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Literary sequels are definitely a trend this year with the recent massive release of “The Testaments” and now the forthcoming publication of André Aciman’s much-anticipated sequel to his novel “Call Me by Your Name”. Readers naturally have a lot of scepticism about these beloved stories being extended. The very popular film adaptation of “Call Me by Your Name” brought the romantic story of sensitive teenager Elio and older graduate student Oliver to a much wider audience. This not only prompted fans to clamour to know what happened next between these lovers but it also encouraged Aciman to revisit their story as he said in an interview “The film made me realize that I wanted to be back with them and watch them over the years.” Many will instantly dismiss the creation of “Find Me” as a money-grabbing opportunity given the new-found popularity of the original book. Whatever the motivation for writing it, I can assure you this new novel doesn’t kowtow to fans. Rather, it thoughtfully explores the deeper meaning of desire when stretched over time and juxtaposes a few different kinds of romantic encounters which turn into profound life-changing events. That’s not to say this new novel is without its problems and it’s likely to delight and frustrate fans in equal measure.

I read “Call Me by Your Name” shortly after it was originally published in 2007 and swooned. Revisiting Elio and Oliver’s story by watching the film adaptation a couple of years ago reawakened my love for their story. But there’s an important difference between the book and film. The film ends with Elio receiving the news that Oliver is going to be married which prompts him to mournfully stare into a fireplace. However, the original novel ends with a flash forward far into the future when Elio and Oliver reunite in Italy and we learn the news that Elio’s father Samuel has died at a relatively young age. Whether their passion is reignited or not is left vague, but their reconnection is cemented. This poses an interesting dilemma for the sequel because it needs to either fill readers in on what happened up to this point or follow them after it. “Find Me” manages to do both in a way which is unique and clever.

The first section follows Samuel or “Sami”, now divorced, on a train journey to deliver a lecture and meet up with his son Elio who is now a pianist. Sami encounters a spirited much-younger woman on the train and through long intimate discussions they develop a surprisingly deep connection. The story then moves forward in time to follow Elio whose musical career has blossomed and in Paris he meets an older gentleman in an encounter which quickly turns romantic. The novel moves on again to a period when Oliver is throwing a leaving party as he’s moving with his wife to teach at another university. During this party he feels a mixture of desire towards a young woman and a young man. Only in the final (much shorter) section do we see what happens when Oliver and Elio reunite. No doubt many readers will be impatient with the long lead up to this reunion, but I admire the way Aciman patiently considers the role that time, distance, chance and the imagination play in the strange alchemy which results in desire and passion.

Nevertheless, I did have a couple of issues with the novel. There are many overt discussions between the characters about romance and the degrees of intimacy which we either allow or deny ourselves. They explore meaningful sentiments and these exchanges are not entirely unrealistic especially when spoken between new lovers who come from a certain rarefied and highly-cultured class. But they sometimes verge into such self-conscious and ponderous territory that they become ludicrously esoteric. For instance, at one point a character named Michel states: “Fate, if it exists at all,” he said, “has strange ways of teasing us with patterns that may not be patterns at all but that hint of vestigial meaning still being worked out.” This carefully-formed statement might be something a high-minded person would ruminate upon in the middle of the night but when pronounced aloud in the company of a new lover it could only be met with a slight snigger at its philosophical loftiness. I feel like it would have been more natural if we followed the characters thoughts rather than verbalizing them to each other in an occasionally pretentious fashion.

I also felt slightly disappointed with the way Aciman doesn’t grant as much space in either the original novel or its sequel to female desire. They both almost exclusively focus on the men’s romantic and sexual urges and there are multiple instances where women, girlfriends and wives are slighted in favour of a new partner. Of course, this isn’t an unrealistic depiction of what happens to many women but instead of granting a comparable degree of fictional space to their experience the author focuses almost entirely on the men’s shifting emotional landscape as if these women’s feelings don’t matter. As a consequence, many of his female characters get sidelined. The only female voice that’s granted much of a role in either of these books is that of Miranda who Sami meets on a train. But we only hear her speak rather than get access to her thoughts or a clear idea of what motivates her.

Despite my reservations about these aspects of the novel, I was drawn into the story and its emotionally complex depiction of desire and sex. Not only does the novel explore the romantic tension between people who may or may not ultimately stay together, but it shows how so many of these urges are sublimated and experienced in other ways – particularly in music. One plotline follows the existence of a secret musical score and each section of the novel itself is named after an element of music. These suggest the undercurrents of feeling which accompany us through life, especially when recalling people we still love but didn’t stay with. It’s moving how Aciman depicts this yearning which endlessly draws his characters into memories of the past, prompts them to speak subliminally to each other and hope for a possible reunion in the future – no matter how unlikely.

