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Last year I went to visit Berlin for the first time over a long weekend. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a city that’s still so haunted by the after effects of war. Certainly there is more to this thriving city which is dynamic and fascinating in many ways but walking through the streets there are evident battle scars around every corner. Of course, it’s perfectly understandable that this would be the case because it was turned into a battlefield during WWII and then became a city literally divided by the Cold War. Given these facts it’d be virtually impossible to write about Berlin in the late 20th century without referring to the reverberating effects of these traumas.

Ben Fergusson rightly does so in both his first novel “The Spring of Kasper Meier” which describes the city soon after it was jointly occupied by the Allied powers and in his new novel “An Honest Man” which takes place in the time immediately preceding The Berlin Wall’s collapse in 1989. But these stories are filled with so many twists and surprises that they give a fascinating new perspective on this vibrant capital. He captures the lives of ordinary citizens in this shifting political landscape and focuses specifically on the lives of gay men during these periods. “An Honest Man” is centred around the life of Ralf, a teenager in Berlin with an English mother and German father. When Ralf encounters a Turkish man named Osman at a swimming pool he becomes embroiled in both a passionate love affair and a mysterious tale of espionage which completely upturns his life. It’s an utterly gripping tale of self-discovery and intrigue.

What’s often so striking reading about the lives of young people in such a politically contentious area is that the reality of its accompany tensions have become so completely normalised. Of course it seems normal to them because it’s all they’ve ever known. So for Ralf and his close group of friends who spend their summer going to the pool or watching arthouse films thrust upon them by Ralf’s cultured friend Stefan the fact of the wall’s presence is something glancingly referred to as they go about their lives preparing to go to university or pursuing their studious fascination with the natural world. The politics of it colour everything about their lives but doesn’t really impact them – until Ralf gets involved in spying on someone who may or may not be a Soviet informant. I admire how Fergusson evokes their lives fully capturing the sensory experience of this time and place.

Osman or “Oz” introduces Ralf to the music of Turkish folk singer Müzeyyen Senar. Here she sings "Kime Kin Ettin de"

There have been many coming of age novels written about gay men discovering their sexuality. But I appreciate how Fergusson gives a different spin describing the contoured dynamics of Ralf’s desires. He finds himself drawn to men yet he’s had a very close emotional and sexual relationship with his girlfriend Maike who is a fascinating character in her own right. He also has a strong platonic friendship with Stefan. But when Ralf finds a sexual connection with Osman the author evocatively describes the all-consuming freedom and heated passion of their relationship. It immediately overturns all the homophobic sentiments Ralf had previously expressed for a newfound acceptance of himself. Of course, this liberation doesn’t instantly make him into an entirely good person. The fact that Ralf is something of a dick (as his actions are frequently described throughout the novel) adds to the way he feels fully rounded and, like most teenagers, often more preoccupied with his own interests rather than the feelings of those closest to him.

I recall watching news footage of The Berlin Wall’s destruction when I was a child in 1989 and I remember wondering what it must have been like for all those people who finally didn’t have to live with this immense physical and political barrier any longer. So it was thrilling when the reality of this event is described in a climatic scene towards the end of the novel showing all the chaos and release of emotion which accompanied this new freedom of movement. “An Honest Man” achieves what’s best about historical fiction as it makes you reconsider how the dramatic events surrounding a large-scale political upheaval had different effects upon the lives of so many people who found themselves at the centre of it. And it does so with a story that’s both thrilling and filled with sensual delights.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesBen Fergusson
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I think the best novels say as much in their form as well as in their content. Niven Govinden’s new novel “This Brutal House” is about a silent protest staged by several mothers from different drag houses in front of NYC’s City Hall. For years these mothers housed many queer children who were forced to leave the homes of their biological families. But when these children have gone missing the police force haven’t taken their disappearances seriously and even used these losses as an opportunity to harass and interrogate the lifestyle embodied by these drag houses. Frustrated and tired of trying to form a dialogue these mothers sit in silent protest because “we are past words.” The author conveys the complexity of this political act in a number of ways. Govinden invokes their collective voice to capture the tenor and sweep of their emotions and experiences. But he also relates the story of Teddy, a child from these drag houses who now works in City Hall and is caught between these two very different social spheres. By switching between these points of view and relating large sections through dialogue Govinden allows us to wholly feel this complicated situation and hear everything that’s left unspoken in the midst of these drag mothers’ mute resistance.

There was a long period during which drag was seen as a fairly niche section of the queer community where the only far-reaching understanding of it came from the vital documentary ‘Paris is Burning’. But, in recent years, it’s become more popular with the advent of TV shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race and ‘Pose’ as well as some excellent fiction such as Joseph Cassara’s “The House of Impossible Beauties”. Govinden doesn’t seek to create a guide to understanding the form and rules of drag houses in this novel. Those who know nothing about drag will no doubt feel disorientated when they start reading it, but that shouldn’t deter book lovers who appreciate engaging and imaginative fiction. Instead of explaining the author immerses the reader in the attitudes and social dynamics of drag houses showing how they are in their essence and very existence a political phenomenon. These are the voices of children who often provide an alternative to the dominant narrative of the largely white, heterosexual and patriarchal society they’ve been born into. By inhabiting the art, fantasy and cut-throat competition of drag balls or immersing themselves in the capitalist dreams of high end stores they find “bubbles which envelop and shield you from real life.” In doing so they discover succour, kinship and vitality amidst a society that seeks to stultify or erase those who are queer and refuse to conform to its pervading values.

Govinden intelligently conveys the essence of this community by indulging in the rich pleasures, fierce attitudes and humour of the drag ball scene. Several pages are narrated from the perspective an MC calling out a multiplicity of drag categories – everything from “backstreet dancer realness” to “Miami Jewish matron” realness. Through this repetition with endless variations and a keen ear for the irreverent we feel how these individuals can simultaneously inhabit and play upon the full spectrum of identity: “The balls were heaven as we divined; a right we would give our last breath for.” In the exactitude of criteria there is an ironic freedom to be found from all categories of being and a liberation from all the boxes which society tries to put people into. I loved how Govinden’s framing of the scene conveyed both the celebratory joy and the heartrending sincerity of these balls and their expression of realness. This is tribute to the craft and excruciatingly hard work which goes into drag as an artform. I especially enjoyed when the author likened drag families preparing for a ball to soldiers preparing for war: “Weeks of preparation! Through that time life was somehow lived, yet this took over everything. Soldiers readying for battle clean their gun and polish boots. They run ten miles, expelling yet withholding the energy they will need. They’re drugged up to the eyeballs, fucking comfort women in conflict zones. No different to us: method and masculinity shared.”

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The novel conscientiously gives space to the collective voices of the drag mothers, their children and the police force. Between these groups there is the friction of misunderstanding or opposition. But spaced throughout the novel Teddy’s experiences and dilemmas give a personal weight to these fraught groups as he invokes his own understanding of the city. Perhaps one of the most admirable things about this novel is how Govinden refuses to give a simplified and one-sided view of the drag scene - which in some recent popularised iterations has become more about catty indulgence rather than politics. The mothers in “This Brutal House” are queens worthy of reverence but they are not saints. Some of their children have become lost due to illness or violence, but others wilfully left out of rebellion or because they simply grew up and moved on. At one point the children say of the mothers “Their mania for taking our money? They were our bosses. Gang masters in drags.” Just like in many biological families the propensity for parents dominating and exploiting their children (and vice versa) is just as prevalent in drag families. But because there aren’t legalized social structures to give credence and support to drag families it can more often lead to isolation. This is aptly summarised in the haunting lines: “Drag is nothing but family. Drag is everything but family. Remember this.”

This novel is saturated with a verve which made it compulsive and pleasurable reading for me, but I also savoured the author’s exactitude in his language and ear for dialogue which brought these disparate groups to life. Moreover I admire the ingenuity of its structure for conveying a social scene and section of society which deserves to be recognized and celebrated.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesNiven Govinden
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No doubt Niviaq Korneliussen’s debut novel will catch many people’s eye for the novelty that its young author is from Greenland, but its real appeal and power resides in its diversity of assertive young voices. The narrative follows five different characters whose romantic and familial entanglements with each other produce moments of self-revelation and big life changes over a night of drinking and partying in the city of Nuuk, Greenland’s capital. “Crimson” is heavily inflected with Greenlandic and Danish language, references and culture, but its themes of young adults trying to come to terms with their gender and sexuality have a much more global outlook. The characters communicate with each other through Facebook and SMS text messages, sum up their moods in hashtags and search Google for answers to life’s questions. These are young people you could meet anywhere in the world. I found it poignant how the characters corner themselves into moments of intense self-reflection through these intensely private and confessional forms of electronic communication. In this virtual space they gradually sift through ways of being to discover who they really are and what they really want. By relating their different points of view in a finely-orchestrated succession, Korneliussen builds an engaging story with many revelations and forms a picture of a modern generation in microcosm.

This novel was first published in its native language with the title “Homo Sapienne” in 2014, but has now been translated into English. It’s just been published in the UK under the title “Crimson” but the American publication in January 2019 will publish it with the title “Last Night in Nuuk”. The UK title no doubt arose from the song ‘Crimson and Clover’ by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts which in the story plays in the bar on the night in question and is referenced several times throughout the text. The song’s dream-like quality and expression of spontaneous sensual intimacy amidst emotional confusion sums up the tone of the novel quite well. I’d have projected this book would take on a kind of cult status a generation ago, but it feels like its decidedly queer perspective will have a much more mainstream appeal today. I can imagine many kinds of young people relating to it and many mature people appreciating it. It’s not so much a novel that recognizably comes from a Nordic literary tradition, but from that of a new generation. It’s more in line with a novel such as “Conversations with Friends” by Sally Rooney which is an Irish novel that doesn’t carry many hallmarks which make it specifically Irish. There’s something exciting about an emerging literary movement which isn’t restrained by national borders and alights on common experiences mediated through the digital world.

The five different characters may share a kind of frenetic energy and express different forms of queer experience, but each voice is quite distinct in its timbre and point of view. The opening section is narrated by Fia whose rapid-fire train of thought sparks with intriguing moments of reflection: “I make up my mind because death won’t leave my mind. There has always been something missing here.” She finds it challenging to articulately sum up how her desire can be defined and instead humorously relates her abrupt break with her boyfriend by stating “My thoughts make no sense. I’m simply tired of sausages.” Fia’s brother Inuk wrestles more combatively with issues of sexuality and national identity to show how deeply ingrained traditions die hard.

Later in the novel, the character of Ivik is more assertive in volleying back society’s confusion so as not to limit how he’s defined: “I was an enigma to my friends. They didn’t know which box to put me in. When they began to question me, I began to question them. I began to question why they called me into question. My parents, siblings and family began to be uncertain about me. They were uncertain about who I was. Since my family were uncertain about me, I began to be uncertain about myself. I was uncertain about why they were uncertain about me.” I enjoy how this string of logic takes on a musical quality in its repetition of words. But it’s also really powerful in how it shows the inner dialogue which takes place in response to being made to feel like a social outcast or oddity. I found it especially striking how Korneliussen captures Ivik’s emotional confusion in how physical barriers arise from sexual contact.

When the novel arrives at the final perspective of Sara it’s striking how the story takes on a much more hopeful tone. Throughout “Crimson” the characters must naturally stumble through a lot of messy drunkenness and unwieldy sexual encounters to gain insight into their own motivations. Sara discovers profundity and solace in the pleasure of really knowing oneself: “Being alone isn’t all bad. It’s enough that somebody loves you and you love somebody. If you love yourself, you’re not lonely when you’re alone.” Korneliussen is a welcome new voice in global fiction not because of the specifics of her geography, but because she captures so perceptively and vividly the expansive heart of a new generation.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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Patrick Gale's new novel “Take Nothing With You” is a refreshing new take on a coming of age story. At the beginning we first meet the protagonist Eustace in his later years. At this stage of his life he's begun a promising new relationship with Theo, a fairly senior army officer stationed far away, and, though their connection has progressed from a dating app to regular Skype conversations, they've not yet met in person. But Eustace has also been diagnosed with cancer and needs radiation treatment which requires him to remain in temporary solitude within a lead-lined room where he can take nothing with him that isn't disposable. It's the first example of how the title of this novel resonates so strongly throughout a life marked by stages which require abandoning physical things and one form of identity to progress onto another. The bulk of this tale is concerned with Eustace's childhood and adolescence as he discovers a love of music and other boys. The story poignantly demonstrates the courage that is required to declare your true desires and to express your creativity even if it goes against the grain of the majority. It also shows the importance of role models to foster young people’s creativity and to assist in helping them to grow and flourish.

Eustace discovers a love of playing the cello during his childhood and he’s lucky enough to come under the tutelage of a passionate musician named Carla Gold. She serves as an important mentor in training him to develop his natural skill and passion. But financial pressure and discord in his parents’ marriage creates problems for Eustace in realizing his full potential. Although the story is focused on Eustace I appreciate how Gale takes care to sympathetically refer to the struggles of his parents as well. They face their own challenges and must sacrifice things to move forward in their lives or make compromises. Another example of this is the father of Eustace’s friend Vernon who is struck by a paralyzing illness. Here is another example of someone who must cruelly progress in life without things which feel like an essential part of his identity. I also appreciated how Eustace’s relationship with his mother is depicted in such a complex way. Gale writes some startlingly lines to describe the realms of what remains unknown between mother and son: “He had never seen his mother naked and never seen her bank statements.” Considering the dramatic things which occur in their relationship with each other, I imagine rereading this novel will make reading earlier scenes between them feel even more impactful.

Detail of a painting from 1671 by Abraham van den Tempel

Detail of a painting from 1671 by Abraham van den Tempel

The story also sympathetically shows Eustace’s sexual development and how he gradually comes to terms with his homosexuality. Two male friends of Carla serve as mentors in a very different capacity, not just in how they educate him about gay culture, but from the fact of their existence living openly as a gay couple. Without this kind of example in his life, Eustace would have certainly found it difficult to imagine relationships other than the ones he forms in his early sexual experimentation with boys only interested in homosexual acts as a form of physical gratification or a power game. It’s also interesting to note how in one section Gale gives a survey and critique of gay fiction at this time of the late 20th century. Writing by Thomas Mann, Gore Vidal, EM Forster, James Baldwin, Gordon Merrick and Edmund White were crucial in openly bringing the stories of gay men into novels, but they had their limitations and only represented a narrow scope of experience: “The men in all these seemed to be uniformly handsome, virile, rich and expensively educated but they came to believe in their right to happiness and the stories ended with them neither punished, unhappily married nor dead. The novels had about them a strain of self-mythologizing breathlessness, full of precious feminine references which confused him.” Gale’s writing feels to me like an additional crucial voice in gay fiction for the way he poignantly describes the varied ways gay men can survive amidst oppression without compromising essential parts of their identities – as he did in his moving novel “A Place Called Winter”.

Beyond the detailed and captivating descriptions of Eustace’s growth as a musician and a gay man, this novel is an evocative account of the experiences of childhood and the different methods we use to piece together how the adult world works in our own way. In one section it describes how Eustace tries to visualize the different counties in England based on a map he had in a game when he was younger. It’s these sorts of references which we mentally go back to in order to make sense of the physical and emotional landscape in front of us. I thoroughly enjoyed this touching and captivating novel.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesPatrick Gale
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RuPaul's Drag Race has found a global audience in recent years and I've been a huge follower of it since the third season. It's still one of the highlights of my life hearing RuPaul praise my blog on his podcast. (You can listen to the audio of this at the bottom of my intro page here.) The widespread fandom of this show has popularised drag as an art form again so it seems like the right time to look back at some of the most significant drag movements of recent history. The documentary 'Paris is Burning' captured instances of the fiercely outrageous ball culture in NYC in the mid-to-late 1980s. One of the figures memorialised on film was a drag queen named Venus from the house of Xtravaganza, the city's first Latino drag house. In his debut novel “The House of Impossible Beauties”, Joseph Cassara fictionally recreates Venus' story as well as tales about some of the other queens who were central to this drag family. It sympathetically follows the way these marginalized individuals were often ostracised by their families, but found sisterhood and support from fellow queens. Together they created and defined a sub-culture all their own. There are many moments of high drama and camp fun, but Cassara also emphasizes the hard gritty reality of their lives which involved prostitution, habitual drug use and AIDS. The novel skilfully invokes the aesthetic and feel of the era with a language and dialogue heavily inflected with Spanish phrases and drag lingo that totally draws the reader into this bygone world.

Part of the motivation behind creating the Xtravaganza drag house was that queer Hispanic individuals didn't feel like they could belong in the other drag houses at the time. A character named Hector notes in letter to a choreographer he admires “someone told me that you can’t join if you’re not black. I thought, Well, gee, I’m not black – but I certainly ain’t white. Especially if I’m talking Spanish, all the white people in Manhattan look at me like I might as well be black.” It's dismaying how a lot of queer culture that often satirizes and separates itself from mainstream straight culture still carries many reactionary prejudices within it. So some individuals within these drag houses exhibit signs of racial segregation, sexism and homophobia. As a result, Hector and drag queen Angel dream up and form a Latino drag house all of their own. The novel charts sections of this House's history from the early 80s to the early 90s.

Venus Xtravaganza in 'Paris is Burning'

Venus Xtravaganza in 'Paris is Burning'

Cassara's style of storytelling is somewhat choppy in how it portrays scenes from a particular time period, often introducing readers to new characters and then tunnelling back to give his characters' backstories. Significant scenes or events are often left out and only referred to and this usually strengthens the impact of the tale. For instance, one character's death from AIDS is only brought up in dialogue and the immediate aftermath of the death is shown in very brief flashes. It would have been entirely unnecessary to show the full journey of this character's death from diagnosis to the funeral. His death is felt all the more keenly because it's only a part of a tapestry of loss from this time period. The persistent and pernicious presence of the disease in the characters' lives is handled very well as is the near universal rejection the queens feel by their families (with the notable exceptions of Angel's supportive brother and Juanito's grandmother who indulges his penchant for dressing up.) However, it feels like there are one too many backstories of how male characters are rejected by their families because of their femininity. Instead, it would have been good if there were more scenes showing the drag balls themselves as there is only one instance of a competition portrayed in the narrative despite multiple trophies that adorn the shelves of the House of Xtravaganza.

This novel is a striking tribute to those who endeavour to create and inhabit beauty as a way of transcending the gruelling reality of life. It would have been easy to make it about over-the-top fabulousness and girrrlish ki ki. I admire how Cassara portrays the real dangers and precariousness of these drag queens' lives and pays tribute to their strength and artistry, but also acknowledges their occasional flaws and superficiality. There are many instances of humour from the challenges of wearing a snake as an accessory to how one queen notes that “The biggest shame in the whole world was that coke wasn’t a vegetable.” But, although the novel is true to life in representing how the majority of these queens' hard lives came to bleak ends, the narrative sometimes gets bogged down in the harshness of their persistent suffering in a way that felt very reminiscent of Yanagihara's “A Little Life”. It's difficult to imagine how lives marked by such tragedy could be told otherwise, yet I was left longing for some more levity towards the end. Nevertheless, it's an enthralling experience following these queens' powerful stories and I love how Cassara has dynamically brought them to life.

 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJoseph Cassara
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Since Hollinghurst’s debut novel ‘The Swimming Pool Library’ in 1988, he’s published a new book in approximately six year intervals. This is enough of a gap for each new novel by this much-lauded writer to feel like an event. His 2011 novel ‘The Stranger’s Child’ was a long ambitious story spanning a period of time from the First World War to close to the present day. In chronicling the transition of time, he charted how the reputation of a poem and its poet transform over many years and subsequent generations. In this new novel ‘The Sparsholt Affair’ Hollinghurst has adopted a similar narrative strategy that’s slightly more compressed spanning The Second World War to close to the present day. The story begins with a literary club in Oxford and the infatuation some members have for a sexually-appealing conventionally-masculine young man named David Sparsholt who is intent on enlisting in military service and settling down into a traditional marriage to his sweetheart. The subsequent sections leap forward in time to show the legacy of portraits and sexual scandal in a circumscribed social world of British society. In doing so, Hollinghurst creates a fascinating depiction of how reality doesn’t change but the frame around it and the way we view it significantly alters over time. In particular, the novel focuses on how views on homosexuality have evolved to alter the way in which individuals perceive themselves and negotiate their public identity as well as their sexual desire. It’s a tale that develops a unique power with its rich accumulation of detail and gains momentum as time slides forward to show the complexity of characters’ relationships and their legacies.

It’s interesting to compare this novel with John Boyne’s most recent novel “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” which similarly leap-frogs through the past century showing how changing attitudes about homosexuality personally impact the characters involved. However, Boyne’s novel is much more concentrated on a single gay man’s transforming self-perception in tandem with social and political events/progress in Ireland. Hollinghurst presents a much broader canvas with more shades of sexuality from bisexuality to a lesbian couple intent on having a child to gerontophilia. That’s not to say either of these novels is better or worse: they just have a different scope, writing style and way of chronicling shifts in social perceptions about sexuality. Where Boyne posits how his character of Cyril thrives and benefits from social development, Hollinghurst shows how the UK’s decriminalisation of homosexual acts in 1967 came too late for some individuals to ever recover from.

I read this as part of a mini bookgroup I belong to with writers Claire Fuller & Antonia Honeywell. We had an excellent discussion about it over lunch.

I read this as part of a mini bookgroup I belong to with writers Claire Fuller & Antonia Honeywell. We had an excellent discussion about it over lunch.

‘The Sparsholt Affair’ is something of a slow-burning novel. The accumulation of detail in Hollinghurst’s precise and eloquent writing takes on an increasingly profound meaning as the novel progresses. As time moves forward, we make connections, discover coincidences and uncover the surprising fates of a number of characters. In this way the author wonderfully captures, as he describes it at one point, “all the teasing oddity and secret connectedness of London life.” These interactions frequently involve the way sexual desire is either expressed or repressed. In fact, Hollinghurst persistently represents how these desires surge up in day to day life and “the hot-making magic of those sudden but longed-for moments when sex ran visibly close to the sunlit surface.” Early on, this largely takes the form of small circles of gay men who lust after an outwardly straight man. This felt problematic to me at first because straight-chasing is such a cliché of gay culture but it took on a greater degree of poignancy when contrasted with how Hollinghurst represents the expression of desire towards the end in more contemporary times. Now that there’s social media and hook-up apps the fulfilment of that once suppressed or misdirected desire feels like it’s tantalizingly within reach. But this raises poignant questions. How does the expression of desire transform in different social contexts? To what degree does power factor into the enactment or withholding of sex? Where is the overlap between desire and emotion?

These are all powerful questions which were also raised from an entirely different point of view and different context in Garth Greenwell’s “What Belongs to You.” Despite Hollinghurst’s novel being suffused with the melancholy of emotional and sexual disconnect, there are many funny observations made throughout and much of it is ultimately quite hopeful. It also feels brave in a way to be asking questions about what’s been hidden in the past and why the reality of what happened is still unnameable. At one point a character wonders “Things had happened, not quite named before; why not name them now?” This story shows how important it is that our perceptions evolve alongside those of the society around us.  

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson

History must be filled with gay love stories whether they were lived in secret or in the open. Although literature and history books are filled with heterosexual love stories, few stories of same-sex couples have been passed down through generations. So I think one of the great opportunities of historical fiction can be to imagine the lives and stories which we have no record of and that have, most probably, been selectively left out of history. Recent novels such as “Hide” by Matthew Griffin and “A Place Called Winter” by Patrick Gale have meaningfully explored stories of long-term gay relationships and the unique challenges and opportunities they faced in their respective time periods. Sebastian Barry does the same in “Days Without End” with the story of an Irishman named Thomas McNulty who escapes the Irish famine to become a soldier in 19th century America where he meets another handsome soldier named John Cole. But Barry’s inspiration for this novel comes from a specific incident and takes a very unique slant on a historical gay relationship.

I saw Barry give a reading from this novel and he explained how some time ago he noticed that his son was becoming increasingly depressed. One day the son finally confessed to Barry and his wife that he’s gay and he experienced a lot of prejudice for this. So part of what Barry wanted to do in this story was imagine a time and place where his son could have a loving same-sex relationship, build a family and not have to live with the institutionalized prejudices of today’s society. This may seem contradictory when many Western countries have increasingly liberal laws about gay rights, but these values don’t always filter down into smaller communities - especially among teenagers. Barry feels that there were different kinds of opportunities for gay couples in mid-1800s America to live (if not entirely openly) more peacefully without today’s virulent prejudice. Of course, homosexuality wasn’t openly condoned and people faced many other life-threatening challenges during this politically turbulent time as he recounts in detail in the novel. Thomas states how “We were two wood-shavings of humanity in a rough world.”

This is the first novel I’ve read by Sebastian Barry, but I understand it’s part of a group of books that deal with the McNulty family. It seems like a novel that can stand entirely independent on its own without having read the others. Thomas arrives in America without any connection to his relatives except for the memories of their slowly dying which haunts him later in the book. Here he must forge a future for himself entirely on his own and one of the few work opportunities available to a young man such as himself was to become a soldier in the US military. He’s sent to fight in the bloody battles of the Indian War and then later with the North during the American Civil War. The overwhelming impression of Thomas’ impassioned and vivid accounts of these conflicts is how they are populated by soldiers who are victims of their circumstances; they are fighting in wars not out of ideological convictions but because they have no other choice.

It’s particularly moving how Barry writes about the way Thomas is mindful of “the enemy.” He observes that “There’s no soldier don’t have a queer little spot in his wretched heart for his enemy; that’s just a fact. Maybe only on account of him being alive in the same place and the same time and we are all just customers of the same three-card trickster. Well, who knows the truth of it all.” Like all wars, the armies are filled with young men trapped in the conflicts of history. It’s easier for them to fight without conscience when the opposition is markedly different from them such as the Native Americans they fought against. However, Thomas takes a different perspective when battling against the armies of the South which were also in part made of young immigrants or the sons of immigrants: “It is not like running at Indians who are not your kind but it is running at a mirror of yourself. Those Johnny Rebs are Irish, English and all the rest.” Barry really movingly portrays the consciousness of this soldier caught in these battles who is in some fundamental way only killing other versions of himself.

The novel also gives a fascinating perspective on gender and sexuality. Hyper-masculine environments such as army camps and mining towns found improvised ways of providing men with romantic/erotic stimulation. Thomas and John join a sort of cabaret where they entertain audiences of men while dressed in drag. This allows for transformations to occur: “In Mr Noone’s hall you just was what you seemed. Acting ain’t no subterfuge-ing trickery. Strange magic changing things. You thinking along some lines and so you become that new thing.” There’s a kind of liberation in this where people aren’t constricted by traditional identity markers but can become what they want to be. It also provides crucial training for Thomas when later in the story he can utilize passing as a woman to disguise himself. Equally, it’s poignant how Thomas contemplates his own sexuality and feminine qualities where he considers these to be “Just a thing that’s in you and you can’t gainsay.” While the meaning of conflicts being fought in the battlefields remains ambiguous for Thomas, the conviction he and John feel about their desire and love for each other is certain.

