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One of my highlights of visiting Madrid for the first time was being able to go to the Museo del Prado and see Diego Velázquez’s masterpiece Las Meninas in person. This is a painting I’d studied in art history at university and appreciated for its technique, but there’s something so arresting about seeing it in person with its odd composition and the confrontational stares from several figures depicted. So I was enticed to read Amy Sackville’s most recent novel because it portrays the life of Velázquez in his appointment to the royal court of King Philip IV of Spain. I wasn’t prepared for what a unique take the author gives on the historical novel which doesn’t simply tell the story the painter, the king and people associated with his court, but Sackville inserts her own voice and invites the reader to participate as well. It’s somewhat reminiscent of Patricia Duncker’s “Sophie and the Sybil” which depicts George Eliot’s tangled relationships as well as Duncker’s own feelings towards Eliot. In “Painter to the King” we’re led through Velázquez’s major paintings and shown the scenes and social milieu they sprung out of. But we’re also drawn to focus on certain aspects of the paintings (as pictorial details are reproduced throughout the text) and paintings which have been lost but which we know about through historical references. Sackville queries the gaps in history and the way the figures involved wanted their images and time period to be remembered. It forms such an original take on the past which invites the reader to participate in looking at its many layers as well as enjoying the experience of it in the story.

Philip IV of Spain is a fascinating figure as he was married to a French princess at the age of ten and made king of Spain and Portugal at the age of fifteen. That’s quite a responsibility for such a young boy! Of course, throughout his life he was bred and trained to uphold the Spanish Empire and pressured to secure his lineage with a son. Sackville refers to the urgency he feels to produce a healthy son throughout the novel and as the story progresses it becomes evident this isn’t a novel so much about Velázquez, but about this boy trapped in an impossibly high pressure situation. The painter faithfully records the toll Philip’s royal position takes on him with wrinkles and shadows around his eyes. I felt a growing sympathy for him as Philip frequently takes refuge in the quiet periods he spends with Velázquez while being painted. Sackville also compelling describes the way Philip struggles with his duties, urges, faith and fidelity. At the same time there is a tension between the professional and personal relationship Philip and Velázquez share. But Philip emerges as the most dynamic and fully rounded character in the novel.

Philip IV of Spain painted by Velazquez

Philip IV of Spain painted by Velazquez

Many other fascinating figures emerge as Sackville records this period of the royal court in Spain. There’s a red haired actress who sacrifices her promising career to be Philip’s long term mistress and she bears him the healthy son he always longed for but this boy must be classified as illegitimate. There’s also Sor Maria or Mary of Jesus of Ágreda who was a visionary abbess and spiritual writer that Philip takes as a trusted advisor and he corresponds with her throughout his life. So I felt somewhat disappointed that Sackville dipped into the stories of figures like this, but didn’t develop them further. I appreciated that doing so would have taken over the narrative and strayed from the central focus of the novel. I felt the author’s primary intent with this story is summed up in this quote where she’s writing about Velázquez’s process of painting: “To describe a thing, you describe the space around it; until you encounter the brim, the fringe, the outline, where the thing’s edges meet the world you find it in.” But it sometimes detracted from the pleasure of the novel that Sackville so determinedly portrays the outlines of life at court and glimpses of its most intriguing figures without going further into the heart of their stories.

However, overall I really enjoyed and appreciated how much more Sackville adds to the experience of a historical novel. It was fascinating to consider how this accumulation of paintings of the king must have made Philip reflective in a way not many other people could be in the 1600s because most wouldn’t have a visual record of their lives. It’s interesting to consider how this compares to our experience today since so many people now do have free access to photography which casually records our images over the years. Just as Philip must consider the way Velázquez has chosen to interpret his reign, we consider the way we’ve selected and catalogued out images to give a certain slant to our lives. Though I sometimes felt ambiguous about the authorial intrusion of the narrative, it felt poignant in how Sackville expresses how looking at paintings is a desire for a shared experience. There’s a tragedy in never really knowing how personal experience syncs with or differs from the figures and mood captured in paint. It’s a complex way of engaging with the past and I admire how Sackville gives so many unique ways of seeing this beguiling period of history.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAmy Sackville
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Like many people, I was hugely impressed by Sarah Moss’ previous novel “The Tidal Zone” for the way its story meaningfully drew the past into the pressing concerns of its characters in the present. She uses a similar technique in her new novel “Ghost Wall” but in a much more compressed form that combines a tense story with a strong statement about issues in modern Britain. Teenage Silvie is taken on a unique archaeological trip in Northern England by her parents along with a few students and a professor. Rather than searching for artefacts they seek to recreate the feeling of living in Iron Age Britain as closely as possible. This means wearing nothing but burlap sacks, foraging for what food they can in the forest and living in primitive shelters. It also includes antiquated rituals like building a wall out of skulls and other unsavoury acts which grow increasingly alarming and bizarre. The values that Silvie’s father holds are skewed towards an outdated ideal of masculinity and gender dynamics which Silvie gradually comes to question. For such a short novel, this book builds up to a thrilling and memorable conclusion.

Since the vote for Brexit there’s been a lot of discussion about what Britain means as a country and a concept. Silvie’s father is an extreme example of someone searching for an ideal form of citizenship which retains a cultural purity without any outside or foreign influences. He’s angry about “Foreigners coming over here, telling us what to think” and longs to return to some pre-Roman Celtic tribe: “He wanted his own ancestry, wanted a lineage, a claim on something. Not people from Ireland or Rome or Germania or Syria but some tribe sprung from English soil like mushrooms in the night.” Of course, such reactionary desire to inhabit some mythically primitive form of being British is exactly what stirs fear, xenophobia and isolationist thinking. Sarah Moss dramatically and poignantly shows how such inclinations are both spurious and absurd.

