Navigating life: ‘Mirror, Shoulder, Signal’ by Dorthe Nors

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I’m fairly certain this is the first book I’ve read in which the plot centres around the main character learning to drive.  It makes me wonder if I (and writers everywhere) are missing a trick, because the premise is fantastic.  From the opportunities for comedy to the claustrophobic power dynamics of the practical lessons to the philosophical implications of movement, control and freedom, ‘Mirror, Shoulder, Signal’ shows quite how good this set up is when it comes to exploring individuals, relationships and the complex twenty-first century.

We begin with Sonja sitting in front of the wheel trying to feel confident about the hour ahead. ‘Her driving lessons have been plagued with problems.  The biggest of them is sitting in the car right now, next to Sonja.  Her name is Jytte, and it’s her smoke that clings to the theory classroom.  Surfaces at the driving school are galvanized with cigarette smoke, and most of it took a trip through Jytte’s lungs first.’  Sonja’s time with Jytte is very very funny and it almost feels a shame when Nors takes pity on her heroine and allows her to escape.

By escape, of course, I mean suddenly appear in a new chapter with what appears to be very little agency when moving from one set piece moment to another.  In structure, ‘Mirror, Shoulder, Signal’ reminded me of Rachel Cusk’s ‘Outline‘ in which another lost protagonist jerks from one awkward social encounter to another, cumulatively building up our understanding of her history and character.  For contrast, the other book that came to mind during reading was Høeg’s ‘Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow‘ Sonja may not be from Greenland, but she is extremely conscious of her status as an outsider, always trying to identify accents in others and mournfully remembering ‘when she was six, maybe seven.  Back then she spoke Jutlandic without irony.  Now she no longer knows what language she speaks.’  I suspect in the original Danish, the regional language variations are an integral part of the narrative, complementing Sonja’s own conflicted personality.

There is much to enjoy in ‘Mirror, Shoulder, Signal,’ not least the comedy of many of the situations Sonja finds herself in.  I can’t help feel it is an odd choice for Man Booker International shortlist however.  I read a lot of translated literature, but it is rare for me to feel so strongly that I am missing key elements in a novel.  From Sonja’s job as a translator to her difficulties communicating with those closest to her, this book felt like it should be all about language. Misha Hoekstra’s translation is engaging and extremely readable, but it never gave me the impression that these themes were being engaged with on a stylistic level.  Or maybe I was just looking for something that wasn’t there, a worrying appropriate response to a witty, concise book entitled ‘Mirror, Shoulder, Signal,’ if so, the joke is definitely on me.

I received my copy of ‘Mirror, Shoulder, Signal’ from the publisher via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Posted in Dorthe Nors, Nordic literature, Reading in translation | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Getting started with the Man Booker International Shortlist: ‘Judas’ by Amos Oz

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Then he went out into the street, which was bathed in a pleasant winter light, a light of pine trees and stones.  He was suddenly assailed by a strange, sharp feeling that anything was possible, that what was lost only seemed to be lost, but that in fact nothing was completely lost and what would happen depended only on his audacity.  He decided to change there and then.  To change his whole life from that moment on.  Henceforth he would be calm and bold, a man who knew what he wanted and did everything in his power to achieve it, with no holding back and hesitation.

The above quotation comes roughly one third through ‘Judas,’ and the ‘he‘ in question is the diffident Shmuel.  The passage grabbed me when I read it, not only because of the beauty of the language but because of the power and irony of the sentiments.  Shmuel is not a man of action.  He starts the book a person things happen to (girlfriend leaving, parents losing their money and so becoming unable to support him through his studies) and when he has the above epiphany it’s hard to know if Oz is laughing at the reader.  Are we expected to believe that Shmuel will finally act out of character, actually realise ‘what he wanted‘ and make genuine steps towards achieving it?  Or is this one more mini-crisis in an already settled life, like Oblomov’s plans to get out of bed or my own optimistic spurts of gym membership?

