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I was really looking forward to this novel as the subject matter intrigued me and I’ve been wanting to read more by Rushdie, but I ended up feeling mostly negative towards it. “Quichotte” is Rushdie’s modern day version of ‘Don Quixote’ and primarily concerns Ismail Smile (who dubs himself Quichotte.) He travels across the US on a foolhardy romantic quest to woo Salma R, a famous television personality. In the process he surveys how fiction has become fact and many facts are treated as fiction in this modern day America. This exposes the absurdity of this state of being and captures the tragi-comic position we’re now in while especially highlighting the contentious issues of gun control laws and a corrupt pharmaceutical industry. A certain character muses at one point, “America, what happened to your optimism, your new frontiers, your simple Rockwell dreams?” The novel is justifiably preoccupied with this doleful question.

If the novel had been confined to Ismail’s episodic tales I believe I’d have found this a much more satisfying and pleasurable read. However, Rushdie soon adds a meta-fictional layer where we learn that Ismail’s story is being written by another character named Sam DuChamp, a writer of spy thrillers who is trying out a new kind of novel. This creates another layer which begs the questions: are we writing our own stories or are our stories writing us? What happens when the stories we tell ourselves become both our mental and physical reality? While these narrative gymnastics might be good in concept they felt misjudged and too confusing to me. In addition, the stories of many other characters and sub-plots proliferate throughout the novel such as that of Sam’s sister, a famous London lawyer who has reached a pivotal point in her life. In itself her story is an interesting one but it felt swallowed by the grander self-conscious narrative being constructed. This results in all these tales feeling so over controlled (and sometimes contrived) that I seldom felt any emotional engagement.

It was difficult at times to intellectually engage with the novel as well except the occasional interestingly framed statement. For instance, many of the characters have family secrets and Sam feels this dilemma: “The narrative of your family which you had carried within you, within which in a way you had lived, was false. Or, at the very least, that you had been ignorant of its most essential truth which had been kept from you. Not to be told the whole truth, as sister with her legal expertise would know perfectly well was to be told a lie. That lie had been his truth.” So this builds to a larger question threaded throughout the novel which asks how much truth we’re able to bear both on personal, familial and national levels. If our fundamental beliefs about ourselves, our families and our national identity are shaken are we really happier believing in lies?

Too often these statements and ideas felt like they were pronouncements from Rushdie himself rather than any of the characters. The integrity of his characters is sometimes tested in Rushdie’s use of humour. There are some genuinely funny moments especially in scenes involving Quichotte’s whimsical frame of mind where his idea of the classics are TV dating game shows or when he becomes so delusional that he starts conversing through a TV with a newscaster. But, at other times, the humour feels like it’s being made at the expense of his characters such as when a doctor proposes treating Salma R’s mental health problems with shock treatments and she declares herself “unshockable” or how when she does receive those treatments she describes the experience as a Christmas visit from “sanity Claus”. These feel more like cheap gags rather than details building a believable character. Nor are they satirical statements with deeper meaning.

Since I primarily read this novel because it’s shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, it’s interesting to compare it to the novel “Ducks, Newburyport”. Both novels self-consciously consider topical political and social issues in America. And both novels have eerily similar climatic scenes of violence. But these books take a radically different approach to telling their stories. Ellmann’s novel is wholly consumed with the inner life and thoughts of her narrator (except for the sparingly-told tale of the mountain lion.) In contrast, Rushdie’s sprawling novel somersaults through the inner lives of many characters while self-consciously playing with narrative form. He even portentously declares his intention with this novel using the character of Sam who feels himself guided by Cervantes and Arthur C. Clarke. Sam seeks to frame his novel about Quichotte in picaresque literary tradition: “the episodes of such a work could encompass many manners, high and low, fabulist and commonplace, how it could be at once parodic and original, and so through its metamorphic roguery it could demonstrate and seek to encompass the multiplicity of human life.”

Rushdie certainly manages to capture the multiplicity of life as well as many pressing issues, but this exhausting spoof about our tenuous relationship with truth loses of a lot of the pleasure and solace to be found in fiction.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSalman Rushdie
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I can’t think of any other literary novel that has had such a build-up prior to its release. Details of the story were shrouded in secrecy and its shortlisting on this year’s Booker Prize all contributed to an anticipation which culminated in a midnight release of the book this week and a live interview with Atwood that was streamed to over 1,300 cinemas around the world. I have to admit, I jumped right on board the hype train and read the novel over the course of a day. Personally, I was especially excited to see how the story would continue 15 years in the future after Offred’s final scene and discover more about Gilead’s downfall because I reread “The Handmaid’s Tale” so recently. In “The Testaments” we get a lot more about the workings of this dystopian society because it’s narrated from three different perspectives who all have unique views and access to different layers of this totalitarian state. In doing so, Atwood offers further perceptive critiques on the nature of patriarchal society and presents moving psychological insights into how people survive (or perish) within oppressive regimes. I have to say the way the central characters’ stories come together is a bit forced and the plot is somewhat predictable. Nevertheless, it’s a continuously engaging and gripping experience reading this book.

Central to the tale is Aunt Lydia who appeared in the original novel in Offred’s memories as an imposing tyrant who trains her as a handmaid. In “The Testaments” we get Lydia’s secret account that she stows in her private library describing her journey from pre-Gilead times as a left-leaning judge to her imprisonment, torture and eventual position as one of the architects of Gilead society. She’s a complex and difficult character who hoards secrets as a means of maintaining her power: “I’ve made it my business to know where the bodies are buried.” Lydia experienced a traumatic wakeup call as she witnessed a democratic American society shift to a puritanical totalitarian state: “People became frightened. Then they became angry. The absence of viable remedies. The search for someone to blame. Why did I think it would nonetheless be business as usual? Because we’d been hearing these things for so long I suppose. You don’t believe the sky is falling until a chunk of it falls on you.” Rather than perish she proved her durability as a survivor and someone willing to compromise her morals in order to persist. She also takes pleasure in her power and position when denouncing her enemies or extinguishing those she views as weak: “I judged. I pronounced the sentence.” I appreciate the way Atwood depicts Lydia as an oppressor, but someone who is nonetheless sympathetic in her desire to live no matter the cost and becomes entombed in a perilous loneliness: “Having no friends, I must make due with enemies.”

