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I often feel hesitant to read stories about writers writing because it can feel like the biggest cliché for a novel to be about the act of writing a novel. Of course, as someone who mostly lives through fiction I will gladly overlook what might be an eyerolling self-referential act for the pleasure of being in close company of another book nerd. And this novel goes in depth discussing the creative endeavour, our relationship to reading and dozens of fascinating quotes and references to writers such as Nabokov, Svetlana Alexievich, J.M. Coetzee and the now more obscure J.R. Ackerley. It’s also a commentary on our society’s evolving relationship to literature and the challenges of teaching creative writing in the era of political correctness. But I was caught off guard by how emotionally moved I was by “The Friend” by the time I came to the end of it.

The plot revolves around an unnamed female writer whose lifelong friend and mentor (who was also a writer and creative writing teacher) commits suicide. He leaves her his dog, an enormous Great Dane named Apollo. It’s a challenge for her to keep the pet because she lives in a tiny rent-controlled NYC apartment which doesn’t allow dogs. But she refuses to part with Apollo because he serves as both a connection to her lost friend and a source of emotional support that she increasingly hurries home to spend time with. Although you only get fragmentary glimpses of the narrator’s life and experiences her story builds to form a picture of an isolated individual struggling with issues surrounding mortality, loneliness and self-expression. But she also makes many wry and humorous observations about human nature and social behaviour. All this cumulative detail builds to form an understanding of her state of being while making poignant reflections on the human condition.

Her position in relation to her friend who committed suicide is also unique. He was married three times. Although the narrator is not one of his widows they shared an uncommonly close relationship and his actual widows treat her with a mixture of friendship, contempt and rivalry. This is shown humorously but I like how it also highlights that there are many relationships in our lives which don’t fall into neat categories of either family or romantic partnership. Yet, when it comes to something as significant as death, our relationship to that person can be devalued because there wasn’t a social label to certify its significance.

There’s also a fascinating chapter which is like a creative writing exercise she might assign to her students. In it she imagines an encounter between a woman and man who aren’t dissimilar to herself and her friend. Their discussion strays into a description of a novel the woman is writing about her fictional account of the man committing suicide. It’s a clever way of juggling with what’s true and what’s fiction. This emphasizes her point: “It is curious how the act of writing leads to confession. Not that it doesn’t also lead to lying your head off.” But it’s no less meaningful when the narrator finally succeeds in keeping the dog and develops an abiding connection with him. What’s undeniably true is the feeling of intimacy that the narrator craves to cling to even after losing her closest friend.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSigrid Nunez
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No doubt Niviaq Korneliussen’s debut novel will catch many people’s eye for the novelty that its young author is from Greenland, but its real appeal and power resides in its diversity of assertive young voices. The narrative follows five different characters whose romantic and familial entanglements with each other produce moments of self-revelation and big life changes over a night of drinking and partying in the city of Nuuk, Greenland’s capital. “Crimson” is heavily inflected with Greenlandic and Danish language, references and culture, but its themes of young adults trying to come to terms with their gender and sexuality have a much more global outlook. The characters communicate with each other through Facebook and SMS text messages, sum up their moods in hashtags and search Google for answers to life’s questions. These are young people you could meet anywhere in the world. I found it poignant how the characters corner themselves into moments of intense self-reflection through these intensely private and confessional forms of electronic communication. In this virtual space they gradually sift through ways of being to discover who they really are and what they really want. By relating their different points of view in a finely-orchestrated succession, Korneliussen builds an engaging story with many revelations and forms a picture of a modern generation in microcosm.

