Flying Under the Radar…but well worth your time

2016 is shaping up to be such a corking year in books (thank goodness, eh, considering the state of everything else…) that I was going to do a books of the mid-year point list. However, when I drew up my longlist I noticed that it split neatly into two categories: those books you already know about because everyone is talking about them and those that I wish everyone was talking about because they’re brilliant and haven’t had the recognition they deserve. So here’s twelve books I’ve read so far this year that I think are worthy of your time and attention. Clicking on the covers will take you to my full review.

Let Me Tell You About a Man I Knew – Susan Fletcher

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A new patient arrives at Saint-Paul-De-Mausole, an artist called Vincent van Gogh. The story of the novel, however, belongs to Jeanne Trabuc, the warder’s wife. van Gogh serves as a catalyst for a change in her steady, claustrophobic life. A fantastic portrait of a marriage and the power of art to change how you see the world.

Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun – Sarah Ladipo Manyika

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Doctor Morayo Da Silva is approaching her 75th birthday. Former academic, ex-wife of an ambassador, she’s seen the world and lived it all. Now settled in San Francisco living a steady, reliable life…or so she tells us. The multiple narrators of this fascinating tale might not agree. (This also gives me an opportunity to point you in the direction of this excellent piece recommending more women novelists you might enjoy by Sarah Ladipo Manyika on Vela: Seven Bold and New International Voices.)

Martin John – Anakana Schofield

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You know that reviewers’ cliche about books staying with you long after you’ve turned the final page? Well I read this in December and I still shudder every time I think about it. Martin John is an ‘inadequate molester’. Exiled to London from Ireland, by his mother, following an incident in a dentist’s waiting room, Martin John follows his rituals and circuits to ensure he stays on the right side of the law. But he’s already made a mistake and now Baldy Conscience has stayed too long in Martin’s house they’ll be consequences. John’s mother’s story is also very interesting, equal parts heartbreaking and disturbing.

Under the Udala Trees – Chinelo Okparanta

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A coming-of-age novel in 1970’s Nigeria. Ijeoma discovers her sexuality when she meets Amina. Her mother attempts to ‘correct’ her homosexuality through schooling her in The Bible and manoeuvring her into marriage. Gripping, heartbreaking but ultimately hopeful.

Sitting Ducks – Lisa Blower

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The perfect post-Brexit novel if you’re one of those people wondering who was ‘stupid’ enough to vote Leave in those run-down post-industrial towns destroyed by Thatcher and neglected by subsequent administrations. ‘Totty’ Minton’s fed up of being skint, unemployed and living in a house marked for demolition by his former school mate and private property entrepreneur, Malcolm Gandy. Corruption and despair are rife in the lead-up to the 2010 general election and there seems to be no end in sight.

The Living – Anjali Joseph

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Joseph also looks at working class lives. 35-year-old, single mother, Claire, works in one of the UK’s remaining shoe factories and struggles with her teenage son, Jason, while her feud with her mother rumbles on. Arun, a shoe maker and grandfather in Kolhapur, struggles with his health and looks back on his life and marriage. An excellent character study.

Under the Visible Life – Kim Echlin

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The story of two women, Mahsa Weaver and Katherine Goodnow, who have two things in common: 1) jazz 2) their mixed heritage and the issues which have come with it. Two women who want independence but are prevented from having it in different ways although all under the banner of the patriarchy. Piercingly astute on women’s lives.

If You Look for Me, I Am Not Here – Sarayu Srivatsa

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Mallika, Siva’s Amma, becomes pregnant with twins: a boy and a girl. The girl, Tara, arrives with the umbilical cord still around her neck and dies moments later. The boy, Siva, survives. But Mallika wanted a girl and her grief for Tara leads her to reject Siva and accuse her husband of killing Tara. Brought up as a boy by his father and grandmother and a girl by his mother, Siva spends his childhood and adolescence questioning whether he is a boy or a girl. His story is interwoven with that of George Gibbs, an Englishman who used to live in their house. You can read my interview with Sarayu Srivatsa here.

Mend the Living – Maylis de Kerangal (translated by Jessica Moore)

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Simon Limbeau is fatally wounded in a road traffic accident. Pulled from the wreckage and transported to an Intensive Care Unit, the novel charts the progress to the point when Simon’s heart becomes that of Claire Méjan. As the heart’s journey progresses, we meet all of the people involved in transporting it from one body to another. Gripping and fascinating.