The other two narrators are much younger and were born in Gilead so have no knowledge of a world without it. But they live on opposite sides of the border. Agnes lives in a privileged family within Gilead. She’s raised as a true believer and reared to become the high class wife of a commander. Daisy lives in the neighbouring democratic state of Canada and becomes involved with anti-Gilead protests. Both these girls experience severe disruptions when their intended paths in life abruptly change due to larger events and secrets are unearthed about their true origins. While their journeys are compelling the way Atwood brings together her three narrators’ stories relies too heavily on chance and convenience. The girls also perhaps serve too neatly as optimistic perspectives in contrast to Aunt Lydia’s position of corruption and vengeance. They are innocent as Agnes explains “We’d been protected… I’m afraid we did not fully appreciate the extent to which those of Aunt Lydia’s generation had been hardened in the fire. They had a ruthlessness about them that we lacked.”

Something I found really powerful about Agnes’ story is her friendship with a girl named Becka. While the other girls in their class enthusiastically embrace the idea of marrying a commander for the privileges such a position will bestow upon them, Becka adamantly refuses to marry because of her fear of sexual contact with men. It’s clear she’s experienced some unconfessed trauma, but Agnes doesn’t feel like she can discuss this with Becka because of her fear of the associated repercussions. While “The Handmaid’s Tale” meaningfully depicted the way women hesitate to be emotionally open for fear of being denounced, “The Testaments” further develops the way in which state pressure can reinforce these silences and prevent close friendships.

Atwood on the evening of the launch of The Testaments

Atwood on the evening of the launch of The Testaments

More than the circumstances of the stories being portrayed, I probably felt more moved by the parallels between events “The Testaments” depicts and instances in the real world. Atwood has famously stated how “The Handmaid’s Tale” doesn’t portray anything which hasn’t already happened in human history and the same is true for this novel: governments “temporarily” take away citizens’ rights in a move towards totalitarianism; children are stolen from their birth parents and allocated to state-sanctioned couples; men use their positions of power to sexually abuse young females and sacred texts are wilfully misinterpreted for sinister motives. It’s all depressingly familiar and current. These universal themes about the deleterious effects of corrupt patriarchal governments reinforce the enduring power of “The Handmaid’s Tale” and show why it’s become such a well-known part of popular culture. That Atwood feels the need to further examine the machinations of such a brutal regime and the moral conundrums these societal shifts present to individuals feels prescient.

Atwood has stated that one of the reasons it’s taken her so long to write a sequel to her famous novel from 1985 is that it took a long time to decide upon a structure and choice of narrators. I can’t imagine any better trio of narrators to continue Gilead’s tale than the ones she’s chosen. But strangely I wish she’d concentrated less on building such a tightly woven plot and neat conclusions for her characters. Rather than being taken to the centre of Gilead I’d have been content to dwell in the periphery with characters whose lives have hardened from living in such a restrictive society. Part of the power of “The Handmaid’s Tale” was in the necessarily restricted view and understanding Offred had of her surroundings. It’s what heightened the horror because this experience more accurately reflects our own. This new novel will satisfy the curiosity many Atwood fans who want to know what happened next, but at the expense of that terrifying ignorance we felt dwelling in the restrictive cowl of a handmaid’s bonnet.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMargaret Atwood
5 CommentsPost a comment
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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I will sometimes enthusiastically purchase long novels with the best intentions of reading them soon but nonetheless they’ll typically remain on my shelf for many years before I get to them. But I was strongly tempted by the description of Lucy Ellmann’s monumental “Ducks, Newburyport” and its Booker Prize longlisting buzz got to me so I put it on my immediate reading list. While it's intimidating to read a 1000 page novel that’s mostly narrated in one unbroken sentence, “Ducks, Newburyport” is also hypnotic for the rhythm it develops, the frequent Laugh-Out-Loud humour and the moving way it builds a portrait of the life of an Ohio housewife and her many anxieties living in America today. Her story radiates a warm familiarity as we come to intimately know her sweeping stream of thoughts while baking a mountain of pies to sell and food for her family. It also inspired me to bake cinnamon rolls for the first time!

She ruminates on a whole range of subjects from her personal past to her immediate family life caring for four children to local news to political divisions in America to global environmental concerns. Usually these thoughts become mixed together and happen concurrently so she needs to periodically pause and clarify what she’s referring to. She’s also affected by what’s happening around her, the films she watches while baking and odd song lyrics which surface randomly in her mind. The trivial rubs up alongside what feels dearly important. This profusion of things running through her mind has a consistent rhythm so it becomes easy to follow and accumulates more meaning as certain subjects, memories or ideas resurface frequently. Thus they steadily acquire more resonance and also take on a humorous edge as the barrage of thoughts will sometimes become jumbled and absurd. There’s something mesmerising and hypnotic about this constant flow of words. It’s addictive and so tempting to emulate!

The chain of thoughts are frequently linked through the assertive words “the fact that…” This may just be a mental tic but it gives a feeling of plain-speaking sincerity as if she’s laying out exactly what she’s thinking and feeling. It also highlights the dubious relationship we have with “facts” in our current age as we often accept what we discover on internet searches as solid fact or opinions spouted on social media as sincere truth. Even if we are consciously aware that the information we find online is conjecture or rumour it still gets lodged in our consciousness as a point of reference when trying to interpret and interact with the world. So I think the narrator’s constant reference to “facts” which are more often ideas received from speculation or half-remembered news reports shows how we often only have a tenuous understanding about what’s really happening. This is something the narrator freely admits as she acknowledges she forgets a lot, misremembers things and “the fact that I remember all the wrong stuff”.

There’s also the surprising tale running parallel to her story which is narrated from the perspective of a mountain lion. The housewife's thoughts are periodically broken by short sections following the journey of this lion as she hunts and seeks to protect her cubs. The simplicity of the lion's life contrasts sharply with her own where she feels utterly overwhelmed, but their stories also intersect in a fascinating way. There’s also a symbolic importance to lions which occasionally appear in her narrative in the form of an old Christmas ornament or a recalled visit to the zoo. Notably the sections about the mountain lion are narrated in short declarative sentences as opposed to the unending sentence of the housewife. It made me think how burdened the housewife is by this inner monologue that she’s helpless to stop even though she knows it’s pointless: “the fact that what is with this constant monologue in my head, the fact that why am I telling myself all this stuff, since I know it already, the fact that I knew it all before I said it to myself, because I’M ME, Kraft Miracle Whip”.

Part of the beauty of this novel is that even if the narrator believes her thoughts unimportant the novel bestows importance to her life and her point of view. She’s aware that “a lot of people think all I think about is pie, when really it’s my spinal brain doing most of the peeling and caramelizing and baking and flipping, while I just stand there spiralling into a panic about my mom and animal extinctions and the Second Amendment just like everybody else”. So the narrative reveals how she feels the burden of both local and global concerns, but she doesn’t believe she has the power to participate in or change any of these problems. Part of what is so endearing and sympathetic about her is how she frequently puts herself down and diminishes herself. Her story also points out how this is just one of many such inner monologues occurring in the human population: “the fact that there are seven and a half billion people in the world, so there must be seven and a half billion of these internal monologues going on”. Through becoming so closely aligned with her subjective point of view we become aware of the singular integrity of everyone’s own perspective.

The cinnamon rolls I baked while reading the novel

The cinnamon rolls I baked while reading the novel

The novel’s title refers to an occasion when the narrator’s mother almost drowned when she was a child running towards some ducks in a pond. This incident seems to haunt the narrator as obviously if her mother had died she’d have never come into existence. But ducks take on a bigger meaning throughout the novel because she’ll refer to how people are made to feel like “sitting ducks”. This highlights how vulnerable we’re made to feel in the modern world with frequent news of terrorist attacks or gun violence in America. There’s a randomness to this violence which makes it particularly nerve wracking. This is highlighted further with a description of how their house is positioned perilously close to a dangerous road and she fears that at any moment a car might come crashing through their home. It shows how we’re living in an anxiety-ridden age but “we all go on pretending things are fine, hoping everything’s a-okay, even though everything is nowhere near okay and we all know it, no matter how many candlelit vigils you hold”.

Does this novel justify its length? Absolutely yes, but it's hard to articulate why looking at the structure from the outside. There’s little plot, frequent repetition and extensive lists. Yet there's an accumulation of detail which builds to something truly monumental in its depiction of her life and the sympathetic way she shows how we're made to feel like we're burdened with the weight of the world on our shoulders today. But it's also incredibly funny and this humour adds a compulsive momentum to her story. There’s the pleasure of identifying with her so strongly because even though there’s so much about her experience which is particular she becomes a kind of everyman or everywoman. As a movie fan, I found all the commentary on particular film plot lines fun and when an occasional line from a film appears amidst her thoughts it gives an enjoyable jolt of recognition. I also particularly appreciated the wordplay - how the sound of one word will connect her to another disconnected word which will make her recall something entirely random sending her off on another tangent unrelated to what she was thinking about before. It’s what gives this style of narration such propulsion and makes it so tempting to emulate. The final sections of the novel also had me gripped and I was pleasantly surprised by the dramatic turns it took. I'm going to miss being inside her head.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesLucy Ellmann
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Although I very much enjoyed Elif Shafak’s previous novel “Three Daughters of Eve”, I was initially hesitant to read her new novel because the subject sounded so depressing. “10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World” recounts the final thoughts of its central character Leila after she’s been murdered and left in a dumpster. Scientists speculate that the brain remains active for a number of minutes after a person’s heart stops so the first part of the novel captures her final memories and reflections. As the clock ticks down to the inevitable expiration of her consciousness we follow her journey from being born to a religiously conservative man with two wives in the provinces of Turkey to her life as a prostitute in Istanbul where she becomes known as Tequila Leila. Along the way she meets five vital friends. These people form a network of mutual support to each other amidst strenuous circumstances and social rejection. We’re also given brief glimpses into these five people’s experiences of alienation.

While I admire the nobility of a novelist who sympathetically gives voice to the many voiceless represented in this novel it presents a lot of difficult subject matter including child abuse, religious extremism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, the plight of immigrants, poverty and sexual slavery. I also felt uncertain at first because in the first section of the book it feels like each friend of Leila’s self-consciously represents a different downtrodden community. In her attempt to make visible a full spectrum of alienated people Shafak risks turning her characters into tokens rather than fully realised individuals. But ultimately I found this novel came together and worked very effectively for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, Leila’s personality and resiliency shine through her tumultuous journey. It’s a pleasure seeing her vibrant character come out in scenes where she radiates an energy and creative persistence amidst very challenging situations. This gives the story an engaging momentum. Secondly, the later part of the book is concerned with her friends coming together to memorialize Leila when the state refuses to do so after burying her in a “cemetery of the companionless” amidst many other marginalized unmourned people. The idiosyncratic personalities of these five character emerge in their interactions with each other as they form a wild plan to pay tribute to their beloved friend. I felt these aspects of the novel made it a riveting and convincing read rather than just a worthy exercise in raising social awareness for the disenfranchised citizens of Turkey.

It’s not surprising that Shafak is preoccupied with issues to do with social stigma in modern-day Turkey. As an activist and artist she’s been put on trial by the Turkish government for ‘insulting Turkishness’ in her writing and Shafak wrote a moving article here describing the political struggles she’s encountered. I admire that she’s not only chosen to engage with such difficult issues being faced by people who are being persecuted and silenced, but she’s skilfully crafted a story which draws you right into the heart of their plight and makes them come alive in a way I found powerful and moving.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesElif Shafak
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Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson.jpg

I can think of few classic novels that have had such a widespread influence on both popular culture and literature as Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein; Or, the Modern Prometheus”. Even if people haven’t read Shelley’s novel they have a sense of Doctor Frankenstein’s creation from the many films which have (mistakenly) portrayed him as a senseless monster. I even went to a show recently called Frankenstein: How to Make a Monster where talented young musicians from the BAC Beatbox Academy re-created the body of the monster in song as a way of describing terrifying issues and people they experience in everyday life. But Shelley’s characters, ideas and powerful story have also permeated the imaginations of so many novelists since the book’s initial publication in 1818. Most recently it’s been directly referenced and reimagined in the novels “Frankenstein in Baghdad” by Ahmed Saadawi and Jeanette Winterson’s latest novel “Frankissstein”. Winterson’s novels have always had strong ties to the work of past writers (most notably Virginia Woolf) but her recent novels more strongly incorporate this influence such as her remix of The Winter’s Tale in her novel “The Gap of Time”.

“Frankissstein” goes a step further creating a dual narrative which switches back and forth between a historical section where we see Mary Shelley writing her famous novel and a near future where a non-binary individual named Ry Shelley engages in a complicated romantic relationship with a secretive scientist named Professor Stein. The historical sections have a more philosophical feel as Mary engages in meaningful discussions with her husband, the poet Byron and other interesting figures from the time period. The modern section is much more playful as it initially begins at a convention where a madcap capitalist named Ron promotes the use of his advanced range of sexbots designed to suit everyone’s emotional and physical needs. There’s even a Germaine Greer sex doll! Meanwhile, Professor Stein gives a lecture about the future of humans in a post-human world and engages in some edgy scientific experimentation. While the tone of these two narrative threads sound totally at odds with each other they feel strangely cohesive – especially as the novel increasingly becomes concerned with questions about the advancement of our species, the meaning of consciousness and the complicated dynamics of love: “Love is not a pristine planet before contaminants and pollutants, before the arrival of Man. Love is a disturbance among the disturbed.” The novel also has a political edge engaging with issues to do with feminism, gender identity, ethics and Brexit.

One of Winterson’s greatest talents is mixing an ardent seriousness in her writing with a richly playful sensibility to form stories that are both engaging and deeply poignant. Initially I felt more emotionally engaged by Mary’s 19th century tale and her struggles with marriage, friendship, money and nationality. But as the story progressed I became more attached to the character of Ry (whose shortened name could be a part of the names Mary or Ryan.) Ry encounters prejudice because of their gender identity and also develops a strong sexual connection and relationship with Professor Stein who is frustrated because falling for Ry wasn’t a part of his plan. Both Mary and Ry find themselves oddly positioned in relation to men whose grandiose ideas about mankind’s advancement don’t encompass matters to do with the human heart. In a sense, Mary and Ry are a continuation of the same person who has changed through the centuries like Woolf’s “Orlando”. In this way Winterson brilliantly messes with the perceived linear nature of time and the way certain issues emerge continuously amidst society’s progression: “Our lives are ordered by the straight line of time, yet arrows fly in all directions. We move towards death, while things we have scarcely understood return and return wounding us for our own good.”

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The novel also considers ideas about storytelling itself - both in forming fictional narratives and the narrative of history. Mary Shelley was in the unusual position of producing a brilliant novel so early in her life and its themes go on to haunt her as Winterson shows how her life plays out in subsequent years. I like how Winterson considers how oddly abstract experience becomes when it’s formed into a story: “Only in the living of it does life seem ordinary. In the telling of it we find ourselves strangers among the strange.” But I also appreciate how she confronts popular notions of nationalism and that the idea of Britishness is just another story we’re telling ourselves: “The timeless serenity of the past that we British do so well is an implanted memory – you could call it a fake memory. What seems so solid and certain is really part of the ceaseless pull-it-down-build-it-again pattern of history, where the turbulence of the past is recast as landmark, as icon, as tradition, as what we defend, what we uphold – until it’s time to call in the wrecking ball.” I think this notion is good to keep in mind when any politician cites historical references to support their own ideological campaigns.

