The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales – Kirsty Logan

In the title story of this twenty strong collection by Kirsty Logan, the unnamed narrator has a heart destroyed by love and loss.

But the parts of me that I wanted to give to Anna were long gone. There was not enough left that was worth giving. The edges of my heart were jagged now, and I do not want to feel those rough edges climbing my throat. I did not love her enough to cough blood. I kept what was left of me close, tucked under the long soft coils of my intestines where Anna wouldn’t see.

Anna shows her heart – ‘a curl of clockwork’ – and takes the narrator to the rental heart place where she finds the perfect heart for her.

When Anna ran off with my best friend, I took the heart back to the rental place. Nothing choked or shattered or weighed me down. It looked just as sleekshiny as when I had first taken it out of the wrapping. And the rental guy gave me my full deposit back. I deleted Anna’s phone number and went out for dinner.

As the story begins, the narrator has met someone new for the first time in years and is off to rent a new heart to protect her from the perils of love.

All of the stories in the collection are about loss in some way: the girls in ‘Underskirts’ who leave their families to serve My Lady, who is lost herself in a patriarchal society. The Lord says:

A woman’s world is the size of the distance from the bedroom to the kitchen…A woman is an actress, and the only thing keeping her on stage is the width of her smile.

The housekeeper complains about the number of handmaids her mistress takes:

Mouths round and red like quims, and their bodices low as anything…Tip-tapping through the back corridors where she’d no business to be, flipping up skirts and losing her rings inside girls.

And the dinner guest thinks:

That grinning tart put on quite a show for me. I know it was for me, because all the ladies do is for the eyes of gentlemen.

The tales are also filled with lust, often love and sometimes elements of magic realism. Coll with ‘his skinny wee tiger-tale’ distracting Una during their maths exam; the garden where nothing grows; the woman who eats lightbulbs:

It began with the Christmas tree lights. They were candy-bright, mouth-size. She wanted to feel the lightness of them on her tongue, the spark on her tastebuds. Without him life was so dark, and all the holiday debris only made it worse. She promised herself she wouldn’t bite down.

Logan delights in playing with language. In ‘Bibliophagy’:

He knows that his wife knows. She can smell the adverbs on his tongue in the mornings. But he cannot get through another evening in that house without consonants.

And in ‘The Gracekeeper’:

The graces are restless today. They pweet and muss, shuddering their wings so that the feathers stick out at defensive angles. I feel that restlessness too. When the sea is fractious like this – when it chutters and schwaks against the moorings, when it won’t talk but only mumbles – it’s difficult to think.

She plays with structure too; some of the stories are told from several points of view, others backwards. Ideas from fairytales are prominent (as you might expect from the collection’s title): an old woman in the depth of the forest; an empress trapped in a castle; a coin-operated boy; a boy with a tiger tail, but Logan plays with our concept of what these tales should be, subverting gender stereotypes and the ubiquity of heterosexual desire.

The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales is a superb collection. It’s easy to see why Kirsty Logan has been compared to Angela Carter but she brings her own voice to these stories, one which seems to move easily between characters in different places and tales in different genres. Her novel The Gracekeepers is published May and I can’t wait to see what she conjures up in a different form.

Through the Woods – Emily Carroll

Not being a big reader of graphic novels/stories, I wouldn’t have picked Emily Carroll’s book up if it wasn’t on the Green Carnation Prize longlist. I had a quick look at it in Foyles and it was so beautiful I bought it.

Through the Woods consists of five stories (and an introduction and conclusion): ‘Our Neighbour’s House’; ‘A Lady’s Hands Are Cold’; ‘His Face All Red’; ‘My Friend Janna’, and ‘The Nesting Place’. Each of the five stories is a horror, most using at least some elements of the gothic genre.

Two themes run throughout the stories: one is the idea of family – what is family? How should families behave? The other is the idea of loss or something being missing or haunted. In some cases this is someone physically disappearing and sometimes returning in some form, in others it is someone who has been possessed by something otherworldly.

The beauty of these stories comes from the gaps that Carroll creates. She doesn’t explain every piece of the tale, the reader is left to piece some elements together using both the text and the pictures. Some are not easily resolved and leave you wondering about different possibilities.

Carroll makes the illustrations part of the stories – nothing is there for decoration, each frame has earned its place – and my, they are beautifully drawn and coloured. Through the Woods is a joy to look at as well as read.

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But be warned: the stories become more intricate and dark as you read through the collection, until the point when they are shit scary (technical term). Don’t read them in the house on your own or just before you go to sleep.

Through the Woods made me think I should venture further into the world of graphic books, particularly if there are others out there as successful as this one. Highly recommended.

In Search of Solace – Emily Mackie

There it is.
The blurred image of a man.
Standing. Stock still.
For one minute and
thirty-
three
seconds.
On the roof of a derelict Office Shop
warehouse.
In Bristol.

There it is.

Emily Mackie’s second novel begins where it ends – with the death of her protagonist, Jacob Little. Although it’s not the end of the story, really it’s the middle. Confused? Let me explain.

The plot of In Search of Solace concerns Jacob Little, a 33-year-old man who arrives in a city in the Scottish Highlands looking for Solace, a woman he met at university. Since he left her, 11 years previously, Jacob has lived as many different men:

A different year, a different time, a different place, a different name. In 2004 he was Otto, a purple-bearded pagan dabbling in the occult. In 2005 he was theatre fanatic Benny Silverside. In 2006 he was known as both Simeon Lear the historian and Keith the archaeologist. In 2007 he was Isaac Featherstone, Teddy Two-Fingers and Graymalkin the street preacher. In 2008 he was Lambert the Christian and Teza the Buddhist. In 2009 he was Kenny Berk, Lindsay Ray, Trevor Bolter. In 2010 he was philosopher Eric Germain Huber and then later simply Archie the Alcoholic.

Now, back to being Jacob Little, he believes Solace is the only person who knows the real him and that’s why he needs to find her.

This isn’t just Jacob’s story though, it’s also the story of those who are affected by him during his search. We have teenager, Lucy, who works at the pub Jacob is lodging in; Big Sal, the owner of the pub; Elizabeth Mary Duda, the little girl who begins her own investigation into Solace’s whereabouts; Mr Benson, Jacob’s university landlord; Solace, and Jacob’s mother.

So there are interlinking plot strands and a host of vividly created characters but what really makes this book special is its form and structure.

Essentially, the novel’s structured like a jigsaw puzzle, one that when the pieces are put together in the correct way, reveal who Jacob Little is and why and how he affects the people around him. But to tell that story in a linear narrative would be to tell it in the same way as so many others. Instead, Mackie and her narrative voice lead us backwards and forwards through time. Sometimes the jumps are a number of years, sometimes they’re within the space of a few minutes to show the same scene from different viewpoints.

We should take ourselves closer, ogle from a better angle, and though it would be easy for me to finger-thumb click and take you into that room up there, I know there is little to see right now other than a skinny man in a long coat struggling with the latch on a window. Better to go back once more to the moment he arrived. But not with a click. No, not with a click. Please, reader, allow me some time to play.

Time is a key theme in the novel – how we exist in different times at the same time, in memory and conversation; how what happens in the past affects the future; how the actions of others affect our past and our future. Mackie considers whether it’s possible to erase the past, whether by becoming someone else or through death. It’s also a book about mental health and again, Mackie considers the affect of one person’s state of mind and the actions that result from this on another’s.

I finished In Search of Solace in a state of shock and awe. It’s a stunning book. Mackie tackles big, heavy, intellectual themes with a light touch. Despite its clever tone and fragmented structure, the characters and their stories shine through, the layers are there for you to delve into as deep as you wish. It’s an early call but I’ll be very disappointed if this isn’t on the Women’s Prize longlist next March.

Thanks to Sceptre for the review copy.

