Backlist Books of the Year 2018

Some of the best books I read this year weren’t published in 2018 so I thought I’d put them in a separate round-up. I always try and keep this to ten books, I haven’t managed it this year, here’s twelve instead.

Union Street – Pat Barker

One day I’ll learn to read a writer’s work before judging it. I’ve always assumed that Pat Barker wrote books about men in war, then I had to read The Silence of the Girls to write the copy for her Manchester Literature Festival event. I posted a picture of me reading it on my personal Instagram and the brilliant Adelle Stripe mentioned Barker’s earlier, feminist works which she thought I’d like. She was right. Union Street begins with Kelly, stalked by an older man, then moves along the street, chapter-by-chapter, to tell the tales of the other women and girls. It’s a grim read filled with neglect, abuse, pregnancy and death but it captures life for white working class women and still feels as relevant in 2018 as it would’ve done in 1982.

Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie

Home Fire moves Sophocles’ Antigone to the present, telling the story of twins Isma and Aneeka and their brother Parvaiz. When the young women meet Eamonn Lone, son of the UK’s first Muslim Home Secretary, all of their lives are irrevocably changed. A compelling retelling which places a spotlight on the West’s treatment of Muslims and ideas of integration. My full review is here.

Sing, Unburied, Sing – Jesmyn Ward

Narrated by 13-year-old Jojo, his mother Leonie, and the ghost of a boy named Richie, Sing, Unburied, Sing tells the story of a Black family in Southern America who can’t escape the ghosts of the past. Ward intertwines family history with that of Black people in North America and uses the present day to show the damage that history has wrought. It’s a devastating and timely tale. My mini-review is here.

A Thousand Paper Birds – Tor Udall

Another example of my work leading me to a book I’d previously overlooked. I was asked to interview Udall as part of a panel at Jersey Festival of Words and A Thousand Paper Birds was a real surprise. Jonas’ wife is dead. He retreats to Kew Gardens as a place to try and heal. There he meets Chloe, Harry and Millie, all of whom are keeping their own secrets. Beautifully written and affecting, an absolute gem.

Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions – Valeria Luiselli (some sections translated by Lizzie Davies)

Another timely work. In 2015, Luiselli began working as a volunteer translator interviewing unaccompanied migrant children crossing the border from Mexico to the United States. Through the questions the children are asked, Luiselli tells some of their stories and the wider tale of how these children are being failed. My full review is here.

Things I Don’t Want to Know – Deborah Levy

Conceived as a response to George Orwell’s ‘Why I Write’ and the first in a trilogy about Levy’s life and work, Things I Don’t Want to Know is a feminist discussion on women’s writing. Levy talks about the need to speak up, to write calmly through rage, to find a space in which to write. I underlined a lot.

Die, My Love – Ariana Harwicz (translated by Sarah Moses & Carolina Orloff)

An unnamed woman struggles with new motherhood in a new country. She’s angry and frustrated but also full of love and lust, all of which spill out at inappropriate moments. Harwicz questions society’s expectations of women in this inventive, sharp novella. My full review is here.

The White Book – Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith)

A fractured, often brutal book about Han’s sister who died two hours after she was born. Han uses the colour white repetitively as a meditation on grief and loss, writing her sister back into existence. Beautifully translated by Smith, The White Book is short and highly affecting but not without hope.

Kindred – Octavia Butler

One of the bookish things I’ve most enjoyed this year is taking part in the #ReadWomenSF discussions on Twitter, led by the writer G X Todd. It’s meant I’ve read a number of books that have been sitting on my shelves for some time and Kindred was one of them. In 1976, Dana, a young Black woman, is pulled into 1815 where she saves a young white boy’s life. He is the son of a plantation owner and one of Dana’s relatives. Through Dana, Rufus and Dana’s white husband, Kevin, Butler explores structural inequality, complicity and the normalising of horrific behaviour, all of which doesn’t seem so distant in 2018.

The Poison Tree – Erin Kelly

Last year I loved Erin Kelly’s He Said/She Said so this year I went back to the beginning and read her debut, The Poison Tree. In 1997, Karen meets Biba and is swept into her bohemian lifestyle. In 2007, Karen and her daughter Alice, collect their husband and father from prison. We know that at the end of the summer in 1997 two people died. But we don’t know how and we don’t know who. Tightly plotted and compelling with a perfect ending.