While I like to linger on many lines in Winterson’s novels (she’s a very quotable author) because she can poignantly encapsulate powerful ideas in few words, sometimes these grand statements pull me out of the flow of the story. The point of view can at times feel more like Winterson’s rather than her characters. There’s also occasional clunky lines such as a discussion about feminism where Mary self-consciously names her mother in a way that’s more for the reader’s benefit rather than for the characters she’s conversing with: “My mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, would not agree with you, I said.” Yet, these are minor quibbles I had with a novel I so thoroughly admire and enjoyed. I like reading novels which aren’t afraid to converse so self-consciously with stories that have come before. I think “Frankissstein” does this artfully while making a tale that is entirely new and immensely fun to read.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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I’ve mentioned in the past how novels which are more like books of interconnected short stories are my favourite kind. “Girl, Woman, Other” by Bernadine Evaristo invents a new slant to this form of prose and it does so in a way which poignantly relates to the novel’s overall meaning. The stories in this novel revolve around particular groups which are usually composed of a daughter, mother and friend/lover/important familial figure. They focus on twelve central characters in total whose lives touch upon each other either glancingly or in a dramatically important way. Most centre around the lives of black women (many of them queer) in modern-day London, but their lives branch out across the past century as well as to rural life and other countries such as America, Barbados and Nigeria. There is no overarching story although a focal point is a new theatrical production at the National Theatre by one character named Amma, a lesbian socialist playwright. The play focuses on a reimagining of great African female warriors. The women in this novel provide an interesting counterpoint to the dramatization of this ardent reclaiming of the past. The lives and experiences of these modern day women are varied and incapable of being classified. Each forms their own unique sense of identity which is black and female, but also so many different things. It’s really powerful seeing how they variously connect with each other or sadly misunderstand one another amidst their varied and compelling stories.

Some readers scoff at new fiction which self-consciously considers issues to do with current highly politicised issues such as the diaspora, economic inequality or racial/sexual identity. But what I think is so clever about this novel is that it speaks about these themes so overtly you can see how they are a part of the everyday lived experience of women who came of age in the wake of feminism, black consciousness and/or queer rights. Because they are often made to feel marginalized this is a dialogue these women have with themselves, each other and the communities they live in as they seek better ways to articulate who they are and what they want. It’s clever how Evaristo attunes the reader to her characters’ quest to self-identify. When characters pledge unconditional love, rename themselves or reinvent their lives we feel a sense of foreboding rather than celebration because we’ve become all too aware that their principles are likely to eclipse their more complex individual identity and multifaceted needs. Unsurprisingly, there is a lot of friction in this quest to define and understand one another especially between different generations. It’s why I think the dynamic of grouping their stories together works so well because you see things wholly from each woman’s perspective before getting a very different point of view from another woman on the same events, people and situations. It shows how there is no one clear way of understanding their lives or a singular truth about who they are.

There’s also an immense pleasure in seeing how these women’s stories intersect at various points and how certain mysteries within different plotlines are only solved by following each individual story. It creates a panoramic view of groups of people and lives through the past and present. To reign in so many different tales within one cohesive whole takes considerable talent and it’s clear Evaristo is an experienced and talented writer. Of course, the many pleasures that such a construction gives also means we miss out on the joys found in some other more traditionally plotted novels. Inevitably, some of these women’s stories will engage readers more than others. At times, just when you form a powerful attachment to one character the novel will move onto the stories of other women and we won’t see that character again except in passing. Part of me would have loved to read a whole novel about 93 year old Hattie or city worker Carole who is haunted by a sexual assault or Dominique who finds herself dangerously drawn into an abusive relationship on a woman’s commune. However, it’s a tribute to Evaristo’s power as a writer to leave you wanting more. At some points I felt tested trying to keep straight all the many different stories and characters in my mind. But this also means I’d be very eager to reread this novel because I think this would make me see the individual threads of their lives much more clearly. I’m sure a rereading would also allow me to pick up on some details I’m sure I initially missed about how their lives intersect. Nevertheless, my first reading of this novel was an immensely pleasurable experience filled with drama, sharp humour and compelling characters whose stories are a joy to read about.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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Of the many reading initiatives that occur online, Women in Translation Month (#WITMonth) which happens in August is one of my favourites. So I’ve started the month with “The Collection” by Nina Leger, a slim newly-translated novel from France which has a very attractive cover although it’s most definitely not about mushrooms. It concerns a woman’s anonymous sexual encounters and while this might seem straightforward it’s given me a lot to think about it. So much so I have much more to say about this book than some other much longer novels and that’s not just because of its provocative subject matter. I was surprised by how emotionally engaged I felt with the story as well – especially because the full details of its protagonist’s identity remain pointedly obscure.

I admire fiction which deals frankly with sex because it feels like an important aspect of humanity which isn’t often dealt with in literary fiction in a proportion similar to how often it preoccupies our actual lives. Marlon James has commented in interviews how when sex is portrayed in literary fiction it’s often only referred to in ellipses or portrayed as a shame-filled activity. I think the difficulty a lot of authors have in writing about sex is that they don’t want their prose to come across as indulging in sensual fantasy or titillating for the sake of it. But equally there is a hesitancy when portraying all the awkward reality of people’s bodies.

The writer William Gass claimed readers don’t really want to see under the skirt because “What good is my peek at her pubic hair if I must also see the red lines made by her panties, the pimples on her rump, broken veins like the print of a lavender thumb, the stepped-on look of a day’s-end muff? I’ve that at home.” In “Bluets” Maggie Nelson gives an emphatic riposte to this assumption that readers only want an idealized portrayal of bodies engaged in sex: “For my part I have no interest in catching a glimpse of or offering you an unblemished ass or an airbrushed cunt. I am interested in having three orifices stuffed full of thick, veiny cock in the most unforgiving of poses and light.”

Nina Leger’s novel gives just such a frank view as it catalogues the sexual exploits of its protagonist Jeanne who visits many hotels having sex with anonymous men. Rather than flesh out the lives and personalities of any of these men or Jeanne herself, we’re only given explicit descriptions of the men’s genitals which Jeanne gathers to form a “memory palace” of these encounters. Who she is or why she prefers anonymous sex remains a mystery and Leger even playfully toys with the expectations of the reader that she might be a discontent wife, a trauma victim, a secret lesbian or a nymphomaniac. All we know is that her sexual exploits are an important aspect of Jeanne’s life and they are something she pursues with rigorous dedication.

The hotel rooms she visits aren’t spaces for her to enact a side of herself which she doesn’t show in her ordinary life. It’s stated “There will be no reverse side to the set, as the hotel rooms are not a stage; no concealed wings, in which Jeanne sheds her ordinary self in favour of an extraordinary costume.” Over the course of the novel it’s not Jeanne’s actions which feel performative, but the routine of ordinary life which reveals itself to be a façade. Hotel rooms are dressed to be as mundane and interchangeable as possible. People she encounters go about their days keeping sex a hushed and secretive activity. Society teaches people to keep their social identities and sexual identities completely separate.

In one hilarious scene Jeanne is on public transport and her bag which contains sex toys hangs open. A child tries to grasp one of these toys and its mother sharply remonstrates Jeanne demanding she close her bag while the other passengers gaze at her with amused disapproval. The awkwardness of this situation is acute, but Jeanne is entirely unapologetic about it because the difficulty is not with her; it’s the people around that have the issue as they are projecting their own insecurities and fears upon her. They are the ones that feel any open expression of sexuality is a transgression that must be kept behind closed doors.

Leger seems to comment on the way literature generally handles sex in novels when she describes Jeanne’s frustration at not being able to find someone like her in what she reads, “At one time, she looked for her alter ego in novels and sometimes thought she had found her there... In each new text, she hoped to find what the previous had lacked. At the beginning the heroines were bold and immoral; the first pages blazed, the lines throbbed with subversion. Then, this heartbeat diminished, became a miniscule pulse which dwindled little by little, until vital functions shut down completely; halfway through, the heroines had been irrevocably transformed into psychological composites devised for the purposes of explication and the novel, which had appeared free and wild, preferred to frolic in an enclosure of highly limited significations where sex could be nothing other than a symptom, the sign of a void that needed filling, of an anguish to be appeased, of a slowly healing wound.” The way Jeanne’s indulgence in sex is, of course, portrayed exactly opposite to this as being about unapologetic pleasure and the purpose for it is solely her own.

That’s not to say sex is portrayed as an unproblematic activity in this novel. Men treat her in many different ways so she experiences their repugnance, gratitude, embarrassment, indifference or emphatic attention. There’s a kind of violence in how men project their desires upon her and also explicitly reveal their fears and insecurities in ways they scarcely realise. She also finds the more she engages in sex the more her desires evolve. Desire can suddenly well up within her to be expressed in unexpectedly bizarre ways such as the impulse to lick rain water off from a stranger’s wet anorak. Leger also considers the weird mental space we often enter into when engaged in sex so there is a charged interplay between reality and fantasy. So we see from Jeanne’s perspective how “The room rhythmically disappears and appears” in a way which is surreal.

For some time, rather than seeing men she explores a range of sex toys and pornographic videos as she explores the different contours of pleasure. There’s a risk that sex will become such a habitual activity it becomes entirely meaningless. Some sections take on a hallucinatory feel as her physical surroundings meld into an anonymous mass: “Jeanne watches and the details blur; colours wear away; sounds lose their meaning; the volume flattens; movements fragment; bodies exist no more”. In this absence we feel Jeanne’s emotional strife as the activity of sex turns into sheer chaos and she comes perilously close to becoming no one at all “no more memories, no more body that belongs to her, no more reasons or causes”. We’re left wondering if this is liberation or a nightmare.

There’s an old adage that novels need their characters to overcome a conflict and change during the course of the story for it to be successful. Jeanne doesn’t change in that by the novel’s end she’s engaging in exactly the same kind of practices that she is in the beginning. But what’s changed is that she and the reader are more aware of assumptions being made about her and the expectations that are placed upon a sexually active woman. We can feel the will for her to stop this activity and concentrate on being a wife or mother or business professional. We’ve become so accustomed to sex being used as a tool or a means to move into a different stage of life that it’s very difficult to view it as just another instinctive human function. The reader is given no insight into Jeanne’s life outside her sexual pursuits or the meaning of her activity because it’s nearly impossible for us not to ascribe her actions to a larger false narrative about her being.

Jeanne repeatedly views a Bearded Dragon in a pet store she passes.

Jeanne repeatedly views a Bearded Dragon in a pet store she passes.

It really surprised me how this novel brought me to this conclusion and made me feel so emotionally engaged. Quite often when reading novels which intentionally withhold details about their central characters’ identity or shield us from the heart of the protagonist I’m left feeling cold and dissatisfied. As much as I admired the intellectual engagement found in novels such as “Outline”, “Satin Island” or “First Love” I didn’t feel as much as I wanted to from them. But this novel made me feel a lot because I sympathised with Jeanne’s struggle to maintain a sense of integrity alongside her sexual proclivities. The novel also challenged a lot of my own assumptions and the way I might feel inclined to ask someone who engages in casual promiscuous activity if they will ever “settle down” – as if its natural or necessary for everyone to eventually become domesticated.

