Although I very much enjoyed Elif Shafak’s previous novel “Three Daughters of Eve”, I was initially hesitant to read her new novel because the subject sounded so depressing. “10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World” recounts the final thoughts of its central character Leila after she’s been murdered and left in a dumpster. Scientists speculate that the brain remains active for a number of minutes after a person’s heart stops so the first part of the novel captures her final memories and reflections. As the clock ticks down to the inevitable expiration of her consciousness we follow her journey from being born to a religiously conservative man with two wives in the provinces of Turkey to her life as a prostitute in Istanbul where she becomes known as Tequila Leila. Along the way she meets five vital friends. These people form a network of mutual support to each other amidst strenuous circumstances and social rejection. We’re also given brief glimpses into these five people’s experiences of alienation.

While I admire the nobility of a novelist who sympathetically gives voice to the many voiceless represented in this novel it presents a lot of difficult subject matter including child abuse, religious extremism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, the plight of immigrants, poverty and sexual slavery. I also felt uncertain at first because in the first section of the book it feels like each friend of Leila’s self-consciously represents a different downtrodden community. In her attempt to make visible a full spectrum of alienated people Shafak risks turning her characters into tokens rather than fully realised individuals. But ultimately I found this novel came together and worked very effectively for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, Leila’s personality and resiliency shine through her tumultuous journey. It’s a pleasure seeing her vibrant character come out in scenes where she radiates an energy and creative persistence amidst very challenging situations. This gives the story an engaging momentum. Secondly, the later part of the book is concerned with her friends coming together to memorialize Leila when the state refuses to do so after burying her in a “cemetery of the companionless” amidst many other marginalized unmourned people. The idiosyncratic personalities of these five character emerge in their interactions with each other as they form a wild plan to pay tribute to their beloved friend. I felt these aspects of the novel made it a riveting and convincing read rather than just a worthy exercise in raising social awareness for the disenfranchised citizens of Turkey.

It’s not surprising that Shafak is preoccupied with issues to do with social stigma in modern-day Turkey. As an activist and artist she’s been put on trial by the Turkish government for ‘insulting Turkishness’ in her writing and Shafak wrote a moving article here describing the political struggles she’s encountered. I admire that she’s not only chosen to engage with such difficult issues being faced by people who are being persecuted and silenced, but she’s skilfully crafted a story which draws you right into the heart of their plight and makes them come alive in a way I found powerful and moving.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesElif Shafak
2 CommentsPost a comment
Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson.jpg

I can think of few classic novels that have had such a widespread influence on both popular culture and literature as Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein; Or, the Modern Prometheus”. Even if people haven’t read Shelley’s novel they have a sense of Doctor Frankenstein’s creation from the many films which have (mistakenly) portrayed him as a senseless monster. I even went to a show recently called Frankenstein: How to Make a Monster where talented young musicians from the BAC Beatbox Academy re-created the body of the monster in song as a way of describing terrifying issues and people they experience in everyday life. But Shelley’s characters, ideas and powerful story have also permeated the imaginations of so many novelists since the book’s initial publication in 1818. Most recently it’s been directly referenced and reimagined in the novels “Frankenstein in Baghdad” by Ahmed Saadawi and Jeanette Winterson’s latest novel “Frankissstein”. Winterson’s novels have always had strong ties to the work of past writers (most notably Virginia Woolf) but her recent novels more strongly incorporate this influence such as her remix of The Winter’s Tale in her novel “The Gap of Time”.

“Frankissstein” goes a step further creating a dual narrative which switches back and forth between a historical section where we see Mary Shelley writing her famous novel and a near future where a non-binary individual named Ry Shelley engages in a complicated romantic relationship with a secretive scientist named Professor Stein. The historical sections have a more philosophical feel as Mary engages in meaningful discussions with her husband, the poet Byron and other interesting figures from the time period. The modern section is much more playful as it initially begins at a convention where a madcap capitalist named Ron promotes the use of his advanced range of sexbots designed to suit everyone’s emotional and physical needs. There’s even a Germaine Greer sex doll! Meanwhile, Professor Stein gives a lecture about the future of humans in a post-human world and engages in some edgy scientific experimentation. While the tone of these two narrative threads sound totally at odds with each other they feel strangely cohesive – especially as the novel increasingly becomes concerned with questions about the advancement of our species, the meaning of consciousness and the complicated dynamics of love: “Love is not a pristine planet before contaminants and pollutants, before the arrival of Man. Love is a disturbance among the disturbed.” The novel also has a political edge engaging with issues to do with feminism, gender identity, ethics and Brexit.

One of Winterson’s greatest talents is mixing an ardent seriousness in her writing with a richly playful sensibility to form stories that are both engaging and deeply poignant. Initially I felt more emotionally engaged by Mary’s 19th century tale and her struggles with marriage, friendship, money and nationality. But as the story progressed I became more attached to the character of Ry (whose shortened name could be a part of the names Mary or Ryan.) Ry encounters prejudice because of their gender identity and also develops a strong sexual connection and relationship with Professor Stein who is frustrated because falling for Ry wasn’t a part of his plan. Both Mary and Ry find themselves oddly positioned in relation to men whose grandiose ideas about mankind’s advancement don’t encompass matters to do with the human heart. In a sense, Mary and Ry are a continuation of the same person who has changed through the centuries like Woolf’s “Orlando”. In this way Winterson brilliantly messes with the perceived linear nature of time and the way certain issues emerge continuously amidst society’s progression: “Our lives are ordered by the straight line of time, yet arrows fly in all directions. We move towards death, while things we have scarcely understood return and return wounding us for our own good.”


The novel also considers ideas about storytelling itself - both in forming fictional narratives and the narrative of history. Mary Shelley was in the unusual position of producing a brilliant novel so early in her life and its themes go on to haunt her as Winterson shows how her life plays out in subsequent years. I like how Winterson considers how oddly abstract experience becomes when it’s formed into a story: “Only in the living of it does life seem ordinary. In the telling of it we find ourselves strangers among the strange.” But I also appreciate how she confronts popular notions of nationalism and that the idea of Britishness is just another story we’re telling ourselves: “The timeless serenity of the past that we British do so well is an implanted memory – you could call it a fake memory. What seems so solid and certain is really part of the ceaseless pull-it-down-build-it-again pattern of history, where the turbulence of the past is recast as landmark, as icon, as tradition, as what we defend, what we uphold – until it’s time to call in the wrecking ball.” I think this notion is good to keep in mind when any politician cites historical references to support their own ideological campaigns.

