This is Happiness by Niall Williams: On the cusp of change

Cover imageRegular readers may recall that I’ve a penchant for Irish writing, a liking for the lyrical yet pared back style of William Trevor, Colm Tóibin and John McGahern which characterises so much of the fiction I’ve read from that part of the world. Not Niall Williams’ work, though, if This is Happiness is anything to go by. Written in luxuriant prose, this coming-of-age tale winds back and forth over a single memorable summer which sees the electrification of a small town on the west coast of Ireland.

Seventeen-year-old Noe Crowe is spending the summer with his grandparents, Ganga and Doady, having turned his back on the seminary where he was training to become a priest. The Wednesday before Easter, with the whole of Faha in church apart from Noe, the seemingly incessant rain stops. At around the same time, a man in his sixties turns up, introducing himself to Noe before taking off for a naked swim, much to Noe’s astonishment. This is Christy, employed by the electricity board to reaffirm all those in Faha signed up for electrification and lodging with Ganga and Doady while he does so. Noe finds himself accompanying Christy on his rounds, listening to his tales of travel and adventure until Christy confesses he’s come to Faha to ask forgiveness of the woman he jilted decades ago. Noe has his own love troubles, conceiving an unrequited passion for the doctor’s beautiful daughter who tends him when one of the electricity poles falls on him. As the seventy-five-year-old Noe looks back over that long dry summer when Faha stood on the cusp of change, he tells a poignant story of love, redemption and the secret of happiness.

As, from this, you can probably already tell, for storytelling, there were two principal styles available in Faha, the plain and the baroque

Perhaps it’s because I was half-expecting the aforementioned spare style not having read one of Williams’ novels before that it took me a little while to adjust to his relaxed, discursive storytelling which takes its readers down a multitude of byways. Once over that, I loved its lushness and affectionate humour.

He didn’t mind at all that when Ganga came calling he took an old paper or two back with him and in that way kept up to date with what was new in the world last week  

This is a novel choc-full of stories, peopled with engaging characters, not least Noe, our narrator, and Christy, the man who becomes his friend. Occasionally, the Vaseline-lensed nostalgia of it all felt a little too much – this was a time when grinding poverty was the norm in rural Ireland – but Noe reminds us of that poverty sufficiently often for it not to jar. Williams knows not just how to spin a yarn expertly but how to work it into an entire glorious sunlit tapestry of a community about to plant its feet in the twentieth-century fifty years into it. I loved it. Time to explore his backlist, I think.

Bloomsbury Publishing: London, 2019 9781526609335 400 pages Hardback

Fly Already by Etgar Keret (Various translators): Stories with personality

I’d scored one Israeli success this year with Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s Liar when Etgar Keret’s short stories, Fly Already, turned up, looking like another. Made up of twenty pieces, some no longer than a page or two, Keret’s idiosyncratic collection is both funny and poignant, counterbalancing comedy with a sharp observation of human nature.

It begins with a characteristic bang as a father tries to persuade a potential suicide from jumping while his five-year-old son cheers the ‘superhero’ on in the eponymous story. In another, a lowly circus worker gets a liking for being shot out of a cannon but how long can it last? Vengeance proves not to be as sweet as anticipated in ‘Tabula Rasa’, one of the longer pieces, which sees a group of children, afflicted with a rare genetic condition, brought up in an institution, each with their own secret donor or so they believe but the truth is very different. The narrator of ‘Car Concentrate’ uses the crushed Mustang in his living room as a talking point but gradually we learn he’s not as slick as he seems while the car hides a very dark secret.

Several of the stories have more than a touch of the surreal. Nocturnal worries give way to fantastical humour in ‘At Night’. Hard not to love a story that opens ‘Stella, Ella and I were almost ten years old the day Dad shape-shifted.’ Some are sinister – ‘Arctic Lizard’ is narrated by a child soldier in a Trumpian third-term dystopia – while others are playful – ‘Ladder’ begins with an angel’s performance review in which Raphael, dissatisfied by Zvi’s inability to project serenity, hints at a transfer downstairs. Just one piece, made up of emails interspersed with other stories, jarred a little for me and even that ended with a surreal surprise which made me laugh out loud.

These are brief, punchy stories, inventive and confident. Some of Keret’s pieces are disconcerting – more than a little wacky – others are pure comedy, often using humour to make a point, but all are memorable. The complications of humanity are sweetly satirised and even the rich who come in for some thoroughly justified lampooning are treated with a sympathetic understanding. It’s a hugely enjoyable collection, full of surprises. I’d not heard of Keret before although I gather he’s acquired an international reputation. If this collection’s anything to go by it’s richly deserved.

Books to Look Out for in October 2019: Part Two

Cover imageOctober’s first batch of new titles began with several novels bound up with art. This second instalment kicks off with a couple of cinematic connections starting with The Crossed-Out Notebook by Nicolás Giacobone who co-wrote the screenplay for Birdman. An Argentinean screenwriter is imprisoned in a basement by a director determined that his captive will produce a world-changing screenplay. Every evening, the writer crosses out his writing from the previous night. ‘The clash between the two men and their different approaches leads to a movie being made, a gun going off, an unlikely escape, and a final confrontation. In the end, The Crossed-Out Notebook is a darkly funny novel full of intrigue and surprise about the essence of the creative process; a short, crazy ode to any artist whose brilliance shines through strangeness and adversity’ say the publishers which sounds promising to me.

I’m sure Werner Herzog has never indulged in a spot of kidnapping or coerced his screenwriting son, Rudolf, whose short story collection Ghosts of Berlin is my next choice. Herzog’s stories are all set in Kreuzberg, the city’s gentrified hipster district, which formed the border between the old East and West. They offer what the publishers are calling a ‘macabre and madcap vision of Berlin… … conjuring tech bros, acid-tripping artists, and forsaken migrants, each encountering the ghosts of the city’s complicated past’. Intriguing.

We’re staying in Berlin with Adrian Duncan’s Love Notes from a German Building Site which tells the story of Paul, a young Irish engineer who has followed Evelyn to the city and begins work on Cover imagerenovating a building in Alexanderplatz. ‘Set against the structural evolution of a sprawling city, this meditation on language, memory and yearning is underpinned by the site’s physical reality’ according to the publisher. I rather like the sound of that, and Berlin is an irresistible setting for me since visiting the city.

Mahir Guven’s Older Brother takes us over the border to France with its story of a Franco-Syrian family trying to find a way to integrate. The taxi-driving father and his eldest son are pitted against each other when the son takes up work with an app-based car service. Meanwhile the youngest son joins a Muslim humanitarian organization, helping wounded civilians in Syria and returning a changed man.Guven alternates between an ironic take on contemporary society and the gravity of terrorist threats. He explores with equal poignancy the lives of “Uberized” workers and actors in the global jihad’ say the publishers of a book much acclaimed in France, apparently.

We’re moving on to London and back to the ‘80s with Emma Forrest’s Royals. Unsure of his sexuality, eighteen-year-old Steven ends up in hospital after being beaten up by his father. There he meets the glamourous, anarchic Jasmine, an heiress from a very different background to his own. Their mutual love of fashion leads to friendship, opening up a hedonistic life of glittering parties for Steven. ‘Devastating, dazzling, queer and radical, Royals is a love story between unlikely friends from completely different worlds. It’s about the power of art to transform lives and the power of families to destroy them. It’s about working out who you are and what you want’ according to the publishers which sounds like a good read to me.

Cover imageI’m rounding off October with Pursuit, a collection of short stories compiled by Alex Preston with contributions from the likes of Max Porter, Kamila Shamsie Daisy Johnson, Michael Donker and David Szalay to name but a few. These are stories that ‘tell of determination, endeavour and perseverance against the odds. They range across wildly different contexts and cultures, from the epic to the intimate, in fiction and non-fiction, illustrating and illuminating the outer limits of human character and achievement’ say the publishers which sounds enticing enough even without that roll call of literary names.

