Tag Archives: OneWorld Publications

You Have to Make Your Own Fun Around Here by Frances Macken: What are friends for…

Cover imageI grew up in a village with my sights firmly fixed on escaping to the city which was what attracted me to You Have to Make Your Own Fun Around Here. That title says it all for those of us who couldn’t wait to get away. Beginning in the 1990s, Frances Macken’s debut is set in Ireland where ten-year-old Evelyn, Katie and Maeve are inseparable, following them into a young adulthood in which each turns out to be not quite what the others expected.

Evelyn is the undoubted boss of this disparate threesome, with Katie second in command and in thrall to her. Maeve trails behind them, mousy and the butt of Evelyn’s snide remarks echoed by Katie, only tolerated because she’s Evelyn’s adopted cousin. Gossip is rife in Glenbruff and opportunities thin on the ground. By the time they’re teenagers, Evelyn’s much-voiced plans to escape are the hope that Katie latches on to, determined that Maeve will be left far behind. Katie wants to be a filmmaker, while Evelyn plans to study fine art despite no evidence of any talent. When a new girl arrives at school, Katie briefly entertains the idea of friendship with her but Pamela’s involvement with Katie’s tentative crush puts the kybosh on that, helped along by Evelyn’s disparagement. Then Pamela disappears without trace, a mystery which will cast a long shadow of suspicion over Glenbruff. When Evelyn’s hopes of art school are dashed, Katie is pulled up short. Once in Dublin, Evelyn’s sneering still echoes in her head, scuppering any other potential friendships. Several years later she’s back in Glenbruff to find that not much has changed and everything has changed.

‘God almighty. Why in the world would I want to be anyone else,‘ Evelyn snorts

Macken’s novel may ring a few very loud bells for some. She captures that desperate small town longing for bright lights and opportunity painfully well, narrating her novel through Katie, torn between her sometimes exasperating idolisation of Evelyn and her need to escape. The friendship between the three is well drawn, excruciatingly so at times as Evelyn struts around the small stage of Glenbruff, bolstering herself with her small humiliations of Maeve and basking in Katie’s regard until her influence begins to wane. Macken has a sharp ear for dialogue, scattering her novel with smartly funny lines.

Look at Mammy, sure, existing with the spectre of the unlived Self.

Katie’s parents were a small joy for me, reminding me of my own in their encouragement of her ambitions. Altogether a well turned out, enjoyable first novel which had me cheering Katie on at its end.

Oneworld Publications: London 2020 9781786077653 288 pages Hardback

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones: A tale of two sisters, secrets and lies

Cover imageOriginally published in the US back in 2011, Tayari Jones’ Silver Sparrow has been released here in the UK on the heels of Jones’ 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction triumph. I wasn’t entirely sure I’d read it, not having been quite as impressed with An American Marriage as the judges, but its premise is an intriguing one: two teenage sisters become friends but only one knows that they share the same father. Hard to resist that.

James Witherspoon is a bigamist. Married to Laverne when she was pregnant at just fourteen, he stood up before a judge ten years later with Gwen, the woman he’d met when buying Laverne’s anniversary present. Fully aware of what they were doing, Gwen had been determined to give their daughter Dana some sort of legitimacy. Chaurisse was born four months after Dana, a longed-for child whose brother had been stillborn. These two grow up in very different circumstances: Chaurisse the child of parents proud of their success after a rocky start; Dana’s deeply resentful mother taking her on spying trips spent sneering at their less attractive but more secure counterparts. Every Wednesday, James and the man he regards as his brother, come to visit Gwen and Dana, Raleigh carrying a flame for Gwen. As the girls grow up, their worlds begin to overlap much to James’ apprehension, until they meet in the local mall as if by accident, one knowing a great deal about the other, both lonely in their own way. Chaurisse is flattered by the attention of this pretty girl but sometimes puzzled by her cageyness. What ensues will trigger aftershocks felt for years to come.

I lived in a world where you could never want what you wanted out in the open

Jones explores themes of family, trust, honesty and identity through Dana and Chaurisse, as first one then the other tells their story, neatly balancing her novel. Given the Oprah-like set up, it could easily have descended into soap opera but Jones is much too skilled for that, sidestepping turning James into a monster although men don’t come out of this novel too well. The web of lies and deceit ensnares even Raleigh, the most loyal of men, making him complicit and dishonest.

