Tag Archives: OneWorld Publications

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.

Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa (transl. Alison Watts): More than just a simple confection

Cover imageI seem to have been on a bit of a Oneworld roll recently: first They Know Not What They Do – not without its faults but worth reading – then The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao, which looks set fair to be one of my books of 2017, and now Durian Sukegawa’s Sweet Bean Paste. Someone there has a very sharp editorial eye. Sukegawa’s fable-like novella is about the relationship between an elderly woman who walks into a confectioner’s shop, hoping to fill the vacancy advertised in its window, and the reluctant young baker who agrees to take her on. From its jacket and premise you might be forgiven for expecting a sweet treat but it’s much more than that.

Sentaro is assembling dorayaki ready for the morning rush when Tokue comes into his shop. In debt to Doraharu’s owner as the result of a spell in prison, Sentaro wants nothing more than to pay what he owes and shut up shop. He opens every day selling his pancakes filled with sweet bean paste to rowdy schoolgirls and passers-by. When Tokue steps into the shop, eager to make her own version of the paste, Santaro is deeply sceptical – she’s seventy-six, frail and her hands are deformed – but she offers to work for next to nothing. Soon, sales are steadily climbing. Sentaro sees a speedy way out of his debt and the schoolgirls are delighted with Tokue who listens to their problems, quietly offering advice, despite Sentaro’s remonstrations. All seems well until sales begin to fall. Rumours of Tokue’s Hansen’s disease – once known as leprosy – have spread, bringing to the surface a deep-seated prejudice and fear. Tokue tells Sentaro her story of state-enforced confinement despite the early cure of her condition, contracted when she was just fourteen. A bond grows between these two outcasts, joined by Wakana, the young girl who unwittingly triggered the bakery’s decline.

Sukegawa unfolds his tale in simple, straightforward prose, exploring themes of friendship, hope and awakening through the disparate characters of Sentaro, Tokue, and Wakana. As he makes clear in his author’s note, there’s a conscious vein of spirituality running through the book illustrated in Tokue’s urging Santaro to ‘listen’ to the world – to pay attention – but it’s never laboured. Their friendship transforms Sentaro from an automaton with his eyes on the exit into someone who has discovered a belief in himself but it’s Tokue who’s the star of the show: gentle, perceptive and completely lacking in the bitterness her experience might have engendered. The social effects of Hansen’s disease, long eradicated in Japan but still a source of stigma and prejudice, provide a sobering backdrop to this tale which reminded me of Linda Grant’s 1940s-set The Dark Circle about tuberculosis in my own country. How pleasing it would be to assume that those were more ignorant times but a similar stigma raised its head again during the AIDs epidemic in the ‘80s and is still alive and kicking around mental illness today. As Sentaro thinks to himself, struggling at the prospect of meeting Tokue’s fellow inmates: ‘They were just people’.

The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao by Martha Batalha (transl. Eric M. B. Becker): The Secret Diary of a Brazilian Housewife

Cover imageA friend recommended this book to me and another lent me a copy. Hopes were high, then, if a little nervously so. There’s always the possibility of that awkward moment when you both realise that you’ll have to agree to disagree. C’s a proofreader which is how she first came by Martha Batalha’s novel. She’s also a bookseller and I suspect has been pressing this novel into as many hands as she can. From its exuberantly colourful jacket to its playful author’s note, The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao is an absolute treat. It spans twenty or so years in a Brazilian housewife’s life, beginning in the 1940s.

Euridice is a clever little girl. Everything she puts her hand to, she excels at. Her older sister Guida is the worldly one. Beautiful and flirtatious, she’s a skilled tutor in the art of catching a man. These two help out at their parents’ shop – Euridice when she’s done her homework, Guida when she has no choice. When Euridice is told her musical talent will take her to the conservatoire she and her parents become locked in a battle so intense that a mere exchange of glances is enough to reignite their anger. It’s her first act of rebellion but then Guida disappears leaving Euridice with a gaping hole in her heart and parents who pin all their hopes on her. She marries a respectable banker who fails to understand his wife’s brilliance, channelled first into cooking, then into sewing. When both these projects are firmly squashed along with her hopes, Euridice retreats quietly into herself again. One day, out of the blue, Guida knocks on Euridice’s door.

Euridice’s story is expertly told, liberally laced with a smart, playful humour sharp enough to flag the serious side of this tale of frustrated housewifery and self-sacrifice. Batalha peoples her novel with a vividly drawn cast of characters, each rounded out with their own backstory. Her women are strong, resourceful and capable; her men likely to become caught up in worries about the absence of blood on the wedding sheets. There’s a broad, deep vein of humanity running through this book: even the malicious Zélia, whose sole joy is spreading poisonous gossip through the neighbourhood, has a sad story of bitter disappointment which she keeps to herself. A salutary tale about the dangers of becoming a good girl entertainingly told, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable novel. I’d echo C’s recommendation loud and clear.