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.

I’ve had a copy of “The North Water” for ages and part of me wishes I’d read it in the midst of winter to add atmosphere to the reading experience. It’s an immersive story so full of vivid descriptions it made me shiver as if I were trapped in a snowstorm and wrinkle my nose as if I could smell the pungency of sailors long at sea. This dramatic account of a treacherous ocean voyage follows a Yorkshire whaling ship, the Volunteer, as it journeys up the coast of Greenland into the arctic during the mid-1800s. An Irish surgeon named Patrick Sumner, who has a murky past working in the army in Delhi, joins the vessel’s crew as they set out to hunt whales and skin polar bears. But others on the crew have alternative motives for the voyage including Captain Brownlee, first mate Cavendish and a terrifyingly violent harpooner Henry Drax. As they journey into the treacherous iceberg-laden seas Patrick and the crew face perils both within and outside of their ship. This novel is a gripping adventure story of the highest order which gives a penetrating look into the darkest acts that men are capable of.

There are plenty of thrills, but it is not simply about heart-racing scenes. I think McGuire is doing something more sophisticated in this account of the strife his characters encounter when they venture out into the raw and untamed elements. Here a person’s identity is indelibly tied into their daily actions which involve life or death decision making. Patrick reasons that “Only actions count, he thinks for the ten thousandth time, only events.” It’s these events at sea which define these sailors’ identities. Rather than meditating on purpose or how to go forward in the future there is only meaning in how these men conduct themselves under highly pressured circumstances. Later Patrick reasons “It is a grave mistake to think too much, he reminds himself, a grave mistake. Life will not be puzzled out, or blathered into submission, it must be lived through, survived, in whatever fashion a man can manage.” The test of will these sailors pit themselves against determines whether they survive and only then does life shape into meaning.

There is something wonderfully indulgent in McGuire’s powerful descriptions of the hyper-masculine environment of seafaring living. It’s full of gritty honesty about bodily smells and functions not to mention the hyper violence which is inextricably a part of hunting the ocean and arctic plains. Although it may turn a reader’s stomach at times it unquestionably makes the story come vibrantly alive. However, there are also lines of tremendous grace and beauty, especially when McGuire describes the landscape: “The black sky is dense with stars and upon its speckled blank, the borealis unfurls, bends back, reopens again like a vast and multi-coloured murmuration.”

The sailors also encounter communities of Inuit people in Greenland.

The sailors also encounter communities of Inuit people in Greenland.

Since the majority of the novel takes place on the ship there are very few female characters. There is nothing polite or politically correct about these hard men whose language is full of racial invectives and disdain for women. It’s a pleasure when these men come under critique themselves such as the wonderful line: “Pigs grunt, ducks quack and men tell lies: that is how it generally goes.” Yet, the author skilfully draws distinctions between men who are ruled by selfish instinct and those who have more of a sensitivity and moral conscience. There’s also a refreshing representation of a homosexual sailor who is neither a “pansy” nor someone who suppresses/denies his sexuality, but finds himself in an extremely difficult situation when events take a dark turn.

Periodically throughout their journey Sumner reads from The Illiad. It’s interesting that he mediates upon this book rather than the Odyssey which is the journey he more inhabits. Yet, it’s appropriate as the character is plagued by memories of what happened during his time at war in Delhi. The victims in this story (whether they be people in war or animals slaughtered during hunts) take residence in the minds of the men who manage to survive these battlefields. It creates a haunting message about the transformation of personality when men are involved in the most harrowing conditions imaginable. This novel is a true experience: brutal and completely gripping.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesIan McGuire
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A great pleasure of following the Man Booker Prize longlist is coming across books that I probably wouldn't encounter otherwise – including Menmuir’s debut novel “The Many”. It was a joy to plunge right into reading this without knowing anything about it and I was immediately struck by how atmospheric it is as the story is set in a strange fishing village. Life is hard in this murky, remote corner of the world and it’s becoming even harder. The bay seems to have been polluted because the fish caught in the sea appear disturbingly malformed and the only buyer of these hauls is a sinister woman dressed in grey who is accompanied by a couple of cronies. There is something deeply unsettling and strange going on in this village. The story goes somewhere completely unexpected which left me completely gripped and moved when reading the final quarter of the book.

“The Many” alternately follows two characters. For some time a dilapidated house has remained unoccupied – ever since the disappearance of its owner Perran who was a close familiar to many in the village. But a man named Timothy purchases this rundown dwelling intent on turning it into a home for him and his absent wife Lauren. He’s shunned and treated suspiciously by most of the guarded people in the village. Ethan, an unpopular fisherman and longtime inhabitant, struggles to find anyone to accompany him out into the water to help bring in his increasingly meagre catches. Although he refuses to answer Timothy’s insistent questions about Perran, the two become unlikely allies and fishing partners. But the mystery about Perran keeps swelling to the surface and the village is slowly flooding. Eventually everyone must confront the truth of what’s happening.

The accounts of Ethan and Timothy move freely between the present and past building tension and a deeper understanding of the action. As the novel progresses it also becomes increasingly hallucinatory as Timothy is plagued by insidious dreams and a ravaging illness. The line between what’s real and what’s not becomes blurred. It creates an effective sense of tension and psychological suspense along the lines of Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw” but passages where the men are out fishing in the gloom also invoke a feelings of intense meditation and a primal self-sufficiency similar to Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea”. I was slowly drawn into the novel’s bizarre climate of secrecy and impending doom. “The Many” is a brisk, impactful novel which poignantly portrays grief, solitude and an inhibited state of consciousness. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesWyl Menmuir
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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.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesDeborah Levy
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I always excitedly anticipate reading new books by Elizabeth Strout. I don’t know if this is because she writes powerful prose and striking characters with deep insight or if it’s because she often sets her stories in my home state of Maine so her narratives feel personally familiar and very real to me. Probably both. Whatever the case, her books are fantastic including her previous novel “The Burgess Boys” which came out a few years ago. Now she’s published a very different kind of novel “My Name is Lucy Barton”. It’s a pared-down short book narrated from Lucy’s perspective and, by this character’s own admission, she’s far from reliable and refuses to give the whole story. Through impressionistic passages we’re told about time she spent in the hospital “many years ago now” when her estranged mother visited her for several days. She meditates upon their conversations and other important moments from her life, but we don’t get the whole story – just haunting flashes of memories and meditative thoughts. They build to create a deeply-felt portrait of a life forged through perseverance and love.

Lucy is a successful writer in NYC who grew up in a very impoverished family in Illinois. She has little or no contact with her father or two siblings. She’s been married twice with two daughters from her first marriage. Beyond this, the full trajectory of her life is uncertain. Where some stories told from the point of view of a narrator who insists on being vague like the woman at the centre of Rachel Cusk’s “Outline” might frustrate a reader for deliberately suppressing detail and withholding emotion, Lucy is compelling and relatable for how forthright she is with her feelings. Cusk’s novel makes the perfect contrast where her narrator refuses to give her name (until it slips out towards the end) but Strout’s narrator firmly declares her name in the title. However, the texture of Lucy’s identity is more elusive. The story of her life isn’t straightforward because life isn’t straightforward. Memory is amorphous. This novel is filled with words like ‘maybe’ and ‘perhaps’ and ‘I think.’ Little is concrete. What really gripped me along her journey was this desperate need I felt she had to convey something important about her life. Her scattered story builds to something deeply felt and triumphantly inspiring.

Lucy finds a mentor and teacher in a writer named Sarah Payne who tells her that “we all have only one story.” It’s that singularity that Lucy strives so hard to describe. But, of course, there isn’t any one truth to the past and I felt this is why Lucy grapples to tell it. She also refuses to surrender some details like the break from her first husband William: “This is not the story of my marriage… I cannot write the story of my marriage.” It could be that the dissolution of her marriage isn’t the point of why she’s writing. Or she might be reluctant to divulge what really happened because she won’t come out well. Whatever happened, it’s now in the past. She meaningfully states: “when you write a novel you get to rewrite it, but when you live with someone for twenty years, that is the novel, and you can never write that novel with anyone again!”

What she reports on instead is the important momentary details of what have shaped her identity. For instance, she has an intense engagement with literature that feeds her desire to write: “the books brought me things. This is my point. They made me feel less alone.” All these details build toward a “ruthless” declaration of freedom from her past: “This is me, and I will not go where I can’t bear to go- to Amgash, Illinois- and I will not stay in a marriage when I don’t want to, and I will grab myself and hurl onward through life, blind as a bat, but on I go!” There is something beautifully liberating about this assertive cry of independence even though it involves cutting free from those you once loved. It’s an affirmation that you can create who you really want to be.

"Insulation nailed against the wall held a stuffing like pink cotton candy"

"Insulation nailed against the wall held a stuffing like pink cotton candy"

Strout has an unnerving knack for triggering bouts of nostalgia and reflection for me. In one section she describes seeing a house’s pink insulation and how overwhelmingly alluring it is, but she is warned off from ever touching it because of the danger of fibreglass. At another point she describes an early incident in her marriage where she tried to cook for her husband without knowing whether a clove of garlic meant the full bulb or only a sliver from it. I had this same experience as a precocious teen cooking a “fancy” meal for my friends. A recipe I made called for five cloves of garlic so I stood in a supermarket piling enormous bulbs of garlic into a shopping cart while my mother looked on disapprovingly. I know these images won’t resonant for everyone, but it’s striking to me how often Strout tugs at my memories making me recall and feel things I haven’t experienced in many years.

The universal feelings Strout taps more into are to do with strained family relations. Lucy longs for a love from her parents which they aren’t capable of giving or not, at least, in any overt way. She states that “Lonely was the first flavor I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden inside the crevices of my mouth, reminding me.” Her awareness of her difference cuts her off from those around her. The emotional and financial depravity take their toll causing her to write “I think I know so well the pain we children clutch to our chests, how it lasts our whole lifetime, with longings so large you can’t even weep.” It’s interesting reading this so closely after reading Laing’s brilliant nonfiction book “The Lonely City” as Lucy is the embodiment of the kind of detached state of being that Laing describes so well. From her hospital bed, Lucy can see the Chrysler Building outside her window. It comes to stand like a beacon of all she’s come to stand for: a solid robust individual far from the desolate landscape of her upbringing.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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