The six of us were hog-tied, fastened in place by different knots

Richly complex, peopled with a cast of nuanced characters, Jones’ book steers clear of judgement treating its subject with compassion and empathy while injecting a slim vein of dry humour into each of her narratives, even at the most poignant of moments. I enjoyed An American Marriage but, for me, Silver Sparrow is the better novel. I’m hoping that Jones’ other two backlist titles will appear here in the UK if this one meets with the success it deserves.

Oneworld Publications: London 2020 9781786077967 368 pages Hardback

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.

Vacuum in the Dark by Jen Beagin: Mona reprised

Cover imageI finished my review of Jen Beagin’s sharp, funny Pretend I’m Dead happily anticipating what she might come up with next. What I wasn’t expecting was a sequel. Two years after the love of her life disappeared, Mona’s finding herself becoming more intimate with her clients and not necessarily in a good way.

Mona’s still in Taos, living next door to her fey neighbours, cleaning houses for clients and fending off the inevitable questions as to what else she does by telling everyone she’s a writer. One morning, she finds what she thinks is a bar of gritty, brown, homemade soap in the bathroom of Rose, her blind therapist client. Similar distasteful deposits appear in random parts of the house which Mona patiently cleans up much to the disgust of Terry, the NPR presenter she likes to talk to in her head, who suggests that this isn’t normal behaviour. Mona embarks on an affair with Rose’s husband which becomes so twisted, even for her, that she decides to jump ship. Her next gig is equally bizarre but this time she finds herself falling in love with her clients’ house. Lena and Paul are both artists with exquisite taste and difficult lives. Lena offers hope of a career for Mona when she sees her photographs of herself dressed in her clients’ clothes but disappears shortly after Mona begins modelling for Paul. She heads back to L. A. when her mother, sober for the first time in sixteen years, asks her to collect what’s left of her belongings. There she hooks up with Kurt, safe, comforting and just a wee bit dull, until, two years later, her Taos past catches up with her. Throughout it all, Mona cleans and vacuums, removing even the nastiest of stains.

Vacuum in the Dark is more episodic than Pretend I’m Dead, much like a set of very closely linked short stories as Mona moves from client to client. We learn a little more about her childhood, her creepy grandfather and drunken mother, the casually abusive men she was exposed to, but this time we also meet her clients, all of whom have their own darkness to shoulder. The same sharp wit is on show and there are some very funny scenes with her stepfather’s parrots who seem to do Frank’s crying for him, not to mention picking his teeth. It’s considerably darker than Beagin’s first novel: the humour still sardonic and off the wall but less slapstick. I’m often sceptical of sequels and was concerned that Beagin might be pushing her luck but she manages to carry it off. I’m hoping there won’t be a third, though. Best quit while you’re ahead.

Tirzah and the Prince of Crows by Deborah Kay Davies: She is my delight

Cover imageI wasn’t entirely sure I would read Deborah Kay Davies’ second novel. The press release suggested that she’s often been compared with Angela Carter which set loud alarm bells ringing but I rarely read Welsh fiction, and its published by OneWorld who can generally be relied upon to deliver the goods. Set in the 1970s, it’s about the eponymous Tizrah, sixteen years old and beginning to question the strictures of the sect to which her parents belong.

Tirzah rarely leaves the village in the valley where she was born. Her parents are members of a non-conformist Christian denomination whose draconian rules are obeyed by some to the letter and by others with a little more generosity and compassion. Tizrah’s father is in the former camp, his roaring tirades tempered by her mother who counsels discretion and patience. Her best friends are her cousin Biddy and Osian, for whom Tizrah has puzzling little glimmers of desire which are more than returned. When Osian’s father catches these two alone together, a flame of righteous indignation is lit that results in his son’s public humiliation, cowing him into submission. Tizrah is having none of that. She’s all for questioning the chapel’s rules, escaping sermons by sending her mind soaring over her beloved mountainside. One day she confronts, Brân, a ragged young boy of her own age who seems to live in the woods on the mountainside and communes with the crows who live there. Shortly afterwards, Tizrah’s bright future, built on a determination to do well at school and escape the  judgement of Horeb, takes a very different turn.

