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When this year’s Man Booker International Prize longlist was announced it included French book “The Years” by Annie Ernaux. Some people scratched their heads at its inclusion – not because of its perceived quality – but because the English version was published in the UK by Fitzcarraldo with their recognizable plain white covers and blue lettering. This signifies it’s a book of essays or nonfiction (as opposed to their plain blue covers with white lettering which signifies it’s a work of fiction.) But the Man Booker International Prize is only open to fiction. What gives? Well, when “The Years” first appeared in its native French language it was classified as a novel. So apparently Fitzcarraldo asked the Booker if “The Years” could be submitted as a novel even though they originally classified it as nonfiction. The Booker accepted.

This titbit of gossip doesn’t matter, but it shows how the form of “The Years” doesn’t follow any neat classification. It’s part fiction, part essay, part autobiography. Personally, I don’t care how books are categorized or which shelf they sit on in a bookstore. What is important is how this revolutionary book conveys a sense of history, consciousness and national identity like no other book I’ve read before. Narrated in a unique collective “we” voice it follows a woman and those around her from post-WWII through to the current Information Age. In doing so it provides such a unique shifting sense of time as it speaks from the perspective of people in an era of rapid change. Also it regularly focuses on jarringly precise details that come close to poetry. Somehow it achieves the startling feat of being both intimately personal while also speaking as the collective voice of a generation. It’s extraordinary, beautiful and warrants prizes no matter what label it’s published under.

One of the absolutely fascinating things “The Years” does is openly discuss its protagonist’s desire to write a book and the struggle to find the right form for doing so. Normally such self-consciousness can be distracting, but in this book it’s very poignant how it captures our desire to catalogue our experiences and lives in a way which will both memorialise them and articulate their true meaning. In fact, in the later part of the book she explicitly states the mission of why she’s written the book in this way: “By retrieving the memory of collective memory in an individual memory, she will capture the lived dimension of History.” She does this by referencing a number of photographs taken throughout the protagonist’s life and it’s through the lens of these different stages of an individual life that she touches upon the sensibility of a generation. For instance, with a picture of the adolescent girl she devises “that writing is able to retrieve here something slipping through the 1950s, to capture the reflection that collective history projects upon the screen of individual memory.”

I also felt I could strongly relate to how she discusses the process of maturity. As we age our perception of time and our own personalities change as well. As a precocious teenager she feels: “She has gone over to the other side but she cannot say to what. The life behind her is made up of disjointed images. She feels she is nowhere, 'inside' nothing except knowledge and literature.” This beautifully captures a sense of moving from childhood to a different form of engagement with society where we become preoccupied with intellectual questions rather than just looking at the world with wonder. Later there’s an especially poignant moment where she feels her life is passing her by: “She feels as if a book is writing itself just behind her; all she has to do is live. But there is nothing.” This so elegantly and tragically describes a heightened sense of self-consciousness where we see our lives like a movie or the story of a novel. And we feel that it’s being captured in some essential way, but in reality our experiences only exist on the periphery of other people’s and aren’t memorialized except in fleeting memories or photographs.

It’s so interesting how personal details are often only referred to in asides. We’re fleetingly aware the protagonist gets married, works, has children and gets divorced but these aren’t the central tenants of the plot. What this book is more concerned with is capturing the mood in stages of time and how this individual’s personality is informed by and reflects the changing society. The sense of a collective voice powerfully shows the social change and predominant ideology of a certain section of French society at different times. As she moves through the decades of the 60s and 70s there’s a growing sense of feminism and social progress. Later on there’s a critique of capitalism and material obsession in the 80s and a sense of how our relationship to world events changes with the advent of the Information Age. But there is also an expression of regressive values and xenophobia which periodically emerge in views about immigrants and Arabs. In response to acts of terrorism there are some jarring statements where its expressed “That people could murder each other over religion was beyond our comprehension. It seemed to prove that these populations had remained at an earlier stage of evolution.” Ernaux describes how these pervasive feelings of prejudice spread throughout cultures at certain times, the way in which sections of society can form elitist views and subject different cultures to a form of “otherness” which divides people in the country.

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I admire how daring the author was in self-consciously plotting out the book’s structure while also creating such an enjoyable and moving reading experience. I felt I could connect with the story so powerfully though it’s so wrapped up in a time, place and people very different from my own. The novel is beautifully framed at the beginning and end with certain images which seem plucked at random but have taken on such importance for the protagonist. There are several points in the book when she recalls the memory of a woman pissing out in the open and though it was just a fleeting observation it stays with her so vividly. I love how this reflects the way we can become obsessed with certain experiences or memories which linger in our minds – not because they have any great significance but they have been defined by our point of view. They are “the images of a moment bathed in a light that is theirs alone.” This shows how it’s not the fact of events in history which resound in the collective memory but our unique perceptions of them. This is one of the many brilliant ways this novel expresses so much about personality, time and the state of being.

Now that “The Years” has been shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize (and even though I still have three other books to read on the list) I hope Annie Ernaux wins.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAnnie Ernaux
2 CommentsPost a comment
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From the description of this novel I thought it would be a standard mid-late life crisis story about a man contemplating what his ambition and success really amount to. But it turned out to be something much more subtle and nuanced than that with a clever twist at the end. Park Minwoo was raised in a working class neighbourhood surrounded by poverty and gang violence, but became a successful architect heading his own firm. Parallel to his story is that of Jung Woohee who is a 29 year old playwright and director struggling to earn a living by working the night shift at a convenience store while trying to realise her artistic ambitions. What’s so moving about these two story threads is the way they intertwine to say something much larger about how our values and desires can become so twisted over the course of time. While working to create a good life for ourselves and those closest to us we become enmeshed in society’s progress which has a way of paving over history and people who fall by the wayside. This novel says something powerful about how our collective and personal values change over time. 

