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Living in England my whole adult life has given me a feel for some of the characteristic quirks of Englishness. It’s not a mistake that some national identities get associated with certain stereotypes and emotional repression is definitely a badge commonly worn in this great nation. Reading this reissue of David Seabrook’s “All The Devils Are Here” it felt to me like this book exemplifies this condition better than any book I can recall - except for maybe the recent novel “First Love” where it felt Gwendoline Riley was determined to show the reader every stain in her dirty laundry without letting us know how she really felt about this filthy heap. Seabrook’s book treads the line somewhere between memoir and journalism as it records his wanderings through several seaside towns in Kent and discloses some of the seedier stories connected with this landscape. He flits between many subjects such as T.S. Eliot’s nervous breakdown, an institutionalized artist who committed patricide and the furtive entanglements of several gay writers, actors and athletes. However, he discloses virtually no detail about his reasons for treading so desolately through these haunted streets despite hints of being in a state of personal crisis. As a raconteur of scarcely-remembered odd personalities and tragic events, Seabrook is often compelling and makes intriguing connections. But, as a chronicler of the dynamics of his own heart, he’s an utter failure.

Reading this book felt akin to listening to someone’s odd collection of stories at the pub after he’s had a few pints. And, after he alights upon a subject to capture your attention while breathing boozily into your face, he wrangles you into joining him down an alleyway to stare at a stained wall where some atrocious event occurred fifty years ago. There are flashes of significance and curious wonder to his tales which will no doubt have a different impact upon readers depending on your interest in the subject. Personally I was smitten by the bizarre story of artist Richard Dadd whose family seemed plagued by mental illness and whose confinement in a psychiatric hospital resulted in a proliferation of bizarrely symbolic paintings. And Seabrook’s theory that this murderous artist’s life story might have been an influence for Charles Dickens’ incomplete final novel is alluring. I was equally drawn to the odd status of Robin Maugham and his ambition to follow in his uncle William’s footsteps. But sometimes the stories he told were convoluted and switched so suddenly I found them difficult to follow. And, to be frank, some stories which might have been sensational news items in their day have now faded so much as to feel like they’re barely smouldering anymore.

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One thing that drew me into reading this genre-defying book is the hints of alienation Seabrook seems to feel as he wanders down a passage or stairwell to happen upon some grand old estate which has now been divvied into sensible flats. He seems almost hypersensitive to the locals he happens to pass, conversing little with anyone and gloomily lingering at points of interest not found on any tourist map. I was wondering if he would eventually divulge the real state of his mind and heart at any point especially when he settles down with his friend Gordon. But, instead of engaging in any meaningful exchange, we’re privy to this aging windbag’s ramblings about the penis sizes of various men (and even the girth of a statue’s cock) and other gay gossip about people who are notorious only within an incestuously small social circle. Gordon reminds me of some men I’ve met in old-fashioned English private members clubs who possess an odious level of self-regard while pining for the good old days of British imperialism when men of his ilk used underage foreign boys as sexual playthings. Just when the book becomes overwhelmingly tedious, Seabrook breaks away from Gordon to go cruising in a local pub. Here he admits “Let's face it, there are things I haven't mentioned. Private matters. They're on me all day long.” Yet, instead of divulging any more he mildly hopes for a quickie with a man who brings the story back to the semi-tragic figure of a camp film star.

In a way it feels fitting and especially haunting that Seabrook’s book should entirely withhold the complex deeper emotions that are evidently wrapped up in his wanderings. It’s like he’s a figure who embodies much of the unofficial history of this area, but he’s doomed to linger on the outskirts of the present day’s lively party like some rapidly-fading ghost. But it’s so difficult to connect with or care about him or the past which he’s evidently desperate to memorialize without having been given a window into his heart. You could argue that the sketchy outline of his own character that we’re left with is more powerful than a detailed figure – like the narrator of Rachel Cusk’s ultimately frustrating novel “Outline”. But, as a reader, I long to feel some closeness to really understand where an author’s coming from and what makes him worth listening to.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesDavid Seabrook
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One of my goals this year is to read more poetry and I feel lucky to have started with a new book which totally gripped me with the intensity of its voice. The poems in “Don't Call Us Dead” by Danez Smith have the urgent force of a rallying cry. They pay tribute to individuals and groups who will not be silenced no matter how much they are oppressed, incarcerated or killed. Specifically Smith speaks powerfully about the experience of being a gay African American: how skin colour can lead someone to be targeted by the police or alternately excluded/fetishised in the gay community. These are poems drawn from somewhere very personal. They sometimes play off from lyrics from musicians like Billie Holiday or Diana Ross and use a unique variety of forms to convey meaning as much in their structure as they do in the choice of words. Like all great poetry it can be interpreted a number of different ways, but there is a clarity of self here which definitely has something to say.

Something that connected me to these poems so strongly is the way that Smith frequently makes broad statements while also drawing the reader into the emotional core of his reality. He states “i am a house swollen with the dead, but still a home.” How brilliantly this expresses the architecture of being! That we can encompass all who've come before us and/or those who haven't survived, but our very structure is designed to accommodate this Genealogy and invite others in to experience it. I was continuously jolted by how startlingly personal these poems felt but I also frequently stopped to contemplate how their meaning is so beautifully expansive. Smith speaks for himself as well as others when he writes a line with such dazzling beauty like “let's waste the moon's marble glow shouting our names to the stars until we are the stars.”

