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Earlier this year I read the moving memoir “Mind on Fire” in which the author recounts his experiences with manic-depression, suicidal thoughts and the destructive impact his mental health issues have upon his personal relationships. An experience similar to this is dramatically rendered in Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s new novel “Starling Days”. It’s the story of Mina and Oscar, a young married couple living in New York City who temporarily move to London so Oscar can help his father prepare some run-down properties for sale. But Mina struggles with feelings of sadness which threaten to overwhelm her and self-harm. Her issues with mental health are portrayed with equal weight against Oscar’s no less heartrending emotional negligence being born as an illegitimate child who seeks to forge a connection with his aging father. Amidst their struggles, Mina makes a strong romantic connection with Phoebe, a red-haired English blogger whose presence brightens the world for Mina when she begins to feel overwhelmed by a suffocating loneliness. It’s noteworthy how this novel realistically and sympathetically portrays the experiences of a bisexual character. But Buchanan portrays all her characters’ journeys and dilemmas with a great deal of sympathy that made me feel wholly connected to them.

This is only Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s second novel but I can already see she has a touching methodology in her fiction for portraying the lives of distinct individuals who are powerfully connected. Her first novel “Harmless Like You” depicts the lives of a mother and child in different periods of time. In a similar way, “Starling Days” gives equal weight to two characters’ perspectives and how their personal struggles create severe challenges in their relationship. But the author has a magnanimous way of rendering the daily reality of their situations without making any judgements. She conveys in their dynamic how there’s no perfect way to go about helping someone dealing with depression and suicidal thoughts. It’s not something that can be neatly fixed. It’s more like a balancing act between therapy, medication, attentive loved ones and an inner drive to continue. We see how Mina must consider these every day while also grappling with feeling like a burden because of her condition.

It feels as if Buchanan is slightly playing upon recent trends in literary fiction to invoke or retell Greco-Roman mythology through a modern perspective. In preparation for writing a tentative academic monograph Mina loosely researches stories of the few mythological women who survive in their tales since so many female mythological characters die through punishment, their own folly or cruel coincidence. Rather than creating her own fictional account of these women Buchanan references their stories amidst Mina’s own plight. It creates interesting points of comparison but also provides a poignant frame in which to see Mina’s journey as a literal struggle to survive amidst the beaconing hand of death. There’s also a playful sense that Mina is more able to understand the tragedy in these epic tales than the inscrutable complications found in modern life: “This world made so much more sense if it was filled with angry, hungry gods.”

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As moving as I find Buchanan’s writing, she has an occasional tendency to needlessly complicate some sentences in order to emphasize the physicality of her characters’ movements. So she’ll write “Her hands picked up her phone” when she could have instead just written “She picked up the phone.” Or “His legs carried him down the stairs and to the hall” instead of “He went downstairs.” This clunky phraseology can be distracting. But overall her writing has a pleasing fluidity to it in evoking all the undercurrents of emotion within her characters’ lives as they navigate the world and interact with one another. This is most powerfully rendered in the dialogue and communication between characters who gradually disconnect from one another until the reader can feel the sad gulf which exists between them.  

The novel poignantly considers the complications involved in relationships steered by dependencies that are emotional, financial and/or sexual. It’s not necessarily bad that such dependency exists because it necessitates a level of openness and vulnerability that’s needed in a strong relationship, but it can create a hierarchy and possessiveness which can impact upon people’s sense of self-worth. Fully accepting yourself while also truly loving someone else is difficult. “Starling Days” powerfully shows the nuance of such connections and it gives the story a rare clear-sighted honesty.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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For some reason I’ve been drawn to reading a number of memoirs recently. I’m not sure if this is just a coincidence or if it’s because I’m especially drawn to real stories of lives so different from my own. Certainly (on the surface) Zeba Talkhani’s history is very distant from my own upbringing and path in life. She grew up as a Muslim girl of Indian descent in Saudi Arabia before moving to study in India, Germany and England. Yet I came to feel such a strong sense of kinship with her over the course of reading her powerful and inspiring memoir “My Past is a Foreign Country”. I connected strongly to her sensibility in a number of ways from a small detail like her love for the wonderful film ‘Violette’ or larger issues such as how physical distance from our homelands has allowed us a broader perspective on our upbringing and cultures. But, aside from the ways I personally connected to this book, I felt an overall admiration and respect for the development of her identity as a proud feminist, Muslim and intellectual.

