Tag Archives: novella

Beyond the Sea by Paul Lynch: Cast adrift

I’m not sure how I’ve managed to miss Paul Lynch’s writing but as soon as I finished Beyond the Sea I added his previous novels to my list. Lynch’s prose exemplifies that spare, pared-back style which I so admire, one at which Irish writers seem to excel. In his new novella two fishermen are cast adrift after a dreadful storm, one dragooned into helping the other whose debt to drug barons has become a matter of urgency.

Bolivar is a fisherman, selfish in his pleasures and determined to take them. When a woman he has in his sights tells him the cartel he’s become involved with have come threatening violence unless he pays his debts, he takes off looking for his fishing mate who’s nowhere to be found. His boss warns him a storm has been forecast, telling him to take young Hector if he must go out to sea. Despite his reservations, Bolivar has no choice. These two set off together – one a cynical, seasoned fisherman, the other naive and inexperienced. When the storm hits, its ferocity is so great it knocks out their boat’s engine. Soon it’s clear that the radio is inoperative, too. Neither can know how long they will be cast adrift with no means of calling for help. Each deals with their plight in different ways: Hector turns to God, fashioning an effigy of the Virgin from driftwood while fixating on his two-timing girlfriend; Bolivar devises ways of using the detritus that washes their way, catching enough fish to feed them and finding ways to preserve it. As the days wear on, Hector and Bolivar are forced to overcome their antipathy but days become months and each man is faced with his essential self.

Lynch’s novella explores themes of faith, madness, survival and existential crisis with an extraordinary intensity. Hector and Bolivar are thrown upon themselves and each other in order to survive. As a bond forms between them, each begins to tell the other about their lives, their secrets and their fears but while Hector sees faith as their saviour, Bolivar puts his trust in resourcefulness. Lynch’s short stark sentences, sometimes repeated, effectively evoke a claustrophobic feeling of being stranded aboard this tiny vessel, tossed around on a seemingly endless sea. As so often when I come across a piece of writing that pushes my literary buttons quite so effectively as Lynch’s does, I’m in danger of stuffing this review full of quotes but here are just a few gems:

Time now is not time. It does not pass but rests

Grief is a thing that sits shapeless between them

Days of hammering sun, the sea the sun’s anvil

He decides the barnacles taste entirely of the sea. He wonders too if he is now like them. If now you are made of wind and rain, salty air, the blood watered to brine. How you might taste to a shark

This is such a powerful piece of fiction, beautifully expressed, and all the better for its carefully crafted brevity. So good, I included it on my Booker Prize wish list.

Say Say Say by Lila Savage: Caring for others

Cover imageI spotted Lila Savage’s debut on Twitter quite some time ago and liked the look of it. Say Say Say explores the job of the caregiver, one which is becoming increasingly common as we call on the services of others to look after us in our old age and one which Savage spent more than a decade in herself. Her novel personalises this most difficult and delicate of roles, so often undervalued, through Ella who never expected to inhabit it.

Ella is a bright young woman, close to thirty and a grad school dropout. She’s settled into life with Alix with whom she’s very much in love, dabbling in a variety of artistic pursuits and earning her money from looking after those who need it. Usually, it’s a job which combines the domestic with a modicum of care: she makes cookies for Sharon – vastly over weight but eager to be enveloped in the smell of baking – cleans her bathroom and clears up after her incontinence. Ella’s new job is caring for Jill, a woman whose brain injury has left her incoherent, caught up in meaningless repetitive routines and seemingly unreachable. Jill lives with her husband Bryn, who has given up work to look after his beloved wife but is looking for a little respite although finds himself almost incapable of taking it. Ella is simply to sit with Jill, to ensure that she doesn’t harm herself. Through Ella’s head runs a multitude of concerns – about Jill, about Bryn and how he is coping, about the life they once had together and whether she’s fulfilling their needs – while fretting about what she should be doing with her life. Eventually, as all her jobs do, her time with Jill comes to an end and she must leave what has come almost to feel like family.

