A Separation – Katie Kitamura

How many times are we offered the opportunity to rewrite the past and therefore the future, to reconfigure our present personas – a widow rather than a divorcée, faithful rather than faithless? The past is subject to all kinds of revision, it is hardly a stable field, and every alteration in the past dictates an alteration in the future. Even a change in our conception of the past can result in a different future, different to the one we planned. The past cannot be relied upon, the ground gives.

A female narrator, unnamed beyond ‘the wife of Mr. Wallace’ goes to Greece to search for her estranged husband. Separated for six months, the narrator and her husband, Christopher, haven’t told anyone they’ve split. This was Christopher’s request and the narrator agreed to go along with it. When Christopher’s mother, Isabella, telephones the narrator in London to say she can’t get hold of her son, she books the narrator a ticket to Greece and informs her which hotel Christopher is staying in. The narrator decides to use this as an opportunity to ask Christopher for a divorce.

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When the narrator arrives in Gerolimenas she discovers that no one’s seen Christopher for several days. He was due to check out the day after her arrival but all his possessions are still in his room. Christopher’s in Greece to carry out some research on professional mourners for the popular non-fiction book he’s writing, a follow-up to a successful debut about ‘the social life of music’. He is also a serial adulterer and there’s a suggestion that Christopher may have gone to meet a woman. The narrator is convinced early on that he’s at least flirted with the young, female receptionist at the hotel.

Now, they no longer went away – there was not, at least for most of them, a sea to roam or a desert to cross, there was nothing but the floors of an office tower, the morning commute, a familiar and monotonous landscape, in which life became something secondhand, not something a man could own for himself. It was only on the shores of infidelity that they achieved a little privacy, a little inner life, it was only in the domain of their faithlessness that they became, once again, strangers to their wives, capable of anything.

Once Christopher is found, it slowly becomes apparent to the narrator that separating isn’t going to be as easy or as straightforward as she thought. The act of being married to someone, even if that marriage appears to be over, creates ties that cannot be severed quickly or, perhaps, at all.

Kitamura’s narrator is a translator.

The task of a translator is a strange one. People are prone to saying that a successful translation doesn’t feel like a translation at all, as if the translator’s ultimate task is to be invisible.

It’s a sign, along with the withholding of her first name, that the narrator is interpreting events from her own viewpoint while attempting to erase it or, at least, attempting to make the reader forget this is the case. Taken with two other key factors: that the ‘translation’s potential for passivity’ appeals to her and her repeated comments about the role of imagination in a relationship, Kitamura creates a more complex portrait. This is enhanced by the narrator not being completely unreliable which makes it more difficult to ascertain the unbiased truth of the marriage and the narrator’s motives for later events.

In the end, what is a relationship but two people, and between two people there will always be room for surprises and misapprehensions, things that cannot be explained. Perhaps another way of putting it is that between two people, there will always be room for failures of imagination.

A Separation is an absorbing portrait of the quiet death of a marriage and the disjuncture between what we think we know about people and who they think they are.

 

Thanks to Profile Books for the review copy.

The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist

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Here we are then, the official Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist.

When I commented on the longlist, the word of the night was wow and it’s the same again.

Wow: some big names and popular books have gone.

Wow: there are four titles in common with our Shadow Panel shortlist.

Wow: If you’re only reading the shortlist you’ve an absolute set of treats in store (although I implore you to read the longlist, it’s full of brilliant books).

Here’s my reviews of the shortlisted books:

Stay With Me – Ayòbámi Adébáyò

The Power – Naomi Alderman

The Dark Circle – Linda Grant

The Sport of Kings – C. E. Morgan

First Love – Gwendoline Riley

Do Not Say We Have Nothing –  Madeleine Thien

Do Not Say We Have Nothing – Madeleine Thien

In a single year, my father left us twice. The first time, to end his marriage, and the second, when he took his own life.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing has one of the most arresting openings I’ve read in a while. The narrator who speaks these words has several names – her Chinese name, Jiang Li-ling; her English name, Marie Jiang, and Girl, her father’s nickname for her because the Chinese word for daughter and girl is the same. She lives in Vancouver, working as a university professor in mathematics, but the story that concerns her now is that of her father and, in particular, events during the creation of The People’s Republic of China and the uprising in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

After Marie’s father dies, her mother introduces her to the Book of Records. Passed down through their family, it tells the story of Da-Wei and May Fourth. They only have book 17 of numerous volumes and Marie’s mother tells her it’s a story copied out by a ‘refined calligrapher’.