That’s it for October’s new fiction. As ever, a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should you want to know more, and if you’d like to catch up with the first instalment it’s here. Paperbacks soon…

Two Days in Yorkshire and a Bit of a Book

Regular readers of this blog will know that I like to travel a bit, flitting off to mainland Europe whenever I get the chance. Truth be told I’m more familiar with Amsterdam and Berlin than I am with many British cities and those that I do know well are in the south. I’m ashamed to say I rarely venture much beyond Birmingham. We were heading considerably further north on Monday (in our terms, anyway), off to Yorkshire to visit a recuperating friend for a couple of days but staying in a hotel and entertaining ourselves for some of the time so as not to tire her out.The Hepworth Wakefield

We arrived in Wakefield after thrashing up several motorways for over three hours, pleased to find that The Hepworth Wakefield‘s café was as welcoming as its website suggested. Barbara Hepworth was born and grew up in Wakefield hence the location of this gallery dedicated to her sculpture which shows the work of other sculptors, too, including Henry Moore. Designed by David Chipperfield, the building alone was worth the journey seeming to float above the river. I love Hepworth’s beautifully curved pieces which make me want to run my hands over them and there are some gorgeous examples of her work here, along with a room of maquettes and preparatory sketches. We had just enough time to wander around the newly planted garden before the rain set in again.

Tuesday was spent at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park but not before a quick trot around Holmfirth whose main claim to fame is its location for the ’80s BBC sitcom, Last of the Summer Wine, still milked for all it’s worth by the local tourist office according to our friend. The main attraction for us was Read, the small but perfectly formed bookshop which backs onto the town park.

The Yorkshire Sculpture Park was as lovely as I’d hoped with pieces shown off against a beautiful panoramic backdrop. My favourite was Hepworth’s Family of Man but Henry Moore sculpturethere were some spectacular Henry Moores and the impressive Ai Weiwei piece Circle of Heads /Zodiac Heads to admire. All three of us agreed that the half-dissected Damien Hirst figure was something of a blot on the landscape. A thoroughly enjoyable day, warm enough for a long lunch on the veranda of one of the park’s cafes soaking up the view.

I would love to have visited the wonderfully named Whippet and Pickle if only for a coffee but sadly it’s closed on Monday and Tuesday, and we were due to hit the road reasonably early on Wednesday after saying goodbye to M. Maybe next time.

And the book? Unsurprisingly, there was more chatting than reading but I enjoyed what I read of Fairyland, Sumner Locke Elliott’s autobiographical coming-of-age story about a gay writer searching for love in the ’30s and’ 40s. If you’d like to know more, it was Kim’s review at Reading Matters that made me pick it up.

Books to Look Out for in October 2019: Part One

This October sees a nicely varied selection of tempting new titles on offer including one by an author whose name I’ve been hoping to spot in the publishing schedules for some time. I loved Mary Costello’s quietly beautiful Academy Street, one of my books of 2014. Her new novel, The River Capture, is about a man whose solitary existence is interrupted when a young woman knocks at his door, presenting him and his family with a dilemma. ‘This is a novel about love, loyalty and the raging forces of nature. More than anything, it is a book about the life of the mind and the redemptive powers of art’ say the publishers promisingly.

Neil Hegarty’s The Jewel sounds as if it’s also about art, although possibly not its redemptive powers. The final work of a woman who committed suicide hangs in a Dublin gallery, a piece she’d intended as her shroud. A collector covets it so much he’s prepared to pay to have it stolen. Hegarty’s novel follows the thief he commissions, the curator who loves the piece and the man charged with recovering it. ‘The lives of these three damaged people, each evoked with a calm, moving sympathy reminiscent of Michael Cunningham or David Park, come together around the hauntingly strange Victorian painting’ say the publishers, whetting my appetite nicely. I enjoyed Hegarty’s debut, Inch Levels, very much.

There’s something of a theme emerging here. In Jon Fosse’s The Other Name a widowed ageing painter is looking back on his life. Asle lives on the west coast of Norway and has just two friends – his neighbour and his gallerist who lives in Bjorgvin as does another Asle who is also an ageing painter leading a very different life. ‘Written in hypnotic prose that shifts between the first and third person, The Other Name calls into question concrete notions around subjectivity and the self. What makes us who we are? And why do we lead one life and not Cover imageanother?’ It’s the doppelganger idea that intrigues me with this one which is the first in a trilogy, apparently.

