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Every generation needs a new young narrative voice to articulate the feelings of disaffection that come with that particular time. From Emma Bovary to Holden Caulfield to Jim Stark to Angela Chase these alienated voices speak to those who feel outside the mainstream. None of the other characters in their stories can understand why these narrators are so problem-ridden because the protagonists are often born into lives of privilege and promise. The heroes of these stories don't feel like a hero to themselves because they are so confused and jaded and their lives are in utter shambles. But to many readers and viewers they articulate a blunt honesty, insight and humour about the anxieties many feel at that time.

It feels like Maya, the narrator of Jade Sharma's debut novel, could be the outsider voice of this generation. Her marriage is inane. Her lover is distant. Her job at a bookstore is going nowhere. Her thesis is unfinished. Her mother is nagging. Her dope habit is getting worse. She's self-conscious about her body size, her skin colour and her distinctly non-PC sexual impulses. Her story has a streamlined candour to it whether she's articulating her desires “I liked feeling like a thing. I like feeling like nothing” or expressing the self-disgust which accompanies feeling overweight “The worst was to feel both fat and hungry.” We follow her journey as she spirals into ever more debased and degrading circles of behaviour and her struggle to find meaning and purpose. But this isn't presented in a self-pitying way. Rather, her narrative has a lucidity, wry humour and insight that acts as a touchstone which many people will be able to sympathize with and relate to even if their experiences are far different from Maya's.

A trip to her in-laws for Thanksgiving perfectly captures all the gut-wrenching awkwardness of an obligatory trip to someone's family home. Maya is constantly plagued by self-consciousness from the moment she arrives and struggles to fit into this family's traditions, routines and Christian values. The family tries to integrate her into their home and make her feel welcome but this often produces the opposite result. When Maya makes gestures to try to participate by suggesting a movie for everyone to watch or help rake leaves in the yard the comically disastrous results only make her into more of an outsider. She achieves the perfect tragicomic tone when she remarks how being at her in-laws “was like a job. A bad shift at a bad job.” While experiences like this are soul-crushingly bleak to live through they are great fun to read about because it’s so easy to empathize with Maya’s discomfort.

The narrative takes an interesting turn when Maya slips frighteningly further into addiction, prostitution to support her drug habit and vice. Her descent into repeating self-destructive behaviour causes her to become more an observer of her life rather than the one actually inhabiting it. This detachment seems to reflect how she can recognize the problems she’s readily engaging in, but she’s helpless to stop herself from participating in them. An interesting way which the author plays with point of view is when Maya meditates on her consumption and relationship to porn. In one fascinating passage she describes how she desires to feel her identity shift fluidly from one sexual participant and gender to another while watching it: “In one way or another, I wanted to be the men, and I wanted to hurt the woman. I wanted to hurt like the woman, and I wanted to hate the men for hurting me. I wanted to be the man at home jerking off wanting to be the man wanting to hurt the woman. And then I wanted to hurt more.” This sense of simultaneously inhabiting each participant in sex: tormenter and tormented, perpetrator and victim, exhibitionist and voyeur effectively shows the power play at work behind the physical act. It also describes how sex can be another kind of addiction with ceaselessly recurring patterns backed by some unresolved emotional discord.

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Some readers will no doubt become impatient by Maya’s self-centredness and frustrated by her inability to progress out of her desultory state, but others will undoubtably find her to be the sole voice of reason while living through a modern malaise. By following the details of Maya’s life, Jade Sharma engagingly and succinctly captures many common ephemeral thoughts and feelings which are often contradictory. This is the experience which makes up modern existence. Every era of society throws up new expectations and challenges to succeed. It’s never ideal. It’s what drives us to seek out an honest reflection of all the poisonous emotion which prevents us from becoming the fully-realized individuals that we’re expected to become. This is why we need Maya’s voice.

This review also appeared in the Open Letters Review: https://openlettersreview.com/open-letters-review/problems-by-jade-sharma

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJade Sharma
4 CommentsPost a comment
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It’s compelling how debut novelist Arja Kajermo handles the challenge of writing about a child’s mostly bleak and bare external life in relation to her rich inner life. “The Iron Age” presents a coming of age tale about a girl growing up in post-war Finland, first on a rural farm without electricity or indoor plumbing and then in urban Sweden with its foreign language and more cosmopolitan ways. Since children have a natural tendency toward make-believe and dreaming its tricky to negotiate the relationship between real life and the imagination within narrative. As a cartoonist by trade, Kajermo creatively manages this by showing her girl protagonist’s accounts of early life heavily infused with local folklore and her family’s mythology. Later when the girl discovers a love of reading she creatively fuses her experience with fairy tales and the stories she finds in books. This is all accompanied by sketches by Susanna Katermo Torner which reflect this fusion of fantasy and reality. It’s a creative way of presenting a particular childhood not just as narrative, but as an immersive experience.