While I like to linger on many lines in Winterson’s novels (she’s a very quotable author) because she can poignantly encapsulate powerful ideas in few words, sometimes these grand statements pull me out of the flow of the story. The point of view can at times feel more like Winterson’s rather than her characters. There’s also occasional clunky lines such as a discussion about feminism where Mary self-consciously names her mother in a way that’s more for the reader’s benefit rather than for the characters she’s conversing with: “My mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, would not agree with you, I said.” Yet, these are minor quibbles I had with a novel I so thoroughly admire and enjoyed. I like reading novels which aren’t afraid to converse so self-consciously with stories that have come before. I think “Frankissstein” does this artfully while making a tale that is entirely new and immensely fun to read.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
Girl Woman Other Bernadine Evaristo.jpg

I’ve mentioned in the past how novels which are more like books of interconnected short stories are my favourite kind. “Girl, Woman, Other” by Bernadine Evaristo invents a new slant to this form of prose and it does so in a way which poignantly relates to the novel’s overall meaning. The stories in this novel revolve around particular groups which are usually composed of a daughter, mother and friend/lover/important familial figure. They focus on twelve central characters in total whose lives touch upon each other either glancingly or in a dramatically important way. Most centre around the lives of black women (many of them queer) in modern-day London, but their lives branch out across the past century as well as to rural life and other countries such as America, Barbados and Nigeria. There is no overarching story although a focal point is a new theatrical production at the National Theatre by one character named Amma, a lesbian socialist playwright. The play focuses on a reimagining of great African female warriors. The women in this novel provide an interesting counterpoint to the dramatization of this ardent reclaiming of the past. The lives and experiences of these modern day women are varied and incapable of being classified. Each forms their own unique sense of identity which is black and female, but also so many different things. It’s really powerful seeing how they variously connect with each other or sadly misunderstand one another amidst their varied and compelling stories.

Some readers scoff at new fiction which self-consciously considers issues to do with current highly politicised issues such as the diaspora, economic inequality or racial/sexual identity. But what I think is so clever about this novel is that it speaks about these themes so overtly you can see how they are a part of the everyday lived experience of women who came of age in the wake of feminism, black consciousness and/or queer rights. Because they are often made to feel marginalized this is a dialogue these women have with themselves, each other and the communities they live in as they seek better ways to articulate who they are and what they want. It’s clever how Evaristo attunes the reader to her characters’ quest to self-identify. When characters pledge unconditional love, rename themselves or reinvent their lives we feel a sense of foreboding rather than celebration because we’ve become all too aware that their principles are likely to eclipse their more complex individual identity and multifaceted needs. Unsurprisingly, there is a lot of friction in this quest to define and understand one another especially between different generations. It’s why I think the dynamic of grouping their stories together works so well because you see things wholly from each woman’s perspective before getting a very different point of view from another woman on the same events, people and situations. It shows how there is no one clear way of understanding their lives or a singular truth about who they are.

There’s also an immense pleasure in seeing how these women’s stories intersect at various points and how certain mysteries within different plotlines are only solved by following each individual story. It creates a panoramic view of groups of people and lives through the past and present. To reign in so many different tales within one cohesive whole takes considerable talent and it’s clear Evaristo is an experienced and talented writer. Of course, the many pleasures that such a construction gives also means we miss out on the joys found in some other more traditionally plotted novels. Inevitably, some of these women’s stories will engage readers more than others. At times, just when you form a powerful attachment to one character the novel will move onto the stories of other women and we won’t see that character again except in passing. Part of me would have loved to read a whole novel about 93 year old Hattie or city worker Carole who is haunted by a sexual assault or Dominique who finds herself dangerously drawn into an abusive relationship on a woman’s commune. However, it’s a tribute to Evaristo’s power as a writer to leave you wanting more. At some points I felt tested trying to keep straight all the many different stories and characters in my mind. But this also means I’d be very eager to reread this novel because I think this would make me see the individual threads of their lives much more clearly. I’m sure a rereading would also allow me to pick up on some details I’m sure I initially missed about how their lives intersect. Nevertheless, my first reading of this novel was an immensely pleasurable experience filled with drama, sharp humour and compelling characters whose stories are a joy to read about.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson

I’ve been very eager to read more by Iris Murdoch since this year marks the centenary of her birth. I’ve read a few of her novels in the past and probably “The Sea, The Sea” is my favourite. It’s a nice coincidence that I read “The Bell” after “The Blithedale Romance” because they both involve stories about the formation of intentional communities. While I was frustrated with the limited perspective Hawthorne gave of the organization and social challenges involved in creating and running such a community, “The Bell” showed more about this in its depiction of the workings of a lay religious community which exists directly alongside an enclosed nunnery. The interpersonal dramas of the community members provide an intriguing and sometimes ironic counterpoint to the hidden, unknown workings of the nuns who exist in a state of presumed harmony within their shielded religious devotion.

The story begins with the perspective of an outsider named Dora who travels to meet her husband at the community’s estate in the hope of reconciling their crumbling marriage. Gradually the narrative focuses more on the community’s pious leader Michael who struggles to suppress his homosexual desires when he becomes close to attractive younger men. A number of dramatic romantic entanglements ensue while the community prepares a christening ceremony for a new bell which is being delivered for the bell tower – it’s gone without a bell since (legend has it) the original 12th century bell was thrown into a lake which exists snugly alongside the community buildings. Though the story veers towards the melodramatic at some points, I nevertheless felt a real sympathy and connection with a lot of the characters. I also found the philosophical and religious arguments threaded throughout their encounters really compelling.

Murdoch is great at showing highly relatable psychological details such as Dora’s conundrum about whether to give up her seat on a train to an older lady or the awkwardness of a woman who doesn’t want to sound like a prig but who can’t stop herself from judging Dora’s behaviour. The novel also gets into the gritty combative behaviour that can occur in a small community of people who have strong values that they aren’t willing to compromise. A meeting about whether or not to shoot animal pests that ruin their crops becomes such a drawn out banal discussion, but I found it really poignant in that it shows how difficult it is for people with different values to live harmoniously. I got the feeling over the course of the novel that the more people cling to their high ideals the more they set themselves up to fall and feel disappointed when they can’t live up to them.

A small thing I really admired was how Murdoch portrays a young man named Toby who proudly uses the word “rebarbative” early in the novel. It’s a word he’s recently learned and likes the sound of. He uses it as a descriptive term again much later in the novel and I like how this reflects the way younger people can self-consciously acquire new language to interpret and describe the world around them. It fits so well as a way of expressing his precocious nature and also playfully shows a level of pretention to his character. Though he’s relatively naïve, he finds himself in a position of power to cause serious consequences to the community. Murdoch describes his sense of inner conflict so well especially in how he veers between feelings of victimhood and desire when he receives unexpected romantic attention. In fact, Murdoch is excellent at portraying the confusion many of her characters feel as well as their surprise at their own course of actions when decisions are made spontaneously.

Iris Murdoch.jpg

One the most moving things about the novel is how seriously Murdoch treats Michael’s dilemma over his sexuality. It’s so compelling how he truly believes there is nothing wrong with his desires but that he must suppress them because they are at odds with his spiritual practice. This seems especially significant considering this novel was published nine years before the Sexual Offences Act which legalized private homosexual acts between two men in England – something author Sarah Perry notes in her excellent introduction to this new edition. Murdoch strikes me as wonderfully sex-positive in her writing, yet she obviously concedes it can lead to very tricky situations which her characters become entangled in. Just as compellingly she shows Dora’s dilemma as she tries to make her marriage to her husband work even though he’s often a patronizing bore. I think what’s so memorable about Murdoch’s novels is that she creates some really striking scenes which will stick with you because they so dramatically encapsulate the moral dilemmas her characters face.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesIris Murdoch
4 CommentsPost a comment
The Collection Nina Leger.jpg

Of the many reading initiatives that occur online, Women in Translation Month (#WITMonth) which happens in August is one of my favourites. So I’ve started the month with “The Collection” by Nina Leger, a slim newly-translated novel from France which has a very attractive cover although it’s most definitely not about mushrooms. It concerns a woman’s anonymous sexual encounters and while this might seem straightforward it’s given me a lot to think about it. So much so I have much more to say about this book than some other much longer novels and that’s not just because of its provocative subject matter. I was surprised by how emotionally engaged I felt with the story as well – especially because the full details of its protagonist’s identity remain pointedly obscure.