Timothee Chalamet as Elio

Timothee Chalamet as Elio

What Aciman captures so well in these novels is how the unexpected pull of desire forces his characters into a turning point. These potential trysts whether realised or not aren’t just about sex but about choosing a radically different form of life from what his characters were previously living. They’re about communing with an individual’s deeper intentions for what they want in life and who that individual always hoped to become. Of course, these novels are also definitely about sex and in “Find Me” Aciman continues with his famous erotic imagery. No fruit is sexually ravished this time, but he does use suggestive metaphorical language concerning another fruit: “an overripe fig that parted all the way without tearing.”

Aciman’s speciality seems to be in capturing all the heated and emotional dynamics of that first erotic encounter – which more often happens in the mind rather than in physical expression. In their distance between each other which takes place over many years and across continents Elio and Oliver are able to extend this blood-rushing sensation. It appears Aciman believes this wouldn’t have been possible if they’d always been a couple because he states in this novel “the more we know someone, the more we shut the doors between us”. In suspending the tension of their reunion he perfectly prolongs that spot between agony and ecstasy. In short, “Find Me” gave me all the feels (as the kids say.) It’s a story that encourages deep reflection and slightly mournful yearning for that moment of discovery when someone you meet completely unhinges you and arouses all the passion of new love.  

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAndre Aciman
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I was really looking forward to this novel as the subject matter intrigued me and I’ve been wanting to read more by Rushdie, but I ended up feeling mostly negative towards it. “Quichotte” is Rushdie’s modern day version of ‘Don Quixote’ and primarily concerns Ismail Smile (who dubs himself Quichotte.) He travels across the US on a foolhardy romantic quest to woo Salma R, a famous television personality. In the process he surveys how fiction has become fact and many facts are treated as fiction in this modern day America. This exposes the absurdity of this state of being and captures the tragi-comic position we’re now in while especially highlighting the contentious issues of gun control laws and a corrupt pharmaceutical industry. A certain character muses at one point, “America, what happened to your optimism, your new frontiers, your simple Rockwell dreams?” The novel is justifiably preoccupied with this doleful question.

If the novel had been confined to Ismail’s episodic tales I believe I’d have found this a much more satisfying and pleasurable read. However, Rushdie soon adds a meta-fictional layer where we learn that Ismail’s story is being written by another character named Sam DuChamp, a writer of spy thrillers who is trying out a new kind of novel. This creates another layer which begs the questions: are we writing our own stories or are our stories writing us? What happens when the stories we tell ourselves become both our mental and physical reality? While these narrative gymnastics might be good in concept they felt misjudged and too confusing to me. In addition, the stories of many other characters and sub-plots proliferate throughout the novel such as that of Sam’s sister, a famous London lawyer who has reached a pivotal point in her life. In itself her story is an interesting one but it felt swallowed by the grander self-conscious narrative being constructed. This results in all these tales feeling so over controlled (and sometimes contrived) that I seldom felt any emotional engagement.

It was difficult at times to intellectually engage with the novel as well except the occasional interestingly framed statement. For instance, many of the characters have family secrets and Sam feels this dilemma: “The narrative of your family which you had carried within you, within which in a way you had lived, was false. Or, at the very least, that you had been ignorant of its most essential truth which had been kept from you. Not to be told the whole truth, as sister with her legal expertise would know perfectly well was to be told a lie. That lie had been his truth.” So this builds to a larger question threaded throughout the novel which asks how much truth we’re able to bear both on personal, familial and national levels. If our fundamental beliefs about ourselves, our families and our national identity are shaken are we really happier believing in lies?

Too often these statements and ideas felt like they were pronouncements from Rushdie himself rather than any of the characters. The integrity of his characters is sometimes tested in Rushdie’s use of humour. There are some genuinely funny moments especially in scenes involving Quichotte’s whimsical frame of mind where his idea of the classics are TV dating game shows or when he becomes so delusional that he starts conversing through a TV with a newscaster. But, at other times, the humour feels like it’s being made at the expense of his characters such as when a doctor proposes treating Salma R’s mental health problems with shock treatments and she declares herself “unshockable” or how when she does receive those treatments she describes the experience as a Christmas visit from “sanity Claus”. These feel more like cheap gags rather than details building a believable character. Nor are they satirical statements with deeper meaning.