There’s geographical link rather than an artistic one to Lars Saabye Christensen’s Echoes of the City which has been hailed a Norwegian masterpiece. It charts the changes in an Oslo neighbourhood through its inhabitants as the city emerges from wartime austerity. ‘The minutes of the local Red Cross meetings give an architecture to the narrative of so many lives and tell a story in themselves, bearing witness to the steady recovery of the community. Echoes of the City is a remarkably tender observation of the rhythms and passions of a city, and a particular salute to the resilience of its women’ according to the publishers which sounds very inviting.

Years ago, in the very early days of this blog, I reviewed Susan Fortes’ Waiting for Robert Capa which introduced me to Gerda Taro, an unsung hero of war photography. Helena Janeczek’s The Girl with the Leica is also about Taro, telling her story through several characters attending her funeral held on what would have been her twenty-seventh birthday and placing it firmly in the context of the time. ‘Gerda Taro is at the heart of this kaleidoscopic novel but another of its main characters is the era itself, the 1930s, with economic depression, the rise of Nazism, hostility towards refugees in France, the century’s ideological warfare, the cultural ferment, and the ascendency of photography as the age’s quintessential art form’ say the publishers. I’m very pleased to see such attention devoted to Taro who, I was annoyed to discover, is barely given a mention at the Robert Capa Contemporary Photography Centre which we visited in Budapest.

Cover imageI’m sure Zadie Smith would have shared that annoyance. I’m rounding this first October batch off with Grand Union, her first published collection. Smith’s stories take us from the last day of an Antiguan immigrant’s life in 1959 to a meditation on the nature of desire to a policeman in disgrace, apparently. ‘Moving exhilaratingly across genres and perspectives, from the historic to the vividly current to the slyly dystopian, Grand Union is a sharply alert and prescient collection about time and place, identity and rebirth, the persistent legacies that haunt our present selves and the uncanny futures that rush up to meet us’ say the publishers which sounds good to me.

As ever, a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should you be interested. Part two to follow soon.

That’s it from me until the end of the week. I’m off to see a friend who lives in Holmfirth in Yorkshire where I believe there’s a spanking new indie bookshop…

Six Degrees of Separation – from A Gentleman in Moscow to Dancer

Six Degrees of Separation is a meme hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the others on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

Cover images

This month we’re starting with Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow which I was looking forward to very much having loved Rules of Civility but I’m afraid I gave it up although not before I’d worked out that it was about an aristocrat under house arrest at Moscow’s Hotel Metropol in 1922.

Sebastian Barry’s A Temporary Gentleman is about an Irishman from the other end of the class spectrum whose commission with the British army elevates his status for a time.

Sebastian Faulks’ Human Traces is about two psychiatrists and their attempts to understand the human mind which takes them all over the world. This was my last Faulks. The story barely stood up under the weight of his research.

I felt much the same about E. Annie Proulx’s Accordion Crimes. Somewhere in there was a great story about migrants to America told through their music, buried beneath a mound of accordion lore.

Howard Norman’s The Bird Artist was published around the same time as Proulx’s bestselling The Shipping News here in the UK, both set in Newfoundland. One dominated the bestselling lists for months, the other sank without trace. I preferred the Norman.

I’d not heard of Len Howard before I read Eva Meijer’s delightful fictionalisation of her life, Bird Cottage, earlier this year. Aged forty, Howard threw up her life as a violinist in London and took herself off to Sussex to research the bird habits. In her time Howard’s books – Birds as Individuals and Living with Birds – were very well known and translated into many languages

Which takes me to another fictionalised life, and back to Russia, with Colm McCann’s Dancer, the story of celebrated ballet dancer Rudolf Nuryev who famously defected to the West.

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from a count under house arrest in 1920s Moscow to the fictionalised life of a celebrated Russian ballet dancer. Part of the fun of this meme is comparing the very different routes other bloggers take from each month’s starting point. If you’re interested, you can follow it on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees, check out the links over at Kate’s blog or perhaps even join in.

Shelf Life by Livia Franchini: A list for life

Cover imageI’m an inveterate list maker. It’s my way of organizing myself and remembering to do things. And I always make a list before shopping. Who knows what I’d come home with otherwise? Hardly surprising, then, that I was attracted to Livia Franchini’s Shelf Life which tells Ruth’s story through the shopping list she made the week her fiancé dropped his bombshell and left her.

Ruth and Neil have been together for ten years. He’d spotted her through the window of the travel agent he worked for just yards from her nursing school, engineering a meeting through her friend Alanna. Ruth had been working as a senior nurse at a care home catering to the aged rich for some time when Alanna popped up in her live again after a long absence. Theirs is an uneasy friendship: Alanna is a girly girl, given to confidences, indiscretions and beautiful with it; Ruth is intensely private, responsible and mousey. Struggling to find a way to live on her own after Neil’s departure, supposedly to a Cornish mindfulness commune, Ruth hides her misery the best she can. When Alanna announces her own engagement, Ruth’s astonished to be asked not only to be her maid of honour but to arrange the hen party which sees her entering a foreign land of cocktails, clinging dresses and hedonism. Things take a dark turn that night and another the following morning as Ruth nears the end of her list.

Taking a shopping list as a structure for your debut novel is a daring tack to take – lots of potential for clunkiness – but Franchini handles it well. I began her novel looking for the link with each item but her story drew me in so that I forgot about all that. Ruth’s character is well drawn and carefully constructed, her friendship with Alanna smartly done. There’s much more to Alanna that you might at first think. Neil has his own say, leaving you wondering why Ruth hadn’t kicked him out years ago then remembering her loneliness. Woven through Ruth’s narrative are email exchanges, texts and chats from Ruth’s schoolmates, most of which work well but some felt a wee bit contrived. Through it all runs a vein of nicely judged humour culminating in the hen party which sets readers up well for the shock that ensues. With its poignant depiction of social awkwardness and isolation, Shelf Life is far from the slightly fluffy read I’d somehow assumed it to be and all the more interesting for it.

All Things Consoled by Elizabeth Hay: Families and how to survive them

Cover imageI was initially attracted to Elizabeth Hay’s memoir for the same reason I read Ann Patchett’s This is the Story of a Happy Marriage: I’d enjoyed several of her novels very much, in particular Late Nights on Air. Truth be told, though, aren’t we all fascinated by other people’s families, perhaps looking for similarities with our own or thankful that ours isn’t anything like the writer’s? Hay’s relationship with her parents had always been a tricky one but when they move across Ontario into a retirement home just down the road from Hay and her husband, she finds herself struggling with their slow decline into decrepitude. All Things Consoled is a recounting of those years and the family history that came before.

Gordon and Jean Hay married in 1943 when they were twenty-four. He was a history teacher, proud of his long career but never confident, strict both at home and at school. She became an artist, painting pictures of the natural world and enjoying a small degree of success while determined to carve out some space for herself. Hay was the third of their four children, seemingly locked in a difficult relationship with a father who found it impossible to praise her achievements and whose temper resulted in violent punishments until she was twelve. When the family spent a year in London, the world opened up to her, paving the way to university. Visits home to her parents were hedged about with disappointment and dismay at her mother’s apparent inability to stand up to her father’s irascibility. Her parents seem determinedly hunkered down in the family home but after a medical crisis and the beginnings of her mother’s dementia, they agree to move. It’s Hay who steps forward, taking responsibility although she’s unsure quite why she’s done so. For three years, she visits her parents daily, trying to cope with the sheer grind of caring for two people, themselves slowly ground down by the long slow process of extreme old age. Several years after her parents’ deaths, Hay sets down her reflections in the hope of coming to an understanding of her relationship with them.

I arrived at their rooms and here were the two vivid giants in my life – still massive no matter how shrunken they had become, while for them I suppose I had grown huge  

Some of Hay’s descriptions will be all too painfully familiar to those whose own parents have endured a long decline or seen others at close quarters – hard enough when the relationship has been a good one. Inevitably, her book is as revealing about herself as it is about her parents, their scratchy yet close relationship and her attempts to understand them, particularly her father whose approval she’d craved and, eventually, realises she’d had all along. Hay’s use of langauge is as graceful in her non-fiction as in her fiction, and her demented mother’s poetic expressions are both poignantly apt and beautiful. It reminded me of Blake Morrison’s long-ago bestseller And When Did You Last See Your Father ?, no small compliment. We’re all unreliable narrators of our own stories but Hay’s memoir has a loud ring of truth about it. Let’s hope the writing of it helped soothe her hurts.