I admire fiction which deals frankly with sex because it feels like an important aspect of humanity which isn’t often dealt with in literary fiction in a proportion similar to how often it preoccupies our actual lives. Marlon James has commented in interviews how when sex is portrayed in literary fiction it’s often only referred to in ellipses or portrayed as a shame-filled activity. I think the difficulty a lot of authors have in writing about sex is that they don’t want their prose to come across as indulging in sensual fantasy or titillating for the sake of it. But equally there is a hesitancy when portraying all the awkward reality of people’s bodies.

The writer William Gass claimed readers don’t really want to see under the skirt because “What good is my peek at her pubic hair if I must also see the red lines made by her panties, the pimples on her rump, broken veins like the print of a lavender thumb, the stepped-on look of a day’s-end muff? I’ve that at home.” In “Bluets” Maggie Nelson gives an emphatic riposte to this assumption that readers only want an idealized portrayal of bodies engaged in sex: “For my part I have no interest in catching a glimpse of or offering you an unblemished ass or an airbrushed cunt. I am interested in having three orifices stuffed full of thick, veiny cock in the most unforgiving of poses and light.”

Nina Leger’s novel gives just such a frank view as it catalogues the sexual exploits of its protagonist Jeanne who visits many hotels having sex with anonymous men. Rather than flesh out the lives and personalities of any of these men or Jeanne herself, we’re only given explicit descriptions of the men’s genitals which Jeanne gathers to form a “memory palace” of these encounters. Who she is or why she prefers anonymous sex remains a mystery and Leger even playfully toys with the expectations of the reader that she might be a discontent wife, a trauma victim, a secret lesbian or a nymphomaniac. All we know is that her sexual exploits are an important aspect of Jeanne’s life and they are something she pursues with rigorous dedication.

The hotel rooms she visits aren’t spaces for her to enact a side of herself which she doesn’t show in her ordinary life. It’s stated “There will be no reverse side to the set, as the hotel rooms are not a stage; no concealed wings, in which Jeanne sheds her ordinary self in favour of an extraordinary costume.” Over the course of the novel it’s not Jeanne’s actions which feel performative, but the routine of ordinary life which reveals itself to be a façade. Hotel rooms are dressed to be as mundane and interchangeable as possible. People she encounters go about their days keeping sex a hushed and secretive activity. Society teaches people to keep their social identities and sexual identities completely separate.

In one hilarious scene Jeanne is on public transport and her bag which contains sex toys hangs open. A child tries to grasp one of these toys and its mother sharply remonstrates Jeanne demanding she close her bag while the other passengers gaze at her with amused disapproval. The awkwardness of this situation is acute, but Jeanne is entirely unapologetic about it because the difficulty is not with her; it’s the people around that have the issue as they are projecting their own insecurities and fears upon her. They are the ones that feel any open expression of sexuality is a transgression that must be kept behind closed doors.

Leger seems to comment on the way literature generally handles sex in novels when she describes Jeanne’s frustration at not being able to find someone like her in what she reads, “At one time, she looked for her alter ego in novels and sometimes thought she had found her there... In each new text, she hoped to find what the previous had lacked. At the beginning the heroines were bold and immoral; the first pages blazed, the lines throbbed with subversion. Then, this heartbeat diminished, became a miniscule pulse which dwindled little by little, until vital functions shut down completely; halfway through, the heroines had been irrevocably transformed into psychological composites devised for the purposes of explication and the novel, which had appeared free and wild, preferred to frolic in an enclosure of highly limited significations where sex could be nothing other than a symptom, the sign of a void that needed filling, of an anguish to be appeased, of a slowly healing wound.” The way Jeanne’s indulgence in sex is, of course, portrayed exactly opposite to this as being about unapologetic pleasure and the purpose for it is solely her own.

That’s not to say sex is portrayed as an unproblematic activity in this novel. Men treat her in many different ways so she experiences their repugnance, gratitude, embarrassment, indifference or emphatic attention. There’s a kind of violence in how men project their desires upon her and also explicitly reveal their fears and insecurities in ways they scarcely realise. She also finds the more she engages in sex the more her desires evolve. Desire can suddenly well up within her to be expressed in unexpectedly bizarre ways such as the impulse to lick rain water off from a stranger’s wet anorak. Leger also considers the weird mental space we often enter into when engaged in sex so there is a charged interplay between reality and fantasy. So we see from Jeanne’s perspective how “The room rhythmically disappears and appears” in a way which is surreal.

For some time, rather than seeing men she explores a range of sex toys and pornographic videos as she explores the different contours of pleasure. There’s a risk that sex will become such a habitual activity it becomes entirely meaningless. Some sections take on a hallucinatory feel as her physical surroundings meld into an anonymous mass: “Jeanne watches and the details blur; colours wear away; sounds lose their meaning; the volume flattens; movements fragment; bodies exist no more”. In this absence we feel Jeanne’s emotional strife as the activity of sex turns into sheer chaos and she comes perilously close to becoming no one at all “no more memories, no more body that belongs to her, no more reasons or causes”. We’re left wondering if this is liberation or a nightmare.

There’s an old adage that novels need their characters to overcome a conflict and change during the course of the story for it to be successful. Jeanne doesn’t change in that by the novel’s end she’s engaging in exactly the same kind of practices that she is in the beginning. But what’s changed is that she and the reader are more aware of assumptions being made about her and the expectations that are placed upon a sexually active woman. We can feel the will for her to stop this activity and concentrate on being a wife or mother or business professional. We’ve become so accustomed to sex being used as a tool or a means to move into a different stage of life that it’s very difficult to view it as just another instinctive human function. The reader is given no insight into Jeanne’s life outside her sexual pursuits or the meaning of her activity because it’s nearly impossible for us not to ascribe her actions to a larger false narrative about her being.

Jeanne repeatedly views a Bearded Dragon in a pet store she passes.

Jeanne repeatedly views a Bearded Dragon in a pet store she passes.

It really surprised me how this novel brought me to this conclusion and made me feel so emotionally engaged. Quite often when reading novels which intentionally withhold details about their central characters’ identity or shield us from the heart of the protagonist I’m left feeling cold and dissatisfied. As much as I admired the intellectual engagement found in novels such as “Outline”, “Satin Island” or “First Love” I didn’t feel as much as I wanted to from them. But this novel made me feel a lot because I sympathised with Jeanne’s struggle to maintain a sense of integrity alongside her sexual proclivities. The novel also challenged a lot of my own assumptions and the way I might feel inclined to ask someone who engages in casual promiscuous activity if they will ever “settle down” – as if its natural or necessary for everyone to eventually become domesticated.