Die a Little – Megan Abbott

Megan Abbott is one of those writers that everyone seems to rave about so I decided to start at the beginning with her debut. Set on the edges of Hollywood during the Golden Age, Die a Little, tells the story of school teacher Lora King’s investigation into her new sister-in-law, Alice Steele, a Hollywood wardrobe assistant. As her findings build, Lora uncovers a world of drugs and sex work as well as some secrets about her own life. Possibly the only book I’ve ever read that I thought was too short.

Resurrection Bay – Emma Viskic

Caleb Zelic’s best friend dies in his arms in the opening pages of Resurrection Bay and the pace doesn’t let up until the end of the book. His best friend has been murdered and Caleb’s turns investigator to find out who did it. His mission is made all the more interesting – and sometimes scary – because Caleb’s deaf meaning sometimes he picks up on cues others might miss and other times he doesn’t hear people sneaking up on him. There are subplots involving his estranged relations – a brother and a wife – and some fun with Australian sign language too. My review of the follow-up And Fire Came Down is here, along with an interview with Emma Viskic.

Die, My Love – Ariana Harwicz (translated by Sarah Moses & Carolina Orloff)

I’ve been lax in keeping up with reviewing my #WITMonth reading, mostly because I’ve been busy helping to launch the programme for Manchester Literature Festival. I mention that because Ariana Harwicz, the author of Die, My Love will be at the Festival on Saturday 20thOctober. I can’t wait to hear her talk about this powerful, angry book.

The unnamed narrator of Die, My Love is an immigrant, a wife, a mother of a sixth-month-old son. She is also a woman full of rage and lust and love and hate.

I lay back in the grass among the fallen trees and the sun on my palm felt like a knife I could use to bleed myself dry with one swift cut to the jugular.

Full of contradictions, she loves her family but feels stifled by them. Life has become alien to her in every way. The book chronicles her increasingly desperate and often violent attempts to reconcile herself with the version of womanhood patriarchal society expects of her.

Something I always used to hate about living in the countryside, and that I now relish, is that you spend all your time killing things […] I trap [flies] in the jar with a swift twist of the lid, then sit with the baby on my knee and watch them slide around in the jelly. Sitting comfortably on the swing, I electrocute bees and teach the wasp that wants a piece of me a lesson. My son and I stuff clusters of ants into matchboxes and set them on fire.

The anger that women are expected to supress explodes everywhere – in the supermarket, in the bedroom, at family gatherings. The narrator is given help and support but it only emphasises the question of whether women or society are at fault.

The book’s written in short chapters – some as fleeting as pieces of flash fiction – that move forward in time while circling the same issues, much like in life. The tone is abrupt and sharp, echoing the feelings of the narrator. Die, My Love isn’t an easy read, either in terms of its subject matter or its delivery, but it is an angry, passionate and powerful exploration of a woman on the edge.

Thanks to Charco Books for the review copy.

Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions – Valeria Luiselli (translated by Lizzie Davis)

August is my favourite bookish month of the year: women in translation month. Lots of bloggers and publishers get involved; you can follow what’s happening via the hashtag #WITMonth and the @Read_WIT account run by Meytal Radzinski who founded the whole thing. I’m looking forward to seeing what everyone else is reading and discussing.

First up for me is a very timely book in terms of the recent incarceration of immigrant children in America (although there are messages here for many other countries including the UK). It’s a little bit of a cheat too as Luiselli wrote some of the text in English – the book began life as an article for Freeman’s and then was expanded on in Spanish and those sections were translated by Lizzie Davis – but this is an important piece of work and #WITMonth seemed a good time to review it.

In 2015, Luiselli begins work as a volunteer translator interviewing unaccompanied migrant children who’ve crossed the border from Mexico into the United States of America.

The children’s stories are always shuffled, stuttered, always shattered beyond the repair of a narrative order. The problem with trying to tell their story is that it has no beginning, no middle, and no end.

Luiselli divides her account of her experience into four stages: border, court, home, community. This comes from a list her niece sees on a board in one of the interview rooms; it’s there to help the migrant children recall their journey into the country. She parallels their journey with parts from her own life. Luiselli and her husband are also migrants. Having applied for their green cards, they can’t leave the country so drive across to Arizona as a holiday. They are stopped by border patrol who want to know what business they have being there.

The forty questions in the book’s title refer to those the children are asked in order for the group of charities who offer support to assess how they might build a legal case for them. Question seven is “Did anything happen on your trip to the U.S. that scared you or hurt you?” This allows Luiselli to give us the statistics:

Eighty percent of the women and girls who cross Mexico to get to the U.S. border are raped on the way.

