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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Something strange happened when I was halfway through reading "The Good Son." I was on my way to work standing on a tube platform waiting for my train and reading the book. Suddenly it was snatched out of my hands and thrown down the platform where it slid off onto the tracks. I turned to see a man in full lady attire and makeup staring at me ferociously. She walked past me while I stared in shock. What just happened? She looked over her shoulder and shrugged while walking away. Looking around I saw a man sat down who shook his head saying, "He/she is crazy!" Anger surged through me and I marched after the man in drag demanding "Why did you do that?" Her eyes were wide and combative. She shouted "Don't get in my face!" over and over. A train pulled up and I got on leaving her on the platform as she was obviously crazy or off her face. It was just a bizarre experience. These things happen now and then when you live in a city. While I was annoyed I'd lost my book, I was more confused as to why someone obviously angry at the world & people in general would take it out on books. Later I tweeted about this strange occurrence and received a kind reply from Blackbird Books in Navan, Ireland who offered to send me another copy. I received the new copy a couple of days later with a lovely note and a nice green tea bag. Please follow them on Twitter at @BlackbirdBks or pop into their shop if you're ever in County Meath. So, although there are crazies out there, my faith in humanity is restored! Now, about the book...

The adolescent narrator Mickey of “The Good Son” is so charming and winsome in his tone of voice you might forget he’s living in the centre of Ireland’s bitter battle between unionists and nationalists were it not for the bracing opening line: “I was born the day the Troubles started.” He’s a dreamy, effeminate boy whose only real friend is his younger sister and who dreams of moving to America to become a Hollywood actor. Mickey is a good student who has been accepted at a prestigious school, but he’s heartbroken when he learns that his parents can’t afford to send him there. Instead he must attend the local and much less prestigious St. Gabriel’s where the majority of the boys who live around him go. The book records the weeks leading up to his start at this new school, struggles with his family and neighbourhood children, his burgeoning sexuality and his accidental entanglement in dramatic events within Belfast’s bloody conflicts.

As befitting the title, Mickey tries desperately to please his mother who is struggling with living on the brink of poverty, her alcoholic husband and her son who has a suspected affiliation with the IRA. Scenes of family life are depicted with warm familiarity and powerfully descriptive lines of dialogue. Here you feel all the accumulation of feeling between family members who navigate through their daily lives together with playfully gentle mocking banter that has undercurrents of a longstanding commitment to each other. There are some scenes which are truly heartbreaking such as when Mickey’s Ma catches him in her purse and starts to punish him, but her reaction shifts when she discovers that rather than stealing he’s putting money he secretly earned into her purse.

It’s fascinating reading about the way Mickey navigates the perilous landscape of his neighbourhood where there is real danger from the warring Catholics and Protestants and the English soldiers. More immediately, he’s alienated from other children his age who mock his “fruity” behaviour. His self-consciousness is captured with agonizing precision: “boys always notice and hate me.” The only connections he find are with children who are habitual glue-sniffers or a girl he’s enamoured with who just wants to use him as someone to practice kissing with. Sometimes Mickey’s narration tips too far into the saccharine as he exhibits enthusiasm for what he thinks of as cool or his dreamy connection with Hollywood films. But being inextricably embedded in his innocence and naivety is necessary for this story as it makes scenes of tremendous seriousness all the more terrifying. It’s particularly effective when he’s taken to task for an insult he’s shouted in the street and he mentally draws back into a fantasy theatre populated by an audience with the likes of Doris Day, John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John, Wonder Woman and Judy Garland.

I found it especially moving reading of the awkward father-son relationship. In one scene Mickey and his father take the boy’s new dog Killer out and he describes it like this: “We walk, not sayin’ anythin’, but that’s OK. Watchin’ Killer is like watchin’ a filim. And you never talk durin’ a filim.” This expertly portrays the companionship of a father and son who don’t speak much, but rather than producing an awkward silence it’s simply a part of their natures not to discuss anything. It’s like a code that they faithfully follow together. The way their relationship changes over the book makes for a compelling plot twist and gives a whole new meaning to the novel’s title.

Holding tight to this copy!

Holding tight to this copy!

I admire the way Paul McVeigh confidently took on the voice of an adolescent boy to highlight what life is like when he is trapped growing up within a large unusual conflict. It’s not an easy thing to do. “The Good Son” is a startlingly unique coming of age tale which makes the Troubles come alive through the eyes of a boy who has known nothing else, but dreams of better things beyond it.

When trying to show how most of our lives are lived on the surface while all sorts of wild desires and fantasies remain hidden inside us, traditional fiction usually only shows tiny hints of this multi-layered reality in the thoughts of characters and their dramatic actions. In fairy tales this sublimated fear and lust explodes like a geyser. Although the more traditional kinds of these tales are usually sugared for children, Kirsty Logan has written stories which are decidedly for adults due to their frankness of feeling and the complexity of their ideas.

Some stories in this short, powerful book play upon tales we’re already familiar with giving a different perspective or reconfiguring their limited morality. In ‘Matryoshka’ when the “villain” sister ends up alone while the maid she ardently desires ultimately gets to wear the pretty shoes and win the prince it feels like the most devastating kind of romantic tragedy. When the narrator of ‘Witch’ stumbles upon the notorious feared woman who lives in a hut in the woods she discovers that her ostracism from society is of her own making and her alternative lifestyle is far preferable from living with the mainstream. In ‘All the Better to Eat You With’ which is a very short tale told all in dialogue the meaning stretches out to encompass more universal philosophical ideas about the survival struggle of all species which are divided between hunters and the hunted. Characters speaking collectively in the story ‘Underskirts’ emphatically declare themselves as outside of traditional time-honoured stories “We were not the stepmothers from fairy tales” as they sell their daughters into a salacious wealthy household out of financial necessity. The title character of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ is cast in a present day starkly realistic setting. In this story the unfolding narrative of a girl who suffered sexual assault after being drugged at a party is ingeniously told backwards so that the hard realism of the event strikes the reader like a hammer. It also meaningfully shows the psychology of a young woman who is trying to forget the event rather than go through the difficulty of reporting it. Far from frivolous, these twists on familiar fantasies are serious stuff.

These imaginative stories are also very playful, funny and sexy. Some are set in grand, old-world settings like a country estate where the lady of the house is known to take in select local country girls for indulgent happenings. Still others take place in the recognizable gritty reality of the present where couples are separated through the necessity of keeping self-sustaining work or struggle with the difficulty of pregnancy. Take for instance, this line from ‘A Skull of Saints’: “People are more than DNA, she knows, but if she could feel their child from her insides, know him with her own flesh the way that Hope does, it would be better. It would make sense. He would feel more like her own; he would be more than just an idea.” This story explores what the real significance of empathy and familial relationships in the way people relate to and think about each other. Yet these stories cleverly bend what’s real and stretch into the fantastic so that children grow antlers or tiger tails in ‘Una and Coll are not Friends.’ The story is told in their voices which sound like any adolescent you might overhear on the street. But the physical imposition of animal appendages makes a powerful statement about the meaning of diversity and divisions which can occur within minority groups. In the story ‘Origami’ a woman waits for her husband who is ceaselessly delayed by work and spends her time making a man out of folded paper. With this oddball detail it makes a powerful comment on the sense of complex isolation one can feel within a committed relationship: “She wasn’t lonely, she was victorious.”

Most of these stories squeeze at the prickly heart of love to make fresh revelatory statements about the meaning of relationships. The title story includes a woman who must rent a heart to begin new romances. In another story a woman takes a companion of a coin operated boy. These aren’t just conceptual ideas in the story, but have a physical impact upon the characters. As is vital in the best absurdist fiction, these weird details are treated in the narratives as completely natural so the meaning of their inclusion adds a forceful complicated layer to the progression of the unfurling story. The diversity of love is demonstrated in different stories involving romance that is lesbian, gay, straight and in-between. Female sexuality in particular is assiduously explored over a range of stories. The story ‘Momma Grows a Diamond’ is one of the most beautifully crafted stories about a girl’s coming of age that I’ve ever read. Girls are initially given the names of flowers, but as they blossom into adulthood they take on the names of jewels. Logan writes at one point: “Aren’t you tired of being a flower, Violet? Momma says to me one morning from the depths of her bed. Flowers crush so easy, baby, but nothing breaks a jewel.” This description of a necessary toughening of character in women is a meaningful and different way to see how personalities change with adulthood out of a need to deal with a new kind of social environment. There is also a particular kind of masculine aggression ingeniously represented in the story ‘The Broken West.” I’ve heard it said before that when two men look each other in the eyes they only ever think one of two things ‘I want to fuck you’ or ‘I want to kill you.’ This idea is demonstrated in the line “Daniel can’t tell if he’s been fighting or fucking, and it doesn’t really matter. Faces look different close up, and the only way to get that close to a stranger is to kiss them or choke them.” These stories cleverly play with gender to show how it sometimes determines or heedlessly defies the ways in which sex plays out or how love manifests.

An Altered Book: Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen - by artist Susan Hoerth

An Altered Book: Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen - by artist Susan Hoerth

Logan also displays a diverse range of narrative techniques throughout so that some stories are told in short bursts of revolving first person narration while others like ‘Tiger Palace’ has a commanding narrator who leads you manipulatively through the tale and makes you question the meaning of “stories” themselves. Some tales are whimsical and retain elusive meanings. Others are slotted more firmly in particular kinds of genre, but draw into them innovative subject matter. In the haunting, melancholy story ‘Feeding’ a man prepares a nursery while his female partner becomes increasingly obsessed with tending to her garden at night. The creepy tone and continuous image of a trowel hitting dirt makes this story as eerily tense as any psychologically-rich horror story. In a completely different style the story ‘The Man From the Circus’ uses a girl’s newfound profession as a trapeze artist as a significant metaphor for taking a necessary chance in life by plunging dangerously into the unknown world.

As you can tell from my enthusiastic attempt to untangle the meaning of these stories, despite their relative brevity they contain a wealth of ideas. Kirsty Logan is very clever in the way she uses a range of writer’s tools to create the most effect style of storytelling to fit the diverse subject matters she covers. Having been a teenage lover of absurdist drama, I'm thrilled by the way she warps reality in her prose to stimulate the imagination. She crafts disarming images that are imbued with unusual meaning. “The Rental Heart and Other Stories” is a fantastically refreshing read and leaves you thinking about things in a new way. These stories have picked up awards and been included on prize lists both individually and as a collection itself which is a testament to their good quality.

Watch a video of Kirsty Logan discussing the nature of fairytales here: http://vimeo.com/104486851

After reading a couple books on this year’s Polari First Book Prize shortlist, I decided to go back and reread the 2012 winner John McCullough’s book of poetry The Frost Fairs. It’s only fitting McCullough received recognition for this book by a LGBT prize because several of the poems describe ambiguous lines of gender and sexuality. In fact the very first poem is from the perspective of someone whose bits are “a mishmash of harbour and ship.” Later a character is vividly brought to life when described trying to apply makeup and contemplating “the logistics of masking your beard shadow in a jerking patrol car when you’ve only one eye.” More than describing the multifarious perspectives of queer and trans people McCullough’s poetry also seeks an idealised space where gender is levelled out and identity blurred. In one later poem which contemplates the sky he writes “Cloud sex – or merging and changing – complicates matters because it makes it hard to remember who they are or were.” With the act of transformation identity is destabilised and is shown to be something that is constantly being recreated.

This also demonstrates another skill of McCullough’s writing which is to reflect the personal and particular in the larger elements like a sky of clouds or a galaxy of stars. Although we often feel bound in our own circumstances and might feel our lives are stationary, McCullough’s poetry reminds us that we are inextricably bound to nature and the movement of the planet through an expansive ever-changing universe. My favourite poem in the book ‘The Light of Venus’ juxtaposes a pairing of Earth and Venus with a separated couple and the memory of when they were together. There is an incredible tenderness described with the couple’s meeting and the energy created from it is set against the proliferation of lightning storms on Venus hidden under the serene haze which covers the planet. There is a sense of threat, but also a tender union borne out of a need for survival. 

Venus_Earth_Comparison.jpg

Other poems in the book also evoke a beautiful sensual connection: “I picture your long fingers caressing the rims of improbable fountains, grasping mangoes from Assam, the sides of a bed that turns into a life-raft” His use of language creates a playful interplay between the erotic and fantastical. Again there is the sense of urgency – that romantic liaisons are both desired and necessary. The more sombre poem “Islands” sees a transformation similar to the above bed/life-raft where a bathtub turns into the sinister image of a boat filling with water. It feels as if these images aren’t only metaphorical but stand for the emotional reality of the narrator.

In a poem that draws the most direct connections between micro and macro worlds ‘On Galileo’s Birthday’ the universe is reflected in a bowl of cacti. Here there is the sense that casting our gaze outwards whether it be up to the stars or to lines of poetry we won’t discover any definitive answers. We can only marvel at the mystery and majesty of the world. This poem also seems to reveal McCullough’s primary mission in his incredibly moving and intelligent writing which is “plotting outer and earthly and inner space”

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJohn McCullough