There’s a fine tradition of literature that considers sex in a frank and often shocking way – especially in France. Georges Bataille’s “Story of the Eye” self-consciously broke every sexual taboo by portraying every perversion imaginable. But the world has changed a lot since that novella was written almost one hundred years ago. Now every twisted sexual impulse can be viewed online in a quick keyword search. Leger’s novel says something much larger about how both our desires and our bodies are segmented and compartmentalized. No doubt “The Collection” will immediately put off a lot of readers because of its explicit content and its refusal to straightforwardly reveal Jeanne’s emotions. But this novel is saying a lot more about how we live now than other modern literature which shyly skirts around such inflammatory subject matter.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesNina Leger

It’s startling to realise how much human suffering can be conveniently ignored by the general population when governmental institutions neatly shield this injustice away. Colson Whitehead’s new novel centres around the Nickel Academy, a juvenile reformatory in Florida in the early 1960s. It was purportedly to school and train these teenagers to become “honorable and honest men” but in reality it abused, exploited and (sometimes) killed them. While the civil rights movement was valiantly working to end segregation the boys in this institution were still divided into white and black dormitories. Unsurprisingly, the white inmates were given better food and supplies as well as less labour and better treatment. Whitehead tells the story of this barbaric facility by focusing on the lives of several inmates – most notably an intelligent young man named Elwood who finds himself imprisoned there after he was caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Like many people I found Whitehead’s previous novel “The Underground Railroad” incredibly moving. This new novel is stylistically different but just as impactful. Not only does it tell a harrowing tale of racism and institutional abuse, but has a gripping plot with a surprising and moving ending.

One of the most heartrending things about this novel is that Whitehead based it on a real institution called the Dozier School for Boys. After this school closed down an anthropological survey in 2012 discovered the remains of dozens of bodies outside the cemetery grounds. Whitehead fictionizes the back stories of several boys who might have ended up in these unmarked graves while also depicting the atmosphere of the civil rights movement at that time. Elwood is a studious young man who aspires to go to college, but finds himself drawn into the protests after being inspired by a record of Dr Martin Luther King’s speeches and his teacher Mr Hill who was a former freedom rider. Through Elwood’s perspective we experience all the conflicted feelings of people had to choose between looking after their own self-interest or joining to fight for a bigger cause. Of course, when he realizes how inhibited his life would be given the current social systems it leaves him little choice because “It didn’t make no sense until it made the only sense.”

It’s incredibly moving how Whitehead depicts Elwood’s good intentions and his stalwart belief based off from Dr King’s words that if he maintains his integrity and diligently works for progress things will change for the better. But this is severely tested when Elwood finds himself locked in the Nickel Academy where there is no reason or justice – only an obtuse system where severe and entirely unjustified punishment can be randomly enacted. He observes “Problem was, even if you avoided trouble, trouble might reach out and snatch you anyway.” The institution is riddled with corruption and incompetence from the administration to the guards to the medical staff. The place is given a lick of paint and congenial veneer whenever any state inspection is due. There’s a sense that over many decades the abuse and prejudice has become so systematic no one in a position of power even thinks to question it.

Dozier School for Boys

Dozier School for Boys

This is extended further when Elwood and another boy are loaned out to the local population to perform unpaid work as well as deliver governmental supplies to local businesses which were intended to feed, clothe, educate and entertain the incarcerated boys. It meant civilians and businesses outside the institution directly benefited from the maltreatment and suffering of these young black men. In this way Whitehead’s novel makes me question in what ways ordinary people are complacent in the exploitation of others. It’s also a poignant reminder of how brutally people suffered during segregation in America which is something which should be obvious but as one character notes it is “hard to remember sometimes how bad it used to be.” But outside of these larger issues, this is novel which vividly and skilfully tells the stories of several characters trapped in a brutal system in a way which is rousing and memorable.  

AuthorEric Karl Anderson

The plot of “Night Boat to Tangier” isn’t what drew me to this book. Two aging Irish gangster wait at a Spanish port for a particular boat to arrive as they mull over the past and seek answers to what happened to one of their lost children named Dilly. Stories about gangsters usually put me off because many seem to revel in a kind of machismo that makes my eyes roll. But I enjoyed Kevin Barry’s previous novel “Beatlebone” so much that this is a writer I’ll eagerly follow no matter what subject he writes about. His writing feels quintessentially Irish. It plays with the meaning of language, draws sharp characterisations and evokes humour through a lot of dialogue, confidently navigates between the absurd and the alarmingly realistic, isn’t afraid of a dirty joke but also approaches life’s big questions with a lot of profundity, veers towards the melancholic and it lingers on the meaning of Irishness itself. Barry’s new novel even plays upon one of the greatest works of Irish literature of all time: Samuel Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’. It encompasses all this and a lot more while relating the story of Maurice and Charlie’s life as they sit on a bench in this strange liminal space.

I admire how poignantly Barry is able to construct a scene which contains a lot of funny discussion that’s also underpinned by more serious emotions which hang suspended in the background. He states how this works at one point when describing “They look into the distance. They send up their sighs. Their talk is a shield against feeling.” While long-term friends and colleagues Maurice and Charlie have a definite mission being at this Spanish port they also have a lot to discuss which hasn’t been said between them before. They sift through memories and jump between periods of the past to consider how they got to this point, the real value of all their drug smuggling escapades and how they’ve become so estranged from the people who matter the most to them. It’s a process of learning how to live with what they’ve lost rather than trying to forget it: “There comes a time when you just have to live among your ghosts. You keep the conversation going. Elsewise the broad field of the future opens out as nothing but a vast emptiness.”

The prospect of a novel which is largely a conversation that veers between topics like death and masturbation might sound too ponderous to many readers. But there’s a lot of tension in the story as their process of interrogating some people who pass through the port contains flashes of violence or the threat of violence. Many surprising revelations and twists in the plot occur as well while they consider periods of the past and how their relationship is much more complex than it first appears. I also enjoy how this foreign port is a location where they can consider their conflicted feelings of national identity. In some ways Ireland is a place they deeply resent: “Fucking Ireland. Its smiling fiends. Its speaking rocks. Its haunted fields. Its sea memory. Its wildness and strife. Its haunt of melancholy. The way that it closes in.” Yet, it’s also somewhere they’re fiercely attached to both in its people and its landscape contoured by a living past. The daughter Dilly takes the form of a new kind of global citizen still tethered to this vast Irishness which Maurice and Charlie wrestle with, but her radical self-creation is less likely to be crushed by its weight.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesKevin Barry

I’ve been meaning to read this novel for quite some time. Firstly, I have a particular interest in stories about communal life since I came close to joining a commune when I was a teenager. Hawthorne based the novel’s intentional community of Blithedale on the real utopian farming commune Brooke Farm which Hawthorne helped to establish (although apparently he didn’t adhere too strongly to its values.) Secondly, the second novel in Joyce Carol Oates’ Gothic Quintet is called “A Bloodsmoore Romance”. I’m not sure if Oates’ book plays upon Hawthorne’s novel at all (other than in its title) but I figured it’s best to read the classic novel first. Perhaps my motivations for reading this novel slightly soured my experience of it because the story is more Romance than it is about the actual community of Blithedale.

It begins with its narrator Miles travelling to the newly founded intentional community of Blithedale in the dead of winter. He’s a poet so isn’t accustomed to the rigorous work of agricultural life which meets him when he gets there. Like many well-meaning intellectuals who go to found alternative societies, he quickly finds the practicalities of the enterprise overwhelm him: “we had pleased ourselves with delectable visions of the spiritualization of labor… matters did not turn out quite so well as we anticipated.” Therefore, it’s quite funny he quickly becomes ill and spends all his time in bed rather than working the fields or milking cows. But few details are given about the structure of the community or its core values. Instead the story becomes consumed with a beautiful resident named Zenobia who always has an exotic flower in her hair as well as a mysterious young woman named Priscilla who arrives. The novel primarily concerns the mysterious backstory of these women’s lives and Miles rivalry with a philanthropist and fellow resident Hollingsworth.

The tone of the story felt quite uneven because it strays into a slightly gothic or supernatural territory with legends about a veiled lady and tragic family histories conveyed. But then it will diverge into debates about certain philosophical ideas based on Transcendentalist theories or discussions about the rights of women. The dialogue involving ideas about the difference between the sexes was difficult to read because it makes so many old-fashioned generalizations. I felt the same way about reading “Summer Will Show” last year in how that novel makes such broad statements about Jewishness.

There were occasions when the novel would make an interesting statement which would stand out for me. I was particularly compelled by how he discusses people who devote themselves to a particular cause: “This is always true of those men who have surrendered themselves to an overruling purpose. It does not so much impel them from without, nor even operate as a motive power within, but grows incorporate with all that they think and feel, and finally converts them into little else save that one principle.” This feels very true in the way some people can let a certain ideology overtake everything about their identity so that they come to be defined only by this one idea or cause. This reminded me of the main character in the recent novel “Old Baggage” who is a feminist searching for meaning after her protest efforts help secure women’s voting rights.

I also found it difficult to engage with many of the book’s arguments because it seemed like they were riffing off from very specific concepts I wasn’t familiar with or parodying certain ideas like that of Charles Fourier. If you’re well versed in these theories this might have value but much of it felt like in-jokes which I couldn’t understand very well. The narrative also has a jerky momentum to it so I found it challenging at times to understand exactly what was happening or even the meaning of certain twists in the plot. After finishing the novel I even had to look up summaries online to explain some of the novel’s conclusions.

I felt very ambiguous about the narrator himself as well. He becomes so consumed with the trio of characters Zenobia, Priscilla and Hollingsworth that he drifts away from the Blithedale community to voyeuristically observe their interactions and untangle their histories. That’s why this novel felt like it was more about the romance aspect of the title than the commune. Perhaps that emulates many people’s experiences going to intentional communities like this where ideals gradually become completely subsumed in favour of the drama of interpersonal relationships. The trouble is this storyline didn’t feel very interesting to me and I’d have much preferred to read a novel like Susan Sontag’s “In America” where the dissolution of the utopian ideal is detailed in its physical breakdown as much as the social turmoil of its inhabitants. It’s haunting how Miles at one point feels like a ghost drifting on the outside of the community, but I had little sense of how the Blithedale eventually dissolved because the story was more consumed with melodramatic plotlines.


So I felt this was an interesting book, but not a very satisfying read. While I was reading this novel I tweeted about it and Joyce Carol Oates responded that I should read Hawthorne’s American Notebooks so, while I was engrossed in this novel at the beginning, maybe I should have switched books before getting tangled in Hawthorne’s uneven narrative.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson

Given the judges of this year’s Booker Prize, I was expecting a high calibre of novels listed for this year’s longlist and I’m not disappointed. I loved reading and would highly recommend “Lost Children Archive” and “Lanny”. Many more of these novels are ones I’ve been wanting to get to, but I’m especially pleased to see authors like Kevin Barry, Bernardine Evaristo, Valeria Luiselli and Max Porter who seem like they haven’t achieved as wide a readership as they deserve. I have read but don’t feel quite so strongly about “My Sister the Serial Killer” and “An Orchestra of Minorities” but nevertheless I still appreciated these two novels. I’m so keen on the novels I haven’t read that I think I will attempt to read the whole longlist. You can see me discuss all the books and my thoughts on the list as a whole in this video here.

It’s so interesting that one of this year’s biggest publishing events Margaret Atwood’s “The Testaments” (the much-anticipated sequel to “The Handmaid’s Tale”) is listed since it won’t be published until September 10th. The judges’ only comment on the novel is “Spoiler discretion and a ferocious non-discolosure agreement prevent any description of who, how, why and even where. So this: it’s terrifying and exhilarating.” Quite often when books not-yet-published are listed for popular book prizes the publishers will rush publication to take advantage of the swell of interest, but I’m guessing we won’t see this strictly embargoed novel till it’s scheduled publication date (which happens to come after the shortlist announcement on Sept 3rd.) In the meantime, I am eager to reread “The Handmaid’s Tale” to refresh my memory of it. “The Man Who Saw Everything” and “Quichotte” haven’t been published yet either, but I think we’re more likely to see their publication dates bumped up.

How do you feel about the longlist? Any novels you’re disappointed not to see? Any you’re keen on reading now?

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
8 CommentsPost a comment

Recently I had the wonderful opportunity to visit Riga for the first time! It’s something I’ve always wanted to do since I have Latvian ancestry (my great-grandfather was born in Riga before emigrating to the US in the early 1900s.) I was invited by the Latvian Literature Platform to tour the city after they saw a video review I did of Nora Ikstena’s novel “Soviet Milk” in which I also demonstrated my family recipe for making Latvia bacon and onion rolls. So it was a thrilling opportunity to see the country for the first time as well as learn more about Latvian literature’s history and authors today. It was quite a moving experience being able to walk the streets of my ancestors, eat some authentic piragi rolls and I even got to meet a distant cousin of mine. I made a vlog about my experiences there which you can watch here.

While I was there I also read most of the stories from an anthology which was published last year called “The Book of Riga”. This includes short stories from a range of authors who write in a number of different styles, but each story centres around the city of Riga. One of the most beautiful parts of Riga is their relatively new National Library which sits right on the river. The story ‘Wonderful New Latvia’ by Ilze Jansone focuses on the character of Katrina who is a librarian in this library (and exhibits the typical introverted Latvian trait where she shies away from having much contact with actual readers.) The story describes how many Latvian citizens have emigrated to other countries over the years, but since the country achieved its independence there’s a refreshing level of new opportunities for people.

One of my favourite stories from the collection ‘The Shakes’ by Sven Kuzmins describes an office worker named Agnia who has a Swedish boss named Mr Jensen. It’s written in a somewhat absurd style as their normal office routine becomes disrupted when Mr Jensen notices a pattern of growing protesters in the city streets. It describes how public unrest is something which slowly builds until a country finds itself in the midst a full-scale revolution. This poignantly reflects Latvia’s history as a country which has been occupied by several different countries over the past few centuries, but who have finally achieved independence as a nation. And I enjoyed the way their unusual office relationship plays out where it rounds back into a normal routine.

