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From the description of this novel I thought it would be a standard mid-late life crisis story about a man contemplating what his ambition and success really amount to. But it turned out to be something much more subtle and nuanced than that with a clever twist at the end. Park Minwoo was raised in a working class neighbourhood surrounded by poverty and gang violence, but became a successful architect heading his own firm. Parallel to his story is that of Jung Woohee who is a 29 year old playwright and director struggling to earn a living by working the night shift at a convenience store while trying to realise her artistic ambitions. What’s so moving about these two story threads is the way they intertwine to say something much larger about how our values and desires can become so twisted over the course of time. While working to create a good life for ourselves and those closest to us we become enmeshed in society’s progress which has a way of paving over history and people who fall by the wayside. This novel says something powerful about how our collective and personal values change over time. 

Something I appreciated most about this novel was the detailed account of Woohee’s difficulty in making a living. She’s forced to work outside regular working hours for below minimum wage and live in substandard accommodation because if she makes any legal complaint she’ll lose her job and shelter. Instances of injustice like this occur all the time, but largely go unacknowledged and I appreciate fiction that deals seriously with this plight. Also, though Minwoo is now in a privileged position he’s portrayed in a complex and sympathetic way where his life is overcast with loneliness. An old friend is reintroduced into his life when he receives a request to call Soona who was the most desired girl in the small village of Moon Hollow where Minwoo grew up. He hasn’t had any contact with her for years. Now letters from her awaken memories of his childhood and make him consider how his achievements turned out very differently from what he expected. My initial confusion about why two different characters had the same name was eventually quelled when the intricate plot finally unfolded in a disarming and thought-provoking way. This is a book whose greater meaning will linger with me.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesHwang Sok-yong
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We’ve all had those nights when we wake up in some dark hour and can’t get back to sleep no matter what method we use to try to trick ourselves back into unconsciousness. I’ve found watching a good nature or outer space programme can often lull me, but sometimes nothing works. Although I occasionally go through periods when sleeplessness plagues me night after night leaving me exhausted and bleary-eyed throughout the workday, I’ve never considered it to be a serious or chronic problem. But other people experience more severe cases that are seriously debilitating – such as my partner who has tried many different treatments.

Most books about insomnia offer advice or methods for overcoming it, but what I appreciate so much about Marina Benjamin’s short, impactful and beautifully-written book “Insomnia” is that she approaches the condition from a more philosophical point of view. It’s a deeply personal account because she’s someone who has suffered from insomnia for years and tried just about every scheme out there to sleep better. But rather than write a guidebook she offers a different kind of solace in how we’re all unified by sleep or the lack of it. She draws upon references from mythology, psychology, art and literature to illuminate how we often have an uneasy relationship with our night time selves.

I enjoyed how the author gives such a radically different look at the condition and the meaning of sleep itself. She challenges the conception of sleep as a peaceful state noting how the body can often be restless during the night and a realistic version of Sleeping Beauty probably wouldn’t keep her name if she were pictured snoring and sweating. She’s also mistrustful of viewing mindfulness as a form of tranquillity when she sees it as a tragic kind of stasis: “It leaves the world unchanged.” These observations are really helpful at encouraging us to rethink how we consider and relate to sleeping.

‘Empire of Light’ by Rene Magritte

‘Empire of Light’ by Rene Magritte

She also raises many good points about the portrayal of women in relation to sleep in fairy tales and mythology. She draws upon a dizzying range of fascinating references, but they remain in context and illuminate different ways of considering sleep. I was most drawn to her reflections about the odd loneliness which accompanies insomnia but she observes how “Imprisoned within these solitary cells of wakefulness, insomniacs make for a strange kind of collective… No doubt we could easily spew a textbookful of shared anxieties. Yet we cannot commune with one another.” It feels like this relates to ideas (central to this blog) about how reading is such an essential lonely activity, yet it also unites us in a cultural conversation. Any solitary space where we can consider ideas with such concentrated intensity seems to come attached to a feeling of melancholy because those ideas won’t ever flourish as fully in the blunt arena of normality.

Marina Benjamin playfully refers to her partner as Zzz (because he often is asleep while she’s still awake.) It creates a unique sort of estrangement being perpetually awake while your partner is asleep and this adds another dimension to the loneliness of insomnia. She observes how “Zzz is next to me, but miles away. In those lonesome hours when I fear I might drown in a well of unspecified longing, I sense a danger that my most intimate space might also become my most alienated. Estranged from the night, I am locked out of my own rest. If I reached out to Zzz would I even find him?” It feels only natural that the overactive sleepless mind becomes consumed with paranoias, fears and poetic turns of thought. Being exposed to too much night we think of the daytime and night time self as being two distinct states of being, but this impactful book does a lot to creatively bridge the space between them.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMarina Benjamin
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Part of me was so drawn to reading “Felix Culpa” simply for the sheer audacity of its creation and out of a curiosity to see how it would work. This is a novel that’s composed almost entirely from the lines of other works of fiction by (approximately) eighty authors as varied as Italo Calvino, Willa Cather, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jack Kerouac, Cormac McCarthy and Mary Shelley. In poetry this is known as a cento where different verses or passages from multiple authors are composed into a new order. Jeremy Gavron forms in this fictional collage experiment a story about a young man named Felix who mysteriously died after he was arrested in a botched robbery. The narrator is a writer/teacher at the prison where Felix was incarcerated and he embarks on a mission to discover more about Felix’s life and what happened to him. Amidst his travels to interview people Felix encountered he slides into his own epistemological crisis and radically alters his life. It’s a moving tale in itself, but through the very nature of its innovative construction it also poses fascinating questions about the meaning of narrative and the way in which readers connect with fiction.

I think one of the greatest works of art produced thus far in the 21st century is Christian Marclay’s video art installation ‘The Clock’. This is a looped 24-hour video montage that takes scenes from hundreds of films and television shows featuring clocks that are synchronized to show in real time. In doing so, these pieces of disparate video footage link up in a mesmerising way and meaningfully comment upon the way we are all caught in the flow of time. It’s interesting how when we’re confronted with a series of fictional works that are artfully mixed together we begin to imaginatively form narratives in our heads. As I was reading “Felix Culpa” I became aware that I was filling out scenes or adding details to characters based only on a few suggestive phrases that Gavron has paired. Of course, this is what we do all the time when reading fiction. But, somehow, because I was aware that this narrative was a construct of preformed sentences, I had a greater self-consciousness about the active role I play as a co-creator of the fiction that I’m reading.

Some sources used for the text of Felix Culpa

Some sources used for the text of Felix Culpa

In the course of reading this novel I also became more aware of the playful ambiguity of language and the plasticity of sentence construction. Lines or phrases that mean something in one context can come to mean something entirely different in another. Again, this is something fiction does all the time and part of its great beauty is how it can mean many things all at once. In this novel lines are spaced out with gaps in between them to demarcate how they’ve been taken from different sources. This also has the effect of highlighting passages and the reader must take an infinitesimally small pause in going from one line to another. This is something that’s often done in poetry, but in this book lines consciously flow together to form a cohesive narrative. So a line like “Time comes to leave” stands on its own. This has a meaning within the story where it’s time for a character to depart to go somewhere else. However, staring at this line on its own it also takes on connotations of how time is fleeting, that a moment only arrives to depart. But, in reading these lines on their own, I also often felt curious about how this line might have been used in its original story.

What’s impressive about “Felix Culpa” is that this elaborate self-conscious assembly of hypertext doesn’t detract from the pleasure of the story Gavron forms himself. I felt totally emotionally drawn into this tale and sympathised with Felix’s struggles in life as the narrator uncovers piece after piece about the journey that led to Felix’s untimely death. This character is formed more through an outline than through direct descriptions of Felix himself, yet the reader is still keyed into the ambiguities of Felix’s heart and mind. I grew to feel a sense of loneliness in Felix where his circumstances led him to make poor choices and end up in isolation. I haven’t felt this way about a character since reading about the nearly silent figure of Stevie at the centre of Rachel Seiffert’s brilliant novel “The Walk Home”. Felix’s struggle is something that the narrator of the novel also connects with and his obsession with Felix’s plight says something significant about the unspoken crisis in the narrator’s own life. This novel is a richly rewarding work of art.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJeremy Gavron
4 CommentsPost a comment
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This novel was published at the perfect time for me. I'd read Arundhati Roy's sprawling new novel “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” over the summer. While I admired so much about her impassioned writing, I was disappointed that she didn't concentrate more on the full story of Anjum, an intersex character or hijra whose story begins the novel. Then, more recently, I read Shobha Roa's book of short stories “An Unrestored Woman” for the Anna & Eric Book Club and one of the stories which struck me most was 'Blindfold' about the madam of a brothel who purchases young girls to turn them into prostitutes. Both these stories left me eager to better understand characters like these and learn more about these aspects of Indian society.

Coincidentally, Anosh Irani's “The Parcel” is essentially a blend of these two tales as it follows a character named Madhu, a 40 year old hijra whose years of prostitution in the notorious Kamathipura red light district are behind her. While she lives in a household with other intersex individuals, she's been reduced to begging on the side of the road to earn money. Madhu also works for Padma, a fiercely independent madam of a local brothel. Madhul helps new girls (who are frequently purchased from their families in Nepal) to adjust to a life in prostitution and accept their new situation. The novel follows the way she indoctrinates of one such ten year old girl and the dramatic changes that occur within the house of hijras where she resides. It’s an arresting and incredibly thought provoking story that totally gripped me.

The author presents such a difficult dilemma for the reader from the very beginning novel. Madhu is someone who has been rejected by her family and encountered brutal challenges throughout her life just to live as a woman. This makes her very sympathetic. Yet, she embarks on a job to indoctrinate a new girl to Padma’s brothel by psychologically, physically and sexually breaking her in. These torturous actions amount to the most heinous kind of mental manipulation; at one point she says to the new girl Kinjal (referred to as a parcel and kept in a cage): “Each time you think of your mother, I want you to hold these bars and ask yourself one question: What feels more real, your mother or these bars?” Her process for breaking this girl’s spirit is intended to make Kinjal’s miserable fate more bearable than if she were thrust into a bedroom and subjected to multiple clients. That’s how Madhu reasons it is an act of charity to train them. It’s also meant to ensure the girls don’t fight back and consequently they will be more valuable for the brothel’s business.

Of course, this process of training Kinjal is incredibly harrowing to read about and Madhu’s actions are sickeningly sinister. But gradually her logic is revealed. This is someone who has fought with her body for her whole life: “The body was the enemy. The more you loved it, the more you thought of it as a part of you, the more it blackmailed you.” She’s had to learn to mentally separate herself from her physical being. Madhu has also been socially and economically dependent on the charity of other people as she’s held within such contempt by the majority of society. It’s fascinating how the author goes into the history and cultural attitudes towards hijras who are religiously held in high esteem for possessing special powers, but simultaneously they are social outcasts and frequently reviled. Madhu’s goal is to drill Kinjal in abandoning all hope because Madhu has learned that hope is more of a hindrance for people in their dire condition. That certainly doesn’t make her logic right or her actions permissible, but it does make them understandable. It made me so eager to follow Madhu’s journey to see whether or not her beliefs would change, learn more about her past and discover what would happen to Kinjal.

Photo by Shahria Sharmin

Photo by Shahria Sharmin

Irani also has a fascinating way of portraying the city of Bombay (later Mumbai) in a state of economic, social and religious flux. Property moguls are snatching up the dilapidated buildings in their area for developments: “Bombay hadn't yet become its savage sister. It was bubbling and brewing toward its new avatar, but hadn't fully imploded.” These purchases often mean the owners can move away with a bundle of money, but the poor (particularly hijras and prostitutes) are left with nowhere to go after being ejected from their long term residences. This has a personal effect upon Madhu and her gurumai, the elderly hijra who became a mother figure/mentor for Madhu and recognized what Madhu was before she knew it herself. These larger changes within the city have an impact on their lives and it gives the story a thrillingly tense momentum as the date for Kinjal’s initiation with her first client draws near

 “The Parcel” is such a fantastically moving novel. Madhu’s story raises so many meaningful questions about identity, social responsibility and the plight of those who are rendered voiceless. As different as I am from Madhu and despite some of her contemptible actions, I found myself falling in love with her character. It’s so easy to take for granted being born into a gender that feels like it naturally suits you. Irani powerfully describes Madhu’s path towards becoming a woman and the painful consequences of standing up for who she is. I love literature like this and Sara Taylor’s novel “The Lauras” that provoke us to question our assumptions and understanding of gender lines. Irani pulled me into Madhu’s experience and really made me feel the full complexity of her life. This is undoubtedly one of the most heartbreaking and fascinating novels I’ve read all year. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAnosh Irani
3 CommentsPost a comment

This isn’t your typical historical novel, but its protagonist Margaret Cavendish wasn’t your typical 17th century English aristocrat either. Attendant to Queen Henrietta Maria and married to William Cavendish, First Duke of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, she could have spent her days reclining on a chaise lounge. Instead she engaged with the scientific, literary and philosophical ideas of her day by writing her own essays, plays and unconventional romances. Danielle Dutton has written an inventive fictional portrait of her life by delicately inhabiting this girl who grows up relatively care-free sketching stories and sharing a close relationship to her siblings. But she’s rudely awakened to the hard realities of the world when she experiences the death of family/friends, political conflict and torturous medical treatments that were meant to help her conceive after marrying. Gradually she’s inspired to make her thoughts and feelings known by publishing books which invigorate and challenge society. Showing a radical determination she declares: “I had rather be a meteor, singly, alone.” In pursuing her writing and ambition to be famous, this woman with a penchant for couture fashion achieved a level of notoriety and lasting influence on disparate groups of people over time – everyone from Virginia Woolf to Siri Hustvedt to animal rights activists.

Dutton tells Margaret’s story using a spare, impressionist style of narrative which recounts parties she attends and large societal shifts around her. While this feels at times confusing as it jolts through the ballrooms of history, it builds a meaningful feeling for Margaret’s developing sensibility and unique view of the world. She feels curiously estranged from her circumstances and seems to half live in a counter-world of her own creation (The Blazing World). Through depictions of her meditative writing process and desire for fame, Dutton shows how she strives to connect with the actual world around her. That she practically demands that everyone pay attention comes across as both brave and arrogant. However, the author clues the reader into the quiet centre of Margaret’s life through her distinct style of writing. So, even as the story rapidly progressed through the years, I felt wholly sympathetic for her struggle to be both seen and heard. This culminates in an emotional scene where Margaret became the first woman to attend a meeting at the Royal Society of London.

Margaret Cavendish who was branded by the public "Mad Madge"

Margaret Cavendish who was branded by the public "Mad Madge"

It’s fascinating how Margaret’s relationship with William Cavendish is depicted. He’s a man who was thirty years her senior and she inhabited an unsteady social/familial position being his second wife. Although he’s renowned as a man of high social standing and wealth, she discovers he secretly struggles with enormous money problems. This obviously creates challenges for them, but he’s amenable to her desires and fancies. William supports her writing but he’s nonetheless susceptible to the misogynistic prejudices of the time. It makes it difficult for Margaret to reconcile her feelings about him so that sometimes “He appeared to her a stranger wearing her husband’s skin.” It could have been easy to depict William as a certain type of villainous character, but I admire how Dutton treats him with the same level of empathy as she does her charismatic heroine.

It’s interesting to think about this book in comparison to Alexander Chee’s recent novel “Queen of the Night” which also depicts a flamboyant society woman from history (the Comtesse de Castiglione). Both meditate on the degree to which cutting-edge fashion and an obsession with self-image present different aspects of these women’s unique personalities. However, where Chee is dramatically expansive and lingers on sumptuous detail, Dutton is intensely concentrated. Overall, “Margaret the First” is a lively creation which crystallizes the lavish interior reality of a historical woman and the challenges she faced to make her ideas known amidst stultifying social conventions. It spoke to me strongly about the tension between our inner and outer world, the challenge of bridging the gap between the two and the slow burning effects of ambition. At one point she ardently contemplates “I have made a world, she thinks, for which nobody should blame me.” This feels to me like an incredibly liberating statement because it radically declares the validity of our individual perspectives and private being apart from other people’s expectations and judgement. “Margaret the First” is an inspiring, joyous novel that pays tribute to the complexities of our interior lives.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesDanielle Dutton

There’s a special pleasure in finding something another reader has left in a used book. While reading you might come across a train ticket, a receipt or a passage in the text that’s been emphatically underlined. Suddenly you find yourself connected to an unknown reader from some period in the past. If you have a curious and imaginative mind you might wonder if the previous owner read this book while on a busy journey or alone in a study. Did she/he finish it? What did she/he think about it? It’s a unique feeling of connectedness that’s entirely different from the enjoyment of cracking open a pristine new book. “The Sacred Combe” is a family saga told not by immersing the reader in specific stories about different generations, but providing flashes from their lives which have been left in their enormous library. The narrator and the reader of this novel must piece together their story from what scraps of personal information different family members have left within the books that they read.

The central story of Thomas Maloney’s compelling debut novel features an undeniably alluring job for any serious book lover. Banker Samuel Browne turns to reading for comfort and to take his mind off from the collapse of his personal life when his wife suddenly leaves him. He tackles Edward Gibbon’s multi-volume enormous text “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” and finds within it a cryptic advertisement to volunteer in someone’s private library. When his brief phone application for the job is accepted he leaves his London life for a rural northern location. Here he meets an elderly man named Arnold Comberbache who presides over Combe Hall, a 230 year old collection of books which is “one of the finest private libraries in the country.” A vital personal letter has been hidden somewhere in this library by Arnold’s ancestor Hartley. Thomas is charged with searching through each book one by one. Along the way, he unravels the fascinating history of the Comberbache family by discovering notes written in the books’ margins, letters tucked between the pages or intriguing references to significant events. He also has the pleasure of nosing through a plethora of rare and unusual books!

During his patient search, Samuel meets the remaining people who are associated with the historic hall such as the punctilious housekeeper Miss Synder or the mysterious young scarred artist Rose who help fill in missing details not found in the texts. He also explores the large estate which includes many hidden curiosities such as a special temple in the forest built to appreciate light and the movement of celestial bodies. Samuel’s complete immersion in the story of this family which is entangled with a mystery about one of the great poet’s of the age provides a way for him to escape the desolation of his marriage and start anew. It’s an escape into a meditative space. It is observed how “When the cordons of habit are withdrawn, the unruly forces of the mind strike out in new directions. Our own thoughts can seem almost as unfamiliar to us as our new surroundings: reason itself begins to turn in our grasp.” In the alien environment of Comberbache family’s historic abode, Samuel gains a valuable perspective about what he wants in life and finds himself unexpectedly entangled in the family’s complex narrative.

Maloney does well to avoid any clichéd resolutions to the novel. Instead he creates an intriguing conclusion which can be interpreted in different ways. This book isn’t about neat resolutions, but a process of discovery. There are moments when the story about the family becomes somewhat convoluted – especially because many of the Comberbaches have the same first names (something Arnold himself admits is confusing for archivists). But patient readers will be rewarded with a complex puzzle to uncover scandalous events involving opium, infidelity and plagiarism. “The Sacred Combe” is a cleverly-structured moving meditation for anyone who isn’t sure what step they should next take in life. It’s a richly immersive bibliophile’s fantasy. Appropriately for its subject matter, this novel also has a gorgeously designed cover itself.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesThomas Maloney
2 CommentsPost a comment

It's sobering to find as we grow older we not only accrue a collection of memories, but an awareness of the things we might have done if we'd made different life decisions. So this historic time and imagined time coexists simultaneously in our minds. We're all the more aware about what might have been when thinking about people we once knew intimately but aren't close to anymore. We recall the futures we envisioned together and how differently everyone's life turned out from how it was imagined.

The protagonist of Miles Allinson's “Fever of Animals” (who is also called Miles) has come to a difficult point in his life. Now in his early thirties: his father has died, he's abandoned his ambition to be a painter and he's separated from his longterm girlfriend Alice. He's filled with uncertainty about his future. One evening he's having dinner in an Australian restaurant when he sees a mysterious painting called Night with Horses. Something about this artwork speaks to him so profoundly: “It is a painted moment composed of many moments, of many tiny decisions. And yet through this slow accumulation, something rare has been fixed in time, like a corridor through which this secret force still pours out.” He becomes obsessed with tracking down its painter and understanding what happened to this artist's life. He learns it was created by a surrealist named Emil Bafdescu who lived his later life in obscurity before walking into a forest one day and disappearing. It's as if by solving the mystery of what happened to Bafdescu Miles can find a meaning in his wayward, uncertain life.

It's easy to relate to Miles who describes his early years and university life which were filled experimentation, high ideals and exciting discoveries. He's conscious of how his attitudes at the time consisted of a lot of posturing and judgement: “Self-righteous indignation was, in those days, my favourite emotion.” He and his friend Kas wanted to make important artworks that were informed by significant movements like surrealism, but said something important about their own time. Eventually, Kas developed a career and settled down. Miles travelled the world with his highly intelligent girlfriend Alice who helped support him while he worked on his paintings. Eventually their relationship breaks down and she marries a man named Wido in Berlin. Miles feels like he alone is holding onto the ideals he and these people shared.

Bafdescu is a fictional artist, but the author convincingly creates a story of how he was heavily involved in the European Surrealist movement from the 40s till the 60s. Allinson writes Bafdescu into the history of real artists like Ghérasim Luca. The character of Miles spends his time travelling around Europe piecing together the scant amount of information that still exists about Bafdescu and writing speculatively about what happened to the painter. Meanwhile he recalls incidents from his past and sets out to find Alice who has stopped responding to his messages.

There's a charming indignation about Miles who feels that people shouldn't give up on their ideals, yet he also has the humility to know that compromise doesn't necessarily equate to betraying what you believe. He looks back upon the way an artistic movement fizzled out because of war, political shifts and changes in the personal lives of its progenitors: “Surrealism had run its course. You have to grow up eventually, I guess. Death is real. Ordinary life is too powerful.” Through an arduous journey searching supposedly haunted forests and cities where he doesn't speak the language, Miles tries to unlock the mystery of what happened to Bafdescu but really yearns to understand what happened to his idea of himself. In doing so, Miles Allinson says something special in this novel about time, self-perception and art's ability to connect the present and past.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMiles Allinson
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“Elemental” is a sweeping historical novel that spans seventy years, multiple generations and two continents. But the story is primarily concentrated through the warmly-engaging and Scottish voice of Meggie Tulloch. It’s the early 1970s and, late in her life, Meggie realizes she has little time left so decides to write down the story of her early years for her granddaughter Laura. However, some things are difficult to tell, particularly family secrets that have been buried for many decades. But she feels it’s vitally important for her granddaughter to understand where she came from. She explains “The story of where you come from is real, as real as memory can ever be, and not so easy as fairytales.” Her tale shows the ways in which we inherit different aspects of our ancestors’ lives - not only their physical traits and characteristics of their personality but the hard battle for survival. 

Tunnelling back through time Meggie reveals how she was once a red-headed hearty daughter of a rural traditional fishing family in the early 1900s. Her adolescent life is evoked with vivid detail so much that you can feel the tremendous claustrophobia of living in a small village governed by superstition with a tyrannical grandfather and sparse resources. Despite showing great intelligence and finding an early passion for books (including the poetry of Emily Dickinson), it was difficult for a girl at that time to find any independence or further education. So she becomes a herring girl and builds a life of her own through brutally hard labour and determination by working alongside groups of women who gutted the fish which were brought in by men who sailed the seas around the British Isles.

There is something so beautifully tender about the way Meggie reveals the past by writing in a familiar voice directly to her granddaughter who she affectionately calls “lambsie”. Emotion wells to the surface in the process of recounting a past of poverty, lost loved ones, first romance, wartime hardship and the nervous excitement of eventually setting off from Scotland for a new life in Australia. The directness of communication makes it all feel so present and real as if she’s speaking in front of you. Inevitably, she begins to muse upon the nature of memory itself. How random it can seem what remains and what doesn’t so that she thinks “how strange it is that sometimes we manage almost to erase the memory of pain to spare ourselves, and other times it’s as though we’ve taken to it with a polishing cloth.” It seems to me true how some hurt we’ve experienced in our lives is pushed away and forgotten while other pain still feels so immediate.

One of the most effective things about this novel is the way relationships are shown to change over time. Initially Meggie idolizes her older sister Kitty and eagerly follows in her footsteps living the life of a herring girl. But gradually the relationship changes as her sister encounters challenges and hardships. Equally, the initial tender love affair she has with her husband Magnus morphs into something so different in the many years that pass and after he’s drawn into war. She describes how “Each day it grew, the pile of things we could not say to each other because too much time had passed now.” It seems a sad fact of relationships – not just with lovers, but friends as well – that the longer things are left unsaid the greater the silence and distance grows between people. It makes Meggie’s magnanimous gesture of earnestly trying to communicate her life story to a granddaughter who she’s lost touch with all the more heart-warming.

Herring girls of the early 20th century

Herring girls of the early 20th century

Late in the novel, the narrative abruptly shifts from Meggie to her granddaughter Laura and Laura’s daughter-in-law. The stories of their immediate problems seem disorientating and confusing at first after spending so many pages in Meggie’s confident voice, but gradually their added stories take on greater significance which pushes the novel into new realms and draws the later generations back to Meggie’s beginnings.

Growing up in coastal Maine, a lot of the first paid work I did was at a seafood restaurant where I had to wade through piles of seafood, preparing it and burning my hands over fryer vats cooking it. Of course, my pain was nowhere close to the degree which Meggie suffered working as a herring girl. But, even though the location was different, I felt I could really visualize, smell and even taste the coastal life that Amanda Curtain so skilfully renders in believable detail. It feels like “Elemental” belongs in the tradition of great Victorian literature like Thomas Hardy. Yet there is something so refreshing in the voice and sensibility of the narrator which feels relevant and new even though she belongs to another century.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAmanda Curtin

How do you reconcile the national identity of your ancestors with the person you are today? The children of recent immigrants will most likely have a stronger sense of duality because they are exposed to their parents’ culture which was brought from somewhere else and that of the society which they’ve been raised in. The main characters in “The House in Smyrna” have an even more blended sense of self because their family has strong roots in Portugal, recent ties with Turkey and eventually moved to settle in Brazil. Rather than tell the story of how a child of immigrants embraces or rejects her various cultural influences, Tatiana Salem Levy does something radically new with her narrative by moving between characters and periods of time in brief image-driven sections. This creates an emotionally-charged story which blends disparate elements together to show how there can be no true cohesive sense of self.

The primary drive of this tale is a key left to a character whose grandfather tells her it is for the house he left in Smyrna, Turkey. Alongside her journey (which might be real or imagined) to seek out this ancestral home there are the stories of a man caring for his dying mother, a heated and tempestuous lovers’ relationship, the incarceration and abuse of a political dissident and a writer whose body is breaking down. This may sound like a lot to include in such a short novel. At first it can prove a bit confusing between these strands of narrative because few names are used. However, they quickly take on the characteristic of a unified voice searching and seeking out a place to call home. The narrator declares: “I was born in exile, and that’s why I am the way I am, without a homeland, without a name… I was born away from myself, away from my land – but, when it comes down to it, who am I? What land is mine?” This narrative embodies this sense of anonymity as a strategy for contemplating these insolvable dilemmas. Imagery is repeated throughout different sections making the experiences of the characters feel unified. Strong sensations of pleasure or pain are carried between one part and the next fusing them together. The line of time is subverted through these methods to suggest subtleties not available in traditional ways of storytelling.

Inevitably, this sometimes gave the disappointing effect of making me want to know more about the specifics of certain characters and their dilemmas. In particular, the sections about the brutality of the Brazilian military during the dictatorship feel like they deserve a wider space to deal with the complexities of the situation. However, the pointedly strong imagery which appears in some sections makes up for this consciously shortened style of storytelling. Scenes of grief, isolation, discovery, pleasure are rendered with impeccably-crafted prose making them strongly resonant. There are instances of sexual power play, the sense of exploration in a foreign country and the bitter sting of mourning which are depicted in a way that really transported me. The novel also includes some plot twists which give these tales a strikingly charged quality making the piles of detail you’d get in more traditional narratives feel superfluous.

“The House in Smyrna” is an emotional, startling novel that makes every sentence earn its place. As a narrator in the novel passionately declares: “If my writing doesn’t bleed, it doesn’t exist.” The intensity of writing here does feel as if the writer has shed her life into it. This is a book written by someone who is deeply concerned about the meaning of identity and finding a way to express the full complexity of it. It’s what makes this such a noble and intense novel.

Read an excellent interview with the author here: https://scribepublications.co.uk/explore/insights/tatiana-salem-levy-q-a/

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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It astounds me when an author can create such a convincing voice for a character based on a real historical figure from an entirely different era - one which pays tribute to the real person, intellectually engages with the social politics of the day and makes that voice so compelling you want to hang upon every word she says. Debut author Gavin McCrea has done that with Lizzie Burns, a working-class woman of Irish descent who moved to London in 1870 with celebrated theorist Friedrich Engels. This was a time when Engels and Marx were engaged with founding a political philosophy which would change the world. McCrea is more concerned with the domestic side of this story. I don’t just mean the household duties and complex emotional bond between Lizzie and Friedrich – although the novel does deal meaningfully with these intricacies. What he’s created is a challenge to how the overarching ideals of this communist movement hold up when viewed through the lens of a woman with little means, bad lungs and a ferocious heart.

Lizzie has quite a complex attitude towards love and relationships. Part of her is highly conscious of the financial ramifications partnerships create. At the beginning of the novel she is vociferous on this point about practicality superseding love. Later she affirms that “I’ve seen enough of this world to know that most of us have to accept men we don’t feel for, and I’m not sure it’s for the worst in the end. A marriage of emotions can’t be lasting. It wouldn’t be healthful if it was.” Lizzie and Friedrich’s relationship is built largely upon an arrangement not entirely based on love. Friedrich is a wealthy heir to an industrial business. Lizzie keeps the house, manages the servants and runs errands for Friedrich. For Lizzie relationships are an exchange: financial and sexual. She states “A love with no interest does not exist. We always expect something for what we give.” Yet, as the novel goes on, her hardness of feeling yields to more intricately-shaded emotions and the desires she holds at bay come forth.