This novel was first published in its native language with the title “Homo Sapienne” in 2014, but has now been translated into English. It’s just been published in the UK under the title “Crimson” but the American publication in January 2019 will publish it with the title “Last Night in Nuuk”. The UK title no doubt arose from the song ‘Crimson and Clover’ by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts which in the story plays in the bar on the night in question and is referenced several times throughout the text. The song’s dream-like quality and expression of spontaneous sensual intimacy amidst emotional confusion sums up the tone of the novel quite well. I’d have projected this book would take on a kind of cult status a generation ago, but it feels like its decidedly queer perspective will have a much more mainstream appeal today. I can imagine many kinds of young people relating to it and many mature people appreciating it. It’s not so much a novel that recognizably comes from a Nordic literary tradition, but from that of a new generation. It’s more in line with a novel such as “Conversations with Friends” by Sally Rooney which is an Irish novel that doesn’t carry many hallmarks which make it specifically Irish. There’s something exciting about an emerging literary movement which isn’t restrained by national borders and alights on common experiences mediated through the digital world.

The five different characters may share a kind of frenetic energy and express different forms of queer experience, but each voice is quite distinct in its timbre and point of view. The opening section is narrated by Fia whose rapid-fire train of thought sparks with intriguing moments of reflection: “I make up my mind because death won’t leave my mind. There has always been something missing here.” She finds it challenging to articulately sum up how her desire can be defined and instead humorously relates her abrupt break with her boyfriend by stating “My thoughts make no sense. I’m simply tired of sausages.” Fia’s brother Inuk wrestles more combatively with issues of sexuality and national identity to show how deeply ingrained traditions die hard.

Later in the novel, the character of Ivik is more assertive in volleying back society’s confusion so as not to limit how he’s defined: “I was an enigma to my friends. They didn’t know which box to put me in. When they began to question me, I began to question them. I began to question why they called me into question. My parents, siblings and family began to be uncertain about me. They were uncertain about who I was. Since my family were uncertain about me, I began to be uncertain about myself. I was uncertain about why they were uncertain about me.” I enjoy how this string of logic takes on a musical quality in its repetition of words. But it’s also really powerful in how it shows the inner dialogue which takes place in response to being made to feel like a social outcast or oddity. I found it especially striking how Korneliussen captures Ivik’s emotional confusion in how physical barriers arise from sexual contact.

When the novel arrives at the final perspective of Sara it’s striking how the story takes on a much more hopeful tone. Throughout “Crimson” the characters must naturally stumble through a lot of messy drunkenness and unwieldy sexual encounters to gain insight into their own motivations. Sara discovers profundity and solace in the pleasure of really knowing oneself: “Being alone isn’t all bad. It’s enough that somebody loves you and you love somebody. If you love yourself, you’re not lonely when you’re alone.” Korneliussen is a welcome new voice in global fiction not because of the specifics of her geography, but because she captures so perceptively and vividly the expansive heart of a new generation.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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2018 marks the centenary of Muriel Spark's birth. It's been wonderful seeing how this event has reinvigorated interest in Spark’s books. Many people and organizations have marked the occasion from Ali of HeavenAli's year-long read-a-long #ReadingMuriel100 to Virago Press publishing a beautiful new edition of “Memento Mori” (that also celebrates this essential publisher's 40th anniversary) to Adam's video commemorating Spark's birthday (his booktube channel is even named after this Spark novel.) My own interest in Spark's fiction unfortunately stopped early on as I've only previously read “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”, "The Driver's Seat" and “The Finishing School” in 2004, the year it was published. The later turned out to be her final novel and it sadly felt lacklustre and slight to me which is why I didn't pursue reading any more of her earlier books. But now, having read “Memento Mori” I feel doubly inspired to pursue her back catalogue. It's so brilliantly clever and funny with its large cast of idiosyncratic elderly characters who are continuously hounded by a mysterious caller that regularly reminds them “Remember you must die.” The story is perfectly drawn to capture the tragicomic condition of old age as well as the great challenge of facing our own mortality.

Despite the creepy anonymous reminder many characters continue to spend their few remaining years getting into petty arguments, changing their wills out of revenge, desperately trying to hide age-old affairs from their partner, scheming to inherit money, amassing stacks of pointless statistics, routinely reading horoscopes or fighting the care staff that try to assist them. There’s something deliciously pleasurable in reading about characters who have supposedly reached the height of maturity but who act out so petulantly. It’s like a rebellion against the social norms we’re all constricted by, but it also serves as an example of how getting older doesn’t necessarily mean we get any wiser. The magnificent characters in this novel can be as undone by jealousy, pride, greed, lust and gluttony as anyone under seventy.

