David 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.
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.
Eric 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.
I’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.
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.
Someone at Oneworld has a very sharp editorial eye, or maybe there’s a whole team of them. They managed to bag both the last two Man Booker Prizes, first with Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings then Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. They also published Sweetbitter, one of my favourites from 2016, and The Prison Book Club, an equally impressive piece of non-fiction. Jacqueline Woodson’s elegant, slim novella is another triumph. It’s a book of memory, the story of a teenage girl in the ‘70s which unfolds when a chance meeting after her father’s funeral catapults August back into her past.
August and her brother lived in rural Tennessee until she was eight and he was four when their father took them back to the tough Brooklyn neighbourhood where he grew up. They miss their mother but August comforts her brother, telling him that someday she will join them. Day after day they watch the goings-on in the street from their apartment window, forbidden to leave the house by a father grown fearful after fighting in the Vietnam war. August sees three girls playing, skipping and laughing together on the summer streets. She longs to be a part of their group and, one day, she will. Smart, beautiful Sylvia, whose parents see a bright future ahead of her, welcomes August into her friendship with Gigi and Angela, both talented but less privileged. These four will form an alliance against the world, a refuge from the insistent hum of male attention, until cracks begin to form. By the time of her father’s funeral, August is an anthropologist, an Ivy League graduate who has studied death rituals throughout the world – successful but no longer in touch with the friends who had meant so much to her.
August tells her story in her own voice, unfurling the past in fragments as memories so often do. Woodson’s writing is strikingly beautiful – poetic and often impressionistic yet capable of packing an emotional punch with a single sentence or phrase. Small details, slipped in, slowly reveal why August jumps off the subway before her stop rather than greeting her old friend. It’s a narrative infused with heart-wrenching loss: ‘I thought of my mother often, lifting my hand to stroke my own cheek’ remembers August who comforted her brother as she combed his tangled hair telling him to imagine that hers are ‘Mama’s hands’. Woodson’s portrayal of female friendship is equally arresting: ‘I had Sylvia, Angela and Gigi, the four of us sharing the weight of growing up Girl in Brooklyn, as though it was a bag of stones we passed among ourselves saying Here. Help me carry this.’ Another Brooklyn is a gorgeous book – deeply moving, peopled with vividly drawn characters and beautifully expressed. It will be with me for some time.
When I included Moonstone in one of my June previews I was surprised when several people picked up on it, already acquainted with Sjón’s writing either through a previous novel or from songs he’d written with Björk. He’s a talented guy: an award-winning novelist, poet, playwright and librettist. I wish I could say that I knew all about him already but it was Moonstone’s synopsis that drew me to it rather than Sjón’s reputation. Set in 1918 in Reykjavík, this fable-like novella follows sixteen-year-old orphan Máni Steinn – the eponymous Moonstone – over the three months that Spanish influenza rages through Iceland’s capital.
Máni is so obsessed with the movies that he visits both of Reykjavík’s cinemas, sometimes twice a day. It’s an expensive business but Máni turns tricks to fund his habit, visiting various “gentlemen” throughout the city, all very furtive about their predilections. He’s transfixed by Sólborg Gudbjörnsdóttir who zooms around the city on her red Indian motorcycle, dressed in black leathers, the very image of Musidora, the star of Máni’s favourite movie – Feuillde’s epic, Les Vampires. When she tosses her scarlet scarf to him, it becomes his most prized possession. Máni’s routine is shattered when a Danish passenger ship docks in the city bringing influenza with it. Soon both movie houses fall silent as the musicians succumb to the disease. As the fatalities mount, the only doctor left standing recruits Máni and Sólborg to make house visits, carting the bodies to the mortuary and tending the sick. The beginning of the new year, almost three months after the epidemic began, marks the beginning of Icelandic sovereignty celebrated with great ceremony on January 1st, 1919, a day which ends in disgrace for Máni. Eleven years later, he returns to the city.
There’s a gorgeously poetic, dreamlike quality to this slim novella. As you might expect from a writer who seems to excel in whichever form he chooses, the writing is striking. For the illiterate Máni: ‘the letters of the alphabet disguise themselves before his eyes, glide between lines, switch roles in the middle of a word’. When the outside world impinges on Iceland in the form of influenza: ‘The silver screen has torn and a draught is blowing between the worlds’. You could call it an adult fairy tale but Sjón blends fact with fiction including a multitude of filmic references and historic events. Its ending is extraordinarily beautiful – both fantastical and moving. In the final paragraph we learn that the book is dedicated to the memory of Sjón‘s uncle, Bósi – ‘sailor, alcoholic, booklover, socialist and gay’ – who died from AIDS in 1993, making it all the more poignant. Kudos to Victoria Cribb for such a sensitive translation of a remarkable piece of writing.
I’ve been a fan of Colum McCann’s novels since way back in the late ‘90s when I read This Side of Brightness. His fiction ranges far and wide – from Dancer’s Rudolf Nureyev to the Roma of Zoli – and his writing is often strikingly poetic. Unsurprisingly, then, I’ve been looking forward to his new book despite my self-confessed short story prejudice. It opens with the titular ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking’ – a novella, rather than a short story – followed by one very short piece then two others. All of them are powerful in their own way but you won’t be surprised to hear that ‘Thirteen Ways’ is my favourite.
Widower J. Mendelssohn is eighty-two years old. He lives in an Upper East Side apartment with Sally, his Caribbean carer. Almost every day he gets himself out of bed and makes his way, with Sally’s help, to the Italian restaurant not two hundred yards from his apartment. Every day he has the same conversation with Tony the doorman, and every day the restaurant staff greet him warmly. On this particular occasion he’s meeting his son, a hedge fund manager and a disappointment to his father. There’s one other difference in today’s routine: we know very early on that this day will be his last. Mendelssohn’s narrative is interwoven with the efforts of detectives to solve his murder as they scrutinise the footage from the multitude of cameras that line his route, two of them covertly installed in the apartment by his son to keep and eye on the blameless Sally.
Mendelssohn’s narrative takes the form of an internal monologue composed of memories and reflections – the challenges of ageing; his son Elliot and his shortcomings; his daughter Katya, a rebel turned diplomat; philosophical observations; memories of his legal career and speculations as to what Sally’s up to – his darling wife never far from his thoughts. The intimacy of these musings makes his death all the more shocking despite our prior knowledge of it. Punctuating Mendelssohn’s narrative are the detectives’ intricate reconstructions of the day’s events, slowly revealing the culprit. It’s a compelling piece of writing, making its readers think about the nature of guilt which may not be attributed quite as fairly as we think.
As for the other three stories: ‘What Time is it Where You Are?’ is a short playful riff on the process of writing, desultory then increasingly frenetic notes hinting at the panic of a fast approaching deadline. ‘Sh’khol’ examines a very particular loss for which a translator can find no word in English but which she comes to understand all too well when her adopted thirteen-year-old son disappears, the urgency of the search evoked in plain short sentences. In ‘Treaty’ an elderly nun sees her South American torturer on television, apparently involved in peace negotiations and decides to seek her own kind of settlement thirty-seven years after her ordeal. An impressive, thought-provoking collection, then, but I’m hoping for a novel next time.