual wants to be fulfilled, but rather than take constructive steps towards achieving a more satisfactory existence so many men violently tear themselves out of their self-created environments to “find themselves” and start anew. Often women are left with the fallout of their rapid exit: paying their debts or caring for their children. Such is the case in Marion Poschmann’s “The Pine Islands” which begins with husband Gilbert Silvester waking from a nightmare that his wife has cheated on him. He viciously confronts her though there is no evidence of an indiscretion. Consumed by his paranoid fantasy he abruptly flies to Japan to follow a the classic poet Bashō’s pilgrimage through the rural north of the country. Poschmann hilariously skewers the manly vanity of his chaotic journey while taking seriously his ontological quest for meaning.

There’s an atmosphere of humour running throughout the novel as Gilbert pigheadedly marches on his desperate way through the carefully ordered society of Japan. He’s running away from Mathilda ignoring her numerous calls or only engaging in brief cryptic phone conversations. But, at the same time, he frequently writes her letters reflecting on the artistic quests of past poets in a way that betrays his intense need for a tender connection and desire for his intellectual ideas to be respected. Gilbert’s never achieved the success he longed for as a scholar of the representation of beards in art and film. His failure isn’t surprising given his pretentious and crackpot theories on the way beards are perceived and culturally fashioned by homosexuals through the centuries. So his sojourn to Matsuishima (the bay of pine islands) to escape the entrapments of life and compose the most delicately distilled poetry feels more like a way of evading his own feelings of failure rather than progressing to a higher state of being.

Along the way, Gilbert also encounters another man in crisis named Yosa. When Gilbert interrupts Yosa’s plan to commit suicide he takes him on as a companion and guide by convincing Yosa he should at least defer his self-annihilation until he’s in a suitably beautiful location. Their connection is quite touching as they are in a way both cases of men who’ve failed society’s expectations for achieving success and a certain kind of masculinity. Yosa even goes so far to mask his failure by wearing fake beards. This is also a means of consciously alienating himself from the thriving professional men around him who don’t maintain any facial hair if they want to be taken seriously. The trajectory of Gilbert and Yosa’s friendship is touching because it shows how they should really find a bond in their different feelings of alienation, but instead fail to connect because of their masculine pride.

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It’s interesting how Poschmann’s writing starts to emulate the poetic striving for profundity of its protagonist as the story progresses. It’s difficult to know if this is the author’s voice or Gilbert’s consciousness seeping through: “They sat on the train as the landscape slid easily by, leaving station after station in their wake. Stationary travelling, action without action. Or a dull, unconscious drifting, like tattered leaves on the wind.” Gilbert becomes so intent on fashioning haiku poems in the atmospheric settings he visits along Bashō’s trail that it makes sense the story takes on this tone – equally the narrative becomes more hallucinatory as Gilbert increasingly loses the plot. But it does pose a challenging dilemma for the reader to know whether to take these reflective observations seriously or not. I felt it was a shame the novel never fully expresses a justified anger at Gilbert’s monstrously self-centred and casually abusive behaviour but instead opts to take him seriously. But overall, I interpreted this novel as a cunning form of satire and immensely enjoyed this aspect of it.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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“Remembered” begins with a newspaper clipping from 1910 recounting a tragic event where a black man drove a streetcar into a Philadelphia department store. We then follow the near hallucinatory experience as the driver Edward's mother Ms Spring rushes to his side in the hospital alongside the ghost of her sister Tempe. Though this calamitous day is already filled with drama and intrigue where Edward is accused of intentionally crashing the streetcar amidst his rumoured involvement with the distempered local union, his story is only the backdrop for the time Ms Spring spends with him. The novel primarily concerns her disclosing to her son the true story of his origins and her own challenging journey from being born as a slave on a plantation to freedom. She feels it's important that he knows and understands this personal history because “Most of what I’m about to tell you ain’t in no history book, no newspaper article, no encyclopedia. There’s a whole heap of stories don’t ever get told.” This novel tells a story which is moving and surprising in many ways showing the complex mentality and relationships which develop amidst the horrors of slavery. It's an impactful, uniquely told tale.

I really admire it when an author is able to portray a situation of grave moral complexity through characters who take egregious action because they are in extreme circumstances. I've not read many novels that dare to depict such a story. One of the only examples I can think of is Anoshi Irani's tremendous novel “The Parcel” which is told from the point of view of a hijra who considers it her duty to psychologically prepare newly purchased adolescent girls for a life of sexual slavery. Here a character performs an evil task but she is doing it out of charitable necessity because the only other option (as she sees it) is death. A character of equal complexity is depicted in Yvonne Battle-Felton's novel in the figure of Mama Skins. She's determined to prevent more children from being born into slavery on the plantation and takes extreme measures to stop this from happening. It presents a great challenge for readers because they are at once sympathetic to her struggle but horrified by her actions. Yet this is a point of view which needs to be voiced to better understand the individual realities of our complex socio-economic environment. The heartbreak comes not just from the poisonous reality of slavery but the way individual options become so warped.

Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that the nation's transition from slavery to freedom wasn't smooth or easy. Another remarkable thing this story does is show through Spring's story how information was withheld and manipulated while the Emancipation Proclamation took time to be implemented across the nation. The author has an impressive skill for conveying both the sensory and social atmosphere of Spring's journey, but there are times when the vigorous action of the circumstances becomes confusing to follow. What works impressively well is the supernatural element of the spirit of Tempe who accompanies her sister Spring. Such an element in a novel can sometimes feel tacked on or cliched, but here feels touching and natural to her experience. There's a powerful energy which propels the story forward as Spring recalls it through the difficult hours of Edward's time in hospital. This is a courageous, passionate and rousing novel that demands we consider the complexities of history.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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Helen Dunmore was a British writer who produced an impressive amount of work over the past thirty years with dozens of novels, children's books, short stories and poetry collections. She's someone I always meant to read but never got around to. Sadly she died in 2017, but the following year her final poetry collection posthumously won the Costa Book Awards Book of the Year. Since I'm currently reading the novels longlisted for this year's Women's Prize I thought I'd go back and read Dunmore's “A Spell of Winter” which won this award's very first prize in 1996 (when it was known as the Orange Prize.) The story is told from the point of view of Catherine who grows up in a country estate with her brother Rob and their grandfather. Their father is housed in an asylum and their mother is a figure of local scandal who lives in France. The children are never told exactly what caused their family to splinter apart so they grow to rely solely on each other in this circumscribed world. But as they enter adulthood the close bond they share must be left behind though Catherine ardently wants things to remain the same. There are some very surprising twists in this novel and I'm still not entirely sure what to make of it. 

The novel is mostly made up of Catherine's sensory experience as she describes her life in the estate and changing relationships with people associated with it. There are a lot of beautiful descriptions and clever glimpses of psychological insight. These include humorous descriptions such as a comment about how the girl's teacher dresses so darkly: “Miss Gallagher could make a sunny day look like a funeral.” Or there are sometimes larger insights such as this description about how Catherine relates to history: “The past was not something we could live in, because it had nothing to do with life. It was something we lugged about, as heavy as a sack of rotting apples.” In this way, the sharp observations and melancholy tone of the story reminded me of Marilynne Robinson brilliant novel “Housekeeping”.

