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.

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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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Exquisite horror: Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Haunting of Hill House’

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No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

So begins Shirley Jackson’s pitch-perfect horror story – in my opinion an opening that ranks with War and Peace, Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre for its magical promise that, whatever the pages ahead will contain, it’s going to be very very good.

I use the word magical deliberately because, for all the differences of genre, the novel ‘The Haunting’ most reminded me of was Von Arnim’s sublimely joyful ‘The Enchanted April.’ In both books, a group of disparate strangers agree to live together in an isolated location, a place with potentially supernatural powers over the minds and attitudes of its inhabitants.  In ‘The Enchanted April’ this is for the sake of a holiday; here motivations are more complex, but the excuse is an interest, or willingness to pretend an interest, in psychical research.  Both books are laugh-out-loud funny, wonderfully empathetic towards their main characters and so engrossing that reading becomes a balancing act between admiration for their sheer brilliance and escapism into the story being told.

All this is on display when we meet our protagonist: ‘Eleanor Vance was thirty-two years old when she came to Hill House.  The only person in the world she genuinely hated, now that her mother was dead, was her sister.  She dislike her brother-in-law and her five-year-old niece, and she had no friends.’  Eleanor’s warped and complex personality is perfectly matched by the torturous architecture of Hill House – built using slightly off-kilter angles so doors won’t stay open, windows give unexpected views and it is almost impossible to orientate yourself.  Around half way through the book, as the incongruent visitors are under increasing attack from the malevolent forces they are supposed to be investigating, Eleanor suddenly thinks ‘Of all of us, I am surely the one least likely to turn against the others.’  The phrase comes out of nowhere and the reader shivers, fearing for everyone trapped in Hill House, especially for the poor benighted Eleanor herself.

‘The Haunting of Hill House’ is as cunningly and disconcertingly constructed as its unforgettable setting.  Like the best horror stories it truly reflects its title – I am as haunted by my encounter with Hill House as its unfortunate visitors, even if, thanks to Jackson’s genius, I am able to gasp in delight as well as horror as I meet ‘whatever walked there…

Posted in Gothic Literature, Shirley Jackson | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Monstrous Burlesque: ‘As I lay Dying’ by William Faulkner

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A huge thank you is owed to the #1930 club, hosted by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book, for inspiring me to re-read one of my favourite novels from the last century.  ‘As I Lay Dying’ is a demented story about America, family, bereavement, faith and lots more; none of these concepts can be logically understood – to be honest, I’m not sure any of them really make sense – but then neither does the book itself.

As shown in the 1963 Penguin book cover, the story concerns a woman who is watched over, in her coffin, by her family.  What is wonderful about the illustration is that it engages perfectly with the off-kilter world of the characters.  While the coffin itself is a conventional shape, the bulges at the side, which you would assume to fit its incumbent’s shoulders, actually make space for her ballooning skirt.  This means her feet are where you would expect her head to be; either she is going to be buried upside-down or everyone around her must be looking at the world from a decidedly unconventional angle.

A further detail – the face of the corpse in the image is somewhat obscured.  After Addie Bundren dies her youngest son, in uncomprehending grief, uses an auger to bore holes in the top of the coffin to allow her to breath, an imprecise act that leads to his mother ultimately wearing an improvised veil made out of a mosquito net before the mended lid is resealed.

It’s shocking, grotesque details like this which make the heavily experimental novel, narrated through stream of consciousness by fifteen different voices, such a page-turner.  The story is simple.  In what is either an uncharacteristic display of devotion or a totally characteristic show of obstinate, selfish stupidity, Addie’s husband is determined to honour his wife’s wish to be buried where she grew up.  This means that ‘beholden to no man’ the whole family are to travel forty miles, through biblical and manmade obstacles (including flood and fire).  They meet helpful and horrified neighbours along the way, and are also accompanied by an increasingly large entourage of buzzards as the days pass.

The whole book is genuinely funny and terribly terribly sad; probably my ideal example of black comedy, with different moments to make me gasp with laughter or at the pathos of the situation on each re-reading.  While the characters and actions may seem almost gratuitously shocking, the beauty of the prose, which is some of Faulkner’s evocative best, elevates the story.  A thoroughly enjoyable re-read and a further reason (if any was necessary) to join the 1930 club!

Posted in Gothic Literature, William Faulkner | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Armchair excitement: H. P. Lovecraft’s ‘At the Mountains of Madness’

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While there are some books that glory in subtle or ironic titles, others are proud to display their themes, locations and plot for all to see.  Lovecraft’s ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ falls squarely within this second camp; I couldn’t spoil its contents even if I wanted to and I really don’t want to because no amount of foreshadowing can dim the pleasure of this science-fiction horror classic.

Published in the 1930s, the book is framed as a plea against further scientific exploration into the mystic and mysterious regions around the South Pole.  The narrator himself was part of such an expedition and has returned home determined to deter any new hubristic investigation –  rather like Frankenstein really, only much shorter and without the dense nineteenth-century prose.  For a more explicit comparison, ‘The Mountains’ frequently evokes Poe, going so far as to quote ‘Ulalume’ and drawing heavily on ‘The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.’  With conspiracy theory dependence on demented apocalyptic supporting texts throughout the novella, it can be hard to know how far Lovecraft was being derivative and how far he was an innovator.  This is not to undermine the joy of reading ‘The Mountains’; part of the fun of genre literature is seeing how it shoe-horns in and plays with the expected tropes.  Personally, when I read that the narrator is one of only two survivors of a traumatic attempt to explore the titular mountains, and that the other has gone mad, I felt an enjoyable shiver of recognition and familiarity.