The Black Lives Matter movement has revolutionized our dialogue for speaking about both institutionalized and rogue violence inflicted upon black communities. The very spirit of not letting the deaths of young black men like Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown pass without testifying to their injustice and how they are endemic of systematic racism seems wrapped up in the line “don't fret, we don't die. they can't kill the boy on your shirt again.” But Smith is also conscientious of the fact that many people who die or experience stultifying oppression aren't memorialised in such a way: “i'm not the kind of black man who dies on the news.” This is because there is also a death of spirit which isn't visible and which is more broadly felt by groups of people continuously ground down. He expresses this so powerfully in the line “some of us are killed in pieces, some of us all at once”. There are also moments when Smith doesn't hesitate to give his poetry a startling directness “reader, what does it feel like to be safe? white? how does it feel to dance when you're not dancing away the ghost?”

Danez Smith reads 'Principles'

This collection is also a poignant testimony to the way romance and sex are experienced by a black gay man. Some poems speak directly about how race and skin colour are listed as turn on or turn offs on dating/hookup profiles. Yet there are gorgeously romantic instances in poems which yearn for a transcendence of these imposed boundaries: “if love is a hole wide enough to be God's mouth, let me plunge into that holy dark & forget the color of light.” The poem 'seroconversion' has the most innovative and creative way of eviscerating identity to describe a conflagration of coupling that results in radical transformations and self-divisions. Smith doesn't shy from the raw power and sensuality of gay sex “praise the endless tub of grease” or the numbing anonymity of it “i'm offered eight mouths, three asses & four dicks before i'm given a name”. Still others pay tribute to instances of aching personal hurt: “I was his fag sucked into ash his lungs my final resting place.”

Smith's poems are also very cognizant of the effect AIDS and STDs have upon the gay community. There's a bracingly sympathetic moment when someone is waiting for test results and pleas “ask him to wait before he gives me the test results, give me a moment of not knowing, sweet piece of ignorance, i want to go back to the question”. Then there are a number of structurally innovative poems such as 'it's not a death sentence anymore' where the words of this sentence are whittled down the page until you're simply left with “a sentence” with spaces in between. This speaks so powerfully about a shift in common thinking that because being HIV+ doesn't instantly equal death anymore, it shouldn't be such a concern. 'blood hangover' fiercely forms what Smith calls “an erasure” of Ross' popular song to acknowledge the serious after-effects of sex. Elsewhere the words “my blood” and “his blood” are repeated until they collide and rapturously mingle on the page in the poem 'litany with blood all over'. It's so heartening seeing these complex issues explored in Smith's poems while also capturing the joy, romance and steaminess of gay sex. I admire how new young poets like Smith and Andrew McMillan are so thoughtfully exploring layers of queer life in their writing. 

I was totally captivated by the urgency and power of “Don't Call Us Dead”. These are poems that are, of course, political and personal at once. They have an invigorating clarity while also being complex enough to yield multiple meanings from rereading. Most refreshingly, this is poetry which feels of the moment.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesDanez Smith
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Basing a psychological thriller around a nanny who murders the children she cares for makes for a terrifyingly effective sensational story, but where “Lullaby” by Leila Slimani really excels is in its sophisticated take on classism, privilege and isolation in modern-day Paris. The novel opens with the discovery of young children Adam and Mila who have been slain by their nanny Louise. How Louise came to become an integral part of this family’s life and felt driven to this gruesome end is deftly explored throughout the story. Busy professionals Myriam and Paul grow increasingly distanced from the care of their children and the upkeep of their home once they hire Louise. The tension between the couple’s personal and professional relationship with the hired help is tested over time until the nanny’s position as an intimate familiar within the household becomes untenable. This is a fast-paced gripping tale that raises a lot of provocative questions.

It’s interesting how when a horrendous tragedy like the one depicted in this novel occurs one branch of public opinion will inevitably ask “How could the mother let this happen?” Obviously this a judgemental and loaded question, but if it’s going to be asked why don’t people also ask how the father could let this happen. It points to a continuing misogynistic view that it’s the mother’s position to care and protect for children. Slimani sensitively portrays how Myriam finds her passion at being a talented and skilful lawyer outweighs her desire to participate in the daily parenting of her children. Since Louise is so talented and capable in her domestic work eventually “Myriam lets herself be mothered.” Since Myriam’s husband Paul is equally ambitious in his career it presents a dilemma that many parents must face when trying to balance family life with their professions. Yet, the reality is that many hired child minders come from low-income or impoverished backgrounds where nannies have to abandon caring for their own families to work caring for other children. This creates a conflict where both the parents and the child-minders are driven into an emotional quagmire.

I had the wonderful privledge of having lunch with Leila Slimani.

I had the wonderful privledge of having lunch with Leila Slimani.