Something I appreciated most about this novel was the detailed account of Woohee’s difficulty in making a living. She’s forced to work outside regular working hours for below minimum wage and live in substandard accommodation because if she makes any legal complaint she’ll lose her job and shelter. Instances of injustice like this occur all the time, but largely go unacknowledged and I appreciate fiction that deals seriously with this plight. Also, though Minwoo is now in a privileged position he’s portrayed in a complex and sympathetic way where his life is overcast with loneliness. An old friend is reintroduced into his life when he receives a request to call Soona who was the most desired girl in the small village of Moon Hollow where Minwoo grew up. He hasn’t had any contact with her for years. Now letters from her awaken memories of his childhood and make him consider how his achievements turned out very differently from what he expected. My initial confusion about why two different characters had the same name was eventually quelled when the intricate plot finally unfolded in a disarming and thought-provoking way. This is a book whose greater meaning will linger with me.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesHwang Sok-yong
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It’s especially exciting as a reader when I start a novel and immediately feel engrossed by the story. This is a difficult thing to accomplish because it’s not just the content that needs to grip me but the style and tone of the narrative have to confidently guide me into the fictional world being presented. But I did feel wholly inside the story of “You Will Be Safe Here” by Damian Barr starting with the prologue where a teenage boy named Willem is forcibly taken by his parents to a sinister institution in 2010 and this feeling continued into the first chapter when a woman named Sarah describes her fear at the sight of distant smoke in 1901 as she knows this means military forces are nearing her farm. 

So begin the stories of two different South African individuals at opposite ends of a century. This immersive novel explores the egregious fact of British-run concentration camps during The Second Boer War and camps in the present day designed to toughen up white young South African men who are deemed too effeminate or soft. These institutions are prisons that go by different names because they are purportedly for their inhabitants’ safety and improvement, but they’re really a slow form of torture. Through their pernicious practices we see warring ideologies about what makes the South African national identity and the unfortunate individuals who are the casualties of this political battle. It’s a heartrending tale, but it’s filled with so many beautifully realized moments that I didn’t want to look away and could relate to these characters’ stories (even though they are far different from my own life.)

A largely unknown truth this novel presents is the history of how the British operated concentration camps in South Africa from 1900-1902. Most people (including me) think of concentration camps as a Nazi invention during WWII, but prior to that they were implemented during the Second Boer War as a British military strategy to break up guerrilla campaigns. Civilian homes were destroyed and the inhabitants were herded into these poorly run camps to prevent the Boers resupplying from a home base. Thousands of civilians died in these overcrowded camps – mostly because of malnourishment and disease. This was shocking to discover and the story vividly brings us into the reality of what it was like to be interred in one of these camps. Though they weren’t designed as death camps that’s what they became for many. The novel movingly shows that there was cruelty but also moments of human kindness, friendship and a complex community spirit which arose in the face of adversity. 

Being immersed in this history, it was difficult to see how Barr would create a bridge between this tale from the past and the one set in the near-present day. But the way he connects the two is gracefully done as we recognize characters between the two sections and see how the politics of the past can still be felt today. The thing which really drew me to Willem’s character is his bookish nature as he prefers spending time in the library at school rather than playing sports. Stories present an escape from his present where he’s ruthlessly bullied and ostracised. But what I most admire about the way the author handles Willem’s character and his storyline is that he’s not shown to have any particular sexuality though he’s labelled by his father and other boys as a “moffie”. Whether he’s still uncertain about his sexuality or keeps it private isn’t a concern for the reader and this better highlights how the issue is really the standards of masculinity all boys in this environment are being held to. Equally, a friendship Willem develops with another boy is delicately and complexly handled when it could have so easily become a cliché in the hands of a less talented writer.

A British-run concentration camp during the Second Boer War

A British-run concentration camp during the Second Boer War

This novel came with a huge amount of expectation. Not only was Damian Barr’s first book a compassionate and insightful memoir about growing up in the time of Thatcher. But he also regularly hosts the most impressive and glitziest literary salon in London where the guests he interviews include some of the best and most famous writers of today. Interacting with such literary greats puts a lot of pressure on this host to create a first novel that's really something special, but the result is so original, impactful and mesmerising to read that it's a real triumph. I've been lucky enough to get to know Damian a bit over the years and I always feel a lot of anxiety reading something by a writer I know because if I don't enjoy it I need to awkwardly explain to them I don't think it's their best (or pretend I've not found time to read it.) So I was thrilled to discover what a genuine joy it was reading this story and what an impressive, finely researched, artfully constructed novel it is! It's really made me rethink how I look at history – the many ways victorious nations conveniently forget their failings and crimes when teaching world history. I also felt such a connection to the characters that they're going to linger in my imagination for a long time.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesDamian Barr
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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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“Remembered” begins with a newspaper clipping from 1910 recounting a tragic event where a black man drove a streetcar into a Philadelphia department store. We then follow the near hallucinatory experience as the driver Edward's mother Ms Spring rushes to his side in the hospital alongside the ghost of her sister Tempe. Though this calamitous day is already filled with drama and intrigue where Edward is accused of intentionally crashing the streetcar amidst his rumoured involvement with the distempered local union, his story is only the backdrop for the time Ms Spring spends with him. The novel primarily concerns her disclosing to her son the true story of his origins and her own challenging journey from being born as a slave on a plantation to freedom. She feels it's important that he knows and understands this personal history because “Most of what I’m about to tell you ain’t in no history book, no newspaper article, no encyclopedia. There’s a whole heap of stories don’t ever get told.” This novel tells a story which is moving and surprising in many ways showing the complex mentality and relationships which develop amidst the horrors of slavery. It's an impactful, uniquely told tale.