Thirst – Kerry Hudson

The year before this blog was created, Kerry Hudson’s debut novel Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma was one of my favourite novels of the year. Not only does it have one of the greatest (and very sweary) opening lines ever, it’s also a book about working class lives written by someone who really understands them, who can convey the brutality that some people face on a daily basis. So much so, that I recall having a conversation with David from Follow the Thread about how I found it ‘unrelentingly grim’. That wasn’t a criticism, it was recognition that Hudson had reflected back at me the lives of many students I’d taught without glossing over the relentless drudgery – and sometimes horror – of being poor and, particularly in this case, female. The only writers I’d seen do what Hudson can are Roddy Doyle and James Kelman (the latter being on my list of my favourite/best contemporary writers).

Although I included Thirst on my list of Ones to Read in 2014 without having had sight of the book at that stage, it would be fair to say I approached it with trepidation. What if it wasn’t as good as Tony Hogan?

Thirst is the story of Dave and Alena. They meet when she attempts to steal shoes from the Bond Street shop at which he is a security guard. As they sit in the stockroom and he tries to question her, as she devours the corned beef sandwich he’d been looking forward to, it’s clear that this isn’t going to be quite so straight forward:

The rise and fall of her accent put him in mind of seagulls swooping for scraps. His stomach knotted up. Just his luck to get indigestion from the sandwich she had eaten.        
‘I am apologising to you. Please. I say I feel sorry. I make mistake. I am new and it is easy to be confusing.

A few days later, Alena appears on the street outside the shop and asks him to have a drink with her. After a visit to the National Gallery and tea and cake, she asks him if he knows a good hotel room. Through a combination of being attracted to her and wanting to protect her, Dave offers her the bed in his one-bed, Hackney based, flat while he takes the sofa. After telling her she can stay as long as she likes and her checking that there is ‘no trading’, it starts to become apparent that Alena has been having a bad time:

She changed into her nightie, and imagined his belt buckle falling to the floor, him turning his bulk on the old brown sofa, unable to sleep for thinking about her in the next room. After some time had passed and she knew he wouldn’t come, she stretched out, pushed her head into the soft lump of the pillow that smelt a little of him. The sheets were a little grainy, but not enough to spoil the fact that she was in an actual bed, a double too. She stretched her legs wide, arched her back, let the mattress mould to her body and slipped into a thick, black sleep that lay itself down upon her and pressed her flat.

The story of Dave and Alena’s relationship – for that is what it becomes – is interwoven with the stories of their respective pasts.

Dave grew up on a south London estate with his mum. We’re taken back to when he was twenty-two, working at the local Co-op, running because it made him feel good, and plotting and saving to get away – to see the world. In one of my favourite pieces in the book, Hudson describes Dave running around the Roehampton Estate. It’s her eye for detail and swift glances into others’ lives that make this such an effective set piece:

He ran down from his block towards the bus stop, past the Co-op where he’d do his shift later that night, the Greggs with the fatty smell of hot sausage rolls pulling at his belly, towards the burnt-out GTI and the group of kids with rocks in their hands, stomach flab hanging over the waists of their trackie bottoms. They were eleven maybe, should have been in that well-meaning, always empty ‘Connections’ centre playing on new computers and drinking free fizzy drinks, if it wasn’t so uncool to be seen there. He’s known them since they were toddlers, all filthy faces and bare arses. They could have been him and his mates ten years ago, a pack of estate kids who’d end up fighting each other if no one else came along.

Alena’s story is also one of poverty, of leaving Siberia for London on the promise of work from her mother’s friend, a woman with a Chanel handbag, bright lipstick, a diamond ring and a gold bracelet. A friend who disappeared the moment Alena was on the plane, ready to be collected by another sex-worker.

Both of their individual stories are brutal and yes, unrelentingly grim, but Hudson offers them – and the reader – hope through the relationship that they form. However, this isn’t an easy coupling and there were moments where they were physically near to each other but emotionally so far away that I felt as though I couldn’t breathe, so desperate was I for the two of them to find their way to each other and some form of safety.

Thirst is a triumph. Hudson writes about poverty, about sexual abuse, about death, about alcoholism, about toxic relationships in prose that both reflects reality and – when appropriate – soars. It is a novel that will leave you broken and bruised but with a little kernel of hope.

Thirst will make my Books of 2014 list and Kerry Hudson’s earned herself a place alongside James Kelman as one of my favourite writers and one of our most important voices.

 

Thanks to Chatto & Windus for the review copy.