I found it particularly effective how Slimani portrayed the struggles of the circle of nannies who Louise encounters. Her friend Wafa who works as a child-minder is in such a desperate situation she’s basically been reduced to indentured servitude or slave labour. She remarks to Louise: “They pay my rent, but in exchange I can never say no to them.” This power dynamic is complicated by the intimate relationships which develop between the carer and the children/parents. Nannies are treated in some ways as part of the family, yet they are also an employee. Louise’s purportedly liberal-minded employers are only prepared to extend their empathy for Louise’s particularly precarious situation to a certain extent. At the same time, it’s entirely understandable that these hard-working parents don’t comprehend Louise’s situation and it’s believable that Louise tries to hide the reality of her situation. The tragedy at the heart of this novel is that we live in an imbalanced capitalist system where the privileged want to believe they’ve hired a Mary Poppins, but nannies are obviously real and complicated individuals. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesLeila Slimani
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Many books focus on romantic affairs, but it takes something special to shed new light on this common subject. Two of my all-time favourite novels that explore the dynamics of an affair are Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence” and Anne Enright’s “The Forgotten Waltz” which both feel so searingly honest in portraying the complicated emotions of all three of the people involved. Jamie Quatro’s “Fire Sermon” adds an entirely new dynamic charting the trajectory of an affair over her protagonist Maggie’s lifetime. Shifting back and forth through time, the story recounts the beginning of her marriage to Thomas, the intense moment when she and poet James decide to go to a hotel together and the complicated aftermath. In a series of letters (sent and unsent), conversations with a therapist and recollections of moments from Maggie’s life she searches for meaning and an understanding of her choices. Since she was raised religiously and continues to study religious texts, her reasoning is inflected with a complicated spiritual dynamic. The novel builds to a powerfully heartfelt and intense communion with the self.

Part of what drew me to reading this novel was Garth Greenwell’s enthusiastic endorsement of it. His novel “What Belongs to You” is one of the most striking and intensely-felt meditations on desire I’ve ever read.  Although the relationship dynamic Quatro portrays in her novel is entirely different from Greenwell’s story, these novels equally capture the complicated emotions we’re subject to when we find our desires pulling us towards actions and decisions we can’t understand. After giving birth to two children Maggie finds she doesn’t sexually desire her husband anymore, but often submits to sex with him because she feels “Her body isn’t hers anyhow, a toddler and an infant attached like appendages.” The tragedy of this feeling is compounded by her husband Thomas’ ardent desire to find some way to sexually reconnect with his wife which wavers between sympathetic suggestions to brutality. However, when Maggie meets James the passion is urgently felt.

In her first letter to James she quotes C.S. Lewis "A book sometimes crosses one's path which is so like the sound of one's native language in a strange country, it feels almost uncivil not to wave some kind of flag in answer."

In her first letter to James she quotes C.S. Lewis "A book sometimes crosses one's path which is so like the sound of one's native language in a strange country, it feels almost uncivil not to wave some kind of flag in answer."

It feels significant that the intense desire Maggie feels for James occurs before they even meet. After reading some of his poems she writes to him, they strike up a communication and eventually plan to meet. In their written dialogue she observes how “in these talks, I feel I’m discovering, or recovering, a deeper self, something at the core of my being.” Maggie connects with a part of herself that feels like its been lost from years of domestic routine culminating in children, a companionable marriage and stable home. James’ life exactly mirrors Maggie’s in many ways. So their connection isn’t entirely about an intellectual or sexual desire for each other but a wish to reclaim a unified sense of self that isn’t fragmented by the attachments which make up their daily lives. This draw towards an internal unity is reflected in the way she remarks how “The fact of their bodies – her own, James’s – had seemed beside the point. As if mouths and tongues and limbs were only in the way, something they had to get through in order to get to something else.”

Of course, sex is not just about the act itself. One of the most striking scenes is when Maggie and James undress to really see each other and observe how their bodies are aging. Part of their connection is based on reconciling with the fact their bodies are naturally transforming. It’s striking how Quatro captures the way coming to terms with one’s own desirability is a large part of our sexual connections. It’s as if only honestly seeing ourselves reflected in another’s eyes and still feeling wanted can induce peace of mind about our aging flesh. There are many other factors which also contribute to her desire for an affair with James, but many of them are to do with developing a deeper connection to and understanding of herself. So it seems natural that Maggie contemplates the meaning of meditation frequently and how this practice of speaking with oneself is realised in different religions which alternately seek to extinguish the self (as in Buddhism) or a unification with God (as in Christianity). What’s consistent in Maggie’s search throughout her life is a desire to communicate whether that be with her husband, James, God or herself. “Fire Sermon” beautifully charts this ongoing dialogue she maintains as a method of parsing the unruly desires which tug at her existence. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJamie Quatro
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In a small community where everyone knows everyone it's common for someone who is slightly different to feel sharply isolated. In “Girl in the Snow” Danya Kukafka focuses on three distinct characters who are misfits within their Colorado suburb and the way this unlikely trio are brought together when a teenage girl named Lucinda is found dead in a playground one winter day. This novel is a thriller and mystery about how this popular local girl died, but it's moreover an exploration of the way people become estranged from the friends and family who surround them.