And so Ella had learnt to step in and out of grief, to sample it on demand  

Rather like Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, I found this book getting under my skin but not being able to quite define why. Savage narrates her brief novella from Ella’s perspective which underlines the odd relationship between carer and client – intimate yet not – demanding a delicacy of navigation that Ella constantly re-evaluates. She’s the insider-outsider who must perform the most private of functions, witness the grief and distress of her clients, while safeguarding her own emotional wellbeing. Ella is constantly questioning herself, perpetually conscious of the effects of her actions on others. All this is explored with great humanity but also with wit: there’s an episode when Bryn takes Ella and Jill to the bike shop which is both comic and poignant as Ella attempts to shepherd a ranting Jill around the car park.

Still, she felt like a malevolent bully, like a sadistic prison guard, though she experienced no anger, or pleasure, in thwarting Jill’s will

Savage questions the gendered ‘pink-collar’ nature of caring, as Ella puts it, forced to re-think this idea as Bryn performs the most distasteful of tasks for Jill out of love, while Ella is simply paid to sit with her. Say Say Say is a thoughtful, humane and compassionate meditation on the toll caregiving exacts both on loved ones and professionals, delivered with acuity and style. I’m looking forward very much to seeing what Savage writes next.

The Wind That Lays Waste by Selva Almada (transl. Chris Andrews): Spreading the word

Cover imageArgentinian writer Selva Almada’s The Wind That Lays Waste is published by Charco Press, a small publisher set up by Carolina Orloff and Samuel McDowell to champion Latin American literature in the English-speaking world. Orloff’s a translator which is perhaps why Chris Andrews’ name appears on the book’s cover, just as it should. I wish more publishers would do this. Almada’s novella is the tale of an encounter between a charismatic evangelist and the mechanic who spends much of a long hot day mending the preacher’s car.

Reverend Pearson and his daughter are on their way to see Pastor Zack, busy converting indigenous people deep in the Argentinean forest. Pearson has spent a decade touring the country, putting the fear of God into as many people as he can, dragging the reluctant Leni around with him and living out of his car. Leni still remembers kneeling on the backseat watching her distraught mother as her father drove them away. At sixteen she’s both admiring of her father’s skills and disapproving of what he does. When their car breaks down in the harsh heat of the day, a kind stranger tows them to Gringo Brauer’s. Gringo sets to work with his assistant, Tapioca, the unacknowledged son left with him when Tapioca was six. Gringo and Pearson are each other’s antithesis: one a passionate believer in God and himself as God’s instrument; the other an atheist, dismissive of religion. As the day wears on, Pearson spots an opportunity resulting in a confrontation which reaches its climax as the skies crack open and the storm breaks.

Perhaps it’s because both novels end in a deluge or maybe it’s their shared economy of style, striking use of language and fable like quality, either way The Wind That Lays Waste reminded me a little of Luis Carrasco’s El Hacho, one of last’s year’s favourites. Almada unfolds her story in short chapters written in plain yet evocative often poetic prose, anchoring it in the parched Argentinean outback.

Although he had barely used his muscles, lying still all day, the blood that went coursing through his body had made the pit so hot not even the fleas could stand it anymore  

Her characters are sharply observed: Tapioca’s naivete is convincingly drawn while Pearson is full of righteousness, oblivious to the misery he’s caused his daughter by separating her from her mother and forcing his beliefs on her.

His mission on earth was to wash dirty souls, to make them sparkling clean again, and fill them with the word of God  

It’s an impressive piece of fiction, thought-provoking and absorbing. Almada’s is the latest in a long string of novellas I’ve read which demonstrate the power of the form. Much left unsaid for the reader to infer, and all the better for it.

