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“Lost Children Archive” must have one of the most unusual structures for a novel that I’ve read in a long time. It seems natural that Valeria Luiselli’s first novel written in English would chiefly concern the plight of immigrant children as her extended essay “Tell Me How It Ends” so powerfully laid out this harrowing dilemma. Since politicians often turn immigration into an abstract political debate, Luiselli has a tremendous ability for highlighting and reminding us how this is above all a human rights issue and makes us see the humans effect. The ramifications for children who are adrift and literally wandering blindly through this landscape with stringently guarded borders are incalculable because when they become lost in a political system “They are children who have lost the right to a childhood.” In this novel she expands this understanding and creates an artful story which traverses time and space to illuminate a new way of looking at what happens when our society loses its children.

At its centre, this is a road trip novel about a husband and wife driving with their son and daughter across America. They’re engaged in a project to capture and record the sounds of the country to better understand its nature of being. The couple’s relationship is also disintegrating and the closer they come to their destination the closer this family comes to separating. What begins as a deeply-felt intellectual reflection about the ways we negotiate children’s place in our lives turns into a tense search for those who have gone missing with hallucinatory twists. It sounds confusing and I’m still puzzling over the experience of it, but this innovative novel shines with so much humanity I found it utterly compelling and engaging.

Luiselli writes endearingly about private moments of family life – especially when confined in the restricted space of a car for most of the day. There are funny moments which take the mother out of her brooding and serious concern: “Children’s words, in some ways, are the escape route out of family dramas, taking us to their strangely luminous underworld, safe from our middle-class catastrophes.” It’s interesting how there’s a sense that this family is somewhat new to each other since both the father’s son and the mother’s daughter are children from previous relationships, but their bond and connection to each other is so strong. There is also a constant feeling of their anonymity since none of these family members are named (except for the girl who is nicknamed Memphis by the son when they pass through the Tennessee city.) The mother who narrates the first half of the book frequently makes up stories about their lives to tell the strangers they meet amidst their journey. So all these aspects of the book build a sense that they are both everyone and no one belonging everywhere and nowhere.

One of the ways the parents try to entertain (and distract) the children during their long car rides is to play an audio book of “Lord of the Flies”. The narrative of Golding’s tremendous novel has a powerful effect on the son who takes the story’s messages about struggle and survival to heart. But it also shows how Luiselli is forming a dialogue with the narratives of classic stories to come to a new understanding of how we structure society and the core values that should serve as the base of its foundations. “Lost Children Archive” additionally references and converses with the ideas of writers such as Walt Whitman, Jack Kerouac and Susan Sontag. There’s also a fictional book called “Elegies for Lost Children” in the mother’s possession which she reads aloud from and it’s quoted from at length in the novel itself. It’s the story of a band of children’s struggle to arrive at a new home while riding atop dangerous trains and being led by tyrannical guides.

Photo by Nan Goldin. “When I see the people of this country, their vitality, their decadence, their loneliness, their desperate togetherness, I see the gaze of Emmet Gowin, Larry Clark, and Nan Goldin.”

Photo by Nan Goldin. “When I see the people of this country, their vitality, their decadence, their loneliness, their desperate togetherness, I see the gaze of Emmet Gowin, Larry Clark, and Nan Goldin.”

These stories are narrated aloud and they meld with radio news they listen to about the growing Mexican-American border crisis and reports of undocumented migrant children being flown out of the country. The mother is particularly preoccupied with these children’s futures, but the father is more concerned with the past as their ultimate destination is the southwest where he wants to search for any lingering sounds of decimated Native American tribes. In a sense the parents are tragically outside of the present and their anxiety over how to document the experiences of these displaced people reflect a general feeling that “Something changed in the world. Not too long ago, it changed, and we know it. We don’t know how to explain it yet, but I think we all can feel it, somewhere deep in our gut or in our brain circuits. We feel time differently… We haven’t understood how space and time exist now, how we really experience them. And until we find a way to document them, we will not understand them.” Equipped only with their instincts and some boxes of scattered maps, books and tools, the family are on a quest to learn how to capture this experience of the present. Until then, their ultimate endpoint and sense of home remains perilously uncertain – just as it does for all of us.