At the centre of the story is Silvie who was named after an ancient British goddess Sulevia. She develops a friendship (and attraction?) to student Molly who is from Southern England. She is headstrong, dismissive of the group’s blatant machoism and hilariously bunks off from gathering edible weeds and berries to buy prepacked food from the local convenient store. Molly has grown up with very different values from Silvie who feels that it’s natural that “Children’s bodies were not their own, we were all used to uncles who liked to cop a feel given half a chance and mums who showed love in smacked legs.” But Silvie also refuses to be seen as a rural working class stereotype and is wary of patronizing views about their lifestyle. It’s a tense dynamic and it raises a lot of challenging questions for the reader about the difference between cultural sensitivity and doing what’s ethically right. These questions are just as haunting as the image of Bog People performing a sacrifice in the Iron Age which prefaces this short, razor-sharp novel.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSarah Moss
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It felt somewhat surprising to me that the fact a graphic novel has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize for the first time has proved to be so controversial. I don't believe there's ever been any rules in the prize's guidelines saying a graphic novel can't be submitted and if none have been listed for the prize before I can only assume that publishers haven't submitted many in the past since they are only allowed to submit a very limited number of books. It feels like there's been an elitism and snobbery expressed by some who don't believe graphic novels are as great an art form as pure prose fiction. I get the point if people feel that reading a graphic novel is a totally different experience from reading a novel composed entirely in prose, but I think it's great that the prize is challenging people to read different forms of story telling and it might introduce some to an entirely new genre. I've certainly not read that many graphic novels before, but have really appreciated ones by Art Spiegelman, Alan Moore/Melinda Gebbie, Howard Hardiman and Chris Ware. So I'm glad the prize has introduced me to Nick Drnaso's work because I found “Sabrina” to be quite a powerful and bracingly melancholy read about current American society. 

A woman named Sabrina has gone missing. The novel focuses on the lives of Sabrina's sister Sandra and her boyfriend Teddy as they try to deal with her sudden absence and the aftermath when the shocking truth of what happened to her is revealed. The drawings which accompany the dialogue and text are very understated in how they convey the scenes with little detail or facial expressions in the characters. In the context of the story this has the odd effect of imbuing them with even more emotion because its all submerged and the characters are stuck in a state of inaction/confusion. Many of interior and outdoor spaces portrayed are also very muted or stark as if the environment is just as barren and sombre as the characters who are dealing with their grief. The conversations are clipped and awkward as the well meaning people in Sandra and Teddy's lives try to console them. All this evokes a tone of stripped down emotion as the characters are surrounded by a jaded society that's become accustomed to a bombardment of horrific news and a culture rife with conspiracy theories. Ironically, the only colourful and busy images in the book are reproductions of scenes from children's activity books which suggest a world of motion and light that's in stark contrast to the inertness of reality.

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The story also involves a man named Calvin who takes his old friend Teddy in and tries to help him deal with his sudden loss. Calvin works in computer security for the US military and is trying to formulate a plan to relocate so he can be closer to his ex-wife and daughter. While his actual job doesn't involve any combat he spends his time out of work playing video games with his colleagues that simulate military battles and he keeps guns locked away in his house so that he's “well-protected if anyone tries anything.” This combined with radio broadcasts and disturbing threatening letters sent to Sandra and Calvin suggest how society has become so consumed with paranoia about intangible threats. But the only threats that are actually portrayed in the stories are the ones which come from within when the characters are under so much anxiety that they appear to contemplate harming themselves or others. As part of his job, Calvin must routinely fill out a medical evaluation survey which is designed to gauge his mental health. While his stress levels fluctuate in his answers portrayed on these forms throughout the book he never admits to thoughts of depression or any personal circumstances which might affect his duties. Why would he when he knows it would risk his employment and possible promotion? So it gives the feeling that there are structures in place to try to support people's emotional health, but in reality little attention is given to the intricacies of their wellbeing.

Small details in the drawings poignantly portray the fraught condition of these character's lives. For instance, Calvin and Teddy basically live off from fast food and its highly suggestive how Calvin often brings home bags with a smiling star on them which could stand in for any generic fast food brand but which you know won't provide them with much nourishment. Also, nighttime or nightmare scenes are drawn in such a way that evocatively invoke a sense of space where the characters are wrestling with the unwieldy complexity of their feelings. While the overall tone of the novel is quite dark and sombre there are some lighter moments as well in the form of a slanket which Calvin has become accustomed to wearing or a vending machine at work which breaks down so much it's become an office gag. There are also many moments of simple kindness shown throughout the story which gives a hopeful sense for our ability to be our best selves in situations where we aren't so physically removed from each other. Running alongside the story of Sabrina's disappearance is that of Calvin's cat who vanishes without the characters noticing. This neglect parallels with the way Calvin has become so estranged from his daughter that his ex-wife tells him not to bother attempting contact anymore. It suggests how we can sometimes be careless about the things and people that matter to us most until we suddenly realise we've lost them for good.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesNick Drnaso
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“White Houses” must be one of the most touchingly romantic stories I’ve read in a long time. This is also a novel with searing political insight that offers an alternative view of history. Amy Bloom writes from the perspective of Lorena Hickock who was a journalist and author of the early-mid 20th century. She also shared a strong relationship with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. The enormous affection between these two women is well documented but historians still disagree about whether their relationship was physical or not. In Bloom’s novel, Lorena and Eleanor’s enduring love for each other is unequivocal and she frequently takes the reader into their bedroom – not in a gratuitous way, but to show the transformative effect and power of the intense love they shared. At the same time she portrays the seat of government throughout crucial years of US history when FDR led the country through The Depression and the Second World War. This was also a time in LGBT history when FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover sought to persecute “subversive” behaviour and specifically kept a large file on Eleanor who was a famed liberal and civil rights activist. The result is a tale which is large in scope while also offering an achingly intimate portrait of a love affair cruelly shaken by extraordinary circumstances.

Lorena’s narrative weaves together fragments from her long relationship with Eleanor from blissful moments of their “honeymoon” when they escaped together to enjoy some solitude to the painful time when Lorena moved out of the White House to avoid embroiling Eleanor in a scandal. Lorena also recounts the story of her life from an impoverished childhood to the tricky position of being a female reporter in a male-dominated newsroom trying to hide her lesbianism: “I pretended that even though I hadn’t found the right man, I did want one. I pretended that I envied their wives and that took effort.” What’s particularly interesting about the way her past is related is that its in the context of a scene where Eleanor invites Lorena to tell the story of her life. While the reader receives the unedited version, Lorena leaves out parts that she knows will particularly distress Eleanor such as the sexual abuse she suffered from her father as an adolescent and her moment of sexual discovery with an individual named Gerry who is “brother and sister in one body” at a carnival she worked at for a brief period. This strikingly shows the complexity of how lovers exchange stories of their pasts which are carefully edited or modified, not necessarily in order to deceive their partner, but to drip feed what they know their lover can take.

Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickock

Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickock

Something I loved so much about this novel is the way Bloom realistically portrays the physicality of these women’s relationship. Lorena and Eleanor are aware that they aren’t “conventional beauties” but in bed “what may not look beautiful does feel beautiful.” It’s so moving the way she describes how features which would be scorned in public can become desirable qualities in the intimate space of romance. What’s more she describes how empowering this can be: “In bed, we were beauties. We were goddesses. We were the little girls we’d never been: loved, saucy, delighted, and delightful.” It’s a safe area where these individuals can reckon with their pasts and identity can become fluid to escape the confines of the roles they have to play in public. The only novel I can recall that comes close to exploring this kind of complexity is Garth Greenwell’s “What Belongs To You” – especially in the way that both books portray how LGBT people seek out spaces where desire can be honestly expressed as a way to enact all the multifaceted aspects of their personalities which aren’t socially acceptable to reveal in public.

What’s so especially engaging about this novel and makes it so compulsively readable is that Lorena’s voice is exremely witty and engaging. She’s a plain-talking journalist who often cuts through the social niceties of high society’s pomp. Lorena speaks frankly to many characters including Eleanor’s duplicitous daughter, a tortured gay cousin named Parker who comes close to ruining the family and Franklin D Roosevelt’s lover. She hilarious recounts her frank disdain for the “pink turkey parts” men have between their legs. There’s also a mesmerising intensity to her insomniac wanderings through the White House late at night where she sometimes encounters FDR to share a nightcap. She remarks of him that “He was the greatest president of my lifetime and he was a son of a bitch every day.” But, despite her hardened attitude which she acquired from such a challenging life, Lorena maintains a touching idealism and hope in her relationship with Eleanor that “Our love would create its own world and alter the real one, just a little.” It’s an important message and one which makes this historical novel all the more relevant today given that the US is more politically divided than ever and the echoed message of “America First” carries with it such stifling reactionary sentiments. “White Houses” gives us a portrait of the past which makes it clear how America has always been a nation where there are multiple meanings of the word home. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAmy Bloom
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It's amazing when a novel can create such a strong sensory experience and all-encompassing atmosphere within its prose that you feel like you're imaginatively entrenched in this fictional world. There have been few books I've read in recent years that have done this as powerfully as Danny Denton's new novel “The Earlie King & The Kid in Yellow”. He describes a post-apocalyptic Ireland that experiences constant rain so that whole sections of the country begin sinking into the sea, the agricultural industry is destroyed and 92.46 per cent precipitation counts as the “thinnest and firmest in yonks. A bare tremble.” People can only witness the sun in videos, UV booths or sun rooms. One character keeps a slug as a pet. The seas are so polluted fish are poisonous and there are mutant green dolphins. There's an overwhelming sense of dampness and darkness and rot. Many pages of the novel are covered in sketches of rain and occasionally we're given sections from a play script which appears on the page like a water-soaked document. People in Dublin live in fear of a gang lord known as The Earlie King while the police look the other way. Believers flock to the West to worship a miracle statue of the Virgin that has foretold the end of the persistent downpour. Denton powerfully evokes this feeling of a drowning Ireland in order to dramatize a country in a state of crisis. In doing so he produces an immersive story as well as a striking commentary on institutional corruption and the information age.

In a way, it feels like this book has all the elements of a young adult novel. It's a kind-of post-apocalyptic fiction with an adolescent boy hero at its centre who seeks to undermine the oppressive powers that be. One of The Earlie King's underlings, a boy who is around 13 years old and wears a yellow rain jacket, plots to steal the King's granddaughter for reasons which only become apparent over the course of the narrative. But, like Sandra Newman's epic “The Country of Ice Cream Star”, this novel invents its own language rhythms and idioms in a highly sophisticated way. It's formed partly from current Irish dialect and partly from an invented slang to fit with a lingo appropriate to this dilapidated world. So rain jackets that must be worn constantly outside are known as “skins” and a form of television commonly watched is known as the TeleVisio. There are even invented alcoholic beverages and drugs which are frequently referred to. Meanwhile, The Kid in Yellow (whose true name we only discover towards the end) is a kind of repository of literature as he can recite from memory lines from Shakespeare, Goethe, Yates, Michael Hartnett and other poets. Although he doesn’t entirely understand the meaning of their lines, this language lives on through him as do numerous local fables. Storytelling is important throughout the novel, not least of all because (like Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”) the entire tale of “The Earlie King & The Kid in Yellow” is being told at some future point through the perspective of a local detective, “the last Irishman” who partially witnessed this catastrophic drama unfold.

A statue of the Virgin Mary stepping on a serpent foretells the end of the rain.

A statue of the Virgin Mary stepping on a serpent foretells the end of the rain.

Although we don’t see what the world has become in this future point where the primary tale has transformed into myth, it can be presumed that this new nation has moved beyond this gang-run society trapped in a glut of information. One of the themes Denton is preoccupied with is a current general belief that the information age will allow our society to progress to a state of peace and tranquillity. It’s as if we’ve been lulled into believing that the bounty of knowledge we can find through internet searches will allow us to achieve enlightenment. One character named Jeri has a theory that in seeking to know everything we discover that “knowledge didn’t produce an answer as to why we couldn’t find peace. Why we were here.” People find that they are just as confused, fragmented, discontent and alone as ever. Hence the constant rain is a kind of symbol for how clouded our vision remains despite this easy-access to knowledge: “There was so much in the world that was mysterious, all of it held just beyond the rain, or piped just beneath the city’s surfaces.” It becomes apparent that “This country is slowly disappearing. The whole world is falling to pieces. Time is accelerating and cracking apart, and after almost three thousand years of praying none of the organised religions has been able to stop that. None of the sciences either.” So the Kid in Yellow - as well as a vigilante arsonist, a local alcoholic mystic, a chronicler of the gang’s violence and a spectre known as Mister Violence – take steps to trigger a large-scale transformation to move society to a new stage.

Danny Denton is an invigorating and inventive debut author whose voice is a welcome addition to the chorus of new Irish writers making powerful statements about the current state of Ireland. It feels like a new wave in Irish fiction has been felt in full force since the property bubble burst and a financial crisis ensued after 2007. Writers such as Lisa McInerney, Lucy Caldwell, Gavin McCrea, Danielle McLaughlin, Colin Barrett, Gavin Corbett, Kevin Barry and Mike McCormack have creatively addressed different sides of the fallout of this economic downturn in their fiction which ranges from short stories to historical novels to more experimental prose. Now Denton has created a vision of the country which is struggling to find a way forward and seeks to find establish social systems which can represent and support all of its people – not just “the city’s rich or the city’s corrupt”. The original structure of his book frames this drama in such a fascinating way. But, most of all, “The Earlie King & The Kid in Yellow” is also a moving story of a tragic love affair and disillusioned youth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesTom Lee
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Even if it weren’t for the beautiful cover of this debut novel by Eli Goldstone, I’d still have been drawn to reading “Strange Beating Heart” because it’s partly set in Latvia. Some of my ancestors came from Latvia and I still have relatives there, but I’ve not yet visited. So I have a fascination with this location and I’m curious to read literature that’s set there. The story begins with Seb mourning the loss of his young artistic wife who died in a freak lake accident when her boat was overturned by an angry swan. Swans are really the most beautifully graceful looking birds, but they have the worst tempers; I was once chased up a tree by one! It’s striking that Seb’s wife Leda is killed by a swan because in the Greek myth Leda is a Spartan queen who is seduced by Zeus who comes to her in the form of a swan. The symbolism of swans is played out in different ways throughout the novel to express forms of vulnerability, eroticism and shape-shifting. However, this isn’t a fantasy or mythic story, but a poignant realistic tale of isolation, grief and estrangement.

"How can those terrified vague fingers push The feathered glory from her loosening thighs? And how can body, laid in that white rush, But feel the strange beating heart where it lies?" - W.B.Yeats

"How can those terrified vague fingers push The feathered glory from her loosening thighs? And how can body, laid in that white rush, But feel the strange beating heart where it lies?" - W.B.Yeats

Seb finds his wife’s loss overwhelming and it leads him to increasingly irrational behaviour. When he happens across a series of unopened letters addressed to his wife from a man in Latvia he embarks to Leda’s home country to discover more about his late wife’s past. His journey to the countryside where Leda came from reveals how little he really knew about his wife. But it’s not presented as if Leda harboured some deep shameful secret. The story raises is more concerned with unsettling existential questions about how much or little we ever really understand about the partner we make a life with. The account of Seb’s journey is interspersed with diary entries from Leda about her youth and eventual move to the UK. This is an interesting structure which reminded me slightly of the recent novel “Swimming Lessons” where the story alternates between letters from a missing woman and an account of her family in the present.

The effect of Goldstone’s novel is more melancholic because rather than building to a revelation or feeling of independence, these scattered diary entries seem to ask if we can ever really be understood or known to ourselves or others. Not only does Leda come across as a stranger to her husband, but also to her unstable mother and other people who are supposedly close to her. There are also wayward figures of an enterprising German woman, a lonely B&B landlady and a hunter who frequently drinks himself into a stupor. While Seb’s interactions with them and struggles with the language inevitably produce some comic effects, it also adds to his lingering sense of isolation. Both the primary stories about Leda’s early life and Seb’s quest through Latvia build to dramatic conclusions, but this novel felt much more concerned with raising questions about identity rather than creating a thickly plotted tale. It’s an emotionally complex and unsettling book.

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

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

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

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesDaniel Magariel

It’s difficult to write about desire in a way which feels wholly new, but that’s something author April Ayers Lawson does repeatedly in her debut book. There’s a persistent sense in these five short stories that young people have access to a multitude of sexual imagery and opportunities. They are either totally sheltered from sex or there is a presumption that they know how to emotionally deal with the more mature aspects of sexuality. Yet their innocence and naivety leave them unprepared to accept the physical reality of sex and its consequences. Lawson has a fascinating way of describing the separation between people’s intentions and the outcomes of their unwieldy romantic and sexual yearnings. She does this through poignant imagery and layering complicated feelings between her characters. It’s apt that the title story ‘Virgin’ is what this book is named after because the feeling of purity cut through with the startling reality of intimate encounters recurs throughout each story.

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 The character Conner is sexually drawn to Andrew Wyeth's The Helga Pictures

The character Conner is sexually drawn to Andrew Wyeth's The Helga Pictures

Often people who ought to be the object of desire are passed over for people the characters find themselves unexpectedly attracted to. In ‘Virgin’ a married man finds himself inappropriately staring at the breasts of a cancer survivor, in ‘Three Friends in a Hammock’ women press against each other in an intimate space while gossiping about their complicated private lives and in 'The Way You Must Play Always' teenager Gretchen is drawn to a much older man who is terminally ill. I found it really effective the way Lawson shows how desire is much more complicated than it appears on the surface. In real life the object of desire isn’t necessarily who you imagine you’d be drawn to. Teenage boy Conner is both intrigued and repulsed by his mother’s transvestite friend Charlene in ‘The Negative Effects of Homeschooling’. He steals a book with paintings by Andrew Wyeth that contains art which isn’t immediately sexy, but what he finds seductive about these paintings are the representation of the physical weight and reality of the woman Wyeth repeatedly painted. In the final story ‘Vulnerability’ at one point the main character is shown paintings by an artist who depicts scenes of garish violence that he imagines occurring between people in the South (rather than any experiences he’s witnessed). There’s a disjuncture throughout this book between the reality of actions/emotions/experiences and how they are envisioned in people’s minds.

It’s interesting reading an author who clearly comes out of an established tradition of writing from the American South – at times parts of these stories made me think of Eudora Welty or Flannery O’Connor – but Lawson’s subjects are much more modern and her influences wide-ranging: one story begins with a quote from Margaret Atwood. The themes of humorous sexual confusion reminded me slightly of Patrick Ryan’s wonderful stories from “The Dream Life of Astronauts”. April Ayers Lawson gives such a lively and refreshing slant on the peculiar reality of people’s relationships to each other that I found “Virgin and Other Stories” often surprising, enlightening and a pleasure to read.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson

There are some cataclysmic moments in life where it feels as if you’ve been totally thrown out of the normal flow of time. It might be a horrendous accident or the unexpected death of a loved one or the abrupt end of a relationship, but these moments often take on a kind of timelessness because it breaks our sense of identity; we become no one. The man at the centre of “Cove” experiences an extremely rare and dramatic event one day when fishing too far out at sea: a storm moves quickly in and he gets struck by lightening. He suddenly finds that “Time was a wide ocean.” Injured and confused he must painfully struggle to get back to shore. Written with a sparse, deft prose style, Cynan Jones conveys the man’s near hallucinatory state battling the elements and memories as he drifts in his kayak.

This is a novel where the author makes every word count. The painful physical descriptions of the man’s injuries and growing thirst are vividly written, yet Jones doesn’t indulge in an over-abundance of detail. It was just enough to make me feel the intensity of the situation and the full horror of it. At the same time, memories swell up in the man’s consciousness as he fumbles with the few supplies he has to hand. There is a sense of him being swallowed by the past with thoughts of U-boats in these waters and his father’s ashes scattered in the waves. But there are also thoughts of a woman and child who will be lost to him if he doesn’t return. He projects an idea of the physical ramifications of his potential absence in everyday objects such as “a coffee cup, never moved, the little left liquid growing into a ghost of dust.” It’s in something as small as this that an awareness of all he’ll lose grows in the reader’s mind: the way an individual can vanish from the pages of history.

It’s interesting thinking about this book in relation to Paul Kingsnorth’s recent novel “Beast” because they are both novels written in a pared down style and concern men who have become nearly anonymous. One big difference is that the protagonist of “Cove” seeks desperately to return to and regain his normal life whereas the narrator of “Beast” actively avoids returning to his home and family. The existential horror the man at the centre of “Cove” faces is triggered by being violently cut off from civilization so that he becomes his own island. It provokes a feeling at one point that the world may have vanished in his absence: “What if there has been some quiet apocalypse?” Also, rather than the eponymous beast which ominously stalks the narrator of Kingsnorth’s novel, Jones imagines for his protagonist the benign, comical figure of a sunfish guiding his kayak in a beautifully surreal moment of calm.

Reading “Cove” is a brisk, thrilling experience that creates a series of haunting images and will leave you in a contemplative state of mind.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesCynan Jones
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When I was in school I absolutely hated standardized tests. It seems melodramatic now but I simply could not focus on the dreary text and formalized questions. Often I ended up filling in the multiple choice answer sheet to make a pattern on the page rather than mark what I thought were the right answers. I wish now that I had just knuckled down and focused more but at the time that felt impossible. So it’s a delight coming across inventive Chilean writer Alejandro Zambra’s new book “Multiple Choice” which is based on the Chilean Academic Aptitude Test. He creatively plays with the test’s format to form micro-stories and oftentimes hilarious commentary on society, formalized education and the human condition. This is a brisk, short book but like a Choose Your Own Adventure novel you could easily spend ages thinking about the multiple combinations and outcomes you could make in each section.

Each section of the book is laid out like a standard multiple choice test where you are instructed to exclude a term, reorder a sentence, decide on how best to complete a sentence, eliminate certain sentences from the text or show your comprehension of a story. Yet, quite often the multiple choice responses are comical, sarcastic or slyly make subversive statements. Sometimes reordering the text creates radical new meanings which are in turns poetic/ironic/poignant or the possible answers create impossibilities as if completely mocking the idea of an exam. There’s a great deal of wordplay where in one section he writes “You try to go from the general to the specific, even if the general is General Pinochet.” The infamous military dictator Pinochet pops up several times in the text and some sections make a sharp critique Chilean society and the notoriously oppressive political system under his rule. These passages add a weightier feeling to the book as you can sense so strongly the strain of having lived under such a fearsome regime. (If you want to see a great documentary about the longlasting effecting of Pinochet’s dictatorship watch the powerful film Nostalgia for the Light.)

Many of the early sections are filled with only brief lines of text whose meanings are cryptic or suggest there could be much longer stories told. Frequently there are allusions to broken families or tempestuous relationships. One of the extended stories towards the end is about a man who won’t give or can’t remember his former wife’s name. It was quite shocking to learn in this story that Chile only legalized divorce in 2004. Another story is about a man who works variously as a chauffer and ghost writer for a politically conservative man who wins the lottery. The more extended texts are followed with possible interpretations of the text which are alternately funny or add another kind of meaning to them. It reminds me of Will Eaves’ powerful book “The Inevitable Gift Shop” which similarly suggests methods of reading while simultaneously creating an engaging story.

“Multiple Choice” is a richly rewarding and extremely funny book which so cleverly plays upon those standard school tests many of us dreaded taking.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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At the beginning of Madeleine Thien's majestically epic novel “Do Not Say We Have Nothing” we meet Li-ling, a girl of Chinese descent whose family live in Canada. Her father Jiang Kai left in 1989 when she was ten years old to travel to Hong Kong where he eventually committed suicide. Li-ling can't begin to understand the full complexity of why her father chose to end his life until meeting Ai-ming, a young woman who leaves China after the historic student protests in Tiananmen Square which resulted in hundreds (if not thousands) of civilian deaths after martial law was declared. From Ai-ming's stories about her family and particularly her father Sparrow who was a musical student taught by Kai in Mao's communist China, Li-Ling embarks on a lifelong search for the truth about her father and the country her family came from. This ambitious novel spans fifty years of China's history recounting the heartrending impact the political system has upon a fascinating artistic family.

Li-Ling's journey of discovery is spread out over the novel. She notes how “It’s taken me years to begin searching, to realize that the days are not linear, that time does not simply move forward but spirals closer and closer to a shifting centre.” Reflecting this structure of time, the majority of the story refers back to earlier periods in the family's development. Although this felt somewhat confusing at first given the large cast of characters the story eventually became much easier to follow. It's engrossing reading how strong characters like Ai-ming's grandmother Big Mother Knife, a translator named The Lady Dostoevsky and Comrade Glass Eye survive through or manipulate a repressive system to come through and get what they want.

Because information is actively suppressed or destroyed by the Red Guards, documents accumulate significant value ensuring the people's stories and culture are preserved. A character called Old Cat states “All we have on this earth, all we are, is a record. Maybe the only things that persist are not the evildoers and demons (though, admittedly, they do have a certain longevity) but copies of things. The original has long since passed away from the universe, but on and on we copy.” The significant Book of Records is a document which is painstakingly hand copied to be passed along through generations, across continents and periods of strife. It's an epic tale told in parts which has been broken up and scattered during the social and political upheaval of Chairman Mao’s revolutionized China. But it also represents the embodiment of our culture, the stories which cannot be forgotten though many people prefer to forget them or would actively try to silence them. Encoded within the handwritten variations of this book are the stories of the people who proceed it. Thien's story recounts the dramatic lengths to which the characters seek ‘To escape and continue this story, to make infinite copies, to let these stories permeate the soil, invisible and undeniable.’

The book also shows how there is a special freedom in music to express emotion and personal history in a way words can't. Thien writes how “Sound had a freedom that no thought could equal because a sound made no absolute claim on meaning. Any word, on the other hand, could be forced to signify its opposite.” The Chinese censors can't strictly interpret the music that the characters produce as anti-revolutionary, but they can stop it by branding it as a bourgeois luxury. Sparrow is a talented composer who is forced to work for many years in a factory. It's tragic reading about how his and many other people's natural talents are suppressed and squandered for the sake of a strict system focused on organized industrial production.

Thien has a particularly beautiful way of writing about the way music affects her characters. When Sparrow hears Bach he feels that “the notes collided into him. They ran up and down his spine, and seemed to dismantle him into a thousand pieces of the whole, where each part was more complete and more alive than his entire self had ever been.” It's moving how music reaches the characters on an emotional level freeing them from their particular circumstances. Sparrow's niece Zhuli feels “Inside her head, the music built columns and arches, it cleared a space within and without, a new consciousness. So there were worlds buried inside other worlds but first you had to find the opening and the entryway.” It's inspiring how the characters need for this music supersedes the dictates of the political system that tries to suppress it so sheets of music are hidden beneath floorboards waiting to be resurrected and played again at some later point.

Bach on a Chinese stamp

Bach on a Chinese stamp

Frequent references are made to Russian composers and the stories of the musicians involved in this novel in some ways parallel the difficulty these Russian artists experienced under their own communist system. Earlier this year I read Julian Barnes' “The Noise of Time” where he brought Shostakovich to life and showed how music is an art form capable of triumphing over time. Zhuli plays the music of Prokfiev, a “disgraced Russian” and this makes a beautiful touchstone between two characters living under repressive political systems separated by space and time who find freedom and expression in music.

“Do Not Say We Have Nothing” builds to the agonizingly brutal instance of the student protests in Tiananmen Square. Having experienced the lives of this family through all the social and political developments of the country proceeding this tragedy, it's context and meaning is brought much more vividly to life. It shows the complexity and enormous scale of the protest. Big Mother observes how “In this country, rage had no place to exist except deep inside, turned against oneself.” After years of suppression, feelings which had been turned inward are brought violently out into the open. This novel is a tremendously enlightening and immersive story told with great skill and poetic beauty.

When you experience a personal tragedy it fills your whole world. You’re aware and empathize with the suffering other individuals have experienced in the past and continue to experience all over the world. But this knowledge is more likely to colour your daily existence rather than saturate it. How do you contextualize your personal loss without turning it into just another story like the many stories of heartache we read about every day in the news? Sarah Moss’ new novel “The Tidal Zone” has an astounding way of looking at a potential personal tragedy within one household and simultaneously shows how it is situated in the expansive tapestry of human experience. She does this writing in a way which is poetic, profound and filled with wry humour, but it’s also a story firmly grounded in the small details of real life.

The narrator Adam Goldschmidt is a stay-at-home Dad whose domestic routine is abruptly interrupted when he receives a call that his eldest daughter Miriam has stopped breathing. She’s been resuscitated, but the doctors don’t fully understand what went wrong with her body. The novel follows the tense aftermath of this incident when Adam has become hyperaware of the fragility of life, yet the ongoing ordinariness of daily existence continues on regardless. There is dinner to make, clothes to iron, his younger daughter Rose to pick up from school and cleaning to do. All this must continue even while his teenage daughter Miriam impatiently waits in the hospital for weeks while being monitored.

Sarah Moss writes powerfully about how the physical space of a hospital is flooded with emotion: “Hospitals have their own gravitational field, their own atmosphere; you can feel it from the car parks.” Anyone who has spent any length of time in a hospital knows this sensation of all thought and feeling being intensely focused on the immediacy of what’s happening and that life is at stake. There are glancing encounters with the trauma other people experience and there are periods of excruciating boredom while waiting for tests and procedures to be conducted. This reminded me of the wonderfully rendered account of a couple’s vigilance over their sick child in the hospital in Lucy Caldwell’s recent short story ‘Multitudes’.

Meanwhile, Adam’s thoughts also frequently roam to an account of the WWII bombing and subsequent reconstruction of the Coventry Cathedral which he is researching and writing about for a walking tour. He considers how when the city was being bombed people had to carry on with their daily lives and that “Domestic routine takes priority over political violence until the very last minute.” His intense engagement with the stories of people’s fate in wartime shows on a macro level the feelings of uncertainty and heartache he’s experiencing on his own micro level. So when he ruminates upon the strategies and plans the designers of the reconstructed Cathedral take it’s almost as if he’s planning how he can also rebuild a stable household for his family following their intense brush with tragedy.

Adam wants his home to be capable of containing the messiness of ordinary life while also not living in a state of constant emergency where he must be constantly vigilant about his children’s health. He wants them to live in that state of blissful ignorance about the daily dangers and fragility of life while also being aware of the gift of a relatively happy and healthy existence: “may we heal enough to take for granted sky and water and light”. He’s aware of how these points of view are all filtered through the stories we narrate to ourselves and each other about the past and our present lives. He remarks how “You think you want a story, you think you want an ending, but you don’t. You want life. You want disorder and ignorance and uncertainty.” He’s aware of the ability stories have to drain the lifeblood out of existence and not faithfully represent the feeling of experience. At the same time he knows that “Stories have endings; that’s why we tell them, for reassurance that there is meaning in our lives.” How to live fruitfully without the need for constant reassurance?

Most people look to religion, but Adam resolutely states: "I'm not a believer. I trust that's already clear." Inspiration comes from Adam’s father who never allowed himself to be confined within the story that was written for him. He spent years travelling the world and living in intentional communities. Living with groups of other people, they tried to rewrite the rules by which our personal lives are played out under the regulations of larger society. Many of these communities weren’t able to sustain themselves in the long term and Adam’s father is very attentive to their shortcomings: “My generation screwed up all right, just like the one before, but we had ideas. Yes, also like the one before.” He doesn’t have a rose-tinted view of where they went wrong, but at least they tried to conscientiously create a better way of life rather than conforming to the standards laid out for them by their parents. Adam gleans from this a strategy for his family to live in a way which doesn’t confine them to a humdrum existence. Incidentally, I really appreciated getting this balanced perspective about a post-war generation’s experiments with intentional communities after reading the rather one-sided view in Kate Atkinson’s otherwise magnificent novel “A God in Ruins.”

Coventry Cathedral tapestry: "His tapestry Christ in Glory, stood the full height of the building, its solid colours and softness a counterpoint to the brilliance of stained glass, gazing down the length of the nave at the ruins behind."

