I Am Sovereign by Nicola Barker.jpg

Lately it feels like Nicola Barker hasn’t been able to finish writing a novel without wanting to blow it up. Her last novel “H(A)PPY” was set in a future society where everyone’s mind was plugged into a single continuous stream and its hero’s consciousness became more hallucinatory while the text itself morphed into multi-coloured fragments and bizarre structures. It seems like there’s more tension in her narratives lately where the fourth wall is breaking down. Her new book “I Am Sovereign” is a self-designated novella. Within the story it’s stated “This is just a novella (approx.. 23,000 words)”. And its story is quite simple on the surface. The 49 year-old protagonist Charles creates customized stuffed bears and is seeking to sell his house in Wales. Over a twenty minute period estate agent Avigail presents the house to prospective buyer Wang Shu accompanied by her daughter Ying Yue who has come along as her translator. But the concept of this tale is merely a box within which Barker illuminates the artificiality of her characters and uses them as ciphers to discuss concepts of narrative itself. What little story there is soon breaks down – Barker even states at one point “Nothing of much note happens, really, does it?” Instead, Barker engages in arguments with particular characters and muses upon the nature of language, storytelling and authority. There’s a frenetic energy to Barker’s writing which is irresistible if you’re in a good humour or frustrating if you’re after an old-fashioned plot.

The thing about reading such a self-conscious and angst-ridden story is that it ought to be eye-rolling, but Barker has such clear affection for her characters that it feels like she really wants to grant them complete independence while also controlling them. “The Author can’t bear the idea of those four people leaving Charles’s tiny work room. They feel so alive to her.” Traits and details are assigned to characters but just as quickly they’re questioned because the characters believe differently. This complication comes most into play with the introduction of a character named Gyasi “Chance” Ebo who feels it’s an injustice that Barker has dragged him into her narrative. The character and author bicker and eventually his role in the story is replaced by that of another character. Barker toys with the limits of independence that characters can have to break free from an author’s designated plan and write their own story. This has obvious parallels to how we exist in society – especially in contemporary British society which is plagued with the question and democratically decided edict of Brexit. Are we creating the boundaries within which we want to exist or are those boundaries being written around us?

The characters are particularly inured to modern-day gurus found on YouTube who dole out advice. One such proponent advocates the goal “To be Sovereign. To be present, positive and boundaried.” There’s a resistance in Barker’s characters to be the screens she is projecting upon, but they are also aware there is no independence without their dependence upon her. It’s like the spiritual paradox of free will versus predestination. The comparison is very apt because Barker’s fiction is quite often consumed with questions of faith and spirituality. The characters in this novella are superstitious and seek revelation. However, the religious concerns expressed aren’t about indoctrination so much as they’re about searching and epistemological questions. Barker seems to take all this very seriously while also recognizing it’s absurd and her concerns are ultimately unanswerable. In her playfulness Barker is able to have it both ways in this novella. She states “shouldn’t fiction strive to echo life (where everything is constantly being challenged and contested)? Or is fiction merely a soothing balm, a soft breeze, a quiet confirmation, a temporary release? Why should it be either/or? Can’t fiction be exquisitely paradoxical?” I enjoyed the way this novella so joyously presents authorial problems and questions rather than a story with an affirmative arc. It’s like a teddy bear whose stuffing is oozing out, but you love it nevertheless.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesNicola Barker
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Overstory.jpg

I’ve been hesitant about reading Richard Powers for years because some readers I know have dismissed his writing as pretentious. I know I shouldn’t have let this put me off. He’s produced such an impressive body of work with weighty highly-praised novels that have won him the National Book Award, a Pushcart Prize and made him a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. His recent shortlisting on the Man Booker Prize finally pushed me to give his writing a try and I’m so glad I did because this novel is magnificent. What’s more it’s much more approachable and enjoyable than I thought it would be. It’s a truly epic tale primarily about ecological activism, family heritage and the surprising interconnections between people and the natural world. I was immediately enthralled by the long separate stories of nine individuals which vary so wildly in subject matter. They range from tales about a Chinese immigrant to a farmer that embarks on an ambitious photography project to a boy with a flair for writing code at the dawn of the computer age to a college girl with a hazardous bad-girl streak. He frames these stories through the lens of trees so time is altered to recount events at their pace of life. The stories initially leap through years and big events are recounted in brief. While they seem so disparate at first they gradually thread together throughout the novel to tell a much larger story. Powers structures the novel like a tree itself from the roots to the trunk to the crown to the seeds. While I don’t think every storyline or device he used worked, I was nevertheless astounded by the ambitious scope of this novel and found it continuously engaging despite its considerable length.

It’s quite a challenge to get humans to think on a timescale like that which trees experience, but Powers accomplishes this in such an inventive way. One character photographs a certain tree at a particular time for many years and its observed how “The generations of grudge, courage, forbearance, and surprise generosity: everything a human being might call the story happens outside his photos’ frame.” In this way, Powers trains the reader to think beyond the emotions which rule our daily lives and consider the way which trees bear themselves throughout time and in the world. His mission for doing this is admirable because it encourages the reader to really feel the central concern of the novel which is the rapid destruction of our natural world.

One scene vividly describes the soulless task of working in a mega website’s fulfilment centre.

One scene vividly describes the soulless task of working in a mega website’s fulfilment centre.

Powers even seems to doubt the ambition of his mission within the course of the book. Late in the novel he observes how “To be human is to confuse a satisfying story with a meaningful one, and to mistake life for something huge with two legs. No: life is mobilized on a vastly larger scale, and the world is failing precisely because no novel can make the contest for the world seem as compelling as the struggles between a few lost people.” It’s so challenging for us to conceive of the larger struggles of the world which is why watching news about depressing world events feels important to us, but doesn’t often motivate us to instigate any actual changes. What I think Powers is attempting to do in this novel is compel us to re-view how we look at time and nature in a radically different way – while also doing that exact thing of compelling his readers with the stories about a few lost people.

I was most strongly drawn to the story of Adam who possesses unique psychological insight because he found it so difficult to connect with other people as a child. It’s so moving how Powers describes that for Adam “Every hug is a small, soft jail.” Equally, I really enjoyed the story of Neelay whose physical disability compels him to vividly conjure alternate lives. It’s also very effective how Powers shows the trajectory of student Olivia’s life and how he frames this within sections of the novel. But I was somewhat put off by the story of Ray and Dorothy’s relationship. Their sections aren’t badly told, but the progression of their story felt somewhat cliched to me and noticeably separate from the intertwining stories of the other characters. I’m not sure the way in which the characters’ stories mix together was always believable either. But they are so dramatically told and contain such fascinating insights drawn from a wide range of subjects. I was glad sink wholeheartedly into this wildly energetic and impressive novel.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesRichard Powers

Nicola Barker’s novels consistently surprise and puzzle me with their wide-ranging subject matter, discursive style and wondrously mind-bending sensibility. She’s a writer frequently in tune with what’s happening now whether it’s memorialising a magician’s 2003 performance art in her novel “Clear” or investigating the contemporary cultural and ethnic landscape of England through the life of a boorish pro-golfer in her novel “The Yips.” So it feels like another creative feat that she sets her new novel “H(A)PPY” not just in a dystopian future, but in a post-post apocalyptic time. Here she charts the journey of a musician named Mira A as some inner rebellion forces her to question the meaning of freedom, creativity, individuality and, yes, happiness itself. The result is a fascinating tale which speaks strongly about our modern times and demonstrates impressively daring narrative ingenuity.

Far in the future after society has been ravaged by a number of disasters, the general population has been reigned into a state of consistent harmony by plugging their lives into a continuous stream and an overarching graph which monitors and stabilizes their lives. All basic needs are cared for with clothes that instantly fit to meet a wearer's needs. Sexual frustration isn't an issue because people's genitals have shrunk down to virtually nothing due to an evolutionary process. Unhappiness has been ironed out from the populace through something like that age-old Buddhist adage: ‘if one can eliminate desire/attachment, one can eliminate suffering.’ Any inconsistent or strong feelings are flagged in the narrative of this collective grid and Barker shows this by actually changing the colour of the text on the page. Words that might incite chaotic emotion such as arrogant or embarrassment are subject to a “pinkering” effect. This System corrects such inconsistencies in its population through chemicals or, in extreme cases, ominous-sounding clamps fitted around the head.

The modern parallels are immediately obvious in that (if you use social media) you are frequently contributing to and participating in a continuous collective narrative of text and images. While ostensibly this should be an arena for open/free-thinking debate, we must ask ourselves sometimes how much we both monitor each other and ourselves, modifying the language we use and what we post to fit in with each other or not be too disruptive. No one wants to be subject to an online backlash. Yet we participate because we want to participate just as Mira A wants to cleanse her narrative stream in order to be equanimous. She believes in the righteousness of what are called “the Young” who exist in a subdued present state of perpetual harmony. But an issue keeps arising where her affirmation of a H(A)PPY state persists in “disambiguating” and “parenthesising.”

Mira A has begun to form her own narrative in the text of this book and that's where the trouble arrises. This sets her existence in a timeline. If you are cognizant of the past and thinking about the future you are subject to the interplay between memory, imagination and the present time you live in. Here is the chaos of consciousness which is never stable, but always shifting and surprising and raising more questions. We try to make sense of the world when there is no sense to be made which is why some of us are obsessed with reading so much, but no matter how many books we read they will never be enough. Instead, we're perpetually considering other narratives and letting these mingle with, inform and colour our own. When Mira A finds herself unable to stop the flow of her narrative someone who challenges her observes “What is behind the blind alley? you scream. What is the mystery? What is the secret? 'But these are empty questions. There is no secret here, no mystery, just empty speculation.'” There is no definitive answer or ultimate knowledge, but we keep asking questions, reading about other lives and telling our own stories.

A performance by Agustin Barrios. In her preface, Barker suggests listening to his music while reading this novel.

Mira A finds herself embroiled in a struggle between someone who is trying to stabilize the System and someone who is trying to break it with a revolution called “The Banal.” No matter how ardently and frequently she chastises herselfwith the phrase *TERRIBLE DISCIPLINE* her narrative continues, her behaviour becomes increasingly erratic and random streams of information flood in. She's haunted by and seeks to riff off from the music of Agustín Barrios who was a Paraguayan virtuoso guitarist and composer from the early 20th century. Like a Google search which plunges us into a rabbit hole of infinite information his music leads to interjections about the colonial history of Paraguay, the suppression of its native language and social oppression. Add to this a haunting sense of Mira A's connection to a distant red planet, a bizarre twin self (Mira B), a brown-eyed girl in a photograph, a cathedral constructed out of phrases and a sinister mechanical canine named Tuck and the story gets very weird. About halfway through this novel it becomes totally wild where the text leaps off the page, changes font, inflates, overlaps, fizzles, twists backward and shades into different colours. Mira A even dips her finger into the text to form cryptic hieroglyphic shapes.

This is a novel that you either play along with or get turned off by. I enjoyed the crazy ride. If you are continuously fascinated by but overwhelmed and dispirited with the boundless streams of information to be found online (like I frequently am) Barker reflects this well. At the same time I was moved by the way the story evokes questions about the interplay between our stream of thoughts and our online social timelines. Consciously or not, we try to cultivate and control online personas by the information we choose to share or manipulate or withhold or erase. Mira A wants to simply fit in and be happy, but her personality has crooked edges. It's only through embracing our differences and contradictions that we're able to feel fully ourselves. Despite innately knowing this we keep trying to regulate ourselves and control the way people perceive us. That's what makes this fantastical novel feel so prescient and real.

Read a fun interview with Nicola Barker here: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/jul/22/nicola-barker-books-interview-love-island-happy

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesNicola Barker
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What place does art hold in our day to day lives? That's one of the questions at the centre of Sara Baume's second novel. Frankie is a twenty-five year old woman who has left her rented apartment in Dublin after studying art and working in a gallery. Finding it impossible to integrate into a working and social life as her uni friends have and concluding that “The world is wrong, and I am too small to fix it, too self-absorbed”, she retreats to her late grandmother's rural bungalow. She endeavours to create art on a daily basis and continuously quizzes herself finding thematic connections between incidents in her life and specific pieces of art. Her family come to visit and hover close by as they are concerned about her mental health. Frankie experiences depression and she becomes increasingly isolated because of her prickly demeanour. The author's debut novel “Spill Simmer Falter Wither” recounted the reclusive life of a man and his dog at the fringes of society. With this inventive and fascinating new novel Baume proves that she is the master of describing the intense poignancy of solitude within a noise-drenched world.

One of the things that makes Frankie so relatable is the way she internalizes snippets of recent news or things she sees in films. There are popular incidents from recent memory she notes such as published aerial photos of the last “uncontacted” tribe in the world and news of the Malaysia Airlines flight which disappeared. These incidents take on a special significance for her speaking to how she is disconnected from larger society. Also, she recounts watching Herzog's documentary Encounters at the End of the World which records the filmmaker's time with scientists in Antartica. There is a poignant moment towards the end of the film where a “deranged” penguin inexplicably wanders away from his colony to the mountains, isolation and death. Frankie seems to wonder if she is like this lone individual, an aberration of her civilization destined for loneliness. This reminded me strongly of Jessie Greengrass' short stories for their similar philosophical contemplation about the meaning of solitude within an icy landscape.

Each chapter recounts and reproduces the photographs Frankie takes in the countryside. She takes photos of dead birds and small mammals she encounters to reflect “the immense poignancy of how, in the course of ordinary life, we only get to look closely at the sublime once it has dropped to the ditch, once the maggots have already arrived at work.” It's somewhat shocking as a reader to be confronted with these photos of dead animals to consider their sentiment and macabre beauty. They are things which most people would turn away from if they encountered them on a ramble through nature. But Frankie sees significance in these and many other things she comes across, considering how they might be artistic expressions of deeper ideas about the state of existence.

It may sound like this novel is too ponderous or fixated on the grim facts of life, but there are also touches of dark humour that relieve it from being too bogged in seriousness. Frankie's perspective can turn surprisingly funny especially when she thinks about religion. At one time she recalls a priest she knew who seemed so “priestly” it was impossible to imagine him as human under his cassock and instead being like a Russian doll of clerical clothing. In another scene she gets her hair cut and reflects how the experience de-personalizes us: “Here in the hairdresser’s, we are all ill-defined, inchoate. We are all but ankles and shoes, wet necks and wet foreheads.” The usual conversational chatter the hairdresser tries to make is quickly rebuffed by Frankie. Her refusal to engage in social pleasantries often has a humorous effect for her brutal honesty when “people don’t like it when you say real things”, but it's also unsettling for how cruel she can be to a doctor at a mental health centre or to her own mother calling to wish her happy birthday.

Frankie sees in Van Gogh's  Wheatfield with Crows  "An angry, churning sky, tall yellow stalks, a grass-green and mud-brown path cutting through the stalks, tapering into the distance; a line made by walking."

Frankie sees in Van Gogh's Wheatfield with Crows "An angry, churning sky, tall yellow stalks, a grass-green and mud-brown path cutting through the stalks, tapering into the distance; a line made by walking."

There is something refreshingly inventive about Baume's writing which resists using traditional metaphors or descriptions. A pet peeve of mine is reading overused creative writing tricks that imbue objects with sensory feelings like calling a sponge “lemon yellow.” However, Baume describes a Christian leaflet that Frankie is given as “stomach-bile yellow” and a rising sun as a “a prickly auburn mound.” These meaningfully reflect her character's state of mind as well as showing a humorous contempt for trying to invoke pleasant imagery. Frankie also forthrightly declares herself outside the narrative of a novel or film stating “The weather doesn’t match my mood; the script never supplies itself, nor is the score composed to instruct my feelings, and there isn’t an audience.” This goes against the prevailing feeling of our age that we live our lives as if we're the stars of our own reality shows or that we're in a book or film where the sky is imbued with poetic descriptions and music accompanies the emotion of our encounters. Of course, ironically, Frankie can't escape the fact that she is a character in a novel: there are emotive descriptions of the sky and Frankie listens to Bjork on high volume while she's travelling.

Frankie's actions are extreme as she's experiencing a severe form of depression, but her thought process and inclinations are highly relatable. The decision to engage with or remove yourself from society is something many people wrestle with on a daily basis and we can shelter our inner being in a multitude of ways. The question of whether isolation is a more honest form of living or a surefire way to descend into madness is meaningfully explored in this novel and the recent novel “Beast” by Paul Kingsnorth. What's overwhelmingly touching about Frankie's view is her steadfast belief in the redeeming influence of art over any institutionalized belief system like psychiatry or religion. She feels “art remains the closest I have ever come to witnessing magic.” So she clings to this belief in the power of art to connect her to humanity and raise her out of the mire of existence no matter how deeply alone she becomes.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSara Baume
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When I read the Baileys Women’s Prize longlist last year, one of my favourite books was Sara Taylor’s novel “The Shore” a sprawling family epic centred on an island. It read like a fantastic jigsaw puzzle where you could piece together how a family was related by following their separate stories at different points over two centuries.

I was thrilled to receive her follow up novel “The Lauras” which is a very different kind of book but maintains her distinctly engrossing and insightful style of writing. It’s somewhat challenging to write about it because the novel’s narrator Alex, who is thirteen years old at the book’s beginning, doesn’t live as one gender or another. So it just presents a technical challenge where I have to use the joint pronouns she/he when referring to Alex. (This isn’t the novel’s fault but shows how gender divisions are so ingrained in our culture and language.) The novel begins when Alex is abruptly woken in the night by her/his parents’ fighting - unfortunately this isn’t unusual in Alex’s experience. But this time Alex’s mother comes into her/his room and abruptly takes Alex with her to run away. They embark on a journey across country which takes a number of years as Alex’s mother concludes unsettled business from her chequered past and forges new relationships. Meanwhile, Alex grows into an independent individual by making connections with a broad spectrum of people and experiencing adventures for her/himself. So this novel is a thrilling road trip story about a mother and her child on the run. It also says something deeply compelling about how we form fictitious and factual tales about our lives, challenges conventional notions about identity and how we define the concept of home.

The Lauras of the novel’s title are five different girls/women Alex’s mother knew over the course of her adolescence and teenage years – all of whom were named Laura. They all played an important role in her life as she tried to make her way in a difficult situation. Her parents were unstable and her home frequently shifted as she and her brother spent time in different care facilities. These Lauras are both distinct individuals and represent the crucial connections we make with people which help us find the right path in life. Alex remarks at one point: “you look back when you’re forty years old and realize that you have a long string of Lauras behind you who were all important, and it isn’t just coincidence but the eight-year-old you trying to fill in the hole that the first Laura made.” This is a meaningful statement that encapsulates how we seek out or are found by people with whom we form alliances in life that both inspire and challenge us in making crucial decisions about the future. Alex’s mother tells her/him stories about her life as they drive up, down and across America. So the mother’s recollection of the past is layered on top of the experiences they have revisiting significant places and individuals in a beautifully poignant way. Meanwhile, Alex pines for the father that she/he left behind and holds to the belief that they’ll be reunited - even as the years pass by while the mother and child occasionally move from state to state.

Recently I read Marilynne Robinson’s exquisitely beautiful novel “Housekeeping” but haven’t felt equipped to write about it on this blog yet. There are parallels between Robinson’s novel and this story in the way they challenge the idea of what a home is when the narrative of family is fractured. At an early point in Taylor’s novel Alex wants to know from his mother ““When are we going home?” I asked. “What is home?” she asked back... “That's a time, not a place. And time only goes one way.”” Although the mother was obviously in a difficult situation with Alex’s father, I couldn’t help feeling upset that Alex was so rashly pulled of the life that she/he knew for a constantly shifting/unstable life on the road. But gradually it becomes apparent that the connection that Alex and her/his mother share is the most important nurturing aspect of her/his life rather than the place they happen to be living in. The home we make or are born into can be a place where we can grow and thrive, but it can also be a kind of trap we must escape. It leads Alex to discover that “home for me was a place I was going to, rather than a place I could occupy.”

The fact of Alex’s gender neutrality is obviously something that is challenging to most people that she/he meets during their journey across the country. Alex’s physical features and clothing don’t immediately signal that Alex is a boy or girl. Alex’s doesn’t believe that she/he should have to choose a gender to live as so remains neutral allowing most people to look at her/him in a puzzled way and refer to Alex simply as “kid.” Alex reasons that “Knowing someone's sex doesn't tell you anything. About that person, anyway. I suppose the need to know, how knowing changes the way you behave towards them, the assumptions you make about who they are and how they live, tells an awful lot about you.” The issue of whether Alex is male or female becomes most crucial when she/he enters high school where gender lines are more firmly drawn and Alex’s peers take a brutal bullying attitude when wanting to know the truth about what’s between Alex’s legs. They refer to Alex as “it.” The way which they need to define Alex as a girl or boy does say something significant about both their attitudes and our culture’s attitudes towards gender. Taylor presents Alex’s gender neutrality in a compelling way, especially in how Alex’s sexuality develops at this crucial time of life despite not specifically identifying as either a girl or boy.

Based on the “The Shore” and “The Lauras”, it’s interesting how Taylor’s narratives are made up of individual vignettes held together by overarching themes. This led some people to feel “The Shore” was more a group of short stories than a novel. “The Lauras” is more tightly held together as it is controlled by Alex’s narrative voice, but still amidst Alex’s journey there are the fascinating stories of many other people they meet along the way. This method of segmenting her novels into different stories might be inspired by the author’s mistrust of there being only one story: “it's so rare that reality rustles up a satisfying narrative shape, the edges rounded off and the ends tied up. It's rare that you get finality to things, the way we like our books and movies to end. Life so often goes flabby and peters out at the finish point instead of clicking satisfyingly, like the sound of a box being shut.” Like Alex’s gender, this novel doesn’t want to be limited to being only one thing which makes Taylor both an ambitious and fascinating writer. She is particularly good at portraying the lives of disadvantaged individuals hemmed in by the expectations of society. Flashes of violence appear throughout her sub-stories showing dramatic clashes between people who seek to control others and those who will fight to escape and survive. There are also moments of great tenderness and warmth. Sara Taylor is a gifted storyteller who threads thoughtful contemplations about life into her intelligent and beautiful writing. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSara Taylor

Apocalyptic visions of the future usually brim with dramatic conflict amidst large-scale destruction in society. Jenni Fagan takes a much more soft-treading and realistic approach to representing probable outcomes of climate change in her novel “The Sunlight Pilgrims” where a group of characters hole up in a Scottish caravan park for the onslaught of a cataclysmically cold winter in the year 2020. Rather than any explosive end to civilization, it seems much more likely that in the future life will still continue much as it does now until the effects of rising global sea levels make an unavoidable difference to our daily lives. Here it’s represented by a slow-moving iceberg making its way to the British Isles. Meanwhile many huddle within the commercial comfort of IKEA hoping that it’s not really happening. Amidst this coming crises, a fascinatingly unique group of characters at the margins of society deal with their own personal struggles while preparing for the coming of another Ice Age.

Central to the story is the beautifully realized character of Stella, an eleven year old who was biologically born a boy named Cael. Stella has been ostracized from the social groups she so recently enjoyed easy companionship with. She finds it particularly painful that a silence now exists between her and an attractive boy named Lewis who once kissed her. He bows to the peer pressure from his friends who mock and attack Stella for being transgendered while secretly still harbouring feelings for her. Stella also faces institutional challenges from a doctor who refuses to prescribe much-needed medication to block the hormones which are causing her to grow into a male with emerging facial hair and a deepening voice. Nor will he speed up a referral to a specialist who would hopefully be more sympathetic to her condition. This causes her internal anguish being trapped in the wrong body where “she feels like sprinting away from herself.”

Luckily Stella’s mother Constance rallies to her daughter’s support and fights for the justice that the vulnerable child isn’t able to insist upon herself. It’s touching how she exhibits total love for her daughter while struggling with private feelings of mourning for the son she has lost. It is also lucky that she’s strikingly capable in matters of survival ensuring that her family and those close to them are well prepared from the impending potentially lethal freeze. She’s someone that has been relegated to the margins of the community due to her unashamedly non-monogamous love affairs – for many years she maintained a simultaneous relationship with two men.

The mother and daughter meet a new neighbour in the park named Dylan who recently moved from London after the death of his beloved mother and grandmother. They left him a trailer in this remote village of Clachan Fells which he’s had to retreat to after the closure of the family-owned London arts cinema where he was raised. Dylan muses frequently upon his bohemian upbringing and the strong, compelling women who raised him. His grandmother Gunn MacRae won the cinema in a poker game when she was younger and maintained a bracingly liberal attitude towards sex stating in one dream-sequence: “always have a lover on the side or you might as well be dead.” Poring over things left by Gunn and his mother Vivienne, Dylan gradually discovers that his familial links to this little community are more complex than he first realized.

"Fronds of ice have all blown in one direction, creating feathers"

"Fronds of ice have all blown in one direction, creating feathers"

Fagan's writing has a remarkably poetic quality when she describes scenes of tremendous emotional conflict. In one of the most striking and emotional moments in the novel Dylan climbs up a mountain during particularly foggy weather. Troubled by his grief and memories his body seems to disintegrate into the haze. There follows a remarkable fluidity between the internal and external landscape which I found so beautifully moving and effective. Paired with these lyrically-charged passages, Fagan is equally skilful at writing punchy dialogue which brings life to the characters and grounds the narrative in realistic scenes.

“The Sunlight Pilgrims” is a beautifully written and chilling vision of the future with refreshingly original characters.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJenni Fagan

A potential danger when reading novels is that we can become a passive audience. The narrative should be designed to lead us down the path of a story without giving all the answers. If you’re not questioning what’s being told or asking what’s missing from the tale, reading ceases to be a participatory experience. Too often in literature it’s the wives who are left by the wayside. It’s observed in this novel that “Women in narratives were always defined by their relations.” They become a prop within the narrative or part of the background to flesh out the meatier story of the husband. The atrocious thing about this isn’t just that the writer has failed to honour the psychological reality of the female characters, but that readers don’t always ask what the wives’ perspectives might be. Instead we can become complacent, receive what the author tells us about the heroic life of the man and wonder nothing more about their faithful wives. In “Fates and Furies” Lauren Groff gives us such a story and skewers it with an iron spear. She challenges the expectations of the reader and creates an invigoratingly new kind of novel about how the participants in a marriage are first and foremost individuals.

A man named Lancelot or “Lotto” struggles to succeed in life, but he's driven by an overwhelming conviction that he was destined for something great. Although he comes from a privileged background, Lotto experiences a difficult childhood. Groff has a particular talent for summing up great swaths of emotion with terse prose. She states: “The world was precarious, Lotto had learned. People could be subtracted from it with swift bad math.” He escapes from his troubled family life with teenage rebellion and a keen drive for sexual conquest – up until he meets Mathilde. Their spontaneous marriage provides a bedrock upon which he can build a career and realize his full potential.

Although Mathilde is always present in the narrative she hovers in the background and never gets a voice. But, with the second half of the novel, her story comes to the forefront and her life is (of course) much more complex than Lotto assumed it was. Both Lotto and Mathilde keep many secrets from each other. It's noted that “Marriage is made of lies. Kindly ones, mostly. Omissions.” Mostly this isn't done out of malice; overall their marriage is a successful and happy one. It's unusual to read about a couple who are married for so many years yet never lose their vigorous physical connection or break apart because of an affair. As a team they are well suited as Lotto harbours grand ambitions which Mathilde can support him in realizing. In turn, Lotto gives her stability and affection: things which she sorely lacked in her unusual and emotionally-deprived childhood. Even so, their long-term relationship isn't a happily ever after story. Chance plays a role in the highs and lows of their years together. Groff writes “There is no absolute anything. The gods love to fuck with us.”

Lauren Groff in conversation at Politics and Prose bookstore

The writing in this novel is so sharp and clever. I loved the astute observations Groff makes especially about the changes and transformations we make throughout our lives. When the very sociable couple find their circle of friends being whittled down over the years it's stated that “The ones who remained were heart wood, marrow.” This is such a beautiful way of summarizing how people that stay closest to us throughout our lives remain so because they are the people who feel vital. She's equally good at making observations about how the body changes over time. When Lotto looks down at himself one day in his middle age “He poked at the belly the size of a six-month-old baby glued to his midsection.” It's a comical way of describing how our bodies are things we inhabit our whole lives, but there is a curious distance between the way we feel we are and the way we physically appear in reality. Groff's wry humour amidst making pointed and often surprising observations makes this novel such a pleasure to read. She can take something as serious and personal as the loss of a dear loved one and comment upon the irrational behaviour that follows “What was grief but an extended tantrum to be salved by sex and candy?” The characters are handled sympathetically and their struggles feel so personal, but there is always a healthy level of objective distance taken.

There is a lot in this novel about the nature of storytelling itself. The characters are cast in dramas which subtly mimic mythic tales. Yet it feels so invigorating, new and relevant to our time period. There are tropes that are familiar, but “This isn’t Oliver Twist.” Long periods of Lotto's life are conveyed through the plays he writes. Mathilde's narrative is much more fragmented and skips around wildly between periods of her life – as is fitting for her mental state at the time we join her story. Groff could be speaking about her own impatience with traditional narratives when she writes in this novel “She was so tired of the old ways of telling stories, all those too-worn narrative paths, the familiar plot thickets, the fat social novels. She needed something messier, something sharper, something like a bomb going off.” For it's gripping richly-plotted drama and its deep understanding of the complexity of identity, “Fates and Furies” feels explosive.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesLauren Groff
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Sometimes part of the pleasure of reading new fiction is coming to it with no preconceived notions or expectations. In the case of “High Dive” I hadn't even read a description of the plot despite it being published at the end of October. It was a book that was sent to me and I decided to plunge in without knowing anything about it. The novel begins with an incredibly chilling scene of a young man named Dan undergoing an initiation for joining the IRA in 1978. Then the story shifts to 1984 with a teenage girl named Freya and her father Philip or “Moose” who is the assistant general manager of The Grand Hotel in Brighton. I felt instantly gripped as I realized I had entered a story leading up to the infamous IRA bombing of the Conservative Party conference. I knew the incident came close to taking Margaret Thatcher's life, but beyond that I had little knowledge or understanding about the history of this attack other than it was a significant incident amidst The Troubles. Jonathan Lee fictionally creates characters surrounding the event including the perpetrator of the bombing who went under the alias Roy Walsh to sympathetically show both sides' stories and the emotional tension and political conflict leading to this horrendous bombing.