Since I primarily read this novel because it’s shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, it’s interesting to compare it to the novel “Ducks, Newburyport”. Both novels self-consciously consider topical political and social issues in America. And both novels have eerily similar climatic scenes of violence. But these books take a radically different approach to telling their stories. Ellmann’s novel is wholly consumed with the inner life and thoughts of her narrator (except for the sparingly-told tale of the mountain lion.) In contrast, Rushdie’s sprawling novel somersaults through the inner lives of many characters while self-consciously playing with narrative form. He even portentously declares his intention with this novel using the character of Sam who feels himself guided by Cervantes and Arthur C. Clarke. Sam seeks to frame his novel about Quichotte in picaresque literary tradition: “the episodes of such a work could encompass many manners, high and low, fabulist and commonplace, how it could be at once parodic and original, and so through its metamorphic roguery it could demonstrate and seek to encompass the multiplicity of human life.”

Rushdie certainly manages to capture the multiplicity of life as well as many pressing issues, but this exhausting spoof about our tenuous relationship with truth loses of a lot of the pleasure and solace to be found in fiction.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSalman Rushdie
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I can’t think of any other literary novel that has had such a build-up prior to its release. Details of the story were shrouded in secrecy and its shortlisting on this year’s Booker Prize all contributed to an anticipation which culminated in a midnight release of the book this week and a live interview with Atwood that was streamed to over 1,300 cinemas around the world. I have to admit, I jumped right on board the hype train and read the novel over the course of a day. Personally, I was especially excited to see how the story would continue 15 years in the future after Offred’s final scene and discover more about Gilead’s downfall because I reread “The Handmaid’s Tale” so recently. In “The Testaments” we get a lot more about the workings of this dystopian society because it’s narrated from three different perspectives who all have unique views and access to different layers of this totalitarian state. In doing so, Atwood offers further perceptive critiques on the nature of patriarchal society and presents moving psychological insights into how people survive (or perish) within oppressive regimes. I have to say the way the central characters’ stories come together is a bit forced and the plot is somewhat predictable. Nevertheless, it’s a continuously engaging and gripping experience reading this book.

Central to the tale is Aunt Lydia who appeared in the original novel in Offred’s memories as an imposing tyrant who trains her as a handmaid. In “The Testaments” we get Lydia’s secret account that she stows in her private library describing her journey from pre-Gilead times as a left-leaning judge to her imprisonment, torture and eventual position as one of the architects of Gilead society. She’s a complex and difficult character who hoards secrets as a means of maintaining her power: “I’ve made it my business to know where the bodies are buried.” Lydia experienced a traumatic wakeup call as she witnessed a democratic American society shift to a puritanical totalitarian state: “People became frightened. Then they became angry. The absence of viable remedies. The search for someone to blame. Why did I think it would nonetheless be business as usual? Because we’d been hearing these things for so long I suppose. You don’t believe the sky is falling until a chunk of it falls on you.” Rather than perish she proved her durability as a survivor and someone willing to compromise her morals in order to persist. She also takes pleasure in her power and position when denouncing her enemies or extinguishing those she views as weak: “I judged. I pronounced the sentence.” I appreciate the way Atwood depicts Lydia as an oppressor, but someone who is nonetheless sympathetic in her desire to live no matter the cost and becomes entombed in a perilous loneliness: “Having no friends, I must make due with enemies.”

The other two narrators are much younger and were born in Gilead so have no knowledge of a world without it. But they live on opposite sides of the border. Agnes lives in a privileged family within Gilead. She’s raised as a true believer and reared to become the high class wife of a commander. Daisy lives in the neighbouring democratic state of Canada and becomes involved with anti-Gilead protests. Both these girls experience severe disruptions when their intended paths in life abruptly change due to larger events and secrets are unearthed about their true origins. While their journeys are compelling the way Atwood brings together her three narrators’ stories relies too heavily on chance and convenience. The girls also perhaps serve too neatly as optimistic perspectives in contrast to Aunt Lydia’s position of corruption and vengeance. They are innocent as Agnes explains “We’d been protected… I’m afraid we did not fully appreciate the extent to which those of Aunt Lydia’s generation had been hardened in the fire. They had a ruthlessness about them that we lacked.”

Something I found really powerful about Agnes’ story is her friendship with a girl named Becka. While the other girls in their class enthusiastically embrace the idea of marrying a commander for the privileges such a position will bestow upon them, Becka adamantly refuses to marry because of her fear of sexual contact with men. It’s clear she’s experienced some unconfessed trauma, but Agnes doesn’t feel like she can discuss this with Becka because of her fear of the associated repercussions. While “The Handmaid’s Tale” meaningfully depicted the way women hesitate to be emotionally open for fear of being denounced, “The Testaments” further develops the way in which state pressure can reinforce these silences and prevent close friendships.

Atwood on the evening of the launch of The Testaments

Atwood on the evening of the launch of The Testaments

More than the circumstances of the stories being portrayed, I probably felt more moved by the parallels between events “The Testaments” depicts and instances in the real world. Atwood has famously stated how “The Handmaid’s Tale” doesn’t portray anything which hasn’t already happened in human history and the same is true for this novel: governments “temporarily” take away citizens’ rights in a move towards totalitarianism; children are stolen from their birth parents and allocated to state-sanctioned couples; men use their positions of power to sexually abuse young females and sacred texts are wilfully misinterpreted for sinister motives. It’s all depressingly familiar and current. These universal themes about the deleterious effects of corrupt patriarchal governments reinforce the enduring power of “The Handmaid’s Tale” and show why it’s become such a well-known part of popular culture. That Atwood feels the need to further examine the machinations of such a brutal regime and the moral conundrums these societal shifts present to individuals feels prescient.

Atwood has stated that one of the reasons it’s taken her so long to write a sequel to her famous novel from 1985 is that it took a long time to decide upon a structure and choice of narrators. I can’t imagine any better trio of narrators to continue Gilead’s tale than the ones she’s chosen. But strangely I wish she’d concentrated less on building such a tightly woven plot and neat conclusions for her characters. Rather than being taken to the centre of Gilead I’d have been content to dwell in the periphery with characters whose lives have hardened from living in such a restrictive society. Part of the power of “The Handmaid’s Tale” was in the necessarily restricted view and understanding Offred had of her surroundings. It’s what heightened the horror because this experience more accurately reflects our own. This new novel will satisfy the curiosity many Atwood fans who want to know what happened next, but at the expense of that terrifying ignorance we felt dwelling in the restrictive cowl of a handmaid’s bonnet.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMargaret Atwood
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It was my birthday last weekend and my wonderful partner surprised me with a trip to the village of Haworth – the famous home of the Brontë sisters! This was an incredibly thoughtful treat especially since I’ve been reading the Brontës more in recent years as part of the celebrations marking the bicentenaries of the births of Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne. I love visiting these historic locations and museums such as a trip we took to Virginia Woolf’s residence Monk’s House a few years ago. And anyone who has read the Brontës knows the important role the location and environment plays in the their novels – as Kate Bush so aptly describes singing about “the wiley, windy moors”. So it felt really special to see this landscape myself as an immersive experience and to discover how Haworth has capitalized on its famous literary sisters since the 1800s. It’s an endearing mixture of quaint English village and a kitch kind of Brontëland.

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While I know it’s geeky, I got fully on board with this as we stayed in Dr McCracken’s bedroom in the Ashmount Country House (the old residence of Charlotte Brontë’s doctor), bought baked goods from the Villette coffee house, toured the Brontë Parsonage Museum and roamed for hours through the moors on public paths that the Brontës themselves once walked. I resisted indulging in drinking any of the Brontë beers offered at one pub! All this really brought the atmosphere of the novels alive and even if you haven’t read the novels the landscape is absolutely beautiful. The museum is fascinating and so thoughtfully presented with many of the rooms containing the Brontës’ actual furniture and many displays of their clothing, letters, artwork by Charlotte and the writing boxes that belonged to each of the sisters. In addition, there are many explanatory notices about the Brontë family, the context of the sisters’ publications, the tragedies of their early deaths (there’s even a morbid bracelet on display that Charlotte made from the hair of her sisters Emily and Anne after their deaths!) and information about the village life itself. Apparently disease was so prevalent in this area of the country during the Brontës’ time that the average life expectancy of villagers was only 25 years!

Walking through the moors has its own special pleasure and the atmosphere was heightened on the weekend we visited since the weather was so changeable. The skies frequently switched from stormy grey to blazing sunshine in the space of a few moments so it became confusing to know whether we should be cowering under umbrellas or stripping down to our t-shirts. The first stop we went to was the rather grandly labelled Brontë Falls (more like a trickling stream than a waterfall) and from there we ventured onto Top Withens, a dilapidated farmhouse which is widely considered to be the inspiration for the house in “Wuthering Heights”. Although there’s no actual evidence that Emily based her fictional house on this location, it’s easy to make the assumption it inspired her for its remoteness and position on quite a weather-beaten hillside.