Kukafka has a poetic sense of constructing powerful psychological details. An intensity of feeling is distilled into the way characters develop unique patterns for understanding the world. This is most powerfully rendered in her two main teenage characters Cameron and Jade. Quiet, artistic and haunted by the spectre of his disgraced absent father, Cameron comes most vividly alive when he wanders his neighbourhood streets at night looking in at the lighted windows of the houses around him. He thinks of this nocturnal roaming as his 'Collection of Statue Nights' where the people he surreptitiously observes become fixed in place and relatable. During the day he's scorned and mocked by his classmates, but at night they are framed in their windows and at a safe distance. In particular, he's fixated on voyeuristically watching Lucinda's bedroom window and the fact he's produced countless drawings of her proves very suspicious following her death.

Overweight and irascible Jade doesn't mourn the loss of Lucinda so much as the strong friendship she felt with Lucinda's ex-boyfriend Zap. Jade and Zap were equally awkward as children and plotted to escape their town together one day, but Zap has grown into a sporty and confident teenager while Jade is an outside rebel. Her self esteem is continuously crushed under the psychological and physical abuse she receives from her mother. Jade longs to make emotional connections with people but instead of verbalizing this she plots within her head a continuous script for a screenplay she calls 'What You Want to Say But Can't Without Being a Dick.' Here she revises scenes in her head to broach things people don't dare to say in everyday life. However, in reality people see her simply as an angry rude teenager.

Jade comments at one point that everyone has a physical spot they go to when they want to be alone to be who they really are. For policeman Russ this is a mountainous area where he can watch the sunrise. Unlike Cameron and Jade who developed imaginative methods for psychologically removing themselves from their untenable situations, Russ preserves for himself a contemplative physical space that he used to spend time in with his ex-colleague who was also Cameron's father. Here they were able to edge towards desires they couldn't begin to express in normal life. I was moved by the way Kukafka renders these characters' different coping mechanisms and ways of carving out spaces where they can escape social stigma and pressures.

There are inflections in this story of Twin Peaks where a beloved beautiful teen is found dead, a secret diary is discovered and her murder reverberates throughout the community. But unlike that stylistic show laden with symbolism, Kukafka's story evokes the strange ways in which we can become isolated amidst groups of people we see day after day. She sympathetically exhibits the way this causes individuals to become locked within their own internal reality that the people around them can't understand. The same is true for Lucinda whose true story we only glimpse through the perspective of those people who knew her. This is a vividly written and finely plotted novel that warmly beckons you into the lonely lives of its characters.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesDanya Kukafka
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It’s curious to think about the strange bond that we share with our romantic partner’s exes. Nobody else knows our partner so intimately in their habits, strengths, faults, secrets and sexual proclivities. Yet these exes typically remain people entirely unknown to us in reality (unless our partners happen to still see them frequently). So it’s fascinating how Lily Tuck writes about this unique bond in her new novel “Sisters” where the unnamed narrator describes her preoccupation with her husband’s ex-wife. Although they barely ever encounter each other in real life this ex-wife’s presence is felt everywhere from the memories her husband maintains to the teenage step children in the house. She feels oddly bound to the ex-wife like a sister, but her feelings are largely antagonistic and competitive. Tuck writes about the narrator’s obsession with this ex-wife in deft, sharp prose which allude to her complicated emotions rather than spelling them out. This is powerfully effective and the fast-paced story works up to a gripping climax.

It feels like Tuck’s method of writing this novel is particularly modern in the manner of Rachel Khong or Jenny Offill. The prose are so pared down that some pages only contain a single sentence which nonetheless resonates like the force of a great bell chime. Also, the story builds up indirectly where the narrator often goes off on tangents describing research about a particular thing like the romantic entanglements of writers Mario Vargas Llosa or Vaclav Havel or a line from a Philip Roth novel. It’s clever the way this italicised research will follow directly on from a point in the story. For instance, the narrator’s step-daughter describes how her mother recently had a romantic getaway with a man in a chateau in France and the next page gives a marketing description of the chateau in a way that the narrator has obviously sought out. The fact that she furtively tries to recreate a three dimensional idea of the ex-wife’s life betrays more about her own character and preoccupations than it does about the ex-wife. This assembly of fragments tantalizingly combine to a portrait of obsession and insecurity. 

 The ex-wife plays the piano (something she was only able to pursue after her divorce). She plays Chopin's Nocturne Op. 15, No. 2 in F sharp