History consists of a series of neatly organized dates. The American Civil War lasted from 1861 to 1865 but you can’t begin to feel the experience by just reading this. One of the most powerful things about Costa Book Awards winner "Days Without End" is the extremely dramatic sense Barry gives to the soldier’s experience who doesn’t know when this conflict will end. For Thomas “World is just a passing parade of cruel moments and long drear stretches where nothing going on but chicory drinking and whisky and cards. No requirement for nothing else tucked in there. We’re strange people, soldiers stuck out in wars.” They are perpetually caught in an uncertain present. Barry writes strikingly about this sense a high-stakes moment with no end to it. The dramatic tension builds throughout the novel as the reader wonders if Thomas will have any future other than this.

Although I loved this novel, I retrospectively had some really strong feelings about the way the publisher presented and promoted it. You can watch my video discussing this here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=asWSOLCWKII

Being an immigrant gives someone a unique perspective on a country and its culture. I moved to England seventeen years ago and although I’ve lived here my entire adult life I don’t think I’ll ever feel wholly English. I’ve certainly been welcomed into the society, but I’m always conscious a national division exists. It was much easier for me to integrate into English culture because I’m American whereas someone coming from Eastern Europe like the narrator of Laura Kaye’s debut novel “English Animals” will inevitably face more challenges. I have conservative colleagues at my office who complain generally about immigrants destroying the country – despite one of them being married to an Eastern European and me being an immigrant but oddly I’m considered outside of this label. Sadly many people in London have these views as do many people in rural England where this novel takes place. This novel dynamically portrays the insular attitudes of some English people from the perspective of an outsider. It’s also a uniquely tragic love story.

Mirka moved to London from her native Slovakia, but she found the city somewhat oppressive so answered an ad to work within an English country estate. The novel begins with her arrive an indoctrination into this particular kind of English life. Like many grand old houses passed through generations of the aristocracy, this estate has run into financial trouble. The proprietor Sophie and her husband Richard have been working on a number of schemes to pay for the substantial costs of running the property. Mirka finds that she’s unknowingly being recruited to join Richard’s latest venture of running a taxidermy business called Nose to Tail. As Mirka grows accustomed to the peculiarly English life on this rural estate and the work, she finds she has a special talent for convincingly stuffing animals and develops a particular attachment to Sophie. Sophie and Richard are in many ways a friendly, modern-thinking couple, but they are also the products of a culture with particular customs and traditions. Straightforward Mirka finds it difficult to find where she really fits into this seductive country life. Her soul-searching dilemma prompts her to perpetually wonder “how would I know when a life was really mine? How did you know when you had found a home?”

Mirka skilfully depicts intricate scenes of English life in anthropomorphic models using small mammals.

Mirka skilfully depicts intricate scenes of English life in anthropomorphic models using small mammals.

Troubled love triangles have been written about in many ways before, but I admire the honest and compassionate way Kaye depicts this particular situation. Since her first romantic affair Mirka has always been certain about her desire for other women, but it’s this very clear-sightedness and unwillingness to pretend to be anything different that led to her exile from her family and native country. Now she finds herself embroiled in a romantic conflict with someone who is already in a long-term committed relationship but also “wanted everything.” Sophie and Richard’s permissive attitudes make Mirka feel at times like she’s wholly a part of their family, but in some crucial ways to do with class, nationality and sexuality she remains a perpetual outsider. These feelings are certainly reinforced by some of the small-minded locals who either look down or show open contempt for Mirka as an immigrant. However, Kaye also shows more liberal English individuals who welcome and respect people based solely on their character. 

In some ways this novel reminded me of both the novels “The Paying Guests” by Sarah Waters and “Skin Lane” by Neil Bartlett, but Kaye's book is less sinister than either of these. Her writing is much more straightforward and at times scenes can become bogged down in a minute amount of trivial detail. But the plainness of her writing style is also part of this novel’s charm and accurately reflects Mirka’s character: English isn’t her first language and she is doggedly transparent in her feelings. The imagery which Kaye builds in her depiction of the taxidermy work and the way people in the countryside relate to the natural world does build a subtly moving picture of a particular kind of national character. The English people that Mirka meets are so steeped in their national identity with its attendant manners and attitudes that she is like a perpetual observer who must always remain on the other side of the glass. As long as she’s kept on the outside she must continue to search for a home of her own.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesLaura Kaye

Having read Boyne's heartrending novel “A History of Loneliness” a little over two years ago, I was extremely keen to read this new novel which is certainly his most ambitious publication thus far. At over six hundred pages “The Heart's Invisible Furies” follows the life of Cyril Avery from his dramatic birth in 1945 to 2015. It's a novel that's truly epic in scope as it incorporates significant moments in history from the 1966 IRA bombing of Nelson's Pillar in Dublin to the recent referendum to permit same-sex marriage in Ireland. Boyne captures climatic shifts in societal attitudes over this seventy year period. For those who experience Irish life from day to day and suffer terribly from the constrictive ideologies of its domineering institutions, it feels as if nothing will ever change. As one character puts it: “Ireland is a backward hole of a country run by vicious, evil-minded, sadistic priests and government so in thrall to the collar that it’s practically led around on a leash.” However, surveying the societal shifts over a full lifetime through Cyril's point of view, the reader is able to see how things do slowly change with time especially through brave individuals who make themselves heard.

The novel begins in 1945 when the local priest discovers that Cyril's sixteen year-old unmarried mother Catherine Goggin is pregnant. He publicly denounces her, physically throws her out of the church and orders her to leave their small farming town in West Cork. Inexperienced and nearly penniless, she bravely makes her way to Dublin where she decides to give Cyril up for adoption after giving birth to him. Cyril is raised in the home of Charles and Maude Avery who are two very different, charismatic and highly original characters. Charles is a wealthy and powerful businessman with many vices including gambling, womanizing and alcoholism. Maude is an irascible reclusive chain-smoking writer who produces a new novel every few years and delights in how few copies get sold “for she considered popularity in the bookshops to be vulgar.” In a hilariously memorable scene recounting her only public appearance, she reads her entire novel to the audience without stopping until everyone leaves the bookshop in exhaustion. Although these characters are an absolute delight to read about, they make frightful parents treating Cyril more as a lodger than a son and continuously reminding him that he's “not really an Avery.”

Each section of the novel leaps forward seven years showing Cyril’s development and struggles throughout his entire life. It’s speculated that our lives dramatically change in seven year periods of time. The philosopher and mystic Rudolf Steiner hypothesized that there are significant changes in human development in seven year cycles that are linked to the astrological chart. Scientists say that every cell in the human body is replaced every seven years meaning that biologically we become completely new human beings. One of the most touching things about “The Heart's Invisible Furies” and why it justifies its length is how it shows how orphaned Cyril is not limited to one set path in existence, but has multiple opportunities to grow and change over the course of his life. Sometimes he makes poor decisions and other times he realizes his full potential over these seven year strides. The priest who banished Catherine and her child borne out of wedlock condemned them to a life of shame and misery. Although they both periodically suffer throughout their lives, they survive and flourish. Their story is a great testament to how the human spirit overcomes the narrow-minded dictates of society.

Through Cyril’s perspective the novel gives a personal view of some the most horrific social and historic events in his lifetime including fatal homophobic beatings, a teenager kidnapped and mutilated by IRA members, concentration camp survivors, the sex trade in Amsterdam, the stigma of AIDS and its early epidemic in NYC and the September 11th attacks. These subjects are treated seriously and sensitively portrayed. However, the novel is nowhere as bleak as this list makes it sound. It’s often a very comic story with vibrant scenes and memorably idiosyncratic characters. Boyne uses a satirical wit and Dickensian social eye when writing about characters such as Mr Denby-Denby, a flamboyant civil servant, or Mary-Margaret Muffet, a conservative uptight Catholic girl, or Miss Anna Ambrosia who gets monthly visits from her “Auntie Jemima” and dismisses Edna O’Brien’s books as “pure filth.” These characters brilliantly reflect the social attitudes of their respective time periods and show up their ludicrous ingrained systems of belief. It’s moving how many characters reappear periodically throughout the years and Boyne shows how they either change or obstinately stick with their provincial points of view.

One of the most important aspects of the novel is Cyril’s homosexuality and the severe difficulty of growing up as a gay man in Ireland during his lifetime. Cyril develops an early love and lust for his boyhood friend Julian. But where heterosexual Julian can be flagrantly sexual and voracious in his female conquests, Cyril’s sexual experience is confined to cruising and he’s constantly terrified he’ll be found out. He feels an “overwhelming, insatiable and uncontrollable lust, a yearning that was as intense as my need for food and water but that, unlike those basic human needs, was always countered by the fear of discovery.” It forces him to make dishonest choices and romantically engage with women when he really longs for a relationship with a man. One of the greatest obstacles his character must overcome is learning to be honest about who he is, especially to people who will appreciate and value him regardless of his natural desires. Other gay characters in the novel have diverse ways of either concealing or expressing their homosexuality: “Ireland, a country where a homosexual, like a student priest, could easily hide their preferences by disguising them beneath the murky robes of a committed Catholic.”

Nelson's Pillar after the 1966 IRA bombing

Nelson's Pillar after the 1966 IRA bombing

Even as some gay characters begin to live quite openly in later years, Cyril struggles to freely express himself or confide in people he should trust. It’s touching how the long-lasting deleterious effects of being made to feel like an outcast or deviant in society manifest in the ways the characters relate to each other or shut each other out. It produces an overwhelming sense of isolation, something that Cyril recognizes when he encounters another character late in the novel: “It's as if she understood completely the condition of loneliness and how it undermines us all, forcing us to make choices that we know are wrong for us.” This movingly describes the way people who’ve been ostracised by society can hurt themselves and others. Yet, there are moments when characters can form a unique unity and bond over their estrangement when it’s acknowledged that “We're none of us normal. Not in this fucking country.”

The title of the novel comes from an observation that theorist Hannah Arendt made about W.H. Auden “that life had manifested the heart's invisible furies on his face.” It’s an apt way of describing this novel which is an intense, poignant and vivid account of a man’s hidden conflicts. His personal development fascinatingly coincides with that of his country. What’s especially impressive is the artful way that Boyne conveys an awareness of other characters’ inner struggles only through their action and dialogue. It makes for a convincing portrayal of a diverse social landscape with lots of dramatic and gripping scenes. It’s a breathtaking and memorable experience following Cyril’s expansive journey. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJohn Boyne
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It’s important for any oppressed minority group to have a physical location where people can come together to socialize, organize and form a sense of identity together. In Saleem Haddad’s striking debut novel that place is a bar called Guapa with its bustling mixed clientele on one level and a more radically charged groups who watch cabaret performances on a lower level. It's interesting how the descriptions of this place feel very recognizable to read about as if it were any gay-friendly bar in Berlin or New York City, but the bar's patrons and the issues they raise when speaking to narrator Rasa are specific to the location. This is within an unnamed Middle Eastern city undergoing extreme political turmoil. The novel follows a day in the life of Rasa, a young gay man who lives with his grandmother and has been working to found a new media company after a period studying in America. As the city teeters on revolt against the authoritarian military regime, closeted Rasa's personal life undergoes its own upheaval having been discovered in bed with his boyfriend/habibi Taymour by his grandmother. This highly engaging story describes with great passion and intelligence how Rasa feels isolated within a society which is divided by Eastern/Western values and straight/gay culture.

Rasa realizes that he's gay during his adolescence and after his first sexual encounter he experiences a divided sense of self which comes from being homosexual in a repressive heterosexual culture: “I was two people now, in two separate realities, where the rules in one were suspended and different from those in the other.” After his father dies from terminal cancer and his mother disappears he's left alone with his loving but conservative grandmother. He goes to university in America where he thinks he'll find the freedom to be himself and hangs a poster of George Michael above his bed. But interestingly he experiences a more intense level of aloneness here - especially because he's in America when the planes crash into the twin towers and he's made more aware of his “otherness”. He describes this with great feeling “I was no longer someone with thoughts and dreams and secrets. I was the by-product of an oppressive culture, an ambassador of a people at war with civilization.” While he struggles to connect with people socially and romantically in America, he does discover authors such as Amin Maalouf, Karl Marx, Partha Chatterjee and Edward Said. Their books introduce him to systems of thought which help give him perspective and better understand the world around him.

Rasa listen's to Oum Kalthoum's sing 'The Ruins' whose lyrics seem especially relevant to his troubled love affair with Taymour

When Rasa moves back to his grandmother's apartment in the Middle East he's determined to help facilitate change within society alongside his friend Maj who stages subversive drag acts. But they encounter many unique problems which make any progress extremely challenging. Maj in particular is frequently beaten and arrested because he's an effeminate man who is vociferous about his political opinions. When Rasa falls for Taymour he wishes to create a secret shared space where they can love in the way they naturally desire. It's moving when he describes how his feelings for Taymour are bound up with feelings for his homeland: “I loved Taymour because he was from here, because everything in him reminded me of everything here, because to love him was to love this city and its history. And yet I couldn’t love him because he was from here and so held ideas of how to be and how to love, which would never fit in with the love that we shared.” The contradictions and divisions in the society around them follow them into the privacy of the bedroom. This is what makes it a tragic love story.

“Guapa” is ultimately an inspiring novel written in a vigorous and convincing voice. Rasa forcefully asserts his individuality outside of any stereotypes or expectations of how any society wants him to conform. It was an immense joy and pleasure to read this book.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSaleem Haddad
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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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When we’re young we can have a simplified vision of the future. If we’re lucky enough to live with a loving family what more is there to hope for? But, as we grow, change comes both from outside forces and internal changes – neither of which we can control. Eleven year old Ijeoma dreams of living in a castle with her adoring parents, but she’s awakened to brutal reality in 1968 when her home in Ojoto, Nigeria is ravaged by a civil war that splinters her family apart. What follows is a highly original and moving coming of age story about the way she must adjust to the new environment around her and reconcile her homosexual feelings with the conservative religious attitudes of her community. More than this, “Under the Udala Trees” shows how we inevitably make damaging compromises in our lives which at a certain point become untenable: “There’s a way in which life takes us along for a ride and we begin to think that our destinies are not in fact up to us.” However, the story shows that with strength of character we can assert what we really want in life and make a place for ourselves in the communities we were born into.

It’s refreshing and surprising how I initially thought this novel was going to be primarily about war, but it turns into a much more personal story about a woman’s struggle with her sexuality. The civil war has a huge effect on Ijeoma’s life, but this book is more about the conflict homosexuals face in a country where it is dangerous and criminal to be openly gay. When the bodies of gay men that have been beaten to death in a homophobic attack are discovered it’s stated: “We called the police. They couldn’t even be bothered to do anything, not even to take the bodies away. ‘Let them rot like the faggots they are,’ one of the officers said.” This is a society where expressions of same-sex desire are cornered into the shadows. Her ardently religious mother Adaora tries to teach Ijeoma interpretations of the bible which she believes support how God thinks homosexuals are an “abomination.” This is something Ijeoma can’t help question as well as objecting to how the bible shows only a singular point of view: “Just because the Bible recorded one specific thread of events, one specific history, why did that have to invalidate or discredit all other threads, all other histories?” There is a multiplicity of perspectives and stories which have been winnowed out from history and religious texts. Ijeoma creatively integrates aspects of stories and local fables passed down by her family to establish her own understanding of the world.

Fela Kuti's ‘Shakara Oloje’ plays in a secret gay disco held in a church at night.

In addition to some devastating scenes, what makes this such a heartrending story is the way Ijeoma is forced to question her own nature because of the pressures from those around her. It’s a common feeling for any closeted person to at some point think like her: “I did want to be normal. I did want to lead a normal life. I did want to have a life where I didn’t have to constantly worry about being found out.” This inevitably leads to bitter compromises. But what’s surprising and uplifting about this novel are the opportunities Ijeoma does discover to meet people and have experiences which do allow her to explore her natural feelings. Even though “Sometimes we get confused about what happiness really means” the story offers a hopeful message about how we can better realize our desires in life from rare people that we meet.  It also shows how others can surprisingly change with time, love and patience.

I know some details of the Biafran War that took place in the late 1960s from historical programs and films I’ve seen or novels I’ve read which focus on this conflict. Adichie’s tremendous novel “Half of a Yellow Sun” which deservedly won the recent Baileys Prize ‘Best of the Best’ is an obvious point of reference. However, before reading “Under the Udala Trees” I hadn’t come across any story of this war or Nigeria itself that comes from a homosexual perspective and bears witness to the ongoing conflict faced by LGBT citizens in this country. In an author’s note at the end of this book Okparanta records how a 2012 survey found Nigeria to be the second-most-religious country surveyed and a new law passed by the president in 2014 criminalizes same-sex relationships and support of such relationships. Narrow-minded interpretations of religious texts are often at the root and used to justify this discrimination. However, it’s very surprising and encouraging to read how Chinelo Okparanta’s offers a hopeful strategy for reconciliations between religion and LGBT communities. By encouraging a shift to less rigid readings of the bible, religion can better respect the changing social spectrum of individuals in our society. There is a way that religion can move with the times rather than the times trying to fit itself into dogmatic translations of religion. This novel offers a significant message that urges integration over separatism (which would inevitably lead to more conflict).

“Under the Udala Trees” is a novel that voices a forceful, inspiring and necessary perspective and reveals a country’s hidden stories. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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So much of the greatest literature is made up of characters undone by desire. Most of it romantic and sexual. Desire that remains hidden or is revealed or explodes, that creates enlivening passion and that ultimately takes characters somewhere new or destroys them. Like in life, characters can be suddenly toppled by desire which can seemingly come out of nowhere and leaves them hanging upon a cliff edge. “What Belongs to You” is a love story about a man undone. But, more than that, it’s an ingenious exploration of the way desire causes seismic changes to our ever-evolving sense of identity. It shows how through desire a man is made to confront his past and decide how to carry on in the future. It asks how much of our relationships are based upon an exchange – emotional or monetary. It does all this through the engaging, sympathetic voice of an American expat living and teaching in Bulgaria and a rent boy he meets named Mitko. What on the surface appears like a simple story weaves into avenues of obsession, deep reflection and confrontations with stark reality. It’s an utterly arresting and deeply contemplative novel. It reads like the most intimate confession from a soul who has spent his life in hiding.

The nameless narrator descends into a cruising haunt beneath the National Palace of Culture. Here’s the perfect metaphor: the brazen lust that is concealed beneath the appearance of sophistication. There in the public toilets he meets Mitko who has the cheekiness, youthfulness, confidence and roguish good looks which bewitch this lonesome interloper. The narrator is verging on paunchy. He’s not old but aging. He lives so much in his mind “I felt that the best of me was words” that the tiresome labour needed to present himself like a peacock on the market doesn’t appeal. It’s more convenient to purchase sex. It begins as a standard financial agreement of money for sex attended by a heady mixture of excitement and shame. Greenwell describes the awkward mechanics of this encounter and how it’s in truth like every sexual encounter: “how helpless desire is outside its little theatre of heat, how ridiculous it becomes the moment it isn’t welcomed, even if that welcome is contrived.” Something about this boy in his early twenties and the connection they share makes this transaction develop into one which shakes the foundations of the narrator’s identity. The pair meet on several other occasions and questions arise about what motivates each of them. Is it lust, friendship or money? The tension reaches an untenable point and the two have a calamitous altercation which separates them.