I really admire it when an author is able to portray a situation of grave moral complexity through characters who take egregious action because they are in extreme circumstances. I've not read many novels that dare to depict such a story. One of the only examples I can think of is Anoshi Irani's tremendous novel “The Parcel” which is told from the point of view of a hijra who considers it her duty to psychologically prepare newly purchased adolescent girls for a life of sexual slavery. Here a character performs an evil task but she is doing it out of charitable necessity because the only other option (as she sees it) is death. A character of equal complexity is depicted in Yvonne Battle-Felton's novel in the figure of Mama Skins. She's determined to prevent more children from being born into slavery on the plantation and takes extreme measures to stop this from happening. It presents a great challenge for readers because they are at once sympathetic to her struggle but horrified by her actions. Yet this is a point of view which needs to be voiced to better understand the individual realities of our complex socio-economic environment. The heartbreak comes not just from the poisonous reality of slavery but the way individual options become so warped.

Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that the nation's transition from slavery to freedom wasn't smooth or easy. Another remarkable thing this story does is show through Spring's story how information was withheld and manipulated while the Emancipation Proclamation took time to be implemented across the nation. The author has an impressive skill for conveying both the sensory and social atmosphere of Spring's journey, but there are times when the vigorous action of the circumstances becomes confusing to follow. What works impressively well is the supernatural element of the spirit of Tempe who accompanies her sister Spring. Such an element in a novel can sometimes feel tacked on or cliched, but here feels touching and natural to her experience. There's a powerful energy which propels the story forward as Spring recalls it through the difficult hours of Edward's time in hospital. This is a courageous, passionate and rousing novel that demands we consider the complexities of history.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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The short stories contained in Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah debut collection “Friday Black” have a startling way of mixing everyday realism with the fantastic. Many characters are working class individuals struggling to keep their families going while labouring in retail or the night shift at a warehouse. But at the same time they can also be imbued with powers from a Twelve-tongued God, become a spirit who knows how to quell the murderous impulses of bullied boys or a 14 year old female super killer who survives daily nuclear explosions. Violence abounds throughout the stories. There are crazed shoppers who kill everyone in their way to get to sale items and there are groups who commit bloody acts of violence in retaliation for racially-motivated murders. The author amplifies some of the most contentious social issues of today in scenarios which are sadly not far from the truth. Everything from gun control to racism to abortion to genetic engineering are integrated into warped versions of reality giving a new view on these hot topics. The stories are powerfully imaginative while being darkly funny as well as heartbreakingly emotionally honest.  

Some of these tales worked better than others for me. I admire how in 'The Finkelstein 5' the story switches back and forth between two narratives. One half portrays a court trial where a white man is exonerated for beheading five black children with a chainsaw. The other half is from the perspective of a narrator who becomes part of a “Naming” gang that tortures random white people while calling out the names of the slayed black children. It felt really effective how this dual story describes a society where facts and truth have become so twisted up in the willpower of belief. The defence lawyer says at one point “if you believe something, anything then that's what matters most. Believing. In America we have the freedom to believe.” In a justice system that has allowed so many rank instances of injustice to go unpunished, it’s tragically unsurprising that some feel vigilante justice is the only option available. But this story gets at the ambivalence of such a path while delivering a riveting tale that’s a cross between an episode of Black Mirror and The Purge film series.

Not all of the stories conjure up wild fantasies or show instances of extreme violence. Another story ‘The Lion & The Spider’ also uses an alternating dual narrative where in one half a father tells his children stories based in Caribbean folklore. The other half shows a young man left to care for his ailing mother while finishing school and working a job after the father unexpectedly leaves for a long period of time. This creates an emotionally-charged atmosphere within the story as feelings of youthful innocence are paired against the onerous responsibilities of a premature adulthood when a father shirks his duty. Some of the most touching moments in this collection come when well-meaning children are forced into being carers for their parents such as a young man who takes his father to a labyrinthine hospital in 'The Hospital Where' or a young man who wants to win a jacket for his mother in a sales-driven retail competition.

The violent chaos of a Black Friday sale.

The violent chaos of a Black Friday sale.

Sometimes the creative slant the author takes on certain issues doesn’t work quite as smoothly. 'Lark Street' describes a man who comes under the accusatory gaze of his girlfriend’s aborted twin foetuses. While the story takes seriously this emotionally harrowing dilemma it felt like it revelled a little too freely in the grotesque nature of such a scenario. Equally 'Light Spitter' which describes an instance of a campus gun slaying relies a little too heavily on conventional ideas of angelic influence – even with the twist that even the “irredeemable” has a moral core. Still other stories have a surprising degree of repetitive elements like the diligent mall employees in both 'How to Sell a Jacket as Told by IceKing' and ‘Friday Black’. But the later title story felt much more successful in hilariously playing up what’s become the most ridiculous post-Thanksgiving annual retail tradition.

