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This gripping novel made me immediately flip back to the beginning to search for details I might have missed. I also felt compelled to search for other people’s opinions online to try to figure out what happened. “Fever Dream” is an incredibly creepy and mesmerising story about a woman named Amanda confined in a rural hospital having a tense conversation with her neighbour’s son David. She discusses with him her arrival at a holiday home with her daughter Nina (her husband is due to arrive later) and events involving David’s mother Carla. At first I found this to be quite a disorientating story because it’s largely composed of dialogue taking place in two distinct time periods, but once I had a good handle on the characters I felt completely wrapped in the mystery. I didn’t entirely understand what was happening, but I knew a lot was at stake as David continuously prompts Amanda to skip over parts of the story that are “not important.” Time is limited because he tells Amanda that her life is drawing to a close.

Reading “Fever Dream” felt like the experience of watching a Guillermo del Toro film where reality is slightly distorted as something very sinister is happening just beneath the surface of all the events taking place. We’re in that blurry territory that borders the fantastical and the psychologically disturbed. In this way, the novel accurately recreates the experience of being in a feverish state of mind. There are horses that go missing, a boy that turns into a monster, dead ducks, a disease that’s “like worms” and a poison that permeates the environment. Because of Amanda’s hazy sense of consciousness and uncertain memory, this story has an infectious hallucinatory effect that left me highly unsettled and grasping for understanding.

One of the prevailing themes of the novel is the degree to which we’re connected to the people we love the most. Amanda frequently expresses concern throughout the story that she wants to keep her daughter Nina within “rescue distance,” which is another way of saying within the bounds of her protective reach. She envisions it like an invisible rope connecting them and if Nina roams too far away this virtual rope will snap. This accurately reflects the way the people we love inhabit our consciousness – something which causes us happiness but also anxiety because we fear for their safety. In her debilitated state in the hospital, Amanda repeatedly expresses concern for the whereabouts of Nina. David assures her that this isn’t important, but of course for Amanda her daughter’s safety is the most important thing. The way in which children are individuals we alternately fear and fear for reminded me of the similarly gothic novel “The Children’s Home” by Charles Lambert. It could be that David is reminding Amanda that in the end we are quintessentially alone or he could be a sinister force compelling Amanda to break her connection with the person she cares for the most.

The tension over whether Amanda should trust David or his mother Carla is so interesting. Carla is mistrustful of her son, yet she seems to be the one preventing Amanda from leaving this uneasy environment when she becomes alarmed. Schweblin drops in tantalizing imagery such as the way Carla wears a gold bikini or the ominous dampness which covers Nina’s clothes which Amanda mistakenly assumes is dew from the grass. These are details which feel intensely vivid, yet their meaning is uncertain. The story needles the reader’s sub-conscious playing upon our unexpressed fears and anxieties in a way that simulates how we are helpless participants within a nightmare. For such a short novel “Fever Dream” makes an incredibly compelling and satisfying puzzle.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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There's something really compelling and endearing about the prolific maverick Argentinian writer César Aira. He takes an idea and runs with it pulling the reader through madcap, existential or surreal adventures. Previously, I've only read his novel “The Seamstress and the Wind” but I can tell likes to take his characters on trips: both physical journeys and through altered psychological states that warp reality. “The Little Buddhist Monk” (first published in 2005 under the title “El Pequeño Monje Budista”) is about a diminutive monk who feels his life was meant for something much larger than the circumscribed existence in his native Korea. French couple Napoleon and Jacqueline arrive in the country seeking artistic inspiration and cultural edification. The small man has difficulty being seen, but once they notice him he offers to take them to an out of the way monastery. What at first appears like a realistic cross-cultural experience gradually morphs into something much more strange and abstract. In this way, Aira challenges and surprises while making uncommon connections.