Main character aside, the novel’s title reminds us that individuals can have epic importance on the course of history.  Shmuel’s research, in and out of university, is about Jesus and Judas, focusing heavily on their personalities and biographies; he’s not Christian, but is fascinated by the ideas of love, brotherhood, friendship and betrayal conveyed by these teaching and stories.  Thus, while aimlessly wandering round the divided city of Jerusalem (the book is set in the winter of 1959-60) Shmuel is able to bring a significant but very unusual perspective to the decade-old country in which he lives.  The State of Israel was founded in 1948 and much of the novel takes place in the grief-filled house once inhabited by the only member of the Zionist executive committee to oppose the creation of the State.  Oz’s fictional Shealtiel Abravanel believed that Jews and Arabs should live in peace in a country under international control.  There are clear parallels drawn between Abravanel and Judas and, while no easy answers are provided, the book painstakingly explores the idea of betrayal, belief and loyalty in uncomfortably personal detail.

It can be hard at times to see if ‘Judas’ is supposed to be a coming of age story, or a political, philosophical tract.  Shmuel included, all the characters are stuck in rigid repetitive routines which can be difficult to engage with, though their intense discussions are well worth reading.  With its complex ideas and sensitive view of humanity, this book will be welcomed by fans of Oz’s writing.  For newcomers, it is a good introduction to one of Israel’s most famous authors.

I received my copy of ‘Judas’ from the publisher via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Posted in Amos Oz, Man Booker International Prize 2017 | Tagged , , | 11 Comments

The Man Booker International Prize Shortlist

In 2015, ‘The Vegetarian‘ by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith) was one of my top reads of the year.  In 2016, it was rightly awarded the (newly reorganised) Man Booker International Prize.  In honour of those judges getting it so right, I have decided to give the 2017 prize my full attention.  Below is my summary of the shortlist, with full reviews to follow in the weeks leading up to the award ceremony.

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‘Compass’ by Mathias Enard (translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell) first grabbed my attention because it is attractively wrapped in a Fitzcarraldo Editions striking blue cover.  It is also one of the longer novels on the shortlist, an insomniac stream of musings and reminiscences as our narrator considers his past and present through an obsession with ‘Orientalism.’  Packed full with references to Western and Eastern literature, culture, history and art, the book literally orients itself around this longing to understand a constantly changing other.

download.jpgThe narrator of David Grossman’s latest novel (translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen) hates stand up comedy; the protagonist is a stand up comedian giving the performance of his life.  This short, frenetic novel follows the course of one night’s show, complete with jokes, slapstick and brutal emotional and physical violence.  A hypnotic tour-de-force, Grossman’s novel is both a masterful monologue on the part of the comic and a deeply moving reflection on trauma, love and loss.

 

download.jpgAfter all of my Nordic reading at the start of the this year, Roy Jacobsen’s ‘The Unseen’ (translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw) felt like very familiar territory.  It is set on an isolated archipelago, owned and inhabited by a single small family.  We follow the Barrøys through their joys and sorrows, through the good times and the bad.  Despite the fearsome odds stacked against them, from the punishing weather to the politics and corruption of the mainland, the book is a love song to a precarious yet beautiful way of life.

download-3.jpgOn the surface, ‘Mirror Shoulder Signal’ by Dorthe Nors (translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra) is about the trials and tribulations of forty-something Sonja as she tries to learn how to drive.  Underneath this surface, we’re made aware that driving (and the process of learning) is really a metaphor for modern day existence, navigating independence, unexpected obstacles and the isolation of contemporary urban life.  As an example of the sly humour that runs throughout, Sonja makes a living translating violent and phenomenally successful Scandi noir, (my favourite job of any protagonist on this shortlist).

download-1.jpgAmos Oz’s ‘Judas’ (translated by Nicholas de Lange) is set in Jerusalem in the winter of 1959-60.  As the divided city is contested around them, a small cast of characters try to work out their own conflicting loyalties to each other, their past and their present.  The main character is Shmuel, a young, lonely student who has dropped out of university half way through completing his research on Jesus (who fascinates him), and Judas (who intrigues him still more).  Shmuel finds himself living in a house where ideas of treachery, conflict and love have seeped into the very floorboards.  A philosophical and deeply personal novel.

download-2.jpgThe horror story, ‘Fever Dream,’ is every bit as nightmarish as the title suggests.  Samata Schweblin’s novel (translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell) is very hard to describe, partly because I don’t want to spoil the plot, but also because the story itself is terrifyingly vague.  Set in rural Argentina this is a story about the environment and pollution, about witchcraft and demons. Most of all, it is a story about a mother’s love for her child and a terrifying evocation of what can happen if this love is unbalanced.  Probably one of the most surprising novels on the shortlist; in my opinion, it is definitely one of the most impressive.

Posted in Book Lists, Man Booker International Prize 2017, Reading in translation | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A lesson in positive thinking: ‘All the Good Things’ by Clare Fisher

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I make no apologies for being mainly drawn to escapist comfort reading at the moment.  It has hampered my reviewing though, a real problem with most literary fiction is that it tends to depict sadness more than joy, despair more than hope.  It’s a rare book that manages to deal with weighty literary issues without getting drawn into the misery of it all.

‘All the Good Things’ by Clare Fisher is a delight in that it succeeds in playing both sides. The contents page reads as a list of ‘good things’ experienced by our narrator, including ‘When your mum wraps a scarf around your neck,’ ‘How cats can find sun to lie in, even on a cloudy day,’  ‘Friends you can be weird with’ and ‘When you’re so happy it hurts.’  It’s a list to warm anyone’s heart, as is the very first paragraph of the novel:

Of all the good things that have ever been in me, the first and the best is you.  Every single part of you, from your stroke-able earlobes to the hope curled up in your toes.  Remember that.  Remember it when the dickheads say you’re a bad or a so-what thing.  Remember it when you’re convinced the good things are jammed behind other people’s smiles.  Remember it the hardest when you feel like no thing at all.

As the opening lines show, this is a book about love and joy, with the knowledge that such moments are all the more precious for existing within a complicated, difficult world.  Our narrator Bethany is in prison, and consumed by guilt.  She is writing at the insistence of her counsellor; the exercise in positive thinking appears to be working for her, though it may have a very different impact on the reader.  It doesn’t take long before the narrative reveals the pitiful modesty of Beth’s accumulated ‘good things.’  The love she felt for her first foster father (before he and his wife conceived their own child and she was passed to another family), her timid exuberance on finally making a real friend at school (before being moved to Somerset on a ‘Fresh Start’ scheme), her pride on getting a minimum wage job at the Streatham Odeon are all evoked with delicacy and precision, making for an interesting comparsison with the angst of most literary protagonists.

There are so many things to admire about this debut, from the skilful management of the dual time frame to the sensitive presentation of social services to the brilliant depiction of South West London.  What I’ll be taking away however, is the power of a positive narrator describing distressing times and subject matter.  I’m well aware that I often delve into fiction in order to avoid facing the problems of life in the 21st century.  ‘All the Good Things’ has not been an escapist read, but it has been a valuable one, helping me see my world through new, and maybe better, eyes.

I received a copy of ‘All the Good Things’ from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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Period escapism: A Dance to the Music of Time (Part 1 – Spring) by Anthony Powell

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As I wrote earlier in the week, I’ve been very drawn to escapist literature at the moment.  Normally, this would mean binge-reading Agatha Christie, but I rather overdid things with the Queen of Crime during autumn (by which I mean, I’ve already re-read every book by her that I own).  Fortunately, lurking in my to-be-read pile was the perfect answer to my problem.

Anthony Powell’s ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’ is dated, elitist, concerned entirely with the problems of privileged white men and yet somehow it managed to utterly charm rather than infuriate me.  It may have been down to the hypnotically complex writing.  The incredibly long and involved sentences (often demanding re-reading) were somehow wonderfully reassuring.  There was no way I would be able to race though these novels as I too often do with period escapism.  Once I’d unpicked all the clauses, the paragraphs revealed themselves as mountains of gentle satire, politely but inexorably mocking everything described.

The main character in these books seems to be the unpopular but obstinately ambitious Widmerpool, a pitiable outsider at school who is nonetheless an object of fascination for Nick Jenkins, the narrator.  After the ‘Stalky and Co’ antics of the schooldays, we next meet Widmerpool in France, where he and Jenkins end up in the same boarding house.  Remaining true to unpopular, obstinate type, Widmerpool insists on them taking advantage of the educational opportunity: ‘In spite of inherent difficulty in making words sound like French, he had acquired a large vocabulary, and could carry on a conversation adequately, provided he could think of something to say; for I found that he had no interest in anything that could not be labelled as in some way important or improving, an approach to conversation that naturally limited its scope.

During the next two books that make up the ‘Spring’ volume of the twelve novel series, Jenkins’ adventures in the adult world are punctuated by encounters with Widmerpool.  Whether falling in love with 1920s ‘bright young things,’ causing social embarrassment at his employer’s country home or giving the worst after-dinner speeches in a novel filled with pontificating bores, Widmerpool is an important if charmless antidote to the laissez faire confidence of most his peers.  I’m already cringing at the though of what could happen to him in the ‘Summer’ trio of novels.

Aside from this clumsy anti-hero, the books luxuriate in a wealth of incidental characters.  The cast of lovers, benefactors, eccentrics, wastrels, millionaires and snobs are worthy of Dickens or Thackeray.  The literary parallels are nearly unending, with university scenes that could have been lifted straight from Evelyn Waugh and musings on memory that deliberately evoke Proust.

I can’t wait to move on to the Summer novels, the sudden heat-wave only makes such reading more appealing!  I’m going to pace myself though.  Handled with care, I reckon on ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’ lasting me all year, at the measured rate of a book a month.  It’s certainly been the perfect period read for 2017 so far and I have every confidence that each volume will only add to my enjoyment.

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Past and present: ‘The Dark Circle’ by Linda Grant

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With the exception of prize shortlist reading, the only books that seem to be grabbing my attention at the moment are those promising cosy escapism.  I want to spend my leisure time in a different time, where the problems seem less pressing and the concerns refreshingly removed from those of 2017 England.  Based on this premise, ‘The Dark Circle’ by Linda Grant, set nearly entirely within a 1950s TB sanatorium, seemed to be the perfect bridge between my Bailey’s and my comfort reading.  Or so I told myself when I started the novel.  Of course, this being Linda Grant, nothing is quite that simple, and her novel makes it clear quite how much the past can be seen reflecting and impacting on the present.

Reminding us that we aren’t the first period of Brits to be consumed with discontent, the book begins with a precise evocation of the post-war setting:

London.  Big black old place, falling down, hardly any colour apart from a woman’s red hat going into the chemist with her string bag, and if you looked carefully, bottle-green leather shoes on that girl, but mostly grey and beige and black and mud-coloured people with dirty hair and unwashed shirt collars, because everything is short, soap is short, sex is short, and no one on the street is laughing so jokes must be short too.  Four years after the war and still everything is up shit creek.

For all the depressing sameness of it all however, there are clear indications that times are a-changing.  For a start, when the colourful Lenny and Miriam are diagnosed with TB this no longer means a slow death in the East End slums, but a chance to escape the smog and the rationing through entry to a TB sanatorium down in Kent, recently taken over by the one-year-old NHS and forced to open its doors to non fee-paying patients.

As anyone familiar with such institutions in literature will know, along with the promise of treatment come all kinds of emotional and physical restrictions.  From ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ to ‘The Magic Mountain’ we are conditioned to expected frightening controlling staff and disturbingly passive patients.  True to its literary roots and to Grant’s exemplary research, the Gwendolyn Downie Memorial Hospital for the Care of Chronic Cases of Tuberculos (‘Gwendo’ for short) is is a nightmarish place.  Built to be modern and comfortable, it is nonetheless imbued with the fatalism of its inmates, from the mortally ill Air Force officers to the ‘mothers’ club’ (who even have their own additional rules, number 1 being ‘never give way to self-pity’).

Lenny and Miriam are unusual patients.  As well as being ‘common as muck‘ they refuse to join the tradition of accepting, patient patients.  It is also clear that they are only part of a change in society that even the insular Gwendo cannot avoid.  A sexy American merchant seaman arrives, with a suitcase of hit music, a taste for anarchy and a refusal to be cowed.  Meanwhile, in the wider world, there are rumours of a cure for tuberculosis – threatening to bring down the Gwendo from without.

Echoing the way the plot straddles the claustrophobic life within the sanatarium and the new possibilities outside it, the book itself seems to balance precariously between the 1950s and 2017.  If there is a hero in the book, it has to be the NHS which in 1957 ‘embarked on one of the greatest public health programmes the country had ever known … the sick – men and women and children who didn’t even know they were ill … were identified, sent off for treatment and the disease was on the verge of complete extinction.‘  Given the current crises in the NHS, this is a timely reminder of how it started and the wonders it has achieved.  All that, and a brilliant take on the classic claustrophobic institution narrative.  A timely, and extremely engaging, way to round off my Bailey’s shortlist reviews.

Posted in Baileys Prize, Linda Grant | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

A Modern Classic: ‘The Power’ by Naomi Alderman

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Every now and then you come across a book that feels like a modern classic.  It doesn’t happen often.  The only real example I can think of is when I encountered ‘Citizen‘ by Claudia Rankine; I knew I was reading a book that would feature in Literature and Culture university courses in years to come.  A book that not only captures an era but will also speak to future generations about what that era felt like to those living within it.

I had not expected anything on this level from Alderman’s latest novel.  This isn’t to say that I didn’t have faith in her ability to tell a story and to write brilliantly, just that an explicitly Feminist work of speculative fiction (written by an author who has been mentored by Margaret Atwood), didn’t, on the surface, seem all that new.  I couldn’t question the importance of the themes, but I’m afraid I wasn’t convinced that the argument had moved on, at least not for reader like myself, who spent her teenage years steeped in second wave Feminist classics.

‘The Power’ is framed by a series of letters in which ‘Neil Adam Armon’ writes to ‘Naomi’ from ‘The Men Writers Association,’ sycophantically pitching his historical novel.  It’s all extremely knowing and clever, and it’s very hard to ignore comparisons with ‘The Handmaid’s Tale.’  Once the body of the novel starts however, Alderman shows that she is writing her own story, and it’s very different, though no less disturbing, than Atwood’s 1980s dystopia.

The premise is simple.  Girls around the world have suddenly developed a power which means they are now stronger than boys and  men.  They can transmit this power to women, and the novel begins to set out a very convincing case that all our concepts of gender come down to who has the strength to hurt the other.  Without going into details, the tables are also turned when it comes to sex, with women being easily able to threaten and abuse men.  Thus one of the four protagonists, an ambitious male reporter, realises that it takes a whole new level of courage to run towards a conflict when there is a very real probability of rape if you end up separated from your protectors.  We’re soon shown that this new power isn’t just physical, but an emotional, spiritual and cultural force.  The book covers cults, internet trolls and high-stakes players in power politics, looking at the terrifying ways in which they respond to this new reality.

I don’t want to spoil the conclusion the book reaches, or even all the fascinating questions it asks.  All I’ll say is that it made me question the world I live in and the assumptions it is so easy to take for granted.  It will be for future students to write essays on ‘The Power’, exploring the characters, themes and plot twists.  Alderman seems to take in every facet of modern life, from the terrors of slavery and the sex trade to the pretty young man who does the human interest stories on the news (‘The network had found him.  Just trying something out.  While we’re at it, Kristen, why don’t you wear your glasses onscreen now, it’ll give you gravitas.  We’re going to see how the numbers play out this way’).  ‘The Power’ is a book which knows its literary heritage, but also knows that there are new stories to be told and new places for novels to go.  It deserves to win The Bailey’s Prize and, whether it does or not, it is going to a book with a lasting legacy and an important message for readers today and in the future.

Posted in Baileys Prize, Naomi Alderman | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments