Love Notes From a German Building Site by Adrian Duncan: Men at Work

It was its Berlin setting that first attracted me to Adrian Duncan’s Love Notes From a German Building Site, an irresistible backdrop for me. I’d somehow thought it was a love story, quite possibly an unhappy one, but it turned out to be very much more interesting than that. Duncan’s debut follows a couple in their mid-thirties who have left Ireland for Germany. While Evelyn looks forward to starting a new life, Paul flounders at work, trying to tighten his grasp on a language which constantly eludes him.

Paul is a structural engineer refurbishing a building on Alexanderplatz in the old East Berlin, soon to be a temple to consumerism. Evelyn is the daughter of German parents who settled in Ireland in the ‘60s. She’s at ease with the language Paul struggles to express himself in, trying to fix words in his mind with the lists he calls ‘love notes’. The site is a tricky place to navigate: the boss is irascible, many of the workers have little English and Paul is unconfident, more used to working with plans than construction. As the six months of his contract wear on, Paul and Evelyn see little of each other. She explores the city and prepares for her new job in Cologne, a change of career from economist to museum curator filling her with excitement, while Paul grapples with the difficulties of working in a job which doesn’t quite fit. As the project nears its end, tempers on site become dangerously frayed, crises flare and Paul feels himself increasingly out of kilter.

A facet of our curiosity had begun falling away in those specializing years in university, like a shard of rock dislodging itself from a cliff face and slipping quietly into the  water below 

Duncan spent ten years as an engineer before drawing on that experience to write this thoughtful novella whose episodic structure is carefully constructed from memories, snapshots, observations and Paul’s ‘love notes’. Duncan’s use of language is quietly precise, his sense of place wonderfully atmospheric. A few clean bright sentences describing the sound of snow underfoot took me back to my first visit to Berlin, over ten years ago, while his description of Antwerp’s station instantly summoned it up for me as if I was there. The same quiet precision conveys the mind of a man wrestling with work that requires an accuracy hard to achieve in a language which seems to slip through his fingers, exacerbated by the utter exhaustion of an unrelenting schedule as the project hurtles towards its deadline. So few novels are set in the workplace and yet work is such an important part of our lives. Whether we feel comfortable in it or not contributes to our physical and mental health, our relationships and the way we see ourselves. It can both imprison us and liberate us. Written in spare, elegant prose, this beautifully crafted novella brings its importance sharply into focus.

Head of Zeus: London 2019 9781789546248 205 pages Hardback

Next week will be all about my books of the year which, as usual, I’ve been incapable of trimming back to a sensible figure.

Older Brother by Mahir Guven (transl. Tina Kover): A tale of two brothers

Cover imageApart from Karim Miské’s Arab Jazz I don’t think I’ve read anything set in Paris’s banlieues which is partly what drew me to Mahir Guven’s Prix-Goncourt-winning debut. Older Brother explores life in these areas, synonymous with poverty and dissent, through two brothers and their Syrian taxi-driving father, still grieving his French wife.

Despite the carefully prepared Friday banquets they share, the older brother and his father are at loggerheads over the former’s work as an app-based driver seen as deadly competition by taxi drivers. Every week the father angrily rehearses the same arguments accompanied by a tirade against Bashar Assad and the war in Syria. Neither speaks of the younger brother who disappeared three years ago. The younger brother was a nurse, encouraged to continue his medical studies by the surgeon who singled him out. As the news from Syria worsened, the younger brother decided he must help his fellow Muslims, contacting an NGO then leaving without a word. The assumption is he’s gone to Syria – some think to fight, others to save lives. The older brother has taken a very different route, smoking too much weed, invalided out of the army diagnosed with schizophrenia and now turned police informant to keep himself out of jail. All three are still mourning the woman who died eighteen years ago leaving the boys motherless at ten and twelve. After picking up a fare at the bus station, the older brother glimpses a man he thinks he recognises.

We were in the Holy Land, the land of the Bible; since the beginning of time, people have been ripping each other to shreds in God’s name.

Each of the brothers narrates their own story in this powerful, taut novel which takes its readers into the Parisian banlieues and to war-ravaged Syria. Each voice is distinctly different from the other – the cocky, street savvy irony of the older brother, who’s not as tough as he might like to appear, contrasting with the quiet, thoughtful younger brother faced with the horrors of war and the tyranny of extremism. There are occasional flashes of sly humour lightening the tone a little – bearded eco-hipsters ride their bikes alongside equally hirsute Islamic fundamentalists to whom cars are haram. Close to its conclusion, Guven’s novel speeds up its pace, hurtling towards what feels like an inevitable conclusion. Suffice to say I thought the ending was very clever although I suspect not everyone will agree.

Europa Editions: London 2019 9781609455491 256 pages Paperback

Five Rediscovered Classics I’ve Read

Cover imageI could devote this post (and many more) to the classics I read decades ago but I’ve not reread them for some time so that would be cheating. Instead, I’ve decided to stick with five reissued, lesser known books that thoroughly deserved the burst of renewed attention they attracted. Here are five rediscovered classics, four with links to full reviews on this blog.

I’m starting with John Williams’ Stoner, originally published in 1965 and reissued here in the UK in 2012 when it became that thing publishers yearn for: a word of mouth bestseller. It’s about an ordinary man who leads an unremarkable life. Born on a small Missouri farm in 1891, Stoner discovers a love of literature and becomes an academic, his success hard won. He finds himself in a loveless marriage, his unhappiness briefly lifted by a relationship with a young woman before academic rivalry intervenes. Williams quietly draws this understated, poignant novel to a close with Stoner’s death.

First published in 1967, the reissue of Thomas Savage’s The Power of the Dog comes from the same publishers who brought us Stoner. Set in 1924, the novel tells the story of the Burbank brothers, owners of one of Montana’s biggest ranches and rich beyond reckoning yet still sharing the same bedroom. When George brings home a wife, Phil sets about quietly undermining her until she no longer trusts her own judgement. Savage unfolds his story in a straightforward unfussy narrative, contrasting Phil’s calculated cruelty with his brother’s open-hearted kindness and leaving the reader to infer what lies at the heart of his scornful contempt. His descriptions of the sweeping Montana landscape, gruelling winters and the daily business of ranching are all wonderfully cinematic. It’s a fine novel, entirely worthy of the inevitable Stoner comparisons made when it was reissued in 2016.Cover image

William Melvin Kelley’s A Different Drummer was originally  published in 1962 at the height of the Civil Rights movement although, sadly, it still resonates today. In 1957, the descendent of a slave destroys the farm he bought from the family of a renowned Civil War general in whose home he grew up, before departing with his pregnant wife. Within hours the black population begins heading north leaving behind bewilderment until the white residents come to understand the repercussions of this exodus and their mood turns. The story unfolds in clean, plain prose from the perspective of a variety of characters, all white. Its ending comes as no surprise. Kelley was just twenty-four when he published A Different Drummer, an astonishingly confident piece of work for a writer so young.

I’m stretching the ‘five’ of this post’s heading a little here but both Nell Larsen’s novellas, Quicksand and Passing, were reissued in the same volume in 2014. Hard to mention one without the other. Passing begins with the memory of a chance meeting in a smart Chicago hotel. Two light-skinned women recognise each other – both are ‘passing’ in this bastion of white society but for one of them it’s a matter of convenience and mild titillation at her deception – for the other it’s the habit of a lifetime. Widely considered to be autobiographical, Quicksand, opens with a young woman deciding to give up her job as a teacher in an all-black school, risking all for what she hopes will be a more exciting future. She’s a woman who finds it impossible to settle. Each decision results in excitement, happiness then disillusion. Both are powerful, thought-provoking novellas which explore race and identity but while Quicksand is a sobering, Passing is gut-wrenching – an astonishingly brave book to have written in the 1920s