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Walking along the paths there’s gorgeous rocky terrain covered in colourful heather, fields of grazing sheep and carved stone books periodically appear along the way. As part of the #Bronte200 celebrations in recent years, there are also four specially commissioned stones dedicated to each sister and the Brontës as a whole with original poems written by Carol Ann Duffy, Jeanette Winterson, Jackie Kay and Kate Bush. These are set in different remote locations and it’d require a 9-mile walk to see them all. We only stopped to see The Anne Stone (written by Jackie Kay) which is conveniently set next to the Brontë Parsonage Museum. And we also took the perilous journey to see The Emily Stone (written by Kate Bush) which is set in a particularly wild part of the countryside that Emily apparently loved to roam. Although we bought a special map marking the location of each stone The Emily Stone is very hard to find (even though it’s on Google maps). Kate Bush’s words are carved into the cliffside of Ogden Kirk located near a deep gully. Once you get to the location there are no signs directing you to where the stone actually sits. Instead we had to clamber down the steep cliffside to find it. I’m sure many hikers miss this stone because it’s so hard to locate. Nevertheless, it made quite a fun adventure.

I’ve not read any books about the Brontës as a whole or any bios on the individual sisters. It’s not surprising they’ve become so legendary as their story is so irresistible and grimly marked by their early deaths. But I find it curious how many people like to “pick sides” as if it’s necessary to pick one sister as a favourite. The museum gift shop even sells badges advocating your support for Team Charlotte, Team Emily or Team Anne. I suppose the tone of their books marks distinct personality types so people feel inclined to “cheer” for one sister or another. I’m glad to have read a novel by each sister including “Jane Eyre”, “Wuthering Heights” and “Agnes Grey”. Out of these probably “Jane Eyre” is my favourite but I feel more spiritually aligned with Emily Brontë. Please let me know if you have recommendations of which other books by the Brontës I should read or if you have any good suggestions for nonfiction about the Brontës.

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I loved this weekend trip and would heartily recommend visiting the village. While you can get a train to Haworth, we rented a car after getting a train to Leeds since this makes it much easier to travel around the area and venture out to some of the more remote parts of the moors without hiking for hours on end. Let me know if you’ve ever gone to Haworth or if you’re a Brontë fan what your favourite book is.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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Lately it feels like Nicola Barker hasn’t been able to finish writing a novel without wanting to blow it up. Her last novel “H(A)PPY” was set in a future society where everyone’s mind was plugged into a single continuous stream and its hero’s consciousness became more hallucinatory while the text itself morphed into multi-coloured fragments and bizarre structures. It seems like there’s more tension in her narratives lately where the fourth wall is breaking down. Her new book “I Am Sovereign” is a self-designated novella. Within the story it’s stated “This is just a novella (approx.. 23,000 words)”. And its story is quite simple on the surface. The 49 year-old protagonist Charles creates customized stuffed bears and is seeking to sell his house in Wales. Over a twenty minute period estate agent Avigail presents the house to prospective buyer Wang Shu accompanied by her daughter Ying Yue who has come along as her translator. But the concept of this tale is merely a box within which Barker illuminates the artificiality of her characters and uses them as ciphers to discuss concepts of narrative itself. What little story there is soon breaks down – Barker even states at one point “Nothing of much note happens, really, does it?” Instead, Barker engages in arguments with particular characters and muses upon the nature of language, storytelling and authority. There’s a frenetic energy to Barker’s writing which is irresistible if you’re in a good humour or frustrating if you’re after an old-fashioned plot.

The thing about reading such a self-conscious and angst-ridden story is that it ought to be eye-rolling, but Barker has such clear affection for her characters that it feels like she really wants to grant them complete independence while also controlling them. “The Author can’t bear the idea of those four people leaving Charles’s tiny work room. They feel so alive to her.” Traits and details are assigned to characters but just as quickly they’re questioned because the characters believe differently. This complication comes most into play with the introduction of a character named Gyasi “Chance” Ebo who feels it’s an injustice that Barker has dragged him into her narrative. The character and author bicker and eventually his role in the story is replaced by that of another character. Barker toys with the limits of independence that characters can have to break free from an author’s designated plan and write their own story. This has obvious parallels to how we exist in society – especially in contemporary British society which is plagued with the question and democratically decided edict of Brexit. Are we creating the boundaries within which we want to exist or are those boundaries being written around us?

The characters are particularly inured to modern-day gurus found on YouTube who dole out advice. One such proponent advocates the goal “To be Sovereign. To be present, positive and boundaried.” There’s a resistance in Barker’s characters to be the screens she is projecting upon, but they are also aware there is no independence without their dependence upon her. It’s like the spiritual paradox of free will versus predestination. The comparison is very apt because Barker’s fiction is quite often consumed with questions of faith and spirituality. The characters in this novella are superstitious and seek revelation. However, the religious concerns expressed aren’t about indoctrination so much as they’re about searching and epistemological questions. Barker seems to take all this very seriously while also recognizing it’s absurd and her concerns are ultimately unanswerable. In her playfulness Barker is able to have it both ways in this novella. She states “shouldn’t fiction strive to echo life (where everything is constantly being challenged and contested)? Or is fiction merely a soothing balm, a soft breeze, a quiet confirmation, a temporary release? Why should it be either/or? Can’t fiction be exquisitely paradoxical?” I enjoyed the way this novella so joyously presents authorial problems and questions rather than a story with an affirmative arc. It’s like a teddy bear whose stuffing is oozing out, but you love it nevertheless.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesNicola Barker
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The Booker Prize shortlist has been announced and here are the six novels!

I’m ecstatic to see “Ducks, Newburyport” included! It’s a hilarious and immersive story and the narrator is really an everyman/everywoman of our time. Also thrilled to see “Girl, Woman, Other” as its filled with such rich tales and characters who make me want to reread the novel to better understand this wonderful latticework of storytelling.

Also very happy to see “10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World” as its such a moving tale about marginalized people’s lives. I have to admit, I wasn’t as struck with the story in “An Orchestra of Minorities” as some other people have been. It’s creative storytelling and a poignant tale, but the distinct narrative voice grew irritating and felt too grandiose to me.

I’m geekily proud to have guessed 4 of the 6 novels correctly as I discussed in my video about recent Booker Prize reading. As with all book prize lists, there will be some novels I’m sad didn’t make the cut. Particularly “Lost Children Archive” since this novel was also only longlisted for the Women’s Prize. It’s a shame that this tremendous novel probably won’t end up winning any major prize. It’s also a shame “Lanny” or “Frankissstein” didn’t make the list because these novels are so audacious and innovative in their storytelling making them such fun and so clever. Then there is the meditative brilliance of “Night Boat to Tangier” and I’m sad that Kevin Barry won’t be getting wider recognition.

I still have to read “Quichotte” & “The Testaments”, but having just reread “The Handmaid’s Tale” I’m so excited to read Atwood’s new novel!

What do you think about this list? Have you read any? Will you read them now? What novel do you want to win?!

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In my late teens and early adulthood I had a particular fascination with both utopian and dystopian fiction – so naturally “The Handmaid’s Tale” made an appearance on my reading list. But that was many years ago. Rereading it now as a more socially and politically aware adult I think I’m sensitive to many aspects of it that I probably wasn’t conscious of when experiencing this story for the first time. Back then I probably primarily read it as a thriller about a woman torn from her husband and child and forced to live in sexual subjugation under nightmarish circumstances. But that wasn’t the only way I connected with the story. I related to it and understood the shroud of silence Offred must maintain in order to survive. When I came out as gay in my teenager years I was explicitly instructed by my parents, teachers and school guidance counsellor not to speak about this facet of my identity with people in general. So my strongest memory of reading this novel was in the canny way Offred chose her moments to reveal her true beliefs and feelings to others rather than toe the line.

When I first read this novel I was struck by the way Atwood describes how the Republic of Gilead punishes homosexual acts with hanging and, of course, I was aware that such executions have been carried out by many oppressive regimes over time. I was struck that Offred’s lesbian friend Moira was in a particularly vulnerable position. The bitter poignancy of Offred’s eventual reunion with her in a brothel felt particularly sad. It made me consider what compromises must to be made for the sake of survival. Like Offred, I had hoped she’d become a revolutionary fighting against the regime after escaping from the government-trained Aunts. I was aware of the cost of sacrificing one’s own safety and security for the sake of a larger cause, but I still thought Moira was cowardly for not taking a stand. But reading it now I feel Moira’s pain more acutely: the deleterious effects she must have felt smothering her own values for the sake of living and the crushing hopelessness knowing an act of rebellion would be futile because it would only end with her own death.

So my reactions to reading this novel that first time were mainly centred on the way I personally related to its story. While I don’t think that’s a “wrong” way to read the novel, I’m more conscious now (as Atwood has famously and repeatedly stated) that there’s nothing in this novel that hasn’t occurred in real life within some society. It’s a point which is even emphasized at the end of the novel when the speaker presenting a lecture regarding Offred’s transcribed tale describes how the Republic of Gilead’s policies are an amalgamation of different practices and regulations from a selection of governments. But I was reminded of the real-world relevancy of the novel again recently when reading the memoir “My Past is a Foreign Country” by Zeba Talkhani because the author remarks how she didn’t consider “The Handmaid’s Tale” fiction because it felt like her reality when growing up in Saudi Arabia.

When I met Margaret Atwood on my first trip to London in 1999

When I met Margaret Atwood on my first trip to London in 1999

When reading Offred’s tale this time I thought more closely about these parallels and the realities being portrayed in the story. Certainly there’s been a lot of progress in the world since this novel was first published in 1985. But, at the same time, I think many of us have a pressing awareness how the patriarchy will always try to control and regulate women’s bodies as well as suppress any voices which pose a threat to its power structures. So it feels not only relevant but entirely apt that Atwood has written a soon-to-be-published sequel to this novel called “The Testaments”. Sadly, it feels like there’s no better time to return to the fictional world of Gilead to gain a different perspective on the current state of the world. Since I reread this novel partly as preparation for reading this forthcoming sequel I tried to pay attention to how its story might continue. The tight embargo on “The Testaments” means all we know about this second book is that it takes place fifteen years after Offred leaves for an unknown destination and that it’s narrated from the perspectives of three different women from Gilead. The imagery of the new cover includes a green smock so I wonder if one or all of these perspectives will be narrated by Marthas who are older infertile domestic servants within Gilead that only dress in green. I’m also hoping this new tale will give some more clues about Offred’s real identity since we never know her true name or what ultimately became of her.

Rereading this novel also gave me a renewed appreciation for the beauty of Atwood’s prose in her use of metaphorical language such as when Offred describes an egg or the subtly of her psychological portrayal as Offred becomes more attuned to the mechanisms behind her oppression. While I’ve always been a fan of Atwood I haven’t read much of her fiction in the past several years except her novel “Hag-Seed” which is a fascinating remix of “The Tempest”. But this rereading also reminded me how richly imaginative and wild Atwood’s fiction can get. I was also surprised how gripping I found it though I already knew the plot. Each twist and revelation in Offred’s story felt fresh because we’re so closely rooted in the tense psychological reality of her experience. It’s made me even more eager to know what happens next!

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMargaret Atwood
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I will sometimes enthusiastically purchase long novels with the best intentions of reading them soon but nonetheless they’ll typically remain on my shelf for many years before I get to them. But I was strongly tempted by the description of Lucy Ellmann’s monumental “Ducks, Newburyport” and its Booker Prize longlisting buzz got to me so I put it on my immediate reading list. While it's intimidating to read a 1000 page novel that’s mostly narrated in one unbroken sentence, “Ducks, Newburyport” is also hypnotic for the rhythm it develops, the frequent Laugh-Out-Loud humour and the moving way it builds a portrait of the life of an Ohio housewife and her many anxieties living in America today. Her story radiates a warm familiarity as we come to intimately know her sweeping stream of thoughts while baking a mountain of pies to sell and food for her family. It also inspired me to bake cinnamon rolls for the first time!

She ruminates on a whole range of subjects from her personal past to her immediate family life caring for four children to local news to political divisions in America to global environmental concerns. Usually these thoughts become mixed together and happen concurrently so she needs to periodically pause and clarify what she’s referring to. She’s also affected by what’s happening around her, the films she watches while baking and odd song lyrics which surface randomly in her mind. The trivial rubs up alongside what feels dearly important. This profusion of things running through her mind has a consistent rhythm so it becomes easy to follow and accumulates more meaning as certain subjects, memories or ideas resurface frequently. Thus they steadily acquire more resonance and also take on a humorous edge as the barrage of thoughts will sometimes become jumbled and absurd. There’s something mesmerising and hypnotic about this constant flow of words. It’s addictive and so tempting to emulate!

The chain of thoughts are frequently linked through the assertive words “the fact that…” This may just be a mental tic but it gives a feeling of plain-speaking sincerity as if she’s laying out exactly what she’s thinking and feeling. It also highlights the dubious relationship we have with “facts” in our current age as we often accept what we discover on internet searches as solid fact or opinions spouted on social media as sincere truth. Even if we are consciously aware that the information we find online is conjecture or rumour it still gets lodged in our consciousness as a point of reference when trying to interpret and interact with the world. So I think the narrator’s constant reference to “facts” which are more often ideas received from speculation or half-remembered news reports shows how we often only have a tenuous understanding about what’s really happening. This is something the narrator freely admits as she acknowledges she forgets a lot, misremembers things and “the fact that I remember all the wrong stuff”.

There’s also the surprising tale running parallel to her story which is narrated from the perspective of a mountain lion. The housewife's thoughts are periodically broken by short sections following the journey of this lion as she hunts and seeks to protect her cubs. The simplicity of the lion's life contrasts sharply with her own where she feels utterly overwhelmed, but their stories also intersect in a fascinating way. There’s also a symbolic importance to lions which occasionally appear in her narrative in the form of an old Christmas ornament or a recalled visit to the zoo. Notably the sections about the mountain lion are narrated in short declarative sentences as opposed to the unending sentence of the housewife. It made me think how burdened the housewife is by this inner monologue that she’s helpless to stop even though she knows it’s pointless: “the fact that what is with this constant monologue in my head, the fact that why am I telling myself all this stuff, since I know it already, the fact that I knew it all before I said it to myself, because I’M ME, Kraft Miracle Whip”.

Part of the beauty of this novel is that even if the narrator believes her thoughts unimportant the novel bestows importance to her life and her point of view. She’s aware that “a lot of people think all I think about is pie, when really it’s my spinal brain doing most of the peeling and caramelizing and baking and flipping, while I just stand there spiralling into a panic about my mom and animal extinctions and the Second Amendment just like everybody else”. So the narrative reveals how she feels the burden of both local and global concerns, but she doesn’t believe she has the power to participate in or change any of these problems. Part of what is so endearing and sympathetic about her is how she frequently puts herself down and diminishes herself. Her story also points out how this is just one of many such inner monologues occurring in the human population: “the fact that there are seven and a half billion people in the world, so there must be seven and a half billion of these internal monologues going on”. Through becoming so closely aligned with her subjective point of view we become aware of the singular integrity of everyone’s own perspective.

The cinnamon rolls I baked while reading the novel

The cinnamon rolls I baked while reading the novel

The novel’s title refers to an occasion when the narrator’s mother almost drowned when she was a child running towards some ducks in a pond. This incident seems to haunt the narrator as obviously if her mother had died she’d have never come into existence. But ducks take on a bigger meaning throughout the novel because she’ll refer to how people are made to feel like “sitting ducks”. This highlights how vulnerable we’re made to feel in the modern world with frequent news of terrorist attacks or gun violence in America. There’s a randomness to this violence which makes it particularly nerve wracking. This is highlighted further with a description of how their house is positioned perilously close to a dangerous road and she fears that at any moment a car might come crashing through their home. It shows how we’re living in an anxiety-ridden age but “we all go on pretending things are fine, hoping everything’s a-okay, even though everything is nowhere near okay and we all know it, no matter how many candlelit vigils you hold”.

Does this novel justify its length? Absolutely yes, but it's hard to articulate why looking at the structure from the outside. There’s little plot, frequent repetition and extensive lists. Yet there's an accumulation of detail which builds to something truly monumental in its depiction of her life and the sympathetic way she shows how we're made to feel like we're burdened with the weight of the world on our shoulders today. But it's also incredibly funny and this humour adds a compulsive momentum to her story. There’s the pleasure of identifying with her so strongly because even though there’s so much about her experience which is particular she becomes a kind of everyman or everywoman. As a movie fan, I found all the commentary on particular film plot lines fun and when an occasional line from a film appears amidst her thoughts it gives an enjoyable jolt of recognition. I also particularly appreciated the wordplay - how the sound of one word will connect her to another disconnected word which will make her recall something entirely random sending her off on another tangent unrelated to what she was thinking about before. It’s what gives this style of narration such propulsion and makes it so tempting to emulate. The final sections of the novel also had me gripped and I was pleasantly surprised by the dramatic turns it took. I'm going to miss being inside her head.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesLucy Ellmann
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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.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesElif Shafak
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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.”

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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.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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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.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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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.

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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.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesIris Murdoch
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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.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesNina Leger
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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.  

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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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.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesKevin Barry