This is an absolutely fascinating, clever and complex novel which takes seriously the personal impact of politics and gives a new way of looking at the bonds of family.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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This short and powerful nonfiction piece by Valeria Luiselli is such a poignantly constructed insight into the immigration crisis/debate in America now. Luiselli relates her experiences working as a volunteer interviewing thousands of children from Central America who have been smuggled into the United States and are seeking residency/citizenship. She asks them questions from an intake questionnaire created by immigration lawyers that will play a large part in determining if the children will be granted status to remain or face deportation. Going through the questions one at a time she explains the way the immigration system is designed to keep as many people out as possible without accounting for these children’s vulnerable situation or America’s role in the creation of this crisis. At the same time, she relates her personal experiences as a Mexican immigrant whose own ability to work was restricted because of a delay with her visa. It’s an achingly personal book that makes a strong political statement. It skilfully asserts something that shouldn’t need to be stated, but which we need to be reminded of in a political climate that overwhelmingly seeks to vilify immigrants: that these are children who have suffered through hell and that by treating them as criminals we are only adding to their trauma.

Luiselli’s justified anger and frustration about the situation these children find themselves in is palpable throughout the book. As a volunteer whose main job is to translate the children’s answers and who can do nothing to assist or change the outcome of their cases she feels that “It was like watching a child crossing a busy avenue, about to be run down by any of the many speeding cars and trucks”. It’s striking how government policies don’t seem to recognize the human faces that Luiselli meets, but implements decisions based on strategic ways of restricting vulnerable children’s ability to fairly state their case and strip them of their humanity. In fact, it was shocking to learn how the Obama administration worked with the Mexican president to implement immigration policies in Mexico to more effectively prevent immigrants from other Central American countries from getting to the US in the first place. Given the current president’s stance on immigration from Central America it’s terrifying to think how even greater walls are being created to keep out children who face continuous abuse, slavery or death in their own communities.

People in the US are made to feel that these problems belong to the Central American countries, but the issues of drug wars, arms trade and gang violence are intimately tied with US history and its policies. Luiselli reminds us how “No one suggests that the causes are deeply embedded in our shared hemispheric history and are therefore not some distant problem in a foreign country that no one can locate on a map, but in fact a transnational problem that includes the United States – not a distant observer or passive victim that must now deal with thousands of unwanted children arriving at the southern border, but rather as an active historical participant in the circumstances that generated that problem.”

Threaded throughout this book is the request from Luiselli’s daughter to know how the stories of these immigrant children end. Of course, all of their stories are just beginning so in response she says “Sometimes I make up an ending, a happy one. But most of the time I just say: I don’t know how it ends yet.” I greatly admire the clear-sighted observations found in this book and its tremendous heart. 

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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I have very conflicted feelings about “Reservoir 13” by Jon McGregor because I admired so much about its technique and ingenuity, but I often wasn't engaged by the story in that satisfying way I hope a novel will make me feel. The novel centres around 13 year old Rebecca Shaw who goes missing and the effect her disappearance has on the local village. It traces the reverberations of this occurrence for over a decade recording small slices of the villagers' lives and the changing seasons as well as speculation about what happened to Rebecca or “Becky” or “Bex.” In this way, the novel accurately reflects what it's like to be vaguely aware of a missing girl and periodically see references to her in the media over time. It's poignant how a missing child never ages, but remains a peripheral presence in our consciousness while we continue to grow and change. Despite computer generated sketches that speculate how Rebecca might look if she aged, the villagers mentally see the girl preserved in her youthful form and she exists fundamentally as a haunting unanswered question.

McGregor depicts a large cast of characters in a glancing way where we receive intimations about life developments, but never delve into any one character's psyche very deeply. Over a long period of time we see friends make plans for the future, follow different paths in life and reunite for awkward catch-ups. Marriages break up, optimistically come back together and fizzle out again. In this way, the novel gives the most extraordinarily accurate sense of village life where we have a vague awareness of major life changes for a certain group of people, but never truly get to know them. A novel which produces a similar effect (but has a very different style and nature) is Joanna Cannon's “The Trouble with Goats and Sheep” which also concerns a community's reaction to a missing person. It makes a poignant commentary about the natural way we socialize, make assumptions about others and never get the chance to truly engage with them on a meaningful level. It’s also really beautifully written but there are lots of mundane details about the multitude of characters’ lives alongside details that clue you into larger issues those characters are dealing with. Because I didn’t feel like I really knew the characters in depth, I cared about those mundane details even less than I would in a novel where there are a few central characters I got to know really well. If that were the case, I’d be okay with treading water waiting for a more interesting plot development or psychological insight. But, in “Reservoir 13” I felt like I didn't grasp who many of the characters were until page 200 or so – at which time there was so little of their story left in the novel it's like I barely ever knew them at all.

No doubt a rereading would yield a more fruitful understanding of the characters involved. The first time I read Virginia Woolf's “The Waves” I had difficulty distinguishing between the six central characters – partly because the oddball poetic language blurred them into one at first. It's only been through multiple re-readings that each character has crystallised into a distinct individual with many layers of psychological depth. In the long run, that made the novel feel so much more rewarding and also turned it into my absolute favourite novel. The comparison between these novels is apt because McGregor's novel also follows a small group of adolescents' lives as they grow up and in doing so poignantly captures the flow of time and paths in life. Woolf also traces how the sun rises and crosses the sky in her novel while McGregor gives equal weight to changes in nature. Frequently descriptions of characters' lives are interspersed in the same paragraph with an observation about developments in the lives of local animals like birds and foxes. So while we witness characters give birth, change jobs and suffer, we also witness over the years bats who breed, feed and hibernate. This gives an even more fully rounded portrait of what it's like to live in a community.

Each section begins with a new year and a description of fireworks in the village. 

Each section begins with a new year and a description of fireworks in the village. 

Alongside descriptions of specific characters McGregor also refers to the lives of peripheral individuals in a striking way. A man moves to the village and people think of him as “the widower” even though no one knows the specifics of his situation. It turns out that his wife isn't dead at all; they are merely separated. Yet, the community still think of him as a widower and never get to know many more details of his life. The false impression about him has been cemented in the public's consciousness in a way which is both tragic and comic. A similar impression is given of the missing girl's parents who are viewed from a distance in a way that we can see hints of their painful conflict, but don't really fully understand or know them. A different but equally meaningful effect is created when we get a slight understanding of the domestic abuse a mother receives at the hands of her mentally/behaviourally-disabled child or the fear of a woman who escaped a painfully destructive marriage or a man's conflicted feelings about his son's homosexuality. Other characters are hesitant to intrude upon these characters personal lives making the reader feel the excruciating sting of isolation.

All this means that I've been really moved thinking about what Jon McGregor did in the structure and style of this novel. It's a revelatory depiction of what it means to live in a community and society. But, at the same time, when I was actually reading it I found my mind so often drifting to other things and I found it difficult to concentrate on. McGregor's successful stylistic choices effectively convey powerful meaning, but at the expense of a wholly immersive story. So it depends what kind of reading experience you're after. If you want a book you can meditate on and get more out of by reading it a second time around, “Reservoir 13” is a great book. But it's not the kind of novel that pulls you into the text so that you entirely forget that the world exists around you – at least, it didn't do that for me reading it for the first time.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJon McGregor
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One of the most horrific of human betrayals must be the abuse of a child by a parent. Not only does this warp a young person's development, but normalizes cruelty to the degree where a child might then inflict it upon others and themselves. Debut novel “My Absolute Darling” by Gabriel Tallent gives a startlingly new and heart-wrenching look at the way a child is made to feel dependent upon her father's abuse. Fourteen year old Julia is raised by her single father Martin in a rundown house on the California coast. The only other familial contact she has is with her decrepit but kindly grandfather, Daniel. She goes by the nickname 'Turtle' but Martin more often affectionately calls her 'Kibble' or 'My Absolute Darling.' Martin is very scholarly and often reads philosophy, but he’s prone to paranoia as he has extreme survivalist beliefs. Their shack is filled with an arsenal of weapons which he frequently trains Turtle in using. She’s a very adept student who can load, clean and accurately fire a range of guns. As Turtle prepares to go to high school and grows older, their isolated home life becomes more strained and intolerable. This is a mesmerizing story full of courage, dramatic scenes and insight into the formation of a severely damaged young individual’s identity.  

Tallent has a curious writing style which treads somewhere between a hyper-realized reality and an elevated intellectual drama. The story is highly attuned to the natural world. Frequently scenes are filled with rich descriptions of the plants and animals that surround their rural house. This reminded me of the kind of detail found in recent novel “The Sport of Kings” by C.E. Morgan or the pastoral scenes found in books by Émile Zola. Turtle’s psychology is presented in a complex way to show her skewed perspective of the world that’s been tainted by Martin’s oppositional personality and overbearing ideology filled with hate towards women. For instance, when she sees a well-meaning girl at her school she thinks: "I will grow up to be forthright and hard and dangerous, not a subtle, smiling, trick-playing cunt like you." The blunt unmediated reality of her inner and outer life are so forcefully presented, yet the trajectory of her story and interactions with others feel more akin a highly stylized drama. The closest comparison I can make is to the film ‘The Night of the Hunter’ which pays close attention to the details of nature and children’s loss of innocence under an insidious masculine figure. It’s both concretely realistic and saturated by an elegiac filter that makes it feel mythic.

The most fascinating way the novel deviates from being truly naturalistic is in the social interactions Turtle has with a couple of boys she meets on a hike. Brett and Jacob are just a little older than her, yet they are so learned that they frequently drop literary allusions into their discussions and reference classic literature. This is a consistent trope throughout the novel with Martin who often applies philosophical stances to their situations or even how he names a hated spider that inhabits their house Virginia Woolf. It’s through the friendship that Turtle strikes up with Brett and Jacob that the reader is keyed into a whole level of society surrounding her which Turtle is excluded from. The landscape which felt totally wild, untamed and impoverished through Turtle’s eyes reveals itself as an ordered and privileged place filled with affluent houses and valuable property. This realization forcefully smacks the girl: "Turtle has always known that other people grew up differently than she did. But she had, she thinks, no idea how differently." It’s tremendously powerful how the author presents this shift, yet it also felt slightly jarring. Brett and Jacob’s characters are so idiosyncratic that it’s difficult to believe the bond they hurriedly form with the aloof and combative figure of Turtle.

The greatest power of this novel is in its evocation of Turtle’s development and conflicted psychology. Her father insults her horrifically leading her to hate her personality, her intellect and her body. At one point she thinks "the slit is illiterate - that word undresses her of all that she has knotted and buckled up about herself; she feels collapsed – every bitter, sluttish part of her collapsed and made identical to that horrible clam." Yet she thinks his behaviour is justified and she mentally defends him: "she thinks, you are hard on me, but you are good for me, too, and I need that hardness in you.” Martin alternates physical, mental and sexual abuse with declarations of how much he values her and how they stand as a pair in opposition to the world. This makes Turtle feel that she has no purpose or value outside of this enclosed severely dysfunctional relationship. The author shows how this inner conflict plays out through torturously tense scenes and how painful it is for Turtle to imagine a life without her father’s dominant presence: "She thinks, I don't even know what all right would look like. I don't even know what that would mean."

Watch Gabriel Tallent discuss his inspiration for writing My Absolute Darling.

Other recent novels such as Hanya Yanagihara’s “A Little Life” and Eimear McBride’s “The Lesser Bohemians” have shown the long-term effects of abuse for difficult individuals. But I think “My Absolute Darling” gets a fascinating new angle on this harrowing issue capturing the powerful emotion of a damaged individual’s trajectory. Tallent shows the way a person’s instinct can help guide her towards realizing what’s right for her life. Even though this is an intensely dramatic and sensational story that’s definitely nothing like my own life, I found myself connecting with and relating to Turtle’s shifting internal logic. It’s challenging to reconcile the way you perceive and value yourself in relation to how others’ react to you. Learning to take on and process what others make you feel without letting it distort your sense of being is monumentally difficult. “My Absolute Darling” inhabits this struggle so powerfully.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesGabriel Tallent
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In the past several months I've been thinking a lot about how my parents have influenced who I am. It's only become evident after some time and distance while making my own life in adulthood how patterns of behaviour can be seen in relation to how I was raised and how I reacted to them. I don't want to ascribe blame for any of my shortcomings on my parents' actions. It's simply interesting to observe and try to understand how the alchemy of nature and nurture influence attitudes and values throughout life. This novel acutely observes how “A life could be spent like an apology – to prove you had been worth it.” I believe that if we don't frequently reflect on the way our families have made us who we are the self becomes wayward, acting out in reaction to the past rather than working to better realize who we are in the present.

“The Portable Veblen” is about a couple who meet and marry, but it's much more a story about families and how two people can forge lives of their own coming out of very difficult family situations. Veblen is a thirty year old woman who lives on the remote edges of Palo Alto working secretarial temp jobs to fund her passion for translating Norwegian literature and studying her namesake Thorstein Bunde Veblen, a Norwegian-American economist. She freely quotes William James and sees herself as a curious kind of “travelling scribe” recording the lives of those around her. She meets and quickly falls in love with Paul Vreeland, a thirty-five year old research scientist who is on the brink of discovering a revolutionary new method for relieving cranial swelling and brain damage from head trauma. They want to marry soon, but planning a wedding isn't simple with families like these.

Veblen's mother Melanie is a hypochondriac who seems to have a new chronic medical condition every day and has a fierce emotional attachment to her daughter. Melanie's husband Linus, Veblen's step-father, tiptoes around his wife trying not to upset her and caters to her frequent unreasonable whims. Veblen's father Rudgear has been living for years in a mental institution as he suffers from PTSD and barely recognizes his daughter on her infrequent visits. Because Veblen has needed to take on a caring role for both her parents she still clings to childish fantastical notions of fictional lands filled with animals. It means she talks to squirrels.

Paul was raised under very different circumstances where his anti-establishment parents lived in a type of commune that grows marijuana. When they aren't engaged in sessions of chemically-induced escapism, most of their care and attention goes to Paul's mentally disabled brother. This upbringing has in turn made Paul very independently-minded and ambitious to gain approval from the establishment. However, his aspirations to achieve recognition in medical technology and bring his device to fruition entangle him in a corrupt system that his parents were rightly suspicious of. Alongside the story of his evolving relationship with Veblen is a plot about a corrupt medical industry that values profit over people's health care.

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  Thorstein Bunde Veblen

Thorstein Bunde Veblen

There are many cringe-worthy tragicomic scenes in this book as the couple meet each other's families and try to navigate how they can successfully integrate them into the life they want to build together. Importantly, the author doesn't mock the parents in this book or make them targets of derision for the ways they may or may not have fucked up their children. McKenzie takes care to show how they are capable of catering to their children's wellbeing when it's really needed. There is a tenderness of feeling present amidst the chaos as Veblen declares at one point “But you love your family, what can you do.”

It's interesting how McKenzie can introduce surprising moments of self-reflection amidst her narrative. As the characters' lives teeter on the brink of losing all control she can suddenly stop and ask searching questions which probe how the past and family life might influence the way her characters relate to their partners: “Was it possible to love the contradictions in somebody? Was it all but impossible to find somebody without them? Had her mother made of her a ragged-edged shard without a fit?” There is an endearing feeling throughout this novel of desperately trying to make sense of one's life while facing the challenges of life and trying to forge honest meaningful relationships.

McKenzie also has a fascinating absurd slant on the world. The squirrel Veblen maintains an occasional dialogue with becomes an important character himself and bends the plot of the story. Interspersed with the text of the story are occasional photos depicting a variety of things that Veblen either sees or imagines which make the reader more immersed in her view of the world. There’s an intriguing urgency to this author’s narrative which is more concerned with what her characters are thinking and feeling moment to moment rather than creating an organized structure to their journey or finding a clear consistent focus. She allows for moments of pause such as this: “She relaxed and watched a family at a table nearby, the parents feeding the children, wiping their mouths, cleaning their hands, a father and mother and two children, the unit of them unsettling to her, though she couldn’t say why. She looked away, at an older man eating by himself, and that unsettled her too. She wasn’t sure how to live.” Rather than developing her characters, McKenzie allows them to wade in uncertainty in a way which is strikingly poignant and meaningfully blunt.

“The Portable Veblen” is a curious book in that it isn’t afraid to keep asking questions for which there can be no solutions. I felt really connected to the story because of that and enjoyed the humorous and relevant journey of psychological insight it took me on.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson

Who are you? Are you the physical body you inhabit, the family/country you were born into or the person that you believe yourself to be? Trapped as you are in your own consciousness the boundaries between these states of being flow effortlessly from moment to moment. In other words “One day you’re yourself, the next you’re not quite.”  Traditional narratives construct stories that lead you through a character’s journey that often hint at the tensions between that character’s internal and external reality. Gavin Corbett breaks all those walls down in his novel “Green Glowing Skull” so the separate containers of identity all slosh into one riotous head fuck. It’s absolute chaos, but it’s also true.

I know that all sounds abstract, but it’s what I think the novel is really about. I’ll try to give an approximate summary of the story. An Irish man named Rickard Velily moves to New York City where he meets two older long-time Irish immigrants named Denny and Clive. The later was actually born as a woman named Jean Dotsy. There is a belief about Ireland that “The country’s gone to ruin and there’s no going back. The rot has set right in deep now.” Aidan Brown (nicknamed “Quicklime”) is a man who works for a charity seeking to convince “valued” Irish expats to return to their native land. He tries to target Clive who persistently resists his entreaties. Rickard, Denny and Clive form a tenor group singing folk songs that remind Irish expatriates of their homeland. Many of these expats meet in the city’s Cha Bum Kun clubhouse which supports Irish men freshly arrived in the city who are in need of housing. The historic clubhouse might be in its final days with a billion dollar offer on the table for the property which could give these men personal freedom, but also sever the ties to their native country. The story also contains wild shih tsu who prowl the city’s sewers like vermin, exploding heads and a man that turns himself into a bowling ball.

The overriding preoccupation of this entertaining and wild novel is national identity. In many ways it’s a familiar tale. Someone from Ireland moves to New York City. It’s a story that’s been told in many forms – even in recent great novels like “Brooklyn,” “Academy Street” and “We Are Not Ourselves.” Corbett resists traditional forms of narrative because he doesn’t want his protagonist to “feel like a tragic cabbage-scented character in a Irish rural drama.” Rather, the three main characters pursue their singing which conjures Ireland as a place more powerfully as a state of mind than a physical location. It’s stated that “It was a dream Ireland, yes, they both admitted, finally and without any provocation; but it was an Ireland that they once had been prepared to fight and die for to make real, just like those Young Irelanders.” Equally, the New York City that these immigrants come to is also a state of mind, something Rickard wanted to enter into after seeing it portrayed in his favourite film. The trouble is that the reality of either place doesn’t align with how people imagine it to be. People cast about desperately and without a home to call their country. They lose their heads.

Klein Blue IKB_191

Klein Blue IKB_191

There is also a sense in this novel that technology is changing our consciousness, the way we communicate and even the physical world. There is a coding underlying reality. Back in Ireland, Rickard worked for a company which harvested redundant text from the internet. “The world of information, he was told, was not just a paperless one but a wireless one now too. The medium was the air – even matter – itself; its bore limitless. Moving in three dimensions these days was to move through a fourth dimension, and for it to move through him.” There is a curious sense of synaesthesia which occurs when someone sees a string of nonsense lettering, numbers and symbols where that can instantly translate within the mind into a colour. Corbett also has a talent for combining humour and social observation with playfully-expressed nonsense. A colleague of Rickard’s enthusiastically decrees that “we stand on the threshold of a new conceptual framework for non-augmented non-experiential eventfulness.” This could be the nonsense speak of a corporate ethos, but here it’s revealed to be the gibberish it really is.

I have a particular fondness for absurdity in literature and I loved this novel. Some of my favourite books are Eugene Ionesco’s only novel “The Hermit” and Samuel Beckett’s novels which twist identity and time so that the physical world becomes wildly distorted and, consequently, a more accurate representation of the loose foundations of the stripped-down consciousness. Corbett’s writing unapologetically takes similar liberties disregarding what is realistic for what feels right. However, I often found in this novel that just when I felt I was being taken to the brink where I couldn’t comprehend what was happening at all, Corbett reeled me back in with absolutely tender and honest scenes. For instance, there is a section of dialogue between Denny and his wife where he says: “Do you know what is great about you? I can tell you things that I don’t tell myself.” This is such a romantic and true way of expressing how we reveal ourselves to those we love when we can’t even understand who we are, yet it doesn’t deviate from Corbett’s absurdist style.

“Green Glowing Skull” is a wholly-original, cleverly-filthy and entertaining novel that shifts your perspective of reality.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesGavin Corbett

Casting a bleak shadow over Stevan Alcock’s coming of age tale set in the late 1970s about a teenage boy named Rick, are listings of The Yorkshire Ripper’s victims. Peter Sutcliffe murdered thirteen women and attempted to murder several others. Each chapter in “Blood Relatives” is titled with the name of one of Sutcliffe’s victims. This causes the reader to feel the fear which filled the public consciousness over the five years during which these attacks and murders took place in the Yorkshire area. Adding to this understanding of Rick’s milieu is the language of his voice which recreates the regional dialect of Leeds. This makes for a fantastically evocative narrative about Rick’s development as a man who engages with the punk and gay movements of the time.

Rick works with his friend Eric on a truck that delivers soft drinks to eccentric locals. He spends time talking with these colourful characters receiving bits of local gossip and even psychic predictions about who the Ripper will strike next. He has a special affinity to the prostitutes they visit and humorously remarks at one point “I asked Eric why all our breaks were wi’ prozzies. He said prozzies make better tea.” Rick feels an affinity to the prostitutes because they are outsiders from mainstream society which is how he feels in part because of his homosexuality. He senses that they are equally vulnerable remarking “The distance between t’ prozzies and us gays didn’t seem to be much greater than between two gateposts; if it worn’t prozzies that some maniac wor killing it could just as easily be gay men, and the public reaction would be t’ same – they got what wor coming to them.”

In the “Studio 54 of t’ North” Rick and Tad dance to Thelma Houston’s ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’

It’s unusual and refreshing to read about a gay character that is so forthright and unequivocal about his sexuality. Even if Rick can’t bring himself to come out to his mother, he boldly tries to find a place for himself within the gay community. Later on Rick reflects that “For me… I thought, ‘Brilliant, I’m different. Special.’ I thought, ‘Yeah – this is all right, really.’” There are endearing and relatable scenes where Rick seeks out gay pubs/meetings and takes on lovers. He quickly finds how fickle men can be once their lust is satiated; his unrequited romantic yearnings harden him and contribute to him creating a punk persona. He frequents clubs and a squat that includes many more vibrant and outrageous characters. Through these encounters he even uncovers a deeper understanding about the past and hidden facts about his own identity.

Inextricably intertwined with the manner of speech used in this novel are notions of the battling ideologies and commonplace racism/misogyny/homophobia of the time. Here’s an example of the language in this narrative: “She wor wearing a trowel-load of slap over t’thin vaneer of abuse doled out by hubby Don, and a pong so raking I thought I’d gag if I so much as flared a nostril.” In addition to the horrendous acts of violence perpetrated by Sutcliffe, Alcock suggests there are untold amounts of violence against women happening behind closed doors. There are also references in the story about discrimination against people of colour in the community. Asian men are seen as segregated even within the queer social groups. A gay man from Iran is shunned by his family and the English with ultimately tragic consequences. It’s remarked that “Black guys wor always getting stopped even though t’Ripper wor plainly a white man.” Rick himself experiences instances of homophobia and near violence because of his sexuality. Yet, he is also (in smaller ways) a perpetrator who attacks a man he hooks up with and when speaking with “respectable” women about prostitutes he feels “It didn’t seem like owt that a woman should know.” This all adds up to a sober understanding that Sutcliffe’s actions weren’t an anomaly, but an extreme consequence of the pervading attitudes of this time and place.

“Blood Relatives” is an extremely endearing and sensitively written story of a young man’s development. More than that it’s an intelligent dramatization that exposes the narrow-minded attitudes of a particular time and place. By evoking such a distinctive voice the reader is drawn into what it really felt like to be in Leeds during the late 70s and experience this period of rapid social change in Britain.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesStevan Alcock