It’s also worth pointing out that, for a 1930s science fiction/horror classic that was written by H P Lovecraft, draws on Poe’s fiercely racist ‘Arthur Gordon Pym’ and is set entirely in an exotic location where brave white men pit their inner strength against unknown terrors, ‘The Mountains of Madness’ manages to generally skirt the potential offensiveness of its premise.  Lovecraft himself had hideous views on pretty much everything, which I find always adds a frisson of fear to any encounter with him. Horror is one thing but I do tend to approach his work with trepidation because you never quite know if or when his personal obsessions will emerge.  Fortunately, ‘The Mountains’ are disturbing in the right way, with the tension building consistently and the insane climax a delightfully grotesque pay-off.

As the weather turns grey and uninspiring, there is nothing to lift the mood like a truly fantastical Antarctic-set romp.  I recently watched John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ and revelled in its combination of outrageous special effects and icy, isolated setting.  Though written half a century earlier, ‘The Mountains of Madness’ has been the perfect literary counterpart, providing armchair escapism and emotional thrills, immersion in a genre classic and relief from anything resembling every-day concerns.

Posted in H P Lovecraft, Science Fiction | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

The 2019 Booker Prize Shortlist

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Having blogged about my Booker longlist reading, it’s time to turn my attention to the judge’s shortlist.

Personally, I’m still not sure I’m ready for a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale (I haven’t been watching the TV version), so am a little apprehensive about Atwood’s ‘The Testaments.’  I also went through a Salmon Rushdie phase about 15 years ago, but have not read his more recent works; I do love ‘Don Quixote’ though so ‘Quichotte’ might be the book to bring me back.

All I can say about Lucy Ellmann’s ‘Ducks, Newburyport’ is that I don’t understand the title, but have heard it’s a nearly 1000 page long stream-of-consciousness monologue, largely made up of one continuous sentence.  Sort of the opposite of ‘My Sister, the Serial Killer‘.  This could be the book of a lifetime (I am a massive fan of Ulysses so won’t rule it out) but I’ll be looking for personal recommendations before I dive in.  I know even less about Bernardine Evaristo’s ‘Girl, Woman, Other’ and Elif Shafak’s ’10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World’ but I understand they’re not excessively long so I’m not too intimidated to try to find out.

Of course the book I’m really excited for is ‘An Orchestra of Minorities’ by Chigozie Obioma.  I raved about The Fishermen, when it was Booker shortlisted in 2015 and can’t wait to see how he’s followed up on such an impressive debut.  All in all, it’s looking to be a very interesting Booker year!

Posted in Book Lists, Booker Prize 2019, How to pick which book to read | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The 2019 Booker Prize

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The 2019 Man Booker Shortlist has been announced, and it contains none of the long-listed books I’ve actually read.  Still, while a bout of summer flu prevented me from posting this before the nominations were narrowed down, I do want to share my thoughts on the quarter (more or less) of the books originally in contention.

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Frankly, it would be a surprise were Deborah Levy not to be nominated for her latest novel.  Her books are cool, short, intelligent and highly lauded.  This felt like an interesting departure from previous works of hers that I’ve read, in that it covers a complicatedly split timeline rather than honing in on one significant event.  Or maybe it is really all about one event after all, because in it our hero experiences and remembers a single critical visit to 1988 East Berlin.  At the time, he is a self-absorbed and stunningly beautiful young man, it is only when we encounter him old and in hospital decades later, remembering and reliving the same traumatic events, that we see the impact of this brief trip.  It’s an interesting, complex novel that is sure to strike a chord with fans of Levy’s earlier work as well as possibly finding her some new admirers.

41Y43AFcMUL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg‘Lost Children Archive’ first came to my attention when it was long-listed for the Women’s Prize for Fiction earlier this year.  Its title is more true than you might expect – far more an archive than a traditional novel, it is made up of photos, quotations, disjointed texts and lots and lots of lists.  In place of chapters it is arranged in ‘boxes,’ literally the boxes taken by a documentarist and a documentarian (you’ll have to read the book to learn the difference) on an American road trip with a difference.  Rather than focusing on the boundless glory of the USA, Luiselli is concerned with migrant children from across the boarder.  ‘Lost Children Archive’ is an exploration of their fate and a commentary on the impossibility of fully narrating it.  Personally, I found the fact-based engagements with the children’s plight more engaging than the post-Modern playfulness of the structure, but the book as a whole is a valuable example of English-language fiction focusing on this topic.

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‘My Sister, the Serial Killer’ was the book that most appealed to me from the 2019 Woman’s Prize for Fiction.  Sometimes I feel literary fiction prizes lean a bit too heavily on books where nothing happens; with this title, I felt confident of a change in pace.  Braithwaite doesn’t disappoint, her debut novel thrusts the reader into the action, beginning with our narrator cleaning an apartment and disposing of a dead body while her beautiful younger sister ineffectually assists from the sidelines.  The novel deals with themes of femininity, class and family dynamics in 21st century Lagos, but does so through the unexpectedly skewed gaze that comes from association with someone who does not play by any of the established rules.  ‘My Sister, the Serial Killer’ is a fun fast read, that may give away its punchline in the title, but still serves to add welcome spice to a long-list of books in which time is often fluid and subjective rather precious and short.

I received my copies of ‘The Man Who Saw Everything’ and ‘Lost Children Archive’ from the publisher via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Posted in Booker Prize 2019, Deborah Levy, Oyinkan Braithwaite, Valeria Luiselli | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments