Tag Archives: Salt Publishing

Your Fault by Andrew Cowan: A boy’s life

Cover imageFour things attracted me to Andrew Cowan’s Your Fault: its working class, ‘60s setting; its unusual structure; its length and its publisher, Salt Publishing whose list is never anything but interesting. Set in one of those new towns beloved by British town planners of the mid-twentieth century, Cowan’s novella has fifty-five-year-old Peter tell his story to himself, from his first memory in 1962 to the day his childhood ended.

Peter was born on the first day of the new decade. His father is a Scot, an ex-soldier working as a fitter at the steelworks where most of the town’s men are employed. He’s much older that Peter’s mother, forty-one to her seventeen when they first met on Malta where he was stationed. Peter knows Dolly is unhappy, that she sees other men and that she feels trapped in a stifling routine of housework and childcare. His parents rows are a constant and distressing soundtrack to his childhood. Sometimes, Dolly disappears leaving him alone with his little sister, Lorraine. Peter goes to school, makes friends, suffers the usual torments of embarrassment when he gets things wrong and is horrified when an outbreak of sibling rivalry goes too far. Eleven years after Peter’s first memory, his and Lorraine’s childhood ends with a shocking discovery by her, leaving him with a longing to step in and change both their stories.

Cowan unfolds Peter’s story through vivid snapshots of childhood memories, seen from the vantage point of the same age his father was when he died. Gaps are gradually filled as the years progress, small details slipped in making clear that this is not a happy household. Cowan is the master of show not tell, leaving much to the reader to infer. His characters are sharply observed – Dolly’s frustration at being tied to a baby and a toddler is perfectly caught, Peter’s conviction that she exists only for him brilliantly conveyed. Period detail summons up the ‘60s and ’70s beautifully, from the housewives’ Tupperware party, family holidays at Butlin’s and the Tufty Club joined by children who’d learned the rules of road-crossing, to the lives of women, curtailed by housewifery and childcare, their misery medicated with tranquilisers. All this is communicated through the young Peter’s eyes as his fifty-five-year-old self struggles with his past. Hard not to wonder if this is a slice of autofiction given that Cowan was brought up in Corby, a ‘60s new town with a steelworks at its heart, which makes its ending all the more poignant.

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.

The Museum of Cathy by Anna Stothard: Tainted love

Cover imageBack in 2012 Anna Stothard’s The Pink Hotel was longlisted for what was then the Orange Prize. In case you’re wondering Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles won it that year. I remember enjoying Stothard’s novel very much. It may have been the jacket with its powder blue, low slung car parked outside a pastel desert hotel that first attracted me but the story of a young girl who travels to her estranged mother’s funeral hoping to find out more about her was nicely turned out and engrossing with it. The same could be said of The Museum of Cathy with its compulsive tale of obsession and memory, although I’m not entirely sure about that jacket.

Cathy is thrown off-kilter when a swallow flies into her office at the Berlin Natural History Museum. It’s not that she’s afraid of birds but despite her training as a scientist it’s her mother’s superstition that a trapped bird is a bad omen which springs to mind. She’s watched with amusement by her fiancé Tom. It’s a big day for both of them. The museum is celebrating its 150th birthday with a dinner for the great and good at which Cathy is to receive an award. These two have been together for five years. Tom is a straightforward kind of guy to whom Cathy is an enigma, barely acknowledging her troubled childhood, body covered in scars and mind full of erudition. Later in the day Cathy unwraps a package, chilled by what she finds inside – no name or note, just a kissing beetle perfectly caught in amber. She knows it’s from Daniel, the man she fled five years ago just before he was jailed thanks to her tip-off. She and Daniel are bound by something which he calls love but she does not, sharing a past fraught with tragedy and guilt. Over the course of one hot Berlin day, Stothard’s novel unravels Cathy’s story beginning with her Essex childhood.

Flitting back and forth between Berlin and Essex, The Museum of Cathy unfolds in a series of flashbacks woven through the increasingly dramatic events in Berlin. Stothard perceptively explores the complexity of desire, guilt and obsession through Cathy’s tortured relationship with Daniel. Her language is simple yet striking: ‘She felt dirty all the time and as if there was no release from the trouble in her head’ summons up Cathy’s guilt and grief; ‘He’d seen Cathy’s face in the white light as he ruined the man’s shins and jaws’ conveys Daniel’s uncontrollable rage and its focus. The novel’s drama plays out against a backdrop of gorgeous descriptions of the natural world, from Cathy’s fearless childhood explorations of the Essex coastline to the contents of the Berlin museum. Throughout it all runs a taut thread of tension. It’s a short, sharp novel, quickly swallowed up in an afternoon, which takes its readers – perhaps a little too neatly – full circle. Very different from The Pink Hotel but I enjoyed it enormously.

Used to Be by Elizabeth Baines: More than One Way to Tell a Story

Cover imageOne of the best commercial novels I read last year was Laura Barnett’s The Versions of Us. It explores the idea that our lives are shaped by chance and random acts as much as by the choices we make, following three possible lives for a couple who meet when they’re nineteen. I loved the idea and, for me, Barnett’s debut more than delivered the goods. Elizabeth Baines’ short story collection inhabits similar territory, niftily overturning apparent certainties, often in a series of small revelations and delivering the occasional killer punch.

The opening eponymous story sets the tone nicely as our panicky narrator watches several versions of her own life fly by while listening to the stories of a driver who seems more intent on telling them than keeping her eye on the road. With its many references to plot and character, ‘Used to Be’ read to me like a riff on writing and the many turns a story can take in a writer’s imagination. Ambiguity and misinterpretation abound in these stories. In ‘That Turbulent Stillness’ a passionate young woman, caught up in the idea of a romantic life with a handsome young man from the wrong side of the tracks, suddenly realises she doesn’t understand him at all. ‘Looking for the Castle’ sees a woman reluctantly revisiting her unhappy childhood only to find that her memory of it doesn’t quite match its reality while the strained relationship between two sisters has been stretched to breaking point by the secret one has kept from the other in ‘Clarrie and You’.

The second part of the collection kicks off with ‘Possibility’, an ambitiously structured story that switches between three very different passengers on a train, exploring the way each deals with the tragedy that befalls it. It’s a story that could easily have fallen on its face but each character’s distinctive voice coupled with the vivid immediacy of Baines’ writing carries it right through to its chilling conclusion. Endings are a bit of a feature of this second section: ‘Falling’ sees a young woman fall twice, each one changing her life, then a third time at which point Baines neatly pulls the rug from underneath her readers’ own feet; ‘The Choice Chamber’ follows two choices a young woman might have made only to have you puzzling over its ending which made me smile but which I’m still not sure about. As with its first, the collection’s final story, ‘Tides or How Stories Don’t Get Told’, strongly echoes the central theme as a woman reflects on her life thinking that her schooldays ‘can be a jovial realist tale or a misery memoir, depending on my mood’. There are several quotations I could have picked in which Baines neatly sums up her theme but here’s my favourite:  ‘your life might go one way, or a completely different other’. Most of us like the idea of certainty – it makes us feel safe – but as this thoughtful collection reminds us there’s precious little of it in life, although sometimes – as in fiction – that makes it more interesting.

That’s it from me for a week. I’m off to Vienna later today where I will try not to eat too much cake but will probably fail.