There’s more than a touch of the fable about Davies’ tragicomic novel which is told from the perspective of Tizrah. whose ‘ungovernable heart’ leads her into the kind of trouble Horeb’s congregation is all too eager to condemn, despite often being less pure themselves than they’d like others to think. Davies’ writing is striking, particularly in her descriptions of the natural world, home to Tizrah’s true spiritual centre:

Here are armies of furry, half-grown, foxgloves spears, with their tight bunches of purple buds, and amongst the bracken, old, scrambling ropes of scarlet pimpernel

Her novel is peopled with many engaging characters, from Tizrah’s mother who quietly curbs her father’s worst judgemental outbursts to Biddy who shrugs off the more ridiculous pronouncements at chapel with pragmatic aplomb while Tizrah herself lives up to her Hebrew name: she is, indeed, a delight. Davies’ ear for dialogue adds to all this. And it’s very funny at times: Davies pokes gentle fun at the ludicrous shenanigans of Herob while never losing sight of the fact that they’re so busily caught up in their piety that they fail to notice tragedy unfolding on their doorsteps. Just one jarring note for me and that was Brân who, Wikipedia tells me, is a figure from Welsh mythology. I’m not sure Davies entirely knew what to do with him, perhaps wary of wandering too far off into magic realism territory. That said, I enjoyed spending time in Tizrah’s company.

Pretend I’m Dead by Jen Beagin: Smart, funny and dark

Cover imageJen Beagin’s Pretend I’m Dead comes adorned with a ‘laugh-out-loud’ puff on its jacket, although it was the New Mexico setting that was the attraction for me. It’s about twenty-four-year-old Mona who cleans houses for a living, falls hard for a junkie who disappears then takes herself off to Taos. Not perhaps the most inspiring of synopses but it’s Beagin’s whipsmart humour and Mona’s idiosyncratic take on life that keep you reading.

Mona loves to vacuum, sees dirt wherever she goes and indulges in self-portraits, playing dead in her clients’ houses often wearing at least one item of their clothing. Her parents split when she was twelve, packing her off to her father’s cousin the other side of the country. Once a week she volunteers at the local needle exchange where she meets Mr Disgusting, twenty years older than her and determined to get clean. These two damaged misfits get to know each other, fall in love and plan to set up home together but then he disappears leaving Mona with nothing but an idea in her head that she would fit right into Taos. She takes off for New Mexico where she sets up shop as a cleaner again. Her neighbours spend an hour looking at the sunset ever night, meditate, eat a macrobiotic diet and think she should do the same. Business picks up but she’s lonely, worrying away at the puzzling childhood memories that resurface now and then.

Nothing much happens in Beagin’s debut: it’s all about the characters, not least Mona from whose sharply sardonic perspective the novel unfolds. Little bombs are dropped into the narrative revealing a childhood that has led her to jump to dark conclusions about her clients. Beagin demonstrates a nice line in satire with her New Mexico characters, from her neighbours Nigel and Shiori, or Yoko and Yoko as Mona likes to call them, to Betty the psychic who may be a sharp-eyed charlatan or more prescient that Mona first thinks. There are some great slapstick moments and it’s stuffed with pithy one-liners. A few favourites should give you a flavour:

Rather than a photo, Mona kept a list of her mother’s phobias in her wallet

Like cancer, he had a way of trivialising other aspects of her life

She didn’t believe he’d accidentally killed himself. He was too attached to his problems

There’s a superb one towards the end which made me laugh out loud as promised by that puff but you’d have to read the book to understand why. I loved this novel with its dark, witty and confident writing. Can’t wait to see what Beagin comes up with next.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones: Love in the balance

Cover imageI’d heard nothing about An American Marriage before it arrived, its cover adorned with an Oprah’s Book Club selection tag which always reminds me of Jonathan Franzen’s pompous refusal to have anything to do with Winfrey’s endorsement of The Corrections, considering himself to be part of the ‘high art literary tradition‘. Well, la di da. Anyway, it certainly didn’t put me off nor Michael Chabon who also rated it highly as did Amy Bloom, one of my favourite writers. Tayari Jones’ novel lays bare a marriage in the first flush of love when the husband is wrongfully imprisoned.

