Flames is not an easy book to write about. It’s quite some way out of my usual literary territory, steeped as it is in fantasy and folklore, but I’m delighted that I overcame my prejudice and jumped in. Tasmanian writer Robbie Arnott’s debut begins with the reappearance of Edith McAllister, two days dead.
The McAllister women have a history of resurrection, appearing covered in barnacles or vegetation after they’ve been cremated, only to burst into flames a few days later. It comes as no surprise, then, when Edith repeats the pattern. Levi appears to take it all in his stride but Charlotte is distraught, howling and screeching with a grief so wrenching it leaves Levi at a loss. These two are very different yet they share a bond of love. Levi decides that the best he can do for Charlotte is to save her from the same fate as their mother, commissioning a coffin which will contain her when the time comes. When Charlotte sees his notes, she takes off to a remote area of Tasmania, once a mining site now a wombat farm tended by a farmer who loves his stock devotedly. Panicked by her disappearance, Levi sets a private detective on Charlotte’s trail. Meanwhile, Charlotte has found herself a job as a farm hand. By the time the detective has tracked her down, events have taken a very dark turn at the farm where a large and glossy cormorant appears to be wreaking havoc.
Arnott’s novel is one of the most striking I’ve read this year. Told from a variety of perspectives – from a water-rat king to a foul-mouthed coffin maker, a man-made of fire to another driven mad by it – it could very easily have had me tossing it aside after a few pages but it drew me in with its gorgeous writing. From its show-stopping opening paragraph, it’s stuffed full of vivid images of the natural – and unnatural – world, its fantastical story tempered with humour. Arnott knits the threads of his tale together satisfyingly, returning us at its end to one of my favourite sections when a man discovers the joy of finding his other half who is not what you might expect. I’m not going to strain to find a meaning to it all – that would destroy its delight – but it’s safe to say that love of more than one sort triumphs. My advice is just sit back and enjoy the ride
Perhaps because I’ve only lived in one country, I’m perennially attracted to the immigrant experience in fiction which is why Elaine Castillo’s debut caught my eye. Set in the Californian city of Milpitas in the early ‘90s, it’s about a Filipino community and I’m ashamed to say that before I read it I knew next to nothing about the Philippines’ troubled history. Castillo explores that history through the story of Hero who comes to live with her uncle and aunt after being released from a prison camp.
Hero hasn’t spoken to her parents since 1976 when she dropped out of medical school and became involved with the New People’s Army. Never part of their guerrilla attacks, Hero patched up her comrades until she was snatched and incarcerated for two years, leaving her with badly broken hands. Her favourite uncle offers her a home in the States where she’s an illegal and unable to work. Instead, she looks after her sassy seven-year-old niece Roni of whom she becomes increasingly fond. Her aunt is not so welcoming. Paz takes as many nursing shifts as she can, stubbornly intent on Roni’s betterment while Pol works as a security guard, his impeccable surgical reputation useless without accreditation. Paz and Pol come from very different backgrounds: he’s from a wealthy family with connections to President Marcos; she’s from a dirt poor, hardscrabble home. Their mother tongues are not the same; their food preferences differ widely; despite her training Paz holds firm to the old superstitions. Paz proudly stood her ground against the womanising Pol for a long time but he was determined. Now their marriage seems unequal. This is the strained household into which Hero must fit herself, made easier when she meets Rosalyn and finds a second home.
America is Not the Heart is a big, sometimes baggy novel that draws you in after a slowish start. Castillo deftly weaves the benighted history of the Philippines into Hero’s story both through flashbacks and family history. Pol and Paz neatly personify the archipelago’s intensely stratified society, a chasm between their ethnic, social and economic backgrounds which seems impossible to bridge although it’s Paz who’s the breadwinner in their American household. Castillo captures the insularity of a community in which the many signals of where each member sits in Filipino society are present and correct, evoking it particularly vividly in Rosalyn’s fury at her own ignorance when she contemplates moving out of Milpitas. The characterisation is strong – Hero and Rosalyn are polar opposites yet their relationship feels entirely credible. And Castillo writes about sex well, unafraid to use a bit of humour – not an easy feat to pull off as winners of the Bad Sex Award will no doubt tell you. Just one criticism, I could have done with a glossary. Lots of googling interrupted the reading flow for me. That said, Castillo’s debut is entertaining, engrossing and enlightening. Can’t say better than that.
I’m a frequent visitor to Naomi’s Consumed by Ink. She often whets my appetite for Canadian novels that seem right up my street but for some reason rarely find their way to the UK. I was particularly taken by her review of Katherena Vermette’s debut last year and delighted to find it was to be published here. It’s about an indigenous family, already contending with a history of violence and loss, faced with an appalling sexual assault on one of their daughters.
Woken by her teething baby, Stella looks out of her window one moonlit night and sees an act of violence she thinks is a rape. She rings the police but when she looks again there’s no sign of the assailants or their victim. When the police finally arrive – the younger one keen, the older one dismissive of this crime committed on the strip of land which divides the up and coming white neighbourhood from the indigenous – the only evidence is a pool of blood. Next morning, thirteen-year-old Emily is rushed to hospital by her mother’s partner after collapsing. Later that day, her best friend Ziggy is brought in, beaten about the face. Emily has been the victim of a horrible crime on the way home from a gang party she and Ziggy had stumbled into, finding themselves out of their depth. As the police try to piece together what has happened to these two friends, a picture of a community emerges in which most men are either absent, feckless or violent, and damaged women either survive or go under.
The Break was never going to be an easy read but such is Vermette’s skill that she succeeds in drawing her readers into this story in which domestic and sexual violence is more common than not. The novel’s perspective shifts from character to character, effectively unfolding the events leading up to the attack and its investigation while creating a multi-layered portrait of the tight-knit community to which Emily belongs. Vermette is careful with her characterisation, no black and white caricatures here including the perpetrator. She meticulously reveals the low buzz of racism, the particular difficulties faced by people of mixed race and the pull of one culture over another but her strength lies in her portrayal of women and the bonds between them despite the harshness of their lives. All this may sound unremittingly dark but Vermette’s story is riveting, her characters convincing and there is hope in the form of young men who find ways to avoid the lure of drink and drugs, looking out for their younger siblings. A tough read, then, but a rewarding one thoroughly deserving of the Margaret Atwood endorsement adorning its jacket.
Robin Sloan’s Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore was a 2013 favourite for me. I’ve been waiting patiently for something else from him having been a little disappointed by Mr Penumbra’s prequel, Ajax Penumbra 1969, and was delighted to spot Sourdough on the January horizon. It’s the story of a young woman who is given a sourdough starter, so hungry it may take over the world.
Just a year out of college, Lois lands a plum job in San Francisco helping to design the perfect robotic arm but it’s far from the dream she envisaged. Her nose firmly to the grindstone, her stomach cramped with stress, she exists on a diet of Slurry, the convenient nutritive gel championed by her boss. One day she finds a flyer advertising spicy soup and bread stuck to her apartment door. Desperate for comfort, she places her order with a friendly young man and another delivers it. Soon she’s addicted to their lip-smacking produce but Beo and Chaiman are moving back to their parents in Edinburgh. Before they go, Beo gives Lois his sourdough starter with instructions to play it the background music she’s familiar with from her nightly orders, and an email address. Lois, of course, has no clue how to bake bread but she knows how to set about learning. Soon she discovers there’s more to life than robotics, setting up a small sideline selling bread to General Dexterity’s trophy chef who suggests she auditions for a coveted stall at a farmers market. There she meets a young woman who offers her a place at a market no one else seems to have heard of where all manner of weird and wonderful food is being developed.
Sourdough is just the thing to brighten up a dull winter evening. Lois is an engaging narrator, determined to find a way to make her new hobby pay enough to liberate herself from the grind of her day job, and there’s the promise of a tentative love story threaded through Beo’s emails. A few well-aimed swipes are taken at the modern world which seems either to have lost its taste buds or to have become obsessed with them and is unable to find a middle way. And who can resist a novel whose star is a megalomaniac sourdough starter that puts on a light show, sings to itself and is kept in check by Grateful Dead tracks. A thoroughly enjoyable piece of entertainment which, like Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, has something to say about the way we live – and eat – now.
I remember enjoying Allegra Goodman’s The Cookbook Collector very much when it was published back in 2010 which is partly what attracted me to The Chalk Artist, that and what promised to be an exploration of the all-consuming nature of gaming. I’m not a gamer but I am an obsessive reader and so I can see the attraction of losing yourself entirely in a world other than the real one. In some ways Goodman’s new novel echoes her previous one, exploring the world of new technology and contrasting it with the older more established one of literature.
Collin is a talented artist. He chalks the backdrops for his friends’ theatrical productions, often staged in unlikely venues. He makes his money from part-time jobs, one of which is waiting at Grendel’s where his attention has been snagged by a beautiful young woman, a teacher who comes to the bar twice a week to mark her students’ papers, oblivious of the racket around her. Eventually these two get together. They have much in common but their worlds are very different: she, it turns out, is the daughter of the man who owns Arkadia, the designers of EverWhen which once consumed Collin’s attention; he is the son of a teacher – comfortably alternative and popular with her students – who takes in lodgers to make ends meet. Before long Nina finds herself unable to resist prodding Collin into doing better for himself, introducing him to her father who takes him on, spotting a useful asset for his company. Meanwhile, sixteen-year-old Aidan frequently pulls all-nighters playing EverWhen, worrying his mother and his twin sister who has her own demons to wrestle. Aidan’s obsession with his female EverWhen companion pays off in the form of a black box which opens up UnderWorld to him, a virtual reality game not yet on the market. With her sharp marketing eye, Daphne has spotted a way to manipulate expert gamers, fanning the flames of the already fevered anticipation of this new game. As Nina struggles to imbue her students with a love of literature, Collin is pulled further into Arkadia with its playground offices and exacting taskmasters.
Just as she did with The Cookbook Collector, Goodman uses a love story to explore the way in which technology shapes the modern world, sometimes to its detriment. Nina represents the values of education while Arkadia is portrayed as a manipulative organisation, quite capable of employing fake protestors to surround their launches with publicity-snatching controversy. I can’t judge the authenticity of the vivid gaming descriptions but Aidan’s obsession seemed all too believable and may ring loud bells for a few parents of teenagers seduced by the promise of a world more exciting than their own. The mismatch between gamers’ glamourous avatars and their owners’ physical reality is a particularly convincing touch. It’s a book which draws you in with an edge of suspense and engaging central characters but it’s not without flaws: Aidan’s twin Diana seemed a little neglected. Just as I thought we were about to explore her story as a counterpoint to Aidan’s, she faded away, making a brief reappearance towards the end. An absorbing read and an interesting insight into the gaming world but not quite a match for The Cookbook Collector for me, I’m afraid, although that did set the bar rather high.
I was attracted to the premise of Pamela Erens’ slim, third novel before I remembered that I’d already read her second, The Virgins, set against the backdrop of a New England school rife with speculation about the golden couple of its senior year. Eleven Hours is entirely different. The titular hours are the length of Lore’s labour attended by Franckline, the midwife assigned to her. Erens explores the relationship that forms between these two very different women from Lore’s admittance to the hospital to a few hours after the birth.
Lore arrives unaccompanied but with a comprehensive birth plan which Franckline discreetly tosses aside. Her years of experience have taught her that the birth rarely follows a plan, no matter how detailed it may be. Lore is in the early stages of labour but the night’s slow enough for her to be given a private room. Franckline is from Haiti, fascinated by the process of birth since she was six years old but beset by difficulties with her own dreams of having children. She’s in the early stages of a third pregnancy and has yet to tell her husband, too anxious to share her news in case something goes wrong. Lore is pretty much alone in the world but determined to bring this child up well. Soleil, as she’s chosen to call the baby not knowing if it’s a boy or a girl, is the child of Asa, the lover she met through her friend Julia. All three had become entangled in a relationship until it became clear that Asa and Julia had become lovers again. These two women are engaged in something that happens everywhere, every day: one helping the other through the pain and sheer hard graft of childbirth, each of them entering their own reveries in the increasingly brief periods of calm.
Eleven Hours is a short, extraordinarily intense novel. Flitting backwards and forwards between Lore and Franckline, Erens unfolds these two women’s stories through the memories, reflections, worries and observations which take up their thoughts between the comings and goings of doctors and the contractions which Franckline supports and encourages Lore through. Her writing is often striking – Lore ‘has flung her pain into this public space, not caring who observed it’ – and sometimes funny: ‘you were supposed to relax and breathe, but she soon discovered it felt much better to pull hard at the pipes and curse loudly’ thinks Lore, lying on her bathroom floor. The deeply intimate yet ephemeral relationship of these two women is acutely observed and tenderly portrayed. It’s harrowing at times, and nail-biting towards the end, but Erens spares us from excessively graphic description. It’s an impressive piece of fiction which vividly conveys the uniqueness of every birth despite its almost prosaic occurrence. I enjoyed The Virgins, but this is much better.
Having got over my lifelong antipathy to short stories I still find myself drawn more to the linked variety rather than collections of standalones. There’s something about spotting a character familiar from a previous story and wondering how they might develop. Anna Noyes’ debut collection seemed like it might fit that category and although it turned out to be not quite what I was expecting – to be fair the press release does say ‘loosely interconnected’ – it’s immensely satisfying.
Noyes’ stories share the backdrop of smalltown Maine, and they’re about women. Men tend to be somewhere off stage, their presence – or absence – often keenly felt. In ‘Hibernation’, for instance, a woman’s increasingly unhinged husband has drowned, apparently killing himself, but she’s convinced he’s still alive, watching her. A girl ricochets between childhood and womanhood then back again while her widowed father worries about how to discuss the rape of a young woman in ‘Safe as Houses’. ‘The Quarry’ has a ten-year-old taxing her fifteen-year-old sister about her love life and finding out more than she wants to hear. The titular story sees a young woman aghast at what happens when she, her reclusive mother and the man who helped raise her since she was six take a trip out-of-state while in ‘Changeling’ a young nurse constantly searching for a mother after her own left nineteen years ago thinks she may have found her but turns out to have found something else instead. These five give a flavour of the eleven stories which comprise Noyes’ slim, elegant collection.
These are stories about ordinary, everyday people sometimes emotionally damaged, often struggling to get by. Single parents fretting about their kids; children overhearing too much; mental illness and too much alcohol; sexual misadventure and abuse, are recurring themes. Noyes’ writing is arrestingly striking at times, quietly controlled and finely honed: ‘Dad only touched me twice. Both times he was gentle and looked bewildered, like my body wasn’t the one he expected, but it was too late, too embarrassing for both of us to turn back’ exemplifies her empathetic exploration of human complexity. ‘I thought of my mother, who had taken to wearing her robe from morning until evening, and ghosting around the house with her swollen eyes and mottled face’ elegantly expresses depression’s devastating effects on both mother and child. Noyes sketches subtle word pictures of the human state in myriad shades of grey. These women are entirely believable, their lives unfolding in carefully crafted yet immediate prose – sometimes dreamlike, sometimes sharp and clean. It’s an admirable collection. Ron Rash came to mind for me although the Washington Post compares Noyes to Alice Munro with which, I’m sure, her publishers will have been very much more delighted.
This is the second novel I’ve read in a year in which traditional gender roles are reversed within a marriage – Andrew Miller’s The Crossing saw Tim decide to stay at home and look after their child while Maud continues her work in clinical research – and I’ve since read a third, Sarah Moss’ superb The Tidal Zone (review to follow soon). Three in a year might seem a high score but you’d think over a decade and a half into the 21st century it would be a more ubiquitous and therefore unremarkable theme. Coincidentally, Jane Rogers’ Eleanor – like Maud – is engaged in medical research as is Conrad. The difference between them is that while Eleanor is a star in her particular sphere, Conrad’s work has stalled.
When Eleanor returns from spending the weekend with her lover she‘s expecting to find Conrad at home, back from his conference in Munich. At first she’s almost relieved, setting about making the house looked lived in despite the fact that Conrad is all too well aware of Louis. As the hours pass, anxiety slips in. Eleanor speculates about Conrad’s absence – perhaps he met someone at the conference, maybe he has his own affair to distract him upsetting as that may seem. The truth is very different: Conrad has fled Munich, convinced he’s seen the young animal rights activist who’s been stalking him, and headed for Rome. Spooked and anxious, he gets off the train in Bologna, worried that Maddy has seen him boarding it. With no suitcase and very little money, he books into a hotel, roaming the Bologna streets aimlessly for several days. One evening lost, feverish and hallucinating he is saved by the kindness of a stranger who takes him in. Eleanor and Conrad spend their time apart revisiting memories of parenthood, thinking about the role each has played in the other’s life and how they have arrived at a point in their relationship where they are so far apart.
Through Eleanor and Conrad’s alternating narratives, Rogers presents a nuanced portrait of a marriage in which traditional male/female roles are upended. Eleanor is intensely involved in her work while Conrad much preferred taking care of their four children when they were young, pushed into his organ transplant research by Eleanor and increasingly unhappy in it. Eleanor’s relationship with her children is distant, Conrad’s close. Neither of them talk to each other. Conrad’s abrupt absence and the crisis it precipitates forces Eleanor to reassess their relationship but Rogers resists any fairy tale ending, instead offering her readers an entirely plausible resolution. The novel’s secondary theme of animal experimentation is neatly stitched in, with arguments deftly rehearsed on both sides. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable and absorbing read. Not the first novel by Rogers I’ve read but it’s prompted me to think I should seek out more.
I noticed The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty being talked about recently on Twitter by someone whose taste I admire. The title seemed familiar and I wish I could tell you that it was because it’s from one of Rumi’s poems – revealed half-way through the novel – but I have to admit it was already on my ‘to be reviewed’ shelves. Anyway, @elizabethmoya was quite right. Set in Morocco, Vendela Vida’s compelling novel takes us on a nail-biting journey wondering what our resourceful protagonist will come up with next and keeping us thoroughly entertained along the way.
As soon as she spots that her anonymous black backpack has been snatched, our nameless protagonist knows she should have heeded her guidebook: ‘the first thing you should do upon arrival in Casablanca is get out of Casablanca’. 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. 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. She takes herself off to an up-market hotel, noticing a film crew outside and a ‘famous American actress’. So starts an adventure that will see her standing in for the actress, meeting Patti Smith, dining with a rich Russian businessman and coming slap-bang up against what is fast becoming her old life, leaving a trail of names, lies and half-truths in her wake.
Just as I was remembering The Sheltering Sky with its altogether darker story of an American whose passport goes missing in North Africa, a cab-driver asks our protagonist if she’s heard of Paul Bowles but Vida’s tale is far from brooding. Told in the second person which takes a little getting used to, it’s often very funny – sometimes dryly so, sometimes almost farcical. Our protagonist’s brush with stardom is particularly nicely handled with some sharp fun poked at celebrity. Small details of her past leak into the narrative until all is revealed towards the end: the last piece of the jigsaw wasn’t a surprise but it’s well done. Vida makes her readers squirm as our protagonist slides deeper and deeper into a quagmire of lies, expecting her to be found out at every turn. If some of her adventures seem a little improbable they’re so well drawn that I forgave Vida. Altogether a thoroughly entertaining read and I see there’s a backlist to explore.
Perhaps it’s because those of us in the privileged developed world are living longer – that and the advent of a new century – but there seems to be a little trend for novels written from the point of view of a centenarian bystander, someone who’s rubbed shoulders with those who’ve shaped our world for good or ill: Any Human Heart, The End of Days and The Hundred-Year-old Man Who ClimbedOut of the Window and Disappeared spring to mind. Himmler’s Cook, is another along these lines and it was this that made me pick it up although its clever jacket was another draw. At the age of one hundred and five, Rose has decided to write her memoir and she’s got a lot to get off her chest.
Rose makes no bones about other people: she can’t stand complainers as she says from the start. When she’s mugged by a young man calling himself the Cheetah, she suspects he’s from a comfortable middle class home and decides to put the frighteners on him. Rose hasn’t lived through the Armenian genocide in which the rest of her family perished, the horrors of the Second World War when Himmler took a fancy to her, and the miseries of Mao’s Great Leap Forward when she lost her second husband, to put up with being threatened by some young punk, so she does what she always does: takes revenge. Born in a tree somewhere near the Black Sea in 1907, Rose has travelled the world but always returns to Marseilles where she still runs a restaurant having learnt the joys of cooking from her adoptive mother. She’s a believer in ‘the forces of love, laughter and vengeance’ easing the pain of tragedy by means of her beauty and wit to extract the latter while enjoying the former to the full. Giesbert takes his sassy heroine from her early years in Armenia to her confrontation with ‘the Cheetah’ – aka Ryan – after his second transgression, taking in a good deal of blood-spilling, cooking, lovemaking and adventure, not to mention a surprisingly long passage on sheep castration, along the way.
Already a bestseller in France, I suspect Himmler’s Cook is aimed firmly at the Jonasson market here in the UK. Rose is a vividly memorable character, announcing ‘History is a bitch’ then going on to explain just why. Her favourite song is The Jackson Five’s Can You Feel It? and she’s a great admirer of Patti Smith. She believes in living each day as if it’s her last, proclaiming ‘rid yourself of self-esteem or you will never know love’ despite her own supreme self-confidence. Well known names pepper her narrative – Sartre and de Beauvoir regularly dine in her restaurant, Himmler’s bewitched by both her body and her food while Felix Kirsten advises her on how to handle Hitler’s police chief. There’s quite a lot of knockabout humour amidst the genocidal activities of the various despots she encounters. Altogether an enjoyable romp although I felt that Giesbert skated over Rose’s long Chinese sojourn, cramming it into a few short chapters. There’s a lovely description of her adoptive mother that those of us who feel they should read less and get out more will appreciate: ‘ she had never travelled further afield than to Manosque, but thanks to the books she read she had lived a full life.’ Quite so.