Elmet by Fiona Mozley

I’ve reviewed the Man Booker shortlisted Elmet/written about why it’s an important working class novel for Ozy.

I’m delighted to have contributed to the new, extended books section on the site. It’s edited by the brilliant Sarah Ladipo Manyika, who wrote the Goldsmith’s Prize shortlisted Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun. I highly recommend having a look around, there’s some great pieces on there.

The Handsworth Times – Sharon Duggal + interview

In the first two chapters of The Handsworth Times, one boy is turned into a fire ball by petrol bombs thrown during a riot and another is killed, knocked off his bike by an ambulance. It’s one of the most arresting openings I’ve ever read.

The character who connects both of the boys is Mukesh Agarwal, father of the boy who is killed and saviour of the one who is not.

The churning alcohol in Mukesh’s stomach begins to rise up towards his mouth, scorching his throat along the way. He takes in a long, deep breath of the smoky air through his nostrils and it halts the acidic bile attempting to rise up through his body. Sobriety hits him suddenly and he too becomes transfixed by the burning boy just a few meters ahead. Without thinking he begins undoing the small, transparent buttons on his work shirt with clumsy fingers. Finally, the damp shirt is undone and he removes it fully before pushing his way through a small gap in the crowd. He strides towards the burning figure.

The Agarwal family are a family of seven living in Handsworth, Birmingham in 1981. Mukesh works at Hardiman’s Sheet Metals and spends his wages in the Black Eagle. His wife, Usha, gets up at six o’clock every weekday and five on Saturdays to scrub the house of imaginary mice piss. There are five children, two boys and three girls. Billy dies at the beginning of the novel and, while they attempt to come to terms with their brother’s death, the others have their own issues to deal with too. Kavi, the other boy, starts skipping school and withdrawing from his friends. When one of them suggests he should make the most of life, regardless, he responds:

‘Make the most of it – make the most of what? What have we got here in Lozells or even in Handsworth? What have I got to look forward to, or you? Bloody teachers who decide we are thick before we even open our gobs just because our dads have an accent? And then what, the dole? A dead-end job like my dad who is already miserable enough for the whole family? Fuck off, Marcus, there is nothing for me here.’

Kavi isn’t convinced by Marcus’ attempts to get him to join Handsworth Youth Movement but Kavi’s sister, Anila is when there’s a recruitment drive outside her school. The eldest sister, Nina, leaves for university in Leeds, corresponding with her siblings via letter and the odd telephone call, while the other sibling, Kamela, falls in love.

It’s Usha who’s at the heart of the family and the centre of the story though. As she deals with her grief over the death of Billy and tries to hold her family together, she recognises the importance of community. While Thatcher does her best to destroy it, Usha and her friends work together to build something that will bring their area together.

I spoke to Sharon Duggal by phone to ask her about the book.

The opening two chapters of the novel are dramatic and memorable. Where did the idea come from and were they always the opening of the book?

It was an idea that evolved. I had a strong sense of wanting to start with a riot but not make it the whole story. I also had a visual image of the burning boy. I saw a photograph, maybe years ago, of lanterns that float upwards. I think quite visually.

I wanted all of the family to be responding to something but in different ways and I wanted that something to be a consequence of the events at the beginning of the book. The opening chapter was always going to have the girls in the bedroom and the riot. Initially, they were that way around but I received a New Writing South bursary for a reading from The Literacy Consultancy and Rachel Trevize advised switching the bedroom scene and the riot. It made absolute sense; why didn’t I see that?

The book’s the story of a family with a number of issues told from multiple perspectives. How did you manage both the issues that arise and the different points of view?

I wanted to show that even within one family there are multiple stories going on. Minority stories are often linear. However, I didn’t start out thinking I wanted to include all of these issues, I wanted a cramped, claustrophobic household.

I’ve no idea how I managed it! I plotted each thread out separately. Having Nina leave was practical. Kamela was more difficult, she’s strong and feisty. There was a danger it could all seem a bit samey, especially the sisters, so I wanted their stories to be quiet different.

The book’s set in 1980’s Birmingham but there are clear resonances to current society. Was now the right time to write it or was it just coincidence?

It’s coincidence. It was finished pre-Brexit but as it came closer to publication these issues became more popular. Brexit gave people permission to be racist. Not that everyone who voted leave is racist but the way views were aired via mainstream politicians allowed them to become acceptable.

There are lots of references to 80’s culture in the novel. What sort of research did you do?

I was 13/14 in the early 80s and the references stick with you because you’re formulating who you are. Music, particularly ska, was a huge thing for me and ‘Ghost Town’ [by The Specials] was released in July 1981. I spent time checking references and dates. In an early draft, there was a reference to Neighbours but that didn’t start in the U.K. until 1986. I’ve had mixed reactions to it, one book group thought it was too much, others have called it rich in period detail.

You use some dialect in the book. Why did you decide to include it and did you come up against any resistance?

I didn’t come up against any resistance. I didn’t want to do the whole thing in dialect but it’s so much a part of who Brenda was. I wanted it to feel Brummie and I think dialect makes things richer but I didn’t want to replicate all the different dialects. The poet Liz Berry does it beautifully. I didn’t want to be heavy handed. The story takes place in a particular time and place but it is also universal. I still call Birmingham home and people there still call you ‘bab’.

The book is Brighton’s City Reads for 2017. How does it feel to have an entire city celebrating your work?

Absolutely amazing. I’m going to hold onto it for the whole year. You think you’ll never get published and then you realise the hardest thing is getting someone to read it. It meant that some were gifted to prisoners and socially isolated elders. I visited a lot of groups where I was asked unexpected questions and found love for the book. It’s really great to have anyone reading it, never mind a whole city. It encourages people from all walks of life to read it. There was a rough sleepers project. I had a shared meal with them and we discussed the setting and the challenges of family. Having a shared read connects people.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on a second book which is very different. It’s just beginning to formulate. I’ve had a very busy year and I’m itching to get on with the next book. There’s going to be lots of writing this year.

