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In this group of memoirist essays art and life intersect to create a powerfully moving portrait of cultural and personal change. It feels like this book has been a long time coming and in later essays Sinéad Gleeson refers to its gradual creation as well as obstacles which sharpened its focus. I’ve been familiar with Gleeson’s work as a journalist and a curator since she edited two stunning anthologies of Irish short fiction by women: “The Long Gaze Back” and “The Glass Shore”. So I was already familiar with her stance as a feminist and aesthete, but it wasn’t till reading this gripping and mesmerising book that I understood how her personal history partly informs her conversation with literature and the arts. The essays roughly follow the trajectory of her life from childhood to adulthood and the severely challenging medical issues she’s faced along the way. These health issues presented many heartrending and difficult obstacles, but they also gave Gleeson a unique perspective of the world around her as a woman, citizen, friend, mother and intellectual. She charts how her beliefs and feelings have evolved alongside the society around her. Certainly she’s lived through many personal challenges, but she’s never let them define her. Rather, they’ve inspired a deeper form of engagement with the world and fervent belief that “Art is about interpreting our own experience.”

I read these essays in chronological order and, while they would certainly be just as impactful read in isolation, it’s touching following her journey from a childhood as a devote Catholic visiting Lourdes hoping for a miracle cure to an adult political activist canvassing from door to door to help overturn Ireland’s abortion ban. We see different angles of her experiences with illness such as a rare disorder that caused her bones to deteriorate and later battles with cancer. She also recounts how her past illnesses created complications for her pregnancies. Her many visits to the hospital inform her ontological understanding of the body as a physical and social being. She perceives how “The pregnant body is not solely its owner’s domain. In gestating another person you become public property. The world – doctors, friendly neighbours, women in shop queues – feels entitled to an opinion on it.” Her experiences with doctors and legislation involving the body sharpen her resolve about the importance of individual autonomy and respecting what a person wants and needs.

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There are also many very perceptive assessments of the work of numerous visual and performance artists as well as writers. Gleeson poignantly reflects on her personal connection to their themes and subject matter. For instance, she describes how she’s moved by the work of Frida Kahlo as someone whose body was similarly physically restricted through medical procedures. She notes how “Immobility is gasoline for the imagination: in convalescence, the mind craves open spaces, dark alleys, moon landings.” Gleeson seeks out artists who meaningfully frame their experiences in a way that broaden the political conversation and offer moments of personal solace. The essay 'The Adventure Narrative' also honours cavalier women who have set out to explore the world since this is traditionally seen as a masculine activity – as explored in Abi Andrews’ novel “The Word for Woman is Wilderness”. But, aside from noteworthy female explorers and impactful women artists, Gleeson also chronicles the experience of women who have been left out of the history books such as in the essay 'Second Mother' where she memorializes the life of a great woman who inspired her passion for reading.

I was utterly entranced by this book. It’s incredibly brave to write so openly about such personal subject matter. In writing so thoughtfully about her life Gleeson compellingly explores many larger ideas and issues, showing how they connect to a shared sense of culture and society. For all the heartache and struggle these essays cover, this is also a wonderfully optimistic and uplifting book that ought to be treasured.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSinead Gleeson
2 CommentsPost a comment
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Robin Robertson is a Scottish writer who has published several successful collections of poetry. His book “The Long Take” is described on the inside flap of the dust jacket as “a noir narrative written with the intensity and power of poetry.” I'm all for cross-genre novels and blended forms of writing. I don't think categorization of books makes an impact on the actual reading experience. But I do get slightly anxious when self-proclaimed poets write books which are classified as novels as I described in my post about Katharine Kilalea's debut novel “OK, Mr Field” because sometimes the lyricism of the language used can overwhelm the narrative. Robertson's story follows a WWII veteran named Walker who feels like he can't return to his home in Canada because the war changed him. Instead he treads the streets of NYC and cities in California where he becomes a journalist investigating the homeless and other dispossessed broken individuals who are churned under the wheels of progress. Interspersed with his conversations and encounters are italicised recollections of his time in battle and with his family. It forms a powerful portrait of an individual haunted by the bitter truth of war who casts a skeptical eye on a country determined to move forward while forgetting the past and its downtrodden people. The narrative is formed like an epic poem but completely works as a novel with many breathtakingly beautiful passages. 

Because Walker suffers from PTSD, he's highly sensitised to certain violent sights and sounds which trigger his memories. So it makes sense that the novel is layered so much in its passages where brutal actions seem to blend between past and present. What shone through the most for me were the voices of people who Walker meets. Their idiosyncratic speech springs out in dialogue that seems to fully encapsulate their characters. So even if there aren't descriptions of their physical characteristics I felt like I could see the person he was talking to. These exchanges veer from heartbreaking confessions to aggressive exchanges to comic observations such as when a woman on a bus shouts at her unruly daughter “I got two words for you. Be-have.” This made me feel like I was really experiencing Walker's journey with him when paired with his poetic observations of the streets and buildings surrounding him. 

Jack Palance and Gloria Grahame in ‘Sudden Fear’

Jack Palance and Gloria Grahame in ‘Sudden Fear’

Walker testifies to the reality of many soldiers who returned and found they couldn't find work or didn't receive adequate support for the physical and mental trauma they received in wartime. But he also observes the many casualties of change in LA and how the new physical structures of the city seem to reinforce its divisions: “It's the only city-planning there is – segregation.” He extrapolates from this to criticism of the country in general in its systematic oppression of racial minorities: “We're back to circling the wagons. This is our fear of 'the other' – Indians, blacks, Mexicans, Communists, Muslims, whatever – America has to have its monsters, so we can zone them, segregate them, if possible, shoot them.” He is determined to document the voices which aren't represented in the larger media and the mythology of the movies which seem to pave over the truth of ordinary citizens. At several points its as if the very nature of the physical locations he visits has been eclipsed by the role they've played in cinematic history rather than existing in reality. 