It’s also an incredible how Spark writes about serious subjects such as the onset of dementia and the fear of poverty in old age, but the story remains light and funny throughout. She writes in a minimalist way which only gives just enough information and the right amount of dialogue to make the reader feel they know the character implicitly without weighing the narrative down in detail. Also, Spark employs repetition with the instincts of a stand-up comedian. The more we get to know the characters and their tiresome tics, the funnier they become because their face-slapping predictability is wickedly humorous. We can almost foresee when Godfrey will comment how someone has lost their faculties or how Alec Warner will insist on gathering pointless data or that Dame Lettie Colston will change her will as a ploy to get what she wants. Although Spark may take the piss out her characters, she also treats them with a lot of care and affection. So when some characters abruptly die the reader feels their loss quite sharply.

The story is also impressively layered. Details of the characters’ complicated pasts and their various entanglements, deceptions and secrets are carefully distributed throughout the narrative to create a larger picture of why they act the way they do in the present. All the while there is the peculiar mystery of the morbid caller who harasses so many of them which in itself becomes quite comical, especially when none of his victims can agree on what his voice sounds like. I was very moved by the way this novel says so much about the human condition while also being fantastically entertaining. It’s impressive that Spark wrote this when she was only forty years old. My experience of the book was also enhanced by reading the entire novel aloud to my boyfriend during a week-long road trip we took around Scotland. It felt appropriate to read this Scottish writer in her native country (even though the novel is actually set in England.) The narrative and dialogue really came to life in reading it this way and gave us plenty of laughs along the way.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMuriel Spark
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Whenever I read a description of another new novel dealing with The Holocaust I feel a little twinge of uncertainty. Despite being one of the most horrific acts of genocide in the past century it’s a subject that’s been covered in countless novels. Is there anything new to say about this atrocity? Of course there is. Many novels from Audrey Magee’s “The Undertaking” to Ben Fergusson’s “The Spring of Kasper Meier” have proven this to me. But never has a novel I’ve read about this period of history felt more relevant and close-to-home than Rachel Seiffert’s new novel “A Boy in Winter.” I’m conscious that this has a lot to do with the current politics of our world, but I truly recognized in this story situations and patterns of behaviour that feel very near. Seiffert has fictionally dealt with this era before in her debut book “The Dark Room” which is composed of three novellas connected to the war and set in Germany. This new book is set in a small village in the Ukraine over a period of a few days in late 1941 when the Nazis come marching through “cleansing” the community of its Jewish population. It’s stunningly told and it’s a devastating story, but it also speaks so powerfully about the world we live in now.

Seiffert has the most unique and powerful way of conveying the inner sense of a character’s emotions using only external descriptions. It’s something she did so expertly in her previous novel “The Walk Home” (which was one of my favourite books of 2014) and she does it again in this new novel with an adolescent Jewish boy named Yankel. Different sections of the book focus on different characters, but the author doesn’t often shine a spotlight on Yankel. Instead, we get a sense of him through other characters such as his father who has been put in a hellish temporary holding cell by the Nazis or a young woman Yasia who takes in Yankel and his younger brother. We get descriptions of the way Yankel carries himself, his stance or the movement of his eyes, but even though the reader is not often keyed into what he’s thinking we get a real emotional understanding of him from the author’s evocative external descriptions. Seiffert does this in a way which is powerful and quite unique. The arc of his story and the semi-tragic transformation he goes through in order to survive is brilliantly told.

This is an incredibly beautiful and impactful novel, but a slight problem I had with it is an instance where a certain character who is conscripted into the Nazi forces leads the reader through the way that Jewish people were processed. There’s nothing wrong with Seiffert’s descriptions of these scenes and their impact is devastating, but it clearly felt like his character was being used simply as a device to show what the author wanted to show rather than what his character would naturally encounter. However, a striking thing about this section is the way she describes the Nazis basically forcing each other to drink while they conduct their brutal and horrific executions. It gave a powerful sense of the way many of these soldiers had to use alcohol to deaden their humanity in order to perform the atrocious duties they were ordered to perform.

The central question of this novel asks what you would do if you were faced with the choice of following the evil will of an oppressive government or being severely punished for refusing to participate. It prompts you to ask yourself what you would do if neutrality wasn’t an option. Seiffert shows the complexity of this question through a number of different characters including non-Jewish Ukranians and a German engineer who takes a remote position in the army because he wants to avoid this moral dilemma but finds himself forced to make a horrific choice. The lines between an individual’s right and wrong become blurred when they are forced to ask themselves: “where was the wrong in staying alive?” It’s a haunting question.

I read this novel as part of a mini-book group I’ve formed with the writers Antonia Honeywell and Claire Fuller. We discussed it over lunch and had a fascinating conversation, but it’s quite special in that it’s the first book (out of the three we’ve read together so far including “The Underground Railroad” and “Mothering Sunday”) that all three of us were overwhelmingly positive about. Antonia and Claire are astute critics so the fact they both liked this novel so much is high praise! Rachel Seiffert is an incredibly talented writer and I find her writing moving in a way that is hard to describe. But it’s safe to say I’d recommend that everyone should read this timely historical novel.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesRachel Seiffert
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I’ve had a copy of Linda Grant’s most recent novel “The Dark Circle” on my shelf since it was published in November, but for whatever reason I didn’t get to reading it despite being extremely moved by her previous novel “Upstairs at the Party.” So I was delighted to find it on the Baileys Prize shortlist as it gave me a great excuse to get it down and finally read it. Although this novel is very different from her previous one I was immediately drawn in by the eloquence of Grant’s prose with its excellent witty dialogue and vibrant characters. The story concerns a brother and sister (Lenny and Miriam) in 1950s London who contract tuberculosis. The city and social environment are vividly rendered where the continued deprivation of the war and effects of the bombings are still intensely felt. A very different scene is evoked when the pair are taken to a sanatorium in Kent which was once an exclusive facility for the privileged but it’s now taking in patients under the new national health care system. This creates an intermingling of people from all walks of life who are plagued by this illness and pining for a rumoured miracle cure. The result is a spectacular evocation of the passage of time and changing values through the lives of several fascinating characters.

The medical facility that's purportedly for recuperation feels like a truly stultifying environment. Patients are encouraged to be as inactive as possible to prevent themselves from getting too excited. They are prescribed to take in fresh, bracing air so many are set out on a veranda in the freezing cold weather. Most terrifying of all is an upper floor of children confined to their rooms and put in straight jackets if they become too active. Whilst purportedly giving their bodies a rest their minds rot from lack of stimulation. Yet, some of the patients form special connections based around interests like literature and music. There's a particularly forceful American character Arthur Persky who introduces an element of chaos into the strictly ordered facility. Gradually the stories of their particular backgrounds unfold amidst these interactions. New arrivals Lenny and Miriam are looked down upon as London working class Jewish people by some of the medical staff such as the terrifyingly named Dr. Limb. He feels that “the government had opened the door of the slums. It was difficult to be discerning about such an undifferentiated mass of humanity.” That there were such classist opinions about socialized health care in the early years of the system seems particularly striking when thinking about recent debates about funding for the NHS.

Miriam is a fan of films and movie stars. She particularly admires the beauty of Linda Darnell in 'Forever Amber'

Miriam is a fan of films and movie stars. She particularly admires the beauty of Linda Darnell in 'Forever Amber'

One of the most poignant stories in the novel is about a mysterious German patient named Hannah. She's someone who survived the horrors of war and brutal confinement only to find herself trapped within another institution with a terminal illness. Luckily she has a lover named Sarah who works for the BBC and exerts her influence to get a preciously rare experimental drug to Hannah. This sets in motion a chain of events which puts governmental scrutiny on how the facility is run. It was surprising and wonderful to find a lesbian love story at the centre of this novel. This is handled really sensitively where both women show a savviness to live how they want despite the prejudices of the time. They have a steadfast faith that “the new reality would emerge. It wasn’t a dream.”