The reader first becomes attuned to something off-kilter about Aira’s landscape when the monk and French couple travel to the monastery. Individuals periodically pull the emergency brake on the train and exit onto stations which look slightly off to Napoleon and Jacqueline. The monk confides to them that these people have been enchanted by witches that inhabit the surrounding environment and find it fun to prank travellers into stopping at stations which don’t really exist. This concept of people being controlled by unknown forces repeats in later revelations about the monk’s state of being. It prompts questions about the degree of liberty people are capable of possessing. We often dream of living beyond the bounds of the lives we’re born into, but few people are actually able to break out of the paths created through our particular circumstances and culture. It also asks the degree of difference between one place and another in the modern world: “globalisation, which nowadays had converted all civilisations into one.” The French couple travel to experience some “authentic” kind of other, yet find themselves in a reality that has merely been formatted for their consumption.

Another dominant concept of the novel is about the question of perspective. Napoleon is a photographer who takes 360 degree photos as a way of trying to capture the totality of a particular time and place. The mischievous monks at the monastery dart in and out of the picture frame because they find it funny, but their image isn’t captured due to the long exposure. So does Napoleon’s photo fully capture the reality of this place? Aira questions the validity of realism in artwork stating “The less realist a work of art, the more the artist has been obliged to get his hands dirty in the mud of reality.” It could be that through his absurdist storytelling, the author more fully engages with our psychological reality rather than novels that render a landscape within nature’s laws. One of the final concepts this novel poses is a television program which the monk is desperate to watch as it claims to definitively map female genitalia. This is a humorous joke about some men’s inability to sexually satisfy women because they can’t locate the pleasure spot, but it also says something about our difficulty in really seeing each other even when we’re as intimate as possible and completely stripped down.

It’s challenging to get the reader to truly care about the journey of the characters in such cerebral writing. But I feel Aira shows real empathy for his characters’ situations and takes their struggles seriously even while driving them through the funhouse of his creation. There’s tension in the French couple’s relationship when Jacqueline sees no place for herself in Napoleon’s all-encompassing photographs. She finds that “In real life there were no enchanted princesses, only hopes extinguished by routine, by prosaic and gradual deaths.” Their many journeys abroad do little to bring the pair emotionally closer together. I was even more compelled by the monk’s dilemma who seeks to become larger than the small existence he’s been programmed to live.

Aira is such a curious writer, but I think his novels only manage to be so compelling because they are so brief. There are now over eighty of them! His style of leaping from idea to idea around a central story concept wouldn’t be sustained very well in a larger fictional work. For instance, I don’t think he could pull off a novel as long as Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Unconsolled” or "The Buried Giant" which follow dream-like structures. Nevertheless, Aira’s absurdist imagery peppered with philosophical musing has such a seductive appeal. It’s invigorating writing that has a curious way of lingering in the reader’s imagination.

It's so intriguing coming to “The Blood Miracles” after reading Lisa McInerney's rhapsodic debut “The Glorious Heresies” about the lives of several disparate individuals in modern day Cork. This new book is a continuation of that story, but she narrows the focus onto Ryan who we first met as a teenager with his longterm girlfriend Karine. Ryan's initial involvement working for drug dealer Dan has morphed into becoming a key player in Dan's gangster circle. But these aren't the kind of modern gangsters portrayed in The Sopranos (as Ryan quite clearly states at one point.) I don't think it's necessary to have read “The Glorious Heresies” before reading this new book as Ryan's past and current situation are quite clearly explained at the beginning. However, it's interesting for me having first read McInerney's writing in her short story 'Berghain' from the anthology “The Long Gaze Back.” The style of this new novel more closely resembles that initial story. It captures the heady atmosphere of a young group of working class Irish men and women struggling to find their place in an economically-strained society. McInerney is particularly adept at portraying this conflict in her hero Ryan who finds himself at a crisis point in this novel without any strong role models or institutional support to guide him.