The narrator is plunged at this stage of his story into the past. Here he describes in heart-aching detail his coming of age: the development which led to his estrangement from his country and family. Greenwell gives the most touching, incisive and searing account of a boy’s expulsion from his father’s affection. What begins with a naturally easy and affectionate physicality between the two is one day suddenly broken. The boy learns to hide his same-sex desire and when it inevitably comes out in the open he receives the condemnation which eviscerates his identity. He states: “As I listened to him say these things it was as though even as I laid claim to myself I found there was nothing to claim, nothing or next to nothing, as though I were dissolving and my tears were the outward sign of that dissolution.” All the characteristics which make up his essential self including his bond with family level out his sense of being and leave him with nothing. Yet, as he finds later when conversing with his half-sister (who is differently but equally damaged) there are unsavoury characteristics of the father which cling to them regardless of their socially broken lineage. “Even these desires, I thought as I listened to my sister, seemed to descend from my father like an inherited disease.” Here are Ibsen’s Ghosts which arise at the most unexpected times to plague the narrator who believes he sufficiently distanced himself from the past of his upbringing, but finds patterns of behaviour and compulsions affecting his present.

The National Palace of Culture in Sofia, Bulgaria

The National Palace of Culture in Sofia, Bulgaria

There are more echoes of Ibsen in the final part of the book when Mitko unexpectedly returns. The narrator must deal with the consequences of this past relationship. It forces him to question again what he really desires and what we owe to those who we’ve given our heart to: “that obligation to others that sometimes seems so clear and sometimes disappears altogether, so that now we owe nothing, anything we give is too much, and now our debt is beyond all counting.” The part a loved one has played in the formation of the self is inestimable, yet not all relationships were made to continue. Those emotional debts are seldom repaid. The conflict Greenwell creates in this story touches upon all the insecurity, regret and longing we continuously carry for lost love.

“What Belongs to You” is so intriguing for the way it contains a lot of ambiguity, but also manages to pinpoint the centre at which desire both destroys and necessarily transforms us. To encounter another person and make a connection in such an intimate, personal, all-consuming way makes you radically confront your conception of yourself. You must ask who you are and what you want at the most fundamental level. And, if you can’t find an answer, you must live continuously in ruin – until the next object of desire or a deeper self-understanding offers an opportunity to build yourselves back up again. These tensions are played out through the meaningful relationship between the narrator and Mitko. I was very moved by this beautiful, disarming and perceptive novel.

Read an interview between Garth Greenwell and Jonathan Lee about "What Belongs to You" here: https://www.guernicamag.com/daily/accessing-the-ecstatic/

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesGarth Greenwell

This is the third new book from South Africa that I’ve read this year and it’s rather startling to discover common themes between all of them. SJ Naude’s book of stories “The Alphabet of Birds” describes a variety of characters’ estrangement from South Africa where they seek to build a new life elsewhere or struggle against seemingly insolvable social systems within their own country. Eben Venter’s “Wolf Wolf” follows the plight of a son seeking to prove he can be financially independent from his dying father. There are issues of alienation, insecurity, masculinity and severe family strife in both. These themes are also strongly represented in Jacques Strauss’ novel “The Curator.” The chapters in this novel alternate between a rural South African town of Barberton in 1976 and the more urbanized environment of Pretoria in 1996. We primarily follow Werner Deyer who is calculating, sexually-repressed and dangerously angry, but seeks to find an expression of something intangible in art through a copy of Salvador Dali’s representation of Christ and later in the house of a victim of a brutal childhood attack who now obsessively paints scenes of that attack. The reasons why Werner is like this gradually unfold over the course of this frequently disturbing, but gripping novel. The novel also powerfully deals with racial attitudes in South Africa, sexual molestation and the breakdown of family.

I didn’t think there could be a book published this year with content as disturbing as “A Little Life,” but in some ways I feel that “The Curator” is even darker. Of course, they deal with difficult issues in a very different way, but let me explain why I found reading certain aspects of this novel even more harrowing.

Firstly, the deadly violence in “The Curator” is directed between family members in a way which is terrifyingly insidious. Werner’s family hears news of a nearby farmer who shot his entire family before shooting himself. Werner’s father Hendrik fixates upon this story and has fantasies of dispensing with his own family – even going so far to employing a maid who witnessed the family attack and finds himself becoming sexually obsessed with her. Twenty years later, Werner becomes fixated on killing his father Hendrik who is now severely disabled after an anonymous attack. The author skilfully shows the way violence percolates in the closed environment of the home: “This is how it started. Before you knew it, you were hitting and beating and kicking and shooting everything in sight to make things okay again.”

Secondly, like “A Little Life,” this novel also deals with sexual molestation, but we’re shown this from the perspectives of both the abuser and the abused. Steyn is a man who works on the Deyer’s property and drinks heavily after leaving his family. He takes advantage of the adolescent Werner and seems to disturbingly believe that we are cognizant of acts of desire even at a young age: “If there is one thing we are born knowing about, it is sex.” Steyn eventually moves on to taking advantage of Werner’s younger brother Marius which makes Werner very jealous for the attention he’s no longer receiving. It’s unsettling the way this book shows how the desire for affection, especially for vulnerable children who aren’t receiving any love from their parents, can become dependent on adult sexual predators.

Finally, “The Curator” shows the pernicious long-term racism that occurs from longstanding social divisions. The white characters in this novel show an extremely derogatory attitude towards the majority of black people they encounter. There is also a class division between white people who live with certain privileges and poor white people who are viewed as no better than “kaffirs” (a contemptuous term for a black Africans). In one scene the mother of the family Petronella is disgusted by how dirty a neighbouring white girl has become so she aggressively bathes her: “she wanted to wash away the kaffir, so that everything was wholesome and normal.” There is a strong desire shown to keep the races separate. These divisions are rigorously reinforced through social pressure and there is a strong sense throughout the book that the characters fear crossing these racial boundaries. The novel also demonstrates what a heavily dominant and repressive force men make in this society. Petronella feels so belittled over time that she pleads that “I want to be treated like a human being.”

'Christ of St John of the Cross' by Salvador Dali

'Christ of St John of the Cross' by Salvador Dali

It feels as if there is something stirring in the political and social atmosphere in South Africa at this time which is provoking authors to create such compelling new novels with similarly frustrated characters who perpetually feel like outsiders. These authors have something important to say which is different from the most prominent South African writers who are globally well known. At one point in this novel Werner thinks he’ll pretend to be a writer when staying at a hotel and looking at a Scandinavian family he muses: “Those two stern-looking adults and their beautiful offspring probably have a lively interest in post-colonial literature; would want to discuss Coetzee and Gordimer and Lessing. He imagines having dinner with the family. He could tell them how he grew up not far from here and how those early years still exert a significant force on his work. In what way? They would ask. Oh, you know, the politics, but also the land. There is something, he would say, about this place that is unforgiving.” Jacques Strauss makes a powerful statement with this story about the “unforgiving” aspect of South African society where some issues are suppressed causing people to explode into violent action.

Having enumerated all the ways “The Curator” deals with such hard issues, you may be scared away from it. But I think this is an absolutely striking, original and skilfully written book that you won’t regret reading. It gave me such fascinating insights into a culture and conflicted consciousness so different from my own. By honestly representing and discussing issues raised in such a powerful novel, Jacques Strauss is bearing witness to the violence that can erupt in a repressed society.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJacques Strauss
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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