A Great Monster Never Gets Old: ‘Frankissstein’ by Jeanette Winterson

Book cover

I feel it’s necessary to start this review with a plug for the wonderful ‘Frankenstein in Baghdad‘ if only because otherwise I’m going to spend the whole post referring back to it. If you haven’t read ‘Frankenstein in Baghdad – you must. It is a near perfect novel taking the original monster to places so far beyond the original, telling a uniquely Iraqi story which I like to think Mary Shelley would have loved as much as I did.

‘Frankissstein’ is yet another dazzling embodiment of the versatility of Shelley’s classic Gothic horror. As you would expect from the fiercely ambitious and unconventional pen of Jeanette Winterson, it plays with the source material, contorting it into new shapes and meanings, while lovingly honouring the creation and messages of the original. Thus we open in 1816 on a rainy holiday with Mary Shelley, her bohemian companions and an exploration of the epigram ‘Reality is water-soluble‘. The famous story-telling takes place within an almost apocalyptic storm, a second flood from which a new kind of person could arguably emerge.

The novel doesn’t stay with Mary Shelley however, instead it jumps nimbly to other equally creative iterations of this founding myth. There’s a lot of fun in following transgender transhumanist Dr Ry Shelley (‘I’m here to consider how robots will affect our mental and physical health‘) and Professor Victor Stein (‘I called this lecture The Future of Humans in a Post-Human World‘) as Winterson brings an acutely 21st century lens to the enduring themes of the source material. Maybe others have read the original novel and immediately considered how it relates to Evangelical Christianity, sex-bots, and developments in Artificial Intelligence. Personally, I needed Winterson to open my eyes to the possible outcomes of Shelley’s first monstrous creation.

With its fast-flowing jokes, madcap plot and terrifying implications, there is no way to do justice to ‘Frankissstein’ in a short review. In any case, I really wouldn’t want to, to explain would be to shut down and I loved going into this book with no clue beyond the title as to what it would contain. The title and the author that is, because ‘Frankisstein’ is a novel to delight Winterson fans as much as it will anyone obsessed with the complex brilliance of the novel that started it all.

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Gothic Done Well: ‘Wakenhyrst’ by Michelle Paver

Book cover

Continuing with my modern Gothic reading, Wakenhyrst is one of those joyful books that combines contemporary themes and genre awareness with a totally traditional setting. Like Sarah Water’s wonderful historical novels, it manages to give an authentic presentation of complex lives that are relevant and compatible with modern sensibilities, while remaining convincingly entrenched in an earlier time period.

In Wakenhyrst, the modern element is set up through the most traditional of gothic conventions. A smug 1966 article ‘Only in The Sunday Explorer Magazine’ introduces us to a ‘witch’s lair,’ an ‘ancient‘, ‘ivy-choked‘ manor house inhabited by the reclusive Maud Stearne. The reporter promises us that his exclusive insight and journalistic acumen has solved the mysteries around the brutal murder and madness in Wakenhyrst’s past. While the article is a teaser (ending with a reader discount for the full book ‘Murder in the Orchard‘), it does give us tantalising clues and a sensational conclusion. At the very end, we’re told that Maud is a witch.

In true gothic style, we then get further framing, with an exchange of letters ending in the present day Maud’s promise to discuss ‘the sale of my ‘story’‘ with a Dr Robin Hunter. Then after a short epigram by Voltair, ‘Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities‘, we’re taken 60 years earlier to a distressing miscarriage scene and the horror begins.

I started this book late at night, and for all the flippancy and genre ticking of the opening pages, I found the tone, a combination of realistic horror and hatred in the past with the promise of madness and murder still to come all too much. I knew that at some point I’d be staying up late to finish reading. On the first night, howeer I decided to put the story aside for daylight hours. I had no trust that Paver would protect me from the worst of witchcraft or from the excesses of Edwardian toxic masculinity, two nightmarish topics set up from the very start of Maud’s story.

‘Wakenhyrst’ fully delivers on its the nightmarish premise, and in doing so, is one of the most satisfying gothic novels I’ve read in a very long time. Maud’s repressed isolation, her father’s domineering obsessions, and the mysterious power of evil in and around them is compellingly human, while remaining true to the supernatural premise set up in the prologue. The worlds of our narrators are chillingly unreliable, not because they consider themselves deceitful, but because we know how much they misunderstand and cannot see in themselves and in others. And there is indeed menace, though the reader is left to draw their own conclusions about the exact nature of devil that haunts one strand of the story.