One of the most striking things about this book is the consistent feeling that working class young people are frequently forced to compromise their values and education in order to make a living. Sometimes individuals must play into racial stereotypes or swallow their pride in the face of blatant racism in order to maintain their jobs. There are also asides which testify to being made to feel otherness: “A nurse called out sounds that we understood as her attempt to pronounce our last name.” Such feelings are most dramatically described in the story 'Zimmer Land' where an employee submits to being the continuous victim in violent role playing scenarios that are purportedly about “interactive justice engagement”. This story cleverly portrays the hypocrisy of profit-driven initiatives that claim to teach morality but actually perpetuate stereotypes and bigotry. I’m impressed how daring and forceful the author is in creatively describing instances of painful injustice and social inequality. He’s certainly an impressive new author well worth paying attention to.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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I tried reading Olga Tokarczuk Booker International Prize winning novel “Flights” last year. I really tried. But, although I could appreciate what an engaged and intelligent writer Olga Tokarczuk is, I just wasn’t enjoying the book's fragmented nature. So after 60 pages I regretfully shelved it to try again another day. Therefore, I was so delighted when I immediately connected much more easily with the story and protagonist of her most recent translated novel “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead”. Here a teacher/caretaker/translator named Mrs Duszejko dwells in a remote Polish village during the dead of winter when most of the community’s inhabitants have left for the season. One snowy day she and her neighbor (who she calls Oddball) discover their only other immediate neighbor (who she calls Big Foot) dead in his home. She soon believes this is part of unusual murder plot orchestrated by the animals of the woods who are motivated by revenge. Mrs Duszejko is wonderfully eccentric. She rigorously consults astrological charts, dresses up as a wolf for the mushroom pickers’ ball and sometimes encounters the ghosts of her mother & grandmother. She surmises that “the best conversations are with yourself. At least there’s no risk of a misunderstanding.”

Unsurprisingly, the surrounding villagers and police force (who she frequently writes to with her ardent conspiracy-theories) don’t take her very seriously and consider her a kook. She’s very aware of this, but is steadfast in her opinions even though she seems to have manic-depressive tendencies. As the title of the novel would suggest, she’s prone to a lot of bleak self-reflection. At one moment she might reflect “one day we shall all be nothing more than corpses” and the next “How great and full of life the world is.” She feels somewhat like a deliciously bleak Jean Rhys character - but less drunk and unconcerned with romance. Mrs Duszejko even goes so far as to postulate “that sorrow is an important word for defining the world. It lies at the foundations of everything, it is the fifth element, the quintessence.” Through the lens of this idiosyncratic woman’s sensibility, we’re introduced to a way of viewing the natural world, society and human relationships from a refreshing new perspective. 

That’s not to say I agree with most of Mrs Duszejko’s cockeyed theories or philosophies and I don’t think we’re meant to buy into her ideas. For instance, she has an odd reverence for angry impulses believing that “Anger makes the mind clear and incisive, able to see more. It sweeps up the other emotions and takes control of the body. Without a doubt Anger is the source of all wisdom, for Anger has the power to exceed any limits.” This goes against the common adage that anger can make us blind to the truth. At another point when thinking about her neighbor who is a writer (who she calls the Grey Lady) she suggests: “people like her, those who wield a pen, can be dangerous... such a Person is not him or herself, but an eye that’s constantly watching, and whatever it sees it changes into sentences; in the process it strips reality of its most essential quality - its inexpressibility.” It’s enjoyable how Tokarczuksimultaneously pokes fun at the endeavour of writing and a particularly dour perspective on the literary impulse. 

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Mrs Duszejko herself is often consumed with literature as she helps her sensitive younger friend (who she calls Dizzy) to translate the letters of William Blake. Each chapter is headed by a quote from a Blake poem and it's interesting how these ideas meld with Mrs Duszejko's thoughts. She seems intent on creating theories through which this community that's dominated by patriarchal rule can exist more harmoniously with nature: “People have a duty towards Animals to lead them - in successive lives - to Liberation. We’re all traveling in the same direction, from dependence to freedom, from ritual to free choice.” Certain words are capitalized in her sentences highlighting when she's defining these terms for her philosophical systems of thought. In this way, she strives towards elaborate theories which no one takes seriously and this prompts her to take alternative action.

I really enjoyed this intriguing story and portrait of an idiosyncratic personality. There’s a dry sense of humour at the heart of it which I really appreciate. It's prompted me to want to go back and try reading “Flights” again because Tokarczuk has such a unique point of view.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesOlga Tokarczuk
2 CommentsPost a comment
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“Lost Children Archive” must have one of the most unusual structures for a novel that I’ve read in a long time. It seems natural that Valeria Luiselli’s first novel written in English would chiefly concern the plight of immigrant children as her extended essay “Tell Me How It Ends” so powerfully laid out this harrowing dilemma. Since politicians often turn immigration into an abstract political debate, Luiselli has a tremendous ability for highlighting and reminding us how this is above all a human rights issue and makes us see the humans effect. The ramifications for children who are adrift and literally wandering blindly through this landscape with stringently guarded borders are incalculable because when they become lost in a political system “They are children who have lost the right to a childhood.” In this novel she expands this understanding and creates an artful story which traverses time and space to illuminate a new way of looking at what happens when our society loses its children.

At its centre, this is a road trip novel about a husband and wife driving with their son and daughter across America. They’re engaged in a project to capture and record the sounds of the country to better understand its nature of being. The couple’s relationship is also disintegrating and the closer they come to their destination the closer this family comes to separating. What begins as a deeply-felt intellectual reflection about the ways we negotiate children’s place in our lives turns into a tense search for those who have gone missing with hallucinatory twists. It sounds confusing and I’m still puzzling over the experience of it, but this innovative novel shines with so much humanity I found it utterly compelling and engaging.

Luiselli writes endearingly about private moments of family life – especially when confined in the restricted space of a car for most of the day. There are funny moments which take the mother out of her brooding and serious concern: “Children’s words, in some ways, are the escape route out of family dramas, taking us to their strangely luminous underworld, safe from our middle-class catastrophes.” It’s interesting how there’s a sense that this family is somewhat new to each other since both the father’s son and the mother’s daughter are children from previous relationships, but their bond and connection to each other is so strong. There is also a constant feeling of their anonymity since none of these family members are named (except for the girl who is nicknamed Memphis by the son when they pass through the Tennessee city.) The mother who narrates the first half of the book frequently makes up stories about their lives to tell the strangers they meet amidst their journey. So all these aspects of the book build a sense that they are both everyone and no one belonging everywhere and nowhere.

One of the ways the parents try to entertain (and distract) the children during their long car rides is to play an audio book of “Lord of the Flies”. The narrative of Golding’s tremendous novel has a powerful effect on the son who takes the story’s messages about struggle and survival to heart. But it also shows how Luiselli is forming a dialogue with the narratives of classic stories to come to a new understanding of how we structure society and the core values that should serve as the base of its foundations. “Lost Children Archive” additionally references and converses with the ideas of writers such as Walt Whitman, Jack Kerouac and Susan Sontag. There’s also a fictional book called “Elegies for Lost Children” in the mother’s possession which she reads aloud from and it’s quoted from at length in the novel itself. It’s the story of a band of children’s struggle to arrive at a new home while riding atop dangerous trains and being led by tyrannical guides.

Photo by Nan Goldin. “When I see the people of this country, their vitality, their decadence, their loneliness, their desperate togetherness, I see the gaze of Emmet Gowin, Larry Clark, and Nan Goldin.”

Photo by Nan Goldin. “When I see the people of this country, their vitality, their decadence, their loneliness, their desperate togetherness, I see the gaze of Emmet Gowin, Larry Clark, and Nan Goldin.”

These stories are narrated aloud and they meld with radio news they listen to about the growing Mexican-American border crisis and reports of undocumented migrant children being flown out of the country. The mother is particularly preoccupied with these children’s futures, but the father is more concerned with the past as their ultimate destination is the southwest where he wants to search for any lingering sounds of decimated Native American tribes. In a sense the parents are tragically outside of the present and their anxiety over how to document the experiences of these displaced people reflect a general feeling that “Something changed in the world. Not too long ago, it changed, and we know it. We don’t know how to explain it yet, but I think we all can feel it, somewhere deep in our gut or in our brain circuits. We feel time differently… We haven’t understood how space and time exist now, how we really experience them. And until we find a way to document them, we will not understand them.” Equipped only with their instincts and some boxes of scattered maps, books and tools, the family are on a quest to learn how to capture this experience of the present. Until then, their ultimate endpoint and sense of home remains perilously uncertain – just as it does for all of us.

This is an absolutely fascinating, clever and complex novel which takes seriously the personal impact of politics and gives a new way of looking at the bonds of family.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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One of the things I enjoy most about following the Women’s Prize for Fiction each year is that it always brings to my attention a number of books I might not have come across otherwise and almost certainly wouldn’t have read. Bernice L. McFadden is an American writer who has published several well regarded novels and a number of romance novels under the name Geneva Holliday, but she hasn’t been widely reviewed in the UK and this is the first of her novels that I’ve read. “Praise Song for the Butterflies” is the story of Abeo Kata who is raised in the fictional West African location of Port Masi, Ukemby. She lives in a comfortable middle class home with her doting parents Wasik who works for the treasury department and Ismae who is a former model. Her conservative old grandmother comes to live with them and shortly after this her father Wasik is falsely accused of embezzling money from the government and allegations of political corruption. With the grandmother’s encouragement Wasik comes to believe he’s been cursed and the only way to alleviate this condition is to “sacrifice” his seven year old daughter by leaving her at a rural Temple where she’s subjected to the most brutal treatment and forced into slave labour under the guise of spiritual servitude. The novel follows Abeo’s harrowing journey from being cast aside to a point where she can determine her own future. It’s a captivating, skilfully written tale which touches upon a number of pertinent and meaningful issues.

One of the most admirable things about this novel is the great economy of the author’s prose. McFadden writes short punchy chapters which have enough detail to really spark the reader’s imagination but which keep the story moving at a brisk pace. There are also several breath-taking twists to the story which make it a riveting read. Of course, writing in this way sacrifices some nuance and complexity which means certain aspects of the story don’t go into as much depth on certain topics as their enormity warrants. There are also occasions where it feels like McFadden relies a bit too heavily on coincidence and chance meetings to keep the plot moving. But overall it’s such a riveting story these minor quibbles hardly matter and I appreciate how vividly she forms a portrait of Abeo’s character and her perilous situation.

I also like how McFadden can make you second-guess your expectations and understanding of certain characters. The grandmother comes across as a benignly ornery and (almost comically) old fashioned presence until her intrusions have dire repercussions. Equally, Abeo’s American Aunt Serafine who makes annual visits to the Kata family comes across as such a benevolent and lively person until more complex aspects to her personality are eventually revealed. The author also has a graceful way of shifting perspective in the narrative so the story moves seamlessly between Abeo’s dramatic story, her mother Ismae’s plight and that of an African American philanthropist who establishes a centre for girls like Abeo (known as trokosi) to recuperate from their trauma. It takes real talent to compose a short novel that has so many sides and covers many years without making it feel too unwieldy.

It’s interesting how the story offers such a different perspective on slavery by highlighting how there can be modern instances of enforced labour which are simply called by another name. When Abeo’s Aunt Serafine and her friend visit Ukemby one year they take the family a trip to one of the infamous “slave castles” in what was known as the Gold Coast of West Africa. These sites have become pilgrimage spots for many descendants of the African diaspora and have featured in many novels from “Homegoing” to “Swing Time”. But the story which follows this visit offers such a different perspective on that heritage and how we can be blind to modern instances of slavery.

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Since I’ve read this novel in the context of the Women’s Prize it’s also interesting comparing it to another nominated book on the list “Freshwater” by Akwaeke Emezi. I feel like these two novels offer such fascinating contrasts in contemplating African American experience in relation to heritage and modern African society. Where “Praise Song for the Butterflies” severely scrutinizes some patriarchal African practices and superstitions, “Freshwater” seeks out African traditions and belief systems to arrive at a more cohesive sense of being. Of course, these aren’t necessarily oppositional points of view but simply show the broad spectrum of African society which exists and what a complex relationship forms between African Americans and the continent of Africa itself when exploring issues to do with national and racial identity.

Overall, this novel contains such a compelling tale of survival and dynamically explores the meaning of family. Bernice L. McFadden has such admirable control in how she paces and evokes a story that I’m so glad I’ve read this novel and will eagerly read more of her books in the future.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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There have been many excellent novels about the immigrant experience in America. But I feel like the richly detailed and engrossing story of “America Is Not the Heart” by Elaine Castillo shows a really unique point of view I've not read about before. The story primarily revolves around Geronima De Vera who is nicknamed Hero when she arrives in America from the Philippines. She goes to live with her aunt, uncle and feisty young cousin Roni in Milpitas (a suburb outside San Jose, California) where she primarily helps looks after the 7 year old girl. As an illegal immigrant she’s not able to seek out work despite being a trained doctor back in the Philippines. Even if she had papers to find employment she’d have to retrain in medicine as her uncle has painfully discovered. Though he was a highly respected surgeon in the Philippines he can only find low-paid manual work in America. Hero has gone through many difficult experiences to arrive here and the novel slowly discloses the complexity of her life over the course of the novel, but it integrates this so gracefully into accounts of Hero’s day-to-day life in this Filipino-American community and her relationship with a woman she meets there named Rosalyn. Of course Hero’s life has been shaped by her heritage, but the story doesn’t hang on the question of national identity as much as how she’s constantly evolving as an individual.  

It’s especially striking to read a novel that centres around a bisexual female protagonist and the story powerfully captures the development of Hero’s sexuality – alongside Rosalyn’s who is refreshingly blunt in her forthright desire to be with Hero. Not since reading Amy Bloom’s novel “White Houses” have I read a novel that considers so meaningfully the dynamics of physical intimacy. This novel deals with that so honestly without feeling the need to mask the act using lyrical language or overwrought prose. It straightforwardly lays out how desire, pleasure and emotion mingle in sex. But it also shows the challenges of building a same-sex relationship with the influence of family and a tight-knit community around them.

Surrounding Hero’s very personal story Castillo powerfully describes the way economics shape people’s lives more than questions of nationality or politics. She includes how corporate enterprise manipulates the living standards and health of whole communities. The story also shows how poverty makes people aliens within their own society: “You already know that the first thing that makes you foreign to a place is being born poor in it.” The novel is filled with people trying to belong by buying the right perfume or correcting their skin, but no matter how much they try to change there are elemental parts of their being which stick: “your accent still hasn't left, and you're starting to understand what it means to have baggage. Baggage means no matter how far you go, no matter how many times you immigrate, there are countries in you you'll never leave.” What I loved most about this novel is how it demonstrates that Hero is like a country unto herself changing in time and led only be an instinctual feeling for what she wants her future to be.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesElaine Castillo
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There are some books which sit on your shelves for ages and you know you'll love them, but don't get around to reading them for some reason. “Night Sky with Exit Wounds” by Ocean Vuong is one of these. First published in 2016, it feels like one of those break-out books of poetry that's been universally lauded. His poems have that arresting quality as they clearly come from the heart and contain an urgent desire to communicate. The book is comprised of three sections: the first mostly deals with family heritage/the Vietnam War; the second mostly concerns childhood/family life and the third explores adulthood and looking to the future. Together they form a portrait of a distinct personality and the creation of an independent voice while meditating on themes including the body, violence, sex and nationality. He draws upon references from Greek mythology and American iconography taking them into an entirely new context. It's a thrilling new perspective charged with so much energy and passion. 

Vuong has such an interesting way of discussing our bodies. Several poems give jolting new views on how we inhabit our skin and exist in relation to each other. In the poem 'Immigrant Haibun' he muses that “Maybe the body is the only question an answer can't extinguish.” And in the poem 'Headfirst' he considers how “the body is a blade that sharpens by cutting”. Still later, in the achingly self-reflective poem 'Someday I'll Love Ocean Vuong' he states “The most beautiful part of your body is wherever your mother's shadow falls.” Together his poems form a creative new view in how to feel ourselves as a physical presence and conscious being – even when those around us don't acknowledge our perspective or value our bodies. The striking seven page poem ‘Ode to Masturbation’ is actually a heartfelt take on how we relate to our own sense of being: “a hand to this blood-warm body like a word being nailed to its meaning & lives”

Some poems are tinged with a sharply political edge. 'Aubade with Burning City' considers the human impact and violence of America's abrupt withdrawal from Saigon by pairing the sense of local panic/death with lyrics from Irving Berlin's 'White Christmas'. Others have a much more personal feel considering how non-white Americans are asked about their origins: “When they ask you where you're from, tell them your name was fleshed from the toothless mouth of a war-woman.” These poems highlight how America is not a harmonious melting pot and can't progress as a society without acknowledging and addressing the past.

One poem surprisingly inhabits the perspective of Jacqueline Kennedy. This is a decidedly queer point of view and other poems directly address violence against queer bodies such as 'Seventh Circle of Earth' which memorialises a gay couple burned in their own home where their voices only exist as a sequence of footnotes. Still another poem looks at gay on gay violence considering the case of Jeffrey Dahmer and obsessive/possessive love: “I want to leave no one behind. To keep & be kept. The way a field turns its secrets into peonies. The way light keeps its shadow by swallowing it.” Also, 'Trojan' looks at the battle gear of ancient warriors meditating on the expression of brute strength as a form of pageant beauty. It often feels like Vuong himself is like the piano player in his poem 'Queen Under The Hill' in which it's stated “I sit turning bones into sonatas.”

At times it can feel like the author is speaking in a voice so direct it's almost painful. This can be the case even when he's writing in the second person as in 'Because It's Summer' where he writes “a swarm of want you wear like a bridal veil but you don't deserve it: the boy & his loneliness the boy who finds you beautiful only because you're not a mirror because you don't have enough faces to abandon you've come this far to be no one”. Later on the poem ‘Notebook Fragments’ takes a very different style from the others recording observations like loose diary entries reflecting the author's changing state of mind. An earlier poem expresses a desire to lose oneself “You can get lost in every book but you'll never forget yourself the way god forgets his hands” but then the poem 'Thanksgiving 2006' feels like a declaration of independence “I am ready to be every animal you leave behind.”

Vuong's poems combine to form a view that's at once movingly personal and energized with a message that needs to be heard.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesOcean Vuong
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It’s become something of an annual tradition that my boyfriend and I read to each other David Sedaris’ ‘Santaland Diaries’ around Christmas time. So when we got his new book “Calypso” I gradually read him the entire collection over a period of several weeks. Sedaris’ hilariously black humour is perfect for being shared publicly and read aloud – which is why Sedaris has become so successful touring and reading aloud from the memoirist essays in his bestselling books. This, in turn, has fuelled new stories in some of his most recent essays included in this book which recount how he frequently travels to entertain audiences. This can result in funny and bizarre encounters with the public. One audience member even took him back to her house where she cut out a benign tumour from David’s body. He didn’t want this procedure to take place in a hospital because the law required they dispose of the tumour and David had an unfathomable compulsion to save his tumour to feed to a disfigured wild turtle. Such freakish desires and occurrences are commonplace in Sedaris’ writing. His unique point of view and sense of humour are so bombastic while being oddly relatable to make his essays relentlessly entertaining.

However, many of these most recent essays are also tinged with a sense of grief and a growing awareness of his own mortality. Many centre around family get-togethers Sedaris orchestrates after purchasing a vacation beach house on Emerald Isle, off the coast of North Carolina – a place he hilariously names The Sea Section. The family used to regularly take trips to a rented property in this area when David was growing up. Now he’s reinstated this tradition with the added bonus that, because he owns the property, he gets to set the rules and assign who takes each bedroom. But absent from these new family trips are his mother who died a number of years ago and sister Tiffany who committed suicide after a prolonged struggle with mental problems and substance abuse. David was estranged from her for a number of years after a sad final parting so David’s sense of grief is also mixed with feelings of guilt and frustration. It’s interesting how there’s been a shift in these essays which have become more reflective and sombre while still retaining his trademark sense of humour and appreciation for the absurd.

There’s also a political slant to some of the essays which reflect the widening gulf of conservative and liberal opinion where David’s elderly father frequently spouts Trump-inspired rhetoric. He’s an individual oddly similar to the reactionary grandfather in Barbara Kingsolver’s most recent novel “Unsheltered” and I wonder if this is because they represent an older contingent of US citizen particularly prone to the paranoid indignation of conservative chat shows. Anyway, adding to the dark sense of absence left by some family members in Sedaris’ essays is an awareness of how little time he has left with his father and how difficult it is for them to speak to each other. Nevertheless, encounters with his father are frequently very funny and the weird blend of personalities which include his stalwart partner Hugh and wacky sister Amy make for some absolutely hilarious scenes. It’s always a gas following David’s antics and his family experiences - all captured with his mordantly humorous slant on life.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesDavid Sedaris
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The premise of Virve Sammalkorpi “Children of the Cave” is tantalizingly dark: in 1819 Iax Agolasky, a young assistant to a notable French explorer, travels on an archaeological expedition to rural Russia where they discover a cave inhabited by children with animal traits. The story plays out partly as a thriller and partly as a psychological study about what makes us human. It's presented as a series of journal fragments by Iax which chart developments in their discoveries and recount dramatic events in the camp. This frames the story like an artefact and there’s something pleasingly old fashioned about this style of narrative. Like in Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” we’re at a remove from the central character himself so it leaves the reader wondering what’s real and what’s a figment of Iax’s troubled mind. Iax finds himself torn between commitment to their scientific study and his desire to connect with and protect the children while also ruminating about his own upbringing in Russia. Like many expeditions into the wild, the results reveal more about the explorers than they do about the subjects they go to study.