The number of abduction victims between April and September 2010 was 11,333.

Some sources estimate that, since 2006, around 120,000 migrants have disappeared in their transit through Mexico.

She makes it clear that listening to the children’s stories horrifies her but it is these details that can be used to strengthen their case to stay in the U.S.

As she undertakes this work, Luiselli teaches an Advanced Conversation class at a local university. There she begins to discuss the immigration crisis. This leads to the students deciding to do something positive and hopeful and allows Luiselli to follow one of the boys she has interpreted for to something close to an ending. What this also highlights though is how the U.S. is complicit in the creation of these migrants: the boy, who she calls Manu, encounters the same problem in New York state which led him to leave Mexico in the first place.

Of course, America isn’t the only country to create a situation which leads to migration and then close its borders – the UK and other European countries have done the same, most recently with Syrian refugees.

Luiselli’s reason for writing the book is a very clear message to us all:

…perhaps the only way to grant any justice – were that even possible – is by hearing and recording those stories over and over again so that they come back, always, to haunt and shame us. Because being aware of what is happening in our era and choosing to do nothing about it has become unacceptable. Because we cannot allow ourselves to go on normalising horror and violence. Because we can all be held accountable if something happens under our noses and we don’t dare even look.

The horror and the violence are made stark in Tell Me How It Ends. It’s a difficult book to read at times but, as Luiselli says, it’s also one we can’t afford to look away from.

Books of the Year 2017

Due to life interfering, I read half as many books this year as I have in previous years. What I have read though has, on the whole, been incredibly good. I’ve selected the ten I loved the most and included five others I highly recommend at the end of the piece. If I’ve reviewed the book in full, there’s a link at the bottom of the description.

When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife – Meena Kandasamy

The story of a marriage between a young, educated woman and a university lecturer. When I Hit You is both a tale of domestic violence and of a woman becoming a writer by writing her way out of her situation. Kandasamy’s experimental style frames the experience as though the narrator is witnessing the horror brought upon her. It’s brutal, it’s thoughtful, it’s shocking. It’s incredibly relevant in 2017.

You can read my full review and watch my interview with Meena Kandasamy here.

What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky – Leslie Nnedi Arimah

Hands down the best short story collection I’ve ever read. Arimah does things with the form that shouldn’t be possible. In the first story, for example, the protagonist is held in a moment while the back story of everything that led to that point is revealed and yet the tension holds sharp. Many of the stories are concerned with the way women are shaped by/shape themselves around men, all of them carry an emotional punch.

Homegoing – Yaa Gyasi

Two sisters, Effia and Esa, born in West Africa in the 1770s are separated. One becomes the wife of a slave trader, the other is shipped to America as a slave. Gyasi follows the two lines to the present day. Each chapter focuses on the next branch of the family tree and works as a short story in its own right. Alongside this runs the story of the creation of the black race, its reasons and consequences. It’s an incredible achievement.

My full review is here.

Attrib. and Other Stories – Eley Williams

Williams’ debut short story collection is full of animals, clever word play, humour and love. While all of these elements contribute to intelligent, engaging stories, it’s the emotions at the core of the tales which elevate them to something special. The reader’s transported to the position of the narrator, feeling their anticipation at the potential lover standing next to them or their loss at the one who’s just left.

You can read my full review and watch my interview with Eley Williams here.

First Love – Gwendoline Riley

Neve is a writer in her mid-thirties, exploring her marriage to an older man, Edwyn, and the impact previous relationships, both romantic and familial, have had on who they are now. Almost everyone in Neve’s life is abusive in some form; Riley conveys this through a range of incidents told from Neve’s perspective, leading the reader to question whether or not she’s telling the truth. Searing and utterly pertinent in 2017.

My full review is here.

Vernon Subutex 1 – Virginie Despentes (translated by Frank Wynne)

Vernon Subutex once ran a legendary record shop in Paris. When his benefactor and musician friend, Alex Bleach, dies, Vernon is left homeless. Subutex moves between the houses and apartments of friends and acquaintances before ending up on the streets. Despentes gives a searing commentary on Western society’s views of a range of hot topics: social media, hijabs, the rich, sex workers and a whole lot more.

The End We Start From – Megan Hunter

An unnamed narrator gives birth to a boy as floodwaters rise in the U.K. Soon London is covered and the narrator and her new family can’t return to their flat. They move to their in-laws and then on to a refugee camp. Also works as a metaphor for the first year of motherhood. Taut and compelling.