Though the plot takes a couple surprising turns in a way that builds a lot of suspense, I found the end of the novel to be somewhat disappointing and lackadaisical. It's odd because it feels like it ends at what should be a very dramatic point, but instead of feeling gripped it felt like a glum inevitability. I'm not someone who often gets overly concerned with plot as I can enjoy beautiful writing and rich descriptions of everyday experience. But ultimately I found it hard to relate to or understand Catherine which left me feeling somewhat underwhelmed and mystified by the book as a whole. I'll be curious now to go back and read what people made of this novel at the time since it was a prize winner. And, though this novel wasn't an entirely satisfying experience, I'll be very curious to read more of Dunmore's writing in the future.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesHelen Dunmore
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The short stories contained in Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah debut collection “Friday Black” have a startling way of mixing everyday realism with the fantastic. Many characters are working class individuals struggling to keep their families going while labouring in retail or the night shift at a warehouse. But at the same time they can also be imbued with powers from a Twelve-tongued God, become a spirit who knows how to quell the murderous impulses of bullied boys or a 14 year old female super killer who survives daily nuclear explosions. Violence abounds throughout the stories. There are crazed shoppers who kill everyone in their way to get to sale items and there are groups who commit bloody acts of violence in retaliation for racially-motivated murders. The author amplifies some of the most contentious social issues of today in scenarios which are sadly not far from the truth. Everything from gun control to racism to abortion to genetic engineering are integrated into warped versions of reality giving a new view on these hot topics. The stories are powerfully imaginative while being darkly funny as well as heartbreakingly emotionally honest.  

Some of these tales worked better than others for me. I admire how in 'The Finkelstein 5' the story switches back and forth between two narratives. One half portrays a court trial where a white man is exonerated for beheading five black children with a chainsaw. The other half is from the perspective of a narrator who becomes part of a “Naming” gang that tortures random white people while calling out the names of the slayed black children. It felt really effective how this dual story describes a society where facts and truth have become so twisted up in the willpower of belief. The defence lawyer says at one point “if you believe something, anything then that's what matters most. Believing. In America we have the freedom to believe.” In a justice system that has allowed so many rank instances of injustice to go unpunished, it’s tragically unsurprising that some feel vigilante justice is the only option available. But this story gets at the ambivalence of such a path while delivering a riveting tale that’s a cross between an episode of Black Mirror and The Purge film series.

Not all of the stories conjure up wild fantasies or show instances of extreme violence. Another story ‘The Lion & The Spider’ also uses an alternating dual narrative where in one half a father tells his children stories based in Caribbean folklore. The other half shows a young man left to care for his ailing mother while finishing school and working a job after the father unexpectedly leaves for a long period of time. This creates an emotionally-charged atmosphere within the story as feelings of youthful innocence are paired against the onerous responsibilities of a premature adulthood when a father shirks his duty. Some of the most touching moments in this collection come when well-meaning children are forced into being carers for their parents such as a young man who takes his father to a labyrinthine hospital in 'The Hospital Where' or a young man who wants to win a jacket for his mother in a sales-driven retail competition.

The violent chaos of a Black Friday sale.

The violent chaos of a Black Friday sale.

Sometimes the creative slant the author takes on certain issues doesn’t work quite as smoothly. 'Lark Street' describes a man who comes under the accusatory gaze of his girlfriend’s aborted twin foetuses. While the story takes seriously this emotionally harrowing dilemma it felt like it revelled a little too freely in the grotesque nature of such a scenario. Equally 'Light Spitter' which describes an instance of a campus gun slaying relies a little too heavily on conventional ideas of angelic influence – even with the twist that even the “irredeemable” has a moral core. Still other stories have a surprising degree of repetitive elements like the diligent mall employees in both 'How to Sell a Jacket as Told by IceKing' and ‘Friday Black’. But the later title story felt much more successful in hilariously playing up what’s become the most ridiculous post-Thanksgiving annual retail tradition.

One of the most striking things about this book is the consistent feeling that working class young people are frequently forced to compromise their values and education in order to make a living. Sometimes individuals must play into racial stereotypes or swallow their pride in the face of blatant racism in order to maintain their jobs. There are also asides which testify to being made to feel otherness: “A nurse called out sounds that we understood as her attempt to pronounce our last name.” Such feelings are most dramatically described in the story 'Zimmer Land' where an employee submits to being the continuous victim in violent role playing scenarios that are purportedly about “interactive justice engagement”. This story cleverly portrays the hypocrisy of profit-driven initiatives that claim to teach morality but actually perpetuate stereotypes and bigotry. I’m impressed how daring and forceful the author is in creatively describing instances of painful injustice and social inequality. He’s certainly an impressive new author well worth paying attention to.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson