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“Where Reasons End” is an imagined conversation between a mother and her 16 year old son after his suicide. The aching feelings of grief at the centre of this novel are made all the more intense knowing that the author herself lost a child to suicide. Yet their dialogue isn’t necessarily about why he ended his life and it’s not even about directly memorializing his life; it’s more an exchange about the nature of being and the way language gives structure to relationships. This tone isn’t surprising given Yiyun Li’s recent memoir “Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life” where the author discusses her own depression and suicide attempts. Like in her autobiographical writing, Li doesn’t cut to the heart of emotion but shades in its edges so you feel the bleeding heart of the matter more profoundly. The more their conversation persists the flimsier language feels: “None of the words, I thought, would release me from the void left by him.” As sobering and serious as all this seems, this mother and son make a perfect balance. When the mother’s musing becomes too lofty the son quickly and humorously brings her back to reality. In this way Li captures a beautiful dynamic which persists even after the son’s death.

Something which has always puzzled me is why teenagers typically express feelings of hatred for their parents. Even if it’s only fleeting and there’s an undeniably loving bond there, a parent is likely to hear from their child at some point “I hate you.” But midway through this novel the son (referred to as Nikolai even though that’s not his real name) describes his insurmountable feelings of inner conflict: “I’ve found a perfect enemy in myself.” Realizing how her son ultimately defeated himself, the mother dearly wishes he’d directed that hatred at her instead. It made me realize what a sadly necessary act of rebellion it is for teenagers to turn upon the parents who’ve nurtured them. Usually it’s not until a child’s teenage years that they become fully cognizant that they aren’t the centre of the world and life is full of insurmountable conflicts. How can an individual not feel angry realizing this? And how poisonous it is if the accompanying sense of defeat is directed only inward. Li captures this struggle so poignantly it reduced me to tears.

Many books have been written about grief and it’s often commented how an inner dialogue persists for the survivors. Li doesn’t try to explain the magical thinking that allows this conversation to continue, but simply presents it. The significance comes not from the fact of it but the circular logic which means it will always continue: “I’m muddleheaded, I thought, because I could go on thinking but would not reach any clarity: Which between hope and fear, had made life unliveable for him?” There’s a belief in the power of language which transcends the tragedy of the mother’s circumstance and though it may feel ultimately futile she continues to connect with him through this dialogue. Yiyun Li’s writing achieves a rare kind of honesty I’ve felt in few other writers except maybe Ali Smith and Max Porter. It’s the sort which is best read in private early in the morning when you have no distractions and are ready to have a frank conversation with yourself.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesYiyun Li
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What a wholly-immersive wild adventure this novel is! Going into it I knew Marlon James has a talent for writing intricate sweeping tales from having read his previous novel “A Brief History of Seven Killings”. That book greatly enhanced his international prominence having won the Booker Prize in 2015. That same year I was one of the judges of The Green Carnation Prize and we also selected his novel as a winner - not just for the magnificence of his storytelling but the meaningful inclusion of gay characters and gay sex in this Jamaican story about the attempted assassination of Bob Marley and drug trafficking.

“Black Leopard, Red Wolf” is very different from that previous book yet still retains James’ unique style, sensibility and alluring mischievousness. Touted as an ‘African Game of Thrones’, it describes a fantastical medieval adventure involving warring kingdoms, witches, giants, shape-shifters and a quest for a missing child. But it’s all firmly rooted in African mythology, language and history. There have been significant examples recently of storytelling whose narratives aren’t wholly based in an Anglo-Saxon past but draw instead upon traditions in African culture. From Tomi Adeyemi’s “Children of Blood and Bone” to Akwaeke Emezi’s “Freshwater” to the phenomenally successful film Black Panther, these tales insist upon the presence of African lore and pay respect to its cultural history whose influence has largely been absent from Western narratives. Marlon James does the same while creating a riveting journey that has all the marks of a fantasy novel but also explores sophisticated ideas about the meaning of storytelling and explicitly adult themes about ambition, relationships, sex and violence.

Recognizing this novel is a significant shift from his more realistic mode of writing, James remarked in an early interview about this novel that “I wanted to go back to being a fantasy geek!” Part of what I loved about reading this book is that it made me feel like a boy again and recall a time when I frequently got lost in magical adventure novels where the world was entirely unpredictable and quickly transformed in spellbinding ways. Books in this mode are such feats of the imagination that they require a character list and detailed maps to help the reader’s journey through this complicated new world. “Black Leopard, Red Wolf” includes such aides and this adds to the nostalgic pleasure of embarking on what you know will be a knotty and richly-detailed odyssey.

The story’s hero Tracker becomes estranged from his family and tribe finding a more meaningful connection with a band of rejected deformed children called The Mingi and the charismatic Leopard (who alternately takes the form of a beast or man.) After being endowed with an extremely powerful sense of smell and magical protection from an anti-witch, Tracker (alongside a band of mercenaries and powerful beings) are recruited by a slave trader for a special mission to find a boy who mysteriously disappeared. The significance of this boy and his circumstances remain uncertain even as more details about him are uncovered during a quest which takes many years. Throughout his journeys Tracker encounters enchanted forests, mighty men engaged in gladiatorial fights, a neglected library master, evil shadow beings who walk on ceilings, a possessed village, flesh-eating monsters, doors that act as portals to other parts of the continent, tribes of witches who trade in children’s body parts and fantastical kingdoms. It’s a head-spinning adventure and one which expertly balances mysterious encounters with high intrigue.

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Embedded within this rich tale is a complicated same-sex romance centring around the close connection between Tracker and Leopard. Both are prone to jealousy when Tracker takes up with a chief officer and Leopard has an affair with his bowman. James has spoken before about how he emigrated from his native Jamaica partly because of the homophobic violence there. Leopard remarks at one point how “There are lands where men who love men get their cocks cut off, and are left to bleed to death.” It feels bold and significant that the author continuously includes highly-detailed gay love stories as prominent aspects of his narratives as a way of being true to his experience and insisting these stories have a visible place in broader storytelling. So not only does James orientate readers into largely untapped folklore traditions but he also highlights how same-sex relationships are an equally valid part of African history and mythology.

James also features the ways in which misogyny and rape are inevitable parts of warfare. Battles involve trading in bodies and forced servitude. He shows how sex isn’t always about sexuality but can be a tool in ploys for power and economic dominance. He notes how “the gods gave us nipples and holes and it’s not the cock or the koo, but the gold in your purse that matters.” As a hero, Tracker fights with the sensibility of a vigilante. But the novel fascinatingly probes his own shortcomings as a man questioning whether he has a latent hatred of women and if his violent acts are motivated more by revenge than achieving a sense of larger justice. This complexity of character and display of self-scrutiny makes him much more conflicted than your average fantasy story hero.

While witnessing Tracker’s complex development and following his epic tales, we’re aware that this entire novel is a testimony he’s delivering to an inquisitor in a trial about the fate of the lost boy. This is only the first novel in a proposed trilogy James is writing so this framework is part of a larger story being told and provokes larger metaphysical questions about the meaning of truth. Tracker is aware that we should “never take the story of any god or spirit or magical being to be all true. If the gods created everything, was truth not just another creation?” He doesn’t accept the authority of the divine or any leader who claims to have the backing of divine forces. In fact, Tracker is determinedly sacrilegious as one of his favourite quips is “Fuck the gods!” He’s cognizant that folklore is a decidedly mortal compulsion. If the process of relating history involves infusing it with a purpose and plan then there can’t be any one honest account of the past – including his own. He further asks “What is truth when it always expands and shrinks? Truth is just another story.”

Since this book is only the first story of a much larger tale, I’m already eager to see how further instalments will enhance a broader understanding of this new complex world filled with competing dynasties that James has created. One of the most fascinating characters in this novel is Sogolon who is also called the Moon Witch and has her own complicated motivations for finding the missing boy. James has already established that the next novel will be told from her perspective so it’ll be fascinating to see how her account will offer a radically different point of view on the events covered in the first book. The author has proven how adept he is at depicting very different but equally convincing voices with the multiplicity of first person accounts in “A Brief History of Seven Killings”. So, while the scale of this planned “Dark Star Trilogy” is truly epic, I have faith he’ll be able to deliver a well-rounded and fully-realised vision of enormous stature. In this first instalment it’s stated how “The world is strange and people keep making it stranger.” I feel like the more we see of this world the weirder it will get and the truer it will seem.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMarlon James
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It’s been frequently observed how retellings of Greek myths have dominated literary fiction lately - from Madeline Miller’s “Circe” to Colm Toibin’s “House of Names” to modern retakes like “Home Fire” and “Everything Under”. You’d think with this prolific focus on the same characters and situations it’d come to feel repetitive, but I’m finding the more retellings I read the more engaged I am. It was particularly interesting coming to “The Silence of the Girls” having read “The Song of Achilles” and “House of Names” since they take different perspectives on the same cast. Pat Barker’s narrator is Briseis, a queen of Lyrnessus who is captured when Achilles attacks her city and kills her family. She becomes a trophy lover and a point of contention between Achilles and Agamemnon amidst their squabbling in the Trojan War. This status allows her unique access to some of the most intimate moments leading to the downfall of Troy, but she incisively recounts how painfully dehumanizing these men treat her and how her “privileged” status is in reality no more than that of a slave. It’s a refreshing reassessment of the positions of many characters associated with these tales of war who’ve traditionally been treated as peripheral and the novel’s vividly engaging storytelling kept me gripped.

Briseis is viewed as a possession and exclusively for Achilles’ sexual use. At some points I became frustrated that the focus is placed so much on Achilles rather than taking more time to explore the lives of Briseis and the enslaved women she lives with (such as when they work in the infirmary producing herbal mixtures to treat the wounded soldiers.) But it makes sense that her entire world is consumed with Achilles since she’s completely controlled by him and the other Greeks. Their coupling gives her such an interesting perspective on his private life – especially his issues concerning his mother and male lover. Achilles is presented as such a dynamic and fascinating figure (as well as being a thug.) There are humorous observations such as “no girl ever dressed more carefully for her wedding day than Achilles for the battlefield” as well as more subtle takes on his uniquely intimate relationship with Patroclus: “what I saw on the beach that night went beyond sex, and perhaps even beyond love.” So it feels natural at one point when the narrative is basically handed over to Achilles and Patroclus, but thankfully the focus comes back around to Briseis.

‘Thetis Bringing the Armor to Achilles’ by Benjamin West, 1804

‘Thetis Bringing the Armor to Achilles’ by Benjamin West, 1804

It feels like there is modern relevance in the way Pat Barker writes about several characters and situations. The bloated sense of entitlement and tyrannical egotism of Agamemnon can be seen in any number of bolshy political leaders we have today. The figure of Helen is publicly despised “for the part she’d played in starting this ruinous war” yet all the men want to bed her and the women seek to imitate how she dresses and looks. It feels like there have been modern equivalents in women entangled in sex scandals with political leaders/celebrities who are simultaneously envied and reviled. But the strongest message of the novel is in its insistence on giving voice to the stories of women who’ve traditionally been dismissed or seen as less interesting than the men who subjugated them.  

Briseis is magnanimous in recognizing the hardship and suffering of men, many of whom are young and forced to go to war. But she’s absolutely clear in the imbalance that existed between men and women: “They were men, and free. I was a woman, and a slave. And that’s a chasm no amount of sentimental chit-chat about shared imprisonment should be allowed to obscure.” As the novel goes on and the legend of the male figures around her grows, she seems to be cognizant of the diminutive place she’ll take in the songs and stories about them that will live through time. Her frustration about the unbalanced value given to men’s suffering over her own is palpable: “I’d been trying hard to escape not just from the camp, but from Achilles’ story; and I’d failed. Because, make no mistake, this was his story – his anger, his grief, his story. I was angry, I was grieving, but somehow that didn’t matter.” This novel wonderfully wrestles back control of that narrative to give visibility to the emotions and perspectives of the many women sidelined in traditional recitations of The Odyssey.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesPat Barker
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Part of me has always felt a simmering sense of panic, that some unknown danger or threat could be lurking around every corner. Fear can be such a powerful impetus in our lives both for motivating us to keep ourselves safe and hindering us from fully engaging with the world. It feels essential that children should be nurtured in a way that allows them to be cautious without being so panicked they seal themselves off from experience. So I was really struck how Sophie Mackintosh’s debut novel “The Water Cure” creatively and dramatically describes a group of three sisters who exist in a perpetual state of fear. In one collectively narrated part of the story they ominously feel: “Emergency has always been with us, if not present emergency then always the idea that it is coming.” They live in a deserted and dilapidated estate on an island within the fenced boundaries designated by their mother and father who is referred to as “King”. They’ve been taught that the society outside of this circumscribed space is diseased and toxic so they never leave it and subsist on tinned foodstuffs while performing arcane and painful rituals to cleanse themselves and keep them safe. They are warned in particular about the dangers of men and how some men thrive on the toxic environment surrounding them. In the past, sick women arrived on their shores, but they didn’t live long. And one day two men and a boy arrive so that their carefully ordered existence is disrupted. In her portrayal of this intensely isolated family, Mackintosh’s hypnotic story shows the unwieldy process of development, the transformative effect of passion and the inbuilt tension between genders.

It feels really effective how this novel is partly like a dystopian fable, but rather than build or explain the reasons for this poisoned world it’s focused through the innocent point of view of the girls who’ve never known anything outside of this existence. So all we understand about the world is through their limited first person or collective narratives. All we get are a scattering of hints like this from middle sister Lia: “Every year the seasons become warmer and it is the earth telling me that change is coming.” It becomes more a survivalist story as we gradually learn their odd and violent purification practices and gradually discover the truth about their lives. In doing so, the novel explores more about the development of their natural instincts and identities which sometimes clash with the stringent rules their parents have designated for them.

Mackintosh has a really striking way of writing about the body and the rituals the family perform highlight the sometimes uncomfortable ways we inhabit our own bodies. It’s like their exteriors need to be toughened through processes of cutting, isolated meditation, ingesting huge amounts of salt water and temporary suffocation as a way of preparing them for the inevitable violence of the world: “Pain is a currency like the talismans we sewed for the sick women, a give and take, a way to strengthen and prepare the body.” They are also trials by which these sick women can return to life and themselves after encountering trauma “It was beautiful to see, Mother pointed out. A woman becoming whole again. It’s true that, after the water cure, their bodies had a new solidity, as if somebody had redrawn their outlines. Their eyes were clear, ready to return.” But the sisters, whose lives are so insulated and who only know the pain that’s been designated by these rituals, have a very different relationship with their bodies. Lia strikingly describes how being looked at with desire causes her to inhabit her skin in an entirely different way: “My body, up until now, has been just a thing that bled. A thing with vast reserves of pain. A strange instrument that I don’t always understand. But something kicks in, triggered by the looking.” This is such a powerful way of describing the way as we develop and encounter the gaze of others it can transform how we feel about ourselves and the relationship we have with our own bodies.

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The story also forms a really powerful metaphorical representation of the uneasy power relationship between men and women. The sisters have been reared to believe that men are incredibly violent creatures. Men are the most violent threat outside the fences surrounding their home but this violence is also such a substantial part of human existence its internalized as well: “The violence came for all women, border or no border. It was already in our blood, in our collective memory. And one day the men would come for us too.” Yet when the sisters actually encounter the small group of men who arrive on their doorstep they discover how gender dynamics are really much more complicated. It felt very powerful and haunting how the story both affirms and undermines notions that the relationship between different genders must be prone to some inevitable violence.

What I enjoyed and admired so much about this novel is the way it tells what is essentially a traditional story about family and romance, but in such a uniquely dark way that is like a curious blend of “Lord of the Flies”, Jeffrey Eugenides’ “The Virgin Suicides” and Angela Carter’s “The Passion of New Eve”. The accumulation of observations the girls make have a forceful impact which makes the fabulous setting have a real-world resonance. I was especially moved by the way Mackintosh describes the position of being someone’s child: “It has always been that we are what you made us, and so our survival is a tacit endorsement of you, however much we might hate that. But our lives are our lives.” This feels like a statement that could be made by anyone who has to come to grips with the peculiarities of their origins and the unique way they’ve been raised, but who must embrace the challenges of their own free will in order to move forward in life. The account of the sisters told in “The Water Cure” is both a wonderful testament to that hard-earned independence and a tale so engaging I was gripped throughout this impressive novel. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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Deborah Levy has a unique style of writing which references a disparate range of influences and layers in a lot of symbolism in order to tease out some of the most essential questions about life. I admired the way her novel “Hot Milk” looks at what happens when familial roles are reversed or become more fluid. So it's absolutely fascinating reading “The Cost of Living” which is part of what's been branded Levy's “living autobiography” and follows the time period in which she wrote “Hot Milk”. She describes the state of flux her life was in this period with the death of her mother and a separation from her longtime husband, but also the professional success she was experiencing with her novel “Swimming Home” being shortlisted for the Booker Prize and its being optioned for a film. But rather than focusing on the mechanics and reasons behind all these changes she traces an everyday account of her life moving forward: renting a small writing studio at the back of someone's garden and considering her position in life because she surmises “We either die of the past or we become an artist.” It's an emotionally arresting account that makes many pithy observations about gender, identity and the writing life.

One of the themes Levy frequently meditates on is the gender roles for women as wives, mothers and writers. The book begins and ends with reference to the breakup of her marriage without going into the specifics of why they separated so her meditation on this subject becomes especially poignant for what Levy leaves unsaid about why her marriage ended. For instance she notes when talking to men at parties or on a train that they don't refer to their wives by name, but simply call them “my wife”. Similarly Levy refers to some of the most important men in her life not by name but by their actions such as “the man who cried at the funeral”. This is a humorous way of highlighting the glaring way men define women by their roles in life rather than acknowledging the complexity of their being.

Levy meditates on the way wives can become trapped in their status and actually transform their identities to fit in with expectations. She reflects how “The moody politics of the modern home had become complicated and confusing… Orwell, in his 1936 essay ‘Shooting an Elephant’, noted that the imperialist ‘wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it’. The wife also wears a mask and her face grows to fit it, in all its variations.” The situation becomes further complicated with the introduction of children and the different levels of freedom allowed to the father over the mother: “When our father does the things he needs to do in the world, we understand it is his due. If our mother does the things she needs to do in the world, we feel she has abandoned us. It is a miracle she survives our mixed messages, written in society’s most poisoned ink. It is enough to drive her mad.” Levy herself resolves to work at the writing life amidst mounting financial pressures, obligations and the responsibility of motherhood. She also poignantly describes her role as a creative writing teacher to hone her students' prose and the way she helps young female writers to embrace the legitimacy of their voices.

Levy writes of Simone de Beauvoir "She was my muse but I was certainly not hers."

Levy writes of Simone de Beauvoir "She was my muse but I was certainly not hers."

While Levy takes her subjects very seriously there is also a wonderful levity to her accounts which include the absurdity of the world and the comic roles we often inadvertently play. For instance she rides her electronic bike to an important meeting and encounters trouble on it, but only realises after the meeting how she had leaves and mud in her hair throughout the day. Or in the desperate last days of her mother's life she manically sought out ice lollies of a certain flavour because they were the only things her dying mother could bear to consume. These add a welcome level of humanity to what could otherwise be ponderous reflections that are too intense.

Readers can sometimes tire of the insular nature of writers who write about the process of writing. But Levy's writing is so expansive in its account of states of being that it always feels refreshing and relatable with a pressing desire to connect. Moreover it comes across as simply honest. Levy notes how “To speak our life as we feel it is a freedom we mostly choose not to take” but thankfully she exerts her freedom to candidly and poignantly speak about what she feels most intensely.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesDeborah Levy
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Continuing on in her ambitious season-inspired chronicle of our times, Ali Smith opens “Winter” with the statement “God was dead: to begin with.” She continues on ringing the death bell for everything from modern day conveniences to systems of government to states of being. These pronouncements act like a wry commentary on the uncertainty many people now feel as citizens in a precarious world despite all the apparent advancements of civilization and culture. It’s also a clever play on the opening of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” and his declaration of Marley’s death as a precursor to the chilling introduction of his ghost. Just as Dickens was a fierce critic of social stratification, Ali Smith’s writing critiques the way in which society has become increasingly economically and politically divided. This new novel continues with some of the same themes as “Autumn”, but focuses on a Christmas reunion between a nature blogger named Arthur or “Art”, his mother Sophia who is a successful businesswoman and his estranged aunt Iris who is a political activist. Art also brings with him a stranger named Lux who adds an element of chaos and a uniquely different perspective.

The shadow of Brexit looms large in this story as does the alarming destructive force of that new president across the pond. References are scattered throughout to specific recent true events from a Tory MP literally barking at a female MP in the House of Commons to the Grenfell Tower tragedy to Trump telling boy scouts they’ll be able to say Merry Christmas (instead of Happy Holidays) again. She even makes a sly dig at the buffoonish conservative ex-mayor of London, Boris Johnson. These accounts from the news are all examples of political forces flaunting their power and brazenly asserting their arrogant dominance over women, the working class and non-Christians. Smith shows the way these instances filter into the consciousness of her characters influencing both their perspectives and the language of their dialogue. Sophia and Iris are polar opposites in their ideological points of view and frequently bicker. The character of Art is a common point between them and fascinatingly the two women even disagree over events concerning his youth. This isn’t only a novel about the present, but it frequently circles back to the past alighting upon connections and meaning and ideas which have been lost in the passage of time.

Smith’s writing is always imbued with a sense of humour. Her story begins like a Shakespeare-style comedy of concealed identity. Since Art is fighting with his girlfriend Charlotte and he promised his mother he’d bring her home for Christmas he hires Lux to pose as his girlfriend. This creates a series of absurd interactions and hilarious confusion. Sophia finds herself butting heads with institutions around her from banks to eye clinics with tragic-comic results. Individuals inevitably become alienated within regimental systems of dealing with people like Elisabeth's experience trying to submit a passport application in “Autumn.” As in all great comedy there is a tinge of sorrow and anger mixed in with the laughter. Out of a delightfully odd situation where Sophia is haunted by the ghost head of a child there arises a sober statement about ageing and a moving aspect about this character’s past interactions with the art of Barbara Hepworth.

Portrait of Barbara Hepworth by Ethel Walker

Portrait of Barbara Hepworth by Ethel Walker

The real ghost who seems to flit through this novel is Hepworth herself whose art and presence seems to permeate the story. This is sculptor whose smoothed-down natural materials frequently featured a hole through which to look through. There are a lot of elements to this story that have to do with nature and perspective. Art is the figure caught in the centre trying to reconcile his relationship with nature through writing on his blog amidst a corporate job tracking down copyright theft. Hepworth's sculptures feel like they organically rise within the narrative to insist on challenging the characters' perceptions. Later, Smith recounts the way a neglected painting by Ethel Walker was only recently identified as a rare early portrait of Barbara Hepworth as a teenager. Like a vision of the past, the woman herself resurfaces anew.

I have a particular passion for watching nature documentaries – particularly late at night when I’m struck by sleeplessness. Somehow this voyeuristic connection with the lives of animals and the physical world helps lull me into a state of abandon and unconsciousness. Something I’ve learned from these documentaries is that, although winter is a time of scarcity for many animals, it’s also a time in which predators such as wolves thrive best. Since they find it easier to prey on the elderly, young or sick, it makes killing easier at this time of year. Therefore, winter is a time that requires a heightened level of vigilance and care. Ali Smith’s “Winter” is a heart warming encouragement to come together, to question, to watch out for each other in these cold times when carnivorous powers seek to consume and discard those that are most vulnerable. It’s a reminder to give ourselves time in a fast-paced world where we never feel like we have enough time: “That’s what winter is: an exercise in remembering how to still yourself then how to come pliantly back to life again.” It’s also a reminder that the spectre of nature is ever present and will regenerate to crawl over and crumble every wall that’s built.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAli Smith
6 CommentsPost a comment
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We are so accustomed to thinking in terms of national identity and borders between countries it’s interesting to wonder how we’d see each other if these things became truly porous. That seems to be the mission of Mohsin Hamid’s extremely thoughtful and compelling novel “Exit West.” It’s an exercise in what would happen if the barrier between one country and another were no longer a passport control line, but simply a door that opens from a residence in one country to a residence in another country. In this story these portals between nations appear with increasing frequency. It turns strangers around the world into literal neighbours and frees passage for thousands of refugees who want to build a life for themselves elsewhere. It’s a stroke of imaginative daring similar to what Colson Whitehead brilliantly achieved in his novel “The Underground Railroad” where this fantastical plot device makes us re-conceptualize our standard sense of reality and allows wild possibilities within the story. But this is also very much a novel about love, the way it changes over time as we change and how different environments can radically alter our relationships.

One of the most striking things about this story is that only two characters are named. These are Nadia and Saeed, the couple whose journey we follow throughout the novel. The author is very aware of how a name doesn’t just signify a person, but also often denotes a particular economic status, religious background, cultural tradition and global region. So, while the few different countries they magically enter are named, their war-torn city of origin is not. By withholding names from this place and the many people introduced in the story Hamid demonstrates a second way of making us reconsider our preconceived notions. The great danger with performing these feats of storytelling is that the novel becomes more about the concepts built into the author’s structure and less about the reader’s emotional connection to the story.

While the structure and Hamid’s occasionally laboured sentence structure was jarring at first, I found myself drawn into the romantic trajectory of Nadia and Saeed’s lives together. They are an interesting pair where Nadia is a biker keen on partaking in recreational drugs, but continuously wears traditional black robes wherever they go despite being non-religious. This produces an interesting reaction from people, particularly later on in the novel where some assume her clothing means she’s living under oppressive men when really it’s her choice. Saeed has a more conservative nature and struggles with the question of faith, but I found myself really connecting to him since his most longed-for dream is to visit the deserts of Chile to stargaze in their clear skies – something I myself have dreamed about since seeing the powerful documentary ‘Nostalgia for the Light.’

Hamid depicts the ebb and flow of this couple’s strong relationship through a long period of time. It felt similar in some ways to Alain de Botton’s recent novel "The Course of Love" in how these stories expose all the gritty reality of long term relationships. At times this style of showing the different stages of love through time can get too close to an intellectual exercise. But Hamid introduces an interesting element where he considers the way our environments impact our relationships. He describes how “personalities are not a single immutable colour, like white or blue, but rather illuminated screens, and the shades we reflect depend much on what is around us.” So while Nadia and Saeed naturally change as they age their ideas and desires also alter with the different places they come to live in when stepping through portals into other countries. Naturally, these changes also come to affect their relationship in dramatic ways.

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Another striking thing this novel does is powerfully represent a city being overwhelmed and held under the sway of a new extremist order. The nameless city Nadia and Saeed grew up in is slowly overtaken by insurgents and the author captures so well the sense in how normality is gradually altered: “War in Saeed and Nadia’s city revealed itself to be an intimate experience, combatants pressed close together, front lines defined at the level of the street one took to work, the school one’s sister attended, the house of one’s aunt’s best friend, the shop where one bought cigarettes.” This felt very realistic in how they witness people with certain names that are associated with a particular denomination being hunted down and paranoia becomes rife where everyone is aware of being monitored (both by neighbours and a series of drones which police the city.) The powerful 2014 film ‘Timbuktu’ gives a similarly striking sense of what it’s like to live somewhere which becomes overwhelmed by strict new ideologies that are rigidly enforced and significantly alter or destroy the day to day lives of ordinary people. The way Hamid shows this in his novel raises poignant questions about how different people react in tense periods of social and political upheaval.

While the situations and global changes that the author imagines in this novel are radically destabilizing, something I really admired about it was the level of optimism that Hamid maintains. Often when we think about the larger issues this story raises we can only conceive of society collapsing or destroying itself. Yet, Hamid offers another point of view stating how “the apocalypse appeared to have arrived and yet it was not apocalyptic, which is to say that while the changes were jarring they were not the end, and life went on, and people found things to do and ways to be and people to be with, and plausible desirable futures began to emerge, unimaginable previously, but not unimaginable now, and the result was something not unlike relief.” This is a story which allows for possibilities that are hard to imagine when facing the grimness of the news every day. Obviously immigration is a touchy political subject, but I admire the way “Exit West” challenges us to think about this from different angles and makes us reconsider them through a particular couple’s dramatic journey.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMohsin Hamid
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Oh how I fretted starting this novel so weighted with expectation! It took Arundhati Roy twenty years to write this second novel after the phenomenal success of her first Booker Prize-winning novel “The God of Small Things.” Add to that the fact that the author is an astute political campaigner and activist who writes extensively about Indian politics and society – which I know little about. Add to that the murmurings I’d heard about the novel’s complexity and someone who told me she had to put this novel down because, despite the beauty of the writing, the sheer extent of references was overwhelming. So I frequently picked up this book and ran my hand over the cover, read the back and put it back on my shelf. But two things prompted me to finally start reading “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness”: it’s long listed for this year’s Man Booker Prize and a lovely booktuber named Annie at ‘Am I Write?’ offered to buddy read it with me. I’m so glad I was finally pushed to read it two months after its publication. While this novel is definitely a challenging read, it is also an intricately layered, surprising and wondrous depiction of a society in transition. And how glorious to find growing out of the story of this great civilization in turmoil a tender shoot of hope!

What surprised me the most since I’d avoided reading any reviews of this novel is that one of the central characters we’re introduced to at the beginning was born intersex. Anjum has both male and female genitals, but was raised as a boy. In her adolescence she leaves her family to live as a woman and joins a haveli filled with other intersex and trans people. They are a collective and family and become even more so when Anjum adopts an abandoned child named Zainab. When she takes this three-year old girl in: “Her body felt like a generous host instead of a battlefield.” It’s so beautiful and moving the way this individual whose family feel disgraced by her and who is scorned by the majority of society finds a way to pour her love into caring for someone instead of allowing herself to be crippled by being branded as a hijra outcast. However, we quickly learn that in her later years Anjum leaves her haveli called Khwabgah (the House of Dreams) to live in a graveyard where she gradually establishes a home for herself and eventually forms a community of individuals displaced by social conflict. She has a wonderfully unprejudiced view when taking people in stating: “I don’t care what you are… Muslim, Hindu, man, woman, this caste, that caste, or a camel’s arsehole.”

Rather than continuing to primarily focus on Anjum’s story (as I wished it did), the novel branches out to encompass a multiplicity of characters from many different parts of society. Roy introduces a dizzying array of people all connected with particular political movements, social clashes or devastating disasters. These centre largely around a location of vast protest called Jantar Mantar. In the centre of this vast amount of voices of dissent, a baby is abandoned and kidnapped. Who this baby is, where she came from, why she was left and what happened to her is gradually explained over a few hundred pages. But built around her story are the tales of people still caught within the repercussions of Partition, national/religious battles and especially the conflicts within Kashmir, the northernmost part of the Indian subcontinent. The novel mostly focuses on a group of people who knew each other in childhood and worked together in a theatrical production in their youth, but have gone on to take different sides in the political struggles. It charts their various romances, quests for revenge and how they’re helplessly drawn into conflicts that seem to have no end.

Roy describes how amidst war: "Still the Amaltas bloomed, a brilliant, defiant yellow. Each blazing summer it reached up and whispered to the hot brown sky, Fuck You."

Roy describes how amidst war: "Still the Amaltas bloomed, a brilliant, defiant yellow. Each blazing summer it reached up and whispered to the hot brown sky, Fuck You."

Something that really carried me along while reading this complex novel is the beauty and disarming nature of Roy’s prose. This is something that Annie (my read-along buddy) noted as well. There are frequently bizarre metaphors and descriptions which really caught my attention. For instance, there is an owl which is compared to a Japanese businessman. There’s also a character that is compared to the voice of Billie Holiday: “Not the woman so much as her voice.” At other points she has a disarming way of drawing the reader into the character's particular experience: “She could hear her hair growing. It sounded like something crumbling. A burnt thing crumbling. Coal. Toast.” These odd descriptions have a way of reaching across national and cultural boundaries to draw you into the intense dissociation from reality the character has in a moment of crisis. Roy also has an acute sense of the tragic ironies which frequently exist in this society such as an air-conditioned mortuary: “The city’s paupers who lay there in air-conditioned splendour had never experienced anything of the kind while they were alive.” The narrative frequently also serves as social commentary making observations about how it's always women and children who are oppressed and abused the most in class, religious and political warfare.

It's true, the novel’s story isn’t straightforward and it will reference a lot of things most Western readers probably won’t be familiar with. Even though I occasionally would look up terms or events, I largely resisted this temptation because I preferred to immerse myself in the flow of the story and let certain things remain mysterious for the time being. Now, I can go read up more about them. But I got to a section of the novel where I think Roy really points out why she can’t write a straightforward story. This is from one character’s notebooks: “I would like to write one of those sophisticated stories in which even though nothing much happens there’s lots to write about. That can’t be done in Kashmir. It’s not sophisticated, what happens here. There’s too much blood for good literature.” I think Roy probably feels the same way. She is far too knowledgeable about everything that’s going on in India, its immense history and complicated politics to write a simple story. As such this novel probably isn’t what you’d classify as “good literature” in a traditional sense because the story goes all over the place. But at the same time, Roy revolutionizes the form of the book to fit all the multitude of things going on inside her head. And, after all, that’s what the novel is for – it keeps reinventing the form to suit the subject matter and the outlook of its author.

It takes dedication, patience and time to read this novel properly. But it encompasses a vast amount of heartfelt compassion for humanity so I'm immensely grateful for the journey it took me on.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesArundhati Roy
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It feels like one of the great functions of literature can be to give a voice to people who have been rendered voiceless through whatever pitfall in history. The same can be said for music which can so powerfully convey the stories of entire groups of people whose voices have been suppressed, ignored or erased by those in power. This is certainly true with the history of Blues music which was originated by African Americans in the Deep South and continued to grow and evolve through generations and decades of black oppression in America. In Hari Kunzru's latest novel “White Tears” he tells the story of an emotionally-arresting Blues song rediscovered by a pair of earnest young musicians and the dramatic effect it has on their lives. But this isn't a simple story about musical admiration or influence. Kunzru posits the compelling idea that a sound once uttered resonates indefinitely throughout history and he weaves this concept into a fascinating detective story which slides into the surreal. It’s a novel that makes powerful statements about race, privilege and the long-lasting resonance of music.

The narrator Seth meets Carter Wallace at university. He’s humbled that Carter wants to be his friend because this dreadlocked, tattooed, trust fund boy is so popular and comes from an extremely wealthy family. But they connect over music and Seth’s tech-savvy ability for capturing sound and turning it into beats and rhythms. Unsurprisingly, Carter is the black sheep of his corporate-driven family, but he’s still allowed money enough to found their music production business once they leave school. Their creative fusion of forgotten Blues and Jazz tunes with modern songs garners them a lot of attention including from an incredibly successful new pop artist that wants to pay tribute to bygone music eras. But Carter becomes obsessed by a particular song that Seth happens to record in passing. It leads them on a strange path into the past and a musical genius that’s been lost in history.

Charley Patton "Banty Rooster Blues" (1929)

There’s a steadily growing tension within the novel about the way these two white boys become attached to a black music tradition. Are they demonstrating an admiration for it or appropriating it? Seth feels that “our love of the music bought us something, some right to blackness, but by the time we got to New York, we’d learned not to talk about it.” Because they are passionate about it, they feel themselves to be in touch with the culture that created it. Seth also recalls a kind of friendship he made with a white male co-worker, Chester Bly, who was an avid Blues record collector and actively sought out forgotten musician’s work: “They were like ghosts at the edges of American consciousness. You have to understand, when I say no one knew, I mean no one. You couldn’t just look something up in a book. Things were hidden. Things got lost. Musicians got lost.” Seth sets out on a journey of discovery for music, but finds himself immersed in a culture and people that he doesn’t understand and didn’t even knew existed within his own country. Here things get very odd within the narrative.

The novel eventually transforms into a hallucinatory story where the boundaries of identity become blurred and history plays back upon itself. Seth becomes caught in a loop of time as if he were in a Beckett play: “I look down at my hands. I have always been looking down at my hands, but as in a dream when you find yourself unable to read text or tell the time, they are vague.” I found this style-shift somewhat alarming and disconcerting at first, but it eventually became really emotionally resonant for me. The later part of the book feels something like a Cesar Aira novel. The story of a man who has been greatly wronged erupts through the chaotic breakdown of Seth’s life. So it becomes partly a tale of possession and partly a revenge tale and partly a testament to an entire race of people that’s been continuously oppressed throughout American history. “White Tears” is a resonant and peculiarly haunting novel.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesHari Kunzru
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What compels us to read so much? What relationship is formed between the author and reader in the process? How does our understanding of a book change over the course of our lives? I think there are moments in every committed reader's life when they find themselves reflecting upon these and similar questions – caught as we are in the strange alchemy of this intensely private and oftentimes lonely activity which connects us to the rest of humanity. Yiyun Li intelligently and movingly addresses these concerns and many more through recollections about her life and experience as a reader and writer. Probably not since reading Annie Dillard or Antoine de Saint-Exupery have I encountered memoirist essays that speak so profoundly about the experience of living. The title of this book is taken from a line in Katherine Mansfield's notebooks. Li takes this concept of the way written language straddles time and particular existence to reflect on a life in literature.

I took my time reading these essays over a couple of months, dipping in and out, copying lines and spending a lot of time thinking about their meaning. Li packs a lot into each sentence with concepts that frequently comfort, intrigue or provoke. In an afterward to one essay she explains how long she took over writing the book. It shows in the density of the writing that she spent a lot of time fretting over and reworking her ideas. She seems torn about whether she's getting it right or if writing about herself should even be allowed: “I am not an autobiographical writer – one cannot be without a solid and explicable self – and read all autobiographical writers with the same curiosity. What kind of life permits a person the right to become his own subject?” This says a lot about the intensity of her process and the emotionally tumultuous period in which she wrote this book. References are occasionally made to two different times she spent in a hospital and her suicide attempt.

Reading is her anchor and the thing which makes her feel what she most desires which is to be alone and invisible: “If aloneness is inevitable, I want to believe that aloneness is what I have desired because it is happiness itself.” She suggests in this line that what she must believe (without wanting to) is that the human instinct is to connect to others. Reading is the method which provides such contact that takes her out of the immediacy of time and removes others from witnessing her. Contact with others causes intense self-consciousness: “The indifference of strangers is not far from that of characters, yet the latter do not make one feel exposed.” Although writing provides a more comfortable one step of removal from people she also feels that “to write betrays one's instinct to curl up and hide.” But the process is a necessary one because it assuages her from the sense that existence is pointless: “Often I think that if writing is a futile effort; so is reading; so is living. Loneliness is the inability to speak with another in one's private language.”

The Portrait of Marguerite van Mons  by Theo van Rysselberghe on the cover of Li’s paperback edition of Bowen’s  The Death of the Heart

The Portrait of Marguerite van Mons by Theo van Rysselberghe on the cover of Li’s paperback edition of Bowen’s The Death of the Heart

In these essays Li considers the writing and interactions between authors such as Elizabeth Bowen, Graham Greene, Thomas Hardy, John McGahern, Vladimir Nabokov, Ivan Turgenev, William Trevor and Virginia Woolf. The essays focus upon subjects such as relationships in literature (between reader/writer, writer/writer, teacher/prodigy), the role of melodrama in our lives and literature, writing exclusively in a second language, creating characters in fiction and the way we mentally turn real people into characters and the challenges of the writing process. She recounts her state as a Chinese immigrant to America, her conviction to become a writer over her profession as a scientist, disturbing/poignant encounters with readers of her own writing and her connections with other writers. Li is beautifully adept at teasing out contradictions between her instincts and logic. For instance, she believes that “A writer and a reader should never be allowed to meet. They live in different time frames. When a book takes on a life for a reader it is already dead for the writer.” So she fully realizes the irony in successfully seeking out a friendship with William Trevor whose writing she worships.

“Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life” inspires that special kind of feeling of being so personal to its author, yet it feels like it was written especially for you. A connection which is more meaningful than ever meeting in person is that contact through the page. Yiyun Li beautifully articulates that special kind of intimacy. It's a book I know I'll permanently keep on a nearby shelf to return to - like a friend I don’t necessarily want frequent contact with but who I want to know is near beside me.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesYiyun Li
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“Swing Time” is being published this month, but I first read it in July because I had the great honour of being invited to interview Zadie Smith at this wonderful preview event. Having been a long time fan of Smith’s writing, it’s so interesting to see how this new novel differs from her other books in some ways but also develops further some of her most prevalent themes. Many of her novels give equal time and focus to several characters, yet “Swing Time” is written entirely from the perspective of a single nameless narrator. This gives the novel a more nostalgic feel because it vividly recounts an adolescent girl coming of age during the 1980s in North London. She befriends an energetic girl named Tracey (because their skin colour is similar) who claims her absent father is a backup dancer for Michael Jackson. The girls develop a love of dancing in a class and through watching scenes from Old Hollywood musicals that often involve Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers or semi-obscure African American actress Jeni LeGon. The novel follows the gradual breakup of their friendship and the narrator’s early adulthood when she works as a personal assistant for a famous pop star who wants to found a school for girls in West Africa. Eventually these two aspects of the story weave together showing how the narrator arrives at a crisis point. It’s an extremely engaging and intelligent novel about friendship, racial identity and our perception of time.

Central to the narrator's life are three strong-minded, wilful and (some might say) difficult women: friend Tracey, the narrator’s (nameless) feminist mother and the pop star Aimee. Tracey is a wilful girl who often leads the narrator and their friends into delinquent behaviour. It’s easy relating how as an adolescent you would be easily drawn to but secretly repulsed by her behaviour. It’s also touching the way Smith relates how at that age you overlook obvious lies that friends sometimes tell you so as not to embarrass them. There are also startling scenes involving abusive sexual behaviour from schoolboys towards the girls at their school. Smith delicately handles how the girls were not simply victims to this outrageous behaviour, but in some cases participated in it. This definitely doesn’t excuse the behaviour of the boys, but shows the complexity of burgeoning sexuality. It’s also skilfully presented how their friendship ebbs and flows until a point at which the girls’ paths in life sharply split apart. 

The narrator’s mother (who also remains nameless) is an absolutely fascinating individual. She's one of those characters I find utterly compelling to read about, but I'd be terrified of meeting her in real life because she can verbally cut people to shreds and often does. She has an impatient attitude towards all the usual domestic duties and interests that other women (such as Tracey’s mother) on the council estate engage in. Instead she spends as much time as possible reading, educating herself and developing social projects such as a hilariously disastrous scene where she tries to turn a square of grass on the estate into a community garden for local children. As well as being fiercely driven and community minded (even when it goes against the opinions of those around her) she has a touching vulnerable side which comes out especially when her partner’s children from a previous marriage arrive at their apartment one day.

Finally, Aimee is an American mega pop star who first rose to fame in the 80s. She’s a white singer and a great dancer whose image has evolved through decades of continuing popularity with a strong gay fan base and a keen interest in philanthropy work in Africa – any guesses who she might be partly inspired by? Through a quirk of fate when the narrator works at a music company she ends up becoming Aimee’s personal assistant. The pop star operates on some other level of reality where she wants to magnanimously found a school for girls in an impoverished part of Africa, but doesn’t want to involve herself in the complexities of local politics. Yet, being mixed race the narrator finds her time in Africa and the connections she makes with some people there has a profoundly personal affect upon her. It’s also her entanglements with some of these people that put her working relationship with Aimee in jeopardy.

At the centre of the novel are the very personal and thoughtful observations of the narrator who we get to know intimately (even though we never learn her name). She has an interesting way of considering perceptions of identity and how she views herself by watching many old musicals and interacting with people in Africa. There’s a remove from experience whether its watching these films with their dodgy representations of black people or the teaspoons of truth she gets from her African friends: “great care was taken at all times to protect me from reality. They’d met people like me before. They knew how little reality we can take.” It’s moving the way she is searching throughout the novel to find reflections of herself and struggles to understand where she fits into society.

Fred Astaire dancing in black face in the film 'Swing Time' - the narrator watches this clip at the novel's opening when seeing a director being interviewed. Coincidentally, I actually went to this talk with Herzog at the Southbank Centre where this clip was shown.

Smith wrote a fascinating article about Christian Marclay’s art piece The Clock. This is an installation which is a looped 24-hour montage with scenes from films and television that make real-time references to the time of day. It’s really one of the most extraordinary artworks I’ve ever seen and I sat hypnotized watching it for several hours when it was showing at the Hayward Gallery in London. It feels like Smith was influenced by this when writing about the way the narrator views old musicals. She’s a girl from the 80s watching a film ‘Ali Baba Goes to Town’ from 1937 which is a Hollywood interpretation of an African tribe acting like dancers from Harlem. It’s a complex, layered look at time with versions of identity being refracted through multiple lenses and it leaves the narrator somewhat lost. In this way, it makes an interesting companion read to recent Booker winner Paul Beatty’s The Sellout which also looks at depictions of race in early television and film. Late in the novel the narrator befriends a gay couple who seem to embody something she herself can’t quite obtain. She makes the observation that they are “Two people creating the time of their own lives, protected somehow by love, not ignorant of history but not deformed by it, either.” The narrator seems in some way to have been deformed by these images from the past and the novel’s story is her journey to arrive at a more cohesive sense of self.

I don’t want to classify this as a post-Brexit novel (Smith also wrote a very strong article called ‘Fences’ about our post-Brexit world). But the novel’s portrayal of growing economic, social and political division over the course of a few decades feels very timely – particularly in how it’s portrayed with the gap in understanding between the narrator’s mother and Tracey– both lived in the same estate in the 80s but arrive at very different places and positions in life. The way their stories plays out show how there’s been breaks in how different factions of society are able to communicate with each other. In a technological age where we should be more united because we have easier means for creating dialogue it seems like we’re becoming more closed to other people’s opinions and isolated. The novel plays out a scenario between these characters where this is intensely felt.

It feels like this could be Zadie Smith’s most straightforward novel in a way as it’s told only through the voice of a single narrator. Yet, it’s also one of her most complex for the finely textured way it represents sexual awakening, friendship, fame, racial identity and history. I’m still thinking about it months later and some of its most vivid scenes really stick out in my mind. I also couldn’t help looking up on Youtube some scenes from musicals mentioned in the novel and it’s really shocking some of the things they portray. The story provokes me to think about these artefacts from the past in a more complex way. “Swing Time” is a masterful, highly intelligent and deeply enjoyable novel that will really stick with you.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesZadie Smith
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Ali Smith is an author whose writing embodies absolute passion, invention and positivity – this is true despite her new novel “Autumn” beginning with the line “It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times.” Because she is writing about the contemporary including this year’s recent significant referendum where the UK voted to leave theEuropean Union, this statement playing upon Dickens’ famous opening accurately reflects the political and social feeling for many people in this country. What Smith does in this novel is give a sense of perspective on this mood of all-encompassing gloom. She shows how while times might feel dire right now, it is simply a season in the turning of time. It’s the story of a young woman named Elisabeth Demand and her friendship with Daniel Gluck, an elderly man who lived through the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s. Together they debate ideas and create stories while witnessing the monumental changes happening in the society around them. Their exchanges are very different from the present popular mode of communication “which is a time of people saying stuff to each other and none of it actually ever becoming dialogue.” “Autumn” emphasizes the importance of art and literature as a means of communicating when dialogue between different factions of society comes to an end. In this way, this novel naturally follows on from Smith’s “Public Library”, a collection of wonderful short stories interspersed with real accounts of the personal and social importance of libraries and books for connecting people.

Another aspect of Smith’s positivity is the way in which her stories often involve charismatic and intelligent young people. Many like to moan about the coming generation by claiming they are aimless and lazy, but Smith frequently shows a real optimism and respect for her adolescent characters who are relentlessly inquisitive and creatively engage with the world. This novel moves backwards and forwards in time, recalling the occasions in Elisabeth’s youth when she first got to know her neighbour Daniel. Her mother Wendy is sceptical about this friendship, worries Daniel might have some ulterior motives and speculates that he is gay. Elisabeth astutely observes in response to this that “if he is… then he's not just gay. He's not just one thing or another. Nobody is. Not even you.” This is a continuation of an idea brilliantly realized in Smith’s last novel “How to Be Both” where characters weren’t necessarily one thing or another. In the imaginative and funny stories Elisabeth creates with Daniel they play upon this assertion showing the ever-changing and fluid nature of people, societies, language and the environment around them.

In opposition to the playfulness of this dialogue between the pair are the institutions which seek to hem in and pigeonhole people. In the present day Elisabeth tries to get a passport application put through the post office, but she’s told on multiple occasions after waiting in a long numbered queue that her photos and the head on her shoulders doesn’t meet required specifications. These scenes make a funny critique of the way our society frequently puts people through tedious regimented processes instead of giving individual attention. But it also takes a worrying look at the notion of citizenship during a time when who you are and where you came from will come under scrutiny as our government dictates who does and does not belong in our country. Furthermore, these scenes highlight how policies focused on classification and exclusion trickle down into the public consciousness causing factions and divisions within communities.

Pauline Boty

Pauline Boty

Elisabeth becomes fascinated by the little-known artist Pauline Boty who was Britain’s only female painter working in the Pop art movement of the late 1950s. As someone who studied Pop art in college and had a passionate interest in Andy Warhol, I feel ashamed not to have known about this artist before reading “Autumn”. Boty challenged conventional notions of representation and gender in both her art and life. She tragically died of cancer before she was thirty, but would no doubt have been better remembered and left a more substantial legacy had she lived and continued with her imaginative work. Through viewing her art work and studying her life, Elisabeth finds a way to engage with the creative ideas Boty set forth and applies them to how she questions and views the present time. In one memorable scene it leads her walking; she follows fields of cow parsley to land designated as private and encounters a man who tries to stop her using regimental language. This causes a disruptive crisis between the individual and the natural world.

One of the funniest parts of this frequently playful/funny novel is a section where Daniel and Elisabeth discuss a story about someone who disguises himself as a tree and becomes embroiled in a battle. Smith has written in the past about people’s connections to trees or transformation into trees. There’s a great tradition of metamorphosis in literature – everything from Homer’s “The Odyssey” to “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” – both of which this novel makes sly references to throughout. As well as being an entertaining and lively exchange between the two characters this mutually-created tale says something very moving about people’s connection to nature. It also highlights the connection between language and books, the way our words are inscribed upon paper and how there isn’t a separation between our ideas and the world around us. Also, their story which at first seems humorously abstract turns very personal for Daniel in a moving way. Smith is a master at catching the reader off guard with passages that are deeply emotional.

Smith plans for “Autumn” to be the first in a quartet of novels all named after the seasons. It’ll be fascinating to see how the books play out together and how much more we’ll discover about Daniel’s troubled past. At the start of the novel he washes up on a shore in a way that is reminiscent of Shakespeare's "The Tempest". I suspect Smith has more to say about the parallels between the changes happening in society now and what Daniel witnessed growing up. He makes a beautiful statement in this novel when he tells Elisabeth “always try to welcome people into the home of your story.” This is a hopeful cry for inclusivity and diversity against the current political movement towards shutting down borders. It’s a plea to really see all the people around us and acknowledge that they are part of our lives and our communities rather than shutting them out or pretending they don’t exist. “Autumn” triumphantly shows how our stories don’t belong to us alone but are part of a larger narrative of humanity and the time we live in. 

Read an interview I conducted with Ali about "Autumn": https://www.penguin.co.uk/articles/in-conversation/interviews/2016/oct/ali-smith-on-autumn/

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAli Smith
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These photos make it look like I was hilarious although I don't remember cracking that many jokes.

These photos make it look like I was hilarious although I don't remember cracking that many jokes.

The publishers Hamish Hamilton who publish so many authors I love such as Ali Smith, Adam Haslett and Deborah Levy kindly invited me to interview Zadie Smith on Thursday evening at a special preview event for her forthcoming novel “Swing Time”. How could I say no?! Smith’s meteoric rise to literary fame occurred in the same year I first moved to London in 2000. Ever since reading the wonder that is “White Teeth” I’ve avidly followed her writing – not only her novels but her eloquent journalism such as her review of Christian Marclay’s artwork ‘The Clock’ (one of the most brilliant pieces of art from the last decade) and her recent powerful essay about our post-Brexit world ‘Fences.’ She’s an admirably thoughtful writer who portrays a wide variety of characters with depth and insight.

I read “Swing Time” last week and it is such an engaging and fascinating book. I’ll post a full review about it in November when it’s published. But just to give you an idea of what this new novel is about here’s a brief summary. The narrator recounts her adolescence growing up in North London in the 1980s with a fiercely intelligent feminist mother and a friendship she forms with a provocative and high-spirited girl named Tracey. They bond over a shared love of dancing and are “magnetically” drawn together because they are both mixed race and have matching skin colours. She recounts her development into the 90s and then the narrative takes an interesting turn where it zigzags through time showing scenes from the narrator’s adult life working as an assistant for a famous pop star who wants to establish a school for girls in West Africa and also shows how the narrator’s friendship with Tracey broke apart in their teenage years. “Swing Time” is also the title of a 1930s musical starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and a scene from this film features in the prologue. The narrator becomes somewhat entranced with watching scenes from old Hollywood musicals particularly in the offensive way they depict race. The novel gives a fascinating perspective on time, racial identity and growing economic/social/political divisions over a few decades.

The event was held in the Prince Albert pub in Camden – a locale in the neighbourhood of the novel’s narrator. Zadie read from the opening chapter and then we talked about how this novel is quite a different book for her in its structure and focus on only one character’s perspective. We also discussed the vulnerability of writing in the first person, the fractured sense of identity created by the diaspora, the draw of nostalgia and her lifelong love of musicals. She was so engaging and interesting in her answers I wish I could have spoken to her for ages. It was also a strange coincidence that Mark Lawson sat right behind me and Zadie because the room was so packed chairs for the audience were placed behind us as well. When I first came to the UK I loved watching Newsnight Review on the BBC because (coming from the US) it felt so amazing to me that there was a serious show devoted to reviewing the arts and culture. Lawson was the show’s long time host and I’ve always respected his opinions.

This is the first time I’ve interviewed an author so it was slightly nerve-wracking that it would be with someone of Zadie’s stature. But our talk went down well with the audience who all seemed engaged and excited about the novel. It was also wonderful speaking to Zadie one on one about what else we’ve been reading recently and life in the US vs the UK. She’s very friendly and sweet so even though I felt anxious about the interview she put me at ease. It felt like a nice cosy event even though there were around 100 people there with lots of drinks and bookish chat after our talk. It was such a pleasure doing this event. I hope you’re now looking forward to reading “Swing Time” when it comes out in November because it’s such an excellent novel.

Are you a Zadie fan and which of her novels do you like most?

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesZadie Smith
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Adam Haslett is a writer who powerfully conveys the full complexity and heartrending challenges of family relations. I read the story 'Notes to My Biographer' in his debut book “You Are Not a Stranger Here” years ago, but the strained and affecting father-son relationship it portrayed still haunts me. His first novel “Union Atlantic” powerfully explores recent issues of social and economic strife at both larger and more intimate levels. The power of his writing lies more often in what isn't said than what is overtly stated. That's certainly true in this his second novel “Imagine Me Gone” about the infinite difficulties and enduring love found in family life. Dealing with issues such as depression, prescription drug abuse and sexuality in a disarmingly refreshing way, Haslett shows the tender way people care and love one another under difficult circumstances.

An Englishman John meets American Margaret at a party and the romance that ensues is troubled by typical problems such as establishing secure work and the question of where to settle down. However, it becomes alarmingly clear that John is troubled by mental health issues. Nevertheless they marry and have three children. Over a number of years the “beast” which psychologically hounds John makes its presence felt. As the eldest son Michael grows he too struggles with psychological issues that an American doctor treats with doses of medication which steadily increase in quantity. Meanwhile the family comes under increasing financial pressure as medical bills mount up. Over a number of years the family split apart and come back together in an effort to support one another.

At times Haslett's writing almost has the feel of a documentary filmmaker (like Frederick Wiseman) for how he conveys the way people can verbally spill out their lives. There is a certain frantic energy some have for talking endlessly in a self-justified way trying to convince whoever is listening of their point of view. In one scene Michael is speaking to his sister Celia on the phone about a relationship crisis which both Celia (and the reader) realizes is hopeless. He doesn't want advice. It's as if by narrating every detail of the situation over and over Michael can control it, but what he's not talking about are underlying issues that motivate his clinging desire. I've had many conversations like this with people and it's like witnessing a barrage of words that cover hidden pain. It's commendable how realistically Haslett recreates this in his novel.