Talkhani describes her childhood in Jeddah and the expectations placed upon her there as a girl. From an early age she was sensitive to the fact men and women were treated differently. She naturally questioned this and other aspects of the predominantly patriarchal society but “My questioning was considered a kind of lewdness.” However, she was unwilling to fully cede to the dictation of this social order and continued to query the many written and unwritten rules governing how women were meant to conduct themselves. Of course, it’d be a simplification to present Saudi Arabia only as a place where there is an issue with sexism. Crucially, Talkhani highlights the way in which this region is in some ways more progressive in its attitudes towards women. She identifies how “The problem wasn’t so much my culture, but the universal reverence we placed on men of faith, and the reputation of men in general.” What she identifies are the power structures that are in place which reinforce the patriarchy and how this manifests in different ways throughout the world regardless of the nation or predominant religion. That’s not to excuse the cases of egregious sexism she highlights in particular places, but to point out that they spring out of common issues to do with male dominated societies.  

It’s really moving the way Talkhani charts how she grows and learns as an individual. A crucial issue she struggled with in her adolescence and adult life is with hair loss. This caused many more issues for her as a young woman than it would for men – especially because of the emphasis her family and community placed upon marriage and finding a suitable husband. Her condition challenged her sense of self-worth when being judged by those around her but it’s heartening to read how she developed an inner-resolve and certainty of self: “Investing in my sense of self and divorcing it from the perceptions of others not only kept me afloat as a teenager but it protected me from making life-altering choices from a place of insecurity. I knew my value and I wasn’t going to waste my precious time enabling fragile, toxic masculinity.” This is such an inspiring message for anyone who is vulnerable to letting such judgements defeat them.

It’s interesting how throughout her life Talkhani has been part of a minority whether it was living with her Indian heritage in Saudi Arabia, as a Muslim in India and as both these things in Europe. While this naturally led her to feeling ostracised at times it also allowed her to achieve a unique perspective on the assumptions and ideologies which guided the different societies she lived in. It’s given her an insight into the way in which societies differently discriminate against people based upon their gender, faith, race or nationality. This occurs in both subtle and overt ways whether it’s meeting potential suitors or being part of a predominantly white book group, but are all related to how different groups can have parochial views about those who are different. What’s truly admirable is the way Talkhani doesn’t allow the judgement of others affect her personally because “Nothing was personal, it was just how the patriarchy worked.” She comes to this conclusion partly by drawing upon many different writers and philosophers from Sylvia Plath to Simone de Beauvoir to better inform and frame her understanding of the world. After a long challenging journey she understands that it’s only her opinion of herself that matters. She articulates this beautifully in the later parts of the book as well as sympathetically describing issues of insecurity she still wrestles with.

One of the most striking points of connection I felt with the author was when she conveys in her recollections how she’d repeatedly hide her vulnerability. At a few different points in her life she describes suppressing tears or closing down rather than expressing sadness or anger to those around her (even if people close to her recognize she’s in pain and are trying to comfort her.) It’s a pernicious sort of defence mechanism whereby feelings are internalized and it ironically blocks us off from the support of people who love us when we need them the most. Talkhani movingly describes how she learns to open up and express herself more. This adds to how this memoir demonstrates an admirable maturity. Her vital perspective contains so much wisdom and insight for anyone who has felt marginalized or been pressured to conform to the status quo.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesZeba Talkhani
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Some books leave me with little to say except I loved the experience of reading them. Maybe I should leave it at that in regards to this particular novel. But it's funny because Anne Griffin's debut novel “When All is Said” is a story that's so dominated by story itself it doesn't invite the reader to do anything but listen in rapt delight. It's told from the perspective of 84 year-old Irish farmer and businessman Maurice who sits in a bar having several drinks to honour people who've had a significant impact upon his life. And the experience of reading this book is like that feeling of listening to an old man brimming with tales to tell: some wickedly funny, some heart-wrenchingly sad and some that come with twists so disarming they left me stunned. So by the end of the book I was left feeling like this man's life had washed over me. I was moved by all his disappointments, passions and sorrows. There's also a blissful sense of release because Maurice is someone who always had difficulty expressing his feelings throughout his life and found it challenging to communicate as he suffered from a learning disability. Like the inverse of a series of reminiscences at a funeral, his narrative at this very late stage in his life is the most beautiful tribute to the people who made him who he is and a profound kind of letting go. 

Naturally, because Maurice has lived so long, he has observed many physical and social changes to his country. Like in John Boyne's “The Heart's Invisible Furies”, part of what's so mesmerising about this man's story is to realize how much things can change in the course of a lifetime. It's shocking now to read how several decades ago a very young man like Maurice who comes from a desperately poor family could go to work on an estate and receive such horrific verbal and physical abuse from the lords of the manor. And this shows so poignantly how feelings of hurt and a desire for revenge can come to dominate a man's life. Maurice also describes why he's had such trouble emotionally opening up and being forthright about what he wants in life: “People didn’t really do that back then, encourage and support. You were threatened into being who you were supposed to be.” For a new generation that's raised with gentle words of encouragement and a sense that you should become the person you're supposed to be, it's quite sobering to realise how difficult it'd be to grow up under such strict tutelage.

Part of the immense pleasure I found in this novel is in it's all-encompassing Irish-ness. And no man is more Irish than Maurice: a straight talking self-made man of the Earth, loyal to his wife, likes a good drink and tells a spellbinding tale. His sensibility mixes humour with sorrow, humility with the grandiloquent and irony with the utmost sincerity. These dualities make his tales so bewitching and pleasurable to read. Perhaps he sums up his own feelings for the people closest to him best when describing the relationship that existed between his wife and her mother: “There was a love but of the Irish kind, reserved and embarrassed by its own humanity.” But here in this novel he finally divulges his experiences and unvoiced feelings to commemorate all the details of his fascinating life.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAnne Griffin
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Sometimes I feel like fiction that falls somewhere between short stories and a novel is my favourite kind of writing. This sort of book probably occurs for practical reasons when the author initially started writing short stories and then groups them together with some connecting characters (since novels traditionally sell better than collections of short stories.) But I think this form allows an opportunity for the author to explore many different perspectives or themes using different narrative styles and points of view. The effect can be really powerful in how it shows a multifaceted view of a story.  Some examples of books like this are “Send Me” by Patrick Ryan, “Anything is Possible” by Elizabeth Strout, “All That Man Is” by David Szalay, “Vertigo” by Joanna Walsh, “Sour Heart” by Jenny Zhang and “The Shore” by Sara Taylor. Adding to this style of storytelling is the debut book by JM Holmes “How Are You Going to Save Yourself?” which follows the stories of four black men living in Rhode Island as they progress through the tricky stages of young adulthood.

Holmes often uses dialogue with great precision to evoke character and create dramatic tension in different stages of these men’s lives. The book begins with a conversation between friends Gio, Dub, Rye and Rolls as they share stories about sex and relationships with white girls. Discussions about sex as power play, economic disparity and institutionalised racism feature throughout the book making for some edgy exchanges that reveal a deeper kind of truth. Holmes is unflinchingly honest in presenting the boys’ vulnerability such as a scene where a black man feels self-conscious about being naked in front of a white woman “I told myself I wasn’t on an auction block in front of her.” But some of the most unsettling stories focus more on the perspective of female teenagers or young women that these boys are dating. He sharply portrays egregious instances of misogyny and violence towards women such as when a girl is coerced into having sex with multiple boys: “He stared Tayla straight in the eye and she felt her body tense. They were all focused on her, but not really her, some imagined girl. Their eyes were buried in her body.” These descriptions of sex strikingly show the interplay between the gaze and the imagination, as well as how prejudice and fear can be deeply internalised. The stories expose how girls and women are unfortunately often the recipients of abuse because of these issues and the power dynamics involved. They also describe how when people are totally stripped down (both physically and mentally) unconscious concerns about skin colour suddenly fill the minds of the parties involved.

Gio’s father Lonnie is a former footballer whose star has faded. References to his complicated life are threaded throughout several of the stories so that he is like a mythological figure in the boys’ minds, but I found it especially powerful when it’s described how the sport had a long-lasting physical impact upon him: “His body was riddled with scars thick as butter knives.” Equally, changes to the boys’ bodies as they work in various different jobs are presented in a striking way such as when Rye becomes a fireman. Others pursue more cerebral jobs such as teaching or abstract art. Their choices take them upon divergent paths and it’s poignant how they grow apart in different ways while still maintaining a common bond. In this way the book functions as a coming of age tale, but it’s so creatively presented as these boys variously make different compromises and struggle to figure out where they fit in society.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJM Holmes
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Immigration is such a heated political topic in Britain - especially since the Brexit vote last year - that it's interesting to consider how other countries have experienced waves of anti-immigration sentiments in recent times. Kopano Matlwa's “Evening Primrose” is set in a post-apartheid South Africa where a growing wave of xenophobia causes an especially brutal period of cruelty and violence against foreigners. Not only are Zimbabweans, Nigerians, Somalis and Chinese immigrants targeted, but those who support them are derided, threatened and attacked. The novel is written as a series of journal entries by a good-hearted, but conflicted young woman named Masechaba. When the novel opens she's just graduated from medical school and she's quickly introduced to how harsh it is working within South Africa's healthcare system. Her feelings of frustration are exasperated by suffering from depression and the grief of recently losing a close family member under tragic circumstances. Becoming an anti-xenophobia campaigner empowers and fills her with hope, but it also leads to unforeseen events that produce crushing heartache. Her story is a moving account of faith, friendship, a deeply conflicted society and finding the right path in life.

It's not till the end of the novel that you discover the reason why it's called “Evening Primrose.” I rather like it when novels (like Marlon James' “A Brief History of Seven Killings”) do this as it feels like a special secret which only a dedicated reader is allowed to know. But it's interesting that this novel was published in South Africa with the title “Period Pain.” When Masechaba recounts her painful years of puberty and the extreme difficulties having her period caused her it becomes clear why this alternative title is entirely valid. Reading about these experiences made me cross my legs and understand how privileged I am as a man not to have endured this challenging stage of development. Masechaba didn't choose to study medicine for idealistic reasons but to seek help to deal with her unusually heavy amount of menstrual bleeding. Although she goes into the profession thinking they'd only help people she's quickly disillusioned because of how many people doctors aren't able to save. It leads her to feel that doctors are “Murderers, all of us. Murderers.”

Masechaba's conflicts feel all the more intense due to the directness of the narrative. Journal entries naturally contain a lot of raw emotion which is usually edited out in other forms of communication. It also adds an element of much-needed light relief to the many dark aspects of this book because she can sometimes be gossipy and humorous in her accounts. Writing the novel in journal entries also has its drawbacks where some sections rush through and skip over events. Other forms of narrative would go into more detail which would help emotionally prepare the reader for certain startling revelations. But the novel-as-journal also introduces a level of complexity to Masechaba's psychology as the person she's directing these entries to changes over the course of the book. Each section is proceeded by a quote from the bible and much of the novel shows her own reckoning with and questioning of God. Other entries are directed towards her artist brother Tshiamo. But the reader is always aware that this is a really deep meditative conversation that she's having with herself. Her quest to establish a stable and solid sense of identity is intensely felt, especially when she's utterly lost: “I don't know who I am anymore. I don't know what defines me. I feel like a failure.” The great beauty and pleasure of this novel is that she ultimately finds strength of character from an entirely unexpected source.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesKopano Matlwa
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Jaroslav Kalfar’s debut novel “Spaceman of Bohemia” has been compared to the extremely popular novel “The Martian” but Kalfar’s novel is far superior. I understand the comparison: both novels are about lone men in space whose solitary “Robinson Crusoe” style adventures find them stranded on their journeys of exploration. While it's enjoyable for some of the plot and scientific detail I thought “The Martian” mostly came across as repetitive and it's suffused with a particularly foul stench of macho bravado. By contrast, “Spaceman of Bohemia” is thoughtful, continuously compelling and says something intelligent about the progress of civilization.

The hero is Jakub Procházka, an astrophysicist with a speciality in cosmic dust which makes him the perfect candidate for the Czech Republic’s first mission into outer space. A comet from another galaxy has streamed through our own solar system leaving a curious cloud between Venus and Earth which has stained our night time sky purple. An opportunistic Czech minister sees a chance for his nation to enter the space race and collect samples of this strange material by sending Jakub on his solitary mission on a second-hand space shuttle. The results are bizarrely thrilling, unexpected and turn into a personal journey which prompts Jakub to survey his position in his own nation’s tumultuous history.

Jakub's journey turns him into a national hero which is particularly significant because of his family's tumultuous history. His father was a Soviet Union stooge when the country was under Communist rule. He engaged in such nefarious activities such as ratting out on neighbours and torturing anti-government prisoners. When the communist regime collapsed in 1989 Jakub's father lost his status and power. Even peripheral members of the family such as Jakub and his grandparents were vilified and discriminated against because of his father's actions. In a particularly harrowing scene they are forced to leave their house: “We leave books that have escaped Austro-Hungarian burnings, German burnings, Stalinist burnings, books that have kept the language alive while regimes attempted to starve it out. We can bring only so much.” This gives a powerful sense of the struggles of common people who've lived in this country which has been bandied back and forth in the fight for political power. The sad result is a gradual deterioration of culture and traditions.

Jakub and Lenka have intimate scenes at the Prague Astronomical Clock - the oldest working astronomical clock in the world.

Jakub and Lenka have intimate scenes at the Prague Astronomical Clock - the oldest working astronomical clock in the world.

The hope is that Jakub's mission will radically transform the Czech Republic into a leading nations of the world – a dream that quickly sours. Over the course of his dramatic expedition it becomes clear that this journey is much more soul-searching than Jakub first thought. The novel meaningfully considers personal ambition versus personal wellbeing and the private life versus the public life. It's observed how “In one book, your father is a hero. In another book, he is a monster. The men who don’t have books written about them have it easier.” Rather than remaining anonymous, Jakub embarks on making himself into the pride of the nation to eclipse his father's shame, but he loses his beloved wife Lenka in the process. Amidst the dramatic action of his space journey he considers his life with her and what he's lost by letting the weight of his family and his nation's history overwhelm him.

Kalfar is particularly good at enhancing his story with a lot of grit and humour while steering the plot into unexpected avenues. Things get bizarre; there is a lighthearted tension between Jakub's physical and psychological reality. But the story meaningfully shows his gradual growth as an individual emotionally reckoning with the past. Along his journey the book captures all the majesty and wonder of the solar system in a way which manages to be both probingly philosophical and highly playful. It considers the elements of chance, time and how “The slightest gesture makes up our history.” “Spaceman of Bohemia” is a vibrantly pleasurable read that provokes lingering questions about identity and destiny – as well as giving you a craving for jar of Nutella.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJaroslav Kalfar
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One of the reasons why this book blog is called LonesomeReader is I want it to be an ongoing exploration of what loneliness means. People who can be termed as introverted or shy have a tendency to feel greater degrees of loneliness as they aren’t able to easily connect to others or socialize as naturally as more extroverted groups. Many who feel this way think of themselves as indistinct and unnoticed, standing on the sidelines or a wallflower. “Harmless Like You” begins with Yuki, an adolescent girl living in New York City in the late 1960s. She’s someone who often holds her feelings inside, but they seep out in creative ways through different artistic mediums with how she experiences colour and sees the world in a distinct way. The novel flips between the decades of Yuki’s development as a person and artist and a time in 2016 when a young man named Jay travels to Germany to inform his estranged mother Yuki about his father’s death and the house that was left to her. Their stories combine to form a powerfully emotional tale about family connections, self esteem and personal expression.

As a girl, Yuki thinks of herself as so invisible that not even the perverted man who flashes women on the street notices her. Because she sees herself as so separate from others she feels she has no impact on them. But a quiet presence can have just as powerful or a greater effect than someone who makes themselves loudly known. Since she’s not able to express her feelings to people her silence sometimes acts as a destructive force towards others and herself. It leads to the dissolution of her relationships with her parents who move to Japan, her only childhood friend Odile who pursues a modelling career and a man who later tries to earnestly love her. There’s a moving scene after her first sexual experience when she recalls her father hitting her knuckles when she was forced to memorize poetry, but she’s not able to speak about this with her partner. Opportunities for nurturing emotional connections are lost because Yuki is unable to express how she feels.

Her silence also leads her to not tell anyone about the abuse she receives within a difficult destructive relationship. There are strong descriptions of how “she’d been knocked out of herself. A screaming ghost girl, with teeth of orange glass, hovered above the body.” Yuki develops a fractured sense of self which makes her emotionally withdraw even more from other people. Yet she pursues further techniques for trying to artistically render her complex feelings in painting and photographs. Looking at a photograph of civilian girl victims in Vietnam, Yuki’s partner remarks how they are harmless like her. This makes a deep impact on Yuki in how she is seen externally by some white Americans to be a completely benign presence. The novel shows a complex understanding of how passive people subtly enact their own influence.

Jay has a cat named Celeste. "The one thing a hairless cat shouldn't do is hairball."

Jay has a cat named Celeste. "The one thing a hairless cat shouldn't do is hairball."

Yuki’s son Jay is a new father who has inherited some of his mother’s traits. Emotional connections are difficult for him as well – especially with his newborn son of whom he remarks “I’d never dreamed of leaving my wife until this creature came into our lives.” He only achieves a sense of emotional stability in his connection with his elderly cat Celeste. Having never known his mother, he’s kept inside many feelings about her and their broken family until he travels to Germany to finally meet with her. This encounter allows for the possibility of more open emotional connections in both of their lives.

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s debut novel contains a lot of moving descriptions of how colour relates to emotion. At times Yuki experiences a synaesthesia so when she’s taken to a movie cinema the buttered popcorn connects with her partner: “The sweet yellow smell was Lou.” Many chapter headings begin with a description of a particular colour and its complex meaning. In a similar fashion the way Yuki experiences colour tempers how she relates to and feels the world around her. This creates a sophisticated portrait of an artistic sensibility and the story cleverly shows the influence introverted personalities have upon the world. “Harmless Like You” is an extremely moving and imaginative novel.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson

When contemplating our ancestral and national history we naturally look for people we can personally connect to. It can be difficult to divine the inner lives and feelings of people from a hundred years ago before social media, blogs and selfies made all that was personal very public. Of course, there are other kinds of records in the forms of letters, news articles, a scattering of photos, early films and artwork. However, it’s more likely that century old documents only offer a glimpse into the complex personalities of people from long ago or that certain outsiders left no record at all. Some special entry point of feeling is needed to connect to history so that you may fully understand and inhabit it. You want a body that you could have been born into. In fiction you can either assume the personality of a historical figure by clinging onto a glimmer of their state of mind or wholly create someone you could imagine being.

Author Sjón has found an extraordinarily creative way of entering into a crucial period of Iceland’s history in his novel “Moonstone” by inventing a boy. The majority of the novel takes place in the later part of 1918. At this time the country gained its independence as a sovereign state while also experiencing devastating losses in its population because of the spread of the Spanish flu. The boy Máni Steinn sells his body to older men and lives with an old lady. He goes to the cinema as much as possible. Here he becomes entranced by a French silent serial film Les Vampires. An outsider's perspective and the surreal crimes of this thriller combine in the boy’s imagination. A woman he idolizes merges with the French actress Musidora. The fluttering of a red scarf mirrors the image of the volcano Katla’s eruption. Through this point of view we feel a fresh version of the country’s transformation. We see it through queer eyes. Within the historic changes of a nation are inserted the creative possibilities of lives and ideas which surviving documents haven’t recorded.

Part 2 of Louis Feuillade's 10-part crime serial involving a secret underground gang known as The Vampires, of which one member is Irma Vep, portrayed by Musidora.

There are haunting scenes where Máni walks through Reykjavik while the influenza is spreading sickness and panic. He remarks how this has caused personal stories of tragedy to turn inward and become hidden: “these days the real stories are being acted out behind closed doors.” This is in sharp contrast to the very public celebrations and ceremonies of Iceland gaining independence from Denmark. Amidst the pomp of a nation being born a welcome level of perversity is introduced where Máni makes eyes with a sexy Danish soldier and the pair slip away to a secluded spot to get off with each other. When they are discovered it’s a scandal the nation wants to suppress. This isn’t the image they want to have. It’s not the history they want to record. Máni finds that he can only continue to grow and develop elsewhere, but a crucial energy and flutter of his heart is left behind.

“Moonstone” is wholly inventive, wildly beautiful and infectiously invigorating. The novel I can most closely compare it to would be Neil Bartlett's "The Disappearance Boy" in how the story radically re-views a nation's historical moments through a queer boy's perspective. It’s filled with startling imagery and fascinating ideas. This is a short, impactful novel like a dream you have around sunrise. It’s a tightly compressed tale whose meaning extends out far beyond its few pages.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSjon
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I was hesitant about reading “Slade House” when it came out a few months ago because I didn't finish his previous novel “The Bone Clocks.” Mitchell's recurring technique is to write really involving smaller realistic stories within larger, ambitious and fantastical narratives that say something meaningful about time and humanity. This was most successfully realized in his tremendous novel “Cloud Atlas.” The problem is that I come to feel really involved with some of the smaller enclosed stories and grow impatient with the larger all-encompassing story. This is the reason I put aside “The Bone Clocks” because I didn't care enough about the supernatural elements that tied disparate stories set in different time periods together. He uses the same structure in “Slade House” building quieter short tales of an insecure boy, a philandering detective inspector, a teenage girl self conscious about her weight, a lesbian journalist and a black Canadian psychiatrist into a chilling narrative of a pair of twins' paranormal existence. One by one these people are lured to a grand old house and then they are never seen again. The difference is that the length of “Slade House” better suits this technique. “Slade House” is only 240 pages compared to “The Bone Clocks” which totals 640 pages. This makes “Slade House” a much more fast-paced and thrilling read.

David Mitchell is such a skilled writer in the way he quickly and convincingly creates narrators that are immediately identifiable. Switching between all the different personalities I listed above over a 36 year time period could feel jarring to a reader, but Mitchell uses choice details and compelling voices which grab your attention. Even with an unlikeable character like Inspector Gordon Edmonds who makes sexist and racist remarks, he's a dynamic and vivid personality who is engaging to read about. Mitchell confidently brings in points of reference from the high-brow like famed musician Yehudi Menuhin to the ever-loveable Miss Piggy. At times Michell scrambles too much to invoke an atmosphere for the time period by flipping through news events or popular culture from the time period so it can begin to read like a wikipedia page for the year in question. But, on the whole, their stories feel layered and deeply thought out.

In the section 'Oink, Oink' teenage Sally Timms wears a Miss Piggy mask at a party in Slade House 

In the section 'Oink, Oink' teenage Sally Timms wears a Miss Piggy mask at a party in Slade House 

Mitchell gives a great sense for the depth of personality and the way people present version of themselves: “People are masks, with masks under those masks, and masks under those, and down you go.” It's interesting to see how over the course of the novel the sinister twins Norah and Jonah's characters gradually develop. The various people these mystic beings inhabit break apart to reveal their foibles and tensions between the pair. So, by the end, I felt as involved with their stories as I did with the tales of the individuals they lure into the supernatural house.

“Slade House” is essentially a group of short stories held in the framework of a fantasy novel. I admire Mitchell's ambition and the scope of his imagination to meaningfully tease larger questions out of tales that straddle great swaths of time. But such scale isn't always needed. In Mitchell's novel “Black Swan Green” he confines his narrative to a year in the life of a thirteen year old boy to great effect. “Slade House” is a thoroughly entertaining read and a refreshing new spin on a haunted house story, but I hope Mitchell doesn't always feel the need to contain micro stories within grandiose macro narratives. Sometimes a whole world of meaning can be felt the smallest of spaces.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesDavid Mitchell
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