Tag Archives: Granta Books

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.

The Patriots by Sana Krasikov: Here we go again…

Cover imageThose much over-used epithets ‘epic’, ‘sweeping’ and ‘saga’ are useful signals when they crop up in press releases, semaphoring that the book in question is probably not for me. To be fair, they’re not words used to describe Sana Krasikov’s The Patriots but just for once they seem appropriate. This doorstopper of a novel, apparently loosely based on a true story, explores political idealism and the stark realities of life under a totalitarian regime through Florence Fein, who sets out for Russia from New York in 1934, and her son Julian, trying to do business in the ‘new’ Russia of 2008.

Florence is an idealistic young woman, attracted by the equality she thinks socialism offers during the Depression when American women are being shown the way back into the kitchen after their wartime efforts. Bright and numerate, she finds a job working for Amtorg, who promote trade between America and Russia, where she falls in love with Sergey. When she decides to turn her back on her comfortable Jewish family and travel to Russia after he goes home, she knows that it’s not just idealism that is carrying her off on this perilous journey. On board ship she meets Essie with whom she forges a friendship. When her pursuit of Sergey proves fruitless, Florence settles herself in Moscow where she talks her way into a job with the Soviet State Bank. She meets Essie again, then Leon a sassy fellow American working for the Soviet news agency with whom she becomes both romantically and professionally involved, working together as translators for the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee during the Great Patriotic War against the Nazis. Life is hard but Florence and Leon remain committed to the cause until anti-Semitism creeps in; their past work – once lauded – is now used against them. With a child to protect, Florence finds herself cooperating with the authorities in ways she could never have imagined, and then betrayed. Many years later, the Cold War long over, her son is working as a liaison officer for an American oil company. His frequent visits to Russia enable him to keep an eye on his son’s plans to be ‘a cowboy on the frontiers of private enterprise’. When Julian questions the judgement of his own Russian contacts it becomes clear that the USSR may be long gone but the old ways are alive and well.

Krasikov unfolds her story through two narrative strands spanning more than seventy years, shifting her perspective backwards and forwards between Florence and Julian. It’s an ambitious structure – all too easy to lose control of it in such a long novel but Krasikov deftly pulls it off although Julian’s first person narrative is less absorbing than Florence’s. The tension between Florence’s apparently obdurate idealism and Julian’s cynical pragmatism is well drawn, and its resolution satisfying. Krasikov’s depiction of the USSR under Stalin with its labyrinthine surveillance systems in which no one can be trusted, even the closest of friends, is both convincing and chilling. We’d all like to think we’d be the ones to stand firm, steer well clear of betrayal, but who knows what any of us would do in such circumstances. Well researched and engrossing, The Patriots felt like a particularly timely read given the advent of the Trump administration with relations between the US and Russia under the microscope yet again.

First Love by Gwendoline Riley: A pin-point sharp novella

Gwendoline Riley is one of those authors whose work I feel I should have read before now but for some reason I’ve never got around to it. She’s quietly gathered a good deal of acclaim over the years since her first novel, Cold Water: First Love is her fifth. Given its title, you could be forgiven for thinking you might be in for a little light romance but Riley’s spare, sharp novella is having none of that. It’s about a woman in her mid-thirties married to an older man and how she’s come to be with him.

Neve is a writer who’s lived on scraps for years, getting by with jobs in bars and the occasional grant. Now married to Edwyn, she’s devoting her days to writing while he goes out to work. Edwyn is much older than Neve, often cranky and unpredictable – showering her with pet names and cuddles one minute, abusing and undermining her the next and frequently reminding her of the single drunken night he cleaned up after her. Theirs is a marriage born of practicality rather than passion although Neve craves love. She grew up with a bullying father who ate himself to death, and a mother who fills her life with busyness rather than thinking about her second broken marriage and why she has no friends. Reflecting on the series of missteps and stumbles punctuated by disastrous relationships which has been her life so far, she tries to find a way to live with Edwyn and his carping. What is she to do with this husband who blows hot and cold, who shies away from intimacy, physical or otherwise, and uses his health as a manipulative tool against her? Perhaps this is love? As we learn more about Neve’s life we begin to understand why she puts up with the insults hurled at her. Emotional intelligence is not one of her family’s strengths – it seems that Neve has no idea how to conduct a relationship, platonic or otherwise.

Riley tells her story through Neve’s slightly perplexed voice, leavening her novel’s bleakness with spikes of humour. Each sentence is brightly honed, spare and pin-point sharp: ‘There were all sorts of satisfactions to be had, for the restless bully about town’ thinks Neve of her father who torments her as a child, later trying to buy her time with concert tickets; ‘he had a picture of me that he needed to deface’ she thinks of her casually on-again/off-again boyfriend while her attempts to distract Edwyn are ‘throwing sausages at a guard dog’.  Riley’s characters are funny, sad and discomfiting: her ditsy mother is a walking sartorial disaster whose speech is littered with italicised emphasis and catchphrases while Edwyn’s querulous defensiveness becomes increasingly nasty, punctured by his ridiculous ‘fall’ in a last-ditch attempt to gain sympathy.  Throughout it all, Neve is constantly undermined not least by herself: there’s hardly a mention of her writing although we know from a casual aside she’s published at least one book. An unsettling, thought-provoking novel which ends on a note of frail hope.

Alive, Alive Oh! by Diana Athill: A long life well lived

Cover imageI first came across Diana Athill’s elegant prose in Stet, her account of her time at André Deutsch, the publishing house she co-founded in 1951 with her eponymous business partner. Deutsch was a refugee, one of the many who shaped modern British publishing. For readers who haven’t yet come across the book, it’s a treat – stuffed with stories of the many authors Athill edited, from V. S. Naipul to Jean Rhys. Published in 2015, her ninety-eighth year, Alive, Alive Oh! is a set of essays: some are autobiographical, others meditative – all are beautifully expressed.

Athill introduces her collection by telling us that now she no longer feels the pull of sex her mind has turned to the beauty of places and objects, painting a glorious word picture of bluebells spilling down a hillside at Fountain’s Abbey releasing a ‘great wave of scent’ in the early morning sun. Her first essay continues this theme with memories of her grandparents’ garden where she spent a great deal of time after a TB scare. These two pieces set the scene for a collection that ranges far and wide. Several essays celebrate the frivolous – there’s a particularly lovely one on clothes with a gorgeous description of the gold lamé dress with which the fifteen-year-old Athill became infatuated. Others are much more serious, from the titular piece recounting her miscarriage from which she emerges having discovered her zest for life, to a discussion of the legacy left to Tobago by Europeans, well-meaning or otherwise. Athill is consoling about old age, enjoying the unexpected delights of new friendship in her retirement home, but clear-eyed in her attitude to death, reconciled to the event but not necessarily the manner of it. The final entry is a poem which ends ‘Why want anything more marvellous than what is’ which sums the book up beautifully.

There’s so much crammed into this slim collection, a reflection of a long life richly led. Many of Athill’s pieces are underpinned with humour: in the post-war years she delights in the vogue for printed wallpaper, covering her walls with an ivy patterned one which ‘swarmed from floor to ceiling on all four walls… …I was tremendously pleased with it and it was hideous’. Others are thought-provoking: ‘it was the very richness of what surrounded them that made the houses’ poverty so shocking, as though you split a glossy fruit to find only a little warm dust’ on Tobago. Concision and elegance are the hallmarks of her writing, reflecting two of Jean Rhys’ maxims – “I have to get it like it really was” andYou can’t cut too much” –  which Athill says have ‘done a lot to keep me in order’. In her acknowledgements she mentions her own editor, admitting to feeling a little affronted at the idea of having one at all then, with characteristic grace, thanking Bella Lacey: ‘What I had forgotten during my post-publishing years was that the one person who really loves a good editor is – the author!… …Her or his job is to make your book even more yours’. That last quote reminds me of William Maxwell, another editor whose writing is marked by grace and elegance who also understood the relationship between an author and their editor.