Tag Archives: Granta Books

Don’t look at Me Like That by Diana Athill: A welcome reissue

Cover imageUnusually for me, my first 2020 review is of a book published last year, although to be strictly accurate, Diana Athill’s Don’t Look at Me Like That was first published in 1967. It’s her only novel and, given how much I admire her writing, I’m amazed that it took me so long to get around to it. It was December’s reissue, with what Athill’s generation might have called its ‘jazzy’ new jacket, that finally kicked me into action. This neatly crafted, compelling novella tells the story of a woman coming into herself in 1950s London, exploring themes of love, friendship and betrayal.

Meg Bailey is the daughter of a country parson and a baronet’s granddaughter who has never quite reconciled herself to her demoted social status. Sixteen-year-old Meg has just one friend, Roxanne Weaver, who invites her home to Oxford where her mother holds regular salons, pleased with her own erudition. The two friends are escorted to a dance by the rather dull Wilfred and Dick, Roxanne’s second cousin, who indulges Mrs Weaver in sparring repartee. This is Meg’s first adventure away from the rectory which she greets with a mixture of excitement, anxiety and a determination to learn how to behave in society. Two years later she’s living in Oxford with Roxanne, studying at art school which leads her to a job in London working in design. Roxanne remains in Oxford, marrying Dick, just as her mother had planned, while Meg finds herself a room in a chaotic household, warmly welcomed by the impoverished Lucy, deserted by her husband with three children to support. Meg continues to watch and learn, determinedly losing her virginity, brushing aside all declarations of love until she falls for someone who could hardly be more inappropriate.

Roxanne had accepted something which I had never thought of: that life could be as it ought not to be, and that one still had to live it.

Meg disarmingly introduces herself as an unpopular young girl, thought standoffish by her fellow schoolmates. She’s a curious mixture of superiority and lack of confidence, often failing to understand how her own careless behaviour and slippery hold on morality might affect others. Hers is an unconventional life, turning her back on marriage and children in contrast to Roxanne, although finding herself caught up in another sort of entanglement. Athill’s novel offers a fascinating insight into the lives of a certain class of British woman in the mid-twentieth century: the constraints of the expected path and the cost of not following that path. Her fiction is as elegant and witty as her memoirs and her characterisation sharp. It’s a short yet immersive novel whose ending is quietly devastating.

Granta Books: London 2019 9781783785803 187 pages Paperback

Fly Already by Etgar Keret (Various translators): Stories with personality

I’d scored one Israeli success this year with Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s Liar when Etgar Keret’s short stories, Fly Already, turned up, looking like another. Made up of twenty pieces, some no longer than a page or two, Keret’s idiosyncratic collection is both funny and poignant, counterbalancing comedy with a sharp observation of human nature.

It begins with a characteristic bang as a father tries to persuade a potential suicide from jumping while his five-year-old son cheers the ‘superhero’ on in the eponymous story. In another, a lowly circus worker gets a liking for being shot out of a cannon but how long can it last? Vengeance proves not to be as sweet as anticipated in ‘Tabula Rasa’, one of the longer pieces, which sees a group of children, afflicted with a rare genetic condition, brought up in an institution, each with their own secret donor or so they believe but the truth is very different. The narrator of ‘Car Concentrate’ uses the crushed Mustang in his living room as a talking point but gradually we learn he’s not as slick as he seems while the car hides a very dark secret.

Several of the stories have more than a touch of the surreal. Nocturnal worries give way to fantastical humour in ‘At Night’. Hard not to love a story that opens ‘Stella, Ella and I were almost ten years old the day Dad shape-shifted.’ Some are sinister – ‘Arctic Lizard’ is narrated by a child soldier in a Trumpian third-term dystopia – while others are playful – ‘Ladder’ begins with an angel’s performance review in which Raphael, dissatisfied by Zvi’s inability to project serenity, hints at a transfer downstairs. Just one piece, made up of emails interspersed with other stories, jarred a little for me and even that ended with a surreal surprise which made me laugh out loud.

These are brief, punchy stories, inventive and confident. Some of Keret’s pieces are disconcerting – more than a little wacky – others are pure comedy, often using humour to make a point, but all are memorable. The complications of humanity are sweetly satirised and even the rich who come in for some thoroughly justified lampooning are treated with a sympathetic understanding. It’s a hugely enjoyable collection, full of surprises. I’d not heard of Keret before although I gather he’s acquired an international reputation. If this collection’s anything to go by it’s richly deserved.

Childless Voices by Lorna Gibb: Stories of Longing, Loss, Resistance and Choice

Cover imageBack in 2015 I reviewed Lorna Gibb’s first novel, A Ghost’s Story, a fascinating exploration of belief and longing to believe set against the backdrop of nineteenth-century spiritualism. I follow her on Twitter so knew she was writing something about childlessness and hoped I’d be offered it for review. It’s a state she and I share but I’m childless by choice whereas she had assumed she would have children.

Childless Voices is divided into sections each of which examines childlessness from a variety of perspectives – from infertility to bereavement, choice to enforced sterilisation – against cultural backgrounds which range from tolerant to downright cruel. Each section is followed by short personal reflections. Gibb’s hope is that her book will give a voice to some who are unable to speak freely themselves

As you might expect, it’s an intensely personal book at times but Gibb’s empathy is firmly anchored in careful research and the testimony of others, rounded off with a thorough bibliography. Her experience of living in Qatar and her interviews with women in rural India are particularly poignant, shocking at times. Infertility in the Western world is hard enough to bear for those who wish to have children but in many parts of the world where women are often seen of worth only for their ability to bear them, it commonly leads to ostracism, violence and suicide.  Other cultures have more creative ways of dealing with what they perceive as a problem –  mention of Albania’s sworn virgins reminded me of Elvira Dones’ fascinating novel.

It was a bitter yearning of a few years for me; time passed and there was no more longing, just a sense of absence

Gibb’s own experience of endometriosis, the worst her surgeon has ever seen, is harrowing. She writes eloquently of coping with questions about childlessness which so often results in a gush of sympathy, inappropriate from strangers. In her final section, she reflects on what her childlessness means to her and her coming to turns with it. There’s not a trace of self-pity in this powerful book, entirely excusable though it would. Gibb’s experience has been underpinned with the loving support of her husband who, of course, is childless, too. Her book is dedicated to him.

Jellyfish by Janice Galloway: A reissue, and some.

Cover imageGiven my not-so-new-found delight in short stories I was keen to read Janice Galloway’s Jellyfish having enjoyed both her memoirs and The Trick is to Keep Breathing. Galloway prefaces her collection with David Lodge’s assertion that literature is mostly about having sex and not much about having children; life’s the other way round. With its themes of parenthood, relationships, death and loss as well as sexuality and desire, Jellyfish is her response. Comprising sixteen stories, it’s a reissue of a collection first published by Freight Books with the addition of two new pieces: ‘Peak’ and ‘Gold’

Galloway’s stories range in length from the two-page celebration of male beauty and desire ‘Looking at You’ to ‘Gold’ which stretches over fifty pages charting a woman’s quiet, solitary life which takes a surprising turn after sharing her admiration of a Chagall with a stranger, then another when a camping trip with a friend is interrupted. ‘That Was Then, This Is Now (1)’ in which lust is coupled with ignorance is laced with the mordant humour running through several of these pieces, at its darkest in ‘Burning Love’ which sees revenge prove lethal. In ‘Peak’ a psychiatrist finds herself faced with an unusual request on a second date and is surprised at how much she enjoys herself while ‘Greek’ sees a woman make a drastic choice when she realises she’s pregnant by her hedonistic lover. Galloway bookends her collection with two stories about parenthood beginning with the titular piece in which a mother takes her carefully raised four-year-old on a day out, knowing that he’ll soon be exposed to all manner of influences other than hers, and ending with ‘Distance’ in which a  child’s fall sparks a fear of just about everything in his mother leading to a radical solution at great emotional cost to herself.