Whenever the narrator refers to the ex-wife she describes her as she or her in italicised writing. The italics saturate these pronouns with so many conflicted feelings it’s like you can hear the narrator saying them aloud with sarcastic or hate-filled venom. Yet, also lingering behind her musings about this ex-wife and her husband’s first marriage there is a melancholy and longing to understand the man she’s with. It betrays an aching insecurity about the stability of their relationship. “Sisters” has a haunting quality to it in the way it describes our inability to really know or understand our romantic partners because there will always be aspects of their past and present unknown to us. For such a brief novel, it’s especially impactful and filled with deep-feeling resonance. Although this is her seventh published novel, it’s the first book I’ve read by Lily Tuck and I’m now keen to read more.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesLily Tuck
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I first read Henry James’ “The Portrait of a Lady” when I was in college, but reread it several years ago (one of the only “classics” I’ve ever reread) for a book club I was in. Part of me has always dreaded picking up a novel by Henry James because his style is so dry with complicated (albeit beautiful) sentences that demand a lot of concentration. On my second reading I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting James’ story about Isabel Archer who travels to Europe while batting away suitors, becomes an unexpected heiress and marries the wrong man. So I was fascinated to hear that one of Ireland’s greatest living writers John Banville wrote a sequel to James’ influential novel. “Mrs Osmond” picks up on Isabel’s story immediately after the end of “The Portrait of a Lady” where she’s gone to England to be beside her beloved dying cousin even though it’s against her husband Gilbert Osmond’s wishes. It’s entirely ambiguous in James’ novel whether she’ll return to her domineering husband, but Banville gives the answer in this story. But, more than resolving a plot point, this novel is a moving meditation on the meaning of personal independence.

Banville does something really clever and fun near the beginning of this novel. He writes about Isabel dining alone in London and how she becomes aware of a man across the room staring at her as if she were a portrait. Banville writes Henry James in to his story in this playful way and once she leaves the restaurant its like she’s been liberated from his authorial control: “It was as if she were an invalid making her feeble way over difficult terrain, who had found suddenly that a hand that had been sustaining her for so long she had ceased to notice its support had suddenly been withdrawn, leaving her to totter alone.” This is an ingenious post-modern trick as if the character has been granted independence - but, of course, it’s not really true because now James’ heroine has been absorbed into Banville’s artistic vision.

Nor does Banville try to liberate the story from James’ oracular style of writing which closely imitates The Master. His assimilation of James' manner of writing is an impressive feat, but also somewhat detracted from the experience for me. Banville’s typical prose are exquisite and, given the choice, I’d rather read a novel of his over Henry James. But this book is more James than Banville. When I read his last novel “The Blue Guitar” I noted how parts of it distinctly reminded me of Samuel Beckett; so although Banville is incredibly talented maybe he’s more like a talented mockingbird. However, I’m extremely glad I stuck with the density of prose in this novel for both the story twists and the way Banville expands Isabel’s character in a more dynamic way.

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Like in a Henry James novel, there is a scant amount of action in this story. Every journey Isabel takes and every meeting she has with someone is inevitably accompanied by the protagonist’s considerations about identity and society. As ponderous as these might become, there are real flashes of brilliance in some of these tangents ranging from thoughts about money “that must not be mentioned, that must be passed over in the strictest silence, if the necessary norms of civilised society were to be maintained and preserved intact” to the way we naively project ourselves into the people we fall in love with “What she saw was that it had not been Osmond she had fallen in love with, when she was young, but herself, through him. That was why he was no more to her now that a mirror, from the back of which so much of the paint had flaked and fallen away that it afforded only fragments of a reflection, indistinct and disjointed.”

Often where the story really shines are in the brief insights into Isabel’s character made by other characters particularly the rambunctious American journalist Henrietta Stackpole who remarks at one point “Oh, I know you, Isabel Archer. The most monstrous ghouls might parade before you,  clanking their chains and keening, and not a hair on your head will turn, but set you square in front of a looking-glass and you will start back from your own image with piercing cries of fright.” This is funny and there are some great bits of social humour in this novel especially in the way Isabel tries to awkwardly befriend her maid. But Henrietta also gets to the heart of Isabel’s real dilemma: not whether she should remain with her husband Gilbert Osmond or choose another suitor, but the degree to which she can escape the image she’s built of herself and pursue what she really wants in life. Banville provides some clever turns in the story which had me gripped to discover what happens. It takes a lot of courage to follow in Henry James’ footsteps and there are few writers such as Alan Hollinghurst and John Banville who are talented enough to do so.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJohn Banville

It's always exciting talking about people's favourite books of the year. For me, it's not so much about ranking books as it's just a good opportunity to highlight some ones that really spoke to me this year. Obviously, I've been really engaged by and immensely enjoyed reading most of the books I've read this year (otherwise I wouldn't have taken the time to write blog posts about them). But here are a mixture of books that include some of my favourite authors and other writers who I've read for the first time.

I'd love to discuss any of these books with you if you've read them or if you're now eager to read them. Click on the titles below to read my full thoughts about them or you can watch me discuss them in this Booktube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W2q8PB6JB34&t=21s 

What have been some of your favourite reads of 2017?

A Book of American Martyrs by Joyce Carol Oates

The Parcel by Anosh Irani

A State of Freedom by Neel Mukherjee

Such Small Hands by Andres Barba

When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife by Meena Kandasamy

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Winter by Ali Smith

The End We Start From by Megan Hunter

Tin Man by Sarah Winman

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write To You in Your Life by Yiyun Li

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Maybe I came to read “Sing, Unburied, Sing” by Jesmyn Ward with too much expectation since it has recently won the National Book Award and many people recommended it to me, but it took me some time for me to get into this novel. The bulk of the story is made up of a car journey Leonie takes with her two children Jojo and Kayla to pick up their father Michael who is being released from prison. Leonie's colleague and friend Misty also accompanies them and takes them on a detour to pick up/transfer drugs. Gradually spirit figures appear around them as there is a hereditary condition where this family can commune with the dead. So the past is folded into the present in a way which is ultimately quite poignant. With the meandering nature of the story it felt like it took a while before I really knew the characters, but once I got into it I found the novel quite moving.