There’s a fine tradition of literature that considers sex in a frank and often shocking way – especially in France. Georges Bataille’s “Story of the Eye” self-consciously broke every sexual taboo by portraying every perversion imaginable. But the world has changed a lot since that novella was written almost one hundred years ago. Now every twisted sexual impulse can be viewed online in a quick keyword search. Leger’s novel says something much larger about how both our desires and our bodies are segmented and compartmentalized. No doubt “The Collection” will immediately put off a lot of readers because of its explicit content and its refusal to straightforwardly reveal Jeanne’s emotions. But this novel is saying a lot more about how we live now than other modern literature which shyly skirts around such inflammatory subject matter.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesNina Leger
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It’s startling to realise how much human suffering can be conveniently ignored by the general population when governmental institutions neatly shield this injustice away. Colson Whitehead’s new novel centres around the Nickel Academy, a juvenile reformatory in Florida in the early 1960s. It was purportedly to school and train these teenagers to become “honorable and honest men” but in reality it abused, exploited and (sometimes) killed them. While the civil rights movement was valiantly working to end segregation the boys in this institution were still divided into white and black dormitories. Unsurprisingly, the white inmates were given better food and supplies as well as less labour and better treatment. Whitehead tells the story of this barbaric facility by focusing on the lives of several inmates – most notably an intelligent young man named Elwood who finds himself imprisoned there after he was caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Like many people I found Whitehead’s previous novel “The Underground Railroad” incredibly moving. This new novel is stylistically different but just as impactful. Not only does it tell a harrowing tale of racism and institutional abuse, but has a gripping plot with a surprising and moving ending.

One of the most heartrending things about this novel is that Whitehead based it on a real institution called the Dozier School for Boys. After this school closed down an anthropological survey in 2012 discovered the remains of dozens of bodies outside the cemetery grounds. Whitehead fictionizes the back stories of several boys who might have ended up in these unmarked graves while also depicting the atmosphere of the civil rights movement at that time. Elwood is a studious young man who aspires to go to college, but finds himself drawn into the protests after being inspired by a record of Dr Martin Luther King’s speeches and his teacher Mr Hill who was a former freedom rider. Through Elwood’s perspective we experience all the conflicted feelings of people had to choose between looking after their own self-interest or joining to fight for a bigger cause. Of course, when he realizes how inhibited his life would be given the current social systems it leaves him little choice because “It didn’t make no sense until it made the only sense.”

It’s incredibly moving how Whitehead depicts Elwood’s good intentions and his stalwart belief based off from Dr King’s words that if he maintains his integrity and diligently works for progress things will change for the better. But this is severely tested when Elwood finds himself locked in the Nickel Academy where there is no reason or justice – only an obtuse system where severe and entirely unjustified punishment can be randomly enacted. He observes “Problem was, even if you avoided trouble, trouble might reach out and snatch you anyway.” The institution is riddled with corruption and incompetence from the administration to the guards to the medical staff. The place is given a lick of paint and congenial veneer whenever any state inspection is due. There’s a sense that over many decades the abuse and prejudice has become so systematic no one in a position of power even thinks to question it.

Dozier School for Boys

Dozier School for Boys

This is extended further when Elwood and another boy are loaned out to the local population to perform unpaid work as well as deliver governmental supplies to local businesses which were intended to feed, clothe, educate and entertain the incarcerated boys. It meant civilians and businesses outside the institution directly benefited from the maltreatment and suffering of these young black men. In this way Whitehead’s novel makes me question in what ways ordinary people are complacent in the exploitation of others. It’s also a poignant reminder of how brutally people suffered during segregation in America which is something which should be obvious but as one character notes it is “hard to remember sometimes how bad it used to be.” But outside of these larger issues, this is novel which vividly and skilfully tells the stories of several characters trapped in a brutal system in a way which is rousing and memorable.  

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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Earlier this year I read the moving memoir “Mind on Fire” in which the author recounts his experiences with manic-depression, suicidal thoughts and the destructive impact his mental health issues have upon his personal relationships. An experience similar to this is dramatically rendered in Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s new novel “Starling Days”. It’s the story of Mina and Oscar, a young married couple living in New York City who temporarily move to London so Oscar can help his father prepare some run-down properties for sale. But Mina struggles with feelings of sadness which threaten to overwhelm her and self-harm. Her issues with mental health are portrayed with equal weight against Oscar’s no less heartrending emotional negligence being born as an illegitimate child who seeks to forge a connection with his aging father. Amidst their struggles, Mina makes a strong romantic connection with Phoebe, a red-haired English blogger whose presence brightens the world for Mina when she begins to feel overwhelmed by a suffocating loneliness. It’s noteworthy how this novel realistically and sympathetically portrays the experiences of a bisexual character. But Buchanan portrays all her characters’ journeys and dilemmas with a great deal of sympathy that made me feel wholly connected to them.

This is only Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s second novel but I can already see she has a touching methodology in her fiction for portraying the lives of distinct individuals who are powerfully connected. Her first novel “Harmless Like You” depicts the lives of a mother and child in different periods of time. In a similar way, “Starling Days” gives equal weight to two characters’ perspectives and how their personal struggles create severe challenges in their relationship. But the author has a magnanimous way of rendering the daily reality of their situations without making any judgements. She conveys in their dynamic how there’s no perfect way to go about helping someone dealing with depression and suicidal thoughts. It’s not something that can be neatly fixed. It’s more like a balancing act between therapy, medication, attentive loved ones and an inner drive to continue. We see how Mina must consider these every day while also grappling with feeling like a burden because of her condition.

It feels as if Buchanan is slightly playing upon recent trends in literary fiction to invoke or retell Greco-Roman mythology through a modern perspective. In preparation for writing a tentative academic monograph Mina loosely researches stories of the few mythological women who survive in their tales since so many female mythological characters die through punishment, their own folly or cruel coincidence. Rather than creating her own fictional account of these women Buchanan references their stories amidst Mina’s own plight. It creates interesting points of comparison but also provides a poignant frame in which to see Mina’s journey as a literal struggle to survive amidst the beaconing hand of death. There’s also a playful sense that Mina is more able to understand the tragedy in these epic tales than the inscrutable complications found in modern life: “This world made so much more sense if it was filled with angry, hungry gods.”

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As moving as I find Buchanan’s writing, she has an occasional tendency to needlessly complicate some sentences in order to emphasize the physicality of her characters’ movements. So she’ll write “Her hands picked up her phone” when she could have instead just written “She picked up the phone.” Or “His legs carried him down the stairs and to the hall” instead of “He went downstairs.” This clunky phraseology can be distracting. But overall her writing has a pleasing fluidity to it in evoking all the undercurrents of emotion within her characters’ lives as they navigate the world and interact with one another. This is most powerfully rendered in the dialogue and communication between characters who gradually disconnect from one another until the reader can feel the sad gulf which exists between them.  

The novel poignantly considers the complications involved in relationships steered by dependencies that are emotional, financial and/or sexual. It’s not necessarily bad that such dependency exists because it necessitates a level of openness and vulnerability that’s needed in a strong relationship, but it can create a hierarchy and possessiveness which can impact upon people’s sense of self-worth. Fully accepting yourself while also truly loving someone else is difficult. “Starling Days” powerfully shows the nuance of such connections and it gives the story a rare clear-sighted honesty.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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I get so excited whenever I start a novel that begins with a family tree. Something about the style of a family saga really appeals to me in the way it traces how individuals function both independently and as part of a family. “Celestial Bodies” mainly focuses on the stories of three sisters in modern day Oman, but it also presents a number of perspectives of different family members and people connected to that family. Like Sara Taylor's novel “The Shore” it also moves backwards and forwards in time showing how the decisions and circumstances of earlier generations impact the current generation. This creates a poignant picture of what this family inherits but also a larger picture of how the country of Oman has changed so rapidly in its values and social structures (especially in regards to slavery and women's rights) over the past century. But what engrossed me throughout this novel was the skilful way in which Jokha Alharthi entrenches the reader in each perspective to immerse you in their dilemmas and (often) hidden passions. 

It was fortuitous that I happened to be in the middle of reading “Celestial Bodies” when it was announced as the winner of this year's Man Booker International Prize. While I enjoyed the stories it was presenting it's the type of book where you can feel a bit disorientated until you understand its plethora of characters and the various timelines at play. For a while it felt like I was looking at a jigsaw puzzle trying to figure out how the pieces fit together. But the work in putting it together yields a lot of pleasure because it allowed me to see a much larger picture of this family's various trials and developments over a long period of time. It forced me to think about their personal history not in a linear way but in the resonance of events and how they impact different generations.

I especially appreciated how this novel depicts absences within a family like in this passage about the mother named Salima who grieves for her lost son: “Every day and every night, for ten years, she died a little more. She breathed and ate and drank but she was dead. She spoke to people and walked among them, dead.” Quite often families will have members who die at quite an early age and their loss can reverberate through many years. So while the story is mostly about the immediate concerns of these very different sisters we gradually come to understand that their older brothers' presence also remains in the minds and hearts of this family. And there's a touching injustice to how people can become preoccupied with these losses rather than focusing on fostering the development of those still living.

This is such a rich and complex novel whose many layers will probably become more evident with a rereading. Yet there is so much in the immediate concerns of its characters being presented from chapter to chapter showing all their many humorous idiosyncrasies and longings that I found this first reading entirely engrossing. I was particularly gripped by the story of the bookish middle sister Asma whose marriage takes her life in an unexpected new direction. While I could connect with a lot of the sisters and their husband's concerns it was really fascinating to read about lives and a culture so different from my own. It's made me much more interested in exploring literature from other countries and I'm so glad the Man Booker International Prize has prompted me to read more translated fiction this year.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJokha Alharthi
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It's usually only in retrospect that we can consider the seismic importance of major political events we lived through in our childhood. “The Remainder” opens with an account of the children of Chilean revolutionaries whose parents are having a party on the evening of 1988 when Pinochet is voted out of office. Of course, the children are more interested in sneaking sips of alcohol and fostering their own obsessions while the adults are embroiled in politics. Many years later the three children Paloma, Iquela and Felipe embark in a hearse on a surreal road trip. They want to retrieve the body of Paloma's mother which has been lost in transport because a volcanic eruption has covered nearby cities in ash and has caused the plane transporting the body to be redirected. The lyrical prose describe the rich intricacy of their interactions and shifting relationships with each other as well as their stumbling efforts to make sense of the political circumstances they were raised in. This is vibrant story that captures all the complexities of feeling experienced by a particular country's new generation burdened with the weight of the past. 

It's impressive how the prose is mainly composed of big blocks of dense text which are filled with oblique references, yet there's an admirable lightness of style which make them compulsively readable. Chapters switch between the perspectives of Iquela who has a tense distant relationship with her mother and Felipe who turns the country's numerous dead into a mathematical equation he feels obliged to solve. A strong subtle bond develops between Iquela and Paloma who has lived abroad for years so her experience contrasts sharply against Iquela's circumscribed existence. In Felipe's more rhapsodic sections he has emotionally-fraught brief encounters with both the living and the dead. There's a great pleasure in following their chaotic journey which is filled with all the angst and humour of young people trying to figure out their place in the world and navigate the shifting depths of their own desires.

At times It felt like a hallucinatory experience reading this novel – partly because they take some strong drugs left from Paloma's mother's illness and partly because of the haunting physical setting of a city coated in ash. But I found it easy to relate to their ardent confusion trying to connect to a proceeding generation who lost themselves in an imagined future. Felipe's mathematical mission “to count objects so that they became associated with a perfect, seamless figure” takes on a great poignancy as these three young people face the reality of innumerable casualties lost amidst a crushing former dictatorship. Though they don't embody the values of their parents, these queer young people have inherited the fallout of that generation’s conflicts. This novel currently shortlist for the Man Booker International Prize powerfully captures this tension in a way which is imaginative and convincing.

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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
4 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