It’s books like Wakenhyrst that make me return to this genre time and time again. The supernatural gives us insight into human nature and the distance of historical perspective only allows greater focus on our own society and condition. But alongside these intellectual enjoyments, gothic books also contain wonderful, enthralling stories. I cannot wait to see what Pavel publishes next, if it’s anything like a wonderful as Wakenhyrst, I’ll be looking forward to the sleepless nights it will surely cause.

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A story of the Bengali English experience: ‘Hashim and Family’ by Shahnaz Ahsan

Hashim & Family: Amazon.co.uk: Ahsan, Shahnaz: 9781473665231: Books

When I wrote about Selvon’s  ‘The Lonely Londoners’ on the blog, I critiqued the idea that an extremely macho book from 1950s could be the ‘definitive novel about London’s West Indians.’  It’s with this in mind that I wonder if Ahsan’s debut, ‘Hashim and Family’ could possibly be my current definitive novel about the UK’s Bengali community?  I’m afraid the main reason for staking this claim is that I’ve very rarely seen these characters take a leading role in literary fiction.  In fact, I think this is the first novel I’ve read in which characters from this specific region of the Indian subcontinent are the protagonists; it’s certainly my first fiction that engages with the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent country.

Like the best immigrant novels, ‘Hashim and Family’ focuses on the idea of belonging, the geography, memory and family producing a palimpsest, which we and the characters themselves seek to decipher.  For Hashim, whose initial plan to stay in Manchester for only five years imperceptibly mutates into British-based ambitions and dreams, home remains a complex concept.  Early in the novel he is baffled by his cousin’s ability to live only in Manchester without feeling conflicted:

He didn’t really understand how Rofikul could possibly avoid thinking of their homeland.  Their desh.  It was a delightful quirk of the Bengali language.  The word literally meant ‘country’ but was also used to refer specifically to their homeland as though there were only one country in all the world, one that predated any borders or passports.  The land had officially been granted many different internationally recognised legal names over the years, based on the whims of far-off governors.  But those who hailed from there referred to it simply as desh.  All other lands were collectively referred to as bidesh: abroad.  In Hashim’s mind, to avoid thinking about desh was impossible.  It was the natural place his thoughts went to.  And no matter how long they might stay, Britain would always be bidesh.

While Hashim is to settle in the UK, and his wife is destined to become ‘more British than the British,’ the other main characters, including the unsettled Rofikul and Helen, whose Irish identity marks her as an outsider in 1960s Manchester, have their own journeys to make as they search for their true homes.  As the war in East Pakistan breaks out in Hashim’s desh, and brutal racism shows no sign of waning in his bidesh home, it takes all the warm-hearted courage and sympathy of Ahsan’s novel to keep the story as up-beat and life-affirming as it truly is.  Amid past and present challenges to all of us in Britain right now, novels like ‘Hashim and Family’ present an optimism and faith in humanity that have never been more needed.

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Reading ‘Sense and Sensibility’ in Lockdown

Image result for sense and sensibility.  One woman has a book on her lap and is looking directly at the viewer.  The other is looking unconvincingly into space.
Most S&S covers emphasise the outdoors and the freedom of the characters. I now think this is a selective reading. I like this cover because they both look kind of bored.

As last year’s hiatus demonstrates, lockdown has been tough at Shoshi’s Book Blog. This has always been a place for me to share the books I’ve loved reading, and that is not easy when I’m in my current lock-down induced reading slump.

I am trying to pull myself out of this. There are weekly blogs scheduled for the coming month, but these are actually for books I read at the start of January. I’m hoping to have discovered other novels that work for my short attention span and unhelpfully picky state of mind by the time they’re all out, but it’s not easy.

So with that in mind, I did what any normal book lover would do. I went back to Austen. I was hoping for escape into a happier reading time. What I wasn’t expecting was to learn that Austen writes perfect lockdown novels. Her characters are so confined and their social lives so limited they’re almost 21st century how-to guides for how to cope with less. I’ve always been struck by the moment at the start of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ when Mr Bennet asks Lizzy when her next ball will be and she answers ‘Tomorrow fortnight.’ Previously I’ve found this oddly pathetic; it seems the only event in the Bennet girls’ diary isn’t for over two weeks. What a depressingly boring social life I used to think, how do they manage to entertain themselves so uncomplainingly for those long, long gaps between mildly interesting evenings out?

In my newly enlightened and far less superior state, I’m now approaching ‘Sense and Sensibility’ with a distinctly 2021 frame of reference. And I’ve realised it’s actually a book written for the Coronavirus pandemic. We start with the bereaved Eleanor and Marianne, the poor girls having lost their grandfather (who lived with them) and their father within just over a year. It doesn’t say what illness they died of, but we can infer…

The grief-stricken family don’t have a huge amount of support; the assumption of society appears to be that they should take it in their stride, including dealing with the financial implications of their reduced family circumstances. Then, in a technically appropriate, but clearly selfish move, their half-brother, his wife and their small child all move in to the family home. Where they’re all stuck together for the next six months. Finally (I’m imagining around September 2020), Eleanor, Marianne, Margaret and their mother are able to find a small place for themselves. They take the opportunity to move in, but once they have they’re stuck again – for reasons of social delicacy Mrs. Dashwood restricts their social interactions to within a walking distance of their home. We all now recognise that feeling of not being able to meet anyone who lives far away, far away having a very different meaning in lockdown … In one of the dramatic ‘events’ of the book, Marianne and Margaret go for a walk outside, ‘unable longer to bear the confinement which the settled rain of the two preceding days had occasioned.’ It’s another line I’ve previously read without empathy. How times have changed.

While I’m loving the book, I must admit I’m now hoping for a modern-set film adaptation. I’ve always adored ‘Clueless’ for its brilliant interpretation of ‘Emma’ set in the privileged, hierarchical world of wealthy LA teens. I’m now desperate for ‘Sense and Sensibility’ set in present day England. Marianne can learn the folly of her romantic prejudice against online dating in contrast to falling in love after eyes meet across a crowded room. Eleanor can try to be rational and calm as she tries to avoid the insincere but insistent ‘friendship’ of aspiring influencer Lucy Steele. I think Edward is going to have to face redundancy from his boring, low-paid job – will he realise Eleanor still loves him for who he is, or is he going to succumb to his family’s insistence he join his brother’s high profile PPE start-up? Poor Eleanor and Edward, is the pressure of having to continually postpone their wedding because his mother won’t accept the limited guest numbers allowed by the government going to put too much strain on the relationship?

Over the coming weeks I’ll be entertaining myself by working on the screenplay. And hopefully reading more books to blog about. Fortunately, if the later plan doesn’t work out, I know I’ll always have Austen.

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Glamour, Fantasy and Heartbreak: ‘Blonde’ by Joyce Carol Oates

Book cover with Marilyn laughing photo

I must confess, it was the stunning cover of the 4th Estates paperback that made me read Joyce Carol Oates’ brilliant fictional biography of Marilyn Monroe. Of course, when a book’s subject is one of the most famously photogenic women of the twentieth century, it has no excuse for looking anything but flawless. The real question is whether the seemingly effortless combination of ease, enthusiasm and manufactured, stylised beauty is fittingly matched by the 700 plus page narrative within.

Beginning with a prologue set in 1962, the novel opens with the title ‘Special Delivery’ and a thuddingly poetic evocation of of a modern Grim Reaper: ‘There came Death hurtling along the Boulevard in waning Sepia light.‘ It’s an image that will reappear at the end of the book, after sections on ‘The Child’, ‘The Girl’, ‘The Woman’, and ‘Marilyn’. It’s a stylised, self-conscious piece of writing, both a confident opening, but also a strangely obtuse one; why start a book about Marilyn without showing her?

Oates is unambiguous in classifying this biography as fiction, a decision that allows uninhibited creation of dialogue, memories and even characters, all of whom contribute towards our understanding of her protagonist and the world she both dominates and is subjugated by. This world is bleak. Men in power are abusive and violent, the world of Hollywood exploitative and unforgiving. Shifting viewpoints show us the triumph of Marilyn Monroe, but also the human cost of the systems in which she lives. This is not the book for those searching for a factual account of a celebrity’s life, but it is an incredibly stylish and empathetic presentation of Hollywood from the 1930s to the 1960s and the fantasies it peddles. Oates makes the convincing case that Marilyn was only ever a part, not a person. She was someone Norma Jeane could play and, through or despite her, could also channel other fictional characters, from the innocent Angela Finlay in ‘The Asphalt Jungle’ to the destructive Nell Forbes in ‘Don’t Bother to Knock’ to the murderous and manipulative Rose Loomis in ‘Niagra.’ Chapters begin with quotes from Stanislavski, or from Norma Jeane’s invented library of fictional texts (including the utterly convincing The Paradox of Acting‘ and ‘The Actor’s Handbook and the Actor’s Life‘), seamlessly weaving the dramatic business of merging fact and fiction into the very fabric of the novel.

And this is why I fell in love with ‘Blonde.’ Oates writes fluidly and fluently about her illusive subject and builds the argument for her unknowability as meticulously as the team of artists, executives, lovers and associates depicted build their own fictional Marilyn Monroes. The woman behind the face (which, we’re told, takes hours and expertise to construct) is also a creator, but this role is complicated by the destructive relationship between Norma Jeane and the alter ego she cannot always control.

The author’s note at the start of my edition contains a list of factual biographies recommended for those who want to go beyond the fiction. For me, the fantasy and fiction of ‘Blonde’ more than suffices, and I’m thrilled to have this piece of beauty on my bookshelf; a book that meets the high expectations its own beauty creates.

Book on shelf showing spine, which is left half of laughing Marilyn photo from front cover
Posted in Biography, Joyce Carol Oates, Reading America | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

‘The Great Ugandan Novel’: ‘Kintu’ by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

There are so many barriers to publishing novels, especially novels from less-often heard voices, I always assume that anything that makes it into the bookshops must be pretty exceptional. Even with increasing representation in publishing, there still seem to be hierarchies for what stories are easily available. This blog is a rather shameful example; I don’t specifically seek out stories from Africa and the result is that I’ve only reviewed eight novels categorised as African Literature. Of these, ‘Cockroaches’ by Scholastique Mukasonga is Rwandan, ‘The First Wife’ by Chiziane Paulina is Mozambique and ‘The Woman Next Door’ by Yewande Omotoso is South African. The others are all Nigerian. For the record, I’m the one who sets the categories and they’re largely based on publicity around the books combined with where they are set (Omotoso’s wonderful book is set in South Africa, while the internet calls her a ‘South-African based writer’ who was born in Barbados and grew up in Nigeria. I never said these things are simple). Though I only review a small percentage of the books I read, I think I can confidently say that ‘Kintu’ is my first Ugandan novel. While this means it is also, by default, the best Ugandan novel I’ve ever read, I really want to do more justice to Makumbi’s rich, complex and satisfying debut.

After a brutal present-day prologue, the story of ‘Kintu’ begins in 1750 with our titular hero leaving his two wives and multiple offspring to pay homage to the new Kabaka (king) of Buganda. We see the pre-colonial personal and political challenges of being a Bugandan governor, a complex set of circumstances that directly, but arguably not inevitably, lead to the opening violence of the book’s first pages. From the outset, this is a novel about fate and about identity. Kintu’s two wives are identical twins – a literary trope I normally hate, but here set beautifully within the context of almost lost history, exploring how traditional beliefs shape members of a shared culture, even if the members themselves are unaware of the ghosts that haunt them.

Makumbi’s novel is clearly meticulously researched, but it wears its academic credentials lightly, trusting her audience to fill in any gaps and giving Western readers an exciting sense of being treated like an insider. There is no glossary or cumbersome explanation of non-English vocabulary used – and also no sense that such words have been added as exotic flourishes. Her characters and the language used to describe them pull off the incredibly difficult task of feeling totally accessible to UK readers while still appearing (to an outsider) authentic to the community depicted. Indeed, as the saga unfolds over succeeding generations, we learn that the idea of belonging in and understanding a culture is as complex for Makumbi’s characters as it is for her non-Ugandan readers. The family curse, enacted with fated inevitability in the prologue, stems from a reflexive but not intentionally harmful act of violence from Kintu towards his adopted Tutsi son. This aggression has the tragedy of Greek myth and it is devastating to Kintu and his descendants. It also raises, but does not answer the wider question of belonging. Introducing the novel’s first victim, we’re told ‘as a rule a child in Kintu’s house was a child of the house. Talk of different ancestry was taboo because it led to self-consciousness and isolation.’