Jojo is the one who primarily cares for young Kayla as he observes of Leonie that “she ain't got the mothering instinct.” I found it really touching how the novel shows some people aren't natural parents and the way other family step in to fill the role of caregiver – particularly for someone as young as Kayla. During a scene where she becomes quite ill there's an added layer of tension because Leonie doesn't know how to properly care for her. Leonie's parents are referred to as Mam and Pop as if, even though they are the grandparents, they are still the primary parental figures guiding Jojo and Kayla.

Another thing I really liked about this novel was the way it draws in stories of the past with the ghost-like figures who follow the main characters and the tales that Pop tells Jojo. It shows the way that racism and economic inequality are still part of the present reality in Mississippi. This is very much made evident when the car is stopped by a policeman at one point and the officer cuffs and holds a gun to thirteen year old Jojo's head: “that black gun is there. It is a tingle at the back of my skull, an itching on my shoulder.” The message this drives into the boy is that his life is expendable and that he is considered a threat even when he's done nothing wrong. Ward describes how “It's like the cuffs cut all the way down to the bone. 'It's like a snake that sheds its skin. The outside look different when the scales change, but the inside always the same.' Like my marrow could carry a bruise.” It's really powerful how she shows the way brutality towards black and poor people effect long-lasting psychological trauma and writes itself into a person's whole being and how this is directly linked to the region's ongoing racism.

Jesmyn Ward

Jesmyn Ward

However, although I appreciated the way that the stories from the past and brought into these characters' current reality, it didn't feel like the spirits' presence was entirely necessary. At times it felt like this element of the story was overstating the case, especially when Kayla shows signs of seeing presences beyond ordinary reality. The story gets too concerned at some points with explaining a world beyond the senses rather than letting it linger there mysteriously. I couldn't help comparing this to Cynthia Bond's novel “Ruby” which felt like it incorporated a complex supernatural element more subtly and poetically. Meaningful storytelling between characters is sometimes enough to show the impact of the past without warping reality.

Jesmyn Ward writing is exquisitely beautiful and I enjoyed reading this novel for the prose alone. Sometimes little inconsistent details would pull me out of the story. For instance, she states quite clearly at one point that there is nothing to clean Kayla up with when she gets sick because the glove compartment has already been emptied, but then later on she observes how “The glove compartment is a mess of napkins and ketchup packets and baby wipes.” Small things like this can sometimes undermine the momentum and strength of the narrative. But, overall, I really appreciated and enjoyed this novel.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJesmyn Ward
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It feels like historical fiction is such a flabby term that's better for booksellers than readers. Really all novels are historical because even ones set in the future are an author imaginatively writing about the world as they've seen and know it. But mostly it feels like historical fiction means books set in the distant past and I especially like ones about periods of time I don't know much about. How would you define historical fiction? And what's the best historical novel you've read this year?

Here are my picks of eight great historical novels from 2017. There's fiction about suffragettes, a female viceroy of Sicily, a WWII naval shipyard worker, the fate of a much-desired man, a dysfunctional ancient Greek family, Nazis in the Ukraine, an axe murder and a president’s grief. Click on the titles to see my full posts about them or you can also watch me discuss these in this video (where a fox makes a surprise appearance): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kAXFfOMC-X4&t=146s

The Night Brother by Rosie Garland

The Revolution of the Moon by Andrea Camilleri (translated by Stephen Sartarelli)

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst

House of Names by Colm Toibin

A Boy in Winter by Rachel Seiffert

See What I have Done by Sarah Schmidt

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

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This is a book that felt so thrillingly alive and teeming with ideas that I frequently copied down quotes while I was reading it. Meena Kandasamy writes about a young woman reflecting on the atrociously abusive marriage that she lived through. Her narrative is very analytical as it artfully poses statements with challenging concepts and ideas about why abuse occurs, why the abused feel pressured to remain in that relationship and the challenges of extracting oneself from that relationship, but at the same time it is so heartfelt and meaningful that I felt totally drawn in and emotionally connected to this woman. Her story is very particular and beyond all theoretical commonalities she asserts “Abstractions are easy, but my story, like every woman's story, is something else.” She marries her husband and moves to Mangalore where he works as a professor heavily involved in the Communist revolutionary movement and gradually he cuts her off from her friends, family and livelihood to the point where she's totally isolated. This isn't just a novel that honestly explores how someone gets drawn into an abusive relationship, but also the way familial and social reactions to that abuse can inhibit abused people from sharing the reality of their situations. The story traces this unnamed narrator's journey from the start of her marriage to the gruelling aftermath as she navigates the world having confessed the brutality she endured within her marriage.

The narrator is a highly educated and capable woman so a common reaction to her situation is: shouldn't a woman this smart know better than to be caught in an abusive relationship? She's well-versed in feminist theory and sociological ideas. It's a common assumption that abuse only occurs amongst the poor and under-educated. The development of her relationship is complicated, but part of what draws her to her husband is an intellectual reverence: “I fell in love with the man I married because when he spoke about the revolution it seemed more intense than any poetry, more moving than any beauty. I'm no longer convinced.” He's an influential figure within a social and political movement that is larger than himself. Although the title of this novel is a play on James Joyce's famous novel that traces his alter-ego's intellectual and religious development, it felt in some ways that “When I Hit You” also connects with George Eliot's “Middlemarch”. Dorothea's attraction to what she believes is a cerebral excellence in the boorish Mr Casaubon seems to mirror Kandasamy's protagonist in some ways, but it also makes me think so much about Susan Sontag. Sontag once wrote about how she married an older professor and it wasn't until she read “Middlemarch” that she realised she had fallen into the same trap as Dorothea. The attraction towards a perceived intellectual superiority is very powerful for some people and it's often not until the seduced spends a lot of time with this “brilliant” person that they realise that person is actually full of hot air.

Watch Meena Kandasamy in conversation with Naomi of TheWritesofWomen.

One of the most heartbreaking things about reading this novel is tracing the way the narrator loses confidence in herself as her relationship devolves into one of rancorous abuse. Her husband plays upon this by undermining her and cutting her off from her lifelines (making her delete her email history, quit FaceBook, taking her phone away, cutting her off from all professional and personal contacts.) He criticises her conduct and body to the point where she tragically states “I learn to criticise myself for who I am.” With her self confidence and self worth shattered she becomes wholly reliant upon economically and psychologically. The incremental introduction of physical and sexual abuse into the relationship builds and develops a special kind of terror where “The use of force is always to signal the impending threat of greater force.” Adding to this the majority of her Indian community and her parents make her feel like the guilty one in this relationship. Even when she admits to her parents that she is being hit she's encouraged to be patient and her father frighteningly speculates “These problems will cease to exist when you have children.” All these things contribute to her remaining within this horrific marriage despite it clearly being a poisonous situation.

Leaving her abusive relationship is especially hard because she observes how “Sometimes the shame is not the beatings, not the rape. The shaming is in the being asked to stand to judgement.” Once the narrator actually extracts herself from the marriage she becomes very cognizant of the dialogue and judgement placed upon her as both a victim and participant in her marriage. It's interesting how Kandasamy points at how this is indicative of latent sexism that exists in our communities which should support women in perilous situations like this. She states how “The post-mortem analysis of my marriage reveals more about people and their prejudices than anything about me or my husband.” Reading this novel made me think about how abusive relationships are much more complex than they outwardly appear and the contributing factors to their continuation are far more insidious than most people would assume. I also particularly like how each section begins with quotes from different women writers and the way she analyses situations shows how she is in dialogue with these women's ideas. “When I Hit You” is incredibly revealing not just in the way it shows how abuse occurs within the privacy of home, but in the way our society reacts to it.

I love it when I discover a new author whose voice sounds so fresh and clear it’s like the very first novel I’ve ever read. Since it’s so challenging for debut writers to get people to take a chance on their book and find a readership it feels especially important to support fresh talent. So, following on from the top debut novels of 2016 list I made last year, here is a list of ten debut novels published in 2017 that I found especially good: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lenlmi_vuNc&t=5s I really hope these authors continue to publish more because they have such unique points of view and refreshing writing styles. It’s also worth noting that Sally Rooney’s “Conversations with Friends” won this year’s Sunday Times/Peters Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award. Please let me know in the comments about any particularly exciting debut novels you've read this year.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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I’ve always suffered from an irrational fear that one day I’ll wake up and the people I love most won’t recognize me. Something like this happens to the protagonist of Tom Lee’s debut novel “The Alarming Palsy of James Orr”. He wakes up one day to find he’s suffering from Bell’s palsy which causes a paralysis to the muscles on one side of his face. This is a bizarre condition which isn’t entirely understood and there isn’t a clear medical treatment to guarantee a recovery. So James is left in a limbo state where he stays home from work and can only hope that his face will recover. Unsurprisingly, this condition makes him self-conscious and it makes people react to him differently. These social issues prompt a deeper contemplation about the meaning of identity, but Tom Lee explores this obliquely through his tale of James’ increasing sense of alienation and the steady disintegration of his “normal” life.

It’s interesting the way in which this novel suggests how one little alteration on the surface can raise a lot of disturbing anxieties and unaddressed issues for an individual. James’ life is so neatly ordered and pristinely average in terms of his steady job, loving wife, two young children and a cookie cutter house set in a tight-knit purpose-built community. His condition makes him aware of how fragile this sense of civilization really is: “the image of his neighbours, the committee, squatting awkwardly around the too-low table that struck him as just some brittle veneer on reality, one that might fracture or shatter entirely at any time.” Just as James can’t control part of his face, he can no longer control the way he participates as a member of this community where his actions make him into an outcast. It suggests how easy it is for us to become estranged from the people and things closest to us if we no longer fit in with the right mould.

