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I’ve always found something tragically endearing about men who abandon their lives to go in search of themselves. For instance, I’m fascinated by the painter Paul Gauguin who virtually abandoned his middle class family to live and work on his art in self-imposed exile in French Polynesia. You could say there’s a philosophical tension here between a man’s expression of his free will and his obligations to his family, but it stinks all over of masculine arrogance and pride. It’s understandable that an individual wants to be fulfilled, but rather than take constructive steps towards achieving a more satisfactory existence so many men violently tear themselves out of their self-created environments to “find themselves” and start anew. Often women are left with the fallout of their rapid exit: paying their debts or caring for their children. Such is the case in Marion Poschmann’s “The Pine Islands” which begins with husband Gilbert Silvester waking from a nightmare that his wife has cheated on him. He viciously confronts her though there is no evidence of an indiscretion. Consumed by his paranoid fantasy he abruptly flies to Japan to follow a the classic poet Bashō’s pilgrimage through the rural north of the country. Poschmann hilariously skewers the manly vanity of his chaotic journey while taking seriously his ontological quest for meaning.

There’s an atmosphere of humour running throughout the novel as Gilbert pigheadedly marches on his desperate way through the carefully ordered society of Japan. He’s running away from Mathilda ignoring her numerous calls or only engaging in brief cryptic phone conversations. But, at the same time, he frequently writes her letters reflecting on the artistic quests of past poets in a way that betrays his intense need for a tender connection and desire for his intellectual ideas to be respected. Gilbert’s never achieved the success he longed for as a scholar of the representation of beards in art and film. His failure isn’t surprising given his pretentious and crackpot theories on the way beards are perceived and culturally fashioned by homosexuals through the centuries. So his sojourn to Matsuishima (the bay of pine islands) to escape the entrapments of life and compose the most delicately distilled poetry feels more like a way of evading his own feelings of failure rather than progressing to a higher state of being.

Along the way, Gilbert also encounters another man in crisis named Yosa. When Gilbert interrupts Yosa’s plan to commit suicide he takes him on as a companion and guide by convincing Yosa he should at least defer his self-annihilation until he’s in a suitably beautiful location. Their connection is quite touching as they are in a way both cases of men who’ve failed society’s expectations for achieving success and a certain kind of masculinity. Yosa even goes so far to mask his failure by wearing fake beards. This is also a means of consciously alienating himself from the thriving professional men around him who don’t maintain any facial hair if they want to be taken seriously. The trajectory of Gilbert and Yosa’s friendship is touching because it shows how they should really find a bond in their different feelings of alienation, but instead fail to connect because of their masculine pride.

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It’s interesting how Poschmann’s writing starts to emulate the poetic striving for profundity of its protagonist as the story progresses. It’s difficult to know if this is the author’s voice or Gilbert’s consciousness seeping through: “They sat on the train as the landscape slid easily by, leaving station after station in their wake. Stationary travelling, action without action. Or a dull, unconscious drifting, like tattered leaves on the wind.” Gilbert becomes so intent on fashioning haiku poems in the atmospheric settings he visits along Bashō’s trail that it makes sense the story takes on this tone – equally the narrative becomes more hallucinatory as Gilbert increasingly loses the plot. But it does pose a challenging dilemma for the reader to know whether to take these reflective observations seriously or not. I felt it was a shame the novel never fully expresses a justified anger at Gilbert’s monstrously self-centred and casually abusive behaviour but instead opts to take him seriously. But overall, I interpreted this novel as a cunning form of satire and immensely enjoyed this aspect of it.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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There’s something so invitingly intoxicating about the way Sarah Perry blends the tone of classic Victorian literature with a modern sensibility. Her previous novel “The Essex Serpent” was actually set in the Victorian era and new novel “Melmoth” is set roughly in present-day Prague. But they both employ a self-conscious authorial control over the narrative that contemplates many moral questions while (most importantly) telling a riveting gothic-inflected story at the same time.

“Melmoth” centres around the story of Helen Franklin, an English woman with a guilty secret working as a translator of mundane manuals in the Czech Rep. But the novel also includes many fictional documents from the past detailing Nazi occupations and the forced migration of different ethnicities. All these accounts are tied together with occasional sightings of a figure called Melmoth, a dark-clad woman with bleeding feet who legend claims roams the Earth for eternity seeking to assuage her piteous loneliness. As Helen surveys these documents from different cultures about individuals who make dubious choices in times of political unrest, she gradually confronts her own past and the possibility that Melmoth is now pursuing her.

Helen goes to a dramatic production of the opera Rusalka about a water sprite from Slavic mythology

Helen goes to a dramatic production of the opera Rusalka about a water sprite from Slavic mythology

Perry creates a menacing sense of atmosphere filled with unsettling natural phenomena and things which seem to be lurking in the shadows just out of sight. The question of whether Melmoth is real or not is teased out in quite a unique way where her presence is both feared and invited. At one point Helen contemplates how “I wasn’t only scared. I wanted something to be there – I wanted to see something waiting for me – do you think you can long for something that scares you half to death.” There’s the dark desire to be titillated by what scares us the most and there’s the conscience-stricken belief we deserve to be punished. Helen is challenged over the course of this tale to radically confront and judge herself. This is a richly evocative novel that provokes unsettling questions about our obligations to people in need and what we do with our guilt when we’re all on our own.  

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSarah Perry
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When considering the immeasurable evil of slavery it’s difficult to fully fathom the ramifications it had amongst so many individuals' lives. Not only were people’s freedom and lives brutally curtailed, controlled and cut short, but their talent and potential was also squandered. Esi Edugyan evocatively portrays the life of George Washington Black or “Wash”, a character with the aptitude to be a great artist and scientist were he not born into slavery on a Barbados plantation in 1818. But she grants him the potential to partially foster his talents when he comes under the apprenticeship of an eccentric scientist who is the brother of the plantation owner/overseer. What follows is a fantastically imaginative, heartrending and compulsively readable tale of his journey and growth into early adulthood. It’s a richly immersive story that also powerfully shows the perspective of slaves who feel “We had been estranged from the potential of our own bodies, from the revelation of everything our bodies and minds could accomplish.” This psychological state is complexly rendered as are the way characters surrounding Wash fail to fully empathize with him and understand the ramifications of slavery. “Washington Black” is an astounding novel.

Edugyan perceptively shows the way that the development of children are so atrociously twisted growing up in slavery, how relationships become perverted and emotionally disrupted. Not only does she portray this in her protagonist but it’s also poignantly rendered in the character of a slave girl who is seen only fleetingly, but Wash observes at one point that she has become pregnant and we’re left to horrifically wonder how this eleven year old’s pregnancy came about. The author also sympathetically shows the challenging emotional state of a boy going through adolescence where new feelings of stimulation are so often mixed with a sense of shame: “I would wake aroused against the sheets, feeling all at once thrillingly alive in my skin, and ashamed.” Wash encounters many challenges that prevent him from feeling pride in either his body or mind. His journey is both an inner struggle to fully foster and own his natural gifts as well as a physical quest to survive the confines of his restricted circumstances. Amidst the immediate action of Wash’s trials, there are intriguing mysteries in the background which gradually unfold over the course of the book.

Detail from a 1657 map of Barbados, showing plantations and escaped slaves.

Detail from a 1657 map of Barbados, showing plantations and escaped slaves.

I also really appreciated the beautiful writing in this novel, particularly when Edugyan is portraying the natural world and Wash’s scientific study of it. Maybe I just have an affinity for scenes in stories that take place under water, but just like Egan’s “Manhattan Beach” there’s a stunning scene in this book when Wash dives underwater and discovers a liberating space. Edugyan writes “How luminous the world was, in the shallows. I could see all the golden light of the dying morning, I could see the debris in it stirring, coming alive. Blue, purple, gold cilia turned in the watery shafts of light slicing down. In the gilded blur I caught the flashing eyes of shrimp, alien and sinewy… all this I let drop away, so that I hung with my arms suspended at my sides, the soft current tugging at me. The cold sucked at me and the light weakened, and I was finally, mercifully, nothing.” It’s as if the only place Wash can be liberated from the constrictions of his identity is in this alien underwater world where he can never truly belong.

In its very title this book asks a powerful open-ended question about all the people in history who possessed innate talent and intelligence, but whose skin colour and status dictated whether they realized their potential or were forced to squander it. Even though it’s a historical novel it makes a powerful political statement naming its slave hero after the first US president. In this era after Obama’s presidency it seems horrifically regressive that the current president is someone who only achieved his position through money and an old-world sense of superiority. It feels like Edugyan is challenging us to consider under what terms we want to found our future: superficial details or real capability? There are so many impactful themes and ideas in “Washington Black”, but what makes the novel so gripping are the surprising twists the story takes that left me desperate to discover what will happen next.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesEsi Edugyan
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Sometimes it can be so difficult to separate my emotional response to a book compared to my critical response. I don't think I necessarily have to which is one of the great things about a book blog! But reading Abi Andrews' debut novel “The Word for Woman is Wilderness” I was even more aware of this dilemma because it's inspired by and about subjects I'm really interested in and sympathetic towards. It's narrated from the perspective of nineteen year old Erin who has a passionate interest in the writing of Thoreau and the life of Christopher McCandless whose tragic journey led to his accidental death in the Alaskan wilderness. This was chronicled in Jon Krakauer's nonfiction book “Into the Wild” and a film with the same name directed by Sean Penn. Erin observes how the famous instances of individuals pioneering into the wilderness to establish a distance from the society whose values they question have all been directed through a men's perspectives. Certainly the experience and perspective of a woman who sets out on such a journey would be very different. So (against her parents' wishes) she ventures out from her home in England to the Alaskan wilderness and chronicles her journey on video with the plan to edit it into a documentary. She states: “if running into the wild is so often a wounded retreat from societal constraints and oppressions, then shouldn’t anyone but straight white men be doing it more?” Erin charts the mental and physical struggles she faces on her way while also contemplating both the dynamic distinctions and commonalities between the journey of mankind vs womankind.

The novel is evenly broken up into two sections: Erin's journey through the Arctic circle and hitchhiking across Canada to arrive in Alaska and her time inhabiting a remote cabin in the unpopulated wilderness. But throughout she makes references and draws in concepts from an enormous amount of sources: everything from quantum mechanics to Cartesian philosophy to the history of the Cold War space race to David Attenborough documentaries to the novels of Jack London. Such a dizzying array of topics is impressive and fascinating. It leads her to propose enticing new connections and pose deeply-thoughtful questions. But it has the effect of feeling like you've sat up all night with a fellow university student who is excitedly talking through everything they've been reading about. It can get a bit overwhelming at points and detract from the through line of the narrator's journey. Along the way Erin encounters several fascinating characters from an Icelandic woman she meets on a ship to a Native American who aides her after meeting a nasty trucker to a misogynistic interloper in Alaska. It felt like if Andrews had spent longer developing scenes with these characters and rounding out their personalities the novel would have felt more like a story than a collection of interesting concepts.

Frequent references are made to author and conservationist Rachel Carson

Frequent references are made to author and conservationist Rachel Carson

Erin's determined will to enter the wilderness leads the story. There are some beautifully poetic observations about our subjective experience of landscapes and the environment. When viewing the barren icy terrain of Greenland she states “It feels like trespassing to be alive in a place that is not dead but is inexistence, negation of potentiality. Anything alive is only ever passing through.” Then, at another point she remarks how “The tundra is always in soliloquy. Mostly it whistles and sings, but now and then the wind will die down suddenly and in the utter silence and still it feels like you are on stage. As though you did not know there were curtains until they just suddenly opened. Then the cacophony of noise again like applause.” There are also some great comic moments where she makes wry observations about the nature of travel like trying to understand the native language of a country you've entered through travel books: “I enjoy the narratives of phrase books. They always seem to follow a haphazard protagonist who is forever getting lost and bothering the emergency services.”

Of course, it's Erin's inner journey which is the real focus on this novel. She comments how “An esoteric landscape does not help a person to find their way if they are lost; you could walk from the centre of here and never find your way again.” It's necessary for her to physically travel in order to arrive at a new place of understanding and radically reform her sense of self. It's also necessary that it's a journey she makes alone: “It is not a casting out with purpose but a getting lost. It is the difference between solitude and loneliness.” It's touching how her time in Alaska leads her to reflect much more strongly about her own upbringing and the machinations of her psychology. She's aware of how much she's internalized stories of explorers as being strictly male enterprises because almost all the literature about it is written by men. She catches herself “Positioning myself as male again; my masculine counterpart who lives in my brain, appending a fraud penis so I can traverse Scott’s Antarctica in my imagination.” The fact of her journey makes a powerful statement that women also enter (both the spatial and inner) Wilderness. So, while I think it's sometimes too erratic, this novel was a great pleasure for me to read and it's also a flag that needed to be planted because Abi Andrews is marking new terrain.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAbi Andrews
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What an immensely pleasurable joy it is reading “The Essex Serpent” by Sarah Perry! I’ve been eagerly anticipating this novel since it was first published last year. I heard such high praise from friends and reviewers I trust and it was Waterstone’s book of the year. I’m greatly relieved that it lives up to the hype. This richly detailed Victorian-set novel with gothic inflections and distinctly vibrant characters gives the feeling of a modern-day book by Charlotte Brontë or George Eliot. Set over a year it follows the widow Cora Seaborne’s excursion to the rural Essex village of Aldwinter which buffets the edge of the gloomy Blackwater marshes. Cora has amateur archaeological inclinations and becomes excited by the secrets this location might hold after rumours and paranoia spread among the inhabitants that a prehistoric beast roams the waters. Strange sightings are reported, bodies are found, children turn hysterical and people go missing. It’s full of suspense as the mystery gradually unfolds, but also skilfully presents competing ideologies of science vs religion and reason vs faith through the actions and sensibilities of the characters. More importantly it shows how these perspectives aren’t necessarily dogmatic and that “far from there being one truth alone, there may be several truths, none of which it would be possible to prove or disprove.” This is a novel which delivers highly on adventure and romance to form an intelligent, moving story.

Cora experiences a sense of independence and freedom now that she’s released from her marriage. She no longer makes much effort with her appearance and can pursue what solely interests her. In particular, she feels liberated from gender constrictions stating “The wonderful thing about being a widow is that, really, you’re not obliged to be much of a woman anymore.” This allows her to express her intelligence and also begin to understand what she desires for the first time (rather than always projecting what her late husband desired.) She’s accompanied by her longtime companion Martha, an ardent socialist who harbours a secret attraction to Cora. At Aldwinter Cora is introduced to the local reverend William Ransome and his luminous wife Stella. The burgeoning romantic relationship that develops between Cora and William is especially interesting because it’s based primarily on their different ideas and competing perspectives as well as physical attraction. Perry is especially good at portraying the complexity of relationships where the boundaries of gender and friendship are blurred.

Although the novel is framed around the notorious gigantic serpent which may or may not be terrorizing the villagers, it’s more about what reality people choose to believe. Some ascribe to values based around superstition, others live by principles from religious texts and others aspire to forge a new understanding of the world based upon scientific findings. What Perry does so magnificently is imbue how the characters perceive their environment based on these perspectives of the world. To Martha who is cognizant of social and economic imbalances “It seemed… that the city’s bricks were red with the blood of its citizens, its mortar pale with the dust of their bones; that deep in its foundations women and children lay head-to-toe in buried ranks, bearing up the city on their backs.” But wealthy George Spencer who dabbles in the medical field expresses that “sometimes I think we must be walking on shoals of bodies without realising it and all the earth’s a graveyard.” While Cora, with her faith in archaeological discovery, feels that “all the earth was a graveyard with gods and monsters under their feet, waiting for weather or a hammer and brush to bring them up to a new kind of life.” These views of the world around them overlap and form a complex picture of not only the changing landscape, but the evolution of the people and wildlife that inhabited it.

Based on the legend of the Essex Serpent which first appeared in a local pamphlet in 1669

Based on the legend of the Essex Serpent which first appeared in a local pamphlet in 1669

Alongside the compelling story and complex characters, the novel is especially enjoyable for the deeply emotive language Perry uses in her descriptions. At some times she expresses a Virginia Woolf-like sensibility where a room literally comes alive when the characters enter it: “Light picked out channels cut in crystal glasses and glossed the polished wood of the table, and Stella’s forget-me-nots bloomed on their napkins.” The descriptions show a playful use of language and convey a very definite sense of mood. I don’t think I’ve read about such a powerfully expressive sense of atmosphere since Andrew Michael Hurley’s eerie and suspenseful “The Loney”. It’s also impressive how this keen sense of detail brings to life the natural environment of Essex which is a county that is somewhat forgotten or maligned these days.

It would be easy to write a lot about many of the other fascinating characters that populate this novel. It feels like Cora’s son Francis may have some form of autism as he has a regimentally ordered mind and emotionally detached personality. Cora’s friend Luke Garrett is a surgeon who pioneers controversial new practices. The ginger-haired girl Naomi Banks possesses unruly powers and passions. Stella and William’s precocious daughter Joanna understands how exerting authority with confidence can get people to follow you. Their lives intersect in fascinatingly dramatic ways, but I don’t want to go into too much detail to avoid giving the plot away. Suffice it to say, the fact that they are so memorable is a testament to how distinctly original Perry makes her characters. Many surprises and delights are to be found in this book. “The Essex Serpent” is as intricate and beautiful as its cover.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSarah Perry
6 CommentsPost a comment