As the story progresses, Walker's character evolves and he reveals aspects of himself in a way I found really effective and it's why I think this book works so convincingly as a novel. Robertson perfectly encapsulates Walker as a forgotten figure when he writes “He's like the faded lettering on buildings, old advertisements for things you can't buy, that aren't made any more: ghost signs.” It's a striking portrait of a person and a country that's both powerfully heartfelt and relevant to our world today. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesRobin Robertson
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Winton is a writer particularly skilled at showing the hidden emotional depths of hard men for whom sentimentality seems anathema. Reviewer Cathleen Schine described Winton as a “practitioner of what might be called the school of Macho Romanticism.” Many of his male characters are strong on the surface, conceal their feelings through silence or crude talk and refuse to divulge the emotionally complicated aspects of their past. Jaxie, the teenage protagonist of Winton’s new novel states “Our stories. We store them where moth and rust destroy.” I found Winton’s previous novel “Breath” utterly captivating in this respect for the way it describes the tentative friendship between two solitary boys and their desire to surf. “The Shepherd’s Hut” focuses on the life of another hard-edged teenage lad who is in the midst of a crisis. The novel is structured almost like a thriller opening with Jaxie gunning it down a rural road in a speeding vehicle and the novel gradually unfolds to reveal how he got to this point. He’s someone left without any support network having been slighted by his community and born in an emotionally and financially impoverished household. He refers to his abusive father as “Captain Wankbag” and after a shocking accident, Jaxie is left to fend for himself in the Australian wilderness. His journey and the connection he makes with a reclusive hermit is a sobering take on the erosive effects of solitude, but also the ultimate tenacity of the human spirit. 

Boys like Jaxie are understandably designated as troublemakers for their harsh language and aggressive attitudes. He describes how his behaviour led to him being so ostracised and feared by his fellow classmates and teachers at school, they felt relieved when he dropped out. He describes how his energy can’t be contained “Christ, you could burn a skyscraper down with what’s in me.” As difficult as he must be in person, it’s also challenging for the reader to like at times for the disparaging way he refers to “blacks” and “poofs”. But he’s someone that’s grown up in an isolated environment dominated by straight white people. As abrasive as Jaxie is, it’s still easy to have empathy for him. He feels he must be totally self-reliant after his mother died from illness and no one came to his aide when his father beat him multiple times. But going alone in the wilderness and in life brings many perils with it. His plight trying to survive is arduous and bloody. Winton's writing evocatively captures the terror of self reliance.

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As challenging as it is being on his own, Jaxie encounters different challenges when he meets and bonds with a mysterious old Irishman named Fintan living in a secluded old hut. There's a painful hesitancy as the men don't know whether they can trust each other either with their physical or emotional safety. Winton gets so well how difficult it is to form connections with other people because it means making yourself vulnerable: “It’s a dangerous feeling getting noticed, being wanted. Getting seen deep and proper, it’s shit hot but terrible too. It’s like being took over. And your whole skin hurts like you suddenly grew two sizes in a minute.” The psychological journey these two go on feels deeply meaningful and I connected with the story so strongly in the way it demonstrates how people hide themselves in different ways. The novel powerfully shows how there is a kind of security in solitude, but also a price to pay for going it so perilously alone.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesTim Winton
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It’s so bizarre when reading one novel after another to discover coincidental and surprising connections between them. Right after I finished reading Madeline Miller’s “Circe” I started reading Sharlene Teo’s debut novel “Ponti” since it’s one I’ve been anticipating and I wanted to finish it before going to the latest Lush Book Club hosted by Anna James. I soon realized one of the main characters is called Circe as well. While it’s a really evocative name from Greek mythology, it’s certainly not a common one so it was a fun surprise. But this is just an incidental comment about my process of reading what turned out to be a novel that’s so distinct and engrossing.

Since its publication earlier this year, “Ponti” made a splash on social media after receiving a briskly cutting review in the Guardian from Julie Myserson who criticised the “writing workshop” feel of certain scenes and the “limitations of creative writing courses.” In particular she objects to the turns of phrase in sections narrated by Circe whose somewhat self-consciously crude language is actually a crucial part of her character. The review sparked a flurry of responses defending both the value of writing courses and the creativity Teo demonstrates in this complex novel. It was good to hear that Teo herself felt unperturbed about the criticism when Anna asked her about it at the book club discussion. She sensibly sees the value in the debate for how it encouraged people to discuss her novel more and how it also raised interesting issues surrounding creativity/writing courses. I simply note all this because, despite Myserson’s dismissive tone about the book, I found “Ponti” to be refreshingly original and emotionally arresting. 

Teo uses such an interesting structure for “Ponti” which rotates between three different characters’ perspectives in three different decades. This felt slightly disorientating at first until the story so compellingly began to fit together. For a part of the book I couldn’t help longing to only remain with Szu whose story follows her in the early 2000s navigating her awkward teen years and friendship with Circe. Szu also lives under the shadow of her more glamorous mother Amisa, an obscure film star whose only role consisted of acting in a trilogy of cult horror movies but she now makes a living as a con artist psychic alongside Szu’s auntie. However, as the novel progressed the revolving perspectives and connections combined to create a thrilling momentum. The way its told says something quite poignant about the meaning of time, memory and grief. In one section a character observes how “Grief makes ghosts of people. I don’t just mean the ones lost, but the leftover people.” In a way, Amisa, Szu and Circe are all living ghosts who are unable to fulfil their potential because of disappointments or trauma that they’ve experienced.

The relationships between all three of the characters is so sensitively composed. It felt bracingly honest how Szu and Circe develop a bond, but their connection slips away as soon as Szu needs Circe the most. They aren’t simply misfits within their school who form a friendship over being outcasts. Their relationship constantly shifts and reforms just as they are building and reforming a sense of identity in these crucial teenage years. Circe reflects that “The truth is Szu and I told half-fictions to each other. We were complicit in our mutual exaggerations.” Teo captures so well the sense of story telling between friends as a self-mythologizing enterprise and an exploration between the lines of candour/confession and emotional truth/historic accuracy. She also shows the heart breaking way friends can outgrow one another.

It was lovely meeting Sharlene Teo at the Lush Book Club

It was lovely meeting Sharlene Teo at the Lush Book Club

Equally, Szu’s relationship with her mother Amisa is movingly portrayed as Szu feels such pride in her mother’s acting career despite it being short lived and unsuccessful. In one of the most striking scenes Szu desperately tries to interest a classmate in Amisa’s films even when the girl obviously doesn't care. It felt strikingly realistic how Szu feels a mixture of pride and repulsion for her mother. For whatever reason, Amisa doesn’t feel the kind of bond with her daughter where she can gain any satisfaction from the daughter’s admiration. Instead she shuns Szu and hunkers down in her bitterness at not having achieved the kind of fame that her potential suggested she might reach. This disconnect between mother and daughter is heart wrenching, especially in the way their relationship ultimately plays out. There’s also an unsettling poignancy in the way Amisa’s film role was that of a female vampiric ghost from Malay mythology. A version of the legend relates how the Pontianak originated from a child being stillborn. In this novel it’s ironic that here’s a child capable of loving her mother, but instead Amisa selfishly only longs for the love of the wider world. Her ego is what makes her become a kind of monster.

It's a deeply engaging reading experience. Overall, I feel “Ponti” is strikingly sophisticated in how it creatively incorporates a well-known trope from horror movies to say something meaningful about the tragic disconnect which can occur in our most important relationships.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSharlene Teo
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It’s fitting that Alexia Arthurs’ debut collection of stories has an epigraph from Kei Miller who writes so compellingly and inventively about national/racial Jamaican identity. In particular, his writing is often concerned with perception, self-perception and storytelling traditions. Arthurs’ lively and invigorating short stories engage with similar ideas through the diverse perspectives and tales of many different individuals. These men and women have moved from Jamaica to America or moved back to Jamaica after living in America or are first generation Americans with Jamaican ancestry. Many of these individuals feel a tension in being caught between these two nations. Their values, desires and goals have been gradually modified having lived within both cultures and this naturally makes the characters question where they fit within either country and how they interact with different communities. Arthurs depicts a wide range of points of view from the intimate thoughts of a college girl to an elderly man who holds a longstanding secret to a resentful twin brother to a lesbian who returns to Jamaica for a friend’s wedding to a pop star preoccupied with the sudden death of one of her dancers. In skilfully depicting a rich plurality of voices Arthurs raises challenging questions about how we define ourselves and the assumptions we make about others.

It’s also noteworthy that Zadie Smith gave a blurb for Arthurs’ book calling it a “thrilling debut collection” considering how Smith’s most recent novel “Swing Time” has subjects and themes that so closely mirror Arthurs’ story ‘Shirley From a Small Place’. Where Smith writes about a famous white singer (loosely inspired by Madonna) who has a mixed race assistant, Arthurs writes about a famous black singer (loosely inspired by Rihanna) who has a white assistant. These plots obviously have a sensational side to them fictionalizing the intimate lives of celebrities, but in depicting such figures they show an amplified version of the conflicts central to their stories. Arthurs’ pop star Shirley has achieved the sort of recognition and success in America many Jamaicans dream of, but she’s also subject to the projections and scrutiny of the general public. It results in a distancing from the people who have been closest to her all her life, particularly her conservative mother Diane. But it also gives Shirley a stronger identification with the meaning of home in relation to Jamaica. The way their relationship changes and how it makes Diane re-evaluate her own image and desires interestingly plays off from the previous story in the collection ‘We Eat Our Daughters’ where several children relate tales of the domineering mother they never fully understood.

The collection also fittingly begins with a story about a character who consistently makes assumptions about different people and then must readjust her understanding of them after actually interacting with them. In ‘Light-Skinned Girls and Kelly Rowlands’ Kimberly feels a natural kinship with Cecilia because she’s one of the only other black girls in her freshman class. But Cecilia comes from a very different region and socio-economic background so their attitudes and perceptions about race are very different. There’s a melancholy poignancy in how the girls are unable to really see each other because they inhabit their racial identities so differently. In another story Arthurs also highlights how Americans often cling to people who come from similar backgrounds to themselves out of fear. She wryly observes “America, the land of diversity, where people talk to who they think it’s safest to talk to.”

Characters in several of the stories make strategic decisions about who they want to befriend or have a romantic relationship with based on someone’s race, but find it’s an individual’s values rather than their skin colour which ultimately determines whether they are compatible. For instance, unmarried teacher Doreen tries to formulate a relationship with another Jamaican man in America because of their similar backgrounds despite warning signs he might not be the one for her. There’s also often a weary awareness of how white characters will make assumptions about black characters and dictate how race should determine their position in society: “She was the kind of white person who would never let me forget my blackness – she would detail oppressions to me as though I hadn’t lived them.” These examples all highlight the tragic way people react to each other based on appearances rather than really listening to what someone has to say.

Characters in different stories refer to eating cornmeal porridge

Characters in different stories refer to eating cornmeal porridge

‘Slack’, one of the most stylistically daring stories in the collection, shows multiple perspectives of characters reacting to the deaths of two young twin girls in a water tank. It felt reminiscent of the technique Marquez uses in his novella “Chronicle of a Death Foretold” where a proliferation of talk about a death makes it seem as if the death was always inevitable. Athurs’ story also makes a searing indictment of the perceptions surrounding the term “slack” which is used to describe women who exhibit loose morals by having affairs with multiple and/or married men. The mother of the drowned girls Pepper is referred to as such, despite the fact she was only an adolescent herself when she became pregnant and no blame is affixed to the older married man who had sex with her. It’s a term and attitude which recurs in several of the stories highlighting how people also frequently form judgements based on gender.

The title of this book has such a playful double meaning since it can be posed as a statement as if the book is like a "how to" manual, but it also functions as a question - one particularly relevant to Jamaicans who move to America. There’s such a proliferation of vibrant characters and compelling situations in all the stories found in “How to Love a Jamaican” that make it a mesmerizing and highly enjoyable read. What I appreciate most about the many perspectives Arthurs brings to the table is that she raises so many issues and questions without offering any easy answers. She merely represents these varied and idiosyncratic voices while respecting their passion and humanity.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAlexia Arthurs
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Recently I made a video talking about examples of contemporary authors who fictionally reimagine the lives of classic authors. But it's been a funny coincidence that the past two novels I've read do this exact thing in creatively pioneering ways. Cristina Rivera Garza brought back multiple versions of the Mexican writer Amparo Davila in her gender-bending “The Iliac Crest” and now Olivia Laing has done so in her first novel “Crudo” by merging her own identity with that of punk poet and cutting-edge novelist Kathy Acker (who died in 1997.) I've been anticipating this novel so much because Laing's nonfiction book “The Lonely City” was such an important touchstone for me in understanding the condition of loneliness. “Crudo” follows a re-imagined Kathy twenty years after her death in 2017 during the languorous Italian days in the lead up to her marriage to a much older writer. She reflects on the state of the world from dispiriting politics to her interactions with groups of artists to the challenging interplay between the inner and outer world. In doing so Laing forms a fascinating portrait of the modern crisis of an individual who feels she has opportunities and access to vast amounts of information, but is in some ways powerless to enact change or escape her own privilege. 

Part of what makes Laing's nonfiction so mesmerising is the intense connection she describes with the artists and subjects whose lives she explores so sympathetically. These are often figures who were marginalized but whose creations and activism pushed the conversation forward. So it's unsurprising that she'd be drawn to the figure of Kathy Acker whose anti-establishment aesthetic incorporated styles of pastiche and a cut-up technique to explore elements from her own life as well as subjects such as power, sex and violence. Acker's fiction also appropriated a number of prominent classic authors such as Arthur Rimbaud, Emily Bronte, Marquis de Sade, Charles Dickens and Georges Bataille. It's described in this novel how “She wrote fiction, sure, but she populated it with the already extant, the pre-packaged and readymade. She was in many ways Warhol’s daughter, niece at least, a grave-robber, a bandit, happy to snatch what she needed but was also morally invested in the cause: that there was no need to invent”. In the same way, Laing transposes lines from Acker's writing (as well as some other authors) to form a modern narrative which is in some ways autobiographical. This literally bleeds Acker's thoughts and ideas into Laing's sensibility to reiterate what has been said before and say something new. 

I'm really fascinated by writing techniques which incorporate pre-existing texts such as Jeremy Gavron's recent “Felix Culpa” which forms a compelling self-contained fictional narrative. But “Crudo” is much more intensely personal describing its protagonist Kathy's desire to break out of the bounds her gender and her time period: the bleak summer of 2017 when the public dialogue was overwhelmed with talk of Brexit and Trump (as it still is.) It describes how she both wants to engage in this conversation and escape from it in the transformative space of solitude “It was just she kept sneezing, it was just that she needed seven hours weeks months years a day totally alone, trawling the bottom of the ocean, it’s why she spent so much time on the Internet” and how our online lives filtered through mediums such as Twitter allow us immediate access to information, but also have a curious distancing effect. This leads to a understandably pessimistic view of the world with its diminishing resources and reactionary politics:“It was all done, it was over, there wasn’t any hope.” But, of course, Kathy as an individual persists as does the propensity to create art that engages with and reacts to this fraught world. 

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Part of me felt uncertain at first if Laing's method of invoking the figure of Kathy Acker was necessary for her to fictionally express a state of being that is evidently so painfully real for the author herself. After spending a lot of time thinking about what this novel says, I'm convinced that Laing's method isn't just a formal experiment but a necessary act. For all its desperate searching and relatable despair, “Crudo” is a surprisingly romantic novel in the way Laing breathes new life into a pioneering writer from the past and pays tribute to the power of committed love for comfort and solace. One of the most powerful scenes comes when Kathy is at a dinner party where it describes her grappling to eat a crab. She pounds on it persistently to crack inside and there's a moment where her personality melds with that of the crustacean: “Someone was pounding on the door. The hammer, smashing the crab’s back. She wanted to be cracked open, that was the thing, only on her own terms and within preordained limits. There were rules, she changed them.” This beautifully encapsulates the core of this narrative which feels encroaching forces threatening our liberty and our bodies, but which shows a determination to change the landscape which is so rapidly transforming beneath our feet. “Crudo” is both a beautiful drag act and an urgent cry to witness, remember, connect and move forward.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesOlivia Laing
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When I started this blog back in 2013 one of the very first books I posted about was Jim Crace’s novel “Harvest” which had such a subtly powerful impact on me that it strangely affected my dreams. Looking back on that I’m somewhat chilled to see I discussed the book in conjunction with a documentary about Donald Trump bullying his way into developing a golf course in Scotland. The nightmares I had at that time would have been much worse if I had guessed he’d one day gain the political power he possesses today! Something that I find so fascinating about Jim Crace’s writing is that he’s able to identify many of our underlying fears and anxieties about living in an ever-changing society and situate them in a time and place that are carefully removed from reality. Crace’s fictional landscape resembles our world, but you can’t locate it anywhere in history and its geographical location can’t be found on any map. His fiction is highly realistic in tone and utilises descriptions that feel authentic, but only in the way our dreams feel true in the moment we’re experiencing them.

Crace’s new novel “The Melody” focuses on fictional famous singer Alfred Busi who is entering his twilight years living in the dilapidated villa situated in a seaside town where he was born. His position as one of the town’s most prominent and respected citizens is changing to that of a relic from the past as he’s being honoured by a placement in the town’s Hall of Fame. In conjunction with this honour, he’s been invited to give a performance that’s meant to symbolize the crowning achievement of his career. But he’s unsettled by rumblings from strange animals who plunder the rubbish bins outside his house at night and one evening when he goes down to investigate this disturbance he suffers a brief attack by an unknown naked boy who is plundering his larder. This odd occurrence sets him off on a downward spiral as he becomes aware of an impoverished section of the community that represents a perceived threat to the more civilized citizens of the town. He also discovers there are designs to bring down the crumbling villa he shared with his late wife to make way for a swish new modern development. In this way, Crace dramatizes class conflict and the angst of modern life through the collapse of a grieving musician’s life.

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It’s humorous how Crace even takes the joke of his fictional counter-reality into the acknowledgements of this novel. Here he claims to have consulted a biography of Busi, the estate of his family, old issues of the town’s newspaper and also he “thanks the people of…” In not completing this sentence he affirms that this town isn’t specifically located anywhere despite references in the book to real place like Long Island or fancy foodstuff from different real nations. It’s like this quality of verisimilitude in Crace’s fiction is inviting the reader to experience his novel as if it were a play; audience members are always aware that they are watching a play, but if it’s sufficiently moving it will feel true. So Crace’s odd tale has all the marks of our reality, but it’s really occurring in some unconscious realm. There is an inflammatory journalist who seeks to stir in his readers repugnance and fear of the poor with his exaggerated reports of the threat they pose. A community is sanitised and gentrified as wildlife and homeless people are forcibly relocated. It feels like some version of these things happen all around us, but we’re usually only privy to it through second-hand information just like the citizens of Crace’s fictional town. It’s an extraordinary style of writing subtly bending place and time in a way that I don’t think many other authors have done – except perhaps Kazuo Ishiguro in his masterful novel “The Unconsoled”.

That’s not to say I think Crace is always successful in the special way he crafts his novels. While “Harvest” had a propulsive dramatic intensity to it, “The Melody” meanders somewhat and it doesn’t feel like there’s as much at stake. I thought the most effective parts are when Crace writes about Busi’s process of mourning and missing his wife: “The darkness held and always would the wife that he had loved and lost.” It’s also very powerful when he writes about how the limits of our circumstances disallow us from creating the art we’re capable of: “Some melodies are never meant to find their words.” Also, the overall tone of the novel is effectively unsettling and odd. However, the bulk of the story’s action feels too consumed with Alfred Busi’s ill-advised roaming and reconciliations that aren’t quite earned. Crace’s writing always has a graceful beauty to it and his style is utterly fascinating, but I don’t think “The Melody” is quite as strong as some of his previous novels.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJim Crace
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Many books focus on romantic affairs, but it takes something special to shed new light on this common subject. Two of my all-time favourite novels that explore the dynamics of an affair are Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence” and Anne Enright’s “The Forgotten Waltz” which both feel so searingly honest in portraying the complicated emotions of all three of the people involved. Jamie Quatro’s “Fire Sermon” adds an entirely new dynamic charting the trajectory of an affair over her protagonist Maggie’s lifetime. Shifting back and forth through time, the story recounts the beginning of her marriage to Thomas, the intense moment when she and poet James decide to go to a hotel together and the complicated aftermath. In a series of letters (sent and unsent), conversations with a therapist and recollections of moments from Maggie’s life she searches for meaning and an understanding of her choices. Since she was raised religiously and continues to study religious texts, her reasoning is inflected with a complicated spiritual dynamic. The novel builds to a powerfully heartfelt and intense communion with the self.

Part of what drew me to reading this novel was Garth Greenwell’s enthusiastic endorsement of it. His novel “What Belongs to You” is one of the most striking and intensely-felt meditations on desire I’ve ever read.  Although the relationship dynamic Quatro portrays in her novel is entirely different from Greenwell’s story, these novels equally capture the complicated emotions we’re subject to when we find our desires pulling us towards actions and decisions we can’t understand. After giving birth to two children Maggie finds she doesn’t sexually desire her husband anymore, but often submits to sex with him because she feels “Her body isn’t hers anyhow, a toddler and an infant attached like appendages.” The tragedy of this feeling is compounded by her husband Thomas’ ardent desire to find some way to sexually reconnect with his wife which wavers between sympathetic suggestions to brutality. However, when Maggie meets James the passion is urgently felt.

In her first letter to James she quotes C.S. Lewis "A book sometimes crosses one's path which is so like the sound of one's native language in a strange country, it feels almost uncivil not to wave some kind of flag in answer."

In her first letter to James she quotes C.S. Lewis "A book sometimes crosses one's path which is so like the sound of one's native language in a strange country, it feels almost uncivil not to wave some kind of flag in answer."

It feels significant that the intense desire Maggie feels for James occurs before they even meet. After reading some of his poems she writes to him, they strike up a communication and eventually plan to meet. In their written dialogue she observes how “in these talks, I feel I’m discovering, or recovering, a deeper self, something at the core of my being.” Maggie connects with a part of herself that feels like its been lost from years of domestic routine culminating in children, a companionable marriage and stable home. James’ life exactly mirrors Maggie’s in many ways. So their connection isn’t entirely about an intellectual or sexual desire for each other but a wish to reclaim a unified sense of self that isn’t fragmented by the attachments which make up their daily lives. This draw towards an internal unity is reflected in the way she remarks how “The fact of their bodies – her own, James’s – had seemed beside the point. As if mouths and tongues and limbs were only in the way, something they had to get through in order to get to something else.”

Of course, sex is not just about the act itself. One of the most striking scenes is when Maggie and James undress to really see each other and observe how their bodies are aging. Part of their connection is based on reconciling with the fact their bodies are naturally transforming. It’s striking how Quatro captures the way coming to terms with one’s own desirability is a large part of our sexual connections. It’s as if only honestly seeing ourselves reflected in another’s eyes and still feeling wanted can induce peace of mind about our aging flesh. There are many other factors which also contribute to her desire for an affair with James, but many of them are to do with developing a deeper connection to and understanding of herself. So it seems natural that Maggie contemplates the meaning of meditation frequently and how this practice of speaking with oneself is realised in different religions which alternately seek to extinguish the self (as in Buddhism) or a unification with God (as in Christianity). What’s consistent in Maggie’s search throughout her life is a desire to communicate whether that be with her husband, James, God or herself. “Fire Sermon” beautifully charts this ongoing dialogue she maintains as a method of parsing the unruly desires which tug at her existence. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJamie Quatro
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In a small community where everyone knows everyone it's common for someone who is slightly different to feel sharply isolated. In “Girl in the Snow” Danya Kukafka focuses on three distinct characters who are misfits within their Colorado suburb and the way this unlikely trio are brought together when a teenage girl named Lucinda is found dead in a playground one winter day. This novel is a thriller and mystery about how this popular local girl died, but it's moreover an exploration of the way people become estranged from the friends and family who surround them.

Kukafka has a poetic sense of constructing powerful psychological details. An intensity of feeling is distilled into the way characters develop unique patterns for understanding the world. This is most powerfully rendered in her two main teenage characters Cameron and Jade. Quiet, artistic and haunted by the spectre of his disgraced absent father, Cameron comes most vividly alive when he wanders his neighbourhood streets at night looking in at the lighted windows of the houses around him. He thinks of this nocturnal roaming as his 'Collection of Statue Nights' where the people he surreptitiously observes become fixed in place and relatable. During the day he's scorned and mocked by his classmates, but at night they are framed in their windows and at a safe distance. In particular, he's fixated on voyeuristically watching Lucinda's bedroom window and the fact he's produced countless drawings of her proves very suspicious following her death.

Overweight and irascible Jade doesn't mourn the loss of Lucinda so much as the strong friendship she felt with Lucinda's ex-boyfriend Zap. Jade and Zap were equally awkward as children and plotted to escape their town together one day, but Zap has grown into a sporty and confident teenager while Jade is an outside rebel. Her self esteem is continuously crushed under the psychological and physical abuse she receives from her mother. Jade longs to make emotional connections with people but instead of verbalizing this she plots within her head a continuous script for a screenplay she calls 'What You Want to Say But Can't Without Being a Dick.' Here she revises scenes in her head to broach things people don't dare to say in everyday life. However, in reality people see her simply as an angry rude teenager.

Jade comments at one point that everyone has a physical spot they go to when they want to be alone to be who they really are. For policeman Russ this is a mountainous area where he can watch the sunrise. Unlike Cameron and Jade who developed imaginative methods for psychologically removing themselves from their untenable situations, Russ preserves for himself a contemplative physical space that he used to spend time in with his ex-colleague who was also Cameron's father. Here they were able to edge towards desires they couldn't begin to express in normal life. I was moved by the way Kukafka renders these characters' different coping mechanisms and ways of carving out spaces where they can escape social stigma and pressures.

There are inflections in this story of Twin Peaks where a beloved beautiful teen is found dead, a secret diary is discovered and her murder reverberates throughout the community. But unlike that stylistic show laden with symbolism, Kukafka's story evokes the strange ways in which we can become isolated amidst groups of people we see day after day. She sympathetically exhibits the way this causes individuals to become locked within their own internal reality that the people around them can't understand. The same is true for Lucinda whose true story we only glimpse through the perspective of those people who knew her. This is a vividly written and finely plotted novel that warmly beckons you into the lonely lives of its characters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson

“A new book?” my boyfriend asks when he sees me reading, as usual. “What’s this one about?”
I tell him it’s a book of poetry.
“Poetry?!” he frowns (half joking).
I try to explain how it’s a particularly engaging and fun collection.

The general public, even regular readers often view poetry as inaccessible or perplexingly elitist. But Hollie McNish is a great example of a modern poet with writing that’s so easy to relate to. It’s also smart, humorous, bawdy, political and socially-engaged. “Plum” is a book that also draws you into the author’s life. Many of the poems in this collection are headed by the age at which McNish produced them and the context within which they were written. This not only helps the reader understand the motivation behind them, but builds an ongoing narrative of a girl growing into a woman, a worker, a friend, a wife, a mother, a citizen and a poet. We see her change from a teenager working at a chemist’s who sniggers at customers buying condoms to being a woman feeling embarrassed about buying condoms herself. The collection as a whole beautifully captures a sense of McNish’s evolution as a person and a writer as her style changes over time.

There are poems about discovering sex, getting groped in bookshops, arguing with the television, learning other languages and the chaos of taking her daughter to a children’s party. They all draw the reader into McNish’s life and articulate so meaningfully the contradictions, inequalities and shame she sees in society. Her poetry is particularly strong at highlighting the often maligned working class who are diminished and patronized by politicians, the media and middle class. Rather than really trying to engage with their point of view, they are often talked down to "as the poor wait and rot labelled yobs by headline cops". The poems also enumerate McNish’s own experience working a number of different jobs which gives a special credence to the way she describes a waitress’ shift so strongly: “in the heat of her boredom and beckoning orders the hands of the clocks just keep slowing down”. It’s a tradition that the queen sends a birthday message to every person in the UK that turns 100, but McNish states plainly and powerfully how “the poorer you are the sooner the queen should write”.

I couldn't find any poems from this collection online but this poem 'Embarrassed' is from McNish's book "Nobody Told Me"

Many of the poems describe the body in a way which is frank and refreshing. It reminded me of Andrew McMillan’s collection “Physical” for the way she captures the oftentimes awkward way we inhabit all this flesh. McNish gets the humour and ridiculousness of our physical development as well as its poignancy when our roles in life change. She also doesn’t shy from highlighting how it feels like language fails to describe the full complexity of this. "Morphing into an adult's body feels so odd. I tried to capture it here, but I can't." She describes the way children are spoken to in a condescending way and (especially in the striking poem ‘Voldemort’) the way girls are commonly taught to be ashamed of their genitals in a way that boys are not. She frankly deals with sex with all its pleasures and pitfalls. It’s particularly fun when she inhabits the voice of Constance Reid from “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” to show her daily life and fulsome sexuality. And also, the powerful poem ‘Shrinking’ powerfully describes a modern day waitress dressed as “Alice in Wonderland.” As the book progresses, the poems grapple with how McNish is coming to terms with her own mortality noticing graying hairs or the slacking of her stomach after giving birth. The final section is dedicated to poems specifically about particular parts of the body in a way the creatively rounds out this very personal collection.

Unsurprisingly, McNish is a popular performer. I was lucky enough to see her read some poems at a Picador author showcase event and she captivated the audience. Not only does her animated language have the power to grip listeners, but she also has a direct and frank way of delivering her poems that seizes your attention. As well as encouraging you read this vibrant collection, I’d recommend that you go see her perform if she’s giving a reading near you. Of course, not many people will be able to do this but she has a YouTube channel where you can watch her reading several of her poems: https://www.youtube.com/user/holliemcnish/videos

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesHollie McNish

It feels fortuitous that I picked a remote location to read Megan Hunter's extraordinary debut novel “The End We Start From.” Over the long Easter weekend I stayed at the Living Architecture property A House for Essex designed by Grayson Perry. This is a remote building filled with art and surrounded by fields of yellow rapeseed plants alongside the coast; it’d make an ideal spot to be holed up in if an apocalypse were ever to happen like it does in Hunter’s book. In this brief powerful novel London is flooded at the same time its narrator gives birth to her first child. She and her husband flee to stay with his parents on higher ground, but society quickly unravels in a nightmarish way. However, for the narrator life has just begun as she discovers the reality of motherhood caring for her baby son named Z. The novel gives an extraordinary sense of the way life alters both internally and externally as she struggles to survive.

The characters in this novel are known only by their initials which adds to the creepy sense of anonymity – as if without the language and structure of society people become nothing but faceless groups to be shepherded into temporary camps. Not only do these refugees from the devastated capital become faceless to the government, but friends, family and lovers become estranged and lose each other. The initials also give a sense of how insulated the narrator’s life becomes as her whole world becomes about this child while the civilization around her swiftly collapses. People go missing. Food becomes scarce. Rogue groups seek out isolated havens. Her life is concentrated solely on keeping her new son alive and nurturing him through this crisis.

Watch my vlog staying at A House for Essex & reading this novel.

This is a short book and tumultuous changes taking place over a long period of time are conveyed in brief passages. It’s commendable the way Hunter uses language so sparely with just enough detail to spark the reader’s imagination; a few lines are all it takes to convey a horribly tense dynamic surrounding the central character and her baby. The prose are so stripped down they almost turn poetic. Passages about the world’s end taken from different religious texts are interspersed throughout the narrative. This gives a curious sense of timelessness to the catastrophic proceedings and the feeling of cyclical change. It conveys a sense how the world is always coming to the end, but it’s also rejuvenated through change and new life.

Apocalyptic stories are common fodder for fiction as a way of exploring the unease we feel about the future of our society. Emily St. John Mandel did this so powerfully in her novel “Station Eleven” which (among other things) contemplates the way culture might morph and persist even after a devastating global illness. In “The End We Start From” Hunter flips a refugee crisis on its head so it’s the citizens of a wealthy world city that must flee for the hills seeking shelter. But it doesn’t do this in a polemical way. Rather it strips life down to philosophically enquire what makes us who we are when the people in our lives and place we live in are swept away. At one point she remarks how “Home is another word that has lost itself. I try to make it into something, to wrap its sounds around a shape. All I get is the opening of my mouth and its closing, the way my lips press together at the end. Home.” The story asks us to consider how resilient we would be if forced into an uncertain peripatetic life, but also how strong our sense of self is when transitioning between being a wife and mother, a husband and father or being a citizen and nomad. These are weighty and pertinent things to think about with such uncertain times ahead for all of us.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMegan Hunter
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I was drawn to reading this debut short story collection by the beauty of its deep-blue, silver-illustrated cover and the strength of blurbs from excellent cutting-edge writers Helen Oyeyemi and Sjon. These imaginative stories do feel in some fundamental way to be aligned with these authors because of the way they similarly bend reality to give new insight into society, language and our perceptions of the past. The subjects of Tharoor's stories are far-ranging from a town awaiting its imminent destruction by an invading army to a conqueror cursed with impotence to a Russian ship hedged in by icebergs. They span great swaths of time from soldiers conversing in a heated battle in 190 BC to diplomats from dying nations marooned on a luxury spaceship in a dystopian future. Yet, there is a curious unity between these invigorating and fascinating tales which ponder the evolution of our civilization by focusing on migration, storytelling and what's left in and selected out of recorded history: “Humanity, after all, was nothing but a library.”

Several stories consider the way in which different cultures intermingle by appropriating, borrowing, learning and stealing from each other. In some voyages the explorers set out to discover and plunder, but instead find their dreams of conquest stymied by violent confrontations with the unknown. The erratic and far-reaching story ‘Letters Home’ considers many kinds of these journeys all over the world which are cut short. There's a sense of possible touchstones between civilizations which are lost through accidental blunders and chance. The story 'The Astrolabe' features a captain who has lost his ship and crew before washing on the shore of a strange island. What could have been a tale like 'The Tempest' or Robinson Crusoe hands its story over to the island's native population who consider the captain's “advancements” and dramatically reject him. Other stories consider the cross-flow of cultures in more contemporary settings such as 'Cultural Property' where a student contemplates reclaiming an artefact found on a university campus or 'The Loss of Muzaffar' where a dazzlingly talented immigrant chef caters to a wealthy NYC family against the backdrop of 9/11.

Two compelling stories show a more academic meeting point between one person and another from dramatically different social and economic groups to consider issues of cultural appropriation. In the title story ‘Swimmer Among the Stars’ an elderly woman's voice is recorded by ethnographers as she is the last person to speak her native language. She considers how “Humans always lose more history than they ever possess.” Also, the story gives a deeply fascinating perspective on the social meaning of words and language's evolution. It incorporates the way folklore is imbued with personal and political stories. The story ‘Portrait with Coal Fire’ depicts a Skype conversation between a magazine photographer and a miner discussing how the meaning his life and family appear in photographs that were taken. There is some fundamental break happening in the translation between the subject, the photograph and the viewer which creates a “chronic voyeuristic relation” as described by Susan Sontag in her famous essay 'On Photography'. This conversation is further complicated by the translator who is necessary for the photographer to speak to his subject.

Iskandar in battle

Iskandar in battle

One of the most sustained sections of the book features a series of short retellings of legends from Arabic literature that depict Alexander the Great or Iskandar (as Muslim hero). Here the leader's insatiable lust for power and control over the world sees him rampage through different nations and even journey to the bottom of the ocean to claim it for his own. This conqueror's perspective is the opposite of the view we're given in 'Tale of the Teahouse' where we feel the increasing alarm of a city about to be invaded. Tharoor has a flair for depicting clashes for power and dominance that is both dramatic and meditative. His writing reminds me strongly of Jessie Greengrass' short stories – not so much in style, but the way they contemplate the philosophical meaning of how people throughout history have flung themselves out into the great unknown to reshape civilization and their understanding of themselves. “Swimmer Among the Stars” is a deeply thoughtful book as well as being a delight to read for its imaginative leaps in storytelling.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesKanishk Tharoor

Something about the dark month of January makes me enjoy getting caught up in a good thriller. Last year I read Fiona Barton's “The Widow” about a missing child and a mysterious woman hovering near the centre of the case. Emma Flint's debut novel “Little Deaths” is similarly about a case involving missing children and a misunderstood woman, but it's also about so much more than that. Ruth Malone is a 26 year old woman who is separated from her husband and raising two children by herself in Queens during the 1960s. One morning she opens the door to her children's room to discover they've vanished. A police investigation gets under way to discover what happened, but the default assumption is that Ruth is at fault. The police and public don't consider her to be a conventional mother. She enjoys drinking. She's promiscuous. She doesn't seem to give a damn about society's opinion of her. She's condemned even before they interview her. Flint gets at the shocking and sexist way moral judgement supersedes fact in this tragic case.

Ruth's story is based on the case of Alice Crimmins who was wrongly imprisoned after her children were murdered.

Ruth's story is based on the case of Alice Crimmins who was wrongly imprisoned after her children were murdered.

It's fascinating the way the author portrays Ruth's sense of self consciousness. She's scrupulous about her appearance and she feels the process of putting on make up is the routine that would bring Ruth to life in the mirror.” At the same time, she feels an inward sense of disgust and takes fierce possession of her own habitat and sense of being: “The dirt in the apartment was her dirt, it was her sweat, her smell, her looseness, her leaking wet body that had betrayed her.” This harsh sense of criticism for her bodily functions and surroundings reminded me somewhat of Ottessa Moshfegh's protagonist in her novel “Eileen” but Ruth is more accomplished at appearing beautiful and serene despite inwardly breaking down. She's overcome by grief, but because she doesn't express it in conventional ways it makes people extremely suspicious. More than simply subjecting a grieving mother to endless accusatory interviews, the police shockingly interfere with her personal life contacting potential employers to warn them against hiring Ruth and sabotaging her personal relationships.

Although the reader frequently gets flashes of Ruth's perspective, the story is primarily told through Pete Wonicke, an ambitious young reporter. At first I wished the story would focus more exclusively on the complexity of Ruth's view point, but as the story progressed I saw how essential it was to see it from Pete's perspective. He gradually understands how unfairly Ruth is persecuted and fights for her justice. Not only does he get a clearer understanding of her life, but also the lives of other women forced to live on the margins and who've been horrendously mistreated for going against the grain of social norms. This cleverly makes us question our own assumptions about people based on superficial impressions, ask how much our society has changed in the past fifty years and wonder how much our opinions are guided by inherited misogynist notions. It's a forceful story which skilfully builds a feeling of suspense all the way to its gripping conclusion.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesEmma Flint
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There are two gripping mysteries at the centre of Emma Donoghue’s new novel “The Wonder”. An English nurse who trained under Florence Nightingale named Elizabeth “Lib” Wright is summoned on a special job to rural Ireland in the mid 1800s. Only during the journey does she discover that she’s charged to keep watch over a young Catholic girl Anna O’Donnell who claims to have subsisted for many months without any food. The girl, her family and the village believe she’s being kept alive purely through a divine power. This has made her a wonder that many devoted people make pilgrimages to see. Is this a religious miracle or a fraud? Lib’s job is not to make the girl eat but just to observe her to independently testify that she truly doesn’t consume anything. However, this nurse who served in the Crimean War has a troubled hidden past of her own: “Everybody was a repository of secrets.” When her atheist views clash severely with this deeply-religious village, great conflict ensues. This highly intriguing atmospheric story intelligently shows a clash between new and old world sensibilities, the complicated nature of religious belief and the malleable nature of identity.

Hanging over this novel is the Great Famine in Ireland which had ended only recently in the early 1850s. The girl’s refusal of any food and gradual wasting away is a grim reminder of the near quarter of the country’s population who unwillingly perished. Lib is well aware of this enormous loss so it’s even more baffling to her that a girl would deny herself food and that her family/community/priest would support her decision. Lib’s opinion of the Irish falls as she spends time in the rural village and observes their customs. Not only are there intricate old-fashioned religious practices which sometimes elevates after-life glory over mortal wellbeing, but she shows contempt for their customs/manner of living, homes made of mud and unpalatable griddle cakes. It leads her to generalize “What a rabble, the Irish. Shiftless, thriftless, hopeless, hapless, always brooding over past wrongs. Their tracks going nowhere, their trees hung with putrid rags.” Her increasing bias throws into question who the reader should morally side with. However, an intelligent reporter from Dublin named William Byrne who is also a believer adds a bridge between this clash in national identity.

Donoghue includes a rich amount of period detail that makes this story richly alive. Not only are there compelling descriptions of the customs of village life in Ireland from this time, but also details about the nursing profession and medical practices. Many local physicians’ methodology was steeped as much in religious or misguided evolutionary beliefs as in hard therapeutic facts. Lib represents a newfound approach to medical care with a more rounded view of ways to support the afflicted: “what nobody understood: saving lives often came down to getting a latrine pipe unplugged.” This leads to a fascinating portrait of changing sensibilities within this time period. Donoghue also strikingly shows the subversive way people with misogynistic views could be manipulated through the way they underestimate women.

As in her well-known novel “Room”, the author shows a respect for the canniness and resilience of children. Donoghue remarks at one point “Like small gods, children formed their miniature worlds out of clay, or even just words. To them, the truth was never simple.” Rather than a pious simpleton, young Anna is gradually revealed to be a fascinating character with complex motives. The novel gains a swift momentum as the truth about both Anna and her vigilant watching nurse Lib are revealed. Donoghue explains in her author’s note how this novel was inspired by multiple cases over the centuries of fasting girls who reportedly survived for long periods of time without food. She has a great talent for condensing multiple instances of an irregular social phenomenon into a story that says something meaningful about our culture and the nature of being. “The Wonder” is a finely-crafted and emotionally-charged story.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesEmma Donoghue