Coventry Cathedral tapestry: "His tapestry Christ in Glory, stood the full height of the building, its solid colours and softness a counterpoint to the brilliance of stained glass, gazing down the length of the nave at the ruins behind."

There are many more admirable details contained in this beautiful novel than I can possibly recount in a brief review. It meaningfully points out shortcomings in our current society such as lack of employment opportunities, the shortcomings of academic institutions and the NHS and our own inertia watching cooking shows: “we’re all obsessed with obesity and weight loss and also fucking baking.” But it never comes across like the author is whinging; it’s more like she’s articulating and relating to the frustrations many of us feel living within a problematic society. She’s also highly attentive to the positive things about it in the people and systems which do respond to the needs and welfare of individuals. As well as considering these larger social issues, this is a poignant novel about a marriage with a hardworking wife in full time employment, the gender stereotypes Adam challenges as a househusband and the changing dynamics of the relationship between siblings.

“The Tidal Zone” magnificently captures the real grit and poignancy of daily life while framing it within a bigger picture. It’s an emotionally affecting read with realistic and relatable characters that will keep you gripped worrying what will happen to them. This is the first novel by Sarah Moss that I’ve read, but I’m now eager to read more of her books.

Have you read anything else by this author? If so, let me know which book by her I should pick up next.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSarah Moss

Growing up in an upper/middle class family in Chicago in the 50s & 60s, Margo Jefferson was subjected to unique pressures from within her household and the community around her. She felt self conscious about inhabiting a space in society she refers to as Negroland – a particular socio-economic group of well-educated and financially secure black groups cornered by certain social perceptions. They felt they couldn’t fully be accepted into white society nor did they want to be associated with what were perceived to be lower class/uneducated black people or what Jefferson terms “lowlife Negroes.” This created an intense form of self consciousness where Jefferson felt stuck between assimilating into the white culture including pressures to modify her appearance to look white and separating herself from society’s expectations about how she should appear and act. She states “We knew what was expected of us. Negro privilege had to be circumspect: impeccable but not arrogant; confident yet obliging; dignified, not intrusive.” Jefferson goes on to eloquently describe the historical conflict faced by privileged African Americans and meaningfully conveys the internal struggles concerning racial identity that she’s experienced throughout her life.

It’s fascinating how she connects feelings of self consciousness about privilege throughout generations since American slavery and cites different examples of how different black individuals in positions of power have either reinforced these notions or worked for social progress. She describes how “The secret signal which one generation passes, under disguise, to the next is loathing, hatred, despair. And as a result of these, a sense of perpetual violation.” However, because of social expectations from within and outside of the black community these feelings that Jefferson had could never be expressed and only internalised: “With external failure out of the question, internal discord seemed the only protest mode.” They lead her to some very dark and heartrending moments in her story.

Of course, feelings of segregation based on racial difference were only part of the difficulties of development that Jefferson experienced – something she readily acknowledges. This was a time period of many radical social changes and issues of anti-semitism, sexism, classism and homophobia were also prevalent. It’s interesting and sympathetic how Jefferson acknowledges throughout her memoir the complexity of identity. It’s also touching how unwilling she is to give into self pity and maintain a tough critical distance from the deep emotional hurt she experienced while still making the reader achingly aware of the power of her feelings.

Some of the most wonderful sections of this memoir are Jefferson’s recollections of her development as a reader. She sharply critiques Mark Twain and James Baldwin while identifying strongly with the intense world of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women”. Early on in her learning, she rejected male-dominated fiction: “I was a jealous little she-reader; I resented pouring myself into the lives of hero-boys.” Where Jefferson thrived the most is when she identified the writers and cultural movements that she related to and that inspired her the most. She drew particular inspiration from jazz artists and a beat generation which she could feel a part of without letting it define her: “I was trying to enter a world tied to my history but not my autobiography.” Radical movements were necessary to push the kind of social change that could allow ambiguity and individual voices to emerge: “The world had to upend itself before shades of possibility between decorum and disgrace could emerge.”

Ad from Ebony Magazine. Jefferson writes: You will never be the fair sex, but you strive to be an ever-fairer one."

Ad from Ebony Magazine. Jefferson writes: You will never be the fair sex, but you strive to be an ever-fairer one."

While reading this I was reminded of a literature course I took once where a white teach was giving a lecture about the writer Jamaica Kincaid. She lamented that Kincaid’s more recent work focused on her passion for gardening (something the author acknowledged was inherited from a European tradition). My teacher said she felt the author was trying to be white writing about such a subject instead of focusing on colonialism and racial issues in the Caribbean. I didn’t know how to respond at the time but it feels to me outrageous now that she felt Kincaid should limit herself to a certain kind of writing or not allow herself to take pleasure in activities which didn’t originate from the culture she was born into. It’s terribly elitist and makes me wonder how in some ways “higher education” might reinforce particular kinds of division.

The way that language is used concerning race is a touchy subject. Just by titling her memoir “Negroland” is something which will no doubt provoke an emotional response and I must admit it made me feel self conscious reading the book in public. What might someone think it's about glancing at this title? This is the point. Jefferson means to provoke thought and discussion about the subject – something which is ongoing and necessary. It’s a tremendous strength of this book that it doesn’t lapse into didacticism, but instead prompted me to feel more awareness of how people might or might not change their behaviour based on racial differences. It made me think about how marginalized groups in our society don't all exist on one level but inhabit different spheres of repression and discrimination. It's also striking the unique perspective Jefferson gained from inhabiting a particular group: “Being an Other, in America, teaches you to imagine what can’t imagine you.” This is a powerful and thought-provoking memoir.

 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMargo Jefferson