Grant has a fascinating way of writing a historical novel that is conscious of future developments. During the narrative she'll sometimes refer to future novels that will be written or events that are simultaneously happening elsewhere which the characters can't know anything about. This creates a compellingly rounded view of history and a hopeful tone for how civilization is progressing despite the provincial attitudes of some people in the institution. It also lays the groundwork for the later parts of the novel which skip forward into the future at a point where the horrors of tuberculosis have largely been forgotten. It's skilful how Grant does this while also faithfully and vividly rendering a feeling for the 1950s milieu with its misguided medical practices and rumblings of anti-semitic attitudes. Individuals are forced to take drastic action to help themselves in some really dramatic and arresting moments. Certain scenes are described so sharply that they are particularly memorable. For instance, the grim way Lenny and Miriam's father died is something that I'll never forget. “The Dark Circle” is a gripping and finely detailed story.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesLinda Grant
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I enjoy it when novels clue me into fascinating new facts about the past. Shirley Barrett’s novel “Rush Oh!” takes place in the rural township of Eden in Australia. From a future point, Mary recounts the story of whaling season in the year 1908 so that her nephew can have a feeling for this defunct way of life. Her father George Davidson is a local hero as he leads whaling expeditions along the coast whenever they are spotted during their migration. What’s so interesting is that Barrett bases her story on a real arrangement where teams of men worked in conjunction with a group of local Killer whales. The Killer whales corralled blue, humpback or right whales into the bay so that the whalers could harpoon them. The Killer whales got to feast on the meat and the whalers took the rest of the carcass to use the blubber and bones. It’s a curious pact between men and beasts for a common cause. Barrett has brought to life a story about this rare arrangement which is filled with adventure and romance.

Mary is the eldest daughter of the Davidson family. She writes about the year 1908 because it was a time when the family’s fortunes began to turn since whales had become scarce. It’s also personally significant for her as that is when a strange former minister named John Beck comes to join the whale party and steals her heart. Having lost her mother many years ago it falls to her to organize the household and look after her younger brothers and sisters. Although I found the tales of the hunts for whales and details about the time period really engaging, something about Mary’s narration irritated me. She has what feels like a faux naivety and innocence that clashes with the brutal world around her. Her social awkwardness comes across as enduring and she has moments where she shows herself to be strong and capable. However, overall I found her mourning for her lost mother and romantic stirrings for John to be unconvincing. 

Skeleton of Killer whale that aided whalers in their hunts at the Eden Killer Whale Museum

Skeleton of Killer whale that aided whalers in their hunts at the Eden Killer Whale Museum

It’s interesting how Mary turns the narrative into a kind of scrapbook including drawings she made of the whales and people involved as well as articles from the local newspaper. This combined with descriptions of the meagre food they ate and the arduous hunts for whales really brought the story to life. It's fascinating how the primary Killer whale Tom becomes a character himself with a distinct personality. There are also several excellent comic scenes in the novel including when Beck tries to deliver a sermon to whalers who won’t stop interrupting him or a gruesome tale of Uncle Aleck who submerges himself in a whale carcass as a cure for his rheumatism. But the narrative comes across as inconsistent when it follows the thoughts and feelings of men on the whaling expeditions which Mary wasn’t a part of and couldn’t have had any real knowledge of. She admits in certain scenes that “To be honest, I am not entirely sure if these were their exact words – I am reconstructing this conversation from an account given to me later by John Beck.” This a cumbersome way of getting around the fact that Barrett can’t show as much of the tale as she’d probably like to because the story is stuck in Mary’s perspective.

I couldn’t help comparing this novel to another book I read recently named “Elemental” which shares some striking parallels. “Elemental” is also the first person account of a woman recording her life’s story of working by the sea during the early 20th century. She’s recording this for a family member and the second half even takes place in Australia. Yet, there is tenderness and charm in the voice of “Elemental”’s narrator which I felt was lacking in Mary’s account in “Rush Oh!” I did enjoy the historical period and setting for this novel, but I wish Shirley Barrett had found another way or created a different character to get into the story.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesShirley Barrett
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