Goodbye.jpg

Reading about families struggling with the onset of Alzheimer's disease is one of the most painfully heartbreaking topics. But it's admirable how Rachel Khong brings a lightness of touch to this subject while also still being truly heartfelt in her debut novel “Goodbye, Vitamin.” It follows a year in the life of a young woman named Ruth who returns to live in her parents' house as her father Howard is developing signs of suffering from this insidious disease. She's experiencing something of a personal crisis herself as her marriage recently broke apart. Ruth records details of their daily life and Howard's changes, but also finds notes where her father recalls moments about Ruth's childhood. It's a story filled with witty commentary, clever observations and builds to an emotional portrait of family life.

Ruth gets goldfish for her father and reads about pet goldfish that are flushed away who grow into monstrous sizes. 

Ruth gets goldfish for her father and reads about pet goldfish that are flushed away who grow into monstrous sizes. 

It's appropriate that this novel has been compared to Jenny Offill's thoughtful novel “Dept. of Speculation” because both these books build their narratives through small observations rather than a series of complete scenes. There are several threads of story like a fake class that Howard's well-meaning students and colleagues invite him to teach, the initiatives of Ruth's mother Annie for clean eating, old affairs Howard had with other women which come to light, but the bulk of the novel is composed of glimpses of odd occurrences or observations. Khong's story feels all the more realistic for this as it takes you inside her protagonist's ephemeral experiences. Seemingly inconsequential details like vegetables that Howard rejects at dinner or the term he recalls for a group of goldfish are significant because they are exactly the sorts of things we're likely to forget years later. As the novel continues, this detail builds an emotional resonance because we're aware of the fleetingness of Ruth and Howard's time together. The experience works in both directions as Howard felt the same way about Ruth's youth as he was aware she wouldn't remain his sweet quirky child for long.

The effects of the disease are erratic so there is no clear way to treat or care for Howard as he gradually changes. Khong shows the hard unpredictable reality of life with Alzheimer's and the emotional impact it has upon the victim's family. “What imperfect carriers of love we are, and what imperfect givers. That the reasons we can care for one another can have nothing to do with the person cared for. That it has only to do with who we were around that person – what we felt about that person.” The story is a poignant testament to how we can only really savour the good experiences of family life while they last and brace ourselves for the inevitable hard times and loss. I particularly loved how “Goodbye, Vitamin” makes this sobering statement while acknowledging the absurdity and humour of the human condition.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesRachel Khong
4 CommentsPost a comment

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

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

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

The sailors also encounter communities of Inuit people in Greenland.

The sailors also encounter communities of Inuit people in Greenland.

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

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

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesIan McGuire
4 CommentsPost a comment

This is Graham Swift’s tenth novel and I wonder if it’s a common occurrence that writers, particularly male writers, in their later years lean more towards a pared down prose style to only focus on what’s necessary. It’s been true most recently for Julian Barnes whose recent novel “The Noise of Time” is a very short book and it’s been the case for authors like Philip Roth, Ian McEwan and Don DeLillo. It may not mean anything, but I wonder if this trend has something to do with mature writers feeling less a need for the grand showmanship of an epic novel and finding more poignancy in tightly compressed stories. Whatever the reason, it’s worked for Barnes and it’s certainly worked for this tremendously gorgeous novel “Mothering Sunday.” In only 132 pages, Swift encapsulates a crucial day in the life of Jane Fairchild, an orphan maid at a grand country house who becomes a great writer.

The day in question is Mothering Sunday 1924. At a very elderly age Jane looks back on what happened over the course of this day when she was still young. In beautifully stark language Swift evokes the lingering pleasure and tension of an affair. Paul is a member of the gentry who has agreed to marry Miss Hobday, mostly for her family’s money. He’s due to meet both his family and his fiancée’s at a gathering scheduled two weeks before their marriage. Instead he enjoys an assignation in his bedroom with Jane before eventually leaving to join the party. Does he want to stay with Jane instead? Is he happy to marry Miss Hobday? Or is he merely fulfilling an obligation? These questions are suspended in the air as the afternoon drifts by and they enjoy each others’ bodies. What’s mesmerizing is the way that Swift circles back to the same images and moments between them over and over. Since this is a novel being told in retrospect this accurately mimics the way memory works where past events are frequently replayed in our minds from different angles with slight changes. It’s stated that “This was the great truth of life, that fact and fiction were always merging, interchanging.”

