Tag Archives: Canongate Books

He Is Mine and I Have No Other by Rebecca O’Connor: Secrets and Lies

Cover imageThis seems to be the year of the novella for me helped along by Madame Bibi who devoted the whole of last month to the form. Set in a small Irish town, Rebecca O’Connor’s He Is Mine and I Have No Other may be short on pages but it’s devastating in its revelation of tragedy, secrets and lies as it tells the story of fifteen-year-old Lani who falls in love with a troubled boy.

Lani lives with her mother, father and grandmother in a house on the edge of town. Every day she watches a boy make his way to the graveyard just above their house where thirty-five orphan girls lie buried, conceiving a passion for him and persuading her best friend to go with her to his school disco. They concoct an alibi for parental consumption, pilfer a few cans and take themselves off – Lani determined to ask the boy to dance. To her amazement he says yes and the two begin to exchange letters – his a little overwrought, hers more prosaic. Already painfully self-conscious, Lani swings from ecstatic fantasies about Leon to a conviction that she’s being laughed at until she discovers that he has a past which marks him out from other boys. Despite the happiness of her mother’s unexpected pregnancy, there are also secrets in her own home, kept tight since her grandmother was Lani’s age.

Lani tells her own story, her narrative occasionally punctuated by short entries from her aunt’s book on the orphans burnt in a convent fire made poignant by their hopes for the future in amongst the neglect and abuse suffered at the hands of their supposed protectors. O’Connor lightens the tone of Lani’s story with a much-needed thread of humour  – her parents call each other ‘mam’ and ‘dad’ but presumably not when the condom broke, thinks Lani, sarcastically; ’the fumes from the aftershave were deadly’ at the school disco which is excruciatingly vivid in its depiction of adolescent awkwardness as the first slow song plays. Lani views boys with deep suspicion as if they’re another species: they smelled, most of those boys. They smelled like they had dirty things on their minds. Lani’s parents’ happiness and concern for her contrast sharply with the misery of Leon’s predicament but there’s no getting away from tragedy in this novel. Prepare to have your heart well and truly wrenched.

That’s it from me until nearly the end of this month. We’re taking to the railways again, leaving for London later today then catching Eurostar to Amsterdam before heading east. The aim is to travel light but no doubt space will be made for a book or three.

Heather, The Totality by Matthew Weiner: Delivers on its promise

I’ve been looking forward to this novel since I first came across it in Canongate’s catalogue. Some of you may have already heard of Matthew Weiner, or you may know his writing from Mad Men or The Sopranos but not his name. As is so often the case, it’s the starry actors’ names that stay with us – Elisabeth Moss or James Gandolfini – but not the scriptwriters’ without whom, of course, there’d be no boxed set to watch and rewatch. Heather, The Totality is Weiner’s first novel, a slim, dark piece of fiction which more than fulfilled expectations raised by hours spent in front of his screen creations.

Mark and Karen have just tipped over into their forties when they meet. She’s something of a beauty, working as a publicist but happy at the prospect of marriage and a family. He works in finance, no physical match for her with his chubby plain features but successful in his way, if only through luck. They marry, set up house and soon Karen is pregnant. Heather is a beautiful, intelligent child, almost preternaturally empathetic. She becomes the centre of Karen’s life while Mark resentfully accepts whatever crumbs are thrown his way. When the penthouse apartment is renovated, most of the residents move out for the duration but Karen insists on staying, reluctant to disturb Heather’s routines. One of the workers arouses Mark’s suspicions when he’s caught ogling Heather, now a startlingly attractive teenager. A child of poverty and violence, Bobby is the opposite of Heather with whom he has become obsessed. For Mark, his intentions are terrifyingly clear.

Weiner’s smart, sharp debut explores privilege and deprivation, marriage and parenting, love and jealousy with precision and insight, all wrapped up in a taut piece of noir. The perspective shifts smoothly between the four main characters intensifying the novel’s suspense and our relationship with them. Weiner’s prose is as polished as you might expect from his screenwriting: clipped, crisp yet vivid.

Mark knew that unlike his Sister, who had starved to avoid breasts and menstruation and men, Heather would be a normal teenage girl, and that was no comfort either

Heather’s empathy had matured with the rest of her and was now incisive to the point of pain

Heather’s privilege and Bobby’s lack of it are quietly contrasted in parallel narratives woven neatly through the novel’s episodic structure. It all works beautifully and the ending is a triumph. Weiner’s book comes proclaimed ‘superb’ by Philip Pullman, and indeed it is.

Blasts from the Past: The People’s Act of Love by James Meek (2005)

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.

The People’s Act of Love is one of those rare things: a novel that came to me via H’s recommendation. He tends to read much more non-fiction than I do, relying on my suggestions for fiction apart from crime of which I’m not fond. In fact, I think I handed this on to him as something that seemed more up his street than mine. He raved about it so I had to read it then became a fervent convert. We weren’t the only ones – it was praised to the skies by critics who bravely compared it with the likes of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.

In 1919 the remote Siberian town of Yazyk is home to an extreme Christian sect. Stationed nearby is the remnant of a Czech battalion and their mad captain, desperate to get home after losing the civil war. The arrival of the charismatic but slippery Samarin, recently escaped from a Russian gulag, together with the suspicious death of a local shaman throws Yazyk into a chaos of suspicion and terror, further complicated by a beautiful young woman of ambiguous status whose attention has been snared by Samarin.

There are a multitude of storylines running through Meek’s novel. Hard to do it justice in a few lines. I’m wary of the old ‘literary page-turner’ cliché but this really is gripping with several quite shocking revelations. Meek’s descriptive writing is extraordinarily vivid, summoning up the harshness of the frigid Siberian landscape. It’s about war, love, idealism, belief and the extremes that people will go to in pursuit of them. Perhaps I should listen to H more often.

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

The Fortunate Brother by Donna Morrissey: Loose lips sink ships

Cover imageDonna Morrissey’s new novel comes with a hearty endorsement from one of my favourite authors, Ron Rash, who’s dubbed it ‘one of the very best novels I have read in years’. It had caught my eye even before I’d seen the press release but after reading that how could I resist? Attentive readers may have noticed that this is the second Rash endorsement I’ve fallen for recently. He was pretty keen on The Barrowfields too. Set in Newfoundland, The Fortunate Brother is the story of a murder which sets the small fishing village in which it takes place abuzz with speculation.

Kyle Now is not at all sure what he’ll do with his future. He has a university place but is unwilling to turn his back on his family, still reeling from the loss of his brother in an accident on the oil rigs. His father spends much of his time in a drunken stupor, his sister has taken off backpacking in Africa and his mother is undergoing treatment for breast cancer. Kyle is shouldering this heavy burden when Clar Gillard’s body is washed up, thought to be drowned then found to be stabbed. This is a community where nothing goes unnoticed or undiscussed. Soon the village is rife with gossip about possible culprits, fingers pointing every which way from Clar’s wife, who he frequently abused, to Kyle’s father, known to detest Clar, to Kyle, himself, beaten by Clar the night of his killing. Over the next few days, Kyle finds himself questioned by the police, stumbling over evidence and trying to keep his father’s head above water as they both face his mother’s operation. Kyle has his suspicions about the identity of the murderer but unlike the rest of the village he knows when to keep his mouth shut.

Tensions run high almost to the end of Morrissey’s taut atmospheric novel. Secrets are plentiful and well-guarded. I guessed the perpetrator correctly early on but that didn’t stop me from changing my mind right up until their identity was revealed.  The Now family’s desperate grief is palpable in Morrissey’s depictions of a father unable to talk about his son’s death and a mother patiently working her way through her pain alone. Caught in the middle, Kyle’s angry struggle to protect both parents is both poignant and compellingly convincing. The portrayal of one half of a community unable to keep its mouth shut while the other seems incapable of keeping anything but shtum might seem too convenient in another setting but here in a remote village where ‘everyone was your brother or aunt or cousin or neighbour and they knew your dead like they knew their own’ it seems entirely plausible. Morrissey’s writing is admirable clipped yet vividly evocative of its setting: the landscape and weather are punishing, spoken of as if each were a person with a fickle power over the inhabitants. If The Fortunate Brother is anything to go by, Morrissey and Rash are a fine match: if you like one, I’d be surprised if you didn’t like the other.

Blasts from the Past: Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch (2011)

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 in as many hands as I could.

I’d read one of Carol Birch’s earlier novels years before Jamrach’s Menagerie was published and while I enjoyed it I wasn’t particularly inclined to read more but I have a weakness for novels with a circus or carnival theme – Nights at the Circus, Carter Beats the Devil, Dreamland, Tipping the Velvet to name but a few – so this one snagged my attention with its dramatic rescue of eight-year-old Jaffy from a tiger’s jaws by menagerie owner, Charles Jamrach.

Stricken at what could so nearly have been a tragedy, Jamrach offers Jaffy a job cleaning out the animals’ cages which the boy happily accepts, becoming friends with Tim Liniver and falling in love with Tim’s sister. At the age of sixteen, Jaffy is sent with Tim to the Dutch East Indies aboard a whaling ship to capture a ‘dragon’ for the menagerie. The intrepid pair is successful but when the ‘dragon’ bites one of the crew it’s thrown overboard. The ship is later sunk – struck by a whale – leaving just twelve of the crew alive and stranded in two boats. As the twelve begin to die of thirst and starvation, the survivors are forced to resort to cannibalism. Eventually straws are drawn to decide who will be killed and devoured next. When land is struck, only two are left alive – half-mad with horror and grief.

Birch is a rip-roaring storyteller and this is quite a tale to tell. It’s packed full of vivid description, memorable characters and adventure. I remember racing through this novel one holiday, completely lost in it. Sadly, last year’s Orphans of the Carnival failed to match it for me.

Jaffy’s dramatic rescue is based on an incident in the nineteenth-century East End, now commemorated with a statue in Wapping, when an eight-year-old was indeed rescued from the jaws of a Bengal tiger owned by a Charles Jamrach who ran a menagerie. Sadly the latter part of the book is also based in fact – the dreadful fate of the whaler, Essex, rammed by a sperm whale in 1820.

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

The World Made Straight by Ron Rash: A land steeped in blood

Cover imageRegular readers may remember that I’m a keen Ron Rash fan. His pared to the bone writing laced with lyrical descriptions of the Appalachians is right up my alley. I’m not sure the beautifully jacketed The World Made Straight, originally published in 2006, has made an appearance here in the UK before now or if it has, how I managed to miss it. It’s set in the 1970s but the Civil War, fought over a century before, throws a long shadow for some living near Shelton Laurel, the site of an appalling atrocity.

Trying to find a way to make money after losing his job at the local supermarket, seventeen-year-old Travis Shelton is fishing when he stumbles on a field of marijuana plants. He knows they belong to the Toomeys who are not to be tangled with but he steals some anyway and heads off to see Leonard, the local dealer. On his third visit, Travis walks into a bear trap, landing himself in hospital. When his father all but chucks him out he turns up at Leonard’s door and is reluctantly taken in. Leonard has his own demons to fight. Dismissed when a pupil framed him for possession, furious at being found cheating, he’s a teacher whose ex-wife and young daughter are living in Australia. A relationship grows between these two: Travis is a smart kid, curious about the world; Leonard can’t resist feeding that curiosity, finding Travis books to read and encouraging him to go to college. Running through the novel is the memory of the Civil War and the massacre at Shelton Laurel. The ancestors of both Travis and Leonard played a part in that bloody conflict, along with those of the Toomeys. As the novel edges towards its tense conclusion it’s clear that the sides taken have not been forgotten.

The most striking aspect of Rash’s fiction for me is his use of language. His writing is spare –  ‘he rubbed a pot leaf between his finger and thumb, and it felt like money’ – yet his descriptions of the natural world are often quite lyrical – ‘the leaves of the trees thinned out enough that the sun laid a scattered brightness on the water’. He’s clearly a fisherman: gorgeously vivid descriptions of the river run throughout this novel, always with an eye to fishing opportunities. The novel’s characters are astutely observed and convincing – both Travis and Leonard are flawed yet redeemable. Rash weaves the Civil War deftly through his story, prefacing each chapter with an entry from the local doctor’s ledger in the years leading up to and during the conflict whose implications become clear as Travis immerses himself in the region’s history. It’s an engrossing read with a gripping climax which ends in a brutal redemption. What a treat to be presented with an unread Rash novel so soon after last year’s Above the Waterfall.  Wikipedia tells me that there are two novels preceding this one. I hope Canongate are on the case.

Blasts from the Past: The Cutting Room by Louise Welsh (2002)

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 first heard about The Cutting Room when I began what turned into a decade-long stint as the reviews editor for Waterstones Books Quarterly. It was one of those books that everyone seemed to talking about. I was a little out of touch having suffered a prolonged bout of ill-health but suspected it wouldn’t be for me, more in my crime fiction loving colleague’s neck of the woods. Not for the first time, nor the last, I was completely wrong: it’s a strikingly assured debut which immediately had me in its grip.

Bowery Auctions is close to bankruptcy when its auctioneer is offered an opportunity that will pull it back from the brink – clearing a house stuffed with precious objects. Rilke agrees to do the job despite the owner’s insistence that it must be completed within a week and that only he must deal with the attic which he finds full of rare pornographic books. He’s not a squeamish man – his own habits are somewhat promiscuous – but the discovery of photographs depicting sexual torture and what may be a murder committed many years ago appalls him. He begins an investigation that takes him into the murkiest areas of Glasgow in search of the truth. Welsh’s novel explores the depths of human depravity as it draws towards a shocking and sobering denouement.

I’ve said this so many times before about so many authors but Welsh never quite matched her first novel for me and is now launched on a dystopian series which does not appeal one jot. Never mind, I’m sure The Cutting Room would stand up to a reread.

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

Orphans of the Carnival by Carol Birch: Roll up, roll up…

Cover imageI suspect Carol Birch has something of a fascination with the world of circuses and freak shows. Set in the nineteenth century, her last novel, Jamrach’s Menagerie, followed Jaffy who is sent to the Dutch East Indies to capture a ‘dragon’ for the eponymous menagerie but finds himself shipwrecked. Orphans of the Carnival ventures far further into that world, telling the story of Julia Pastrana, a heavily hirsute Mexican woman, eager to see the world and willing to pay the price.

Julia tucks away the card a visiting impresario hands her, knowing that it’s her passport into the world outside the small town she’s never left. Heavily veiled, she takes the long and arduous journey to New Orleans accompanied only by the crude wooden doll her mother made for her before disappearing. Rates can hardly believe his luck when Julia arrives, establishing her in his sister-in-law’s lodging house where she meets several more of his clients. She is to make her debut topping the bill of a show that will include Cato, an exuberant pinhead. Julia’s reception is more than Rates could have hoped for – ostensibly a musical performance, everyone knows it’s her unveiling that the audience have paid for. So begins a career in which she will be handed on from manager to manager, travelling the world but not seeing it, lonely and hoping for love, sometimes reunited with the few friends she makes, including her dearest Cato. When Theo Lent makes her an offer, dangling the delights of Prague, Vienna and Saint Petersburg before her, she takes him up on it and the world opens up a little. She’s feted by royalty, taken to a glittering ball, welcomed as the guest of honour at grand dinner parties. Money, however, is always exchanged. Love of a sort is found but this is not a story that was ever going to end well. Woven through Julia’s tale is that of Rose, who in 1983 finds a dilapidated wooden doll in a London skip.

Orphans of the Carnival takes its story from the bare bones of Julia Pastrana’s life and it’s this knowledge that makes the book so poignant. Julia suffered from a rare genetic condition but lived in a time when human deformity was paraded around and presented as entertainment. Birch spins her story well, carefully avoiding the sentimental yet always compassionate – there’s a particularly heartrending scene when Julia whispers to a Saint Petersburg fortune-teller ‘Am I human?’ It’s an absorbing novel with some gorgeously descriptive passages but what didn’t work for me was the twentieth-century thread. I’m still not entirely sure why Birch decided to include it; it seemed something of a distraction from Julia’s extraordinary story. We live in much more enlightened times these days but as I read Birch’s novel I was reminded of those queasy trailers several years back for a Channel 4 series featuring people with deforming medical conditions. Maybe we’re neither as sensitive nor as enlightened as we like to think we are.

Blasts from the Past: Buddha Da by Anne Donovan (2003)

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.

There was something about Buddha Da’s blurb that instantly appealed to me: ‘a working-class Glaswegian man who discovers Buddhism, rejects old habits and seeks a life more meaningful, only to alienate his immediate family in the process.’  Jimmy McKenna becomes interested in Buddhism after chatting to a monk in a Glasgow café. He’s a painter and decorator, a bit of an unlikely convert but soon he’s off on weekend retreats much to the bemusement of his family. Donovan unfolds the story from the point of view of Jimmy, his wife and their eleven-year-old daughter both of whom struggle with the concept of Jimmy’s new found fervour after years of self-professed atheism not to mention drunken high-jinks. It’s very funny but it does have serious things to say about tolerance and the way we lead our lives.

I’m sure I would have enjoyed Buddha Da for the originality of its storyline alone but what really singled it out for me was the dialect in which it’s written, nailed beautifully by Donovan. So successful was it that I found myself with a Glaswegian voice in my head for at least a week after finishing the book. Quite an achievement given that I’ve never set foot in the city. I was reminded of it after reading Helen MacKinven’s post on writing in the vernacular a few months after she published her debut, Talk of the Toun, which, as its title suggests, is written in the Ayshire dialect she grew up with. There’s a real skill to that kind of writing as anyone who’s read a cringe-makingly poor version of it will know only too well.

That’s it from me for a while. We’re off to the airport in an hour or so, on our way to Berlin from where we’ll be setting off on our train travels for a few weeks.  Happy reading!

The Lonely City by Olivia Laing: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone

Cover imageI was attracted to Olivia Laing’s new book partly because of its setting – that old New York lure – partly because I’d enjoyed her exploration of the relationship between writers and drink, The Trip to Echo Spring. In The Lonely City she explores loneliness through the work of four artists – Edward Hopper, David Wojnarowicz, Andy Warhol and Henry Darger – prompted by her own descent into chronic loneliness after a love affair collapsed leaving her untethered.

Laing applies the same forensic research skills to her artists as she did to the four writers in The Trip to Echo Spring, drawing on diaries, memoirs, letters, videos and the artists’ works. Anyone who has ever seen a reproduction of Nighthawks will understand why she chose Hopper as one of her subjects. Warhol may seem a less likely choice given the incessant party that seemed to surround him but, as she persuasively argues, that was a symptom of his loneliness. Both David Wojnarowicz and Henry Darger were new to me although when I googled him I was struck by the familiarity of an image of Wojnarowicz, lips stitched together as part of his work as an AIDS activist. You may recognise the svelte young man shot at various New York locations wearing a Rimbaud mask which seems to be his best known work. Darger’s art seems the most strange with its watercolours depicting children rebelling against their enslavement by adults. Darger spent much of his life as a janitor and was almost certainly mentally ill. His paintings were found by a neighbour just weeks before he died. Woven through her studies of these four are Laing’s own experiences and her exploration of urban loneliness in the modern age.

I remember being struck by Laing’s graceful writing style in The Trip to Echo Spring and The Lonely City is marked by the same elegance of expression – her descriptions of some of the artworks make you want to get on the next plane to see them. That said, this is not an easy book to read: it’s intensely cerebral at times but that’s not the reason. Laing’s own experience of loneliness is raw and painful, and her eloquence makes it all the more so. She unflinchingly articulates the shame loneliness makes us feel, the assumption that only the pathetic are lonely despite statistics which suggest its increase in modern society. Her exploration of loneliness during the AIDS epidemic in the ’80s and ’90s is particularly affecting – the isolation of both the bereaved and those stigmatised by the ignorance of others, starved of touch or company, is heartrending. As she points out her observations on our love affair with connectedness via the internet and its effects on our increasing physical alienation may not be original but they’re no less persuasive for all that and her exploration of its history is fascinating, if hair-raising, with its descriptions of internet entrepreneur Josh Harris‘s willingness to put every aspect of his relationship online. Laing concludes her study with the observation that ‘loneliness, longing, does not mean that one has failed, but simply that one is alive’ – comforting words for those who need it and wise ones, too.

If I’ve whetted your appetite for Laing’s book you might like to read an extract and the feature it prompted in the Observer a week or so ago.