McCrea skilfully brings Lizzie to life through a sympathetic portrayal of her tightly-contained emotions and also through her physicality. Although feisty, she is not all hardness. She contemplates “I sometimes think that because my shoulders are wide and my waist doesn’t go in, that because my speaking holds its share of Irish, I’m taken for solid, when it’s tender I really am in broad light and with sober senses.” She is emotional and sensual. As well as enjoying pleasure with Friedrich, she also longs for other men. She has a glancing but powerful sexual attraction for a black musician she sees performing during an enforced retreat in Ramsgate. There is also a former lover that she shares a tumultuous past with and whose presence in her mind threatens to undo the order of her current arrangement. It’s with a jaded heart that she observes “Love buys cheap and seeks to sell at a higher price; our greed is for gain that lies outside our reach. We desire those who don’t desire us in return.” It’s tremendously moving the way Lizzie pays tribute to those desires which stir her the most while remaining loyal to the household she’s made.

There is a terrible insecurity overshadowing Lizzie’s relationship with Friedrich. The novel moves back and forth between their time in London and their past life in Manchester where Friedrich had a long relationship with Mary, a woman very close to both of them. Lizzie also suspects Friedrich of being a philanderer. With her wry awareness of the ways of men she accepts this but melancholically notes when she suspects him of keeping secrets “Is there a loneliness more lonely than mistrust?” Surely this is a sentiment anyone who mulls over their own suspicions while in a relationship can relate to. As the story shows, sometimes it’s these stormy thoughts which can be binding as well as damaging. McCrea presents the complicated motivations and variances of desire astonishingly well in this rich, engrossing story.

What I appreciated most in this novel are the astute observations about our human compulsion to envision multiple paths in life. Journeying into an established life in London with Friedrich at the novel’s beginning, Lizzie states “My heart feels faint, which can happen when you make the acquaintance of a real future to replace the what-might-be.” In this statement you can feel what alternatives in life Lizzie has sacrificed having taken decisive action and stuck with Friedrich. Yet she also acknowledges the element of chance in coming to certain places in life: “An animal, that’s what chance makes of me.” Although she lives in a highly civilized way, it gradually becomes clear how emotionally debased she feels because of the way fate has closed around her. As the novel progresses you learn how very different things might have been for her and Friedrich in Manchester if the wheel had spun another way.

Lizzie comes across a now-extinct quagga (half zebra, half donkey) in the zoo. Like this animal she is two halves of different things.

Lizzie comes across a now-extinct quagga (half zebra, half donkey) in the zoo. Like this animal she is two halves of different things.

Friedrich Engels looms large in the history books as a thinker whose ideas went on to reshape much of our civilization in ways very different from how he and Karl Marx intended. This novel considers him from another angle because as Lizzie states “They call him a genius… Me, I can only know what I know, and that’s the man, the meat and bones of him.” In fact, we’re informed quite a lot about this man’s meat! There are also some stupendous descriptions of Marx: “whiskers like bramble on my face, his lips like dried-out sausage.” It’s in the flesh we’re made to really feel these men’s devotion to a cause which supersedes their own circumstances whilst being aware that these are men with faults and foibles which are all too human. In addition, we find out that Friedrich is someone that Lizzie underestimates in some crucial ways. Eleanor Marx, nicknamed Tussy, is also fascinatingly portrayed as an emotionally-fraught teenager – a somewhat sad foreshadowing of the tumultuous route her life would eventually take.

Before I started this novel I was entirely unaware of who Lizzie Burns was and after reading a few chapters I couldn’t resist looking on Wikipedia to get the outline of her life. In a way this spoiled part of the plot as McCrea is naturally faithful to following the thread of her real life. Several realizations are made as Lizzie’s past is gradually recounted. It obviously didn’t spoil the experience, but part of me wishes I had experienced it all knowing nothing and then read up more afterwards. This is just a small caution to any readers saying you might want to resist this impulse.

‘Mrs Engels’ is an absolutely engrossing read which has left a lasting impression with me. Taking a punt on new authors is a risky business, but Gavin McCrea’s story is so confidently told with humour and sympathy he’s clearly a masterful storyteller. I hope everyone reads this new author who has unearthed and given a voice to a fascinating woman from history.