As the title suggests, one of the most fascinating concepts that Swift explores within this story is children and parenthood. Set after the First World War the sons of some of the established families within the area have been lost in battle. Photos of Paul’s brother poignantly remain in his room as he spends time with Jane. They are able to enjoy this time in his large residence alone because the staff have gone home to visit their mothers. Jane, being an orphan, has nowhere to go. However, it’s interesting that she views her parentless status as an advantage. It gives her the opportunity to entirely forge the path in life she wants rather than be hemmed in by the obligations and expectations of family. This is a novel partly about heritage, who owns the future and hence who controls the narrative of history. 

Me with Claire Fuller & Antonia Honeywell

Me with Claire Fuller & Antonia Honeywell

The later part of this novel also turns much more into a discourse on the nature of language and writing. I know many people will find it predictable that this is another book about a writer writing about a writer. However, Swift raises very compelling ideas and makes meaningful observations which I felt so emotionally involved with because I was arrested by Jane’s distinct perspective and her situation. Geeky pleasures of the committed reader abound as well since Jane writes about the books that have influenced her, particularly Joseph Conrad, and her early discovery of reading in the library of her employer Mr Niven. She humorously observes that “It was what, she sometimes thought, libraries were for: for men to disappear into and be important in, even though they had disappeared.” Unlike the privileged class surrounding her in her early years, she actually reads and engages with the literature she finds in these private libraries and it turns her into a writer.

Since this is a book about a writer it seems appropriate that I met with the writers Antonia Honeywell (The Ship) and Claire Fuller (Our Endless Numbered Days) to discuss this new novel. We formed a sort of mini book club since we all discovered on Twitter that we’d been sent advance copies. It was an absolute pleasure getting their points of view about how the story played out and some of the novel’s strengths and weaknesses. It’s a book open to many different interpretations because I think Swift creates a number of intriguing ambiguities. I was somewhat trepidatious about starting “Mothering Sunday” as the only other book by Graham Swift I’ve read is “The Light of Day” which I didn’t really like. However, now I’m enthusiastic about going back to read his acclaimed novel “Waterland” and “Tomorrow” – which Antonia assures me is brilliant. “Mothering Sunday” begins somewhat unsteadily in a privileged world that feels a little too ‘Downton Abbey’ but it quickly becomes something much more profound and beautiful. I ended up completely loving it and wanting to immediately read it again.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesGraham Swift
3 CommentsPost a comment

“American Housewife” is undoubtedly one of the funniest books I've read for some time. These short stories imitate the parlance of our modern day popular and online life to skewer the shallow values of a consumer-driven superficial culture. Sorrows are drowned with Chanel No. 5. Book clubs are more about potluck dinners and outfits than literature. Little pageant girls enter protection programs to hide them from their fame-driven parents. The satire of these tales is enriched with self-help guide speak which encourages you how to understand the subtext of what a “Southern Lady” says or how to be a “Grown-Ass Lady.” Longer stories push frivolous pastimes to extreme and absurd ends like being forced to be the surrogate for a group of ladies in a book club or neighbours who turn murderous over a decoration dispute of an apartment building’s common area. This bombastic horror exposes the underlying emptiness of trivial middle class standards of behaviour. Just like the self-portrait artist Cindy Sherman who inhabits personas of fictional characters distorted by the society they live in, Helen Ellis’ humorous imitation of women who bow to the values of popular culture serves to send up the shallow attitudes and seductive images we’re bombarded with in every day modern life.

Cindy Sherman Untitled #461

Cindy Sherman Untitled #461

Beneath the playful humour, there is a relatable simmering anger driving these stories. Women feel compelled to “stallion-walk” in their kitchens like Beyoncé. Even though we know we can never be like Beyoncé, we can’t help wishing to be like her and thus making ourselves look ridiculous. These stories are also suffused with a sense of frustration that what is trivial is popularized more than what is thoughtful. For writers specifically, it’s as if there can be little drive to pen anything worthwhile because it will just be chewed up and twisted by the machine of popular culture or ignored by an easily distracted public. It’s remarked “Looks like, unless we're raging drunkards, writers are boring.” In this story a writer who hasn’t published anything for some time is drawn into joining a reality show called “Dumpster Diving with the Stars.” Another story focuses on an author commissioned to write a novel by Tampax. One of the most funny-but-cringeworthy stories ‘How to Be a Patron of the Arts’ features the transformation of an aspiring writer who gradually dumbs herself down to the point of being a monotonous socialite and wife. When having a conversation at an art exhibit she instructs you to “admit that you published one book. 'It was a novel.' Talk about it in the past tense as if it's a dead child.” This book is awash with satirical humour that anyone can relate to, but particularly to writers like me who once had a novel published and have since failed to successfully get that second book to press.

I’ve been reading a few novels recently that are excellent, but heavy and difficult. So the stories in “American Housewife” made fantastic intelligent, but easy and very funny reads. They also made me intensely self conscious of the ways I might also be like an American housewife with glitter in my desk drawer and spending the morning hunched over my desk in my pajamas.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesHelen Ellis
5 CommentsPost a comment

It may feel sometimes like WWII is a subject that has been so well documented and fictionalized we don’t want to hear about it anymore. However, in the last year I’ve read some gripping novels that give a surprisingly different perspective on the war by focusing on the struggles of individuals on the periphery. Some of these include Lissa Evan’s “Crooked Heart” about con-artists on the home front, Ben Fergusson’s “The Spring of Kasper Meier” about the plight of German citizens in post-war occupied Berlin and Audrey Magee’s “The Undertaking” about a wartime marriage of convenience which turns into a harrowing tale of loss. Jason Hewitt takes an even more radically new view of the war showing the days leading up to its end and the immediate aftermath. However, “Devastation Road” doesn’t simply recount the complicated historical details of this significant time. Instead we travel on a journey down an anonymous road that has been ravaged by the war. Owen wakes to find himself bedraggled and disorientated near a river that is awash with bodies and without any clear recollection of the past five years. During his travels through a devastated Eastern Europe he slowly regains an understanding of who he is and what led him to this critical moment. His odyssey illuminates the way war is above-all made up of individual struggle and the terrible choices people must make to survive.

The trauma of war and a head injury have caused Owen to lose his short-term memory. At first this is a real struggle and he must write down what’s happening in order to remind himself what he experiences day by day and the fragmented memories which flash through his mind. He soon encounters a passionate Czech refugee named Janek who doesn’t speak English and a mysterious Polish woman named Irena who desperately wants to get rid of her baby. They accompany him on his journey trying to find people they have lost. Owen’s experiences and the way his life story gradually slots together cause him to entirely re-evaluate his identity. At one point Owen realises that “He was beginning to feel like a fugitive; or as if he had two lives running in parallel – the one he remembered and the one here and now.” This shows how our sense of self can become very thin and flexible, especially when challenged by something as traumatic as war. It causes people to both completely lose themselves or reinvent themselves as a necessary method of endurance.

Owen is a draughtsman helping to design planes for the war.

Owen is a draughtsman helping to design planes for the war.

The story becomes both a thrilling and horrifying adventure as the truth is gradually revealed about the protagonists and the plight of people in the aftermath of war. With so many people displaced and communities’ infrastructure so broken, Owen wanders through a land of virtual chaos. We see how the war’s ending didn’t simply mean peace. The repercussions of the damage and continuing struggles of looting, fighting and rape persisted. A welfare officer remarks that “The war might as well still be raging for all the good the peace is doing us.” The way forward is uncertain. It’s compelling seeing how Hewitt’s characters adjust to this new environment by either triumphing or breaking down. Betrayal is a consistent theme in this novel where lovers, family and country are deceived out of necessity. The author explores the consequences of this in ways which are subtle and surprising. In particular, I found Irena’s character be extremely compelling as she is someone who felt thinly-drawn at first but her complicated story proves to be one of the most heart breaking.

It feels as if Jason Hewitt has taken the concept of Cormac McCarthy’s novel “The Road” and placed it in a historically specific time and place. Only through encounters and glimpses of the ravaged landscape do we piece together what has happened. While the physical and emotional damage of the war is real and painfully-felt, what’s in some ways equally disturbing is the way people’s sense of humanity has been so violently shaken. There are beautiful small acts of good will and terrifying scenes of vicious cruelty. “Devastation Road” takes you on a journey where you experience the extremes of war; you ultimately arrive somewhere that makes you very grateful for the gracious comfort of home.

Here is an article written by the author about displaced person's after WWII and the formation of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency which feature in this novel: http://www.historiamag.com/?page_id=1494

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJason Hewitt
2 CommentsPost a comment

Being an artist isn’t like other professions. It’s not a livelihood where the primary motivation for devoting one’s labour to it is for money or status or the simple satisfaction of a job well done or even making the world a better place. Certainly these factors influence artists during their careers, but the act of creating art is about realizing a vision and making something meaningful. The path to inspiration is elusive. Benjamin Wood’s novel “The Ecliptic” questions what drives, galvanizes and motivates artists. The narrator Elspeth Conroy is stuck. She’s a painter who has received acclaim for her work, but the majority of her output feels like it falls short of saying anything profound. On a small island off the coast of Turkey there is an artists’ retreat for those who have lost their way in whatever discipline they pursue. It has a rigid code and rules designed to support them in finding their way back to inspiration. Elspeth has spent many years here, but does retreating from the world encourage the creation of real art or only drive her irretrievably further into herself?

At the retreat, Elspeth has become part of a tight-knit group of other artists who are architects, novelists and playwrights. They have daily comfortable routines while waiting for the muse to visit them again. One day a very young man arrives to join the colony and their ordered world is disrupted. What follows is an engrossing complex tale of artistic aspirations, tangled passion and the quest for meaning. Elspeth is one of those rare female protagonists who isn’t motivated by a desire for romance or success, but wants to create art in the purest sense. Her journey questions whether this is even possible. It deals with all the complicated factors which drive us to create and experience art, shedding light on the reasons why art can be the one thing which makes our difficult lives bearable.

The  ecliptic  is the apparent path of the Sun on the celestial sphere - something invisible Elspeth tries to realize in her art.

The ecliptic is the apparent path of the Sun on the celestial sphere - something invisible Elspeth tries to realize in her art.

The author is good at wrong-footing you in this novel and avoiding cliché. A situation where a painter is eclipsed by his assistant could prompt scenes of deception and jealousy. Instead a gentle ceding to recognized talent is allowed and a surprising new camaraderie forms later on. A fast-talking art agent who would be presented as nothing but a caricature in many novels is presented in this story as having a surprisingly intuitive sensitive side. This is the kind of writing that sees the everyday humanity in people and that everyone is just stumbling along, trying to do their best and make something meaningful.

There are many compelling different perspectives given throughout the novel on the impact of art both for the artist and the public who consume it. At one point the playwright MacKinney reflects: “that’s the problem, isn’t it? Once your best story’s told, it can’t be told again. It makes you, then it ruins you.” Some speculate that everyone has one great story in them, but once this is realized in an artistic form does this mean the artist is defined and trapped by it? Once you know the story you want to tell in art it can be devastatingly complicated finding the right form to communicate it through. Can it be found through sheer persistence? At one point it’s posited that “doggedness in art is no substitute for inspiration.” But at another point it’s observed that “real inspiration turns up only when your invitation has expired.” There is no straightforward way of finding the muse which artists wax on about so poetically. With occasional asides from Elspeth that tell us the things that no art college teaches you, this novel considers the multifaceted ways in which art finds ways of expressing the inexpressible.

Benjamin Wood constructs his story carefully so that the past reflects meaningfully upon the present in Elspeth’s journey as an artist. All the while it has tremendous momentum and drive making it compulsively readable. The closest comparison I can make for Wood’s novel is Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History” for the way in which it deals with high concepts about art in a way which is utterly unpretentious and tells a cracking good story at the same time. The ending has left me thinking hard about how we create and commune with art. “The Ecliptic” is a passionate, invigorating and expertly conceived novel.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesBenjamin Wood
5 CommentsPost a comment