Roy and Celestial are visiting his parents in small town Louisiana. They met briefly when she visited her best friend Andre in college but their relationship began properly four years later. Roy is a publishing rep, easy, charming and very successful at what he does while Celestial is a doll maker whose work is just beginning to catch the art world’s eye. They’re an attractive young couple, bright successful and in love, part of Atlanta’s growing black middle class. Celestial is a little nervous about the visit, never feeling she quite measures up to her mother-in-law’s exacting eye. Roy has booked them into a local hotel much to her relief. When he meets a woman at the ice machine, her arm in a cast, they briefly chat and he helps her to her room, opening her door for her before returning to Celestial. In the early hours of the morning, the police burst into their room, hauling Roy off to the station where he is accused of rape and later sentenced to twelve years in prison. Jones’ novel explores the fallout of this awful calamity.

Jones unfolds her story from both Roy and Celestial’s points of view with occasional interpolations from Andre. Married for just eighteen months, they’re still very much caught up in each other. Roy is a confident, slightly brash young man from a respectable blue-collar background while Celestial has enjoyed the privileges of wealth, a divide captured well by Jones in their very different voices, particularly Roy’s: If my childhood were a sandwich, there would be no meat hanging off the bread. Racism, class and marriage come under the microscope as do absent fathers and attitudes towards women which may sound a little ambitious but it’s all tightly controlled and smoothly executed in this powerful novel which avoids the saccharine. Lots to talk about here for book groups – I’m not surprised Oprah plumped for it and I’m sure Jones was more than happy that she did.

The House of Impossible Beauties by Joseph Cassara: A book to rend your heart

Cover imageSet in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Joseph Cassara’s debut was inspired by the House of Xtravaganza, celebrated in Paris is Burning, a documentary about Harlem’s drag ball scene. That alone would have piqued my interest but it’s also from Oneworld Publications, one of my favourite publishers. The House of Impossible Beauties focuses on four characters: Angel, Venus, Juanito and Daniel. Angel and Venus are transsexual while Juanito and Daniel are not. All of them are runaways, looking for a home.

Young, sassy and beautiful, Angel inveigles herself into the dressing room of a New York drag scene star where she meets the love of her life. She and Hector dream of setting up their own house but this is 1980: AIDs is cutting a devastating swathe through the gay community and Angel is soon left alone. When she meets Venus they form an alliance which will last years, scraping enough money together turning tricks at the city’s piers to establish Angel’s longed for drag ball establishment. Soon Juanito joins them, a genius with fabric and delighted with the sewing machine Angel buys him. Then Venus spots Daniel, horribly naïve and ripe for exploitation, taking him home with her. Together these four make up the House of Xtravaganza, the first Latino house on the drag ball circuit and a place of sanctuary from a harsh world with Angel at its centre.

The strength of Cassara’s novel lies in his four central characters, each very different from the other but each looking and hoping for love. Angel buries the pain of losing Hector, channelling it into a fierce protectiveness; Venus falls into the trap of thinking she’s found her man only to discover he’s married; the delicately beautiful Juanito whose childhood still haunts him finds love with the adoring Daniel. AIDs is the grim backdrop to this novel, loss and sadness always in the background together with the straight world’s prejudice and ignorance, but there’s a bright thread of humour running through it, lightening its tone. Cassara was born long after the horrors wreaked by AIDs but he writes with empathy and humanity, evoking the pain of it all heartbreakingly well. When I first started this novel, I wondered if it might prove too long but I found myself drawn into its glittering, tragic world and caring deeply about what happened to its characters.

The Woman at 1,000 Degrees by Hallgrímur Helgason (transl. Brian Fitzgibbon): You couldn’t make it up

Cover imageSometimes books arrive with stories about how they came to be written which are almost as fascinating as what’s inside them. Hallgrímur Helgason’s The Woman at 1,000 Degrees grew out of a canvassing phone call he made on behalf of his partner, a candidate in Iceland’s municipal elections. The third name on his list turned out to belong to an eighty-year-old woman living in a garage who kept him talking for nearly an hour. A few years later, Helgason chased down the identity of his late conversationalist to find that she was Brynhilder Georgía Björnsson, granddaughter of Iceland’s first president. Renaming her Herra, which is both a woman’s name and Icelandic for ‘mister’, Helgason spins a tale which is funny and tragic, hanging it on the bare bones of Björnsson’s story.