My full review is here.

Homesick for Another World – Ottessa Moshfegh

A collection of stories about ordinary people at their worst, it’s a mirror held up to today’s society: to the misogyny, to the privilege, to the hypocrisy. Some of the characters know better but can’t be arsed to do better; some of them make an attempt but fall flat at the first hurdle. The collection’s full of characters for whom, essentially, nothing changes. Only Moshfegh could pull that off.

My full review is here.

Elmet – Fiona Mosley

“Daddy“ builds a house in a copse in the woods for himself and his teenage children, Daniel and Cathy. The land on which he builds is owned by Price, the most influential man in the area. Daddy is fully aware of the antagonism this will cause, but, as the best bare-knuckle fighter in the U.K. and Ireland, he wields his own form of power. From this moment, the two men are pitted against each other; it’s a matter of when, not if, the violent tension will explode. An exploration of gender roles and what happens if you transgress them, as well as a commentary on class and privilege.

I wrote about why Elmet is an important working class novel for OZY.

Seeing Red – Lina Meruane (translated by Megan McDowell)

At a party, Lucina feels a pain and blood begins to fill her eyes. She begins to go blind. The doctor tells her he can do nothing other than monitor the situation, leaving her to adjust to a life in which she has to rely on others to help her. She is furious and her anger increases as the story progresses. Told in flash length chapters with short, spiky, repetitive sentences. Horrifying and brilliant.

You can read my full review and watch my interview with Lina Meruane here.

And the highly recommended:

Tinman – Sarah Winman

Ellis and Michael are inseparable until Annie arrives in their lives and Ellis marries her. A story of hidden love, friendship, AIDS and art. Beautiful and heart-wrenching.

A Book of Untruths – Miranda Doyle

A memoir about Doyle’s family. Every chapter reveals a lie that’s been told while questioning the reliability of memory and the purpose of memoir writing.

A Manual for Heartache – Cathy Rentzenbrink

An indispensable guide for when the worst happens to you or someone close to you. My piece about it is here.

The Lonely Hearts Hotel – Heather O’Neill

The love story of performers Rose and Perrot and also a scathing commentary on patriarchal society’s treatment of women, particularly with regards to sex and shame.

My full review is here.

The Other Half of Happiness – Ayisha Malik

The sequel to Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged. Sofia’s married to Conall but there’s a whopping great secret he hasn’t told her. Has a punch the air, feminist ending.

My full review and interview with Ayisha Malik is here.

The Impossible Fairytale – Han Yujoo (translated by Janet Hong)

The first half of Han Yujoo’s The Impossible Fairytale tells the story of two twelve-year-old children: Mia, the child with two fathers, and The Child.

Mia is spoilt: she has a set of seventy-two German watercolour pencils from one of her fathers; her every need is met. The only potential problem in her life is that one of the fathers isn’t aware that the other exists.

Early in the novel, Mia declares that she’s going to buy a fountain pen when she grows up. She read in a book that you can use it to kill someone.

But, of course, Mia has no desire to kill anyone; in fact, she doesn’t understand the words death or kill. She is a lucky child, and she lacks the passion, let alone the opportunity, to kill someone; she doesn’t yet know that people kill even in the absence of emotions such as hatred. She doesn’t yet know that rather than trying to aim the tip of a fountain pen at someone’s skull from a tall building, it is far more effective to drive the pointed metal tip into someone’s throat, a fact she would have learned if she had read more books. But she is interested only in detective novels, and because there are more things that she doesn’t know than she does know, her world is simple; and for that reason, she is lucky. Anyhow, I’m going to buy a fountain pen when I grow up, she says. I like the way it sounds. Fountain pen.

Like Chekov’s gun, Han has planted the idea of violence in the opening pages of the novel and, at some point, it has to detonate.

The Child is in Mia’s class at school.

She wishes she could be erased. But every time she tries to erase herself, she only grows darker. Every day, she grows darker. Enough for her body to gobble up her shadow. At school, she exists like a shadow. Or she has become a shadow and is absent.

The Child is abused and neglected. She spends most of her time in pain from a range of sources: her fingernails, cut so short the flesh below is exposed; her stomach, from hunger or the anticipation of what’s to come at home. While Mia is in trouble for a story spread about another classmate killing chicks, the Child has stolen the key to the school classroom. She uses it to enter after school and add sentences to the journals which the pupils write. Her own journal masks the reality of her situation:

No trace must be left. She must disappear instantly, as though she has never existed, not even for an instant. She, too, writes in her journal. But she records nothing. Nothing about herself. Every time the journal is returned to her, she learns how to camouflage more and more words with other words. Cheek with leaf, bruise with wind, blister with light breeze, fingernail with butterfly, curse with song, calf muscle with stick, tongue with ice cream, palm with moon, hair with stars, sigh with whistling, grip with tree branch, shoe heel with footprint, glass shard with sky, spine with dog, thigh with cat, stick with streetlight, crying with bird, pain with bright colors. When I opened the window a light breeze blew in. I wanted ice cream, so I went to the store. There was dew on green leaves. I saw the yellow cat’s family. It was strange that their eyes were green.

The Child makes a decision about the journals which leads to trouble for the whole class. While the teacher tries to resolve the situation with threats, the violence the children perpetuate escalates, leading to a fatal incident.

The second half of the book plays with what we’ve encountered in the first. The narrator is revealed to be the Child who is now both the writer writing the novel and a character in the novel.

You look like you’re twelve, and you also look like you’re twenty. According to simple arithmetic, you’re probably twenty-seven years old now, but no one would be able to guess that. Twelve years old and twenty years old, somewhere in between those two ages, time was torn and crumpled, repeatedly, until it finally disappeared.

Han explores what fiction is and, in doing so, questions how we fictionalise our own lives. She considers the overlap of time and whether different versions of ourselves can co-exist – does the person we were at twelve still live? Are they running around in our world, narrowly missing bumping into our older self?

There are no answers to this conundrum, of course, but there’s a hypnotic beauty in the repetition of language and ideas Han uses to interrogate the idea. Credit to Janet Hong for what cannot have been an easy text to translate. Han’s wordplay where she links meaning and concepts in a stream of consciousness exploration can’t always directly translate. It seems that Hong manages to maintain the intention and meaning of the original text, even if specific words have had to be substituted.

Water isn’t beautiful at all. When water freezes, it becomes ice. Ice is more beautiful than water. But neither water nor ice is beautiful. Water flows. Ice is slippery. I’ve run on ice before. No one was on my back. Every time my hooves touched the ice, I heard a strange noise. It was the sound of me slipping, on and onward. So I guess I can’t say that I ran on ice. Can I say that the ice slipped? The ice slipped up. I was afraid that the slipped-up ice would crack, I was afraid that the water colder than ice would drench me, so on and onward I went.

The Impossible Fairytale is an innovative exploration of the bounds of storytelling. The first of Han Yujoo’s work to be translated into English, I sincerely hope it won’t be the last.

I spoke to Han Yujoo about fiction, the collapsing of time and working with a translator.

Thanks to Tilted Axis Press, I have five copies of The Impossible Fairytale to give away. To win, leave a comment either here or underneath my interview with Han Yujoo on YouTube by 6pm UK time on Sunday 24th September. Giveaway is UK only. Winners will be chosen at random and notified soon after the closing time.

The giveaway winners are Ann Bradley, Christabel, Lara Alonso Corona, Victoria Goodbody and Eva. Please check you email for further details. Thanks to everyone who entered.

Books mentioned:

The Impossible Fairytale – Han Yujoo

Madame Zero – Sarah Hall

The Hour of the Star – Clarice Lispector (translated by Benjamin Moser)

Thanks to Tilted Axis for the review copy and the giveaway and to Han Yujoo for the interview.

Seeing Red – Lina Meruane (translated by Megan McDowell)

Seeing Red begins with a brutal, violent incident that happens at a house party the narrator, Lucina/Lina, is attending with her partner:

And then a firecracker went off in my head. But no, it was no fire I was seeing, it was blood spilling out inside my eye. The most shockingly beautiful blood I have ever seen. The most gorgeous. The most terrifying. The blood gushed, but only I could see it. With absolute clarity I watched as it thickened, I saw the pressure rise, I watched as I got dizzy, I saw my stomach turn, saw that I was starting to retch, and even so. I didn’t straighten up or move an inch, didn’t even try to breathe while I watched the show. Because that was the last thing I would see, that night, through that eye: a deep, black blood.

Her other eye begins to fill with blood soon after and by three a.m. ‘even the most powerful magnifying glass wouldn’t have helped me’. The only compensation is that the following morning Lucina finds the blood in her left eye has sunk to the bottom leaving a slither of light.

In simple terms, what follows is the narrator’s attempt to come to terms with what is happening to her. Of course, the changes that will be wrought in her life are anything other than simple.

The ophthalmologist tells her that she’s ineligible for an experimental transplant and all that can be done for now is ‘to just keep an eye on it’. If the worst happens, he concludes ‘we would have to see’. Lucina is furious.

We follow Lucina as she begins to negotiate her terrain by learning to count the number of steps between places, by attempting to rely on her other senses which sometimes fail her, by having to rely on her partner, Ignacio.

Some of the chapters are bracketed and written directly to Ignacio, detailing the way in which their relationship is changing:

And you were there, and it was as if you were one-eyed, too, you couldn’t understand what had happened. You couldn’t calculate the gravity. You couldn’t bring yourself to ask the questions. You balled them up and stuffed them, like now, in your pockets.

Meruane explores the impact of forced dependency on an independent, ambitious woman. Lucina progresses from telling Ignacio, ‘I am only an apprentice blind woman and I have very little ambitious in the trade’ to telling her mother, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to get better. I have to learn how to be blind. You’re not helping’. These two relationships, with her partner and her mother, are the key ones in her life and, almost inevitably, the ones which take most of the strain. As the book progresses, Lucina becomes angrier and the narrative more violent.

The tension that builds throughout the novel is aided by the short, flash fiction style chapters and the intensity of Meruane’s use of language and grammar, superbly translated by McDowell. Sentences are short and spiky, they cut off before they are finished. Words are picked up and played with, repetition and association are used to brilliant effect.

Seeing Red is a taut, brutal, horrifying novel. Fierce and unmissable.

I spoke to Lina Meruane about autobiographical writing, family relationships and women in translation.

My review of Hot Milk is here.

Books mentioned:

Seeing Red – Lina Meruane (translated by Megan McDowell)

Amazon

Waterstones

The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

Amazon

Waterstones

Darkness Visible – William Styron

Amazon

Waterstones

Hot Milk – Deborah Levy

Amazon 

Waterstones

Thanks to Lina Meruane and Kirsty Doole for the interview and to Atlantic Books for the review copy.

The Last Summer – Ricarda Huch (translated by Jamie Bulloch)

The fact that everything, by virtue of coming into existence, is doomed to pass – that is the sole tragedy of life, for it is the nature of life, for life so constructed is the only one that can ever be ours.

In this epistolary novella, Lyu, a young revolutionary, takes a position as a bodyguard/secretary at the house of Yegor, the governor of the state university in St. Petersburg. Yegor and his family – his wife, Lusinya, and three children, Velya, Katya and Jessika – are staying at the family’s summer residence. The governor has made the decision to close the university following student unrest and a death threat.

We learn from the outset that hiring Lyu was a mistake. He writes to his friend, Konstantin:

I do not doubt that my plan will succeed; indeed, the circumstances appear even more favourable than might have been expected. The whole family seems well disposed towards me and I detect no hint of any suspicion, which is entirely natural, as only we in the know could fear the contrary.

His opinion isn’t quite founded on reality, however. Velya, the son, writes to his cousin, Peter:

I feel he wants more and is capable of more than other people. I suspect his views are no less revolutionary than our own, but so far he has given nothing away about himself in discussion.

Over the summer, several letters are sent between Lyu and Konstantin as well as numerous members of the family – Velya and Katya write to their cousin, Peter, while Jessika and her mother write to Tatyana, Peter’s mother. The letters build a picture of life in the family home. Lyu tries to move the family into a new era through encouraging them to buy a car, a typewriter and listen to Wagner. Katya and Jessika fall in love with Lyu, albeit briefly in Katya’s case, and Lusinya worries about Yegor.

Early in the book, Lyu decides to enter Lusinya and Yegor’s room at night. He is contemplating murdering the governor in his sleep and wants to see how far he can get into the room without being discovered. He is barely over the threshold before Lusinya is awake. She writes to Tatyana:

The fact that all of a sudden there’s a man standing in our room at night, whether because he’s sleepwalking or for any other reason, isn’t alarming to me, but I do find it most sinister. I cannot sleep anymore, because I’m always thinking that he’ll be standing there at any moment, looking at me with his strange grey eyes which seem to penetrate everything.

Lusinya’s worries are tolerated but no one seems to take them seriously. Later, Katya also expresses concerns at Lyu’s behaviour but is dismissed by her brother. There is a clear thread of women’s worries and opinions being ignored while we, from our omniscient position, can only watch the tension build and wonder whether Lyu’s plan will succeed.

The Last Summer is a gripping novella which sets family tensions against a backdrop of a changing era. Although first published in 1910, the translation allows it to feel modern and relevant. Highly recommended.

Thanks to Peirene Press for the review copy.

 You can buy The Last Summer from Amazon, Waterstones or support your local independent bookshop. If, like me, there isn’t one near you, I recommend Big Green Bookshop.

 

Dorthe Nors: We’re constantly telling these myths about femininity and about womanhood that keep biting us in the tush.

MSS

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal is Dorthe Nors’ fourth novel but the first to be translated from her native Danish into English (by Misha Hoekstra), following the success of her short story collection Karate Chop and the novella Minna Needs Rehearsal Space. 

In Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, Sonja, a woman over 40, translator of misogynistic Swedish crime writer Gösta Svensson, decides to learn to drive. Her driving instructor won’t let her change the gears, her masseur treats her like a therapy client, her sister won’t speak to her and she spends a lot of time daydreaming about the farm that was her childhood home.

“Your buttocks are hard,” Ellen says. “That’s because, if you’ll pardon a vulgar phrase, you’re a tight-ass with your feelings. An emotional tight-ass, a tight fisted tightwad. Can’t you hear how everything’s right there in the words?”

With the job Sonja has, that’s something she knows quite well. Language is powerful, almost magic, and the smallest alteration can elevate a sentence or be its undoing.

Dorthe Nors 2

I spoke to Dorthe Nors about the novel by telephone last week. Here’s what we discussed…

Sonja, a middle-aged woman, decides to learn to drive. The idea of someone deciding to do so at that age is quite unusual. Where did the idea come from?

It came from the idea that it’s not unusual in Copenhagen. Most people my age, I’m 46, will not have a driver’s licence because they’ve been living in big cities all their lives. Therefore, there’s no need to have a licence. Most of the friends I had when I lived in Copenhagen did not have a driver’s licence. But then I started craving one and started contemplating getting one because I needed the freedom. I didn’t want to live in Copenhagen anymore. I wanted to move out of the city, move into the landscape, move away, but the only way I could do that was if I had a driver’s licence. That whole idea about being stuck unless you liberate yourself by controlling a vehicle was interesting. But it’s not unusual, it’s quite usual. Most times when I’m out doing readings about this people will come up to me afterwards and say, ‘I don’t have a licence, I’m so scared that I won’t be able to take it’. Middle aged men and women who don’t drive.

It’s interesting that Sonja wants to move somewhere but her driving instructor doesn’t allow her to do the gears. She gets stuck and has to change instructors before she can move any further forward.

I always write about existential structures. This is rule number one about my writing. Everything that goes on in that car mirrors an existentialist idea. The one thing that happens when you put yourself in that predicament is that you deposit your free will with the driving instructor because you can’t drive that car and in order not to kill anyone while you’re driving around, the responsibility of the whole situation is put with the driving instructor. So you deposit your free will with this person, who might not be a very nice person but who has the responsibility of the car. And what happens when people deposit their free will is that they also deposit their right to say, ‘Shut up and let me drive’. It’s a psychological dilemma. It takes a while until Sonja builds herself up to take back that freedom and say to her boss that she wants a new driving instructor.

That’s really interesting and links nicely, I think, to the piece you wrote for Literary Hub last year about invisible women and the idea that, particularly if you’re childfree, you become invisible at a certain age. I’m interested in what draws you to that idea.

There are some myths about women in general and we’re completely stuck with them. For instance, you said to me, that’s very unusual that people don’t know how to drive when they’re 40 and no, it’s not. For instance, that’s very unusual that women don’t have children. I go, no it’s not. There are a lot of women out there who don’t have children but we’re not supposed to talk about that. We’re not supposed to talk about how they might have chosen that for themselves. Why they might actually have selected the option of not having children. We’re constantly telling these myths about femininity and about womanhood that keep biting us in the tush. I know a lot of women who don’t have children. I’m middle aged now and at one point I suddenly found out that there’s a lot of liberty from not having children but when you add to that that you’re no longer young and sexy, you sort of disappear. It’s like you become transparent. That was the idea I wrote on. If I had had kids, these structures still make me visible to the world but I don’t have children so the only thing I have that makes me visible is my being, as such. I love to investigate these things. I also do that in Mirror, Shoulder, Signal and in two of my other books where I try to figure out what is a woman. If we take all these typecast roles that we’re supposed to play, if we take them away, what is a woman then?

Along these ideas of myths that we make about women, there’s been a lot of discussion in the last few years about unlikeable female characters. I find this really frustrating, particularly the idea that we should all be likeable and then we fit into a box and do as we’re told. I’m interested in what your stance in the debate is and how you feel about likeability in relation to your own characters, particularly as I think there’s something unlikeable about most of the women in Mirror, Shoulder, Signal.

I completely agree with you. I mean, what bullshit is that to say that women are supposed to be likeable? We’re supposed to be typecast into some patriarchal system that we’re supposed to sound like that, look like that, be like that? We’re full blown existences. We do all kinds of crappy things. We’re not always nice to each other. We have weird ideas, we manipulate, we drop ourselves on the floor. We’re full blown human beings. Of course, we will be incredibly annoying at times. But what I tried to add to that in Mirror, Shoulder, Signal is a sort of compassion for that so that even the annoying women in this book are sheltered by a kind of love and care for them; a way of understanding them and also understanding the structures that created them. In this book it’s some quite political structures that are sketched out in the background. For instance, Jytte, the driving instructor, she’s been forced to leave the rural area. Her destiny has been to better herself through urbanisation and that has not left her in a good place. The same with Molly. All these women have tried to better themselves, to gain more status in life from moving to the cities and they’ve not turned out well.

Linked with that, Sonja’s quite nostalgic for where she came from but it doesn’t exist anymore. I wondered whether you were linking that to current society or whether it’s the thing that’s within us all that it’s what we desire when things aren’t going particularly well?

I think it’s double. There’s this existential thing that you can never return to a place that you have left. You can’t, it’s not possible; you’re not the same anymore and the place that you left is also changed. It’s an existential rule, it’s a rule that we all have to abide. The other thing is, for instance, in Denmark, which is a small country and we have one big city, which is Copenhagen, throughout the last twenty-five to fifty years, everything has been centralised and people have moved to Copenhagen and left the rural areas and, therefore, there are no schools in the rural areas, there are no hospitals, there are no jobs for the women. People keep on drifting from these areas. That means there’s a big decay in some rural areas in Denmark. It’s also a literal thing; the place Sonja came from doesn’t exist anymore, not in the form that she knew it. There is no grocery store, no butcher, no school, nothing. If she wanted to move back, there would not be a job for her because they closed down all the stuff that women are going to work with in these areas. All the women can’t live out there because there are no jobs for them. She wouldn’t be able to go home.

I’m interested in the fact you write in English as well as Danish. When your fiction’s translated into English, do you work with your translator because you understand the language?

Yes, we work very closely together. His name is Misha Hoekstra. He’s American and he lives in Denmark. We send it back and forth. The only thing he translates primarily is my fiction because I still prefer to write that in my mother tongue but essays and articles and other stuff, for instance the Lit Hub piece, I wrote directly in English. I’m toying with trying to write fiction in English, that could be quite challenging, quite interesting to try. Perhaps one day, who knows.

It’s something Jhumpa Lahiri’s done recently; she learnt Italian and then wrote in it.

Yes, and Yiyun Li, the American-Chinese writer who completely denounced her mother tongue. There’s an essay in The New Yorker about that, ‘To Speak Is to Blunder’, it’s amazing. But I’m not quite there yet.

I’m interested in something you said in your essay ‘A Wolf in Jutland’. When you talk about a writer needing to be familiar with the literature of her own country. Do you feel your work’s in dialogue with other Danish work?

Yes, I do. I think you will always be part of the culture you’re trained in, schooled in. I would say I belong to a minimalist tradition which is very contemporary Danish. I studied literature at university but my primary focus was Swedish literature. There’s a lot of Swedish literature in there.

What’s the difference?

The difference is that the Danish minimalism is not too keen on staring too long into darkness. It’s more playful. It’s a stylistic playfulness. The Swedish tradition, I just have to say Ingmar Bergman. They’re not very funny but they’re really really good at looking into the existential abyss. They’re really good at looking at psychological structures and sticking to them and observing them and describing them. That has my interest more than anything else. I’m completely interested in human behaviour in existential structures and psychology and what happens when we’re under pressure. That’s not that normal in Danish literature. But the minimalism is very Danish.

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

Good question. It changes through life, I would say. There are some writers that really mean a lot to you in your twenties and then some in your thirties. In my twenties, my favourite writer was a Swedish writer called Kerstin Ekman. Right now it’s an American writer called Claudia Rankine; I love her. Flannery O’Connor is also one of my favourites.

Thanks to Dorthe Nors and Pushkin Press for the interview and 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.