One of the most moving and beautiful passages of the book comes early on when John is reading to his youngest son Alec. Haslett writes that “Alec will be quieted to the point of trance, by the story, but also because his father’s attention is pouring over him, and only him, like the air of heaven.” I love how this conveys that its not necessarily the words that matter but the intimate act of storytelling creates an intimate bond which is very special. It almost brought me to tears as it made me recall moments in my childhood when my father read to me at bedtime.

Alec grows to be a gay man who ultimately struggles with intimacy as many young men do when ensconced in a gay culture focused so much on superficial appearances and the perfect erotic highs promised in porn. It's striking how Alec's issue is not with finding acceptance within his family, but with confronting his own difficulty in forming substantial emotional relations with men he's sexually involved with. He cruises men not so much for sexual release but “To matter, and know that you mattered.” It's a bracing and refreshing way of showing the issues that gay men face. Haslett also shows the same sensitivity when showing Margaret's struggle with her changing looks and being single as she grows older where she states: “It took me a while to understand the subtlety of it, the way invisibility works at my age.” There is an awareness of how women can be made to feel they are worth less as beauty fades and how this makes people readjust how they deal with others socially.

At one point Michael get's the song 'Temptation' by New Order endlessly stuck in his head.

Haslett's innovative narrative techniques prevent the tone of his story from ever becoming maudlin. Each member of the family is given sections which are narrated in the first person, but where John speaks directly and powerfully about his internal struggle with depression “The monster you lie with is your own. The struggle is endlessly private” his son Michael conveys the pain of his issues in an entirely different way. For instance, he describes a family therapy session as if he were delivering a military report or when answering questions on a forebearance form to a loan company he'll quote Proust and lecture about the legacy of slavery. In an incredibly striking section of the novel Michael writes letters to his aunt describing the family's boat journey from the US to Europe where the trip surreally devolves into a dystopian cruise ride to hell with Donna Summer performing her hits during passengers' enforced exercise. What's extraordinary is that these passages manage to be both comical as well as tremendously touching for the way they effectively convey Michael's frustration and disillusionment with the society around him as his wellbeing spirals downward.

A trip to Maine where brothers Michael and Alec stay at the house their family vacationed at in their youth provides a frame for the novel. At the start something goes horribly wrong there and its only after learning about the complex inner life of this family that the reader fully understands the problems that contribute to the brothers' dilemma. This also creates an element of suspense as its only revealed at the end what brings their stay to a crisis point. Haslett is a writer that possesses a powerful narrative style and a complex understanding of the subtleties of human relationships. “Imagine Me Gone” is a stunningly heartfelt account of family life.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAdam Haslett

To what degree do labels like mother, father, daughter or son define us? Ideally different relatives will take on different nurturing roles for their family members in times of need. Traditionally it's the mother who is expected to perpetually care and nourish her family. In Deborah Levy's novel “Hot Milk” the mother-daughter roles are reversed. Twenty-five year old Sofia moves with her mother Rose to the desert landscape and jellyfish-laden beaches of Andalucía in southern Spain. Rose has chronic problems with her feet and can barely walk, but these symptoms might be fantasized. Sofia takes out a substantial loan to get her mother treatment in the Gomez Clinic run by an exuberant doctor with questionable credentials and his artistic daughter who he calls Nurse Sunshine. While relations with her mother become strained, Sofia embarks on two separate affairs with an attractive man named Juan and a formidable German woman named Ingrid. She also travels to Greece to meet her estranged father who has married a woman forty years younger than him and given birth to her new baby sister. In this story Levy creates a challenging and fascinating view of families whose constantly shifting dynamics both support and destroy each other. 

Sofia's engaging, funny and perceptive voice brings this story to life. She trained as an anthropologist but her career has only consisted of working at a coffee house. The novel starts with her dropping her laptop. Now that the image of the universe used as the background on her screen has shattered, her view of her life and those around her becomes fragmented. The tone of her narrative fluctuates between comic moments such as when she contemplates a cartoon character's personality: “Is Donald Duck a child or a hormonal teenager or an immature adult? Or is he all of those things at the same time, like I probably am? Does he ever weep? What effect does rain have on his mood?” and deeply-moving starkly-metaphorical statements such as “My love for my mother is like an axe. It cuts very deep.” She sees the world from a really interesting point of view that made me think differently about ways in which we are perceived and how we perceive others.

I admire the way Sofia's fluid sexuality plays out in the novel. She engages in passionate sexual relationships with a woman and man with equal force stating “Ingrid and Juan. He is masculine and she if feminine but, like a deep perfume, the notes cut into each other and mingle.” Her relationships with them are more determined by their personalities. Her affair with Juan is casual and comforting whereas she finds her affair with Ingrid (who is also in a relationship with a man named Matthew) to be more tumultuous and energizing. In a strikingly symbolic scene Ingrid kills a snake with an axe as if demolishing the need for any man's presence in their lives.  

Although many people find her beautiful and seductive, Sofia views herself as something of a monster who swims with jellyfish in the sea (locally known as medusas). At several points in the novel the narrative breaks from Sophia's point of view to short statements from someone who is persistently observing her from a distance. Sophia is conscious of steadily gaining weight and her mother makes her feel ashamed about this: “It is true that I have shape-shifted from thin to various other sizes all my life. My mother’s words are my mirror. My laptop is my veil of shame. I hide in it all the time.” Negative self-perception is also reflected back at her in how Ingrid views her “She wanted to behead her desire for me. Her own desire felt monstrous to her. She had made of me the monster she felt herself to be.” These relationships make a compelling view of the way that women can sometimes sadly demean each other. Also, by focusing on the importance and power of women's relationships to each other she annihilates the notion that a woman's most important relationships are with men: “Neither a god nor my father is the major plot in my own life. I am anti the major plots.”

Images of milk and motherhood abound throughout the novel which gives its title a steadily increasing power. It's suggested that she go to visit a statue of the Virgen del Rosario that “is made from a delicate marble that is the colour of mother’s milk.” At another point she contemplates “Is home where the raw milk is?” Dr Gomez has a cat named Jodo who gives birth to kittens which eagerly feed from their mother in a scene that makes powerful statements about the meaning of nurturing. Sophia watches her young step-mother feed her infant sister from her breast in a way that makes her emphatically stand apart from any traditional notion of engaging with motherhood herself. Instead, she defiantly declares her physical being as separate from that course in life: “I was flesh thirst desire dust blood lips cracking feet blistered knees skinned hips bruised, but I was so happy not to be napping on a sofa under a blanket with an older man by my side and a baby on my lap.”

One of the most powerful lines in the novel comes amidst Sophia's anthropological musings about the power of signs in our culture. She questions the degree to which individuals fit into the common symbols for male or female as seen in signs for public toilets. Subsequently she wonders about the labels in family life: “A wife can be a mother to her husband, and a son can be a husband or a mother to his mother, and a daughter can be a sister or a mother to her mother, who can be a father and a mother to her daughter, which is probably why we are all lurking in each other's sign.” There is something beautifully freeing in this statement that we don't need to feel trapped as any one kind of thing in how we relate to our family members. Our ways of being come out of how our unique familial situation exists at any one point, not out of predefined roles which we must play.

"the tentacles of the jellyfish resemble the hair of the Medusa, which in pictures is always a tangled mess of writhing snakes."

"the tentacles of the jellyfish resemble the hair of the Medusa, which in pictures is always a tangled mess of writhing snakes."

It's interesting thinking about “Hot Milk” in relation to Elizabeth McKenzie's recent novel “The Portable Veblen”. Both centre on women with distinctly original points of view who have difficult hypochondriac mothers that they feel compelled to care for. They each come from different story angles to show how we can grow into different relationships with our parents, that we can move freely between being nurtured and nurturing. However, McKenzie focuses more strongly on the development of a sustainable balanced romantic partnership where Levy's novel is concerned more with developing a substantial individual sense of self outside of society's expectations.

I think “Hot Milk” will continue to have a subconscious effect on me in the future. You know how sometimes you'll recall a scene or character or original point of view from a novel many years after you've read it? There are aspects of “Hot Milk” which I can already feel echoing through me. Deborah Levy has a powerful use of imagery which unsettles in a way that is welcome because it helps broaden my perspective. It's a fantastic, distinctly powerful novel.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesDeborah Levy
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