Murmur by Will Eaves: An imagined life

Will Eaves’ Murmur was originally published by CB Editions, a ‘one-person-venture’ as its website describes it. A brave decision, then, to publish an experimental piece of fiction which makes considerable demands on its readers’ attention but it’s paid off handsomely. Eaves’ book was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths and James Tait Black Prizes then bagged both the Republic of Consciousness Prize and the Wellcome Book Prize. In this extraordinarily ambitious novella, a man is undergoing chemical castration having been convicted of gross indecency. Although the man is given a different name, it’s clear Alan Turing’s is the experience that Eaves is imagining.

In a jubilant mood after finishing a difficult paper, mathematician Alec Pryor has picked up a young man at a fair and taken him home. Shortly after their encounter, Cyril attempts to blackmail Pryor, then Pryor’s flat is burgled. Pryor takes the matter to the police but finds himself under arrest. This is 1952: homosexuality is a criminal offence. Pryor is sentenced to chemical castration which not only changes his body but also induces vividly hallucinogenic dreams, offering glimpses into his past and an exploration of his theories about consciousness and artificial intelligence.

Murmur is impossible to encapsulate in a short review, although had I taken note of Annabel’s words and read up about Turing I might have grasped a little more of what Eaves’ cerebral book has to offer. Made baroque by the Stilboestrol injected by a kindly nurse once a week, Pryor’s dreams together with his correspondence with June, his ex-fiancée and Bletchley Park colleague, make up the bulk of the novel, sandwiched between two short journal entries. Recurrent tropes of fairgrounds, mirrors, a nocturnal swim with his beloved schoolfriend Chris and confrontations with his family run through these dreams which are beautifully described in poetic sometimes lambent prose. Eaves manages to combine a gorgeous use of language, erudition and an occasional playfulness with an aching compassion at its most poignant in his description of Pryor gazing at his changed body in the mirror:

His hands were mine, too, formerly, of that I’m sure: but I’m not him, not any more. His hands caress me and I can’t feel anything

Pryor no longer quite recognises his reflection as his body becomes other than it was. His desire has been stolen from him by the barbaric ‘treatment’ deemed necessary by the state. We know how this ended for Turing, of course. When I’m feeling particularly dismayed by the state of my nation, or even the world, I remind myself of just how much has changed for gay men. Some things do get better.

I’ve barely done the many and varied ideas explored by Eaves’ book justice, I’m afraid. If you’d like to read a more articulate review you might like to visit Annabel’s, Clare’s or Rebecca’s.

Flotsam by Meike Ziervogel: More than meets the eye

Cover imageYou may already know Meike Ziervogel’s name. She’s the founder of Peirene Press who publish three thought-provoking novellas in translation a year, several of which I’ve reviewed on this blog. Flotsam’s not her first book but it’s the first I’ve read by her. Set on the German coast in the 1950s, Ziervogel’s strange, unsettling novella is a beautifully expressed exploration of the legacy of war and the grief it brings.

Trine is playing on the shipwreck not far from the cottage where her mother has lived since her father suggested the family leaves Berlin during the war. Her brother Carl falls from the rigging, apparently dead but Trine decides not to interrupt her mother’s daily beach combing, instead dragging his body home, planning to give him a pirate’s burial. On the cusp of adolescence, Trine is an outsider, the butt of sneering bullies, but when she sets fire to the shipwreck her status changes. She’s someone to be reckoned with now. Her mother, Anna, has collected what the sea throws up for years until it fills several of the cottage’s rooms. Once an artist, she had plans to make something of these bits and pieces but nothing ever comes of it. One day she thinks she sees a man who may be Carl, trudging through the mudflats, and her thoughts turn to the war. As this evocative novella draws to a close, Anna at last finds a use for her daily gatherings.

As you may have gathered from that synopsis, this is not an easy book to write about without muffling the small shocks and perplexities which readers should experience for themselves Told first from Trine’s perspective then Anna’s, it’s the briefest of novellas yet it provokes more thought than many books three times its length. Written in often lyrical yet spare, clean prose, Flotsam is haunted by grief, leaving much for readers to deduce for themselves. Ziervogel’s setting reflects the shifting ambiguity of much of the novel in its atmospheric descriptions:

The blue sky is cloudless. A flock of oystercatchers is heading out towards the sea, which is nothing more than a thin line on the horizon

It was impossible to imagine that in just a few hours all of this would be covered by the sea, which seemed to have disappeared beyond the horizon, dropped off the face of the earth.

Ziervogel’s novella is likely to take you less than an afternoon to read, her own criterion for the books Peirene publishes, but I’d be surprised if you weren’t thinking about it for some time after you’ve finished.

Four Soldiers by Hubert Mingarelli (transl. Sam Taylor): War and peace

Cover imageI reviewed Hubert Mingarelli’s A Meal in Winter here quite some time ago now but it’s stayed with me. Its premise is simple – three German Second World War soldiers share a bowl of soup in an abandoned hut and are interrupted by a Polish hunter – but its exploration of the horrors of war is extraordinarily powerful. First published in French in 2003, Four Soldiers explores similar themes this time against the backdrop of the Russian Civil War in 1919.

A company of Red Army soldiers in retreat from the Romanians is ordered to make camp as winter closes in. Four of the soldiers form a tightly bonded group over the ensuing months, unofficially led by Pavel. Kyabine is the brawn of the group, big strong and obsessed with tobacco. Sifra is quiet and diffident, adept enough to reassemble his rifle blindfolded, but it is to Benia that Pavel turns for consolation each night when his nightmare recurs. With the advent of spring, they’re ordered to burn their hut where they’ve played so many games of dice, gambling away the tobacco which Pavel finds ways of passing back to Kyabine, kissing the watch containing the picture of a woman with which they each takes a turn to sleep. They stumble upon a pool near their new camp which becomes the calm centre of their days. A young boy is assigned to the four, at first regarded with suspicion, then enfolded into their friendship. As spring wears on the return to marching looms large and with it the end of their peace.

A few months ago, I mentioned that I’d been reading more novellas this year, remarking on how powerful they can be: Four Soldiers is a perfect example. Told through Benia’s voice in plain, clean prose, Mingarelli’s book quietly and compassionately captures the comradeship of soldiers who form a deep bond of fellowship, enjoying a brief period of peace while shutting out the inevitability of what lies ahead. His writing is spare, stripped of any ornamentation and all the more evocative for it:

The officers stopped to look behind them, hands shielding their eyes from the sun, as if they’d forgotten something.

 Barely had we finished drinking that tea before we became nostalgic for it.

I was filled with emotion because each one of us was in his place and also because it seemed to me that instant that each of us was away from the winter in the forest. And that each of us was also far away from the war that was going to start up again because the winter was over.

The end is quietly devastating. While I can happily enjoy a well spun, chunky yarn  – Little being a case in point – it’s hard to beat the punch of a carefully honed novella.

Brother by David Chariandy: ‘Complicated grief’

Cover imageDavid Chariandy’s Brother is the second novel I’ve reviewed this year that I first spotted on Naomi’s Consumed by Ink, hoping that it would buck the British publishing trend of ignoring Canadian gems. The first was Katherena Vermette’s The Break, which lived up to the Margaret Atwood plaudit adorning its cover. Fingers crossed there’ll be more given the excellence of both the Vermette and Chariandy’s eloquent exploration of grief and loss set against a backdrop of urban immigrant poverty.

Michael has cared for his mother since the death of his older brother Francis, shutting himself off from the friends he and Francis once shared. When Aisha contacts him, telling him about her father’s death, he issues an uncharacteristic invitation triggering memories of the years leading up to Francis’ death. Born and raised in Canada, the brothers visited their mother’s Trinidadian home just once. Their Indian father had left when they were barely out of nappies. Determined to lift her two sons out of poverty and sensitive to the judgement of others, Ruth constantly drummed into them strict codes of behaviour and the need to do well at school. Just one year older than Michael, Francis was the cool one growing into a thoughtful man, protective of those he loved yet sassy and adventurous enough to attract the authorities’ attention. A shooting at the development where they lived marked a turning point for him, and for Michael. Francis began to spend more time with his friends, listening to music and falling in love with Jelly, a brilliant DJ in the making. When Aisha comes home, ten years after Francis’ death, it’s Jelly she invites back to the apartment Michael shares with his mother. Her clear-eyed perception offers Michael a way out of the cage of grief he’s locked himself into.

Brother packs a quietly powerful punch for such a short book. Chariandy explores themes of grief, racism and social deprivation, weaving. Michael’s memories of Francis through Aisha’s visit. The introductory page sets the tone for evocative often understated prose which ranges from the colourful – I will beat you so hard your children will bear scars. Your children’s children will feel! – to poetic observation: It was difficult not to feel something for him sitting there, catching snatches of sleep, other times growing old in the squinting smoke while the orders were shouted at him. Chariandy’s characterisation is both astute and compassionate: it’s impossible not to care deeply about what happens to these two young men, both bright and ambitious but thwarted by their circumstances. Brother was longlisted for last year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize, an award well worth looking out for. Competition must have been very stiff indeed for this beautifully crafted piece of fiction not to have made it onto the shortlist.

That’s it from me for a week or so. After a rather tough winter, H and I are off to Spain tomorrow evening in the hope of catching some sun, a bit of culture and reading one or two books.

Sisters by Lily Tuck: A tale of obsession

It took me a mere ninety minutes to read Lily Tuck’s Sisters which might lead you to think it’s a slight, inconsequential piece of fiction but that’s far from the case. A sharp psychological study of obsession with a neat sting in its tail, it’s completely riveting.

Our unnamed narrator is married to a man with whom she started an affair after meeting him at a dinner party his first wife chose not to attend. They’ve been married for some time, long enough for her to have seen her stepson from early teenage years through to graduation and help her stepdaughter choose her wedding dress. She’s obsessed with his first wife: taking her stepson’s text book across town to get a glimpse of her apartment; calling her on the phone, then hanging up; researching her old piano teacher. How happy was this woman whose photograph she sees every day? What is her life-like now? How did she feel about burying her musical talent in housewifery? Was she better in bed? A litany of speculation preoccupies our narrator about her predecessor, so different from herself.

Tuck’s novella is made up of a series of short fragments, often just a few lines occupying the entire page.  A great deal is left unsaid and yet a picture emerges of a woman caught up in an obsession, at once unsettling and understandable. The writing is pinpoint sharp, the depth of obsession beautifully conveyed:

In the photo of her pushing the baby carriage down Avenue Foch in Paris, it was hard to tell – even with a magnifying glass – whether she looked happy.

Tuck’s ability to convey characters while saying barely anything about them is remarkable. The two wives emerge as far more interesting than their self-absorbed, insensitive husband. The connection our narrator yearns for with his first wife far deeper than the one she shares with him. This is such an elegant, quietly devastating piece of fiction. Inevitably, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca springs to mind and is given a polite nod by our narrator:

I dreamed – not that I went back to Manderley – that I was in a big city like Calcutta or Bombay in India.

I’ve been left wanting to read as many of Tuck’s novels I can get my hands on.

School of Velocity by Eric Beck Rubin: Friendship and discord

Cover imageEric Beck Rubin’s debut is named after Carl Czerny’s eponymous score, much used by pianists to develop their technical skill so the internet tells me. I wish I could say that piece of knowledge popped into my memory while reading Rubin’s novel but I have to admit to being a musical ignoramus. It does give you an indication, however, just how steeped in music this book is. As with all the best titles, this one comes to have more than one meaning by the time you’ve reached the end of this neatly crafted novella about love, friendship and the consequences of repression.

Jan is new to the Sint Ansfried arts school. A talented pianist, his time is entirely taken up with practising although he has managed to find himself a girlfriend. Much to his surprise he snags the attention of the exuberant Dirk, a TV child star given to partying, offering advice on girls and endless joshing humour. Before long, these two have struck up an unlikely friendship which becomes increasingly exclusive. Jan begins to stay over with Dirk, their nights spent in the same bed never spoken of by either of them. After leaving school Dirk decides to continue his studies in the States while Jan becomes the star of his conservatory year. Both look set for glittering careers but curiously neither has contacted the other since leaving Sint Ansfried. During his time in Maastricht, Jan falls in love with Lena, eager to support him in his career. Just before his first tour, Jan meets Dirk and introduces him to Lena. This will be the last time these two meet for decades during which Jan becomes tortured by auditory hallucinations. When he learns that all he’d gleaned of Dirk’s career turns out to be carefully fostered rumour, he engineers a meeting in the hope that confronting their past will silence the cacophony in his head.

Rubin tells his story from Jan’s perspective, vividly evoking his early friendship with Dirk and his increasing distress at the discordance which later bedevils him. This is a wrenching story of love and its repression, laid out for us in the first few pages when Jan thinks ‘In my imagination I can’t separate what I fear from what I secretly want’. Neither of these two seems to have been able to be their true selves. While others have understood the nature of his friendship with Dirk better than he did himself, it seems that Jan has blinded himself just as he did, urged on by Dirk, on their reckless bike rides as boys. Beck’s writing is both insightful and striking, his descriptions of Jan’s torturous hallucinations and his inability to understand their significance painfully vivid. It’s a quietly powerful piece of fiction about knowing and accepting yourself, and the trouble that will come from choosing not to do so.

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors (transl. Misha Hoekstra): The loneliness of the learner driver

Cover imageI’ve not come across Dorthe Nors’ writing before although the Guardian included her Karate Chop/Minna Needs Rehearsal Space as one of their best books of 2015. It’s possible I dismissed Karate Chop out of hand, not yet having seen the light with regard to short stories, but if Mirror, Shoulder, Signal is anything to go by I may well seek it out. This short, funny novel sees Sonja attempting to learn to drive, something she feels she really should have done some time ago, while failing to find a place for herself in the world.

Sonja’s in her forties, a translator of popular Swedish crime fiction. She’s from Jutland but has lived in Copenhagen for many years. She lives alone, frets about why her elder sister Kate seems to avoid her calls and often thinks about her childhood – hiding in her father’s rye field despite strict orders not to, watching the whooper swans flying through the endless skies. Her driving instructor hurls incomprehensible commands at her while providing her with a furious running commentary on her own life and its many problems. Her flaky masseuse attributes every tense muscle to spiritual problems, insisting on the power of ‘medical intuition’. When she finally gets the nerve up to change her driving instructor she constantly frets that the new one will find out about her ‘positional vertigo’ and disqualify her from taking her test. One day, on her way to a concert with a friend who doesn’t seem the least bit interested in her, she helps a timid old woman and has an epiphany.

Nothing much happens in Nors’ sharp, very funny novella. Sonja stumbles from perplexity to perplexity, occasionally making stands, constantly finding herself out of step with everyone else. When her masseuse invites her on a walk she avoids the woodland glade meditation session. She heads off the pass she’s convinced her new driving instructor is about to make with free books for his wife when he’s simply relieved to be teaching some one his own age. Nors takes a few nifty swipes at Scandi crime: despite occasional trips to Sweden Sonja has ‘never stumbled across a corpse over there. It’s curious when you think about how many people die a violent death in Ystad alone’. Deftly combining wit with acute observation Mirror, Shoulder, Signal is essentially about loneliness, about not fitting in when it seems everyone else does. Its cover perfectly sums it up: shutting her skirt in the door is precisely the kind of think Sonja would do. Congratulations to both Nors and Hoekstra for their well deserved appearance on this year’s Man Booker International Prize longlist.