Herra lies on a bed in a rented garage, her trusty laptop and ancient hand grenade at her side. She’s made herself an appointment at the crematorium, determined not to see out another Christmas. She keeps herself occupied with her many stolen Facebook identities, causing havoc by merrily hacking her daughter-in-law’s email and telling us her story. Born in 1929, Herra is the daughter of a country girl and a diplomat’s son, brought up for seven years on one of Iceland’s many islands before her father finally got around to acknowledging his daughter taking her and her mother to Denmark where his father was Iceland’s ambassador. They settle into society life then war breaks out. Denmark is occupied by Germany while Iceland, then part of Denmark, is taken by the British. Herra’s father opts to become a Nazi, welcomed into the party with open arms as a child of the fabled Aryan island. Herra’s mother thinks the less of him, staying in Copenhagen while he takes himself off to Lübeck, but these two find it difficult to stay apart. In 1941, dispatched to Germany with promises to follow, Herra waits on Hamburg station for her mother until her father says he can stay no longer leaving his twelve-year-old daughter alone in what is already a wreck of a city. For the rest of the war Herra fends for herself: homeless, hungry, prey to rapists, she survives on her wits occasionally encountering kindness and love. When the war ends, she and her hapless father find their way to Argentina where another chapter begins.

Helgason narrates his novel in Herra’s voice, injecting a good deal of black humour into a story which spends much of its time exploring the worst of human behaviour, managing to both entertain and horrify. Herra adopts a carapace of sharp-tongued wit, determinedly hiding the pain of lifelong grief, loss and suffering. Much of the novel is taken up with the war but there are some nicely discursive episodes – Herra returns to Hamburg in the ‘60s where she’s snogged by John Lennon who’s appalled to find she’s nearly thirty; the 2009 scenes take a few digs at the crookery of the Icelandic financial industry via one of Herra’s sons. It’s a novel that took me a little while to get into  – there’s a good deal of family background to get through in the first few chapters – but once Herra’s credentials were established her story took off and I was hooked. Helgason’s acknowledgements are well worth reading, ending on a nice note thanking his readers for sticking with him to the end: Without your support the writer is just a tree falling in the forest.

The Postman’s Fiancée by Denis Thériault (transl. John Cullen): Bilodo redux

Cover imageI reviewed The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman here three years ago. It often pops up in my top posts which pleases me no end. It’s a little gem: funny, endearing and sufficiently wacky to steer itself well clear of the twee. I ended the review by mentioning that there was a second volume in the works which has been some time in coming but fans of Denis Thériault’s letter-opening postman, caught in the grips of poetic passion for Ségolène far away in Guadeloupe, are unlikely to mind the wait once they get stuck into its sequel.

Tania is a waitress so skilled that her swift, smiling service appears balletic. She delights in anticipating her customers’ desires, none more so that Bilodo, the postman who appears at lunchtime, regular as clockwork, for whom she’s conceived a passion. So shy is Tania that her only expression of love is a daily double portion of Bilodo’s favourite lemon tart. She notices Bilodo practising calligraphy and begins to foster an interest, moving on to haiku about which they chat. A misunderstanding leads to horrified embarrassment when Tania reads a love poem she thinks is for her. Attempts to bury her love fail dismally. She summons her courage, tracks down Bilodo and is astonished to find him dressed as Gaston, a fellow café customer killed by a truck exactly a year ago to the day. After an awkward exchange, she flees only to return and find Bilodo splayed across the road, apparently lifeless. Against all odds, Tania saves Bilodo’s life, faithfully visiting him in hospital and finangling her way into his apartment. When Bilodo regains consciousness, he has no memory of the last five years. Tania scents an opportunity and an elaborate attempt at hoodwinking begins.

Readers of The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman will probably recognise parts of that synopsis. Thériault switches perspective in his sequel, unfolding it from Tania’s point of view rather than Bilodo’s but retaining many of the hallmarks of the first instalment – a gentle humour which becomes downright exuberant towards the end, eccentric yet endearing characters and sufficient darkness to avoid any hint of schmaltz. These two novels were published over a decade apart in the original French but so seamlessly are they knitted together it’s as if they were written alongside each other. Bilodo’s second outing is a delight – you could read it without visiting his first but I can’t imagine why you’d want to.