Tag Archives: El Hacho

Five Novellas I’ve Read

I’m sure there’s going to be more than one of these posts, particularly  given Madame Bibliophile Recommends’ novella a day back in May 2018 , then this year’s selection lengthened my tbr list. The first task is to define a Cover imagenovella, something which varies from reader to reader, but for the purposes of this post I’m setting the limit at 200 pages which some may think is strict, others over-generous. Here, then, are the first five of my favourite novellas, all with links to a review on this blog.

I’ve sung the praises of Kent Haruf many times here. His writing exemplifies the stripped down yet beautiful style I most admire. Plainsong is the book I often mention when talking about him but for this post I’ve chosen his last novel, Our Souls at Night, a tender meditation on ageing and the joy it can sometimes bring along with sorrow.  Widowed and in their seventies, Louis and Addie have lived on the same block for years although they barely know each other. One day, tired of long, lonely nights, Addie knocks on Louis’ door and puts a proposition to him: she wants him to spend his nights in her bed. As Addie and Louis tell their stories, holding hands in the dark, we learn that neither of their lives has been quite what they’d hoped or expected them to be. Sweetly melancholy, this is one of the loveliest books I’ve read. If you haven’t yet come across Haruf, I hope I’ve persuaded you to get yourself to a bookshop and seek out his work pronto.

Mary Costello’s Academy Street is a fine example of the kind of Irish writing for which I have a weakness: elegant, understated and suffused with a quiet melancholy. Spanning almost sixty years, Costello’s debut begins, and ends, with a funeral. Left motherless at seven, Tess is a bright girl whose brush with sickness cuts short her education She longs to leave the family farm, training as a nurse then following her sister to America where she settles in New York City. Always a little outside of things, her life is an attenuated one, marked by a deep yearning for an affinity. Costello’s careful prose matches her subject perfectly; Tess’s sudden bright Cover imagemoments of empathy and understanding shine out from it like a beacon.

Towards the end of Academy Street Tess says ‘I could fit my whole life on one page’. The same could be said of Andreas Egger, the subject of Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life (expertly translated by Charlotte Collins), who leaves his Austrian alpine home just once to go to war in Russia. Egger is painted as a simple soul – he’s stolidly practical, feels adrift even a few miles away from his Austrian valley and finds women impossible to fathom – yet he is a great romantic. Seethaler’s style is wonderfully clipped and matter of fact, punctuated by the occasional philosophical reflection or lyrical descriptive passage. The tumult of change which swept through so many Alpine regions in the twentieth century, marking the pristine landscape with gondolas and ski lifts but bringing prosperity, is strikingly captured through Egger’s eyes and experience.

Like Eggers, the protagonist of Luis Carrasco’s fable-like El Hacho has spent much of his life in one place and is determined to stay there. Curro was born and raised on the Spanish olive farm his father and his father’s father cultivated for years. He lives in the old family home with his wife, farming the land alongside his brother but this year the south is in the grip of an autumnal drought. Jean-Marie is determined to escape their arduous life leading Curro to make an arrangement that will cost him dear. Written in simple, clean prose from which vividly evocative descriptions sing out, this is a remarkable debut, strikingly poetic at times yet stripped of ornament and all the better for it.

At first glance, I took Takashi Hiraide’s The Guest Cat (translated by Eric Selland) to be one of those books lit on by shoppers at Christmas who can’t think what to get their feline-loving friends but it turned out to be a thoughtful, rather lovely piece of fiction. It’s narrated by a man who lives with his wife in the grounds of a large house. In their mid-thirties and childless, they both work at home, leading a quiet life, occasionally seeing friends and helping their landlady. Shy and a little skittish at first, their neighbour’s cat begins to visit them. The couple welcome her, making a little bed for her, and play with her, mindful of her need for privacy, but when their landlady tells them that she plans to sell the house, they know they must move. The beauty of this book is its elegant understatement punctuated by insights into the narrator’s life expressed in prose which is often very beautiful and a little melancholic.

Any novellas you’d like to recommend? Please feel free to quibble with my definition.

Books of the Year 2018: Part Two

Cover imageSpring, which seems so far away now, was a particularly good reading time for me hence this bumper post. March began with Donal Ryan’s From a Low and Quiet Sea, a carefully crafted, moving novella which explores love, loss and connection through the stories of three very different men, bringing them neatly together at its end. Farouk is a bereaved refugee, Lampy helps out at the local care home, spending much of his time in a rage, and John is fixer, bent on the corruption of good men. It’s a tricky manoeuvre to tell your characters’ stories in three discrete parts then merge them as subtly as Ryan does here but he pulls it off beautifully, writing in prose which has a lilting rhythmic beauty.

Benedict Wells’ The End of Loneliness explores similar themes through the story of three siblings. Forty-one-year-old Jules is in hospital, recovering from a motorbike accident and looking back over his life. In 1984 his parents were killed in a car crash. Each of their children deal with their loss differently: Liz takes to promiscuity and drugs; Marty loses himself in study and Jules becomes a dreamer, unable to settle at anything. Wells explores grief and death with empathy and compassion neatly avoiding the maudlin while facing what many of us might prefer to avoid contemplating. You might think that sounds somewhat gloomy but it’s not: the clue’s in the title. Another excellent translation by Charlotte Collins whose name I’ve learnt to look out for.

Death pops up again in Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists which had my hype antennae twitching before I read it. It’s a novel with a very clever hook: what would you do with your life if you knew the date of your death? Would you choose to live it to the full, or would you keep yourself as safe as you could? In other words, would you choose to live or merely to survive? This is the conundrum for the Gold siblings whose stories unfold as they move inexorably towards the dates appointed to each of them at their childhood visit to a fortune-teller. Entertaining, moving and thought-provoking it’s a compassionate and satisfyingly immersive novel.

April brought probably the longest title of a contemporary novel I’ve ever come across:Cover image renowned German playwright, Roland Schimmelpfennig’s One Clear Ice-cold January Morning at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century. It begins with a wolf crossing the frozen river which marks the border between Poland and Germany. As the wolf’s journey progresses, so do the intersecting stories of the characters who glimpse it, and some who don’t. This carefully constructed piece of fiction offers a picture of Berlin a decade or so after east and west became one. Schimmelpfennig’s writing is pared-back and spare, cinematic in its images and complemented by his novella’s fragmented structure. It’s a triumph – both absorbing and thought-provoking – beautifully translated by Jamie Bulloch.

Michael Andreassen’s weird and wonderful The Sea Beast Takes a Lover is probably the oddest book to appear in my books of any year, but you never know. It’s a collection of twelve short stories, a work of surreal, off-the-wall fantasy. From the get-go you know you’re in discombobulating territory as a loving son remembers the many happy times they have shared before his father is crated up in his wheelchair and dropped into the sea. Next, a man longs for his wife after he and his unconsummated one-night-stand are abducted by aliens (yes, I know) and takes radical action to find her. In the eponymous story a crew look on helplessly, quarrelling amongst themselves, fretting about their cannibalistic admiral and being propositioned by mermaids as a many tentacled sea monster tightens her grip on what she hopes is her new lover. That should give you a flavour of this strange, often very funny collection. You’ll either hate it or love it; I loved it.

Amy Bloom took me back to more conventional literary territory in May. Spanning a weekend in April 1945, shortly after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, White Houses tells the story of his wife Eleanor and Lorena Hickok, the woman who joined them in the White House and with whom Eleanor had a long and passionate affair.  Bloom narrates this elegantly spare novella through Hick’s dry, earthy sometimes humorous voice, painting a picture of ‘30s and early ’40s America through the lens of her experience. It’s an extraordinarily intimate portrait, both of the two women and of Roosevelt’s presidency. I’ve yet to read anything by Bloom I’ve not loved. Her writing is both deft and empathetic, pressing all my literary buttons.

Cover image’Elegantly spare’ is a description that could also be applied to Luis Carrasco’s El Hacho, my other favourite May read. Set in the mountains above Ronda in Andalucia, Carrasco’s slim novella reads like a fable deeply rooted in the landscape of southern Spain. It tells the story of two brothers – one committed to saving the family olive farm, the other looking for a way out – against the backdrop of a searing autumnal drought. Written in simple, clean prose from which vividly evocative descriptions sing out, this is a remarkable debut. Carrasco’s writing is strikingly poetic at times, stripped of ornament and all the better for it.

The next instalment covers four months of what turned out to be one of the most glorious summers we’ve known for some time here in the UK.

All the above are linked to full reviews on this blog and if you missed my January and February favourites, they’re here.

The Groundsmen by Lynn Buckle: A Greek tragedy of a novel

Cover imageBack in May I reviewed Luis Carrasco’s El Hacho, the first publication from époque press, with which I was very impressed. Lynn Buckle’s novel is their second and could not be more different. Not that it isn’t impressive but whereas El Hacho was a timeless, fable-like novella written in clean, spare prose, The Groundsmen explores a supremely dysfunctional family telling their story in their own voices. It’s like having a nest of angry wasps in your head.

Louis and Cally have two daughters, both named after characters who people the Greek myths in which Cally takes refuge to escape her powder keg of husband. Louis looks to his brother Toby to keep him order. They spend much of their time together, even working for the same firm where Louis has carved out a role for himself as a techie. Only Toby grasps the full horror of what happened to Louis when he was a child, having been subjected to the same abuse by Uncle Brown, the groundsman. Both men have perpetuated the cycle, but whereas Toby has a semblance of adult responsibility, Louis careers from crisis to crisis, deeply embroiled in a torment of denial, misogynistic sexual fantasy and self-absorption. When Toby is made redundant amidst rumours of ‘inappropriate’ material found on his computer, Louis fears he may not be far behind, wrapping himself in his usual denial until he is asked to return all his electronic devices. As things begin to unravel even further for Louis, Cally realises she must break out of her stupor for the sake of her children. Meanwhile, five-year-old Cassie escapes her fractured family by turning herself into a dog in her head while fourteen-year-old Andi takes the more dangerous route of finding a boyfriend online.

Buckle’s novel is mercifully short. It’s not a book to enjoy, more one to admire. She tells her family’s story in bursts of interior monologue, a very effective device although these are people whose heads you won’t want to spend much time in. Louis veers chaotically from grandiosity to literally vomiting out his secrets; Cally seems paralysed by years of his cruelty and neediness; Andi retreats into social media, lonely and ripe for grooming while Cassie invents happy families for herself when she’s not channelling Blackie. Only Toby appears to have a veneer of responsibility. The measure of the success of Buckle’s novel lies in the sheer discomfort it provokes. It was a relief to finish it. I found the ending a little bewildering but it’s impossible not to admire the audacity of this unsettling piece of fiction.

El Hacho by Luis Carrasco: A Spanish fable

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I’m always a little wary when small publishers approach me to review a book, and époque press is tiny. If a book from a large conglomerate turns out not to suit that’s one thing but for a press as small as this one it’s entirely different. Sporting a ringing endorsement from Jon McGregor on it’s beautiful jacket, Luis Carrasco’s El Hacho is the first book époque have published. Set in the mountains above Ronda in Andalucia, Carrasco’s slim novella – barely more than a hundred pages – reads like a fable deeply rooted in the landscape of southern Spain.

Curro was born and raised on the olive farm his father and his father’s father cultivated for years. He remembers his father courteously rebuffing approaches to buy their ancestral land, twice offering a man from Malaga a handful of home-grown almonds and sending him on his way. Curro lives in the old family home with his wife Carmen, farming the land alongside his brother who comes up from the village at the foot of the mountain each day. This year the south is in the grip of an autumnal drought. As Curro and Jean-Marie labour in the searing heat, Marie complains while Curro placates. It’s clear that Curro sees himself as the guardian of this mountain grove where both his parents are buried while Marie has his sights set on an easier life. When Marie fails to appear for several days, Curro takes himself off to the village, visiting the bar where he knows his brother will inevitably show his face. They come to an arrangement that will cost Curro dear. Not long after, the drought finally breaks in a storm which is biblical in its ferocity.

Written in simple, clean prose from which vividly evocative descriptions sing out, this is a remarkable debut both for its author and publisher. Carrasco’s writing is strikingly poetic at times, stripped of ornament and all the better for it:

Without these trees I’m just a man, which is nothing much to be Curro’s father tells the man from Malaga

The olives hung weakly on their stalks, unresponsive to the touch and sad like rickety children observes Curro

We’re all spokes on the same wheel Marie. We turn together declares Curro of their community

There’s a timelessness about Carrasco’s novella. Despite the lure of the modern world, Curro remains quietly loyal to his family and to his neighbours while his brother succumbs to the temptations of what he thinks money can buy. Tuck this one into your case if you’re off to Spain for your holiday, or anywhere really. I wish I had, although the Spain of Madrid and Toledo is very different from Curro’s.