Ryan is just turning twenty-one and considering important decisions about which direction his life will take. His passion and talent is for making music, but dealing drugs is so lucrative it's hard to resist. Plus he's so ensconced in Dan's circle that it's difficult to safely get out, especially now that Dan is planning on channeling a new form of ecstasy or “yokes” from Italy which will make them all big players in the underworld. Ryan relationship with Karine has also turned very rocky, especially after he becomes enamoured with a charismatic new girl named Natalie. Things start to go badly wrong and Ryan finds himself caught between warring gangs and girlfriends.

Amidst his journey through these conflicts Ryan continuously thinks about his lost mother and persists in keeping an internal dialogue with her which is marked in italics. This is rendered in a way which is deeply poignant: “I was hungry but the hunger felt right. I needed to miss you more than I needed to eat.” Her absence is intensely felt as he's desperately in need of some guidance. Although he knows what he wants to do in life he finds himself drawn into self-destructive behaviour: “It does not escape his notice that he was set for something other than this, that his mother had laid such foundations. Instead of playing and composing on piano Ryan does it on a monitor; instead of practicing he is out on the lash.” He finds himself pulled deeper into self-destructive patterns of behaviour and dangerous circles which are increasingly difficult to extricate himself from.

Although Ryan's internal struggle is movingly rendered, the dialogue-heavy scenes where he bounces between different factions of the gangs and the women he's involved with become a bit strained. The arguments he has with these different parties are realistic, but they start to feel too circular. The stakes increase with a new stream of pills coming from Italy and there's a high level of paranoia within Ryan's gangster circle when things start to go wrong. But the dramatic urgency of this crisis where Ryan fears for his life begins to wane when things don't change or progress fast enough. Something about the thrust of the story feels lost when it's stretched out so far – whereas I think it would have kept its tension if it were just one part of a multi-threaded panoramic view of Cork-life as rendered in “The Glorious Heresies.”  However, excitement really builds when "The Blood Miracles" reaches its climax.

Ryan is a compelling character filled with good-hearted flaws who often makes bad decisions. He's at his most endearing when his best intentions lead to nothing so you can feel and relate to the frustration of his struggle: “You talk enough and soon enough none of it matters; it’s all just words, pauses, silence-and-sound.” As a big fan of “The Glorious Heresies” it's also interesting to see how central characters from the first novel such as Ryan's father Tony, gangster boss Jimmy and Maureen re-enter the story. It'll be fascinating to see how McInerney develops the characters and story further in the planned third novel in this trilogy.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesLisa McInerney
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Boys face particular challenges growing up. There’s often a weight of expectation to conform to certain gender stereotypes: to be strong, aggressive and withhold emotion. As adults we can more easily see how hollow this armour is, but when we’re young it’s difficult not to modify your personality trying to fit in with this brotherhood of masculinity. I grew up in a rural environment where I certainly felt this pressure. Men I knew hunted and made jokes while carving and gutting the corpses of deer they shot. They fished for the sport of it and released their living catch to swim frantically away, trailing a line of blood behind them in the water. Boys chased and sexually teased girls and laughed at them when they cried. I was ordered to chop wood outside for our fireplace while my sister had to stay inside to help with the housework. Whenever I questioned these gender roles I was laughed at or ignored. But most of the time I didn’t see the stark gender divisions in my community because it was all I ever knew.

I was deeply moved reading Daniel Magariel debut novel “One of the Boys” by the way he presents an intense domestic situation of a boy living with his older brother and domineering father. He learns about what it means to join in with this cult of masculinity: its benefits and its pitfalls. There’s an exquisitely played out tension between his desire for validation from the men in his life and his desire to supersede or reject them. He and his brother choose to live with his mother over his father because “our loyalty had always been to our dad. He was stronger. We feared him. He needed us. His approval always meant so much more than hers – it filled me up.” The way in which they creatively expunge their mother from their lives is truly horrifying. His father continues to act badly becoming a habitual drug user, bullying people who oppose him and physically abusing his boys. What’s especially tragic about this is how the boy narrator learns that “My father would get away with this for a lifetime – the arrogance, the self-regard, the lack of consequences.” Boys see how abominably and brashly men can act without being taken to task for it and the result is that many of those boys grow into men who act the same.

What’s so impressive about Magariel’s style of writing is the crisp way he presents these ideas about gender in short declarative sentences that cut right to the heart of the boy’s experience and emotions. For example, after long periods of abuse from his father he paradoxically finds that “I didn’t want his kindness. His cruelty was less confusing.” With deft, impactful prose the author conveys complex ideas about the way this boy’s specific upbringing warps his conception about his identity, life and the way men should behave. This is also a short book, but the depth of this dramatic story of addiction, betrayal and poverty runs deep. It makes an interesting contrast to Edouard Louis’ recently translated novel “The End of Eddy” which presents a different portrait of how boys are inducted into typical masculine behaviour – especially when growing up in a working class community. It also reminds me of Justin Torres’ powerful novel about brotherhood “We the Animals” and interestingly Torres has a blurb on the book calling it “a captivating portrait of a wayward father.” With its moving story, this novel delicately prompts readers to consider how gender played a role in their own childhood and, for that reason, I think it will continue to resonate with me for a long time.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesDaniel Magariel

I was drawn to reading this debut short story collection by the beauty of its deep-blue, silver-illustrated cover and the strength of blurbs from excellent cutting-edge writers Helen Oyeyemi and Sjon. These imaginative stories do feel in some fundamental way to be aligned with these authors because of the way they similarly bend reality to give new insight into society, language and our perceptions of the past. The subjects of Tharoor's stories are far-ranging from a town awaiting its imminent destruction by an invading army to a conqueror cursed with impotence to a Russian ship hedged in by icebergs. They span great swaths of time from soldiers conversing in a heated battle in 190 BC to diplomats from dying nations marooned on a luxury spaceship in a dystopian future. Yet, there is a curious unity between these invigorating and fascinating tales which ponder the evolution of our civilization by focusing on migration, storytelling and what's left in and selected out of recorded history: “Humanity, after all, was nothing but a library.”

Several stories consider the way in which different cultures intermingle by appropriating, borrowing, learning and stealing from each other. In some voyages the explorers set out to discover and plunder, but instead find their dreams of conquest stymied by violent confrontations with the unknown. The erratic and far-reaching story ‘Letters Home’ considers many kinds of these journeys all over the world which are cut short. There's a sense of possible touchstones between civilizations which are lost through accidental blunders and chance. The story 'The Astrolabe' features a captain who has lost his ship and crew before washing on the shore of a strange island. What could have been a tale like 'The Tempest' or Robinson Crusoe hands its story over to the island's native population who consider the captain's “advancements” and dramatically reject him. Other stories consider the cross-flow of cultures in more contemporary settings such as 'Cultural Property' where a student contemplates reclaiming an artefact found on a university campus or 'The Loss of Muzaffar' where a dazzlingly talented immigrant chef caters to a wealthy NYC family against the backdrop of 9/11.

Two compelling stories show a more academic meeting point between one person and another from dramatically different social and economic groups to consider issues of cultural appropriation. In the title story ‘Swimmer Among the Stars’ an elderly woman's voice is recorded by ethnographers as she is the last person to speak her native language. She considers how “Humans always lose more history than they ever possess.” Also, the story gives a deeply fascinating perspective on the social meaning of words and language's evolution. It incorporates the way folklore is imbued with personal and political stories. The story ‘Portrait with Coal Fire’ depicts a Skype conversation between a magazine photographer and a miner discussing how the meaning his life and family appear in photographs that were taken. There is some fundamental break happening in the translation between the subject, the photograph and the viewer which creates a “chronic voyeuristic relation” as described by Susan Sontag in her famous essay 'On Photography'. This conversation is further complicated by the translator who is necessary for the photographer to speak to his subject.

Iskandar in battle

Iskandar in battle

One of the most sustained sections of the book features a series of short retellings of legends from Arabic literature that depict Alexander the Great or Iskandar (as Muslim hero). Here the leader's insatiable lust for power and control over the world sees him rampage through different nations and even journey to the bottom of the ocean to claim it for his own. This conqueror's perspective is the opposite of the view we're given in 'Tale of the Teahouse' where we feel the increasing alarm of a city about to be invaded. Tharoor has a flair for depicting clashes for power and dominance that is both dramatic and meditative. His writing reminds me strongly of Jessie Greengrass' short stories – not so much in style, but the way they contemplate the philosophical meaning of how people throughout history have flung themselves out into the great unknown to reshape civilization and their understanding of themselves. “Swimmer Among the Stars” is a deeply thoughtful book as well as being a delight to read for its imaginative leaps in storytelling.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesKanishk Tharoor

I’ve had a copy of Linda Grant’s most recent novel “The Dark Circle” on my shelf since it was published in November, but for whatever reason I didn’t get to reading it despite being extremely moved by her previous novel “Upstairs at the Party.” So I was delighted to find it on the Baileys Prize shortlist as it gave me a great excuse to get it down and finally read it. Although this novel is very different from her previous one I was immediately drawn in by the eloquence of Grant’s prose with its excellent witty dialogue and vibrant characters. The story concerns a brother and sister (Lenny and Miriam) in 1950s London who contract tuberculosis. The city and social environment are vividly rendered where the continued deprivation of the war and effects of the bombings are still intensely felt. A very different scene is evoked when the pair are taken to a sanatorium in Kent which was once an exclusive facility for the privileged but it’s now taking in patients under the new national health care system. This creates an intermingling of people from all walks of life who are plagued by this illness and pining for a rumoured miracle cure. The result is a spectacular evocation of the passage of time and changing values through the lives of several fascinating characters.

The medical facility that's purportedly for recuperation feels like a truly stultifying environment. Patients are encouraged to be as inactive as possible to prevent themselves from getting too excited. They are prescribed to take in fresh, bracing air so many are set out on a veranda in the freezing cold weather. Most terrifying of all is an upper floor of children confined to their rooms and put in straight jackets if they become too active. Whilst purportedly giving their bodies a rest their minds rot from lack of stimulation. Yet, some of the patients form special connections based around interests like literature and music. There's a particularly forceful American character Arthur Persky who introduces an element of chaos into the strictly ordered facility. Gradually the stories of their particular backgrounds unfold amidst these interactions. New arrivals Lenny and Miriam are looked down upon as London working class Jewish people by some of the medical staff such as the terrifyingly named Dr. Limb. He feels that “the government had opened the door of the slums. It was difficult to be discerning about such an undifferentiated mass of humanity.” That there were such classist opinions about socialized health care in the early years of the system seems particularly striking when thinking about recent debates about funding for the NHS.

Miriam is a fan of films and movie stars. She particularly admires the beauty of Linda Darnell in 'Forever Amber'

Miriam is a fan of films and movie stars. She particularly admires the beauty of Linda Darnell in 'Forever Amber'

One of the most poignant stories in the novel is about a mysterious German patient named Hannah. She's someone who survived the horrors of war and brutal confinement only to find herself trapped within another institution with a terminal illness. Luckily she has a lover named Sarah who works for the BBC and exerts her influence to get a preciously rare experimental drug to Hannah. This sets in motion a chain of events which puts governmental scrutiny on how the facility is run. It was surprising and wonderful to find a lesbian love story at the centre of this novel. This is handled really sensitively where both women show a savviness to live how they want despite the prejudices of the time. They have a steadfast faith that “the new reality would emerge. It wasn’t a dream.”

Grant has a fascinating way of writing a historical novel that is conscious of future developments. During the narrative she'll sometimes refer to future novels that will be written or events that are simultaneously happening elsewhere which the characters can't know anything about. This creates a compellingly rounded view of history and a hopeful tone for how civilization is progressing despite the provincial attitudes of some people in the institution. It also lays the groundwork for the later parts of the novel which skip forward into the future at a point where the horrors of tuberculosis have largely been forgotten. It's skilful how Grant does this while also faithfully and vividly rendering a feeling for the 1950s milieu with its misguided medical practices and rumblings of anti-semitic attitudes. Individuals are forced to take drastic action to help themselves in some really dramatic and arresting moments. Certain scenes are described so sharply that they are particularly memorable. For instance, the grim way Lenny and Miriam's father died is something that I'll never forget. “The Dark Circle” is a gripping and finely detailed story.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesLinda Grant
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Because I’m such a big fan of the prize, I’ve tried to read the entire longlist of the Baileys Prize for the past several years. It was always a massive undertaking since the longlist used to include 20 novels. But, just when I thought the longlist had been cut down to a more manageable 12 novels, the announcement of the 2017 longlist revealed the judges had still chosen 16! So I haven’t been able to get to all the titles on the short time between the March 8th longlist announcement and the shortlist announcement on April 3rd. It’s been a particularly busy time for me as I’ve also been judging The British Book Awards, chairing a discussion about the new film adaptation of ‘The Sense of an Ending’ and going through the process of buying a new flat.

However, I have read a number of the longlisted novels and I'm still making my way through a couple more. I can now see why the judges had such trouble eliminating books from the list because it’s truly a really strong group of novels. Nevertheless, Anna James and I got together to debate the books on the longlist and come up with our shortlist predictions. You can watch that video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wT4oEQ0lwi4

It’s interesting how “The Lonely Hearts Hotel” is turning out to be a novel as controversial as “A Little Life” which was shortlisted for last year’s prize. I'm having extremely engaging debates about the novels longlisted with the shadow panel I'm on. I only succeeded in guessing 3 novels correctly for my longlist predictions (but then I only limited myself to 12 guesses). So I’m hoping I do better with these shortlist predictions. Click on the titles below for my full reviews.

What novels do you think will be shortlisted?

The Gustav Sonata - Rose Tremain
Do Not Say We Have Nothing - Madeleine Thien
The Lesser Bohemians - Eimear McBride
The Essex Serpent - Sarah Perry
The Power - Naomi Alderman
Stay With Me - Ayobami Adebayo

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Second novels are notoriously difficult to write. A new writer can produce their fiction without the weight of expectation, but once a first novel comes out there is a demand for a follow up which trips up many of the most talented writers. So it’s really great to see that the Royal Society of Literature dedicates a prize exactly to this category of book with The Encore Award. I’m particularly excited by this year’s shortlist as I’ve read all these novels and can highly recommend each of them. I won’t even begin to predict a winner; it’s simply enough to say these are highly accomplished novels that represent a wide variety of styles and subject matter.

I’m particularly pleased to see two novels on the list which specifically include complex and well-rounded transgender characters: “The Sunlight Pilgrims” and “The Lauras”. It’s so rare that this happens in fiction! Also, something I greatly admired about “The North Water” was the way this hyper-masculine environment of a whaling ship includes a sensitively-portrayed gay character. There’s also the challenge to Victorian gender stereotypes in “The Essex Serpent” and a heartbreaking portrayal of a male child’s sexual abuse in “The Lesser Bohemians”. And, it has to be said, “Beast” disarmingly portrays a man so stripped of civilization in his pared down isolated existence he might not even be human anymore. Having also read most of these authors' first novels it's fascinating to see how their writing is evolving. Click on the titles below to read my full thoughts about these wonderful novels. The winner of the RSL Encore Award 2017 is announced April 5th.

Have you read any of them and what novel do you think should win?

The Sunlight Pilgrims - Jenni Fagan
Beast - Paul Kingsnorth
The North Water - Ian McGuire
The Lesser Bohemians - Eimear McBride
The Essex Serpent - Sarah Perry
The Lauras - Sara Taylor