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Life in Finland after WWII was incredibly challenging given how war reparations needed to be paid to the Soviet Union for a number of years. As such, the girl’s father and many other working people found it difficult to gain decent paying jobs and many sought employment elsewhere. Living in relative isolation, the girl witnesses the strain this puts on her father and the misogynistic ways he takes his frustration out on her mother. There are striking scenes of emotional and physical abuse. What I found most powerful is a scene where the father gets so angry at the girl he’s about to beat her and the girl’s defensive tactic is to go silent. “There was a strange safety in not saying anything. It was like being very small inside a very big bomb shelter and looking out through narrow slits that were my eyes. I realized I was safe inside, looking out at a very angry man.” This is such an evocative way of describing a retreat to an inner life. In this silence, partly-inspired by the stories the girl discovers at a local library, she begins to fantasise and form stories of her own.

I enjoyed this deceptively simple and powerful novella that gives an episodic account of sensitive girl’s early life and the strength she discovers in silence.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesArja Kajermo

It's easy to scoff at literary fiction which experiments with form given our existing canon of literature which is already packed full of wildly eccentric novels. Everyone from Virginia Woolf to Samuel Beckett to Gertrude Stein to William S Burroughs to Eimear McBride has twisted not only conventional grammar but the shape of the story on the page to say something new about the experience of life and art. So a novel that is one long continuous sentence which lasts more than two hundred pages may seem like it's being wilfully unconventional, but really the style of Mick McCormack's “Solar Bones” perfectly suits the flow of thought for its meditative and entertaining narrator Marcus Conway.

Marcus is an ordinary Irish man who worked as an engineer in County Mayo with his wife and raised two children. Moving through his house he hears the chiming of a bell and this sound resonates throughout the whole novel as it captures a moment and highlights the way our lives are paced out in marked time alongside the flow of life around us. The novel has a poetic brilliance which shines through the very readable prose as Marcus sifts through the experiences of his life. He recounts the trials of his family life, the recent financial crisis in Ireland, local politics and a virulent strain of flu which made his wife very ill.

The effect of reading this extended sentence which is uninterrupted by any full stops made me feel like if I stopped reading I'd miss out on some crucial bit of information which was about to come next. So I was mesmerized and intrigued, but also frustrated because I naturally long for a conclusion or break point. Marcus himself gets frustrated when he wishes at points to halt the stream of his musing: “stop mother of Jesus stop this is how the mind unravels in nonsense and rubbish if given its head”. Really that's partly the point; there are no neat conclusions in our experience - just a continuous flow of thought running through our heads melding the past with imagination, an internal conversation with oneself and those we’ve known in the past. It makes you aware of the way you are a constant subjective witness to both your life and the world around you. You are both the absolute authority of this experience and someone utterly bewildered by it all.

McCormack is extraordinary at capturing the personal reaction we feel witnessing societal shifts which we feel powerless to stop. It felt particularly poignant to me with the recent referendum and the vote for the UK to leave the EU. At one point Marcus and other citizens of his town witness a large ship passing and he thinks “something in me recognizing this as a clear instance of the world forfeiting one of its better ideas, as if something for which there was once justified hope had proved to be a failure and the world had given up on some precious dream of itself, one of its better destinies”. The consequences of these changes and lost ideals reverberate through our personal and collective history. It makes us question the solidity of a society we need to believe in to go about daily life, but which we know in reality is just a collective agreement and, ultimately, an illusion.

He records this feeling when Marcus considers how in 2008 the profitable boom in the Irish economy turned to a nationwide recession. He reflects how “the whole thing ridiculously improbable, so unlikely in scale and consequence it's as if something that never was has finally collapsed or revealed itself to be constructed of air before eventually falling to ruin in that specific way which proved it never existed”. The ways in which we can personally react to these shifts in society are represented in the lives of Marcus' children. His daughter Agnes is an artist whose confrontational work thrusts her into becoming a local icon for a discontented generation. His son Darragh emigrated to Australia. The focus of his interests shifts from subject to subject so he's not able to focus in any substantial way. He becomes consumed with playing the video game Civilization which is a game I've also spent countless hours playing. The player in it leads the development of a civilization while also interacting and trying to dominate the rival nations which are simultaneously growing around you. It works poignantly in this novel as a way of showing how we seek to control the changing society around us, but in reality we are in many ways powerless.

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It's impressive the way this novel reflects how daily life can be so caught up in particular moments as global news is filtered through our brains. Marcus comments on how “dawn to dark six or seven news bulletins needing my attention all spaced out at regular intervals, the day structured like the monastic rule of some vigilant order synched to the world's rhythms and all its upheavals” so that his mind is constantly bombarded with outside information that slightly shifts or confirms his own points of view. It makes him feel both at the centre of a nexus of global change and like a helpless pawn being moved by larger forces.

This is a novel which many might feel hesitant about approaching because of its unusual style, but I bet if you start reading you’ll be hypnotised by its engaging and fascinating voice. Marcus’ gripes and wry perspective are very relatable plus the flow of language is a thing of fine-crafted beauty. Mike McCormack captures the movements of everyday life whether we feel engaged with the world or deeply resigned about it: “rites, rhythms and rituals upholding the world like solar bones, that rarefied amalgam of time and light whose extension through every minute of the day is visible”. It's an electrifying experience being swept so fully into one man's uninterrupted meditation on life.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMike McCormack
3 CommentsPost a comment