Moonstone by Sjón (translated by Victoria Cribb): The Boy Who Never Was

Cover imageWhen I included Moonstone in one of my June previews I was surprised when several people picked up on it, already acquainted with Sjón’s writing either through a previous novel or from songs he’d written with Björk. He’s a talented guy: an award-winning novelist, poet, playwright and librettist. I wish I could say that I knew all about him already but it was Moonstone’s synopsis that drew me to it rather than Sjón’s reputation. Set in 1918 in Reykjavík, this fable-like novella follows sixteen-year-old orphan Máni Steinn – the eponymous Moonstone – over the three months that Spanish influenza rages through Iceland’s capital.

Máni is so obsessed with the movies that he visits both of Reykjavík’s cinemas, sometimes twice a day. It’s an expensive business but Máni turns tricks to fund his habit, visiting various “gentlemen” throughout the city, all very furtive about their predilections. He’s transfixed by Sólborg Gudbjörnsdóttir who zooms around the city on her red Indian motorcycle, dressed in black leathers, the very image of Musidora, the star of Máni’s favourite movie – Feuillde’s epic, Les Vampires. When she tosses  her scarlet scarf to him, it becomes his most prized possession. Máni’s routine is shattered when a Danish passenger ship docks in the city bringing influenza with it. Soon both movie houses fall silent as the musicians succumb to the disease. As the fatalities mount, the only doctor left standing recruits Máni and Sólborg to make house visits, carting the bodies to the mortuary and tending the sick. The beginning of the new year, almost three months after the epidemic began, marks the beginning of Icelandic sovereignty celebrated with great ceremony on January 1st, 1919, a day which ends in disgrace for Máni. Eleven years later, he returns to the city.

There’s a gorgeously poetic, dreamlike quality to this slim novella. As you might expect from a writer who seems to excel in whichever form he chooses, the writing is striking. For the illiterate Máni: ‘the letters of the alphabet disguise themselves before his eyes, glide between lines, switch roles in the middle of a word’. When the outside world impinges on Iceland in the form of influenza: ‘The silver screen has torn and a draught is blowing between the worlds’. You could call it an adult fairy tale but Sjón blends fact with fiction including a multitude of filmic references and historic events. Its ending is extraordinarily beautiful – both fantastical and moving. In the final paragraph we learn that the book is dedicated to the memory of Sjón‘s uncle, Bósi – ‘sailor, alcoholic, booklover, socialist and gay’ – who died from AIDS in 1993, making it all the more poignant. Kudos to Victoria Cribb for such a sensitive translation of a remarkable piece of writing.

Paperbacks to Look Out For in July 2016

Cover imageI’ll start July’s paperback selection with my favourite of the three I’ve already read. Set in Morocco, Vendela Vida’s The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty takes us on a nail-biting journey wondering what our resourceful protagonist will come up with next. Exhausted after her long sleepless flight and preoccupied by problems at home, she finds herself in a Kafkaesque nightmare with no ID, credit cards cancelled and no cash after her backpack is snatched. When, after a fretful night, the chief of police hands her a black backpack she accepts it knowing that it’s not hers, nor is the passport or the credit cards she finds in it, but seeing a way out of her predicament. What follows is a somewhat improbable but thoroughly entertaining sequence of events as our nameless protagonist slides deeper and deeper into a quagmire of lies.

Vida’s writing was new to me but I’ve been reading Andrew Miller’s novels since the publication of his excellent debut, Ingenious Pain. He’s never quite matched that for me but it hasn’t stopped me looking forward to whatever he comes up with next. The Crossing opens with a young man and woman repairing a boat, both members of their university sailing club. They’re not a couple but Tim has it in the back of his mind that he’ll sleep with Maud before too long. Suddenly, Maud flips off the boat and lands on her head – for one long moment it seems she’s dead – then she gets up and walks away. Tim somehow feels responsible following her home and later conceiving a passion for her. Written in short, crisp sentences from which the occasional startlingly sharp image leaps out, The Crossing feels very different from any of Miller’s previous novels. It had me gripped throughout but left me puzzled.Cover image

Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, is also about a marriage but not just any old run-of-the-mill, everyday sort of marriage: Lotto and Mathilde are a shiny beacon of the perfect relationship but as we all know that can’t be true. The novel’s two-part structure – first the Fates then the Furies – sets us up for dramatic revelations, presenting an apparently idyllic relationship seen through both parties’ very different eyes. It’s stuffed full of little side stories, some of which go nowhere, some of which are picked up again and sewn neatly in. Groff’s baggy, extravagant, almost baroque writing is the antithesis of the spare elegance I so admire in the likes of Colm Tóibin, Kent Haruf and John McGahern yet there’s something about it that sucks me in. Not an unalloyed joy – it’s far too long – but it’s an absorbing, intriguing novel.

Jonathan Galassi’s Muse looks irresistible: its setting, subject and jacket tick all the boxes for me. Paul Dukach is in line to take over one of the last independent publishing houses in New York and is being shown the ropes, from navigating the choppy waters of the Frankfurt book fair to the wooing of authors renowned for their delicate egos. Paul has become obsessed with Ida Perkins, a star of literary New York, whose lover and longtime publisher is Paul’s boss’s biggest rival. ‘Enriched by juicy details only a quintessential insider could know, written with both satiric sharpness and sensitivity, Muse is a love letter to the people who write, sell – and, above all, read – the books that shape our lives’ says the publisher. See what I mean by irresistible…

Cover imageEnding on a very different note, Walter Kempowski’s All for Nothing takes us to rural East Prussia in January 1945 where the wealthy von Globigs have hidden themselves away from the horrors taking place on their doorstep. When they take in a stranger it seems that they will finally have to face the consequences of the war. ‘Profoundly evocative of the period, sympathetic yet painfully honest about the motivations of its characters, All for Nothing is a devastating portrait of the complicities and denials of the German people as the Third Reich comes to an end’ says the publisher. The novel is translated by Anthea Bell which makes it well worth a look for me.

That’s it for July. As ever, if you’d like to know more a click on a title will take you to my review for the novels I’ve read and to a more detailed synopsis for the ones I haven’t. if you’d like to catch up with the hardback selections they’re here and here.

Books to Look Out For in July 2016: Part 2

Cover imageThis second batch of July books kicks off with two novels which have the 2008 global financial crisis and its far-reaching consequences as their backdrop. In Rafael Chirbes’ On the Edge a decomposed corpse is found on the outskirts of Olba, home to Esteban whose factory is a casualty of the crash which has devastated the small Spanish town. Left penniless and in sole charge of his invalid father, Esteban tells his own story interwoven with the voices of others whose lives have also been ruined. Lest that all sounds too bleak for you, we are promised the hope of ‘a new vitality’ by the publishers. Chirbes’ novel won the Spanish National Prize for Literature in 2014 but it was Colm Tóibin’s recommendation that made me sit up and take notice.

Michael Collins’ The Death of All Things Seen is set in a Chicago ringing with the clarion call of ‘Yes, We can!’ despite the financial crisis playing havoc with people’s lives. After the suicide of a woman in her sixties suffering from cancer, her long hidden affair with a highly respected pillar of the Chicago community is revealed. The sons of both families find themselves searching for the truth behind this bombshell that’s been dropped on them. Sounds to me like something to get your teeth into.

War and its aftermath is the theme which links the next two. There seems to be a bit Cover imageof a trend for novels whose main protagonist is a war photographer – Pat Barker’s Double Vision, Catherine Hall’s The Repercussions and Georgina Harding’s The Gun Room to name but a few. With its moral dilemmas and emotional scars, it offers fertile territory for fiction to explore. Emma Chapman’s The Last Photograph has a man who photographed the Vietnam War returning to the country he last saw fifty years ago after he’s widowed. His wife’s death has forced him to look at his past and the way in which he has been affected by it not least, presumably, because his first act on discovering her body is to position it, check the light then photograph it. This sounds such a striking start to a novel that I’m expecting great things.

In Sean O’Brien’s Once Again Assembled Here  Stephen Maxwell has recently retired from teaching history at the minor public school, steeped in military tradition, he attended himself. As he writes the school’s official history he reveals how, forty years ago, a secret conflict played out during the Second World War came to be re-enacted among staff and pupils when fascism once more reared its ugly head with appalling results. I’m not entirely sure about that premise but O’Brien’s award winning poetry is rated highly by the likes of Helen Dunmore, and I’ve a soft spot for novels by poets.

Cover imageThis final choice is entirely different from the previous four, no connecting theme whatsoever, but it sounds intriguing. In Donald Ray Pollock’s The Heavenly Table, three young Georgia sharecroppers find themselves liberated from their domineering father when he dies unexpectedly. Inspired by a cheap dime store novel that only one of them can read, they set off on a robbing and looting spree hotly pursued by the authorities who paint them as far more fearsome than they are. According to the publishers ‘The Heavenly Table is gritty, electrifying and weirdly funny.’ All of which makes it sounds well worth investigating, and that’s a great pulp fiction style jacket.

That’s it for July. As ever, a click on any of the titles will take you to a fuller synopsis, and if you’d like to catch up with part one, here it is. Paperbacks shortly….

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry: A surefire prize winner

Cover imageRegular readers may have gathered by now how I feel about Twitter hype. All too often it leads to disappointment. Having already read and admired After Me Comes the Flood, though, it seemed likely that at least some of the love being poured on Sara Perry’s second novel was entirely genuine, and so it proved to be. It’s now joined the select band of the best books I’ve read in 2016. Set in 1885, it’s the tale of a small group of people each of whom comes to their own conclusions about a winged serpent, first seen in 1669 and now thought to be roaming the marshes around the village of Aldwinter.

On New Year’s Eve, a young man – somewhat the worse for wear – staggers home from the pub and wonders about taking a dip in the Blackwater River. Next morning, he’s found with his head twisted round a hundred and eighty degrees, drowned in the mud. Soon rumours circulate about the Essex Serpent, back stalking the marshes and wreaking havoc, killing a goat here, drowning another young man there. Will Ransome, the local parson, refuses to preach from the pulpit about this monstrous apparition, despite the increasing collective hysteria taking hold of his congregation. A man of faith, he’s well acquainted with current theories of science and rationality, convinced there’s a perfectly logical explanation. To preach about it would be to taint God with superstition. In London, the newly widowed Cora Seagrove hears of the serpent and thinks it may be a ‘living fossil’. Liberated from the constant cruelty of her husband she decides to take her son and his nanny – Cora’s dear companion – to Colchester where she bumps into old friends who suggest she stays with the Ransome family in Aldwinter. Unbeknownst to her, Cora has already met Will, although hardly in the best of circumstances. When they meet again, it’s as if there’s a flash of understanding between them. So begins a passionate friendship in which these two will debate all manner of things.

The Essex Serpent is a novel of ideas all wrapped up in a stonkingly good bit of storytelling and gorgeously vivid prose. All those nineteenth-century themes are present, correct and deftly woven in: science, religion, medical advance, philanthropy, education and above all, women’s place in society. Distant echoes of our own world sound throughout – veterans of another Afghan war on London’s streets, a chasm between the rich and the poor. Perry’s characters are vividly drawn: Cora is a triumph with her constantly questing curiosity, her openness to the world, uncaring about what others think of her tramping across the marshes in her mannish clothes. The relationship between Cora and Will could easily have descended into melodrama but Perry is far too clever for that, neatly avoiding a clichéd ending. The opening chapter with its repetition of ‘time’ calling to mind ‘fog’ in Bleak House feels like a nod to Dickens as do several characters – Charles Ambrose, the rich benefactor who assuages his guilt but has no wish to sully his hands with the poor, and Thomas Taylor, the beggar who carefully composes his face so as to best rook passers-by – but while comparisons with Dickens seem apt there’s nothing of the caricature about Perry’s well-rounded characters, nothing simplified about the ideas Will and Cora debate. It’s hard not to gush about this novel. It’s a glittering, thought-provoking and marvellous piece of fiction. Surely impossible for it not to be garlanded with prizes.

A (Mostly Wet) Week in Herefordshire and One Book

Moonow River Cottage meadowIt started so well: a glorious summer’s evening, sipping chilled white wine and eating our supper on the lawn of our idyllic rented cottage in Longtown, followed by a lovely, warm Sunday walking through wildflower meadows. What could be better? Come Monday morning, those meadows were sodden. The rain continued on and off for the next four days, ranging from torrential downpours to the kind of irritating warmish drizzle for which neither a waterproof nor an umbrella seems to quite work. It was supposed to be a walking holiday, exploring the lovely wooded Herefordshire countryside, culminating in scaling the path over Bruce Chatwin’s famous Black Hill just above us and walking into Wales. Instead it turned into a ‘practising for Mr Big (1)retirement’ kind of week – pottering around, lunching out, spotting a nuthatch at the bird feeder and stroking the gorgeous, big, black, purry tomcat who adopted us. That photo really doesn’t do him justice but by our last day he was altogether too relaxed to sit upright for very long.

In between all that lounging about there were a few outings. I met my old Waterstones friend, R, for a coffee in Hereford while H went off to explore the town which, having already visited the Mappa Mundi and the chained library not so long ago, didn’t take him very long. Poor old Hereford’s suffered badly from the ravages of out-of-town shopping plus public spending cuts: I was shocked when R told me the library had closed. The lack of a reliable mobile phone signal and a decent broadband service hasn’t helped, I’m sure. Hay-on-Wye was in much better shape although there were fewer bookshops than I remembered. R had recommended the café at Richard Booth’s bookshop which turned out to Hampton Court borderbe excellent. Lovely shop, too.

By Friday we were so encouraged by the weather forecast that we decided to visit Hampton Court near Leominster. We could have put on our boots and gone for a walk, I suppose, but the prospect of waterlogged fields was distinctly off-putting and by this time we were both well into dawdling mode. We’d visited the gardens about a decade ago when they were freshly laid out and a little too new but now that they’ve matured they’re absolutely delightful: gorgeous herbaceous borders in full flower, a beautiful organic kitchen garden and a suitably jungly sunken area – all set against a grand, wooded riverside backdrop.Hampton Court poppies

And the book? I’d taken Ed Taylor’s Theo with me. It’s published by Old Street Publishing and I’d long assumed they were based in the hipster end of London but it turns out they’re in Brecon not a million miles from where we were staying. Theo is the ten-year-old son of a famous rock musician. Taylor’s novel covers two days in his life during which his mother disappears to ‘rest’ and his father turns up with an Theoentourage, planning to record his next album. Theo spends most of his time in the incapable hands of his grandfather and his father’s friend, running wild but desperate for some sort structure, someone to take responsibility. It’s a little too long, but Taylor captures the slightly panicky, constantly questioning voice of a little boy who seems altogether more mature than the self-obsessed adults who barely register his presence no matter how desperately he begs for their attention.

So, despite everything that the great British weather threw at us we enjoyed our week away. And I discovered a liking for perry, a lovely drink for a hot summer’s day should we ever get one. Back to books shortly…

Books to Look Out For in July 2016: Part 1

Cover imageBack from a week in the wilds of Herefordshire with a look at what’s ahead in the July publishing schedules. No contest as to which book should begin this post for me. Sarah Moss has left the nineteenth-century setting of Bodies of Light and its sequel Signs for Lost Children, leap-frogging the twentieth century to land in the present day with The Tidal Zone. Shockingly, Adam is contacted by his fifteen-year-old daughter’s school to be told that she has collapsed for no apparent reason and has stopped breathing. ‘The Tidal Zone explores parental love, overwhelming fear, illness and recovery. It is about clever teenagers and the challenges of marriage. It is about the NHS, academia, sex and gender in the twenty-first century, the work-life juggle, and the politics of packing lunches and loading dishwashers’ say the publishers which sounds a world away from Moss’s last two novels, both shortlisted for the Wellcome Prize, but I’ve no doubt she’ll match their excellence with this one.

Carrying on the family theme, Mary Gaitskill’s Mare – her first novel for some time – sees Ginger, a forty-seven-year-old recovering alcoholic, trying to persuade her reluctant new husband to adopt a child. They compromise, joining an organisation that sends poor city kids to the country for a few weeks but soon Ginger has become entranced by eleven-year-old Velveteen Vargas who they have welcomed into their comfortable upstate New York home, inviting her to visit whenever she likes. ‘Mary Gaitskill has created a devastating portrait of the unbridgeable gaps between people, and the way we long for fairytale endings’ say the publishers. I haven’t had much luck with Gaitskill’s work in the past but this sounds an interesting premise

Pamela Erens’ Eleven Hours also explores bonds that can form in highly emotive circumstances. Set in New York, the novel reveals the lives of two women – one in labour, the other her Haitian midwife. It’s the ‘taut sensitive prose’ of the publisher’s blurb that attracts me to this one together with the interweaving of the stories of two women from very different backgrounds. The ‘sometimes harrowing’ description is a little off-putting but at least we’ve been warned.

This first batch of July goodies ends with a writer whose novels – rather like Mary Gaitskill’s – I’veCover image failed to get on with in the past but the synopsis is wacky enough to make this one worth investigating. In Joanna Kavenna’s A Field Guide to Reality, Professor Solete has bequeathed his Theory of Everything to Eliade Jenks, a scruffy waitress who the rest of his circle look down their sniffy Oxford noses at. Unfortunately, the manuscript can’t be found so Eliade sets out to track it down. Now comes the interesting bit as, according to the blurb, she ‘falls down a rabbit-hole of metaphysical possibility. From a psychotropic tea party to the Priests of the Quantum Realm, she trips her way through Solete’s wonderland reality and, without quite meaning to, bursts open the boundaries of her own’ which suggests to me that it could either be fascinating or backfire horribly. The novel comes illustrated by Oly Ralfe.

As ever, a click on any title that catches your eye will take you to a fuller synopsis. More to follow but not before a ‘what I did on my holidays’ post later this week…

Default Setting by Will Green: Breakdown and how to survive it

Cover imageThinly disguised as fiction, Default Setting is Will Green’s autobiographical account of a nervous breakdown. I’ve made it a rule to avoid self-published novels but the pitch for this one was so powerful that I agreed to take a look at it. Default Setting is prefaced with a grim quote from the Mental Health Foundation: ‘One in four people will experience some kind of mental health problem in the course of a year’, a quote much bandied about during Mental Health Awareness Week with which the publication date for Green’s novel coincided. I’m a little late with this review but it seems to me that we need more than just one week a year to jolt our awareness of this worrying statistic.

Edward’s breakdown is precipitated by the departure of his beloved girlfriend, Jess. Jess is the reason that Edward has been sober for eighteen months, the person on whom he’s hung all his hopes and dreams – far too great a burden for one woman to bear. When she leaves him, his world implodes. He heads to the nearest off licence and grabs the cheapest bottle he can find, ignoring the kindness of the man behind the till. Next, Edward turns to self-harm to blank out his overwhelming pain: ignoring the shame he feels at the many scars on his arms, he cuts himself. Before long he’s in the pub where he bumps into Simon, never knowingly uncoked-up. So begins a self-destructive spiral in which Edward abuses his friends, blacks out, finds himself in all sorts of degrading situations and receives a final warning from his line manager. This is not the first time that his mental health has faltered – his ‘default setting’ is sadness – but it seems to be the most extreme episode, finally landing him in the kind of trouble that gets him sectioned which may be the saving of him.

Written in Edward’s voice, Green’s narrative is urgent, immediate and graphic. He takes us with Edward on his descent, showing us the shame, guilt and misery of being perpetually caught up in a loop of self-destructive behaviour. He’s unsparingly honest with his readers – we might flinch but he doesn’t – helping us to understand what it’s like to ‘have a head full of bedlam’. It’s a claustrophobic, lonely journey full of desperation but punctuated by the odd flash of much-needed humour. Not an easy read then, but a worthwhile one. The final sentence of the penultimate chapter made me want to punch the air. The press release describes Green as ‘a former alcoholic and mental health sufferer who has successfully beaten his demons’ – hard not to use tired old words like ‘brave’ and ‘courageous’ but in this case they seem entirely appropriate.

That’s it from me for a while. We’re off to spend a week in lovely Herefordshire, planning a stroll or two and probably a little light reading.