Blasts from the Past: The Seal Wife by Kathryn Harrison (2002)

This is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy into as many hands as I could.

There was a time when it was hard to get away from Kathryn Harrison’s name in the books pages. Her memoir about her estranged father, with whom she had an affair when she met him for the first time as an adult, made sure of that but I first came across her via Exposure about a woman whose sexually explicit photographs, taken of her as a child, are about to be made public. I’ve read several more of her books but the one that stands out for me is The Seal Wife which explores the nature of erotic obsession and its near-hypnotic power.

In 1915 a twenty-six-year-old meteorologist finds himself posted to the new settlement of Anchorage, Alaska. While picking up supplies, he spies an Aleut woman: self-possessed, silent and intriguing. Bigelow follows her to her house and is soon in the grips of an obsession. Mere physical gratification cannot satisfy his desperate urge to possess this strange, unyielding woman. When she leaves the town, Bigelow is desolate, his only consolation the building of a kite large enough to track the northern storms. Trying to fill the emotional chasm left by the Aleut woman, he finds himself first robbed by a female pickpocket then tricked by the local storeowner and his daughter. When the Aleut woman reappears, a small hope springs in Bigelow and eventually a hard-won but still silent agreement is reached.

I found this book captivating, not a word I tend to use very often. Its spare yet vivid descriptive writing took me to another world entirely. I haven’t come across anything by Harrison for quite some time although when writing this post I found that she’d published a novel six years ago. It seems she’s no longer flavour of the literary month.

What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

Beyond the Sea by Paul Lynch: Cast adrift

I’m not sure how I’ve managed to miss Paul Lynch’s writing but as soon as I finished Beyond the Sea I added his previous novels to my list. Lynch’s prose exemplifies that spare, pared-back style which I so admire, one at which Irish writers seem to excel. In his new novella two fishermen are cast adrift after a dreadful storm, one dragooned into helping the other whose debt to drug barons has become a matter of urgency.

Bolivar is a fisherman, selfish in his pleasures and determined to take them. When a woman he has in his sights tells him the cartel he’s become involved with have come threatening violence unless he pays his debts, he takes off looking for his fishing mate who’s nowhere to be found. His boss warns him a storm has been forecast, telling him to take young Hector if he must go out to sea. Despite his reservations, Bolivar has no choice. These two set off together – one a cynical, seasoned fisherman, the other naive and inexperienced. When the storm hits, its ferocity is so great it knocks out their boat’s engine. Soon it’s clear that the radio is inoperative, too. Neither can know how long they will be cast adrift with no means of calling for help. Each deals with their plight in different ways: Hector turns to God, fashioning an effigy of the Virgin from driftwood while fixating on his two-timing girlfriend; Bolivar devises ways of using the detritus that washes their way, catching enough fish to feed them and finding ways to preserve it. As the days wear on, Hector and Bolivar are forced to overcome their antipathy but days become months and each man is faced with his essential self.

Lynch’s novella explores themes of faith, madness, survival and existential crisis with an extraordinary intensity. Hector and Bolivar are thrown upon themselves and each other in order to survive. As a bond forms between them, each begins to tell the other about their lives, their secrets and their fears but while Hector sees faith as their saviour, Bolivar puts his trust in resourcefulness. Lynch’s short stark sentences, sometimes repeated, effectively evoke a claustrophobic feeling of being stranded aboard this tiny vessel, tossed around on a seemingly endless sea. As so often when I come across a piece of writing that pushes my literary buttons quite so effectively as Lynch’s does, I’m in danger of stuffing this review full of quotes but here are just a few gems:

Time now is not time. It does not pass but rests

Grief is a thing that sits shapeless between them

Days of hammering sun, the sea the sun’s anvil

He decides the barnacles taste entirely of the sea. He wonders too if he is now like them. If now you are made of wind and rain, salty air, the blood watered to brine. How you might taste to a shark

This is such a powerful piece of fiction, beautifully expressed, and all the better for its carefully crafted brevity. So good, I included it on my Booker Prize wish list.