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With our current political preoccupations concerning citizenship, immigration and nationality there’s a lot of talk about borders. (What borders will be formed between the UK and Europe?) But in Benjamin Myers’ recent novel “The Offing” the borders directly referenced are invisible lines in the natural environment. The title refers to “That distant stretch of sea where sky and water merge. It’s called the offing.” These are borders that we only imagine exist because of our subjective point of view. And the novel begins with 16 year old Robert Appleyard stepping out of the borders of his small Northern coal mining town, the place where he’s been raised to believe he should spend his life working in the pits that men in his family have toiled in for generations. But he’s determined to see something of the world first. What he discovers is a point of view and way of seeing which is very different from what he’s known in his circumscribed existence. During his journey he meets and befriends Dulcie, a reclusive and highly-cultured older woman who doesn’t play by society’s rules. Myers presents in this beautiful tale conversations which cross borders of class, gender, sexuality and nationality to speak about the importance of preserving our individual voice and creative spirit – especially during times of political strife.

The novel begins like a fable or quest story where a young man embarks out into the unknown and this gives it a timeless feeling at first. I know from reading Myers’ brilliant novel “Beastings” that his prose frequently gives a sense that the story could have occurred in any time or place. But, as Robert encounters more people, he sees families who have lost sons in the war and there’s talk of fighting Hitler. It’s interesting getting a story set around WWII where the characters are so removed from it but still feel the reverberations of its impact. Robert is puffed up with nationalist spirit, but Dulcie cautions him against categorizing groups of people solely on their national identity. She explains how it leads to otherness and borders between people which leads to war: “Nationalism is an infection, Robert, a parasite, and after years of recession many were willing hosts.” Although this isn’t an overtly political novel, I found it really powerful how Myers describes ways of seeing beyond the rhetoric of government and social structures to show how these are illusions.

This point of view is embodied in the character of Dulcie who is so spirited and funny while having a sometimes spiky edge and a secret past. I felt really sympathetic to the narrator because I would have similarly gravitated to and been eager to learn from someone like Dulcie who casually refers to her close acquaintance with Noel Coward. I enjoy how their friendship develops in tentative steps as both Robert and Dulcie are guarded with their feelings and hesitant to admit they need other people. Myers is excellent in capturing the subtly of emotions in characters who aren’t very outwardly emotional. There’s also a dramatic tension which builds as the mystery surrounding Dulcie grows when an unpublished manuscript of poetry is unearthed.

Dulcie frequently makes Robert nettle tea.

Dulcie frequently makes Robert nettle tea.

Another great strength of this novel is in the evocative and poetic way it describes the natural world – which is another consistent characteristic of Myers’ writing. Not only is Robert’s journey through the English landscape beautifully described, but it’s a form of tunnelling into history and shows it to be a repository of the past: “the cliffs were in a perpetual state of reshaping, where chimneys and scarps and shelves periodically fell crumbling, and where time was marked not by years or decades or centuries, but by the re-emergence of those species trapped in the clay here: the ammonites, haematites and bracken fronds pressed flat between the pages of past epochs. Each was a bookmark placed in Britain’s ongoing story, and the land itself was a sculpture, a work in progress.” I admire how this positions the landscape not as a possession to be claimed and fenced off, but an artwork which is shaped by inhabiting it.

Reading “The Offing” I got that satisfying sensation where my curiosity gradually built to a rapt attention and I felt wholly enveloped and charmed by the story. It speaks poignantly about the importance of moving beyond the life which you’re assigned to discover who you really are and what you want. It’s also a tribute to the enduring power of poetry.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesBenjamin Myers
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There are some novels where I instantly feel connected to the narrator as if he were an old friend. Something about the way Ann Patchett presents her central character of Danny Conroy in her new novel “The Dutch House” hooked me to his consciousness. Maybe it's the tone of his wide-eyed innocence and ignorance as he looks back at his childhood, family life and the home he was cast out of. It's a sensibility I can relate to now that I'm in my early 40s and think back to the mysteries of my early life wondering why certain decisions were made. Danny and his sister Maeve grow up in a grand house with a prosperous father, but their mother abandoned them in their childhood. When their father marries a new woman named Andrea who brings her own two daughters into the house, the Conroy children feel themselves growing even more estranged from their aloof father. In their teenage years they are unceremoniously ousted from their family home and must fend for themselves. Danny recounts this story and the haunting way he and his sister often linger outside the house they've been cast out of ruminating about the past and the truth about their family. In a way, every adult must feel this way reflecting on what Joyce Carol Oates calls “the lost landscape” of childhood. Patchett also poses a number of tantalizing mysteries about this particular family which kept me gripped and I admire the subtle way she raises lingering questions to do with the meaning of family, belonging and home. 

The Dutch House of the title was purchased by Danny's father very cheaply in an auction after the family who built and inhabited it fell on hard times and eventually died out. He moves his whole family into this place which still contains all the furnishings and possessions of the previous owners. I like how on top of Danny's wonder about his own family circumstances there's the added mystery of the family that came before them. All their dramas and tribulations seem seared into the structure of the house so that we only see hints of it. This too feels very relatable in the way that we move into a new residence without knowing the story of those who lived their before but we have this odd intimacy with the people who proceeded us because we're inhabiting the space they lived their lives in before. But in Patchett's novel this has a kind of gothic feel as portraits of the previous family adorn the walls staring the Conroy family in the face and co-existing with them. It also has a bigger meaning when thinking about issues to do with capitalism, ownership and how the people who come to possess land and houses aren't always the people who are “justified” in inhabiting them. After all, aren't auctions and “bargain” prices on houses just legal ways of taking advantage of other people's misfortunes and unfortunate circumstances?

Patchett also perfectly frames a feeling of uncertainty and chaos in Danny's life. He grew up accustomed to a certain lifestyle and a belief in what he would become. But because things take an unexpected turn he's suddenly rudderless and doesn't know what direction he'll take: “There are a few times in life when you leap up and the past that you’d been standing on falls away behind you, and the future you mean to land on is not yet in place, and for a moment you’re suspended, knowing nothing and no one, not even yourself.” It's so powerful how Patchett captures this feeling of being suspended in nothingness and being tormented by a terrible unknowningness.

There's also a terrifying sense in the novel that no matter how bonded we feel to our families they can turn out to be strangers. Since their mother left them early on and their father is so emotionally distant, there's an absence of the love which is supposed to make Danny and Maeve feel secure. They're profoundly disconnected from their parents. So much so that Danny wonders if they're a family at all: “It sounded so nostalgic when he said it, the three of us, as if we had once been a unit instead of just a circumstance.” Even though the brother and sister find trust and rely on their relationship to each other, there's a sombre and haunting sense of loss that their parents never gave them this security. Danny also realises that the bitterness they feel about this becomes an addiction: “We had made a fetish out of our misfortune, fallen in love with it.” So part of their periodic vigilant sessions sitting in a car watching the house they grew up in is clinging to that sense of injustice while silently accusing their parents of abandoning them since their parents aren't there to emotionally stand trial.

There's a pleasure to the style of Patchett's story which has a fable-like feel and is in some ways a kind of modern Cinderella tale. But it also feels modern and relevant in how it reflects on deeper issues to do with our changing society by detailing how families have been made and disintegrated amidst larger economic fluctuations. The novel also creates a new kind of storytelling for which there isn't a precedent in how their mother leaves them for so long because “There is no story of the prodigal mother.” So, unlike “The Odyssey” which is driven more by a roaming father's ego and lust for conquest, their mother Elna's story is driven more by a compulsion to nurture a broken world rather than the children she's given birth to. I admire how these deeper meanings build throughout a novel which (on its surface) is quite a simple story with little plot, but after spending an extensive amount of time in Danny's consciousness I deeply felt their resonance. It proves how Patchett is an incredibly skilled and accomplished novelist.

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

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

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

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

A British-run concentration camp during the Second Boer War

A British-run concentration camp during the Second Boer War

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

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesDamian Barr
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Sometimes the most divisive books are the most interesting or, at least, the most fun to discuss. The furore surrounding Yanagihara’s massively successful novel “A Little Life” sparked dozens of articles, hundreds of impassioned reviews and countless spirited discussions between readers. Perhaps Melissa Broder’s “The Pisces” hasn’t caused as big a storm, but plenty of people who’ve read it have very strong opinions about it – both positive and negative. There was a lot of anticipation surrounding this debut novel. Usually it feels gauche to quote the number of followers an author has on Twitter, but it’s interesting how Broder’s Twitter account @sosadtoday with it’s 800K followers invokes a tone of voice so similar to the nature of Lucy, the narrator of “The Pisces”. Indeed, the sort of clipped dour statements made on Twitter “reality has never been my favorite” or “so how do you, like, be a person?” are the kind of mopey reflections Lucy often makes throughout the book. But because this is a story we’re given a lot more depth to the existential feelings which inspire these quips and how they fit into the life of a wayward grad student who goes to live on Venice Beach in LA and has a fantastical romantic encounter.

Lucy is writing a dissertation on Sappho or, rather, avoiding working on the dissertation amidst the breakdown of a long term relationship. She falls into a gloomy state where she schemes to get back the boyfriend that she no longer wanted and spends the little money she has on astrological and psychic readings. Her wealthy sister offers her a period of recuperation and reflection by having Lucy housesit in her beautiful beachside residence and watch after her dog Dominic who she thinks of as her child. This offer also comes with the stipulation that Lucy attend group therapy to deal with her anger and sexual compulsions. Lucy does so, but develops a combative attitude towards many of the women in her group and engages in desultory sexual encounters which leave her unsatisfied - until she meets a mysterious man on the beach.

I think the majority of objections to this novel come from Lucy’s unlikeable character who is frequently severely judgemental towards other people (especially women) and in the book’s frank portrayal of sex and sometimes unsavoury nature of our bodies. But while she’s a deeply troubled and oftentimes ornery character I don’t think she’s unsympathetic. She’s someone who gets hung up on gloomy thoughts and she acts out because she can’t understand why everyone isn’t equally effected by them: “Why were some sadnesses so much more permissible than others? Why did it seem like everybody was going to be okay but me?” I appreciate how a lot of her interactions are composed of spontaneous acts of self-creation. Quite often she’ll say or do something to another person without any awareness of her own motivation behind the action. This felt true to life in the way we’ll deal with people in destructive ways but find it difficult to psychologically understand why we’re acting this way without a serious amount of reflection.

Also, Lucy isn’t someone who could be considered a “good feminist” as she actively seeks the attention from men to validate her existence and actively sneers at women in her support group who frequently feel victimized. She wonders “Who was I if I wasn’t trying to make someone love me?” and puts herself through multiple humiliating or degrading circumstances letting men sexually use her in order to feel that she has worth or value. I can understand why this sort of character would irritate or anger some readers. But I think it’s understandable how people can fall into a cycle of seeking casual sex in the hope of achieving validation but finding it inevitably leads to disillusionment because what they really want is an emotional connection rather than a physical one. The sex portrayed is often ugly because it’s not about a romantic connection or even achieving fleeting physical pleasure with the person she’s with but using them as a substitute to give her life meaning.

Sappho & Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene

Sappho & Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene

Her fantastical encounters with a merman which might be real or a fantasy show how she’s attempting to break this cycle. She’s trying to form a better relationship with herself first because she can’t really love someone else without loving herself first. One of the most effective things about this novel is how it shows the ways we avoid and distract ourselves from what we’re feeling. She states “This is just what people did now. We went from emotion to phone. This was how you didn’t die in the 21st century.” Rather than deal with the mess of our emotions we find it easier to casually project our despair or anger or frustration outward and cast around hoping for any small bit of attention from social media. So I felt this novel represented an exaggerated form of our compulsive neediness and an aspect of modern life where we frequently feel adrift.

While I felt this central message was meaningful there were aspects of the novel which weren’t quiet successful. The most glaring annoyance to me was in the character of Claire who becomes Lucy’s closest friend from group therapy. She’s an interesting individual with an insatiable sexual desire and streak of depression. Claire is also British but the way Broder uses English idioms within her speech feels so forced and untrue that I couldn’t believe in her character at all. It may seem like a minor gripe but she becomes quite an important character in the story and the way she’s portrayed is so clumsy. Nevertheless, I thought the novel as a whole worked in how seriously it takes Lucy’s existential angst and the complicated dynamics of sexual relationships.  

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMelissa Broder
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Reading Edmund White’s books is always a pleasurable experience whether he’s chronicling the contemporary, sashaying back to the distant past in his two excellent historical novels or examining the riveting details of his own experiences. His most recent book “The Unpunished Vice” gives us the rare opportunity to consider his life as a reader and how this naturally coincides with his life as a writer. This account is a natural development for White who has written many book reviews in his life and biographies of a few notable writers including a beautifully voluminous account of Jean Genet and purposefully brief but insightful looks at Proust and Rimbaud. He’s both an avid fan and brilliant participant in the culture of world literature. So it’s absolutely fascinating to read this chronicle of how his experiences have drawn him to certain books and how they've influenced his writing. He gives absorbing commentary on several books as well as the community of authors he knows and interacts with. As a quintessential reader he understands that “Reading is a hobby that never grows stale - and an unpunished vice.”

White may wryly comment on his disorganized approach to reading, but his range of references and the amount of books he alludes to is impressive. He expounds upon classics such as “The Tale of Genji”, “The Sound of the Mountain”, “The Charterhouse of Parma”, “Pale Fire”, “Wuthering Heights”, “Moby Dick”, “In Search of Lost Time” and “Anna Karenina”. These are all books he illuminates with fresh insight and his favourite choices aren’t just due to their critical stature. There’s an ever-mutating canon of literature which slowly changes due to academic reading lists, literary prizes and ardent cheerleading critics. So he easily brushes off some writers who don’t jell with his sensibility like when he observes “I found Thomas Mann rough sledding”. White also comments upon the careers and reputations of writers such as Colette, Cocteau, Jean Giono, Henry Green, Rebecca West, Curzio Malaparte, Emmanuel Carrere, Ronald Firbank, Penelope Fitzgerald and Neel Mukherjee. He expounds upon the social and political influence writers’ ideologies and reputations have had upon their careers and how this sometimes determines whether they remain in print. His perspective on contemporaries and friends such as Joyce Carol Oates, Peter Carey and Yiyun Li also come with tantalizing details of his personal relationships to them – as well as his deep admiration for his husband, the writer Michael Carroll.

Perhaps one of the greatest pleasures for readers is to discover complementary or wildly different opinions on books we personally hold in high or low regard. So it gave me a sly smile reading how White writes “I disliked Yukio Mishima, whom everyone praised” because the only Mishima novel I’ve read left me a little puzzled and nonplussed. But my hackles were raised when White curtly observes how the characters in Virginia Woolf’s “The Waves” speak in a way which is indistinguishable from each other. Certainly the style of their sub-conscious speech is of a single poetic tone, but their personalities and perspectives vary dramatically. This is my favourite novel so naturally I’d be touchy about it. But I enjoyed how White’s readings and commentary hits this kind of sweet spotof bookish debate which is somewhere between literary analysis and a book club. Not only did it make me think more dynamically about what I've read, but the idiosyncratic ways we approach books. Against the prevailing tide of readers who look for themselves in literature White quips “People assume that we read to see our reflection, but this reader, at least, prizes difference, strangeness.” 

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It's moving reading about White's motives for wanting to write and engage with literary culture. In addition to his reflections on the craft “For me writing is a performance art”, there's an emotional vulnerability in his analysis of himself and what literature has meant to him. But some of the most powerful parts of this chronicle are in White's pithy summations about the nature of reading and our relationship with books. He remarks how “We live in a world of accidents, contingency, constant change; fiction prepares us for that. It is the only art form that places us in the mind of a perceiver. That is its greatest gift.” Reading is both a way of escaping ourselves and better understanding each other - desires which White vividly describes amidst laying out his lifelong ambitions for literary recognition. In this book he charts the way literature lives with us observing how “We never read the same book twice. But each time it is our book, locked in our innermost heart as we move and change through time.” Just as there have always been communities of authors, there have always been communities of readers. White clearly knows and understands the inherent greediness of bookworms who endlessly desire to read more and more.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesEdmund White
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Since I was a big fan of Madeline Miller’s “Song of Achilles” I’ve been so eager to read her latest novel that reimagines the life of another Greek mythological figure. It did not disappoint. Circe’s most famous role in the myths (and my only prior knowledge of her) was as a magical goddess/sorceress who hosts Odysseus amidst The Odyssey and transforms some of his sailors into swine. Miller tells Circe’s story from her origins as the nymph daughter of the Titan sun god Helios and the Oceanid nymph Perse, a vain and negligent mother. She has a lonely early life as her appearance and voice are scorned by the immortals surrounding her. Her natural propensity for kindness and compassion is tempered by the darker cruelties and vanity of the gods as well as the shallowness and relentless ambition of humans. After being banished and experiencing so much heartache it’s understandable that Circe becomes hotly bitter, intensely lonely and decides to foster her own innate power to fight for what she wants and what she feels is right. In a sense, Miller does for Circe what Gregory Maguire did to the Wicked Witch of the West. Their stories take a figure who is scorned and branded a witch in popular culture and gives them back their humanity. “Circe” is also a finely crafted story that’s truly romantic and thrilling in its many adventures.

One important thing I’d stress is that if you aren’t already familiar with the many Greek myths Miller touches on throughout the novel, don’t look them up before you finish it. Otherwise, it will spoil the plot. At a few points I became curious about some details of a mythological figure I wasn’t aware of so I looked on Wikipedia to find out more and inadvertently spoiled the story for myself. Of course, plot isn’t the most important aspect of a novel and I know its somewhat silly to claim a tale that’s thousands of years old can be spoiled but take this caution if you want to remain in suspense about how a particular storyline will play out. It did feel at some points that there wasn’t a need for Miller to reference quite so many mythological stories. It was as if she tried to cram them all in or that Circe was bragging about having a connection to famous figures. But this is my only light criticism of this novel and the unique interpretations and relationships formed between all these stories is always compelling.

It’s so interesting how Miller writes about the way the gods and adventurous humans are very cognizant that their actions will lead to stories being told about them. It’s analogous to the way some people today only do certain things in order to post a picture or vlog about it on social media. Although the deities are immortal and can recall these stories, the humans need bards to capture their tales and relate them in a way that many future generations on will still be impressed by their accomplishments and dramatic clashes. Miller highlights how these bards and poets often have a misogynistic point of view: “Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.” It’s so refreshing to see a range of women from these myths given a fuller complexity in both their heroism and villainy. Figures like her relentlessly cruel sister Pasiphae or the hot-tempered Madea are vividly realised. One thing I found particularly striking is the relationship that develops between Circe and Penelope as their encounter would typically be portrayed as one of rivalry, but instead what we get is a hard-won and sympathetic bond between them.

1786 Painting of Circe enticing Ulysses by Angelica Kauffmann

1786 Painting of Circe enticing Ulysses by Angelica Kauffmann

Something that makes Circe stand out as remarkable for her time is that she’s incredibly passionate and desires to have love in her life, but not if she’s just going to be seen as a commodity. She ominously notes “Brides, nymphs were called, but that is not really how the world saw us. We were an endless feast laid out upon a table, beautiful and renewing. And so very bad at getting away.” Circe refuses to be used and she's prepared to fight. When men sexually attack her she uses her magic to defend herself. As a consequence she’s labelled as difficult and a witch. But Miller also shows a really heartrending psychological complexity to Circe’s reaction to being raped. For sailors she meets after she states “I might take him to my bed. It was not desire, not even its barest scrapings. It was a sort of rage, a knife I used upon myself. I did it to prove my skin was still my own. And did I like the answer I found?”

However, as Miller demonstrated in her previous novel, she can also beautifully capture the heights of romance. The text is infused with such a striking intensity of feeling when Circe finds love and the vulnerability this raises for a lonely individual: “in a solitary life, there are rare moments when another soul dips near yours, as stars once a year brush the earth.” She is so good at capturing all the great adventure and drama of these classic tales but infusing them with emotions which are immediate and real. Unsurprisingly, when references are made to Achilles it feels like the author treats him with particular affection. But Circe is such a compelling figure in her own right that I wanted to spend even more time reading about the centuries she spends living in the paradise and prison that is her island of Aiaia.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMadeline Miller
2 CommentsPost a comment
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It's difficult to capture the slow-burning sense of alienation that someone can feel within family life, but in “Brother” David Chariandy powerfully depicts the story of a working class mother and her two sons in a way that gives a fully rounded sense of this. Michael lives with his grieving and fragile mother in a tower block in Scarborough, a district of Toronto with a high immigrant population. He still sleeps in the bunk bed of his childhood, but now the top bunk is empty and gradually we discover what happened to his absent brother Francis over the course of the novel. Michael struggles to get enough shift work at his low-paid job and spends the bulk of his time caring for his mentally-precarious mother. They are both haunted by a sense of loss and penned in by their circumstances. What's so beautiful about Chariandy's narrative is how he subtly captures the sense of a family who essentially loves and cares for each other, but whose status as West Indian immigrants has made them into perpetual outsiders and these internalized feelings make them unknown even to each other.

Michael relates the story of growing up in the shadow of his old brother Francis who is more socially adept and desirable. I found it particularly heartbreaking how Michael never really feels inadequate until it's pointed out to him by Francis coaching him in how to act or dress or when someone in their circle expresses resentment about Michael's presence. This builds to a sense of self consciousness that's formed from being continuously reminded that he doesn't fit in. Yet there are aspects of Francis' identity which never allow him to fully fit in either and parts of himself he perpetually hides. Most of all the boys economic and ethnic status contribute to their slow realization that they can never fully feel a part of the community that they've grown up in. There's such a striking moment early on in the novel when the brothers watch a television through a shop window. It's showing news report about street violence and while they're watching they can see their own reflections superimposed over the screen. This gives a powerful, haunting sense of how they are trapped in a community troubled by poverty and gang wars.

The family's neighbour Aisha was able to progress onto university, but she returns when her father dies and subsequently helps Michael care for his mother. Unfortunately for Michael and many other people in this immigrant community there are few ways to progress into a life with economic security or escape the perpetual sense of disenfranchisement. At one point in Michael's life he realizes “We were losers and neighbourhood schemers. We were the children of the help, without futures. We were, none of us, what our parents wanted us to be. We were not what any other adults wanted us to be. We were nobodies, or else, somehow, a city.” The novel gradually unfurls the multiple ways this comes to define Michael's life and the tragic way he doesn't fully understand his brother until he's lost.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesDavid Chariandy

“The language of violence, spoken by the powerful of all nations, erased distinctions beneath the surface.”

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Kamila Shamsie's extraordinary and engrossing novel “Home Fire” is in many ways about getting beneath the surface of headlines to show the complexity of people, situations and otherness. This is the story of a family that has been splintered apart. Isma Pasha took responsibility for raising her younger twin siblings after their mother's early death and the disappearance of their father. The novel begins with Isma finally taking steps to live her own life and continue her education in America now that her brother Parvaiz and sister Aneeka are older. But Parvaiz's disconnection with his own family's past leads him into a dangerous situation. Paired with this family's story is that of Karamat Lone, a man who has been appointed the British Home Secretary and his son Eamonn. Karamat has gained political clout by spouting rhetoric that will gain him favour with white conservatives. But Eamonn's involvement with the Pasha family leads Karamat into a situation where he must choose between family and his political ambition. Shamsie subtly reworks the story and ideas of the Greek tragedy Antigone into a contemporary landscape where the question of national identity has become so divisive. It's a dramatic and engaging tale that totally gripped me.

Although I've read this novel several months after it was first published its subject matter is still striking relevant. On the morning that I finished reading this book I opened BBC News to see a story about two British-born men who joined the Islamic State and had their British citizenship revoked. One thread of Shamsie's story parallels such an instance, but gets behind the sensationalist and fearmongering media headlines where people have been demonized as terrorists or sluts to deal with the complexity of individual experience. It also opens with the very real experience that many people of Middle Eastern descent face when travelling between Britain and America where they are subjected to extensive searches at the airport. This made me recall Riz Ahmed's powerful essay in the anthology “The Good Immigrant” about the self consciousness and sense of guilt this induces. “Home Fire” shows up how British politicians often speak about cross-cultural respect and inclusivity, but many legal practices and procedures encourage division and induce feelings of otherness.

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However, an interesting issue came up for me since I happened to read this novel directly after reading Ahmed Saadawi's “Frankenstein in Baghdad” which is on the longlist for the Man Booker International Prize. I like to follow prize lists so I'm trying to read some titles from this as well as all the books on the longlist for the Women's Prize for Fiction. But it struck me how major plot lines for both these novels are about terrorism and of their respective prize lists they are the only titles by authors of Middle Eastern descent. This raises a question for me about representation since it seems striking that the only novels by Middle Eastern writers that are being lauded in these British prizes are about headline issues. The same could be said about the 2017 Booker Prize longlist which Shamsie was also nominated for alongside Mohsin Hamid whose novel “Exit West” is about immigration.

I'm not criticising these authors for their choice of topics or story lines. All three of these novels are excellent in their own right, include dynamic individual characters and explore things other than these headline issues. And I'm not trying to lambast these prizes or the publishing industry. Perhaps it's simply a coincidence that these prize-nominated books are dealing with topics that many Westerns instantly associate with Middle Eastern countries and people of Middle Eastern descent. And in many ways these novels powerfully show the complexity behind these topics. It just makes me question why we're not also celebrating and reading more Middle Eastern authors who write about different aspects of Muslim and Middle Eastern life. One of the things I most admired about Elif Shafak's recent novel “Three Daughters of Eve” was its portrayal of very different kinds of young Muslim women in Britain. As a reader, I'd like more of this and a greater plurality of literature. I hope to read more books that show multifaceted aspects of BAME communities and individuals. I spoke about this in my recent Reading Wrap Up video and asked for more book recommendations so I'm pleased to see several comments from people suggesting more Middle Eastern literature. This is just something I thought worth pointing out since I read “Home Fire” in this particular context. Completely aside from this or maybe because it vigorously deals with such topical issues, I think Kamila Shamsie's novel is incredibly distinct, beautifully written and an extraordinarily engaging story.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesKamila Shamsie
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Sometimes reading quotes by authors I admire on the jackets of new books can very accurately indicate the experience I’m about to have. In this case, Emma Glass’ debut “Peach” comes festooned with a string of quotes by prominent authors from George Saunders who calls this a “dark poetic myth” to Laline Paull who describes how this book “shares literary DNA with Gertrude Stein, Herbert Selby Jr and Eimear McBride.” These get at the unusual quality of Glass’ writing, but this book’s radical style and approach to characters is wholly unique. It’s at once cartoonish and deadly serious. The story opens with Peach who has experienced a massive trauma and follows her in the proceeding days as she attempts to return to a state of normalcy. In doing so, Glass uses some shockingly innovative methods for getting at painful emotions and actions that can’t be described in a straightforward way.

The syncopation of Peach’s train of thought leads to a lot of word play and double meaning. When she feels her stomach growing she wonders “How big will I be before I burst? Cells linking, holding hands, making chains, chains winding, chains winding around my core. Spores sporing, pouring.” These emotive passages get at the uncommon way her imagination fuses with reality. Yet there are other moments which are straightforward and direct in expressing Peach’s reaction to her trauma. She describes how “I don't want to be a victim. One of those victims. Oh this awful thing happened to me when I was young. He stole a piece of me (said in a raspy, broken voice)”. It’s heartbreakingly tragic how throughout the story this self-consciousness prevents her from confiding in the characters closest to her especially when her violent encounter means that she’s trapped in a nightmarish present “I see his sadistic shadow now. I will always see it. Ingrained.” But her method of battling through this is extraordinary. It’s at once grotesque and hilarious and sad in a way I found utterly mesmerizing.

Just as the language in Peach’s thought process is slightly displaced, reality is also warped so that characters are at once human and embody the physical traits of their character name. Peach’s boyfriend Green is described as “shaking little leaves” when he laughs and his mouth is “mossy-soft.” Her infant sibling who is viewed as a jelly baby sweet is powdered by their parents with sugar. In a semi-comic scene in Mr Custard’s class the teacher must be formed from “yellow goop” into “Bits of arms, bits of legs, bits of bones but not really bones. Blobs” before a lesson on anatomy can continue. While this writing method might sound charmingly playful, it is also excruciatingly sinister when it comes to conveying the smell and appearance of Peach’s nemesis who stalks her. Glass’ absurdist technique of writing about characters is such an effective and new way of describing lost innocence.

Reading “Peach” is a highly unusual visceral experience whose subtleties I suspect can only be felt over time as the tendrils of this daring and imaginative narrative worm into the reader’s subconscious. Be prepared.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesEmma Glass
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For a period in my early 20s I worked as a caregiver to mentally handicapped adults who lived in halfway houses. These extraordinary women and men all required a varying amount of care, supervision and companionship. Often the work felt rewarding and enlivening, but sometimes it could be overwhelmingly upsetting and draining. In those dark moments it felt futile and insignificant. I mention this only because something I think Alice McDermott captures so powerfully in this novel is the sense of ambiguity that comes with the compulsion to “do good” vs the daily physical reality of providing care. The novel follows one family’s involvement with a nunnery in NYC where this band of Sisters regularly go out into the community to collect money for the poor, provide service to those in need and intervene in troubled situations. “The Ninth Hour” primarily follows the life of a girl named Sally born in a tragic situation and her heartrending struggles with faith and helping others in her journey to adulthood.

McDermott has a beguiling way of writing so eloquently about very dark scenes. The opening section is about a man’s suicide, but alongside the cold truth of his actions she imbues her prose with all the desperately conflicted feelings he has as he takes this decisive act. She ends this section in the most fascinating way by revealing the narrator is a collective group of descendants from this man. The novel traces the successive generations that follow this tragic man while also exploring the Sisterhood that assists this family in peril. I found this confusing at some times as it’s slightly difficult to decipher the relationships of some characters and the timeframe which any particular section is placed within. But it ultimately builds to a comprehensive picture of a family tree that could have so easily died out if fate had altered its course and the Sisters hadn’t been there.

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The work of the nuns is accompanied by a lot of morally ambiguous situations. Here the dogmas of faith are tested against the real needs of people in a changing society. Some of the nuns follow their own sense of goodness and others stick to the “rules” of religion as have been traditionally practiced. I was struck by the complex way McDermott writes about how faith is uniquely expressed in different individuals. Sister St. Saviour comes across as a quiet pioneer whose sense of justice for women overcomes misogynistic authority: “In her thirty-seven years of living in this city, Sister had collected any number of acquaintances who could surmount the many rules and regulations – Church rules and city rules and what Sister Miriam called the rules of polite society – that complicated the lives of women: Catholic women in particular and poor women in general.” It’s so heartbreaking how she’s portrayed as someone who works tirelessly when she sees people in need even if she’s already physically and mentally exhausted herself. I admire the complexity the author gives to these characters and their faith and shows the personal impact their devoted service has upon them.

It felt like one of the points of this novel is to restore feeling back into the cold branches of a family tree. McDermott states at one point in the narrative that “History was easy: the past with all loss burnt out of it, all sorrow worn out of it – all that was merely personal comfortably removed.” To really know and understand the struggles that Sally endures before producing a family, the story vividly shows her painfully calamitous train journey to become a nun in Chicago and the excruciating service she provides to a bad-tempered disabled woman. I was entranced by her journey and the conflicts she worked through to arrive where she belongs. This is the first time I’ve read Alice McDermott and I’ll be eager to read more.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAlice McDermott
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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 apt there’s a luminous diagram of a heart on the cover of this book of short stories since it’s a collection which brims over with emotional tales of family life. Christina, the narrator of the opening and closing stories, has a penchant for sour fruit so her parents nickname her “sour heart.” But this name also reflects the attitudes of the different girls who are all the daughters of American-Chinese immigrants at the centre of these stories. Their tales explore innocence lost and feelings that turn rotten as these girls variously witness severe bullying from other children, undergo sexual experimentation, abuse within the family, various levels of racism, extreme poverty, homelessness and alienation. Although there are some truly shocking scenes and events within this collection, it doesn’t read like a series of misery tales because the forceful idiosyncratic voices that drive these stories have such strength and vibrancy. These are frank, densely-detailed accounts of young women sifting through the past. Their testaments collectively ponder the meaning of home and family in order to understand the dynamics of their own hearts.

There are often stories within stories told throughout the book as the parents of these girls relate accounts of life in China and the struggles they endured to make a new life in America. Stacey’s grandmother in 'Why Were They Throwing Bricks?' recalls the violence her own past in ways which are often contradictory, but sweetly express a feverish affection for her grandchildren. What comes over in these tales and many of the other stories in this collection is that there is an emotional truth at their heart which may not be a literal truth. Yet, in the act of recollection there is a fierce exploration of how the severe circumstances which led to many of these families emigrating has impacted both the reality and the expectations placed on the children. For this reason, quite often the children at the centre of these stories rebel against their families. In ‘The Evolution of My Brother’ Jenny states “All I had wanted for so long was to be part of a family that wasn’t mine. To have an excuse to love mine less, an excuse to run away instead of staying so close all the time.” They long to be absorbed into another kind of American family, but find themselves tied to their Chinese heritage and how that informs their identities.

One of the longest stories which literally explores the present and past by flipping between 1966 and 1996 is ‘Our Mothers Before Them’. The earlier set tale is an account of how students in China empowered by the Maoist revolution rebel against and brutally persecute their teachers. The later date focuses on Annie who contemplates the opportunities her mother and father missed out on having to move to America and work hard to create a sustainable living. These dual stories embody the way the differing cultural and political landscapes have impacted the characters’ lives and why these individuals are filled with such contradictory, turbulent feelings.

Sour Heart is the first title published under Lena Dunham's imprint Lenny. Watch the author in conversation with Dunham.

As well as exploring the conflicts within families and the brutal challenges these girls sometimes face with people they encounter, there are many touching scenes of physical and emotional closeness. There are stories where the families imaginatively picture themselves as different parts of a hotdog or hamburger pressed together. Others show how the affection between family members change over time leading one girl to miss the stutter her brother grows out of and another to temporarily form a strong bond with a cousin still in Shanghai. But probably the most emotionally effective and moving story was the account of a grandmother’s different visits over the years in 'Why Were They Throwing Bricks?'

Part of what’s great about short story collections like “Sour Heart” and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s “The Refugees” is that they present a varied view of different kinds of immigrant experiences. Too often discussions about immigration lump people who have moved from one particular country to another into one generalized group. These books restore the individuality to these very different people’s lives and explore the way that the transition from one nation to another can have many different consequences. Jenny Zhang also gives a fascinating bit of puzzle work as some characters in the stories overlap thus creating a powerful sense of a particular universe where all these different stories are occurring. But an issue I had with “Sour Heart” is that the narrative tone doesn’t vary enough from story to story. Because they are all consistently densely-written and emotionally blunt, the different tales don’t always come across as distinct as they should. I would have been interested to see more stylistic differences and varying kinds of narration such as ‘Our Mothers Before Them’. The confessional authorial voice used in most stories undeniably is endowed with a special power that makes Zhang’s voice so refreshingly unique, but it also slightly detracts from what makes story collections so special.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJenny Zhang
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I’m often drawn to writing that acknowledges the awe one feels as an individual gazing at the universe but from an entirely secular perspective. The world and the fact of existence seems spectacular enough without attributing it to any grand design. (Nevertheless, I fully respect people who draw wisdom, comfort and community from different kinds of faith.) In her latest collection of poetry “All We Saw” it feels like Anne Michaels is beckoning the reader to join her on a spiritual journey that is entirely unconnected with religion. Her pared down poems describe the path of life as if travelling in a boat. She frequently makes pithy observations about the difficult process of cherishing our experiences without being too attached to them, especially with how this is done in writing and visual art. Her poems shift back and forth from the personal to the broadly objective to explore the tension of savouring what we love, but also learning to let it go. 

The book begins and ends with longer poems, but smaller ones are sandwiched in between. The final poem in the fifth section ‘Ask Aloud’ struck me most as simulating something like a prayer. In the bold statement “To love another more than oneself. To know this is to know everything” Michaels seems to be forming a mantra through which to live. She asks a series of questions and rather than assuming there are answers she declares “Not surmise. Sunrise” as if certain kinds of truth can only be understood fully by looking at nature. Imagery of the natural world repeats and crops up in various poems where knowledge can be better gleaned from the physical world rather than through a process of deduction or received wisdom. The poem ‘You Meet the Gaze of a Flower’ also acts as a kind of entreaty or prayer about confronting life head on. Nature can also encompass a sense of emotion which can’t be expressed in words: “how much that hope hurt and yet purple dusk, yellow winter sky”. I love the way in which you’re suddenly thrust from a place of deep personal feeling into the expanse of a colourful skyline.

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Point of view can shift in fascinating and moving ways throughout a single poem in Michaels’ writing. This probably occurs most dramatically in the poem ‘Bison’ where the description moves from the creation of a picture to inhabiting that picture to the dying artist who created the picture. The focus switches so fluidly it’s breathtaking to be drawn through it and creates a thoroughly unique resonance. This is very different from the blunt emotion to be found in ‘I Dreamed Again’ which describes how we can get lost in dream states where loved ones who are now deceased can physically exist in our lives again – something like what Joan Didion describes in her memoir “The Year of Magical Thinking.” Such longing for a connection with another is consistent with the existential panic that can result from absolute solitude. In her poem ‘Not’ she seems to assert that we possess innumerable uncertainties in life but we can be certain we are not alone when another person is with us. I also like speculating whether this poem is a play off from Samuel Beckett’s famous piece for the theatre ‘Not I’ and offers a different kind of answer from the loveless life of the narrator in that dramatic monologue.

The title poem which concludes the book touches back on water imagery found in the beginning. It also harkens back to a kind of communal spiritual practice where she states “we had only to bend our heads as if reading the same book open between us”. To surmise that the same truth about all the manifold experiences and emotions of life can be understood by looking at the natural world is a beautifully optimistic one. Yet, I also like how she seems to intimate that horizons can create a false belief. A skyline gives the illusion that there is an endpoint when in actuality it will continue on no matter how much you run towards it – just like our images of future happiness will inevitably dissolve because we will always desire more. The book “All We Saw” is a beautifully spare and artful creation.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAnne Michaels

Every once in a while a new book will remind me how novels are really lawless. Of course, the very word novel means that every iteration of this form of storytelling makes its own rules. But some fiction like the jubilantly inventive books of Ali Smith or the wide experimental canvass of Joyce Carol Oates audaciously twist structures we’ve become accustomed to, subvert genres and play with language to produce exciting results. I was thrilled to find George Saunders’ first novel “Lincoln in the Bardo” accomplishes this as well. I’ve read some of his stories in the past, but this novel confirms for me that his high level of literary esteem is entirely warranted. He takes a melodramatic subject like Abraham Lincoln visiting his son’s grave and makes it profoundly emotional. He embraces clichés about the afterlife to create uproariously funny or terrifying scenes of possession, haunting and the judgement day. He picks out quotes from period documents and nonfiction, but interjects his own history between the lines. He writes dialogue as if this were a play to form a chorus of witnesses to the incredibly intimate scene of a father saying goodbye to his deceased boy. In short, he grabs the historical novel and flips it on its head.

Although their son Willie is suffering terribly from a case of typhoid, the Lincolns can’t cancel a grand party being thrown at the White House. During the night the stricken boy passes away and is put to rest in a graveyard – except his spirit doesn’t rest. He now exists in the realm of the Bardo which is a Tibetan word that means an intermediate state where the soul is still connected to earthly attachments before it can pass onto another life. Here the laws of nature are broken for the stricken spirits who dwell there so their physical characteristics are muddled with the strident emotions they experienced towards the ends of their lives. The two main spirit protagonists are deformed so that Hans Vollman is lumbered with a horrendous oversized erection from the marriage he never consummated with his young bride and the features of Roger Bevins III are crowded with a multiple ears, mouths and noses after his botched suicide. Along with the troubled spirit of The Reverend Everly Thomas, these beings seek to guide the young spirit of Willie in his afterlife.

There are a profusion of aberrations in appearance and behaviour for the many other beings that crowd this graveyard. Most especially, some spirits are locked in perpetual battles that have carried on into the afterlife such as a demonic couple with unholy cravings, a professor and pickle producer stuck in an endless circle of mutual adoration and a white supremacist that is endlessly beaten by the black man he demeans. In a nightmarish way, this portrait of the unsettled hereafter depicts our conflicts of class, race, romance and sexuality trapped in a painful circle. It's like endless episodes of those trashy sensational talk shows, but written in a way which is surreal and brilliantly insightful. There is a beyond which these spirits cannot move onto because they can’t let go of their attachment to these irresolvable struggles. The heartrending conflict at the centre of this book is the fight for the boy Willie’s soul between the spirits who want to usher him on to the next realm and the father who cannot let him go.

There have been other novels which have intelligently played out the psychological and social conflicts of existence in a version of the afterlife. Most notably, Hilary Mantel’s “Beyond Black” depicts a medium plagued by her own demons and Will Self’s “How the Dead Live” depicts a woman who died of cancer guided through the guilt-laden landscape of the hereafter. However, the book that most came to mind when reading Saunders’ novel was the ‘Nighttown’ or ‘Circle’ episode in James Joyce’s “Ulysses”. Not only is this also written like a play script, but it becomes a hallucinatory experience as the fears and passions of the protagonist are externalized. Similarly, in Saunders’ distorted physical plane traditional linear notions of time collapse and the ravenous ego runs riot. The ensuing chaotic drama is a physical realization of the unchained dark side of consciousness where every private part of being takes shape before our eyes. It’s an experience that is both liberating and utterly terrifying.

William Wallace "Willie" Lincoln

William Wallace "Willie" Lincoln

Gradually I began to feel that this eccentric narrative isn’t so much about its fascinating enormous cast of characters, but the quiet man at the novel’s centre which is Lincoln himself. Here is an individual trying to deal with a horrendous personal tragedy amidst leading a country in the early years of the Civil War. His thoughts and feelings aren’t ever depicted except for when some of the spirits briefly inhabit his body. Instead what we get are a multitude of perspectives about this mortal man at the centre of history’s maelstrom. Accounts quoted throughout the text alternatively depict him as a benevolent saint and the scourge who has torn the nation apart. The conflicting opinions range from Lincoln’s physical characteristics to his political policies. This juxtaposition of public views obliterate Lincoln’s mortality and turn him into a mythic figurehead, a controversial man who has gone on to be the celebrated national hero credited for breaking the chains of slavery. Yet Saunders re-endows Lincoln with the solemn dignity of a mere man in mourning by also showing him through the eyes of the souls that dwell in the graveyard. To them he’s only a gangly melancholy figure clinging to the body of his dead son.

“Lincoln in the Bardo” is an experience like no other. By the end I truly mourned for the fascinatingly diverse cast of characters. The story is hilariously funny, frightening, devastatingly sad, and consistently surprising. It’s unquestionably disorientating to read at first, but soon it becomes utterly mesmerising so that by the end all I wanted to do was read it again from the beginning to pick up on all the nuances of character, bizarre feats of narrative and historical encounters it contains. It’s extraordinary.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesGeorge Saunders
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For gay people like me, it’s disheartening growing up without seeing examples of long term same-sex love reflected in the books we read and the films we watch – never mind seeing it actually realized in the world around us. I was raised in rural Maine where there were few gay people. It was extremely difficult to come out of the closet although I consider myself lucky to have known supportive people and I had a much easier time than many. If I'd been born ten years earlier it would have been much more difficult. During my teenage years in the mid-90s I became sexually aware and eagerly looked for stories about various kinds of queer experience. However, the majority of examples I saw on television/films or read about in novels were comically-presented/hopelessly-single camp men or “deviants” who endlessly cruised without settling down, died from AIDS related illnesses and could not experience any real romance that didn’t end in bleak tragedy. These stories needed to be told (as long as they were told sensitively). But how could I envision a love life for myself based only on examples of broken romance? Matthew Griffin's beautiful debut novel “Hide” tells a story that I hungered for as a teen: a layered and nuanced lifelong romance between two men. But this is more than simply a gay romance; it's a novel about how love transforms over large stretches of time and the different roles partners play during difficult periods of life.

Frank and Wendell meet after WWII in North Carolina. Frank served in the war and Wendell works as a taxidermist. Amidst their burgeoning romance within a small community, they are aware of the dangerous consequences if they were to be open about their feelings for each other. Instead of risking familial rejection, public condemnation, possible imprisonment and/or psychiatric institutionalization they choose to retreat to an extremely isolated house in the country and never allow anyone to know that they are together. When they must be seen together they pretend to be brothers. An incident like the occurs at the novel's beginning when Frank who is in his eighties collapses in their garden from heart trouble. Told from Wendell's perspective, we see over the course of the novel the heart-wrenching struggle as Frank continues to deteriorate both mentally and physically. Interspersed with the increasing strain of their daily lives are accounts of their relationship over the decades and the sacrifices they've made isolating themselves from the rest of society.

Amidst descriptions about Wendell's profession stuffing animals there are some strikingly memorable images of the body's physical reality and the emotional resonance of dealing with it. This leads to some arresting statements about the surface of things: “It's the skin and the skin alone that makes any of us worthy of love or kindness. Underneath it we are monsters, every living thing.” There is something profoundly beautiful and sombre about revelations made from working with the body and what this means for identity in the case of Frank's condition. Griffin is bracingly honest about the stress caused from the slow physical/mental breakdown of ageing and the antagonism it creates. It's so skilful how he shows the power of their relationship not only through moments of moving tenderness but in the intimate forms of cruelty which can only be enacted by a couple who really love each other.

The extreme discretion of their relationship requires them to say very little about themselves to anyone outside of their carefully guarded circumscribed domestic life. They find that “The best lies, we’d learned, don’t ask you to say a word. They practically tell themselves.” This anonymity prevents them from fully engaging with their communities but also cuts them off from their families. At one point during their many years together Frank's aunt attempts to make contact with him as he is her favourite nephew, but Frank staunchly deflects any chance for a meaningful connection even when it seems she might be sympathetic to the truth of their situation. He decides the risk is too great.

Their reclusive life not only requires losing out on family life but also any lasting record of their love. At one point Wendell realizes “when we’re gone, nobody will remember any of it. Nobody will see our photos and marvel that we, too, were young once; nobody will wonder about the things we never told them. It will be as if none of it ever happened.” It's a grave tragedy that their love story can't be a part of the narrative of their families or society. It's lost to succeeding generations. Many gay boys like me would have felt less alone growing up knowing that someone from a previous generation in my family had been in a same-sex relationship. A simple photograph of two men from the past with their arms romantically around each other would have been a profound revelation.

It's a worthy task of novelists today to reclaim the love experienced by previous generations of gay people through imaginative stories. It inserts back into our culture what must have happened but what we can never know about because it could only exist in silence. A series of authors have differently approached this in their recent writing from Patrick Gale's “A Place Called Winter” to Sjon's “Moonstone”. Matthew Griffin's extremely moving book is a wonderful addition to this burgeoning canon of literature. “Hide” is an elegantly written and powerful novel. It's important that succeeding generations of gay people have more stories like this.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMatthew Griffin
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