Cover imageSet largely in the ’30s and ’40s, and published in 1959, Evan S. Connell’s Mrs Bridge was reissued in 2012. Written in understated elegant prose, it follows Mrs Bridge from her newly-wed days in Kansas to her widowhood and just beyond. She’s married to a lawyer, has three children and is both deeply conservative and naively innocent. Bombshells are delivered quietly and in passing: the Bridges cut short their six-week European jaunt because Hitler has invaded Poland which seems to be more of an inconvenience to them than a shattering world event. Mrs Bridge’s greatest enemy is time: housework and cooking are taken care of by the maid and Mrs Bridge spends much of her life wishing it away or devising little projects for herself which often come to nothing. Both moving and hilarious, Connell’s novella is a gently satirical portrait of a particular time and class. Mr Bridge, its companion, was reissued a year later and is also well worth reading but Mrs Bridge remains my favourite of the two.

Any rediscovered classics you’d like to recommend?

Be My Guest by Priya Basil: Reflections on Food, Community and the Meaning of Generosity

Cover imageWhen I spotted Priya Basil’s beautifully jacketed Be My Guest it was the third word in its subtitle that caught my eye. Food is pretty high up my agenda, mixing well with that other passion, travel. Basil’s book looked like the sort of comfort reading that would restore my faith in human nature which has taken a battering recently, despite my turning away a little from the 24-hour news cycle, but it turned out to be rather more than that.

Each bite holds the flavour of the past and the present, a lifetime of my mother’s love, her unstinting hospitality.

Basil begins with a declaration that we start our lives as guests, at first in our mothers’ wombs, then as recipients of care and attention until we become independent. She goes on to describe the dish that symbolises her mother’s nurturing to her, always available when she visits until one day it isn’t, and she realises her mother is ageing. Food is an important part of Basil’s family life, the foundation of her grandmother’s marriage, cooking for the man she hoped to marry to save her from disgrace and continuing to do so until it has become both an expression of love and almost a means of control. Drawing on her family history and her own life, Basil explores the meaning and symbolism of food, the responsibilities of being a host and those of being a guest and the importance of communal hospitality in the face of rising individualism.

Food sustains us physically, yet to be fully nourished we must be fed by ideas, feelings, experiences.

This brief, eloquent book ranges far wider in just over a hundred pages than the hymn of praise to food and hospitality I’d been expecting. Politically engaged, Basil explores the idea of generosity through the roles of guest and host, extrapolating it to migration, in particular the opening of her adopted country Germany’s doors to migrants in 2015 and its consequences. She’s a passionate believer in the generosity of the EU’s freedom of movement, disappointed by its failure to deal with the refugee crisis. Brexit, of course, rears its head as that generosity’s counterpoint with its determination to squeeze immigration. Against this backdrop, Basil threads family anecdotes, cultural attitudes to hospitality and musings on her own endearingly self-confessed greed. She has an elegant turn of phrase, describing storytelling as an invitation to readers who repay the courtesy with their attention, and she’s funny, too. The section on reciprocity and the etiquette of taking the last portion – ‘Do you love anyone enough to give them the last Rolo?’ – had me thinking about what happens in our house. My partner went to boarding school – he often can’t help himself. Always best to open negotiations early, I’ve found.

Canongate Books: Edinburgh 2019 9781786898494 122 pages Hardback

Love by Hanne Ørstavik (transl. Martin Aitken): In the deep midwinter

Cover imageAlthough I’ve yet to read Hanne Ørstavik’s The Blue Room reviews of it by bloggers whose opinions I trust were enough to convince me that Love was likely to be something special. This spare novella tells the story of Vibeke and her son, Jon, on the eve of his ninth birthday, each, unbeknownst to the other, out and about on a frigid Norwegian winter’s night.