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At the end of the same year, Marie’s mother takes a young woman into their home. Nineteen-year-old, Ai-ming has left Beijing after being part of the events in Tiananmen Square. Marie’s mother has agreed she can live with them for the time being as Ai-ming’s father was Marie’s father’s composition teacher when he was a student at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music.

Although Marie is initially hostile to Ai-ming, she relents as Ai-ming begins to share the contents of the Book of Records and how the book came to be part of their family. The latter is one of many stories her grandmother, Big Mother Knife, told her:

“I assumed.” Ai-ming told me, “that when Big Mother’s stories finished, life would continue and I would go back to being myself. But it wasn’t true. The stories got longer and longer, and I got smaller and smaller. When I told my grandmother this, she laughed her head off. She said, ‘But that’s how the world is, isn’t it? Or did you think you were bigger than the world?’

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a number of things: it is the story of a family’s history, it is a story of life in China during a turbulent period in its history; it is a story of love, and it is a meditation on art and its role in our lives. All of these parts are interesting and make for a hugely satisfying novel but it is Thien’s examination of art which I found most interesting.

Many of Thien’s characters are storytellers: Big Mother Knife, her brother-in-law – Wen the Dreamer, Ai-ming, and Marie. While Marie’s father, Kai, Ai-ming’s father, Sparrow, and Ai-ming’s aunt, Zhuki, are musicians and composers. Her exploration of their craft asks questions around the value of art in a closed society and what benefit stories serve to future generations. The former is neatly summed up in a paragraph from Sparrow’s perspective:

He wanted to tell his mother about an entirely different recording, Bach’s six sonatas for the same two instruments. Throughout his life, Bach had returned to these six pieces, polishing and revising them, rewriting them as he grew older. They were almost unbearably beautiful, as if the composer wanted to find out how much this most basic of sonata forms – exposition, development, recapitulation – could hold, and in what ways containment could hold a freedom, a life.

The role of storytelling in the way in which the Book of Record is copied but altered slightly or details inserted in the retelling, making it relevant to the new narrators and readers. Thien interweaves this discussion into the narrative without it ever threatening to overwhelm the story itself. It’s a skilful consideration of the work Thien herself is doing too.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a complex, satisfying work on family, society, history and art and the impact all four have on the future.

Thanks to Granta for the review copy.

The Woman Next Door – Yewande Omotoso

Their rivalry was infamous enough for the other committee women to hang back and watch the show. It was known that the two women shared a hedge and hatred and they pruned both with a vim that belied their ages.

Hortensia James and Marion Agostino live in Katterijn, in the suburb of Constantia, Cape Town. Hortensia is the only black person living there. Her (white) husband, Peter, is dying. Their marriage long since descended into tolerance, Hortensia goes out walking, allowing her space to catch her breath and him the opportunity to take his last.

Marion lives next door. Both women are in their eighties and intolerant of each other.

‘So you see, Hortensia, this is not about your favourite topic, the race card. For once we’re on the same side.’ Marion’s smile looked set to burst and set the world alight.

‘Not so.’

‘Pardon?’

‘Not so, Marion. We are not on the same side. You should know this by now. Whatever you say, I disagree with. However you feel, I feel the opposite. At no point in anything are you and I on the same side. I don’t side with hypocrites.’

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Both women have problems they’re going to have to deal with: Marion’s husband spent all their money before he died. The debt collectors are close to taking their share but Marion has a painting she hasn’t declared and she needs somewhere to hide it. Would next door be the perfect place?

