How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa: ‘They’d had to begin all over again, as if the life they led before didn’t count’

Cover imageIt was that title that attracted me to this collection of stories about immigrants and refugees, cleverly exemplifying the many idiosyncratic challenges English throws at those for whom it’s a second language. Born in a refugee camp in Thailand, Laotian writer Souvankham Thammavongsa is a poet whose own facility for language is demonstrated throughout this fine collection.

I’ve picked out a few favourites but there’s not a dud amongst Thammavongsa’s fourteen stories, all brief with a couple just a few pages long. How to Pronounce Knife quietly conveys the burden resting on a small girl’s shoulders when she’s called upon to read aloud at school revealing her father’s incorrect pronunciation. In Randy Travis a woman remembers her mother replacing her country music obsession with an addiction while in You Are So Embarrassing a mother recalls the harsh words she and her estranged daughter exchanged years ago as she waits outside her daughter’s home, hoping to catch a glimpse of her. Picking Worms sees a woman remember her mother’s pride in her menial job and her revenge on the high school dance date who abused her mother’s generosity while in Mani Pedi an ambitious woman’s washed-up boxer brother proves an unlikely hit when he starts working in her nail bar but he makes the mistake of falling in love. In Ewwrrrkk, the shortest piece, a woman’s affectionate memory of her great-grandmother’s warnings about men ends with a sting in its tail.

As you’d expect in a collection whose overarching theme is immigration, many of Thammavongsa’s stories are about loneliness, longing and dislocation often expressed through the memories of children for their parents. Characters are hard-pressed, often engaged in work far below their capabilities, struggling to give their sons and daughters what they see others enjoying while their children are both protective and embarrassed by them. Apparently stern and distant fathers surprise their children with generosity, one taking the trouble to make an elaborate Halloween costume, another adding red paint to white unable to afford the expensive pink shade his daughter covets. Many of the stories are infused with a quiet sadness sometimes undercut with gentle humour, all are remarkable in their eloquent economy. As ever with writing of this quality, I could reel off a slew of quotations but  here are just a few to give you a flavour:

This time it was slot machines. She sat up close as those machines lit up her face and swallowed her hope coin by coin (Randy Travis)

Everything outside was blurry and wet, and there was nothing to be done about it. The windshield wipers sounded like sobs (You Are So Embarrassing)

Now, that kind of giggle seemed foolish for them to do. It was like a far distant thing, a thing that happened only to other people. All they could do now was to be close to it, and remain out of sight. (Mani Pedi)

She dug into her home-stitched bra and pulled out her bare breasts. They looked like eggplants – not new fresh ones you buy from the supermarket, but ones that had been left in the fridge for some time. (Ewwrrrkk)

Before they left for work every morning, they folded the mattress four times like a piece of paper and put it into the shoe closet (A Far Distant Thing)

I hope that’s whetted your appetite.

Bloomsbury: London 2020 978526610430 179 pages Hardback

Enter the Aardvark by Jessica Anthony: A winning combination of taxidermy and politics

Cover imageSeveral times recently I’ve enjoyed novels I might have otherwise dismissed thanks to a puff from authors whose own work I particularly enjoy. In the case of Jessica Anthony’s Enter the Aardvark it was the ‘fresh, witty and smart’ comment from one of my all time favourites, Kate Atkinson, that sealed the deal. Without it, I’m not sure I’d have picked up this book that manages to combine nineteenth-century taxidermy, twentieth-century genocide and twenty-first century political satire all in just under two hundred pages.

Alexander Paine Wilson, firmly in the closet even to himself, is running for re-election to Congress on a platform so loosely based on his putative ancestor Thomas Paine’s philosophy as to be unrecognisable to anyone but him. One hot day, FedEx delivers a large, bulky package to the house he shares with two other Congressmen which turns out to be a stuffed aardvark purportedly from his lover Greg Tampico, until recently the head of a charity devoted to Namibians in need. Wilson decides the only thing to do is deliver it right back to Tampico, discovering in transit via the many messages on his phone that his lover is dead. Pulled over by the police for ‘distracted driving’, Wilson finds himself in further contravention of a law forbidding illegally poached wild animals thanks to the aardvark stuffed into the boot of his car. It’s an aardvark with a long history, caught by naturalist Richard Ostlet in 1875 and returned at his request to celebrated taxidermist Titus Downing whose reputation for uncannily lifelike poses was renowned. Shortly after Downing took delivery of the aardvark, he received a letter from Ostlet’s widow. Would he come to visit her in London? There he found something both perplexing and macabre.

Anthony alternates the narratives of Wilson and Downing, two very different men whose stories almost mirror each other. Downing is the perfectionist taxidermist, loath to welcome the public through the door of the workshop where he channels his subjects until he captures their spiritual essence. In contrast, Wilson is consumed with ambition and a lust for luxury, obsessed with Ronald Reagan, accessorising himself and his house with Ronnie memorabilia. Both narratives are very funny, Downing’s more understatededly so than Wilson’s which wanders into the farcical. Like all good satire, Anthony’s novel has serious points to make not least about colonialism and its legacy, political corruption and greed. For the squeamish, of which I’m one, there are some look-away moments concerning eyes but these are easily skipped without losing track or sense of the story. It’s slightly bonkers and to begin with I wasn’t at all sure that it would work but it does.

If I’ve whetted your appetite you might like to wander over to Annecdotal where Anne’s hosting a giveaway. Best be quick, though: the deadline’s midnight on 30th April and it’s for UK residents only. Good luck!

Doubleday: London 2020 9780857526991 192 pages Hardback

Blasts from the Past: The Leper’s Companions by Julia Blackburn (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 can’t remember how I came across Julia Blackburn’s gorgeously poetic novel. I’d left bookselling and wasn’t yet working in magazines so I know that it wasn’t something a rep whose opinion I trusted had recommended or a book I’d been sent speculatively by a publisher. How ever it happened, I was enchanted by its strange dreamlike quality and the beauty of its writing.

Devastated by grief having suffered the loss of her beloved, a woman escapes into a strange and fascinating world, sometimes watching, occasionally involving herself in the life of a fifteenth-century English village. The villagers have their own griefs to bear: a young girl loses her husband to an obsession with the mermaid he brought ashore only to have her disappear; a shoemaker’s wife watches as her dear husband regains his sight only to lose his wits; a young woman mourns her grandmother whose peaceful death follows a long slow scrutiny of the life that rushed past her as she lived it. When a leper arrives in the village, he finds himself miraculously recovered from his affliction and joins the villagers who have been inspired to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Our unnamed narrator accompanies them on their journey.

The Leper’s Companions is a slim volume – a novella, really – but it’s not a book to be gulped down in one sitting. Its exquisite language and images are to be savoured so that they linger, working their magic on the reader’s mind. Not an easy one to track down these days, I suspect, but well worth it if you enjoy reading for writing’s sake.

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

Wild Swims by Dorthe Nors (transl. Misha Hoekstra): Smart, astute and funny

Cover ImageI first came across Dorthe Nors when I read her novella, Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2017. Her crisp, plain style coupled with an undercurrent of humour hit the spot for me. Wild Swims, exemplifies her rather idiosyncratic style, its apparently simple stories offering their readers much to think about.

Comprising fourteen pieces, each just a few pages long, Nors’ collection is prefaced with the advice ‘You can always withdraw a little bit further’, which seems entirely appropriate for out current covid-19 predicament and sets the tone nicely for what’s to follow. Many are stories about people disconnected from others either by design or circumstance, some of them longing to break out of their isolation, others glorying in it. In a Deer Stand a man wonders if his disparaging wife has called the police as he sits nursing what could be a broken ankle, contemplating another chilly night in a remote deer shelter. Manitoba sees an ex-teacher, divorced and living alone, who feels besieged by the teenage campers in a nearby field, wishing he could withdraw still further from his neighbours’ pity and inquisitiveness. Sometimes the dislocation is internal: in By Sydvest Station two friends collecting for charity get more than they bargained for but while one is shocked the other is oblivious as her partner’s cruel remarks replay endlessly in her head.

Several of the stories are unsettling, the most disturbing of which is the striking Honeysuckle about a man’s attraction to a young woman whose blindness lends her an odd absence, her face only coming alive during sex. Its counterpoint, On Narrow Paved Paths, treats death with a pleasingly light humour as Alice bustles around her dying neighbour who’s convinced he has a long life ahead of him, congratulating herself on a job well done after the funeral. My favourite, Hygge, is the tale of two old people, one of whom despises the other’s designs on him, whose black humour belies its title.

I’ve picked out just a handful of the most striking pieces but it’s hard to think of a dud in the entire collection. Funny, dark and often a combination of the two, these are quietly brilliant stories, admirable in their spare brevity, full of astute observations and just disconcerting enough to leave you turning them over in your mind. Best pay attention, small details can be telling yet easily missed.

As usual with the best short stories, quotable passages abound but here’s a small sample to whet your appetite:

Those long afternoons with flat fruit drink, peppermint candies, and Aunt Clara, who no longer fit her teeth  Hygge

Whatever he did, and even what he thought, haunted her. She read signs in offhand remarks, she researched his past, his possible sorrows. The Fairground

Years ago, a psychologist she’d gone to had told her that, when she met a man, she should avoid being so cleverPershing Square

They don’t understand that he’s alone either. It’s a pity he can’t find someone, they think. But the person that you pity is a person in your power.  Manitoba 

If you’re keen to get your hands on a copy of Wild Swims, you can order one direct from Pushkin Press. They’re a small publisher who will, no doubt, be struggling in these difficult times.

Pushkin Press: London 2020 9781782275503 128 pages Paperback

The Butchers by Ruth Gilligan: The old ways meet the new

Cover image for The Butchers by Ruthe GilliganIt took me some time to get around to reading Ruth Gilligan’s The Butchers. I’m a little squeamish and its blurb plus that title was a little off-putting. Then I saw Kim from Reading Matters praising it on Twitter and decided to give it a try and I’m very glad I did. Gilligan’s novel begins with the photograph of a naked man hung upside down from a meat hook in an Irish cold store taken in 1996 at the height of the BSE crisis that spread from the UK to Ireland.

She would check the trap again tomorrow, right after her father had raised his leather hand to the morning sky and broken both their hearts

Almost twelve years old, Úna is helping set the table for the last meal she and her mother will share with her father before he sets of on his eleven-month tour of the country. Cúch is one of The Butchers, eight men who slaughter cattle for those who, like them, believe in the old ways, and are paid in meat for their trouble. Úna idolises her father, her dearest ambition to become a Butcher herself. Her mother spends eleven months of every year alone, occasionally visiting her neighbour whose husband is also a Butcher and thinking about the sister she has never mentioned to her family. Then she meets a young photographer keen to establish a career with shots of the beautiful Irish landscape. Meanwhile, as what the media have dubbed Mad Cow Disease ravages the British cattle population, Irish farmers are anticipating a boom. Desperate for funds for his wife’s cancer treatment, Fion picks up his old cattle-smuggling ways working for the man they call the Bull, steeped in power and corruption, while his son sets his sights on university in Dublin. As some greet Modern Ireland with arms wide open to embrace the new ways, no matter how those ways might be brought about, the Butchers face mounting abuse eventually erupting in violence. Two decades after the debacle, the now celebrated photographer exhibits the dramatic shot of a body in a cold store for the first time with fateful consequences.

He looked so giant as he moved – big enough to be a myth himself. The fields around were raw with silence, the hillsides stony pocked and sparse

Gilligan frames her story with that dramatic opening scene and its consequences. Her writing is often striking, landscapes lyrically described, and her characterisation convincing: Úna is particularly well done, an engaging narrator who grows up determined to put right what she sees as a terrible wrong. Gilligan deftly shifts her narrative’s perspective, managing to be both funny and sad with its uncovering of family secrets, sore and long hidden, all wrapped up in a fine piece of storytelling. Its exploration of the old Ireland, with its rich tradition of folklore, and the struggle towards the new, through two families who are more entangled than they realise, reminded me a little of Niall Williams’ This is Happiness. Such an enjoyable book, and I could so easily have missed it were it not for Kim’s tweet. You can read her review here.

Atlantic Books: London 9781786499448 304 pages Hardback

Paperbacks to Look Out For in May 2020

Cover image for The Electric Hotel by Dominc SmithJust as May’s new title schedules suffered a wave of cuts and postponements so, too, have its paperback publications. I’ve read only one of those that have survived the chop, some of which look more enticing than others. I’ll begin with  Dominic Smith’s The Electric Hotel  which takes its readers to Paris, New Jersey and First World War Belgium, telling the story of the rise and fall of a film studio through a French pioneer of silent movies tracked down by a film history student decades after the disappearance of the film that bankrupted him. ‘The Electric Hotel is a portrait of a man entranced by the magic of movie-making, a luminous romance and a whirlwind trip through the heady, endlessly inventive days of early cinema’ according to the publishers. The Last Painting of Sara de Vos was one of my books of 2017 so hopes are high for this one.

I’m not so sure about Season Butler’s Cygnet, in which a young girl is stranded on an island, seemingly abandoned by her parents. Swan Island is home to an ageing separatist community who have turned their back on the mainland to create their own haven and have no wish to have their carefully constructed idyll shattered by an incomer, let alone a young one. ‘Cygnet is the story of a young woman battling against the thrashing waves of loneliness and depression, and how she learns to find hope, laughter and her own voice in a world that’s crumbling around her’ according to the publishers. This one could go either way but it’s an interesting premise.

Weighing in at just over 1,000 pages, Lewis Shiner’s Outside the Gates of Eden is another title I’m not at all sure about. It begins in the ‘60s and takes us all the way to the twenty-first century as it traces the rise and fall of counterculture through Alex and Cole who meet in high school. Alex would prefer to be an artist rather than join the family business while Cole’s future is decided at a Bob Dylan conference in 1965. ‘Using the music business as a window into the history of half a century, Outside the Gates of Eden is both epic and intimate, starkly realistic and ultimately hopeful, a War and Peace for the Woodstock generation’ say the publishers somewhat ambitiously. I’m very attracted to this one but somewhat intimidated by its length.

I’ll end with a title I can happily vouch for. Xuan Juliana Wang’s Cover image for Home Remedies by Xuan Juliana Wagdebut collection, Home Remedies, came garlanded with praise from Lauren Groff, herself no slouch when it comes to crafting short stories. Wang explores the second-generation immigrant experience in twelve lengthy pieces told mostly from the perspective of young Chinese. Both poignant and sharply observed, her stories are often undercut with a dark humour and her writing is plain yet striking. Not all the stories worked for me but it’s an interesting collection which explores a culture I know far less about than I should.

That’s it for May’s much depleted paperbacks. A click on a title will take you to my review for Home Remedies or to a more detailed synopsis should you want to know more about the others, and if you’d like to catch up with May’s handful of new titles, they’re here. Fingers crossed that both we and the publishing world will be in better shape in June.

A Theatre for Dreamers by Polly Samson: Trouble in paradise

Cover imageI’d enjoyed all three books by Polly Samson I’d read before A Theatre for Dreamers arrived, including her cleverly linked collection of short stories, Perfect Lives. I reviewed her last novel, The Kindness, here back in 2015 which feels like an age ago now. She writes the kind of absorbing, character-driven fiction that can offer some intelligent escapism, just the ticket for taking your mind of the Covid 19 misery. Set in 1960, her new novel tells the story of a group of artists, writers and hedonists drawn to the beautiful Greek island of Hydra, where Leonard Cohen met his muse, Marianne.

We lapped up the freedom our elders fought for and our appetites reached well beyond their narrow, war-shattered shadows 

Eighteen-year-old Erica has nursed her mother through her final illness, surprised to find she’s been left £1,000. Lost in grief, Erica decides to spend her legacy on a year living on Hydra, the setting for the novel written by her mother’s friend, Charmian Clift. She, her brother and her boyfriend take themselves off to Greece. Erica is entranced by the beauty of this place, the sights, sounds and smells so new and so alluring, keeping house while Jimmy pursues his dream of writing poetry when he’s not eyeing-up beautiful women. Erica has her own dreams of becoming a writer, keeping a journal of her days spent on this island whose artistic community is riven with gossip, whether it be about Charmian and her husband George, whose novel includes a thinly-veiled account of his wife’s affair, or the recently-arrived Canadian poet who’s consoling the wife of Axel Jensen, the womaniser Charmian warns Erica against. Over the course of a summer which sees Erica drawn deeper into the island’s creative circle, her heart will be broken and a few illusions shattered while a romance plays out that will capture the imagination of many for decades.

The hills flame with yellow flowers, the mountains are tipped with rose gold, every whitewashed wall shines crsytalline with quartz 

Samson opens her novel with Erica’s return to Hydra after both Leonard and Marianne have died, telling the story of that vividly remembered year in Erica’s own voice lending it a bright immediacy. Her novel is crammed with gorgeous descriptions of Hydra, glittering with sunlight, and her characterisation is excellent, neatly capturing Erica’s wide-eyed naivete and her desparate need to fill the chasm left by her mother. There’s a pleasing thread of feminism running through this novel where men tend to let their eyes wander while women all too often are left holding the baby or stirring the pot. Charmian presses a copy of The Second Sex on Erica telling her that her mother wanted more than domesticity for her; I wanted to cheer when she longs to bash Jimmy over the head with it. Samson wisely keeps Leonard and Marianne in the background, saving her novel from becoming a re-hash of a much-told story, instead focussing on George and Charmian whose book inspired this novel as she tells us in her acknowledgements. Immersive and colourful with a cast of wonderfully imagined characters, it’s the perfect escapist read during our current woes: a much needed mini holiday which may be all we get this year.

Bloomsbury: London 2020 9781526600554 348 pages Hardback

I Am Not Sidney Poitier by Percival Everett: ‘An overlooked genius’

Cover imageI’ve borrowed that subtitle from Courttia Newland’s introduction to Percival Everett’s novel, first published in the US in 2009. Newland stumbled upon Everett’s Graceland in a second-hand bookshop in London and went back for a copy of Erasure, the book that introduced me to this inventive, smart, very funny novelist. He’s prolific, too, but few of his novels are available here in the UK so I jumped at the chance of reviewing I Am Not Sidney Poitier. It’s the story of the eponymous Not Sidney whose prescient mother invested in Ted Turner’s broadcasting company, leaving him already rich at the age of seven when she dies in suburban Los Angeles.

Not Sidney has no idea who his father is. His mother gave birth to him after a surprisingly long gestation, raising him to be a sceptical reader and curious. Ted Turner visits shortly before she dies, keen to thank the woman who saw a future in his fledgling company. He takes Not Sidney in when he’s left orphaned, setting him up with his own staff in a wing of his Atlanta mansion from which Not Sidney gazes at Jane Fonda, Ted’s wife. Ted and Not Sidney spend lots of time together, Ted unleashing a seemingly ceaseless discursive monologue from which Not Sidney is eager to learn. At the age of fifteen, Not Sidney decides to drive to Los Angeles, landing up in gaol, guilty of being black in rural Georgia. Back in Atlanta he decides to go to college where he joins Professor Percival Everett’s Philosophy of Nonsense course, taking on the frat boys before dropping out. Intent on seeing his mother’s grave, Not Sidney sets out for Los Angeles, once again, this time making it to Alabama before another encounter with the law. The final episode of this picaresque adventure finds Not Sidney at a Hollywood awards ceremony, distinctly unsure of what’s going on. Throughout it all his fortune continues to grow just as his resemblance to Sidney Poitier becomes more pronounced

There’s a great deal of slapstick fun to be had with Not Sidney’s name in this novel which will have you chortling out loud. Everett narrates his story in Not Sydney’s voice, beginning in characteristically wacky fashion with a two-year gestation. He’s an engaging narrator, sharp yet naïve, intelligent and cultivated in stark contrast with the ignorant bigots lampooned by Everett, convinced of their own superiority despite all evidence to the contrary. The Percival Everett of the novel is a star turn, an academic who’s legitimised the spouting of impenetrable nonsense by turning it into a course which both bamboozles and awes his eager students. A very funny novel with serious points entertaingly made, it’s been a welcome distraction from our current global predicament. Everett is the author of over thirty novels five of which I’ve now read and thoroughly enjoyed. I’d love to think more might be published here in the UK.

If you’re keen to get your hands on a copy of I Am Not Sidney Poitier, you can order one direct from Influx Press. They’re a small publisher who will, no doubt, be struggling in these difficult times.

Influx Press: London 2020 9781910312537 287 pages Paperback

Books to Look Out For in May 2020

Cover imageSpare a thought for poor publishers who’ve been wrestling with the nightmare of rejigging their schedules to give their books the best possible exposure now that bookshops are shut thanks to the corona virus. Poor authors, too, left in limbo with all that nervous excitement at the prospect of the longed-for publication day now delayed. The result of all that is a much-depleted new title post, more like a December preview than May.

Unusually for me, I’ve already read three of the four remaining May novels beginning with Rebecca Dinnerstein Knight’s Hex, a six-cornered love story with a botanical twist. It takes the form of three notebooks written over six months by Nell Barber addressed to her advisor, Dr Joan Kallas, for whom she’s conceived a passion without entirely recognising its nature. Five years ago, I reviewed The Sunlit Night by Rebecca Dinerstein, as she was known then, describing it as ‘a quirky bit of escapism’, a description which fits Hex nicely, too.

I’ve also already read Lily King’s Writers & Lovers, unable to resist Elizabeth Strout’s description of it as ‘Gorgeous’. This warm, witty novel is about a young woman, lost in grief and mired in debt, with one sure thing in her life: the novel she’s been working on for six years. I thoroughly enjoyed it – one of those satisfyingly absorbing books you can wrap yourself up in and forget about the world, much needed right now.

I’ve yet to read Catherine Lacey’s Pew in which the eponymous character wakes up in a church unsure of their identity, gender or otherwise. Pew won’t speak, unable or unwilling to answer the many increasingly strident questions put to them by the town’s people. ‘As the days pass, their insistent clamour will build from a murmur to a roar, as both the innocent and the guilty come undone in the face of Pew’s silence’ says the blurb of what sounds rather like a fable. I’m not at all sure about this one but I’ve enjoyed Lacey’s previous novels, Nobody is ever Missing and The Answers.

I’m finishing with the book which will launch what looks like an interesting collaboration between Walter Presents, All Cover image4’s excellent subtitled TV stream, and Pushkin Press, publishers of very fine foreign fiction. David Foenkinos’ The Mystery of Henri Pick is set in a small Brittany town whose library is full of rejected manuscripts one of which is published by a young editor to great acclaim but it seems its author is dead causing a great deal of suspicion. ‘By turns farcical and moving, The Mystery of Henri Pick is a fast-paced comic mystery enriched by a deep love of books – and of the authors who write them’ says the blurb. Having read it, I’d say it’s the perfect choice for the Walter Presents/Pushkin Press partnership.

That’s it for May’s new novels. The smallest handful, I’m afraid. A click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should you want to know more. Reviews of Hex, Writers & Lovers, and The Mystery of Henri Pick to follow shortly. Paperbacks soon, and let’s hope there are more of them…

The Waiter by Matias Faldbakken (transl. Alice Menzies): Fraying at the edges

Cover imageI’ve spotted Matias Faldbakken’s The Waiter popping up several times in the paperback publishing schedules only for it to disappear. I’ve no idea why but I hope it’s because it was selling so well in its neatly proportioned hardback edition that its publishers though better of it. Its publication in the midst of the covid-19 crisis seems entirely appropriate given that many of us used to dining out will have reached a stage when such a thing feels like an unattainable exotic treat. Faldbakken’s novella recounts an eventful few days at an Oslo restaurant through the voice of the eponymous waiter, discombobulated by it all.

The Waiter has been working for over nineteen years at The Hills, an Oslo institution reminiscent of the grand Viennese cafes. Tall and a little stooped, he sees himself as a facilitator alert to diners’ needs, polite and self-effacing yet proud of his work. He’s an observer, more than a little judgemental in his assessment of his customers, and something of a neurotic, thrown into a tizzy when things aren’t just so. When one of his regulars is late, he starts to fret but within the hour all is right with the world when the man he calls the Pig turns up, closely followed by his friend, Blaise. Both seem a tad put out at the non-appearance of their guest. Our waiter has his hands full when his other regulars arrive. Thomas Sellers frequently donates to the art collection that adorns The Hills’ walls and his rowdy behaviour is tolerated as a result. Shortly after Blaise and the Pig depart, a young woman arrives. Beautiful yet strangely nondescript and seemingly at ease with everyone, the Child Lady, as our waiter comes to think of her, will throw a spanner into his carefully maintained works. Over the next few days, the Pig becomes disconcertingly familiar with the Waiter, Thomas Sellers orders his meal backwards and our usually punctilious waiter makes several mistakes, some of them worryingly deliberate. Throughout it all, the Head Chef continues to flambé, the Maitre D’s gnomic utterances become increasingly obscure and even the all-knowing Bar Manager fails to identify the Child Lady.

Diligence and anxiety go hand in hand, I’m convinced of that  

Narrated by the increasingly unravelling Waiter, Faldbakken’s novella is a thoroughly entertaining little gem. Beneath his formal, carefully locked down exterior, the Waiter is a seething mass of neuroticism, apparently rather pleased with himself yet riddled with self-doubt. His musings are often erudite, little disquisitions on art and history coupled with waspish observations on diners’ behaviour. The arrival of the Child Lady, who fails to fit any of his mental templates, unnerves him, while his best friend’s entrustment of his nine-year-old daughter sends him scuttling to his phone, constantly checking for messages from her father and indulging in the very behaviour he despises in others: scrolling through trivia. There are some wonderfully slapstick episodes including our Waiter’s collapse in the face of an appalling lapse in sartorial taste while under the influence of far too many espressos. A thoroughly enjoyable piece of entertainment – I loved it.

Black Swan: London 2020 9781784163983 240 pages Paperback