Since this is entirely a fictional story set within a historical event, even readers who are familiar with the people involved with the bombing in October 1984 won't know the fates of Lee's primary characters. There is a chilling atmosphere surrounding the otherwise normal and emotionally-engaging story of single father Philip, a one-time Olympic hopeful high diver, who plans to be promoted to full manager of the hotel and his daughter Freya who is struggling to realize who she is and what she wants in life. The father-daughter relationship is particularly poignant when Philip becomes ill and Freya finds herself getting annoyed by his illness. She is conscious that such a reaction is selfish, yet she can’t prevent herself from feeling it and acting out because of it.

On 12 October 1984, the IRA carried out the most audacious terrorist attack in its history. Programme about the Brighting bombing.

Alongside this, Lee writes with great empathy about Irish Dan whose father was killed in a skirmish with police when he was an adolescent and who wants to make a radical change to end British rule in Ireland. He hides his activities from his mother and this secret plays out unspoken between them in a dramatic way. His charismatic and terrifying mentor Dawson eloquently summarizes the power imbalance between the two nations and how they had locked horns in conflict: “History clears away the blood, records the results, but that doesn’t mean the blood wasn’t there. An Ireland occupied by the Brits will never be free. An Ireland unfree will never be at peace.” There is a strong sense that the rhetoric of the time and the history books since haven’t recorded the full extent of the damage and death caused by the English oppression. In vivid, emotional scenes you’re made to feel the anger and outrage of the Irish Republicans and their desperate need to strike back against Thatcher: “Thatcher might govern in her own tight circle but she’s no right to power here, none at all. She’s queen of nothing, and we’ll treat her with the same respect she’s granted us. Let her taste a little bit of equality.” Lee shows the way these boiling tensions might have led to such desperate acts, laying out the battling ideologies at play and how people can justify acts of terror to themselves in order to make a grander statement and force change.

Although rooted in history, this is a novel that speaks very much about familiar issues we deal with today. Deadly political divisions. Wars of terror. Innocent victims. “High Dive” is a heart-wrenching drama that cleverly shows how the intensely personal becomes political and the war to dominate the narrative of history.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJonathan Lee

Four women who range in age from 60 to 87 decide they have nothing left to lose in lives which have treated them poorly. Susan, a housewife for the majority of her life, finds she’s been betrayed by her humdrum accountant husband who harbours secret passions. Her life-long friend Julie is forced to work a series of menial jobs after having been betrayed by a younger lover. Grandmother Jill spends her time desperately trying to raise funds for an operation to save her grandson’s life. Former showgirl Ethel Merriman is wasting away in a retirement home with people who don’t appreciate her bawdy humour. These women have been defeated by life, but decide it’s time to get their own back by staging a bank heist and running for the border. This is a high-speed comedic chase novel which shows women entering their later years misbehaving in the most fantastic way.

Fans of author John Niven’s writing which has traditionally contained an overriding sense of masculinity will be interested to read the same thrilling brashness applied to a group of aging women. The elderly character of Ethel in particular is as foul-mouthed and sexually-driven as they come. She disarms men with her sexual suggestiveness and sings smutty rugby songs while munching on hard sweets in her wheelchair. What’s more Niven shows a sympathetic feeling for the ways female friendships can morph and change over an expanse of time: “lifelong friendships are curious things – the yardsticks by which we often measure ourselves. They were deep pools where there were tensions, currents and strange eddies that it was best to steer clear of. But, at the end of the day and all that, here they were, both turning sixty this year.” Buried secrets and resentments from Susan and Julie’s pass emerge over the course of their frantic attempt to flee through France.

Barrelling after the women on the run is a hefty flatulent detective named Boscombe who seems the embodiment of the crass, reactionary British male. There is a lot of humour at his expense while his poor suffering partner and chief back in Britain can only shake their heads in embarrassment. There is something incredibly satisfying about reading the adventures of these women as they charge through a traditionally male landscape thwarting policemen, stuck-up hotel managers, sleazy aging playboys and dangerous gangsters along the way. The title refers to the final big heist robbers decide to pull off before retiring from crime, but after the exuberance of their stunt it’s like these aging women are just getting their start late in life. This is the female answer to the 1979 geriatric caper film Going in Style. “The Sunshine Cruise Company” enthusiastically smashes stereotypes of women heading into retirement and it’s a funny fast-paced thriller.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJohn Niven
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