When Hortensia’s husband dies, a secret he’s been hiding for decades is revealed and Hortensia has to decide how she’s going to deal with it, what sort of person she wants to be.

Alongside both of these personal issues, the Katterijn committee discovers a land claim from a family called the Samsodiens, disenfranchised when the land Katterijn was eventually built on was given to a Dutch man, Von Struiker, who put a vineyard upon it. The claim puts their properties in jeopardy. The committee also receives a letter from a woman whose mother was a slave woman on the farm which stood where Hortensia’s house is now. She says the Silver Tree in Hortensia’s garden is where this woman’s children were buried and she wishes to be buried with them.

Omotoso takes the women’s stories both forwards and backwards; as events play out on the street, she fills in their backstories, showing the reader how they became the difficult, stubborn old women to whom we’ve been introduced. They have more in common than they’d like to believe, both successful in their own right before marriage and children or, in Hortensia’s case, the lack of them. Hortensia runs a highly successful haberdashery firm; Marion was an architect, ‘top of her class, a position she wrestled from a male student who not only found her presence in the school annoying, but her ambition and fierce competitiveness vulgar’.

This is where Marion’s real issues with Hortensia are revealed. Firstly, Marion’s racist; happy enough to hire a black maid but not to allow their children to play together or for any of them to use the same toilet. Secondly, the house Hortensia lives in was Marion’s first commission, the house she designed to her own spec, the house she put her heart into:

A house is a person, she’d argued, to the sound of guffaws from the rest of the class. But she’d pressed on and turned in her essay. What was house design if it wasn’t the study of armour, of disguises, of appearances? The most intimate form of space-making, the closest architects might ever come to portraiture.

By living in No. 10, Hortensia has pierced Marion’s armour, taken residency under her skin.

Omotoso looks at the trials life delivers these two women and how they shape the people they’ve become. Marriage, children, work, money, apartheid all play a part. For a book with a number of heavy themes, it’s very funny in parts; the two women play off each other, Omotoso making it clear at times that these women enjoy winding each other up, it’s something to do in their old age.

My only criticism of The Woman Next Door is that we’re given a little too much backstory. I would’ve preferred a little room to make my own connections between events, draw my own conclusions as to the effect events in the past had on the main characters. However, that doesn’t prevent the book from being an engaging read.

What particularly impressed me about The Woman Next Door was that it was about two elderly women – how often are they allowed to take centre stage? – who had forged big successful careers – one in a male dominated environment, who were allowed to be snarky and unpleasant. It’s everything we’re told the book industry won’t publish. Hurrah to Yewande Omotoso for writing it and to Chatto & Windus for publishing it. More, please.

 

Thanks to Chatto & Windus for the review copy.

Stay With Me – Ayòbámi Adébáyò

‘Have you ever seen God in a labour room giving birth to a child? Tell me, Yejide, have you ever seen God in the labour ward? Women manufacture children and if you can’t? You are just a man. Nobody should call you a woman.’

Yejide and Akin have been married for two years when Akin’s mother begins bringing potential second wives to his office every Monday morning. When she threatens to start visiting Yejide with the women each week, Akin agrees to marry Funmi. The deciding factor? That she doesn’t insist on moving in with him. Instead, he installs her in a flat, leaving Yejide blissfully unaware of her existence.

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At the beginning of the novel, and four years into Akin and Yejide’s marriage, Iya Martha, Yejide’s father’s oldest wife, and Baba Lola, Akin’s uncle, present Yejide with Funmi. They’re convinced that when Funmi gets pregnant Yejide will too.

I had expected them to talk about my childlessness. I was armed with millions of smiles. Apologetic smiles, pity-me-smiles, I-look-unto-God smiles, name all the fake smiles needed to get through an afternoon with a group of people who claim to want the best for you while poking at your open sore with a stick, and I had them ready.

Yejide is an educated woman with her own hairdressing salon business. She is smart, confident and independent, but the society she lives in isn’t constructed to recognise women as such. The lack of a pregnancy is seen as her shortcoming, and when Yejide calls Akin a bastard, Iya Martha criticises her for not allowing Funmi to stay in their house. She says Yejide should be grateful to her husband, while Yejide points out to the reader that she pays half of the rent.

The novel alternates between Yejide and Akin’s points of view. This structural decision adds depth, allowing Adébáyò to consider the effects of a patriarchal society which values gender constructs, particularly motherhood, from both a female and a male perspective. Adébáyò uses it particularly well for moments of dramatic irony, priming the reader for the point when the other half of the couple will discover a betrayal.

It’s obvious that Akin loves his first wife and not his second, but also that he feels torn between Yejide and his mother, who makes her expectations clear. As Funmi inserts herself further into their lives and Yejide tries everything – doctors, prophets, priests – in order to help her conceive, their marriage begins to feel the strain and both of them make choices that will have devastating consequences.

Stay With Me considers a patriarchal, patrilineal, heterosexual society’s expectations of a married couple. It examines the pressure for couples to produce children; the value that’s placed on the continuation of the bloodline.

Adébáyò incorporates something of the thriller genre with a few unexpected and shocking twists, while writing sentences as beautiful as these:

I did not feel better. I would not feel better for a very long time. Already, I was coming undone, like a hastily tied scarf, coming loose, on the ground before the owner knows it.

But even when it’s in a thousand pieces around your feet, that doesn’t mean it’s no longer love.

These days I tell myself that is why I stretched to accommodate every new level of indignity, so I could have someone who would look for me if I went missing.

Stay With Me is intelligent, provocative and gripping. Ayòbámi Adébáyò is an exciting new talent.

If you will be in or around London a week today (Tuesday 7th March), I will be chairing a New Nigerian Fiction night at Waterstones, Gower Street featuring Ayòbámi Adébáyò and Chibundo Onuzo, author of The Spider King’s Daughter and Welcome to Lagos. More information and tickets are available here.

Thanks to Canongate for the review copy.

My Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2017 Wishlist

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It’s almost that time of year again; The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist is announced on International Women’s Day, Wednesday 8th March. Once again, I’ll be charing a shadow panel, the other members of which I’ll introduce on Friday. Before both of those things though, I’m going to have a stab in the dark at what might be on the longlist. My success rate is why I refer to this post as my wishlist as opposed to a prediction.

This year the longlist has been reduced from 20 to 12 titles, making it easier to read along and debate what might make the shortlist. Eligible titles are those published between the 1st April 2016 and the 31st March 2017 and written in English.

I’ve reviewed all of the titles I’ve chosen except Stay With Me by Ayòbámi Adébáyò, which I’ll review this week, and Autumn by Ali Smith (which I’ve read but not yet reviewed); click on the covers of the other books to read my reviews.

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Harmless Like You – Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

‘Seriously though, I think the cowards are the one over there killing harmless little girls like you.’

Yuki Oyama is a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl in 1968. She’s living in New York City with her family, following a move due to her father’s work. She describes America as ‘an interruption’ in her parent’s ‘Tokyo life’. While it might be a transitional period for them, Yuki knows little of Japanese customs and traditions so when her family return to Tokyo, she remains in NYC.

All year Yuki had felt like wet tarmac: sticky and stinking; but she didn’t want to dry, she wanted to crack open so her molten core spilled out fire.

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Yuki lives with her schoolfriend, Odile, who she meets on the fire escape outside the girls’ toilets and Odile’s mother, Lillian Greychild, a romance writer. Odile has a wild streak which is both an attraction and a concern for Yuki. With Odile she has her first drink, bought for her by a man in a bar. Odile spends more and more time with men as her modelling career begins to take off and Yuki is left behind. As well as dealing with Odile’s absences, Lillian’s love life invades the flat in the form of Lou, her reporter boyfriend.

Slam – a noise like a fly being smashed. Before Yuki could look up, another thwack. Lillian yelped, and there was the heavy noise of a body falling. Leather hissed against wood. By the time Yuki’s eyes had focused, Lillian was sitting on the floor, touching her jaw.

Despite Lou’s violent behaviour, Yuki takes a job as a receptionist at the paper he works on and eventually ends up in a relationship with Lou herself.

Amongst all of this, Yuki’s desire is to be an artist. She takes classes and attempts to organise exhibitions of her work, although Lou and his writer friends rarely take her ambition seriously.

Told parallel to Yuki’s late 1960s/early 1970s story is that of Jay, her son, in 2016. We know Yuki left Jay’s father to bring him up and that Jay hasn’t seen her since he was as a baby. It’s his job to deliver the deeds to the house he grew up in, the house his father has left to Yuki.

Jay’s story is told in a relatively short space but has an interesting trajectory. His wife’s recently given birth to a daughter but Jay’s rejected her as far as he can whilst continuing to live in the same apartment.

The baby didn’t look like me, or my wife, or anyone I knew. It looked like a bag of veins. In my arms, I held this beating, bloated heart. ‘She has your eyes.’ I had my mother’s. Was it also genetic, the twitching I felt in my hands, and the great desire to just let go?

Buchanan lays several threads for the reader to follow through the story: who’s Jay’s father? How will the meeting between Jay and Yuki go? Will Jay return home and become a good father? Has Yuki been successful as an artist?

The novel considers how difficult it is to be seen as an artist when you’re a Japanese American woman. There are several mentions of Yoko Ono but often in the context of John Lennon; we know it was years before Ono was taken even slightly seriously as an artist. The core of the story though is what a patriarchal society expects women to endure: the behaviour we tolerate, the restrictions that are placed on us.

Harmless Like You is a thoughtful novel, beautifully written. It deserves the many prize listings it’s garnered since publication.

Orangeboy – Patrice Lawrence

For a moment, I saw inside Mum’s head. A pretty blonde girl had died. And me, I was the Hackney youth with the gangboy brother. The papers would be quick to pick up on it, probably scanning Facebook for a photo already. Drug-Toting Gangboy ‘Kills’ Innocent Girl, with pictures of us both underneath for compare and contrast.

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Sixteen-year-old Marlon Sunday is, by his own admission, ‘Not cool enough, not clever enough, not street boy enough for anyone to take notice.’ He reads non-fiction about the brain and listens to old funk records. When Sonya Wilson, seventeen, blonde, gorgeous, comes knocking at his door, he’s not asking why, he’s down the local fair taking ecstacy with her and riding the ghost train, despite all his promises to his mum that he’d stay home, work hard and definitely not find himself in the sort of trouble his older brother Andre did.

Things take a turn for the worst when Sonya gets on the ghost train alive but is dead before they’ve reached the other end of the track. Not only that but just before they embarked, she convinced Marlon to pocket her stash of pills.

Marlon’s convinced that the boys who spoke to Sonya a few minutes before her death have something to do with all of this. When he goes to visit her grandmother and give his condolences, he leaves with Sonya’s Blackberry. Soon he’s getting calls about Mr Orange and, despite his mum’s best efforts, finds himself having to finish something his brother Andre appears to have started.

Marlon’s best friend Tish is a brilliant, straight-talking counterpoint to him. She takes no shit and makes sure people know it.

‘Look what that girl dropped you in!’ Tish’s eyes were wide and furious. ‘All this crap landing at you mum’s house, just because you were following your dick…’

But this isn’t really about Sonya, she’s as much a victim as Marlon.

Lawrence takes the reader into the ganglands of South London, to the young men and women who control their territory through drugs, knives, guns and fear. Where loyalty is everything and betrayal comes with the highest price.

Three things about the novel are particularly impressive: the first is the plotting. I’m not a fan of the ‘I couldn’t put it down’ cliché but every chapter ends at a point that makes you desperate to continue reading. I left the house late for work and to meet friends; I propped up my eyelids with matchsticks and kept reading long after I should’ve been asleep.

The second is the way in which Lawrence shows how easy it is for a kid from a comfortable background to be drawn into gang culture. Marlon has a stable home life – his mum and her long-term partner – a good friend in Tish, he does okay at school and yet his loyalty to the people in his life and his desire to protect them is exactly what lures him in.

Thirdly, and connected to the previous point, Lawrence explores the part class plays; how structural inequality and poverty exacerbates gang-related crime.

After Tayz was arrested, the police raided his Mum’s flat and found money, weed, knives, a gun. She lost her home and D-Ice was kicked out.

Jesus, if me, Mum and Andre had been in a council place, that could have been us. Who knew what Andre used to have in his room? But we weren’t in the middle of an estate, we were here, in this road, with tidy hedges and Tesco deliveries and the bus going up and down.

Orangeboy is a fantastic book. Gripping, smart and a nuanced portrait of a world that’s easily open to stereotyping. If I was still teaching in secondary schools, I’d be pushing it into the hands of every kid I came across. 

Orangeboy is on the longlist for the Jhalak Prize; I’d be delighted if it makes the shortlist on the 6th February.

The Girl of Ink and Stars – Kiran Millwood Hargrave

On the 5th of January, the longlist for the inaugural Jhalak Prize was announced. The prize, launched to award the best writing from UK writers of colour, has a list which spans young adult and adult fiction – including short stories – as well as non-fiction. Of the eleven longlisted titles (there were twelve but Shappi Khorsandi, author of Nina Is Not OK, withdrew from the prize), six are by women. I intend to review all six and, purely because they were the first titles available at my local library, I’m starting with the young adult novels.

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‘You’re a boy. And so what? Girls can go on adventures too.’
‘Have you ever heard of a girl going on an adventure?’
I flushed in the darkness. I had only heard of one. ‘Arinta.’

The Girl of Ink and Stars is set on the isle of Joya. When the Governor – Governor Adori – arrived on the island, he closed the ports and made the forest between the village of Gromera and the rest of the island into a border. Anyone who resisted his rule was banished to the other side. The only map that exists of the island is one passed down the narrator Isabella’s mum’s side of the family, even though it is her father who is a cartographer.

Each of us carries the map of our lives on our skin, in the way we walk, even in the way we grow. Da would often say. See here, how my blood runs not blue at my wrist, but black? Your mother always said it was ink. I am a cartographer through to my heart.

Thirteen-year-old Isabella lives with her da. Her mum and brother, Gabo, are dead from sweating sickness. She has two friends, Pablo, the fifteen-year-old who lives opposite and is known for his strength, and Lupe, the Governor’s daughter.

We made an odd set, Lupe and I: she as tall as a near-grown boy, and I barely reaching her shoulder. She seemed to have got even taller in the month since I had last seen her. Her mother would not be pleased. Señora Adori was a petite, elegant woman with sad eyes and a cold smile. Lupe said she never laughed and believed girls should not run, nor have any right to be as tall as Lupe was getting.

On the day the story begins, Isabella goes to meet Lupe to walk to school, as usual. On the way to their meeting point, she is grabbed by the mother of one of her classmates, Cata Rodriguez. Cata is missing. It’s soon revealed that Lupe sent Cata into the forest to get her some dragon fruit. Isabella speculates that Cata will have been caught and thrown into the Délado, the labyrinth which serves as a prison beneath the Governor’s house. It turns out to be much worse than that: Cata is dead and there are claw marks on her body, ‘Deep gouges, thick as my thumb’.

A combination of the Governor’s decision to leave Joya for Afrik with his family, the dark forces that appear to have been unleashed on the island, and Lupe’s ignorance at her father’s behaviour culminate in harsh words between her and Isabella. The consequences of this exchange are that Lupe leaves for the forest to discover who killed Cata. Soon, Isabella, disguised as a boy and serving the Governor, is following in an attempt to save her best friend and possibly the entire population of Joya.

In Isabella, Hargrave has created a character who is both smart and, when she needs to, kicks arse. She stands up to inherited, insecure power and points out its shortcomings. She journeys into unmapped territory and maps it herself. She channels her hero Arinta, using her stories for guidance when she needs to survive.

The Girl of Ink and Stars is inventive, fast-paced, thrilling and a hugely satisfying narrative. Girls can indeed go on adventures and turn out not only to be the hero in their own story but in other people’s too.

Homesick for Another World – Ottessa Moshfegh

And anyway, there is no comfort here on Earth. There is pretending, there are words, but there is no peace. Nothing is good here. Nothing. Every place you go on Earth, there is more nonsense.

The characters in Ottessa Moshfegh’s short story collection Homesick for Another World will come as no surprise if you’ve read her Man Booker Prize shortlisted novel Eileen. The people who populate these tales are inappropriate, slack, liars, cheaters, sleezeballs, hypocrites – they are us.

Two stories – ‘Bettering Myself’ and ‘Slumming’ – are narrated by teachers, those bastions of standards and rules and betterment. In ‘Bettering Myself’ which opens the collection, a teacher at a Catholic school keeps a sleeping bag in the back of her room to facilitate naps when she’s still drunk from the previous night; considers one of her students to be a friend, and avoids teaching calculus by talking about her sex life. While ‘Slumming’ is set in the holidays when the narrator goes to live in Alna, a poor town where she owns a summerhouse. There, she eats a footlong sandwich divided in two – one half for lunch, the other for dinner; takes ten dollars’ worth of meth or heroin, depending what’s on offer in the bus-depot restroom three times a week, and occasionally hangs out with Clark who looks after the summerhouse the rest of the year. They slept together the first year she was there, ‘me crouching under the sloped ceiling, his genitals swung in my face like a fist’.

It’s not that I lacked respect for the people of Alna. I simply didn’t want to deal with them. I was tired. During the school year, all I did was contend with stupidity and ignorance. That’s what teachers are paid to do.

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Many of the stories are concerned with the behaviour of men. Mr Wu is in love with the woman who dispenses the tokens at the arcade he frequents but doesn’t know how to speak to her. While he makes a plan, he visits sex workers in the city, averting his eyes when he has sex with them because ‘He had learned somewhere that closing your eyes meant that you were in love’. In ‘A Dark and Winding Road’, the narrator escapes to his parents’ cabin in the mountains following a fight with his pregnant wife, ‘to have one last weekend to myself before the baby was born and my life as I’d known it was ruined forever’. There he discovers a dildo underneath the blankets on the bed and an unexpected visitor.

Probably the best piece, if you were to judge each story alone, comes in the middle of the collection: ‘An Honest Woman’. A young woman meets her 60-year-old neighbour, Jeb, over the chain-link fence that separates their gardens. Her partner’s recently left her, while Jeb is widowed and has a nephew about the young woman’s age.

‘I’ll meet her,’ said the nephew. ‘But I’m not saying I’ll take her out. I don’t need any drama.’

‘What drama? You should be so lucky,’ Jeb said. ‘A sweet gal. Comes with baggage, of course, as they all do.’

‘Kids?’ the nephew asked. ‘Forget it.’

‘No, no kids. Emotional issues, more like,’ Jeb said. ‘You know women. Stray cats, all of them, either purring in your lap or pissing in your shoes.’

The story takes a creepy turn when the woman visits Jeb, waiting for his nephew but a storm prevents his arrival. Moshfegh highlights the irony of Jeb’s statement about women quoted above when she has him behave as an entitled, misogynistic white man.

It’s at this point in the collection that Moshfegh’s aim starts to become clear: this is 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. To pull this off and maintain the interest of the reader is quite a feat and Moshfegh does it with style. Her prose is sharp, nailing thoughts, feelings and the messiness of life, love and sex – of which there is plenty.

This an accomplished collection. Every story is worthy of inclusion but there’s something about them taken together which really is spectacular. Ottessa Moshfegh is a remarkable writer.

 

Thanks to Jonathan Cape for the review copy.