Vibeke and Jon have recently moved from the south to a village close to where she works as the arts and culture officer for the local authority. Vibeke spends most of her time reading when she’s not working, barely registering her imaginative, curious son although tender towards him when she does. Jon is sure that Vibeke has plans to bake him a birthday cake, considerately taking himself off to the visiting fair so that she can surprise him with it the next day. Vibeke, however, has not a thought for Jon’s birthday, caught up in fantasies of the brown-eyed colleague for whom she preens in the mirror before setting off for the local library in the hope of bumping into him. When Jon returns, he finds he’s locked out, convincing himself that his mother has gone to the convenience store for cake ingredients. Off he goes again, taken home by a young girl who spots he has no mittens. Meanwhile, finding the library closed, Vibeke has switched the focus of her fancy to a friendly worker at the fair. Over a single, chilly night Jon and Vibeke’s paths will almost cross, both of them returning home during the long winter’s night. The next day will be far from what either of them might have expected.

Written in clean, bright prose, Ørstavik’s intense novella packs quite a punch. Her narrative slips back and forth between Jon and Vibeke, smoothly at times, at others shifting disconcertingly, disorienting the reader and ratcheting up the tension as we wonder what will happen to each of them. Both characters are vividly drawn, their voices clear and distinct. Jon is an endearing little boy, sensitive and curious, given to catastrophist thinking about his mother who he calls ‘Vibeke’ rather than ‘Mum’. Vibeke is a naive young mother, married far too young, her head full of romantic fantasies and willing to take risks to fulfil them. While it’s clear she loves her son – there’s a tenderness in the few exchanges between them – she hardly notices he’s there most of the time, a carelessness that will cost them both dear. The stories of the fair workers with whom each of them becomes involved are left untold but we can guess that for them Jon and Vibeke are mere bit-players or perhaps even pawns. Altogether a very polished, powerful piece of writing, beautifully expressed. Time to order a copy of The Blue Room, I think.

And Other Stories: London 2019 9781911508724 128 pages Paperback

Blasts from the Past: Being Dead by Jim Crace (1999)

Cover imageThis 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.

I remember someone looking over my shoulder when I was reading Being Dead on my way home from a meeting just before it was published. Of course, I didn’t mind – I’ve done that as discreetly as I can often enough – but I imagine they may have been a little taken aback. Jim Crace’s beautifully expressed novella tells the story of two corpses on a beach while describing the process of their decay in forensic detail.

On a lovely afternoon a couple lies dead on a beach, their bodies bloody and battered. They have been married for almost thirty years and even in the throes of a violent death they appear devoted, Joseph’s hand curved around Celice’s shin. In acknowledgement of their death, Crace tells us that Being Dead is to be a ‘quivering’, a retelling of their lives in accordance with an ancient custom. So begins the narrative of Joseph and Celice’s life from their first meeting on that same beach, where they made love so many years ago, to their brutal murders. Woven into their story are descriptions of what happens to their bodies as they lie undiscovered for six days. Written in language that is graphic yet poetic, Crace’s novel makes the unbearable and the inevitable something we can look in the face.

Crace came in for a bit of a bashing for the inaccuracy of some of his descriptions, not to mention the lack of evidence for his ‘ancient custom’, for which he had some handy rebuttals, telling his critics that they were based on his observations of animal decomposition when he was out walking. Very polite. He could simply have said ‘it’s fiction’.

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

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout: Revisiting an old friend

Cover imageWhat a joy to spot a new Elizabeth Strout in the publishing schedules and an even greater one to find that it’s about the irascible yet essentially warm-hearted Olive Kitteridge from Strout’s eponymous Pulitzer Prize-winning book published in 2008. Olive, Again takes the same form as the original, comprising thirteen closely knit short stories in which Olive is often the central character, sometimes a co-star and occasionally a bit-player.

I like you, Olive… … I’m not sure why, really. But I do

Strout’s book opens with Jack Kennison, recently widowed and on his way to the next town to buy whiskey in order to avoid bumping in to Olive. Readers already acquainted with her might assume it’s to avoid her judgemental gaze but the tentative relationship between these two has stalled and Jack wants to spare them both embarrassment. As with Olive Kitteridge, Strout takes us into the lives and homes of several inhabitants of Crosby, Maine where Olive taught maths and lived with her husband, Henry, for decades. Olive is far from the most popular of Crosby’s residents. Apparently short on empathy and with no patience for modern social niceties such as baby showers, she’s unwavering in approaching the unapproachable, visiting a middle-aged woman who may be dying when her friends are too scared to face her. The very idea of Olive at a baby shower might well discombobulate those who’ve met her before but when a pregnant guest goes into labour it’s the no-nonsense Olive who saves the day. Her uncompromisingly brusque exterior hides a practical humanity and she’s generous in her honesty when she gets things wrong.

He would never have imagined it. The Olive-ness of her, the neediness of himself; never in his life would he have imagined that he would spend his final years with such a woman in such a way

Small details fill in Olive’s life for readers who’ve not read her first outing or those of us who can’t quite remember it all and are cursing ourselves for not finding the time for a reread. The sharp characterisation, dry humour, understated prose interspersed with occasional passages of quietly lyrical descriptive writing are all present and correct. Strout trusts her readers to infer and draw their own conclusions. Her themes are pleasingly familiar: small town life, loneliness, regret, love, the complications of human relationships, and ageing as unflinchingly explored as Olive would demand. Ordinary everyday day life is filled with events unremarkable to others but extraordinary to those who live through them. Epiphanies are had. Time passes. Olive grows old but not always alone. It’s a triumph. I’m deeply suspicious of sequels but delighted that Strout took me back to Crosby to meet Olive again. My hope is that Frances Mcdormand, who was such a thoroughly convincing Olive in HBO’s miniseries, is already practicing her lines.

Viking: London 2019 9780241374597 304 pages Hardback

Body Tourists by Jane Rogers: ‘Death where is thy sting’

Cover imageI’m not one for dystopian fiction but Body Tourists caught my eye because of its author. I’ve enjoyed several of Jane Rogers’ novels, including her last one, Conrad and Eleanor, which neatly reversed gender roles in the story of a long marriage. Her new novel is set in a near future where scientists have developed a way of transferring the memories of the dead into the brains of fit young people.

In 2045, Gudrun is giving an account of her nephew’s research and its consequences, research funded by her from her private Caribbean island. Intellectually sharp but lacking in empathy, Luke’s more interested in science than wealth but Gudrun sees an opportunity for money to be made. The massive northern estates set up to house the unemployed – jobless thanks to the advent of bots – are stuffed with the impoverished. Most are drugged by virtual reality but there are young people looking for a way out, prepared to ‘volunteer’ for medical research for a hefty fee. All they need to do is give up their bodies for two weeks, a fortnight which they will spend unconscious. Ryan jumps at the chance, persuading his girlfriend to volunteer with him but while Paula’s body plays host to a woman who leaves her a grateful note, Ryan’s fails to return. Paula is appalled. Swallowing Luke’s explanation and gagged by a confidentiality agreement, she turns her back on what’s happened but soon Luke is asking for more volunteers and Paula needs the money. Eventually, tragedy strikes and Body Tourism is blown apart.

This is such a clever idea, depicting a world where death is the last frontier the rich have failed to overcome until Luke unveils his research to his avaricious aunt, safely ensconced in her tax haven. Rogers explores her theme from a variety of perspectives, narrating her novel through several different voices. Paula is the host lured by the promise of a better life but whose conscience is deeply troubled. Richard is the ageing rock star, eager to pay to show his doubting deceased father his success but getting more than he bargained for. Elsa, whose partner died in a terrorist attack, has the only positive experience in the single instance where the rich are not involved. It’s chillingly believable, even down to Gudrun’s cynical conclusion. I can’t say that I’m a convert to dystopian fiction but if, like me, you tend to shy away from it, this one’s well worth considering.

Sceptre: London 2019 9781529392951 240 pages Hardback

Paperbacks to Look Out For in December 2019

Cover imageJust about enough paperbacks for a December post starting with a book I wasn’t entirely sure I’d read and ended up loving. I thought Meet Me at the Museum might be a little too sentimental for my cynical literary heart but Anne Youngson’s novella proved me wrong. It’s made up of letters between Tina, who is mourning her best friend, and, Anders, the Danish museum curator she contacts about an Iron Age man preserved in peat whose discovery captivated the two friends when they were schoolgirls. Tina and Anders’ characters are beautifully drawn. Each is enduring a quiet loneliness, each is dealing with grief yet there are unexpected joys to share. Rather than the schmaltzy piece of fiction I’d feared, it’s a quiet contemplation of the power of love and a reminder that change is possible at any stage of life.

Given that it’s billed as a thriller, I’d probably not have included Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing had it not been popping up on various blogs I’ve read for what feels like years. It’s set in a small, North Carolina coastal town in 1969 where the discovery of a man’s corpse sees a beautiful young woman, living alone out on the marshes, coming under suspicion. Described as ‘a heartbreaking coming-of-age story, and a surprising tale of possible murder’ by the publishers, it doesn’t sound entirely up my alley but I know I’ve read some excellent reviews of it. If only I could remember where, I might be able to explain what it was about the novel that snared my interest.

Nuruddin Farah’s North of Dawn sounds much more my kind of thing. A Somali couple have lived quietly for years in Oslo until their jihadi son’s widow arrives from Somalia with her two children. ‘A nuanced quietly devastating family soap opera’ according to the New York Times which sounds just the ticket for this time of the year.Cover image

I’m rounding off this tiny handful of paperbacks with Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s Crossing Borders. The title alone would have been enough for me to take notice but apparently, it’s a collection of essays and short stories about translation from a wide range of authors including Primo Levi, Joyce Carol Oates and Lydia Davis. Sounds excellent.

A click on a title will take you to my review for Meet Me at the Museum and to a longer synopsis for the others. If you’d like to catch up with December’s new novels they’re here. Next stop January. Hard to believe we’re almost at the end of another year…

Oligarchy by Scarlett Thomas: Sharp, funny and very, very dark

Cover imageIt’s been well over four years since Scarlett Thomas’ The Seed Collectors was published. Since then she’s produced three children’s books. I’d been eyeing the schedules hoping for another adult novel, wondering if her writing career had taken a permanent turn when Oligarchy turned up. This short, biting novel should please Thomas fans with its story of a Russian oligarch’s daughter who spends a year in a British boarding school and finds herself turning detective.

Fifteen-year-old Tash has been whisked from her mother’s grungy Moscow flat and installed in a Hertfordshire independent school for girls by the father she’s only just met. She’s been given a black Amex card, told to buy whatever she wants and sent frequent parcels of expensive goodies. She’s mystified by her fellow dormmates, all caught up in their obsessions with social media, boys, and above all, losing weight. They’re a snobby bunch, looking down their noses at the local girls, tormenting their teachers – particularly the few males amongst them – and fantasising about the school’s founder, Princess Augusta, reputedly given a black diamond by the sultan who raped her. Tash spends her holidays in London with Aunt Sonja, her father’s sister and cybersecurity expert/hacker, who seems just as fixated on her weight and her looks as Tash’s school friends. When the most waiflike of the anorexics is found drowned in the school’s lake, the therapists are called in tasked with purging the school’s pupils of their obsession with starving themselves, but Tash is convinced that there’s more to Bianca’s disappearance than meets the eye. Then someone else goes missing and Tash’s sleuthing takes off in earnest.

Somebody in a long-ago government decided that girls should read classic feminist literature and so they are studying Angela Carter and the school can’t do anything about it because it’s the law.

There’s something of the mad fable about Thomas’ whirlwind novella which slings a multitude of well-aimed barbs at all manner of things, from private schools to social media, eating fads to therapists. She saves her sharpest swipes for the obsessive concern with thinness, launching a few digs at gym culture for good measure. As you’d expect from Thomas, it’s very funny – Mr Hendrix’ failure to curb the girls’ sneers at the populace of Stevenage in all their tattooed glory is a treat – but it’s also very, very dark. Sharp observation, smart satire and the hint of a feminist ending for Tash, Oligarchy filled the Thomas gap for me. I’m hoping that we adults won’t have to wait another four years for her next book.

Canongate Books: Edinburgh 2019 9781786897794 212 pages Hardback