Many Latvian writers exhibit a tendency towards being introverted and melancholic. This is neatly summed up in the Latvian Literature Program’s campaign #IAmIntrovert which proudly proclaims Latvia is a nation of introverts. Several of the stories in this anthology reflect that sentiment as well. This can be seen in the very first story ‘The Hare’s Declaration’ by Juris Zvirgzdins which describes a man in late middle age who has lost both his wife and his job and wants to commit suicide by leaping from the top of a Latvian monument. Another story ‘The Girl Who Cut My Hair’ by Kristine Zelve describes how “the only thing that two melancholics can accomplish together is to agree that it makes no sense for them to do anything.” These reflect a general mood amongst Latvian literature towards tragedy. On my visit to Riga I went to a presentation by a literature professor who described how some of the classic foundational texts of Latvia are devastatingly depressing tales. Rather than bringing me down, I find there’s something quite endearing about this tendency in a nation’s literature that mulls obsessively over life’s cruelties – especially since it’s a small country that has such a long history of being dominated and controlled by foreign powers.


I’m really excited to explore and read more Latvian literature now that I’ve visited the country and know more about its history. There aren’t a huge number of books that have been translated from Latvian, but I’m eager to read the ones that have hope to see more appear in the future. It’ll be lovely to keep up this connection to a country where I have an ancestral connection. I even have distant relatives who still live in Riga and got to meet one named Karlis while I was there. Of course, this is the Latvian version of the name Karl (which is my middle name that I inherited from my grandfather.) One of the highlights of the trip was meeting him and knowing that our names came from a common ancestry. So it was touching how the American Karl got to meet the Latvian Karl.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
Starling Days by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan.jpg

Earlier this year I read the moving memoir “Mind on Fire” in which the author recounts his experiences with manic-depression, suicidal thoughts and the destructive impact his mental health issues have upon his personal relationships. An experience similar to this is dramatically rendered in Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s new novel “Starling Days”. It’s the story of Mina and Oscar, a young married couple living in New York City who temporarily move to London so Oscar can help his father prepare some run-down properties for sale. But Mina struggles with feelings of sadness which threaten to overwhelm her and self-harm. Her issues with mental health are portrayed with equal weight against Oscar’s no less heartrending emotional negligence being born as an illegitimate child who seeks to forge a connection with his aging father. Amidst their struggles, Mina makes a strong romantic connection with Phoebe, a red-haired English blogger whose presence brightens the world for Mina when she begins to feel overwhelmed by a suffocating loneliness. It’s noteworthy how this novel realistically and sympathetically portrays the experiences of a bisexual character. But Buchanan portrays all her characters’ journeys and dilemmas with a great deal of sympathy that made me feel wholly connected to them.

This is only Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s second novel but I can already see she has a touching methodology in her fiction for portraying the lives of distinct individuals who are powerfully connected. Her first novel “Harmless Like You” depicts the lives of a mother and child in different periods of time. In a similar way, “Starling Days” gives equal weight to two characters’ perspectives and how their personal struggles create severe challenges in their relationship. But the author has a magnanimous way of rendering the daily reality of their situations without making any judgements. She conveys in their dynamic how there’s no perfect way to go about helping someone dealing with depression and suicidal thoughts. It’s not something that can be neatly fixed. It’s more like a balancing act between therapy, medication, attentive loved ones and an inner drive to continue. We see how Mina must consider these every day while also grappling with feeling like a burden because of her condition.

It feels as if Buchanan is slightly playing upon recent trends in literary fiction to invoke or retell Greco-Roman mythology through a modern perspective. In preparation for writing a tentative academic monograph Mina loosely researches stories of the few mythological women who survive in their tales since so many female mythological characters die through punishment, their own folly or cruel coincidence. Rather than creating her own fictional account of these women Buchanan references their stories amidst Mina’s own plight. It creates interesting points of comparison but also provides a poignant frame in which to see Mina’s journey as a literal struggle to survive amidst the beaconing hand of death. There’s also a playful sense that Mina is more able to understand the tragedy in these epic tales than the inscrutable complications found in modern life: “This world made so much more sense if it was filled with angry, hungry gods.”


As moving as I find Buchanan’s writing, she has an occasional tendency to needlessly complicate some sentences in order to emphasize the physicality of her characters’ movements. So she’ll write “Her hands picked up her phone” when she could have instead just written “She picked up the phone.” Or “His legs carried him down the stairs and to the hall” instead of “He went downstairs.” This clunky phraseology can be distracting. But overall her writing has a pleasing fluidity to it in evoking all the undercurrents of emotion within her characters’ lives as they navigate the world and interact with one another. This is most powerfully rendered in the dialogue and communication between characters who gradually disconnect from one another until the reader can feel the sad gulf which exists between them.  

The novel poignantly considers the complications involved in relationships steered by dependencies that are emotional, financial and/or sexual. It’s not necessarily bad that such dependency exists because it necessitates a level of openness and vulnerability that’s needed in a strong relationship, but it can create a hierarchy and possessiveness which can impact upon people’s sense of self-worth. Fully accepting yourself while also truly loving someone else is difficult. “Starling Days” powerfully shows the nuance of such connections and it gives the story a rare clear-sighted honesty.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
Wainwright Prize.jpg

I was raised to be a nature lover. I grew up in the rural state of Maine in a house next to a horse pasture and my father’s extensive garden. Years before I read about Thoreau’s time on Mount Katahdin, I hiked to the top of it during a thunderstorm. I spent many weekends in my youth camping and canoeing on lakes. I may not have always enjoyed the mosquitoes, bitter cold of a Klondike derby or back-aching hours spent weeding the garden or chopping wood. But now that I live in a city every now and then I get a romantic feeling for staying in a cabin in the woods or at least spending an afternoon walking in a park. For some reason this year I’ve felt a particular yearning to read about the natural world and environment.

So it seems fortuitous that I happened upon The Wainwright Golden Beer Book Prize for Nature Writing whose shortlist was announced at the beginning of this month. It includes seven books on a range of subjects including personal journeys and politically-charged messages about climate change. The prize believes that the stories in these books are so important and urgent that they’ve sent a full set of the shortlist to the UK’s Environmental Secretary, Michael Gove, hoping that it will inform and inspire the government to take more deliberate steps towards taking climate action. Many people find it difficult to take action to improve and safeguard the environment until it becomes personal so I’m looking forward to exploring how these authors were inspired to interact with and learn from the natural world.

Looking through the books, the ones I’m most drawn to reading first are “Underland” by Robert Macfarlane and “Thinking On My Feet” by Kate Humble. I saw popular author Macfarlane in discussion about his new book a few months ago at the Southbank Centre where he described his impressive journeys to some deep places in the earth to experience layers of time and connect to literature about journeys into the Underworld. In recent years, I’ve developed a desire to go on walks much more so I’m intrigued to read about Humble’s account of her walking year. She explores the manifold physical and psychological benefits of going on long walks through nature as well as describing people she encounters who have found different sorts of inspiration or solace from in their rambling.  

I’m also quite keen to try reading “The Easternmost House” by Juliet Blaxland who spent a year living in a house on the Suffolk coast, an area that’s experiencing rapid erosion. She witnessed first-hand the cliffside coming closer and closer to the house in a relatively short span of time. I’m also intrigued to read “Wilding” by Isabella Tree as I remember seeing her being interviewed on a news show about how she and her husband allowed their intensely farmed land to go wild and the surprisingly quick renewal of the ecosystem. If I get time I’ll also try to read Julia Blackburn’s “Time Song”  about her search for truths about sunken land that once connected Britain to the European mainland and Mark Cocker’s “Our Place”  which exposes the devastating affects we have had on the wild world. I began reading Luke Turner’s memoir “Out of the Woods” earlier this year, but there was something about his style of writing I didn’t get on with so I put it aside – despite its exceedingly beautiful cover.

Most of the book prizes I follow are focused on fiction so I’m glad this prize has given me a springboard to discover and read a variety of non-fiction books about the natural world. It’ll be interesting to see which book is declared the winner on the 15th of August. Let me know if you’ve read any of these and your thoughts about them. Or let me know if you have any favourite nature writers!

Bluets Maggie Nelson.jpg

I've wanted to read more of Nelson's books since I first encountered her breakout 'The Argonauts' a few years ago. Her approach to contemplating certain ideas and their personal impact is so striking and thought-provoking. I picked up this book (first published ten years ago) because she gave a fascinating talk at the Southbank Centre in London. 'Bluets' considers her powerful attraction to the colour blue, its manifestations in ordinary objects and art as well as its symbolism in paintings, songs and writing. She originally intended its subject to remain within these boundaries and join in a literary tradition which considers colour. But when writing it she also included references to the break down of a love affair and her close friendship with a woman who has become a quadriplegic. Her musings weave through the analytical and personal to present a striking way of thinking about our perceptions, emotions and language. 

I've also always felt the appeal of the colour blue. It has a warmth to it but also induces a melancholy feeling. People have always remarked on how strikingly blue my eyes are. Once I was in a group where we were asked to organize ourselves in a line from people whose eyes are deepest brown to those whose eyes are the brightest blue. The group decided my eyes are the bluest and for some reason this felt like a great compliment to me. Nelson considers “Does the world look bluer from blue eyes? Probably not, but I choose to think so (self-aggrandizement).” It's a romantic idea but a ridiculous one. This is part of the reason I appreciate Nelson's point of view though. She takes her research and political views seriously but at the same time she playfully toys with the theoretical and enjoys the teasing pleasure that can be had with language.

I appreciate that Nelson describes how her collection of blue objects feels meaningful to her even though she can't recall their origins or significance. All that's left is their beauty. I think we have a similar relationship to cherished memories of events and people in our lives. There's a feeling that resonates when we recall them even if we can't recreate all the details of the past. She describes how “blue has no mind. It is not wise, nor does it promise any wisdom. It is beautiful, and despite what the poets and philosophers and theologians have said, I think beauty neither obscures truth nor reveals it. Likewise, it leads neither toward justice nor away from it. It is pharmakon. It radiates.” Quite often she describes experiencing the colour blue like a sensation that is beyond words – as are the feelings it generates. Therefore, she sets herself the impossible task of trying to describe something which can't be summed up, but what she provides instead are approximations and discussions around the meaning of the colour blue.

Nelson also engages in serious dialogue with writers, philosophers and artists from the past who have written about colour. Sometimes she looks to their texts for knowledge or support for her own theories. Other times she repudiates the folly of their reasoning. For instance, she takes issue with the way William Gass asserts we can't see what we really desire in reality and that it's better to look in fiction for it because there the desire can be perfectly encapsulated in words and our imaginations. Nelson asserts: “I will not choose between the blue things of the world and the words that say them: you might as well be heating up the poker and readying your eyes for the alter. Your loss.” There is both pleasure and pain to be found when engaging in reality with all its attendant imperfections. It'd be a mistake to close oneself off to its jagged contours.

Maggie Nelson Southbank Centre 2019.jpg

In a way I'm surprised I found this book to be as emotional as it is intellectually stimulating. Normally I get frustrated when authors withhold details that convey the core impulse driving them to write about a particular subject. Nelson refers to the breakdown of her relationship only glancingly and yet I felt the weight of its enormous loss all the same. She describes the debilitating feeling of being alone: “I have been trying, for some time now, to find dignity in my loneliness. I have been finding this hard to do. It is easier, of course, to find dignity in one's solitude. Loneliness is solitude with a problem.” She also asks “what kind of madness is it anyway, to be in love with something constitutionally incapable of loving you back?” Perhaps it's not so mad to be in love with a thing that's so beautiful specifically because it's incapable of loving you back. If it can't reciprocate feelings it's also incapable of rejecting you.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMaggie Nelson

Last year I went to visit Berlin for the first time over a long weekend. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a city that’s still so haunted by the after effects of war. Certainly there is more to this thriving city which is dynamic and fascinating in many ways but walking through the streets there are evident battle scars around every corner. Of course, it’s perfectly understandable that this would be the case because it was turned into a battlefield during WWII and then became a city literally divided by the Cold War. Given these facts it’d be virtually impossible to write about Berlin in the late 20th century without referring to the reverberating effects of these traumas.

Ben Fergusson rightly does so in both his first novel “The Spring of Kasper Meier” which describes the city soon after it was jointly occupied by the Allied powers and in his new novel “An Honest Man” which takes place in the time immediately preceding The Berlin Wall’s collapse in 1989. But these stories are filled with so many twists and surprises that they give a fascinating new perspective on this vibrant capital. He captures the lives of ordinary citizens in this shifting political landscape and focuses specifically on the lives of gay men during these periods. “An Honest Man” is centred around the life of Ralf, a teenager in Berlin with an English mother and German father. When Ralf encounters a Turkish man named Osman at a swimming pool he becomes embroiled in both a passionate love affair and a mysterious tale of espionage which completely upturns his life. It’s an utterly gripping tale of self-discovery and intrigue.

What’s often so striking reading about the lives of young people in such a politically contentious area is that the reality of its accompany tensions have become so completely normalised. Of course it seems normal to them because it’s all they’ve ever known. So for Ralf and his close group of friends who spend their summer going to the pool or watching arthouse films thrust upon them by Ralf’s cultured friend Stefan the fact of the wall’s presence is something glancingly referred to as they go about their lives preparing to go to university or pursuing their studious fascination with the natural world. The politics of it colour everything about their lives but doesn’t really impact them – until Ralf gets involved in spying on someone who may or may not be a Soviet informant. I admire how Fergusson evokes their lives fully capturing the sensory experience of this time and place.

Osman or “Oz” introduces Ralf to the music of Turkish folk singer Müzeyyen Senar. Here she sings "Kime Kin Ettin de"

There have been many coming of age novels written about gay men discovering their sexuality. But I appreciate how Fergusson gives a different spin describing the contoured dynamics of Ralf’s desires. He finds himself drawn to men yet he’s had a very close emotional and sexual relationship with his girlfriend Maike who is a fascinating character in her own right. He also has a strong platonic friendship with Stefan. But when Ralf finds a sexual connection with Osman the author evocatively describes the all-consuming freedom and heated passion of their relationship. It immediately overturns all the homophobic sentiments Ralf had previously expressed for a newfound acceptance of himself. Of course, this liberation doesn’t instantly make him into an entirely good person. The fact that Ralf is something of a dick (as his actions are frequently described throughout the novel) adds to the way he feels fully rounded and, like most teenagers, often more preoccupied with his own interests rather than the feelings of those closest to him.

I recall watching news footage of The Berlin Wall’s destruction when I was a child in 1989 and I remember wondering what it must have been like for all those people who finally didn’t have to live with this immense physical and political barrier any longer. So it was thrilling when the reality of this event is described in a climatic scene towards the end of the novel showing all the chaos and release of emotion which accompanied this new freedom of movement. “An Honest Man” achieves what’s best about historical fiction as it makes you reconsider how the dramatic events surrounding a large-scale political upheaval had different effects upon the lives of so many people who found themselves at the centre of it. And it does so with a story that’s both thrilling and filled with sensual delights.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesBen Fergusson
2 CommentsPost a comment
The Best Books of 2019 so far.jpg

The year is zipping by fast and there are plenty of books I’ve still been meaning to read, but here are some favourites that I’ve read so far. I seem to be reading more memoirs recently or, at least, books that are heavily inspired by autobiographical experience. Several of these books fall into that category while being a hybrid of different kinds of books. But, of course, there are some novels I’ve loved and a poetry collection as well. It felt especially poignant to me how some of these books felt like they were in conversation with each other because they touched on similar subjects or events. Maybe that’s just me seeing connections since I read them close together. Whatever the case, these books had a big impact on me and I highly recommend all them! You can also watch a video of me discussing all these books here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uUjR0M_yrOE

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

I read this wonderful book at the very beginning of the year. Of course, this isn't a memoir per say – although it does include personal details about how much libraries meant to the author when growing up. It's more a piece of journalistic nonfiction where Orlean considers the case of a horrific fire in the Los Angeles Central library in 1986. She covers the history of this library and the very curious man who was strongly suspected of starting the fire. But it's also an ode to libraries in general and contains so many fascinating facts about libraries and librarians.

Where Reasons End by Yiyun Li

This is a novel but draws heavily on Li's own life because her son sadly committed suicide and this book is an imagined conversation between a mother and son – after the son took his own life. That sounds incredibly depressing and it is an intense experience. But the way their conversation plays out is very touching because when the mother thoughts become too lofty the son brings her back to reality. So it's alternately playful and profound how she considers life, language, motivation and grief.

Kill the Black One First by Michael Fuller

This is a straightforward but very moving memoir. It has a very startling title – and it's meant to be because this was something which was shouted from an angry mob as Fuller stood in a line of police officers during the Brixton riots in 1981. This was an infamous confrontation in London between the police force and members of a predominantly black neighbourhood. At the time, Fuller was one of the few black policemen in London and he found himself caught in the middle of this skirmish when someone in the crowd shouted “kill the black one first” and he knew it was aimed at him. So this memoir is about Fuller's life as a black man who was dedicated to his police work – he became Britain's very first black chief constable – and the work he did to try to bridge the gap between England's racially divided society. It's such a moving and inspiring story. And it's so heartening to know there are honestly good people out there like Michael Fuller.

You Will Be Safe Here by Damian Barr

This is a novel set in South Africa in two parts which are bridged together. The first part concerns a woman named Susan who is forcibly put into a British concentration camp during the Second Boer Wars in 1901 after the British army burned her farm. And yes, this is something the British really did in South Africa; they ran multiple concentration camps during this war. The second half of the novel concerns a teenage boy named Willem who is taken by his parents to a sinister training camp to toughen him up and make him more masculine. Willem just wants to be left alone with his books but his parents are determined to make a man out of him. And this camp is also based on actual training camps which are meant to toughen boys. So both stories poignantly consider institutions and camps which are intended to keep people safe but really destroy their identity and their lives. It's so artfully and beautifully done.

Constellations by Sinead Gleeson

These autobiographical essays follow the trajectory of Gleeson's life from a girl in Ireland where she suffers from multiple medical difficulties and her journey to becoming a great feminist, journalist, wife, mother and writer. The way she writes about illness in this book is so poignant and she draws upon many references from art and literature to reflect about her condition and life in general. It's a stunning book. It just floored me.

The Years by Annie Ernaux

This autobiographically-inspired novel was first published in English last year but it was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize this year. It's an incredible look at the past several decades in France through one woman's eyes but is narrated in this unique collective voice which captures the mood and sensibility of a whole community. It's ingenious and inventive and moving and brilliant. It's essentially a woman looking through a photo album but it also contains a whole society. It's amazing.

The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal

This is a historical novel which is so clever and gripping. It's the story of a woman in the mid-1800s in London who works in a laborious job making dolls, but she aspires to be an artist. So she agrees to become an artist's model as long as she's also given lessons. It's also about a sinister man who becomes infatuated with her. And it's also about the artist's pet wombat (which is my favourite animal.) But this novel is truly excellent in what it says about art, obsession and history.

The Heavens by Sandra Newman

This is touted as the year's most mind-expanding love story and it really is that. It begins as a normal modern day love story where Kate and Ben meet at a party in New York City. But Kate has very vivid dreams where she slips back into a past life embodying the real historical figure of Emilia Lanier who was an Elizabethan poet believed to have been the “dark lady” of Shakespeare's sonnets. She finds that in these dreams she's able to alter history. It's honestly so wild, but also makes you think about destiny and ambition and the meaning of reality. It is unlike anything I've read before.

This Brutal House by Niven Govinden

This is a novel I just read recently and concerns a group of drag house mothers who sit in silent protest in front of New York's city hall. For years children they've taken into their drag houses have gone missing and after the repeated indifference and harassment from the authorities they feel they are past words. It's also the story of Teddy, a child of these drag houses who now works in city hall so is very much caught between two worlds. Niven invokes the feeling and spirit of drag balls in this beautiful book, but he also presents the voices of different groups who are locked in opposition to one another. It's poignant, funny and fierce.

Surge by Jay Bernard

This is a startlingly powerful book of poetry. Jay spent a lot of time in an archive researching and thinking about the 1981 New Cross Fire which was also called the New Cross Massacre. This was a fire that occurred in the early morning amidst a teenage girl's birthday party killing 13 young people and injuring 27 others. Many believed this was a racist attack. The authorities' investigation into the fire was handled horribly and the case was never resolved. It led to protests and an outcry from the black communities in London and was one of the incidents which led up to the Brixton riots (as discussed in Michael Fuller’s memoir). This is a complex subject but Jay so artfully considers the weight of history in these poems, how we memorialize those who've been forgotten or those whose stories can't ever be known. Some of these poems are also very personal reflecting on gender, national and racial identity. I don't often read a lot of poetry but these are poems that made me sit up and listen closely and I love this book.

A book I haven’t listed is Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James which is another book I loved very much and I made a whole video gushing about it. But I read this at the end of last year rather than this year.

Let me know if you've read any of these books or want to read them now. What are some of your favourite reads from 2019 so far? Give me some good tips!