Tom Lee uses a straightforward, simple form of prose to tell his story, but that doesn’t mean the message of it either straightforward or simple. The meaning of it works subtly as we follow James’ journey which draws him out into the natural world where its rumoured a hermit lives in an abandoned ruins and as James begins to watch more steadily for couples who park their cars within his community to engage in illicit sex. I really appreciate novels that pursue an individual’s self-enforced isolation as a means of contemplating their place within the world. This novel made me recall books like Eugene Ionesco’s “The Hermit” or Paul Kingsnorth’s more recent novel “Beast” which depict men who strip down all the daily-ness of ordinary life to radically question their individual purpose and meaning. It’s not something that can be done when you’re caught in the progress and flow of living. “The Alarming Palsy of James Orr” has a compelling way of touching upon anxieties we find it easier to bury instead of stopping and confronting them. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesTom Lee
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I bought a copy of this poetry collection when it first came out a few months ago, but its recent listing for the Costa Book Awards poetry category finally inspired me to pick it up. Kumukanda means initiation but since Kayo Chingonyi came of age in England rather than Zambia where he was born, he mostly records in these poems the rites of passage he goes through as a young black man in Britain. From cricket games to spending time in a Londis grocery store, these poems express his particular take on common experiences of modern English youth and the tributaries that fed into the creation of his particular identity.

Many of the poems describe Chingonyi’s affinity with music and especially his attachment and affection for cassette tapes. In one poem he writes “You say you love music. Have you suffered the loss of a cassette so gnarled by a tape deck’s teeth it refuses to play the beat you’ve come to recognise by sound and not name?” This invokes a real nostalgia not just for the music these tapes contained, but also the process of listening to this antiquated format. He observes how the static these tapes contained was part of the experience. One poem describes the background sounds which are accidentally recorded within tracks and how this can mentally transport the listener to the actual recording studio. These poems build to a sense of how music is a living commentary upon people’s lives and exists within the movement of time so that R&B artists work with “their lyrics written out on the backs of hands.”

There are references to musical influences from James Brown to Prince, but in some poems he also points to more complicated forms of broader song and dance imagery like Bojangles. This made me recall Zadie Smith’s most recent novel “Swing Time” for the way it describes a black individual in modern Britain contemplating racist imagery from the past and how that affects self-perception. Chingonyi describes in the title poem how he wonders what a version of himself that had been raised in Zambia would have thought of his British self. I admired how he describes in later poems that beyond any internal conflict of national or racial identity he recognizes a more fluid sense of being. In ‘Baltic Mill’ he describes a meeting point where it’s acknowledged “The exact course that brought us here is unimportant. It is that we met like this river, drawn from two sources, offered up our flaws, our sedimental selves.” I felt this worked in two different ways where it could describe two people meeting or someone reconciling different aspects of oneself as adding up to a unique individual.

This collection is a passionate and engaging take on one man’s coming of age.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesKayo Chingonyi
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Reading about families struggling with the onset of Alzheimer's disease is one of the most painfully heartbreaking topics. But it's admirable how Rachel Khong brings a lightness of touch to this subject while also still being truly heartfelt in her debut novel “Goodbye, Vitamin.” It follows a year in the life of a young woman named Ruth who returns to live in her parents' house as her father Howard is developing signs of suffering from this insidious disease. She's experiencing something of a personal crisis herself as her marriage recently broke apart. Ruth records details of their daily life and Howard's changes, but also finds notes where her father recalls moments about Ruth's childhood. It's a story filled with witty commentary, clever observations and builds to an emotional portrait of family life.

Ruth gets goldfish for her father and reads about pet goldfish that are flushed away who grow into monstrous sizes. 

Ruth gets goldfish for her father and reads about pet goldfish that are flushed away who grow into monstrous sizes. 

It's appropriate that this novel has been compared to Jenny Offill's thoughtful novel “Dept. of Speculation” because both these books build their narratives through small observations rather than a series of complete scenes. There are several threads of story like a fake class that Howard's well-meaning students and colleagues invite him to teach, the initiatives of Ruth's mother Annie for clean eating, old affairs Howard had with other women which come to light, but the bulk of the novel is composed of glimpses of odd occurrences or observations. Khong's story feels all the more realistic for this as it takes you inside her protagonist's ephemeral experiences. Seemingly inconsequential details like vegetables that Howard rejects at dinner or the term he recalls for a group of goldfish are significant because they are exactly the sorts of things we're likely to forget years later. As the novel continues, this detail builds an emotional resonance because we're aware of the fleetingness of Ruth and Howard's time together. The experience works in both directions as Howard felt the same way about Ruth's youth as he was aware she wouldn't remain his sweet quirky child for long.

The effects of the disease are erratic so there is no clear way to treat or care for Howard as he gradually changes. Khong shows the hard unpredictable reality of life with Alzheimer's and the emotional impact it has upon the victim's family. “What imperfect carriers of love we are, and what imperfect givers. That the reasons we can care for one another can have nothing to do with the person cared for. That it has only to do with who we were around that person – what we felt about that person.” The story is a poignant testament to how we can only really savour the good experiences of family life while they last and brace ourselves for the inevitable hard times and loss. I particularly loved how “Goodbye, Vitamin” makes this sobering statement while acknowledging the absurdity and humour of the human condition.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesRachel Khong
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