Following the sparse but helpful family tree at the start of the book, the novel traces the impact of Kintu’s actions on his descendants in modern day Uganda. By the 1980s much history has been lost and the remaining members of Kintu’s large family are dispersed and ignorant of the curse they carry. As with any good haunting story though, ignorance and rationality are no protection against determined ghosts. Without over explaining anything, individual choices are not only impacted by hidden mythic imperatives, but also their political, economical and cultural contexts. Sprawling though it is, this personal story is woven into a national story, from the immediate impact of the ongoing AIDS crisis to a powerful general in the army who is one of the least domestic of Kintu’s descendant, but who swoops in at the most personally tragic moments with terrifying efficiency.

Kintu is a breathtakingly good novel, and even if you find the different family strands hard to follow I really recommend sticking with it till the brilliant set-piece finale in the final chapters. This blog post has only touched the surface of the ambition and complexity of Makumbi’s debut. I cannot recommend it highly enough – to you and to myself for a reread because with all my admiration I know I’m very far from seeing every level of this supremely accomplished work.

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A Book Written for Me: ‘The Eighth Life’ by Nino Haratischvili

Book cover

The full title of this masterpiece is ‘The Eighth Life (For Brika). I struggle with this, because I believe in the book’s characters to such an extent I can’t imagine Brilka isn’t real and so totally deserves the narrative her aunt has painstakingly researched and presented for her. At the same time, part of me is smugly almost-sure she’s fiction in which case I’m taking this book because it was definitely written directly for me. I love Russian fiction, I love long books, I love novels which understand and play with their place in the literary tradition.

‘The Eighth Life’ is clearly a Georgian War and Peace, which means I get the pure satisfaction of reading one of my favourite novels through a new lens (Soviet and contemporary rather than Russian and 19th century). But of course, there has already been a twentieth century ‘War and Peace,’ it’s Vasili Grossman’s monumental ‘Life and Fate,’ which, written after World War II, updates Tolstoy’s narrative to address the Holocaust, the siege of Stalingrad and the purges and repression of the Soviet regime. So ‘The Eighth Life’ is also a Georgian ‘Life and Fate.’ In fact, I like to imagine there are at least five other massive and wonderful novels retreading this ground from different places and periods of Russia’s empire-building history and Haratischvili’s ‘Eighth Life’ is a knowing pinnacle of this series.

What ‘The Eighth Life’ achieves is a personal, epic, historical story that is firmly placed within its literary and cultural context. Although ideas, themes and settings from Tolstoy and Grossman are reworked, the result is never derivative and consistently powerful. Within the novel itself, much of this is credited to Georgia’s specific culture and people. The first, but not the last, time I chuckled out loud was on page 8, at the parenthesis in the middle of a list of dogmatic statements made by the emigre narrator, who is remembering ‘the country that encourages in its inhabitants endearing traits like the sacred virtue of hospitality, and less endearing traits, like laziness, opportunism, and conformism (this is certainly not the perception of the majority – you and I agree on this, too).

The book is not all enjoyably informative and dogmatic blanket statements and self-conscious narrative. It follows six generations of a Georgian family, whose successes in business, the arts and the Communist Party are always precarious, in danger of being destroyed by strong willed-women in every generation. That’s my thumbnail synopsis; according to the original patriarch, a chocolatier and the narrator’s great-great-grandfather, the tragedies that befall the family are the result of his unique intoxicating chocolate recipe, which is delicious in small amounts but curses those who experience its raw, undiluted wonders.

Arguably, you didn’t need cursed chocolate to encounter hardship in the USSR. Overshadowing the often tongue-in-cheek references to Georgian culture and place in the Soviet empire is the role of two of its sons, Stalin (referred to only as ‘the Generalissimus’ and Beria (who appears in the novel as the terrifying ‘Little Big Man’). There are scenes of devastation, brutality and torture as tough as anything I’ve read about the siege of Stalingrad, Soviet state paranoia and toxic masculinity. But at over 900 pages there is space to do these episodes justice and then time for us to understand the resulting trauma on the characters. The distress adds to the complexity of the whole novel, making it richer and more satisfying but also allowing harmony with the humour and more light-hearted moments that make up the characters’ lives.

I’d been tempted by ‘The Eighth Life’ since I saw it on shelves; lockdown has been the perfect time to loose myself in it. If you’re someone for whom social isolation has meant increased free time and a disinclination to concentrate on the present, I hope you will consider reading this, and that you will get as much pleasure as I did from the experience. I’ll even be prepared to share ownership, if you honestly think think this book was written for you as strongly as I believe its truest title is ‘The Eighth Life (for Shoshi)’.

Posted in Book Review, Russian Reading, War and Peace | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Isolation and Contagion: A Lockdown Reading List

Themed readings may not be for everyone, but if you’re looking for literary companions during these socially isolated times, it no longer feels like such bad taste to finally publish the Coronavirus Lockdown Reading List I’ve been mulling over since last month (so many years ago).

The Stand book coverI read Stephen King’s ‘The Stand’ last summer. Even under normal conditions it’s a book to make you paranoid about every cough or fever. In the tour-de-force opening section, a deadly, highly-contagious flu virus ravages society, spreading swiftly and uncontrollably until the whole world seems consumed. The book (hopefully) loses some of its resonance in the aftermath sections, but if you like to keep your escapism close to home, this may be the perfect time to get started with King’s 1970s doorstop.

The Magic Mountain book coverFor something a bit more contemplative, ‘The Magic Mountain’, follows an individual though luxurious isolation in an early twentieth-century TB sanatorium. Think lots of big dinners, long naps and absolutely no responsibilities. Our hero is kept busy by musing on life and through being a metaphor for modern man and society. I have a huge fondness for this book (you can read a more detailed review here) and recommend it for some very different, though still tenuously themed, lockdown reading.

Oryx and Crake book coverOryx and Crake takes us into speculative fiction. In 2003, Atwood imagined a world struck down by disease and other catastrophes. The first novel of her MaddAddam trilogy looks both into the causes and the aftermath of the ultimate tragedy. Importantly for its place on this list, it also focuses on an isolated protagonist stuck far away from the familiar world and with only the faintest hope of companionship. If you find it works as literary escapism for the current situation, you can look forward to extending your stay in Atwood’s dystopia with ‘The Year of the Flood’ and ‘MaddAddam.’

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest book coverFor a look at institutionalization and paranoia about isolation from society, the enduring classic is ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’. The novel’s characters have to navigate fear of the outside world with difficulties when living under lockdown. If you sympathise, this may be the book to help you explore any feeling of impotence and anger, both at individuals and with those who have the power to mandate lockdowns. Or maybe not.

The Dark Circle book coverThe Dark Circle‘ by Linda Grant takes the elitist nineteenth-century TB sanatorium setting of ‘The Magic Mountain’ and then gives it a thoroughly modern twist by honing in on the end of such institutions in the UK with the foundation of the National Health Service. Grant’s novel is a celebration of the NHS and a condemnation of any wish to romanticize illness. It is also an extremely enjoyable reworking of many themes from ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest,’ and probably has the best female characters of any of the books on this sadly very male-dominated list.

Moonstone book coverA must read for this epidemic is Sjon’s ‘Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was,’ a hypnotically poignant story set during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. Taking in natural disasters (an opening scene is set against the background of Kalta volcano erupting) nationalism (it also features Iceland’s independence celebrations), and the status of outsiders, it felt strikingly modern when I read it in 2017. On re-reading, it is the scenes exploring the effect of the pandemic on cinema-going that most hit home. A beautiful book and the best fiction about a flu pandemic I have ever encountered.

The Plague book cover‘The Plague’ naturally needs a mention on this list, partly because Camus is a far easier read than his philosophical reputation can suggest but also because this classic of isolation and contagion is simply begging for a mention. The title really says it all, an Algerian town is struck down by a plague and society struggles to cope. This is Camus, so it could also be an allegory about oppression, religion, French resistance to the Nazis and so on. Read it for yourself, under the extreme conditions of a non-fiction pandemic, to see how many other messages can be added to the list.

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Something a bit out of the ordinary: ‘Convenience Store Woman’ by Sayaka Murata

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The first thing I loved about this book was the title.  After so many Girl novels recently (whether they have tattoos, kick dangerous things, travel on trains or are simply Gone), it was incredibly refreshing to find a book that didn’t feel the need to infantalize its protagonist.

As it happens, the age of the narrator is something of a plot point.  Keiko is no longer a girl, she has been working at the same convenience store since she was a university student and, although finding complete fulfilment in this, her friends and family are increasingly insistent that it’s time for her to move on, to mature.  The joy of the book comes from Keiko’s response to these pressures.  She knows her life would be easier if she had an answer to questions like ‘why are single and working a minimum-wage job?’ She also knows that the truth, ‘because I enjoy it and need nothing more’ will not be accepted.  The short novel follows her attempt to demonstrate compliance, while still staying true to herself.  This will require some changes to her, currently perfect, routine, but she sees it as an investment for the future.  Like those around her, Keiko knows she won’t be able to work in a convenience store for ever.  As always however, her reasons are slightly different, she knows her work requires good mobility and the acceptance of a rubbish pension.  The good times won’t last and she wants to be prepared.

‘Convenience Store Woman’ is dry, poignant and very very funny.  Keiko is as emotionally isolated from society as Merricat in We Have Always Lived in the Castle and is equally compelling, though considerably more knowing and accommodating. We learn early on that a reason she thrives at work is the routine behaviour, with clear directions on how to interact with other humans, be they customers or co-workers.  In sections that are both funny and poignant we are told how she consciously adapts her clothing and habits to imitate successful colleagues.  This is perfectly normal behaviour, but what makes Murata’s heroine exceptional is the bemused dedication behind it.

Keiko’s story is both fresh and familiar, taking everyday human experiences, finding joy in them and then deconstructing them through a wry outsider lens.  Extremely highly recommended if you want to read something new, or take a new look at the familiar routines and pressures that surround us all.

Posted in Japanese Literature, Reading in translation, Sayaka Murata, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

A name to look out for: Anna Burns’ ‘Milkman’

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The title of this book doesn’t give much away.  On the first pages we hear about ‘the milkman’ or ‘this milkman,’ a middle-aged married paramilitary leader who apparently has nothing to do with milk, but has, at least according to neighbourhood gossip, quite a lot to do with the novel’s narrator.  It seems that in the confusing, claustrophobic neighbourhood in which she lives, facts (like names and objective reality) are far less important than public opinion.

Set against the Troubles, ‘Milkman’ explores the emotional toll of living in an unofficial war zone.  Our eighteen-year-old unreliable narrator tries to stay apart from the conflict, but her inability to conform to the truth as perceived by her community, whether on a political or personal level, increasingly marks her out as an outsider.  And, in this place,  to be an outsider is even more dangerous than to be an insider.  Our poor narrator thinks she understands the rules because ‘all ordinary people … understood the basics of what was allowed and not allowed, of what was neutral and could be exempted from preferences, from nomenclature, from emblems and from outlooks.’  In a bravura passage near the start of the book we’re told how this is exemplified by the community’s attitude to names, including a long list of approved and prohibited names – ‘the banned names were understood to have become infused with the energy, the power of history, the age-old conflict, enjoinments and resisted impositions as laid down long ago in this country by that country … but there was no list of the names that were allowed.  Every resident was supposed to know what was permitted based on what was not permitted.’  It’s no surprise that the book itself is so scared of words, with characters being defined by personality, affiliation or relationship but never by anything so concrete or personal as an identifiable name.

On one level, the novel’s story concerns the narrator’s struggles against her unjustified but nonetheless frighteningly real association with the Milkman.  On another level it is a coming-of-age story about someone tentatively but deliberately breaking free from the constricting community around her.  As the book progresses, the very act of narration is shown to be subversive through its ability to engage with complexity and nuance.   In a breath-taking scene, we see how the students in an evening class respond when faced with a beautiful sunset:

‘The sky is blue,’ came us. ‘What colour else can it be?
Of course we knew really that the sky could be more than blue, two more, but why should any of us admit to that?  I myself have never admitted it.  Not even the week before when I experienced my first sunset with maybe-boyfriend did I admit it. Even then, even though there were more colours than the acceptable three in the sky – blue (the day sky), black (the night sky) and white (clouds) – that evening still I kept my mouth shut.  And now the others in the class – all older than me, some as old as thirty – also weren’t admitting it.  It was the convention not to admit it, not to accept detail for this type of detail would mean choice and choice would mean responsibility and what if we failed in our responsibility?  Failed too, in the interrogation of the consequences of seeing more than we could cope with? Worse, what if it was nice, whatever it was, and we liked it, got used to it, were cheered up by it, came to rely on it only for it to be wrenched away, never to come back again?  Better not to have had it in the first place was the prevailing feeling and that was why blue was the colour for our sky to be.

‘Milkman’ is complex, poignant and extremely impressive.  It shows how literature can explore truth in the most unpromising of places and ensures that I’ll be looking out for Anna Burns’ name in bookshops – no matter the ambivalence in her presentation of notoriety, intelligence and fierce, independent ambition.

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