My blog focuses on women writers; who are your favourite female writers?

Hannah Lowe. Her book Long Time No See is about Chick, her Chinese Jamaican gambler father. It’s about the different strands of who she is.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, particularly Half of a Yellow Sun and Americanah.

Buchi Emechetta’s book Second Class Citizen was the first time I realised you don’t have to be posh, white, old and live in a big house to have books written about you.

Also, the Brontës, Margaret Drabble, Beryl Bainbridge.

Thanks to Sharon Duggal for the interview and to Bluemoose Books for the review copy.

 

When We Speak of Nothing – Olumide Popoola

The what to do and when to place it. The how to undress and how much to leave underneath. The give someone all that could hurt oneself. Or them. And then stand still. Just stand.

Karl is Abu’s ‘brother from another mother’. The pair are seventeen years old, studying for A Levels and living with their families in the King’s Cross area of London. The novel opens with them walking home from school.

Then, out of nowhere, three wannabe guys they knew from sixth form jumping them, right at the corner to Leigh Street. Like real jump. Two of them at Abu calling him Abu-ka-ha-ba-ha-ha-ha-r-pussy and other things that shouldn’t be said in front of anyone, twisting his arm back in its socket like they just got their GCSEs in bullying.

It was crunching. Abu whined.

Being beaten up is a regular occurrence for their pair. The reason for this is revealed as the story unfolds: Karl is transgender and some of his classmates take this as a reason to be abusive towards him and Abu.

And Karl would be all, ‘You know you can just tell them you ain’t gay and be done with it. It’s just me this is for anyway.’ And Abu would be, ‘For real? Bruv, do I look like I have a problem with gay or anything? They know we ain’t gay. I’m not even going to go there. When have I ever let you down? Tell me? Do I really look like I will talk to some pisshead? Got better things to do with my time, mate. If you want to preach again find yourself someone who doesn’t know how to act. Ain’t me.’

Part of what makes this book great is the level of acceptance for Karl from Abu, Abu’s family and Karl’s mum. This isn’t a story about someone transitioning, it’s a coming of age tale of a teenager trying to find their place in the world.

The narrative’s driven by Karl’s lack of contact with his father whom he’s never met. While his mother, who has Multiple Sclerosis, is in hospital, Karl opens a letter from his Uncle Tunde. In it, he tells Karl’s mum, Rebecca, that Karl’s father is ill and now knows of Karl’s existence. He wishes to see Karl. With some manoeuvring that involves Karl, his guardian, Godfrey, and Abu’s family lying to Rebecca, Karl flies to Port Harcourt to meet his father. Things don’t go as expected though: Karl’s father is mysteriously absent and Karl begins to fall in love with a young woman he meets. Back in London, violence is escalating, not only against Abu but across the city following the killing of Mark Duggan.

The novel could’ve been weighed down by the issues it covers. The story meets at the intersections of race, class and gender and considers what it’s like to be a transgender teenager in two different communities; how single parents with health issues cope, and why people respond to a range of situations with violence. However, Popoola’s management of these areas is skilful: she refuses to offer any easy solutions – much of the novel operates in the grey areas of life; there is a clear story about two teenagers negotiating their entry into adulthood, and her use of language is thoughtful and aids in making these characters convincing. She interweaves the vocabulary and speech rhythms of London and Port Harcourt. It isn’t simply a matter of throwing in some dialect or imitating an accent, the grammatical structures echo the spoken word.

When We Speak of Nothing offers a view of teenagers, and of London, rarely seen in literature. It is a tale of friendship, of acceptance, of deciding what’s worth fighting for.

I spoke to Olumide Popoola about writing teenagers, creating a transgender protagonist and playing with language.

Jendella’s playlist is here.

When We Speak of Nothing on Amazon and Waterstones.

My review of The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah. The Book of Memory on Amazon and Waterstones.

Thanks to Olumide Popoola and Cassava Republic for the interview and for the review copy of the novel.

 

All the Good Things – Clare Fisher

I was trying to figure out how to tell him that earning £7 an hour was the opposite of fun. That having to smile all day at people, some of whom were rude, others of whom were nice, most of whom just looked through you as though you were a human shaped machine, emptied the ‘you’ out of you. That having £2 left over when you’ve paid your bills and bought your food and the odd drink in Wetherspoon’s doesn’t bring much relief, because what about next month? What if you get less shifts next month? What if you lose your Oyster Card? What if someone jacks your purse with your last £20? What if one of the soles you’ve been walking around for months with holes in finally falls off? What then?

21-year-old Beth is in prison. We meet her after her counsellor, Erica, has asked her to write a list of good things about herself. Beth’s response to this is to call it ‘retarded’; Fisher uses this as a way to quickly reveal both Beth and Erica’s personalities. Erica asks her to explain the use of the word, while Beth protests that she’s ‘not a retard’ becoming defensive. Once Erica begins to explain the word to her, there’s a glimpse of how scared and vulnerable Beth is.

Each chapter is titled with the good thing Beth is writing about, for example, chapter two is ‘Running until your body is a good place to be’ in which Beth reveals herself to a talented runner. Besides metaphorically, this can never come to anything because of course Beth’s mum and subsequent foster carers can’t afford to buy her good equipment, take her to meets and so on. But it is Beth’s behaviour which sees her thrown out of the school club. She relates times when she mimicked the coach in the changing room:

Behind me I heard a sad screech, like the ones cats make when you step on their tails. It was the coach she’d seen me […] I wanted to run out to the coach and tell her I was sorry and that my favourite way of falling asleep was to replay all the good things she’d said to me, but I’d never said anything like that to anyone, and I didn’t know how to start.

Each of Beth’s journal entries are written to her child who she no longer sees. On family days, she is the only inmate of the group she hangs around with who doesn’t have any visitors.

Fisher shows how the system fails vulnerable people. While teachers and social workers and foster carers do their best, there are cracks large enough for someone to fall through: what if someone decides fostering isn’t for them? What if a foster carer becomes ill? What if a social worker leaves and isn’t replaced immediately? What if a teacher tries to report something within their own school and is told it’s been resolved? By writing the novel in Beth’s voice, Fisher explores all of these things without it becoming a polemic. The reader sees and understands the things happening to Beth, even if Beth doesn’t fully understand the mechanisms herself.

Beth’s voice is convincing and also prevents Fisher from making the novel sentimental. The closest it comes is when Beth reads Of Mice and Men to one of the other inmates so she can talk to her teenage son about it, who’s studying it at school. It’s a beautiful and heart-breaking section of the book.

Some of Beth’s behaviour is bad and shocking but even at its worst, we can see what’s led to it. There’s a perfect metaphor for this towards the end of the book. Beth has attempted to run away from her life but, not knowing what else to do, she finds herself back on a train to London without a ticket.

‘No,’ I said. The part of me I lied with had run out. ‘No, I don’t have a ticket. I’ve never had one.’
‘But you have to,’ he said. ‘You have to get one before you board.’
‘I tried,’ I said. ‘I’ve been asking for one. My whole fucking life I’ve been asking. But they wouldn’t give one to me.’
The inspector raised his eyebrows and I wondered, was I meant to know him? Was he some uncle I didn’t remember?
That,’ he said, ‘I find very hard to believe. Leicester is well served for ticket offices.’
‘You don’t get it,’ I said, and at this point, I felt other people looking at me. I peered around the old man and yep, sure enough, the strangers in the next scene were looking up from their phones and their Kindles. ‘None of you do. You never will.’

All the Good Things is perfectly timed considering the state of the society we’re living in.

All the Good Things is out now and available from Amazon, Waterstones or your local independent bookshop. If, like me, there isn’t an independent near you, I recommend Big Green Bookshop.

Thanks to Viking for the review copy.

Midwinter – Fiona Melrose

Landyn and Vale Midwinter are a father and son united in grief but unable to communicate their thoughts and feelings to each other.

Ten years previously, Landyn had uprooted the family from Suffolk and taken them to Zambia. Money was tight and an advertisement titled ‘Farmers Wanted for a New Life in Africa’s Fertile Bread Basket’ seemed like a new start, a last chance to make a success of himself and provide for his family. What he couldn’t have anticipated was that the venture would result in the death of his wife and Vale’s mother, Cecelia.

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The family’s time in Zambia is told in flashbacks between the story of Landyn and Vale’s current life in Suffolk. The novel begins as Vale and his friend, Tom, try to make their way through cold water, drunk and in the dark, to the boat they’ve stolen.

Nothing prepared us and we lost each other just as soon as we hit the water. The gully beat us and beat us again. I was just struggling to breathe. Then I heard Tom choke and rasp, and suddenly felt a huge weight. I thought I was dying then, but I kept fighting. And I still don’t know why.

Vale has to deal with the consequences of the night’s events, consequences that will force him to confront the death of his mother too. But Vale’s a young man and he doesn’t know how he feels, never mind what to do with these feelings:

Sometimes I just got angry when I should have been worried or upset. It was like I only knew one way to feel stuff. Ma would have asked, ‘What is it you’re really feeling love.’ And then I would realise I was sad or mostly, afraid. Afraid of all kinds of things, like looking stupid or failing at something. I tried to ask myself questions that Ma would ask but it wasn’t the same. She would have taught me to find a way through.

The novel’s narrated in alternate chapters by Vale and Landyn. Melrose uses this to show us the similarities between the two characters and explore why they’re finding it so difficult to communicate. The answers to this lie in the circumstances of Cecelia’s death – circumstances for which Vale blames his father – and in the unspoken, longstanding masculine code which prevents men from sharing their feelings with each other. These two things create the tension which runs throughout the book and which spills over into violence at several points.

The events of the novel are played out against the landscape, whether in Zambia or in Suffolk. Melrose treats nature as an additional character using the water, the land and the animals to place the reader in the natural world and show us how the characters relate to it. This becomes particularly pertinent in the case of Landyn who is haunted by a vixen he believes is Cecelia:

If you don’t crave the thing that stalks you it’s just a thing, or a person or a fox, maybe, because it has no meaning. What a haunting is, though, is all your longing for someone in a shape you can wrap your brain around. So we allow the thing that haunts us to take up home with us and then, the magic happens.

Midwinter is a taut, tense, beautifully crafted debut. Melrose cuts to the core of masculinity, convincingly portraying a number of men dealing with catastrophic life events. Highly recommended.

 

If you’re interested in discovering more about Midwinter, I’ll have an interview with Fiona Melrose up tomorrow.

 

Thanks to Corsair for the review copy.

Little Deaths – Emma Flint

Queens, New York, 1965. Ruth Malone’s been a single parent to Frankie, five, and Cindy, four, since she split from their father, Frank, a year ago.

Ruth knew she should be proud of these kids. She should be proud of herself, bringing them up practically alone. They had toys and books, their clothes were neat and clean, they ate vegetables for dinner every night. They were safe here. It was a friendly neighbourhood: when they climbed out of their window back in the spring, an old lady brought them home before Ruth even knew they were gone.

Earlier in the evening before the children go missing and this time aren’t returned, she has an increasingly desperate telephone conversation with her lawyer, which ends with, ‘He can’t have the kids. He can’t have them. I’d rather see them dead than with Frank’. The fact that the children also disappear from their bedroom, which was locked from the outside, makes Ruth a suspect.