Masked Dolls – Shih Chiung-Yu (translated by Wang Xinlin and Poppy Toland)

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Twenty-three chapters, each one titled ‘Conflict’ and the number of the chapter. Initially these conflicts seem to be individual tales: Judy and her Chinese lover; Jiaying and Lawrence, her Western boyfriend; Jiaying’s father’s stories of World War Two; the person who steals underwear from the flat Jiaying and her friends live in when they’re students; Jiaying’s friend Fat Luo’s increasing hatred of her. But as the book progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that these ideas are thematically linked. Greater than the sum of its parts.

Ghostbird – Carol Lovekin

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In a Welsh village where it rains every day in August, fourteen-year-old Cadi Hopkins begins to ask questions about her dead father and sister and why she’s not allowed to go to the lake. Cadi lives with her mother, Violet, with whom she’s locked in an intensified teenage daughter/mother battle. Cadi’s aunt/Violet’s sister-in-law, Lili, lives next door and acts as a surrogate mother to Cadi. Lili also has a contentious relationship with Violet. Nature, magic realism, secrets and family relationships. Atmospheric.

Eileen – Ottessa Moshfegh

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Eileen tells the story of ‘back then’ when she lived with her alcoholic, ex-cop, father, was a secretary in a boys’ juvenile correction facility and met Rebecca Saint John, the beautiful, intelligent, fashionable director of education who befriends Eileen and leads her down a very dark, twisty path.

Masked Dolls – Shih Chiung-Yu (Translated by Wang Xinlin and Poppy Toland)

Conflicts. I guess I’m the kind who attracts conflicts but has no idea how to resolve them. I clash frequently in big ways and small ones with loved ones such as my boyfriend and my mother. Lots of my relationships have ended this way. The only person I’ve stayed close with, despite the endless conflict, is my mother. If we weren’t blood relations, we’d probably have gone our separate ways in the end too. That’s partly why you find me here, walking the streets of this foreign country on my own.

Jiaying, a successful writer, tells of the period in her life when she stayed in a six-bed female dorm in a youth hostel in Seoul. The only other occupant of the room is Judy, a Westerner who doesn’t begin to speak to Jiaying until she discovers she’s Taiwanese so she can speak to her in Mandarin. A few days later, Judy tells Jiaying about an abusive relationship she was in with a Chinese classmate whilst she was studying in Tokyo. It’s the end of Jiaying’s own interracial relationship which has led to her traveling to Seoul.

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The novel’s made up of twenty-three chapters, each one titled ‘Conflict’ and the number of the chapter. Initially these conflicts seem to be individual tales: Judy and her Chinese lover; Jiaying and Lawrence, her Western boyfriend; Jiaying’s father’s stories of World War Two; the person who steals underwear from the flat Jiaying and her friends live in when they’re students; Jiaying’s friend Fat Luo’s increasing hatred of her. But as the book progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that these ideas are thematically linked. This is also evident in an earlier passage where Fat Luo berates Jiaying for rejecting him:

“Why are you brushing me off, Jiaying? Have you no affection for this land we live in? Is that why you look down at Asian men – and Taiwanese men in particular? Is that why you’re dating your Western guy? They’ve got bigger dicks, their countries are superpowers, they’re wealthier, stronger and better looking than us. Is that why you ignore my letters? Do you know how it breaks my heart to see you with that Western guy? It feels like having a knife plunged through my heart! It’s like when all those superpowers forced their way into the Forbidden City, plundered our treasures and razed the Old Summer Palace to the ground. But this time the treasures these Western powers have taken is you! We are the ones who will give you true happiness. Mark my words: when you grow weary, I will be the only one by your side. Oh fuck, my hands are trembling as I write these words.”

The conflict at the heart of the book is that of globalisation. Jiaying states, interracial relationships ‘just like internet cafes, started to proliferate every major city at the turn of the century. Just like the concepts of globalisation and the global village, these relationships started to appear among my group of friends of different cultures, nationalities and skin colour’. But humans don’t like change and when change takes place at unprecedented rates, threatening the things which give them a sense of identity, something that they feel makes them unique, they cling to whatever that thing is ferociously. In Masked Dolls that thing is national identity and masculinity. The conflicts which stem from the globalisation shown in the novel are ones of gender, of colonialism, of love – romantic and familial.

Translators Wang Xinlin and Poppy Toland convey the brutality of these conflicts, leaving the reader feeling as battered and bruised as if they’d been on the receiving end of one of the instances of physical conflict in the book.

Masked Dolls is an unusual look at how the metaphorical shrinking of the world affects people at an individual level. It considers a number of consequences, particularly for women: the novel never fails to remind us that we live in a patriarchal society which will not tolerate interracial relationships. Masked Dolls is one of those rare books which after reading reveals itself to be greater than the sum of its parts. Brutal, intense, fascinating.

 

Thanks to Balestier Press for the review copy.