It’s interesting how the story is set in a time which predates Darwin’s revolutionary publications. The character of the French explorer Professor Jean Moltique sketches out ideas that these children with animal traits might be the result of some form of metamorphosis. But they also might suggest a sudden reversal of evolution. I’ve read some other novels like Louise Erdrich’s “Future Home of the Living God” which play with ideas like this as a way of suggesting that our civilization might be regressing rather than developing over time. Iax’s observations about the nature and practices of their crew of explorers shows them to be in many ways more bestial than the strange animal-like beings in the cave. As such, he finds himself in a crisis about where he truly belongs and longing for a universal truth to live by: “I dream not so much of solving the mystery of life as of the immortality of ideas.”

The novel slides into the hallucinatory as Iax’s journals become less documentary and more about his strained situation. The fragmentary nature of this narrative means it becomes confusing at times to understand what’s happening in this expedition which lasts around four years. It makes it creepy and suspenseful in parts, but sometimes this just felt frustrating. But overall I enjoyed the way this story teases with a lot of questions about the true nature of the children and what happens to them. It’s also poignant how the story looks at what it means to be an outsider and questions why society frequently ostracises those who are different.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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Édouard Louis’ voice is so passionate and urgent in how he writes about class and sexuality in relation to his personal experiences. It’s no wonder he’s gained a global audience since the English publication of his debut novel “The End of Eddy” in 2017. Now, at the age of 26, he’s published his third book and I wonder if his productivity is outpacing the power of his ideas. “Who Killed My Father” is categorized as a ‘memoir/essay’ and his inspiration for writing it is based on recent visits to his father who is only in his 50s but severely physically debilitated. He queries throughout the book what brought his father to this point, but begins with the premise that his father is condemned to “the category of humans whom politics has doomed to an early death.” Through emotionally-charged reflections in three parts which criss-cross over time Louis considers the many culprits that he deems responsible. While I agree with many of his ideas and felt moved by the sections of his life that are portrayed, I feel his arguments lack some nuance and are fuelled more by anger than complex reasoning.

Part of the difficulty with feeling fully engaged by the essayistic sections of this book is that Louis keeps falling back on generalities like “male privilege”, “ruling class” and “politics” as pernicious agents. But continuously making accusations against these amorphous concepts begins to feel like throwing stones into the dark. Louis shows how they have a personal effect in multiple ways. The author, his family and the people in his village are perniciously effected by ideas of masculinity. He names politicians in the third section and how their callous policies dismiss the struggles of the working class. His polemic is a valuable reminder to see connections in how society operates and that we shouldn’t be complacent. Yet I hope for more subtlety and proactive ideas if he’s going to make a broad pronouncement like “what we need is a revolution.”  

The author’s reminiscences are really powerful in how he considers the unseen forces at work behind his family’s actions. But an odd feature of this very short book is that references are made to scenes from “The End of Eddy”. So, even though it’s such a brief book, it can feel repetitive if you are familiar with his first novel. I felt the most striking section was the second part where Louis holds himself to account for instigating a violent fight between his big brother and father to get revenge on his mother. It’s to his credit that the author is equally ardent in excoriating his own participation in the violent relationships he quite rightly identifies in society. Louis’ guilt is palpable and probably many of us are guilty of intentionally trying to emotionally or physically hurt our parents at some point in our immature years – especially if a parent maligns us.

When I heard the author presenting his first novel I remember him remarking how the question of whether or not he loves his parents isn’t important to him. But in this new book he expresses his love for his father by seeking justice for his father’s premature flailing heath and by explicating stating his feelings. This shows a really touching emotional maturity since his first book. There’s no doubt that his voice is important - I just wish this book had more of an impact and didn’t read like just a sketch of a number of ideas. He’s such an intelligent and thoughtful writer that I hope his rigorous analytical abilities continue to progress in his future books.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesEdouard Louis
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It’s difficult to describe the experience of reading Max Porter’s new novel “Lanny”, but it feels somewhere between “Reservoir 13” by Jon McGregor and an Ali Smith novel. In some ways it’s a simple story of family life in a small English village where a child goes missing. But it’s also about ancient elemental forces which periodically cause widespread chaos and test all the moral fibres which we believe hold our society together. Parents Robert and Jolie want their young son Lanny to develop his inherent artistic sensibility so bring him under the friendly tutelage of an aging famous local artist named Pete. The two develop a touching creative bond. But Lanny harbours many eccentricities and beliefs which centre around a figure of local legend named Dead Papa Toothwort. It’s a mystery whether this character from village lore actually exists in the story or is a figment of the eccentric boy’s imagination, but his presence is felt throughout the book as Toothwort takes in the sounds and voices of the village which physically twist throughout the pages of this novel. It’s a rapturous journey which slides from the emotional details of ordinary life to the deliciously surreal. 

That any new book by Porter is unclassifiable comes as no surprise given the highly innovative form of his debut “Grief is the Thing with Feathers”. Both his novels show the way guilt and inner pain distort reality and this is reflected in the way sentences and paragraphs are structured on the page. So reading Porter's books feels more like an experience as if staring at a sculpture where the form conveys as much meaning as the content. He has a talent for illuminating the inner workings and relationships of a family – especially the repercussions when there is an unexpected tragedy. But “Lanny” captures more the feeling of a whole community and how such an event can trigger the release of fear and prejudice to turn a village against itself. While it brings some people together, it also causes others to question who belongs: “Authenticity competitions, striving to be the one that most belongs here, guarding their own special spot in the picture. All this has shown what a bunch of wankers most people are.” In this way, this new novel engages more with the political mood of the country which has been especially preoccupied with questions about who is “authentically” English. At the same time it is a playful, funny and wickedly irreverent story making it such a joy to read. And, at its heart, there is a hopeful portrait of a sensitive boy who has the capacity to reshape the future.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMax Porter