When she knows the police are on their way to begin the search, Ruth touches up her make-up and changes her clothes.

‘She knew that there would be men, strangers, looking at her, asking questions. Their eyes all over her like hands. She had to be ready for them. She had to look right.’

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Initially the police assume Ruth’s hidden the children as some sort of punishment for Frank but then Sergeant Devlin, the man in charge of the investigation, details the times the police have visited Ruth’s apartment for noise complaints and the count of public intoxication they have on record for her. They go through Ruth’s bins and find ‘nine or ten empty bottles. Gin. Bourbon. Wine’ and then there’s the case under her bed:

A waterfall of postcard, letters, cards. He picked them up one by one and read the signatures. Dozens of them. All from men. Some from Frank, before they were married. A year’s worth from Johnny Salcito. A few from Lou Gallagher, going back to March or April. And some from other men, men she could barely remember.

Just like that, Ruth’s on trial for being a woman who doesn’t fulfil the patriarchy agreed role of angelic mother.

The other angle of the story comes from Pete Wonicke, a rookie journalist at The Herald who’s desperate for a big story. A combination of persistence and timing means he’s assigned to Ruth’s story at the point when the children are reported missing. Initially Flint uses this take to show how the press portray Ruth, focusing on her appearance and her lifestyle, but eventually it becomes more than that:

He wanted to know what she was like, what kind of woman this terrible thing could happen to. He knew that logically Ruth Malone was the same person she had been three months ago, just with a layer of grief and horror – but when tragedy strikes, there’s a tendency to assume that someone is different. Special. That there’s something about them that makes them the kind of person bad things can happen to. Because the alternative – that bad things can happen to anyone, at any time – is unthinkable.

Wonicke becomes obsessed with Ruth, believing he’s her white knight because, of course, a woman in distress is always in need of a man to save her.

Flint uses Ruth’s case to explore the double standards men and women are held to: she shows that several men connected to Ruth could be responsible for the children’s disappearance but they’re never considered suspects. Ruth’s guilty for not grieving in the correct way, for drinking, for having lovers, for not upholding the illusion of the perfect wife and mother. Of course, it’s not just the men that believe she should be meeting agreed criteria, it’s also many of the women who comment on the case, who’ve internalised the misogyny they’re exposed to on a daily basis.

Little Deaths impresses in a number of ways: the writing’s crisp and precise; Flint allows the reader access to Ruth’s thoughts, which make an interesting counterpoint to the views of those who watch but don’t really see her, and although the reader is aware of the outcome from the opening pages of the book, Flint’s plot grips as you try to work out how on earth Ruth could be found guilty and if she didn’t do it, who did?

I’ve seen some reviews which are critical of the ending of the novel. I suspect this is a matter of taste. Flint chooses to resolve the case and does so with what seems to me to be the most plausible scenario. That brings into question whether or not it needed to be stated explicitly, that depends on a reader’s preference for an open or closed ending. However, the way in which it’s revealed could be seen to be stretching the bounds of possibility although it’s not implausible. Whichever way your preferences lie, it’s a minor quibble with an impressive debut novel. Emma Flint is one to watch.

 

Thanks to Picador for the review copy.

Books of the Year 2016, Part Two

Yesterday I revealed my pre-2016 published fiction and 2016 non-fiction books of the year. Today it’s turn the of the 2016 fiction list and what an absolute corker of a year it’s been. (It needed to be to make up for the dire straits that is real life.) I’ve read and reviewed lots of good books so I’ve been very strict for this list and only included books I thought were superb and would happily re-read again and again. Click on the book covers to take you to my full reviews.

4627425830The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry

If you’ve read my review or follow me on Twitter, it’ll be no surprise that this is my Book of the Year. Set over the course of a year, newly widowed Cora Seabourne decamps from London to Essex with her companion, Martha, and her withdrawn, unusual son, Francis. There she encounters two things which will change her life: the legend of the Essex Serpent, apparently returned and killing man and beast, and local reverend Will Ransome, who’s more modern in his thinking than Cora expects and is quite a match for her intellectually. With themes of science and religion, love and friendship this book is as smart as it is engaging. I didn’t read this book, I lived inside it. Pure joy.

 

41no-ogymgl-_sy344_bo1204203200_The Lesser Bohemians – Eimear McBride

Eily leaves Ireland for London and drama school, determined to lose her virginity. When she does, it’s with Stephen, a relatively famous actor, who she assumes she’ll never see again. Of course it’s only a matter of weeks before she does and, despite the twenty-year age gap – she’s eighteen and he thirty-eight, a relationship, of sorts, begins. Over the course of a year in the 1980s, Eily and Stephen fall in and out of love and Stephen reveals his dark past. Written in a similar staccato, interior style to her debut, McBride places the reader in Eily’s head and we live out the year with her. Superb.

 
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Martin John – Anakana Schofield

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 John’s house they’ll be consequences. John’s mother’s story is also very interesting, equal parts heartbreaking and disturbing. An unusual subject told in an experimental, circular style, this really does linger long after you’ve finished reading it.

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Under the Visible Life – Kim Echlin

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 due to their different cultural backgrounds – although all of their issues fall under the banner of patriarchy. Piercingly astute on women’s lives, loves and friendships.

 

 

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Human Acts – Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith)

The story of the aftermath of the student uprising in Gwangju, South Korea in 1980. Beginning with ‘The Boy’, Dong-Ho outside the municipal gymnasium, listening to the memorial service for the bodies being brought to the gym for families to identify and moving through a number of narrative voices, including the body of Dong-Ho’s friend, Jeong-dae. Shocking, violent and eyeopening.

 

 

coverMy Name Is Leon – Kit de Waal

Carol is struggling following the birth of her second son, Jake. Tony, Jake’s father has no intention of leaving his long-term partner and family and Byron, nine-year-old Leon’s father, did a runner when he was due to go to court. She has no financial support and is suffering from postnatal depression. When Tina, the neighbour, calls social services, Jake and Leon are taken into care, going together to a foster carer’s house. Leon spends his time looking out for Jake, thinking about the things that happened when he lived with his mum and hoping that his mum will get better and come back for them. Instead, Carol disappears and white baby Jake is adopted. Leon, nine-years-old with light brown skin, is left behind with Maureen, the foster carer, with little hope of anyone offering him a permanent home. Heart breaking and precise, de Waal nails a child’s perspective, writing convincingly about a situation not often covered in literature.

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

1889. Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. There we find Jeanne Trabuc, wife of Charles – ‘The Major’ – the warden of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, hospital for the mentally ill. A new patient arrives, an artist by the name of Vincent Van Gogh. Jeanne strikes up a friendship with the artist which becomes a catalyst for her long hidden feelings about her life. A wonderful novel about marriage – how it changes over time, how you can never really know someone even after thirty years – and the power of art to change the way you view the world.

 

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

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. Dr Morayo Da Silva is a wonderful character: a woman in her 70s who’s lived a varied life, unafraid to dress as she pleases, contemplate tattoos, read voraciously and discuss sexuality and how she’s found life as a woman and as a person of colour. A gem.

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The Power – Naomi Alderman

A male academic, living in a matriarchy, writes a book about how women gained power – personally, through an electric current which becomes live in their bodies, and politically. The story follows three women: Roxy, a gangster’s daughter; Margot, a mayor, and Allie, an abused foster daughter, as they overturn their situations and begin to run the world. All of this is documented by a male journalist, Tunde, the first to capture the power on camera. Violence, corruption, sexual and domestic abuse, this is indeed a powerful read.

 

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Eileen – Ottessa Moshfegh

24-year-old Eileen lives at home with her cruel, ex-cop father. She works at the juvenile detention centre where she fancies one of the prison guards who never acknowledges her existence. The week before Christmas, 1964, Rebecca Saint John arrives at the institution to be the first ever director of education. She takes a shine to Eileen and Eileen’s life takes a very dark turn indeed.

 

510ryhmdeel-_sy344_bo1204203200_If You Look for Me, I Am Not Here – Sarayu Srivatsa 

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. Dealing with pertinent issues of gender through interwoven stories of two cultures, the tales are completely engrossing and the writing’s both inventive and precise.

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Dodge and Burn – Seraphina Madsen

An exercise in imagination that takes the reader on a road trip across the west of the USA and the possibilities of experimental fiction. Framed by news reports of a missing American heiress, Eugenie Lund, the story of her childhood and subsequent trip is told mostly through her notebooks. Virtually imprisoned as part of a social experiment by Dr Vargas, Lund’s childhood was an unusual one which ended when her sister disappeared. This is the story of her search for Camille. A welcome addition to the cult fiction genre, reclaiming something from generations of male writers. Hurrah!

Books of the Year 2016, Part One

As usual I’m dividing my Books of the Year into two parts. Part Two, coming tomorrow will be fiction published in 2016. Part One is fiction published pre-2016 and 2016 non-fiction. If you click on the pictures of the books they will take you to my full review.

WL PBK FINALWaking Lions – Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (translated by Sondra Silverston)

Doctor Etian Green finishes a nineteen hour shift at Soroka Hospital, six of which he spent helping to stabilise road traffic accident victims. In the time it takes for him to walk from the hospital ward to his car, he goes from exhausted to adrenaline-fueled. He decides to drive to ‘a particularly challenging SUV track’ he’s read about. Sprinting along, he hits a man and leaves him for dead. The next morning, Sirkit, the man’s wife, appears at his door along with Etian’s wallet which he dropped at the scene. Sirkit offers him a deal but it’s one that will have serious consequences for his home life and his job. Everything in Waking Lions is grey area. Sharp, thoughtful and challenging.

7016625Push – Sapphire

Claireece Precious Jones – Precious to her friends, Claireece to ‘mutherfuckers I hate’ – 16-years-old, five feet nine or ten, two hundred pounds, is pregnant for the second time to her father. Suspended from school, she goes to Each One Teach One, located on the nineteenth floor of a local hotel. Precious tells the story of her time attending the group, in which she learns to read and write, intertwined with that of her family situation. Push could be an unbearable read: every time you think it couldn’t get any darker, it does, but it’s balanced by Precious’ determination and Sapphire’s rendering of Precious’ voice which is pitch perfect and authentic.

getimage239-669x1024.aspxOne Night, Markovitch – Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (translated by Sondra Silverston)

Yaacov Markovitch and Zeev Feinberg go on the run after Feinberg is caught having sex with the wife of Avraham Mandelbaum, the slaughterer. The deputy commander of the Irgun, a friend of Feinberg’s, sends the pair to Europe where they will marry ‘a Jewish girl’ and bring them back to Palestine, thus circumventing the closed gates of Europe. Once the men return, they will divorce and the women will be free to remain. But Markovitch refuses to divorce his wife, the stunning but cold, Bella Zeigerman. The backbone of the story is that of three women: Bella; Feinberg’s wife, Sonya, and Mandelbaum’s wife, Rachel. Gundar-Goshen uses them to explore the ups-and-downs of marriage, parenthood, war, death …basically all of life is here.

51-2bjcqwu2l-_sy344_bo1204203200_The Glorious Heresies – Lisa McInerney

Maureen kills Robbie O’Donovan when she finds him in her house. As the mother of Cork’s biggest gangster, Jimmy Phelan, she doesn’t need to worry about clearing up her mess. But the mess is bigger than a body and some blood: Robbie’s girlfriend, Georgie, is looking for him and she has problems of her own; Tara Duane, Georgie’s confidant is keen to know everyone’s business and she lives next door to Jimmy’s alcoholic clearer-upper, Tony Cusak. And then there’s Cusak’s son, fifteen-year-old Ryan, who loses his virginity, starts his first long term relationship and begins to step out from the shadow of his alcoholic, violent, widowed father. A bloody entertaining read.

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Ruby – Cynthia Bond

Ruby’s returned to Liberty Township, Texas from New York City. Everyone knows she’s mad: she pees in the street and has sex with many of the men in Liberty, but Ruby’s caught the attention of one man who wants to treat her differently; Ephram Jennings is planning to bring Ruby one of his sister’s white lay angel cakes. Ruby’s tortured by the ghosts which have attached themselves to her. As she gives herself to them, we learn about her childhood and the long-standing relationship she has with Jennings’ family. Bleak but threaded with hope and beautiful writing.

 

9781444775433The Devil in the Marshalsea – Antonia Hodgson

Tom Hawkins, eldest son of a Suffolk gentleman, Oxford graduate, set to join the clergy and inherit his father’s position, finds himself in the Marshalsea for unpaid rent and other debts. He arrives after the widow of Captain Roberts has taken up residence in the debtor’s  prison after Robert’s murder made to look like suicide. Hawkins gets drawn into solving the murder as he deals with his roommate, the despised Samuel Fleet, and the prison’s regime, divided by rich and poor. Intelligent, packed with period detail and plot, bawdy, has a social conscience and some hilarious lines. Entertaining.

 
9781846689499Pleasantville – Attica Locke

Pleasantville is a neighbourhood in Houston, Texas, built in 1949 “specifically for Negro families of means and class”. As a middle class, politically aware area, it also holds political power, a power which has become legendary over four decades. The story takes place in 1996 in the run-up to Houston’s mayoral election, the results of which might bring Alex Hathorne to office as the city’s first black mayor. As the novel begins the situation is quickly complicated by two events: the first is the abduction of a teenage girl, following a stint distributing campaign leaflets door-to-door in Pleasantville; the second is a break-in at Jay Porter’s office.As the story unravels, all the threads become entwined with the mayoral race at the centre. Locke considers who really runs an election campaign: a matter of business and money – who pays for the campaigns, who dictates strategy – but ultimately, how low people are prepared to go in their desperation for power.

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Negroland – Margo Jefferson

Margo Jefferson grew up in Chicago in the 1950s and ’60s. Born to a paediatrician father and a socialite mother, she experienced a particular type of privilege: that of the well-off, educated, black family. Personal experience is interwoven with the history of those Jefferson identifies as belonging to Negroland: Frances Jackson Coppin and Joseph Willson, for example; and cultural commentary on film, television and the media, discussing those black men and women who did appear on and in those mediums and what they came to represent for black communities. Negroland is a superb book which consider the intersections of race, class and gender. It’s a fascinating read and an insight into an underexplored area of society.

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The Argonauts – Maggie Nelson

The Argonauts charts Nelson’s relationship with the artist Harry Dodge, including the conception and birth of their son, Iggy, and Dodge’s decision to begin taking testosterone and have top surgery. The Argonauts is not straightforward memoir, it is intellectual argument illuminated by personal experience and supported by academic rigour. It explores love – constructing and maintaining a relationship outside of heteronormativity and maternal love as stepmother and mother (the latter from the point of view of adult child and parent as well as the expectant mother/mother of a young child) – and the body – sex, gender fluidity, pregnancy and birth. Rigorous and fascinating.

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The Lonely City – Olivia Laing

Laing examines the idea of being lonely in the busiest place on earth – the city, specifically in her case New York City. Part memoir, part mediation on art, Laing looks at a number of artists who’ve dealt with the theme of loneliness – in their work and often in their private lives too – focusing in on Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Henry Darger and David Wojnarowicz. The Lonely City is a fascinating exploration of what loneliness is; how we attempt to stave it off; why some people are consumed by it, and what its relationship to artistic creation might be.

 

Fiction Round-Up

There are some books that, for a range of reasons, I read but just didn’t get around to reviewing in full this year. Because I’d like to start the new year without a pile of books I haven’t reviewed yet glaring at me I thought I’d do a couple of round-ups instead. Today it’s fiction, later in the week will be non-fiction.

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The Vanishing Futurist – Charlotte Hobson

In 1914, Gerty Freely moves from Cornwall to Moscow and becomes a governess. Narrated in Gerty’s old age from the house in Hackney where she lived with her husband until his death sixth months previously, The Vanishing Futurist tells a story of the Russian Revolution through Gerty’s involvement with Nikita Slavin and the commune they establish with friends. We know from the prologue that Slavin, an inventor, disappeared in January 1919. The official story is that he left in an invention of his own making but Gerty reveals the truth. A smart and ultimately heart-breaking novel about the price of freedom from social norms.

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Speak – Louisa Hall

Five voices tell the story of the evolution of Artificial Intelligence. In 2040, Stephen R. Chinn, incarcerated in Texas State Correctional Institution, tells of how he designed babybots to help children with their speech. The babybots were programmed to respond to the things their owner told them, storing details in their memory. In transcripts from Chinn’s trial, we meet Gaby Ann White who talks to the voice of a former babybot called Mary3. Through the discussion we learn about the bond these children developed with their babybots before they were taken from them. In 1968, Karl Dettman writes to his wife, Ruth, who is using the computer he’s designed, called Mary, as a child substitute, causing tension in their marriage. The fourth voice are letters from Alan Turing which chart his friendship with Chris Morcom and his thoughts regarding Artificial Intelligence. Finally there’s The Diary of Mary Bradford, a pilgrim girl from the 1660s, which Ruth Dettman is editing – and has named her husband’s voice activated computer programme after. Hall weaves the five voices together showing a society both enamoured with and frightened of AI. A superb novel which should have garnered far more attention than it has.

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The Big Lie – Julie Mayhew

A counterfactual novel in which the Nazis have won World War Two and the UK is part of the Greater German Reich. Jessika Keller is the daughter of a high-ranking official, loyal to the state and a promising ice skater. When Jess is seven, the Hart family move onto her street and their daughter, Clementine, becomes her best friend. But Clementine and her family aren’t like the Kellers. Clementine is a rebel and soon her attitude starts to have an effect on Jess. And what would happen in a right-wing state if Jess were to fall in love with the wrong person? Beautifully written and all the more chilling considering current world events.

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LaRose – Louise Erdrich

LaRose begins with Landreaux accidentally shooting dead his neighbour’s young son. Following traditional example, Landreaux and his wife, Emmaline, send their young son, LaRose, to live with their neighbours in place of the dead son. LaRose not only tells the story of the fallout of the death, the switch and the impact on both families, it tells the families’ backstories. There had been a LaRose in each generation of Emmaline’s family for over a hundred years. We follow the story of Emmaline’s ancestor LaRose and discover the relationship between Landreaux and Romeo Puyat, who used to be classmates and now despise each other. A complex, engrossing, family/community saga that explores how earlier generations affect and influence the present.

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The Girls – Emma Cline

No doubt you’ve already heard of Emma Cline’s debut The Girls. Set in California in 1969, Cline details the summer when her narrator Evie becomes enamoured with a group of girls and becomes part of a cult. This leads to an encounter with a Manson-like figure. The summer and adolescence are well-captured. Evie rebels against her mother, pushing boundaries at home, as well as legally, in her desire to be part of an adult world she doesn’t understand. However, Cline inserts chapters told in a present day in which Evie is staying at a friend’s apartment with her friend’s son and his girlfriend. This gives Evie the opportunity to reflect upon what happened in 1969, commenting on some of the behaviour displayed by the two young adults she finds herself living with. Not only are these chapters not as vivid and atmospheric as those from Evie’s adolescence but knowing Evie survives to middle-age also serves to undercut the tension of the 1969 scenes. Cline’s a writer with a promising future but The Girls fails to live up to its promise.

 

Thanks to Faber and Faber, Orbit, HotKey Books, Corsair and Chatto & Windus for the review copies.

Interview with Anakana Schofield

In the final of my Goldsmiths Prize posts before the winner is announced this evening, I’m very pleased to welcome Anakana Schofield to the blog to discuss her novel Martin John.

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Where did the initial idea for writing about an inadequate molester come from?

In my first novel, Malarky, there’s a character towards the end called Beirut. He is the man in the opposite bed in the psychiatric ward from the main character, Our Woman. He’s a man who believes he’d been to Beirut, is fixated on it. There’s a footnote that says ‘See Martin John: A footnote novel’ which I inserted as devilment. It was an act of self-provocation; I didn’t know whether I’d ever write that novel.

The original title of the novel was Martin John: A Footnote Novel but the publishers requested I remove the subtitle and I agreed as once the works were complete, they’re very much separate, independent works. Although they are a diptych.

The first line of Martin John is ‘Martin John has not been to Beirut’ because the last time we met Martin John he was babbling on about Beirut. In Malarky, he was a jolly, eccentric, harmless, benign seeming man, rather a nice character and then I took him to a very, very dark place.

The idea for writing about an inadequate molester came from the recent plethora of  clerical abuse reports. There’s been an unveiling on the scale of incursions made into women’s bodies. (I say women because I’m interested in women but there are lots of men were abused.) I’m also interested specifically in the incursions that are made in public space, so was curious to explore a flasher. We tend to think of molesters, sex offenders as a distant aberration rather than at the kitchen table, on the bus. They are us. We don’t that idea, we like the idea that they are somehow separate.

I had to respond to the fact that there had been a particularly important moment in the consciousness of these deviant, criminal acts and the impact they have. There’s no geographic limit on these acts; there were clerical abuse reports in England, Boston, Ireland and dreadful clerical sexual abuse in First Nations residential schools and commuities here in Canada.

The novel’s written in a third person subjective narrative voice. It’s very much from the perspective of Martin John (and occasionally his mother). How did it feel to spend an extended period of time living in that character’s head?

The writing of the book was deeply uncomfortable, deeply discomforting and very challenging. However, I don’t write novels in a conventional way and I don’t conceive of writing them in that way. It’s not a process where I entered his head in any kind of sequential, linear manner. My entry point is form and language; I have to find the language to create that man’s head. In Martin John that’s clear because I’m creating recursive prose. The real challenge was how to deploy language to get into his head.

In this book, I took the idea of form as content into the shape of the syntax. It had to be that way because it was predicated on this idea of cycles: cycle of reoffending, cycle of mental illness, cycle of complicity. Martin John has these refrains roiling around his head and they govern much of his response to his behaviour.

It was unpleasant: I had to spend time in his groin more than his head. That was challenging. You have to be prepared to do the work the novel demands and sometimes that work isn’t pleasant but I find myself able for the job. If I’m not, I ask myself why and then I tell myself, ‘Don’t turn away’.

The character of the mother really interests me; she left me questioning what I would do if Martin John was my son. How do you feel about the mother and the way society sees his behaviour as her fault?

We meet Martin John’s mother through him. Her voice is in his head. That speaks to guilt and shame. His mother’s voice is relayed narratively through his head, yet the reader also knows how she feels. I like to innovate with point of view. However, I try not to have or impose feelings about my characters because, as a novelist, I’m not here to sit in judgement or program how the reader responds to them. Beckett had a great line in one of his letters where he’d been asked to explain some aspect of his work: ‘Hamm as stated, Clov as stated, together as stated’. I think that perfectly sums up your question. I don’t prescribe feelings for the reader; I give you his mother, I give you Martin John, I give you the two of them and then the reader takes over. If I decide how I feel, it won’t make for a complex portrait. They’re difficult questions I’m positing.

There was a period of time during the seventies and eighties when the atmosphere was very different. I don’t know how a woman who was living in a Catholic culture where the church and priests and shame had such power would have known what to do. How would she have gotten help? I don’t find it that difficult to imagine the quandary his mother has and her fear of what’s my son doing? What am I going to do about this behaviour? Her response entails telling him to stop it, repeatedly, and then dispatching him away to London and still telling him to stop it.

I don’t know if society sees his behaviour as her fault. I don’t know whether I sought to set it up that way. This is what’s so interesting about the reader’s relationship with a text; the completion of the parsing of the writer and the reader and what takes place in between. Blanchot had that great line where he said the writer is the first reader of the work and to some extent that’s true; I learn things from the reader’s interface with my work. Also, I can find it very frustrating when the terms of literary engagement can be so lacking.

What’s interesting about Martin John though is that the response has been incredible. I’m deeply grateful for the engagement; it makes me optimistic because fiction has been through a fairly conservative time. There are occasions when people will recoil from my novel, they’ll make decisions about it before they’ve read a line of it. That’s troubled me but when I’ve considered it further, that response to the novel mimics our response to the complex psychosexual problems of molesters, flashers, sex offenders, even mental illness to an extent. We recoil from it and don’t want to deal with it. If I hadn’t had that response, the novel would have failed on some level because the form is the content and the form the reader brings – this emotional response – reflects the content.

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The novel has a non-linear structure. Was it obvious to you that this story needed to be structured in this way or did it develop as you began to write?

I don’t plan; the structure emerges and then IF it fails I have to go back and keep digging. With Martin John, there was a moment quite far into the process where I decided to impose an entirely new structure on it. I deployed refrains and I had to overhaul everything about it. I remember thinking it will either work and you’ll have a book or it will fail and you’ll have to go back to where you were before. It was risky.

I have to be prepared to fail, that’s very important. I go down lots of ravines and sometimes off cliff faces then belay back up. The beginning – where I’m thinking what I’m interested in – is fun, but the actual writing of the work isn’t fun. It’s a lot of anxiety. I’ve just writtenand published an essay about process, imagination and the devaluing of imagination in an anthology called Alchemy. A lot of novel writing is about putting value on the imagination, being willing to do trapeze in an imaginative realm.

I love the rhythm of your sentences, the repetition and the word play. Is this something that came easily or is it the result of the redrafting process?

It’s very much a result of arduous redrafting. It became slowly obvious that I was going to go further than I went with Malarky and it would be right into the syntax. The conceptual ideas I was working with were the idea of the loop, the circle, the cyclical, the way in which blood travels around the body, the DNA, the genetics. The sentences loop, they repeat and they repeat in different directions. I was playing with language as the means to create form.

I’m also just not interested in the traditional narrative arc at all; that seems like a falsehood. Especially when considering the social class of the people I’m writing about. Those lives don’t add up to neat crescendos where things get fixed and sorted. It’s important for me to create works that don’t necessarily end. Novels that acknowledge that these people carry on amidst quiet despair. So as a mother, how do you save your kid? Well, good luck with that one. Is it unreasonable to think a mother might protect her child to the detriment of another child? I wanted to ask that question and it seemed to me it wasn’t an unreasonable thing. What would drive a mother? What might you ignore about your offspring? That’s where it gets interesting for me. I don’t want to create novels that are just descriptive  sentences.

How do you feel about Martin John being shortlisted for The Goldsmiths Prize?

I feel ecstatic! It’s very surprising and a mighty thing for my work. It’s a very special prize because it rewards innovation. I don’t think there could be a finer compliment for a writer who’s deeply interested in breaking and challenging literary form and curious about what the novel might become.

And what a shortlist!

I’m back with my women: Rachel Cusk and I were on the Giller shortlist together. I think she’s a marvellous writer and a marvellous woman. I think Eimear McBride is an absolute genius; our books are definitely in conversation with each other. You’re only as good as the work you sit beside so it’s wonderful. I’m looking forward to discovering Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s work. Deborah Levy is creating a very interesting body of work. I’m familiar with Mike McCormack’s earlier work; he wears very significant hats. It’s great.

The readings are taking place in Peckham; I got very exciting when I discovered that. It was a very difficult book to write so I’m very happy to be going to Peckham.

What’s next? Are you working on anything you can tell us about?

Malarky and Martin John are part of a quartet of novels. I’m working on the last two novels in the sequence. Number three is a novel about the character Bina, who appears in Malarky. The final novel brings us to Vancouver and completes the quartet. I’m thinking of them as 4 musical notes in a bar.

My blog focuses on female writers; who are your favourite female writers?

So many it’s hard to know where to begin and where to end; my bedroom is a dormitory of women authors.

Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Margarite Duras, Elfriede Jellinek, Jenny Diski, Hannah Arendt, Simone Weil, Rosa Luxumberg, Annabel Lyon, Lisa Robertson, Gail Scott, Eimear McBride, Thalia Field (whose new novel is extraordinary), Rachel Cusk, Nuala O’Connor, Sinéad Gleeson’s essays are terrific,  Meghan Bradbury’s debut novel is on my to read list.

Éilís Ní Dhuibhne wrote a lovely novel called The Dancers Dancing written from the point of view of some young girls on their way to the Gaeltacht in Donegal. I felt as though I was hearing them speaking and thinking in the Irish language but I was reading it in English. I thought it was the most marvellous thing to achieve.

I’ve just discovered the South African writer, Yewande Omotoso. She wrote the novel The Woman Next Door. It’s just wonderful. There’s a warm narrative voice in it.

I could simply keep typing names here all night long, but I have to jog out in the darkness and go to dinner with a woman writer instead!

Huge thanks to Anakana Schofield for the interview.