Everything I Don’t Remember by Jonas Hassen Khemiri (translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles: A story in many voices

Cover imageWhat attracted me to Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s prize-winning novel was its structure. It’s the story of a young man who dies one April afternoon in Stockholm, his car wrecked in a crash which some speculate may have been suicide, others are sure was an accident. Khemiri tells Samuel’s story through a series of interviews with those who knew him – some fleetingly, others intimately – conducted by an author planning to write a book about him.

Samuel is an administrator at the Migration Board. It’s not the job he dreamt of as an undergraduate hoping to change the world but bills have to be paid. He has a little trouble with his memory, worries about his grandmother’s dementia and sometimes does outlandish things, adding to his Experience Bank. When he meets Vandad they seem to hit it off and soon he’s moved in with his new friend, so different from Samuel with his bulky body and shady dealings. When Samuel falls in love with the idealistic, politically active Laide, Vandad looking jealously on. Samuel opens the doors of his grandmother’s house first to one of Laide’s women in trouble, then another and before long things have got out of hand. As the year rolls on, Vandad becomes increasingly resentful, Laide’s possessiveness becomes more apparent and Samuel finds himself caught in the middle. One spring day, Samuel takes his grandmother for a driving assessment, delivers her back to her nursing home then – late for work – jumps into her car and drives off. This is the bare outline of Samuel’s story, fleshed out through the many interviews our nameless writer records with those that knew Samuel, each with their own version to tell.

Given that the novel is a made up of interwoven fragments it’s remarkably cohesive, not to mention utterly addictive. Each of the many interviewees unwittingly lets slip small details about themselves, colouring their version of events. As the writer tightens his focus on the two who were closest to Samuel, each conveys a very different view both of each other and the events of the past year. Memory, perception, love and its very different interpretations, underpin Khemiri’s novel which plays out against a backdrop of a Sweden far from comfortable with its new multicultural identity, a theme which hums in a subtle undercurrent beneath Samuel’s story. It’s an immensely enjoyable book, cleverly constructed and completely engrossing. Khemiri has written three other novels, none of which seem to be available in translation as far as I can see. I hope that will be put right soon.

Muse by Jonathan Galassi: Adventures in the publishing world

Cover imageI’d been looking forward to Jonathan Galassi’s novel, smacking my lips over the idea of a treat not to mention an escape from the ‘hell in a hand cart’ news we seemed to be drowning in. It’s all about the book world and what could be more comforting than that? Paul Dukach, the misfit in a family of beefy athletes, conceives a lifelong passion for Ida Perkins’ poetry as a teenager. By the end of the book Paul will have fulfilled his wildest dreams but not without a twinge or two of conscience. Galassi is a poet and one of the head honchos at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. He knows a thing or three about Paul’s world.

Thanks to the well-connected Morgan, who introduces him to Ida’s work, Paul finds his way into the New York publishing world, soon gaining a reputation for his sharp editorial eye. He’s offered a job by Homer Stern, the louche, foul-mouthed owner of Purcell and Stern, one of the city’s two most revered literary publishing houses, its lists stuffed full of Nobel Prize winners. Paul would like nothing more than to publish Ida’s poetry but Homer’s rival, Sterling Wainwright, has an iron grip on the rights to it. Over the years, as Paul gains a reputation as one of New York’s finest editors, he becomes Sterling’s friend, privy to his stories about Ida and fellow poet Arnold Outerbridge, one of her many lovers. Through Sterling, Paul is given an introduction to his idol and after an afternoon spent listening to her stories finds himself presented with an astonishing proposition which pitches him onto the horns of a dilemma. Galassi’s smart, funny novel takes us into the world of literary publishing, replete with gossipy detail and sharply observed satire while posing questions about the nature of literary fame.

Beginning with a brief biography of Ida Perkins and ending with a bibliography of her work, Muse had me half-believing that I might somehow have managed not to hear about this celebrated poet. Of course, she doesn’t exist – a bit like the theremin playing Lena in The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt and just as cleverly drawn. Nothing like an insider to poke the sharpest fun and there’s a good deal to amuse here – thumbnail (possibly heartfelt) sketches of egotistical, needy authors; a biting description of the Frankfurt book fair that may raise a few blushes in publishing circles – with sharply funny lines peppered throughout. Paul’s moral dilemma is a little too conveniently resolved but that said it’s a brilliant piece of entertainment for anyone who’s interested in the machinations of the book world. Had I been an American there would have been the added spice of working out who was who although when Medusa rears its ugly head you don’t need to be a genius to realise who Galassi has in his sights. Hugely entertaining, then, and a much-needed escape for me. Poets who wince at the line: ‘Who was it who said the reason there’s so much backbiting among poets is because there’s so little at stake’ can take comfort from the knowledge that it was Kissinger and he was talking about academics rather than poets. It’s often quoted in this house.

Paperbacks to Look Out For in August 2016

Cover imageSeveral jewels to look out for in August’s paperback crown, starting with one of the best books I’ve read this year: Merritt Tierce’s debut Love Me Back. It’s the story of Marie who makes her living waiting tables at a classy Dallas steakhouse. Coolly collected, beautifully turned out in her starched bistro apron and meticulously pressed shirt, Marie is the reliable one, always stepping in to fill a shift vacancy but careful to dodge any chance of promotion so that she can spend weekends with her daughter. Beneath her apparently calm exterior she struggles to keep herself together, unable to resist the welcome numbing of drugs, self-harm and the kind of sex that leaves her empty. That may not sound the stuff of literary excellence but believe me that’s what Tierce fashions it into. Altogether a startlingly accomplished debut – compulsively addictive. I’m looking forward to seeing what she comes up with next.

Lucia Berlin would have been all too familiar with the seamier side of work, fitting her stories around a multitude of jobs from teaching English to cleaning houses. She died in 2004 having written intermittently over a long period stretching back to the ‘60s. A Manual for Cleaning Women, a collection of her stories which draw heavily on her own life, was published last year to enormous and well deserved acclaim. There’s a striking immediacy in her short, crisp, carefully constructed sentences – from the graphic, panicky tooth extraction of ‘Doctor H. A. Moynihan’ to the gentleness of drunks recognising desperation in ‘Unmanageable’. Her material is often raw but there’s always a wry humour in her delivery. Without wanting to be a proselytising zealot, I’ll just say that this collection played a large part in converting me to the pleasure of reading short stories.

Written in a lighthearted, mischievous style Grégoire Delacourt’s The First Thing You See is Cover imageentirely different but succeeds in delivering quite a punch. When he hears a knock at his door, twenty-year-old Arthur Drefuss hauls himself off the sofa – mid-Sopranos – only to find Scarlett Johansson on his doorstep. Granted she looks a little bedraggled but she’s as stunningly beautiful both in face and figure as she is on-screen. Of course it’s nor Ms Johansson who, it turns out, didn’t like the idea of this book at all, managing to delay its publication for quite some time. Delacourt avoids the maudlin, keeping his tone light and witty apart from rare moments of sadness in this fable-like novel which puts our adulation of physical beauty, celebrity and the nature of desire in an unflattering spotlight. It’s a little gem.

I’ve yet to get my hands on the following four starting with Jenni Fagan’s The Sunlight Pilgrims. Anais, the main protagonist of Fagan’s debut, The Panopticon, was one of those characters who stayed with me for quite some time: bright, sassy and fierce – she was extraordinarily vividly drawn. I’m hoping for something similar with this one which seems to be set in the near future on a Scottish caravan park. It tells the story of a small community who are beginning to think that the freak weather spells the end of the world. Strange things are happening, the economy has collapsed and public services are in the hands of volunteers. I’m not a fan of dystopian fiction but Fagan’s writing is so striking that I’ll be making an exception for this one.

I tend not to be a fan of historical novels, either, but Naomi J. Williams’ debut Landfalls has a very attractive structure. Set on board two ships which set sail from France in 1785 on a voyage of scientific and geographical discovery returning four years later, it’s told from the perspective of different characters, all of whom have their own agenda, taking its readers from a remote Alaskan bay, where tragedy hits, to St Petersburg. It all sounds very ambitious but if it comes off I think this could be a very absorbing novel.

The Private Life of Mrs SharmaMy last August choice is here thanks to Naomi’s description of it as ‘as close to perfect as it gets’ over at The Writes of Women. In Ratika Kapur’s The Private Life of Mrs Sharma, Renuka keeps the household afloat while her husband works in Dubai. All seems on track for her aspirations to the New Indian Dream until she finds herself chatting to a stranger, wondering if it might not be time to shrug off the calls of duty a little. The publishers describe it as ‘a sharp-eyed examination of the clashing of tradition and modernity, from a dramatic new voice in Indian fiction’ but you might like to take a look at Naomi’s review.

That’s it for August. A click on a title will take you to my reviews for the first three, to Waterstones website for a fuller synopsis for the next two and to The Writes of Women for Naomi’s review of the last one. And if you want to catch up with August’s hardback delights they’re here and here.

Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett: The ties that bind stretched too far

Cover imageMuch lauded by the likes of Peter Carey and Colum McCann, Adam Haslett’s Imagine Me Gone is a nuanced portrait of a family trying to cope with the emotional depredations caused by not one but two of its members grappling with mental illness. It follows the family from its beginnings when Margaret and John meet at a party in 1960s London to the present day and a new start.

Almost two years after that first meeting, Margaret returns from visiting her parents in America to find that John has been admitted to a psychiatric hospital. This is not his first episode of mental illness: he suffered a breakdown when he was a student at Oxford but has told Margaret nothing about it. Undeterred and in love, Margaret marries him gritting her teeth in the face of his mother’s chilly welcome into the family.  We first meet her seventeen years after that London party, living in a small New England town. She and John have three children: Michael, the eldest, precocious, endlessly talkative but inward looking; Celia, the sharply intelligent middle child in alliance with Michael against Alec, the butt of his older brother’s constant barbs. They live in a rented house – their belongings in storage in England until John’s American assignment is finished – and holiday in a borrowed cabin in Maine. When a second job in the UK comes to an end, the family is uprooted again but Michael begs to return to London, apparently to complete his schooling with friends. While Michael is in England, John’s health spirals into a catastrophic decline. As the family struggles to recover from this crushing blow, it becomes clear that Michael is bedevilled by his own illness. Having begun with a painful loss, the novel ends on a note of hope with a new start and the hope of recovery.

Haslett narrates his novel through the voices of the five family members, flitting back and forth over the decades since Margaret and John first met. Each character’s voice sings out strongly, offering their own insight into the family’s story and the ways in which John’s and Michael’s illnesses have played into their lives and relationships. Alec is uncomfortable with intimacy, Celia works as a youth counsellor and convinces herself that her partner will leave her while Margaret finds herself cast in a caring role after years of denial. Haslett’s writing is striking: ‘I’m not a doll in the house of my mother’s imaginings’ thinks the young Margaret, a continent away from home. The loneliness of mental illness is captured vividly in John: ‘The monster you lie with is your own. The struggle endlessly private’. The quiet divvying up between siblings is beautifully caught in Alec’s relationship with Celia: ‘We monitored each other’s responsibility for the family, watchful for any sign of defection, as though we were on a desert island together, each surreptitiously building an escape raft that the other occasionally burned’. Michael’s increasingly manic sections are darkly funny, becoming sharply poignant as his illness takes hold and his medication fails. It’s a carefully layered construction, both wrenching and convincing. Those of us blessed with good mental health should count our lucky stars.

The Girls by Emma Cline: Time for girls to become women

Cover imageThe Girls is another one of those novels about which there’s been a good deal of brouhaha – lots of Twitter love and advance anticipation for months – but like The Nest and The Essex Serpent, similarly lauded to the skies, it succeeds in living up to all that hype. I’m going to have to think about putting my sceptical hat into storage if this carries on. As you may already know, Emma Cline’s debut is loosely based on the infamous exploits of the cult which became known as the Manson Family, several of whose members committed the shocking murder of Sharon Tate – eight months pregnant with Roman Polanski’s son – and her friends in 1969.

One day in a Californian park, fourteen-year-old Evie Boyd catches sight of a group of girls flaunting their tatty splendour and laughing in the faces of the staring locals, her attention snagged by the dark-haired one she will later know as Suzanne. Evie’s parents have recently divorced and her unquestioning love for her mother has soured into adolescent scorn. She and her best friend Connie are inseparable but Evie is tired of her prosaic smalltown life. When Evie spots Suzanne, thrown out of the local supermarket, she seizes her chance and finds herself invited to a summer solstice party. Soon she’s is a frequent visitor to the dilapidated ranch where the charismatic Russell holds sway over a collection of runaways, living off the donations of rock star Mitch Lewis and whatever they can filch from the town. When Russell’s ambitions to secure a record deal are thwarted, the mood at the ranch changes. The violence Evie has briefly seen but excused to herself becomes more tangible. Now middle-aged, living on the fringes of other people’s lives, Evie looks back on the events of 1969 as she watches an old friend’s young son and his besotted girlfriend.

The strength of Cline’s novel lies in her portrayal of adolescent girls on the brink of discovering their sexual power, vulnerable and constantly judging themselves and other women by the way they look. Their awkwardness, self-absorption and craving for the slightest sliver of recognition is painfully caught: ‘We were like conspiracy theorists, seeing portent and intention in every detail, wishing desperately that we mattered enough to be the object of planning and speculation. But they were just boys. Silly young and straightforward; they weren’t hiding anything.’ Lonely and eager, Evie is ripe for Suzanne’s attention – her uncritical adulation tinged with desire all too believable. Cline wisely keeps her as a bit-player at the ranch, engaging our sympathy and making her a credible witness. The murders are foreshadowed with enough suspense to make it gripping but this is a character-driven novel – the killings and their immediate aftermath take up very little of it. It’s both absorbing and thought-provoking, a little overwritten in places for me – a few too many similes – but that’s a small criticism. As Evie looks back on that summer, watching Sasha subsume herself in Julian’s scant regard, hoping for another glimpse of the sassy young woman who emerged briefly in his absence, you long for all young girls to shrug off their girlhood and become women, happy in their own skins, regardless of who looks at them.

My 2016 Man Booker wish list

Man Booker logoIt’s that time of year again. I had thought I might ignore the whole kit and caboodle this time around but I was prodded into action by an analysis of trends in Man Booker winners subtitled ‘Male and Middle-aged in Third Person. On that basis mine is a list of no-hopers, or close to it, with just two men making the grade and only one of those middle-aged. It wasn’t planned that way just the way this year’s cookie crumbled. That said, isn’t it about time that the judges paid a little more attention? Or perhaps that should be publishers. They, after all, are the ones who nominate titles to be considered, aside from the odd one or two that the judges call in. And while we’re on that subject, why is it that the more titles a publisher has longlisted in previous years, the more they’re allowed to nominate in following years? Seems to favour the big boys and girls to me.

Like the judges I’ve allowed myself twelve books, although they sometimes stretch to thirteen. It’s quite possible that I’ll read a gem I’d loved to have included published before 30th September – Sara Taylor’s The Lauras, for instance or Ron Rash’s Above the Waterfall – but I’m determined to include only the tried and tested. The judges will reveal their list on Wednesday 27th July but here’s mine – wishes not predictions, see above – in no particular order, with links to my reviews:

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The Book of Memory                     Undermajordomo Minor              The Long Room

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Exposure                                            Under the Visible Life               My Name is Lucy Barton

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What Belongs to You                   The Cauliflower                         The Gun Room

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The Essex Serpent                           The Crime Writer                     The Tidal Zone

What about you? What would you like to see on the list, and what do you think the judges will plump for?

Books to Look Out For in August 2016: Part 2

Cover imageThe first selection of August titles I have my eye on were all about the USA. This one ranges further afield, heading south first with Clancy Martin’s Love in Central America. Brett embarks on a passionate, destructive affair with her husband’s friend which sees her slipping away for weeks with her lover and blacking out in hotels. Brett knows what she’s doing but finds it impossible to stop. Included in the publisher’s blurb is this sharp little quote – ‘Cheating on your husband is like doing cocaine… …It’s rarely a pleasure, but try quitting’ – which is enough to sell the novel to me, and that is such a stylish jacket.

Off to Spain but still in the land of relationships, Gonzalo Torné’s Divorce is in the Air sees Joan-Marc telling his estranged second wife all about his past, beginning with the breakdown of his first marriage and the holiday that was meant to save it. As the story of his life unfolds in a series of flashbacks we learn of his first sexual encounter, his father’s suicide and his mother’s breakdown. Described by the publisher as ‘an unapologetic exploration of memory, nostalgia, romance, the ways in which the past takes hold – a powerful portrait of a man struggling with his illusions about life and love’ this is the first novel by Torné to be translated in to English and sounds very promising.Cover image

Helen Sedgwick’s The Comet Seekers takes us to Antarctica where Róisín and François meet for the first time. Róisín is from an Irish hamlet, passionate about science. François was raised by his beautiful young mother, unable to turn her back on her past. Their stories unfold separately, joining only when a comet is visible in the sky. ‘Theirs are stories filled with love and hope and heartbreak, that show how strangers can be connected and ghosts can be real, and the world can be as lonely or as beautiful as the comets themselves’ say the publishers in a somewhat overblown blurb. There’s a great deal of pre-publicity hoo-ha about this one which doesn’t always bode well but both the setting and the parallel story idea appeal.

Cover imageAnd finally, on surer ground, Joan London’s The Golden Age takes us to Australia where thirteen-year-old Frank Gold’s family have escaped Second World War Hungary. Frank is sent to the eponymous hospital shortly after they arrive, diagnosed with polio. There he meets and falls in love with Elsa, scandalising the staff. Meanwhile Frank’s parents struggle with finding their way in this strange new place, so different from the country they’ve fled. ‘With tenderness and humor, The Golden Age tells a deeply moving story about illness and recovery. It is a book about learning to navigate the unfamiliar, about embracing music, poetry, death, and, most importantly, life’ say the publishers. I’ve enjoyed London’s previous novels very much so have high hopes for this one.

That’s it for August’s new novels. As ever, a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis, and if you’d like to catch up with part one here it is. Paperbacks soon…