Part of the joy of these stories is Galloway’s writing. I could stuff this review full of quotes but I’ll keep it to just a few favourites:

His skin didn’t crease, she thought. Whatever he did with his face, it unfolded again smooth as soap (Jellyfish)

Murray needed the freedom to flit in and out of lives as though they were incidental train platforms between his journey to himself (Fine Day)

The Guggenheim was made in bright white slices, an unmissable space-ship of a building parked off-road for the afternoon (Gold)

If she thought I’d forgotten about the shed, she had another think coming. I’d poke her fucking shed-sheltered library with a poker and burn it to funerary ash (Burning Love)

In her acknowledgments, Galloway graciously thanks her publishers noting that:

Publishers are shy of short stories in the here and now, shy like people are shy of three-legged puppies, which is to say they’d love to give them a home, but are nervous of their apparent handicap in that they are not novels.

What a lovely way to end this thoroughly enjoyable, thoughtful, wryly amusing yet often poignant collection.

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss: The Man Booker wish that got away

Cover imageRegular readers may already have noticed that I’m a fan of Sarah Moss’ writing – Names for the Sea, Bodies of Light, Signs for Lost Children and The Tidal Zone have all been given an outing here – and with Ghost Wall, it seems she’s surpassed herself. A mere 150 pages long, this novella is a powerful exploration of controlling violence and its consequences, all wrapped up in a tense, atmospheric piece of storytelling.

Seventeen-year-old Sylvie has been dragooned into a summer project by her father, a bus driver and enthusiastic amateur historian. Together with three students and their professor, she and her parents will live as Ancient Britons in the shadow of Hadrian’s Wall, cooking what they forage and dressed in rough spun tunics. Sylvie’s used to Bill’s didactic ways. She knows more about their subject than Molly, Pete and Dan who are playing at re-enactment, sloping off to the local Spar for covert supplies and spending the odd illicit evening in the pub. Molly applies her nail varnish and changes her matching bra and pants regularly, frivolities Bill wouldn’t permit Sylvie or her mother, Alison. Women disgust him. Easily offended by the slightest show of knowledge other than his own, Bill takes his frustrations out on Alison who’s relegated to cooking their meagre meals. As the hot summer days wear on, Sylvie and Molly become close. Molly becomes increasingly unsettled by marks on Sylvie’s body, marks she tries to hide. Flush with their success at the recreation of a ghost wall, used by the Ancient Britons in an attempt to repel the Romans, the professor and Bill are intent on another, more sinister re-enactment.

Told through Sylvie’s voice, Ghost Wall is a much tighter piece of fiction than the four previous novels I’ve read by Moss. Bill’s menacing control of both Sylvie and Alison pervades the book – from Sylvie’s shame to the sneering voice in her head – offset with a degree of waspish humour and gloriously evocative descriptions of the landscape in hot weather:

Louise was a friend of the Prof, a semi-retired lecturer in textile arts who now spent her days making things by hand, the hard way, for the amusement of people bored by safe drinking water, modern medicine and dry feet.

Walking up there, it feels as if you’re being offered on an open hand to the weather, though when you look down there are plenty of soft little hiding places, between the marsh grass in the boggy dips and in the heather, vibrating with bees, on the slopes.

The novella’s climax is horrifying: hard to read yet impossible to tear yourself away from it. This is such an impressive piece of work. At the end of my Man Booker wish list I said that I might well read a gem published before the deadline that I would regret not including and this is it. Once again, however, the judges disagreed.

White Houses by Amy Bloom: An American love story

Cover imageI’ve yet to read anything by Amy Bloom that I’ve not loved. Her writing is both deft and empathetic, pressing all my literary buttons. Hopes were extraordinarily high, then, for White Houses but they were surpassed to the extent that this post is in danger of degenerating into one long gush. Spanning a weekend in April 1945, shortly after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Bloom’s novella tells the story of his wife Eleanor and Lorena Hickok, the woman who joined them in the White House.

Hick waits at Eleanor’s New York apartment on Washington Square just three days after Roosevelt’s death. Once caught up in a passionate affair, these two women still love each other dearly. It’s to Hick that Eleanor turns for comfort, solace and help with the sacks stuffed with condolence letters. Wary of accusations of bias, Hick gave up a promising career as a White House reporter when she took up residence, instead traveling the country and reporting to Federal Emergency Relief Administration on the desperate conditions wrought by the Depression. She’s no stranger to poverty but what she saw appalled her. Both Hick and Eleanor share memories of a childhood marked by the loss of their mothers but whereas Eleanor’s was cushioned by privilege, Hick’s was scarred by negligence and worse, bowdlerised to spare Eleanor’s sensitivity. When Roosevelt was elected, Hick joined them in her own spartan apartment  – Eleanor tacitly accepting her husband’s mistresses while he returned the favour. Hick remains long after their ardour has cooled. Theirs is a deep and lasting love which continues until Eleanor dies in 1962.

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. Both Hick and Eleanor are vividly drawn: Hick’s sharp-eyed view of Eleanor’s need for approbation and moral probity – so hard for those around her to match and at times, so exasperating – contrast with her passion and tenderness for her lover. The storytelling is engrossing and evocative – Hick’s description of her brief time with a travelling freak show is a particular delight. It’s an extraordinarily intimate portrait, both of the two women and of Roosevelt’s presidency, and the writing is sublime, often conveying a great deal in a couple of well-chosen words. I could fill this post with quotes but here are just a few favourites:

Eleanor’s love was like some shabby old footstool. Everyone used it without wanting it and no one ever gave it a moment’s thought

I wouldn’t call it nagging. It was like having the Statue of Liberty watch you have one beer too many

Sometimes, I love her more when I don’t even see her

He was the greatest president of my lifetime and he was a son of a bitch every day… …He broke hearts and ambitions across his knee like bits of kindling, and then dusted off his hands and said, Who’s for cocktails?

From its brief opening sentence to its gloriously poetic, heart-wrenching final paragraph, this is an extraordinarily accomplished piece of fiction. Bring on all the prizes.

Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday: A novel in three parts

Cover imageI suspect Lisa Halliday’s debut is a Marmite book. It depends on whether you’re happy with the idea of a novel which encompasses two discrete narratives rounded off with a brief final section in which neither is overtly brought together or not. Bear with me, this is a tricky book to write about but if I wasn’t hugely impressed by it I wouldn’t even be trying. Perhaps it’s best to think of Asymmetry as a meditation on the state of the world wrapped up in two absorbing stories.

Set in 2003 shortly after the invasion of Iraq, the first of Halliday’s three narratives sees Alice sitting outside trying to read a book and wondering if she’ll ever write one herself. She’s joined by a stranger, a man much older than her, who she recognises. He’s the celebrated author, Ezra Blazer, and she’s an editorial assistant. These two begin an affair which lasts several years in which Alice visits Ezra daily, holidays at his island retreat and occasionally plays nursemaid. Alice continues to live frugally in her tiny flat, slightly embarrassed by Ezra’s fits of largesse. One night when Ezra is beset by chest pains, unable to reach the best heart man in New York, she takes him to the ER where he glimpses real life.

The second section takes us to Heathrow in 2008 where an Iraqi-American economist with dual nationality is detained by the border authorities. Amar is on his way from Los Angeles to Iraq to see his brother, planning to spend several days with an old journalist friend in London before continuing his journey. Caught up in the limbo of detention with little in the way of communication from officals, Amar muses on his life and the state of the country in which his brother has chosen to live despite its dangers.

The third section is Ezra’s Desert Island Disc interview, recorded on Valentines’ Day in 2011, which ranges freely around his childhood, his army days and his love life.

The word ‘audacious’ is a favourite term for novels which step outside the norm and I’d usually avoid it but this time I think it fits. It is audacious to start your first novel with a fragmented narrative in which a multitude of extracts from other texts are interwoven then switch to an entirely different story which seems to have little to do with the first winding the whole thing up with an interview but somehow it works, and quite resoundingly so. The links that exist between the narratives are thematic: war, religion, politics, power, privilege and the lack of, love and mortality. Sober stuff then, but Halliday lifts the tone of her novel with humour – Ezra’s weakness for puerile jokes is a particular delight – and vivid, intelligent writing. It’s decidedly idiosyncratic, a novel which will make you think hard. This review has hardly done it justice but I hope if you’ve stuck with me so far that you’ll give it a try. Who can resist a book which prefaces its first section with a quote from Martin Gardener’s wonderful The Annotated Alice:

We all lead slapstick lives, under an inexplicable sentence of death…

The Answers by Catherine Lacey: Love, whatever that Is

Cover imageCatherine Lacey’s second novel arrived with a press release mentioning Margaret Atwood. I tend to ignore these bits of paper until I’ve finished the book, preferring to read it with an open mind. A few chapters in, however, Atwood’s was the name that popped into my head. Not such a cheeky comparison after all for this satire which takes a dystopian view of relationships, our obsession with celebrity and the seemingly inexorable march of technology into even our most private moments. It’s about a social experiment, a scientific study commissioned by movie star to investigate what makes us fall in love and stay that way.

Mary is in desperate straits. Afflicted with many and varied symptoms, medical bills piling up, her only relief derived from Pneuma Adaptive Kinesthesia – the therapy recommended by her best, and only, friend – she has to find a way to make some money. A notice in a health food store seems to offer a solution, albeit one cloaked in mystery. She jumps through the many hoops of the recruitment process – her main qualification seemingly her ignorance of Kurt Sky, the household name behind this strange assignment – until she’s initiated into the Girlfriend Experiment. She’s to be Emotional Girlfriend alongside Angry Girlfriend, Maternal Girlfriend and Mundane Girlfriend, to name but a few of the participants. Each of them must take part in choreographed and scripted Relational Experiments with Kurt, closely monitored by the Research Division who have their own agenda. As the experiment proceeds, it seems that Mary’s interactions with Kurt are the most successful. The job becomes full-time and as the Research Division interpolate their own ideas into the experiments, Mary’s feelings become increasingly confused. Meanwhile, she continues her PAK therapy with Ed, complete with crystals, gnomic pronouncements and incense burning.

Lacey’s novel is stuffed full of barbs aimed at modern society, from our determination to find perfect romantic love to our obsession with celebrity, reserving a few for the wackier alternative therapies. Mary tells her own story in the beginning and end sections of the book while the experiment forms the middle. There were a few too many girlfriends popping up at one point – I began to feel we might be losing track of Mary – but that said Lacey’s writing is both acerbic and penetrating. The idea of a man, numbed by constant and insistent attention, trying to track down how love feels, is both poignant and repellent yet convincing. Lacey has some trenchant comments to make about our pursuit and expectations of love: ‘It was painfully clear then, so painfully clear, that people fell in love to find something in themselves that they’d had all along’ thinks Mary, watching two lovers. Altogether a sharply observed satire, smartly delivered with a hefty dollop of caustic humour, which – echoing that press release – brought Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last to mind.

Strange Heart Beating by Eli Goldstone: Lost in the wilderness

Cover imageWho could resist that cover? Even before I had an idea of what it was about I knew I’d pick this one up in a bookshop. One look at it tells you that the myth of Leda and the Swan has to be in there somewhere even if you don’t – and I didn’t – recognise the title as a quote from W. B. Yeats’ poem which prefaces Eli Goldstone’s debut. The novel’s as arresting as its jacket, exploring grief, love and the secrets kept in the closest of relationships through the recently widowed Seb who takes himself off to Latvia, the birthplace of his beautiful wife Leda.

Leda has drowned in the lake at her local park, her boat capsized by a startled swan. Seb, an academic already struggling with his work, is devastated. Antisocial at the best of times, he withdraws further into himself, wondering what he should do with this huge, gaping ache for his beloved wife, then discovers a cache of unopened letters, postmarked Latvia, hidden in a drawer. Leda had told him that she had no family but it appears that she had a cousin, Olaf, the sender of the letters one of which contains a lock of Leda’s hair. Seb decides to find Olaf, hoping for comfort but is faced with several puzzling revelations: it seems he hardly knew the woman who had been the centre of his world. Interspersed with Seb’s adventures in Latvia are extracts from Leda’s diary, revealing an intense, lonely and precociously bright child who grew into a troubled woman, obsessed with death.

Narrated by Seb, Goldstone’s novel has a rich vein of dark humour running through it nicely offsetting its sombre subject. Seb is cerebral, erudite and a little superior – hopelessly out-of-place in the forests of Latvia with Olaf and his friends – yet manages to engage our sympathy. He finds himself trying to throttle a swan in the park, drunkenly playing cards with Latvian hunters and fending off the attentions of his lonely landlady, all delivered in a faintly sardonic tone. He’s a man who’s asked few questions of his wife while she was alive, perhaps preferring to think that she sprang fully formed into life the day he met her. Goldstone’s writing is often striking – Seb’s fear of death ‘springs like a cat from a high shelf, to scare the living shit out of me’; Leda’s mother ‘acts as if there is a live TV audience present at all times’; a dead swan ‘smells like a pillow that has been slept on by somebody I love’. There’s a thread of myth and fairy tale running through the novel as you’d expect from that cover and title but essentially it’s about grief and how well we know those we choose to share our lives with, explored in a witty and original piece of fiction.

Strange Labyrinth by Will Ashon: If you go down to the woods today…

Cover imageI wasn’t at all sure about Strange Labyrinth when it turned up – it looked like a book that didn’t quite know what it was supposed to be about – but once started I was hooked, enchanted even. It tells the story of Epping Forest, the six thousand acres on the edge of London saved for the nation in 1878, but that description barely scrapes the surface of this intensely personal, magpie’s jewel box of a book which introduces its readers to a diverse and colourful cast of characters who’ve inhabited this patch of ancient woodland.

Like so many of the middle-aged and privileged, Will Ashon finds himself in something of a crisis. He’s published two novels which have passed largely unnoticed, enjoyed a career as a music journalist and walked away from the prize-winning record label he set up fifteen years ago. He loves his wife and children but there’s something he can’t quite put his finger on. Dante’s ‘dark forest’ comes to mind as he fills his days wandering around Epping Forest, engaging in desultory research into the history of the woods and those who’ve lived there while telling his friends and family he’s writing a book. Eventually he stops ‘pretending’ and gets stuck in. What he finds is both extraordinary and entertaining. From sculptor Jacob Epstein and his endlessly patient wife who finds ways to tolerate his constant infidelities to Old Mick, a legendary protestor with an elaborately embroidered past, from Ken Campbell, the actor dubbed by Mike Leigh ’the outsider’s outsider’ to Penny Rimbaud, the polymath best known as founder member of that archetypal anarcho-punk band Crass, Epping Forest seems to have been a magnet for eccentric characters. Ashon walks the woodland paths, spotting strangely graffitied trees, assessing them for overnight potential and nervously avoiding dogs while pondering on the fear of authority that seems to be the root of his own malaise.

Impossible not to use the phrase mid-life crisis when talking about this book, a tired, overused, sitcom cliché which Ashon neatly avoids, but while it may have been the trigger it’s a quiet theme which underpins his research rather than a hammer with which he beats his readers over the head. Many of the denizens of Epping, both past and present, are anti-authoritarian figures to whom Ashon is drawn but although his admiration is clear he determinedly steers himself away from hero-worship. It’s a splendidly erudite but engaging book. Ashon is a self-deprecating and discursive guide, often very funny: ‘words dribbled out onto my laptop with all the force and confidence of an old man peeing into a cup’; ‘I watched two crows involved in a tussle which, as with drunks in a club, could’ve been dispute or courtship’. It ends with Ashon – after a good deal of nervous procrastination – climbing his favourite tree, determined  to spend a night out in the forest, then experiencing an epiphany. A little too neat and tidy for a book which begins with its author’s angst, you might think, but it works. A wonderfully idiosyncratic, somehow very British book which delighted me from start to finish. And if you’d like to read about another man’s tangle with mid-life crisis and how he set about dealing with it you might like to pick up a copy of Andy Miller’s entertaining The Year of Reading Dangerously.