Tag Archives: Sceptre

Harmless Like You by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan: Identity and not belonging

Cover imageI read Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s debut immediately after Sara Taylor’s The Lauras. Both deal with themes of identity and the parent/child relationship but whereas Taylor’s novel had me foxed as to how to refer to her determinedly androgynous narrator, things are very much more straightforward with Buchanan’s protagonists. After his Canadian father dies en route to meet his new granddaughter, Jay finds that the family home in Connecticut has been bequeathed to Yuki, his Japanese mother who left it when he was two years old. As the executor of his father’s will, Jay must hand over the deed in person. Beginning in 1968 when Yuki was sixteen, Buchanan’s novel tells the story of how a mother came to do the unthinkable and leave her infant son.

Yuki has lived in New York since she was six. Singled out as an oddity at school, she’s astonished when she’s taken up by the streetwise, beautiful Odile. These two trawl the bars, Odile intent on filching money from her admirers’ pockets, eventually meeting Trench Coat as Yuki dubs the young man who gives Odile her start in the modelling world. Edison, his unlikely companion, fades into the background, turning up years later when Yuki begins a life class, hoping to find her artistic compass. Yuki manages to persuade her parents to let her live with Odile and her mother rather than return with them to Japan ten years after their arrival. As Odile’s career takes off, Yuki finds herself a job as a receptionist, helped along by Lou on whom she develops a crush after he encourages her artistic aspirations. These two slip into a relationship, staying together far too long – Yuki wrestling with her feelings of nothingness and the need to find an artistic outlet, Lou hefting a chip on his shoulder and taking it out on Yuki. When things finally come to an end, Edison hopes to fill the gap but it seems the chasm of nothingness in Yuki is too great. Yuki’s story is interspersed with that of her son, bereft of the father he had hoped would teach him how to parent his own baby daughter and filled with resentment at his mother who he manages to track down to Berlin.

Buchanan unfolds her story from Yuki’s perspective, interpolating Jay’s reluctant preparations for meeting his mother and his struggles with new parenthood into the narrative. Her writing is often striking: a flasher wears ‘a fedora and a thin beige raincoat, like a cartoon detective’; yellow paint is ‘the colour of streetlights on puddles at night, pickled yellow radish and duck beaks’; when Yuki moves in with Lou, Odile’s mother – Lou’s erstwhile lover – ‘didn’t offer to return the money Yuki’s father had paid for the year. But then again, they were both thieves. Yuki had pocketed the flavour of Lou’s smile and she wasn’t giving it back’. Of the two strands, Yuki’s is the most involving, her aching feelings of nothingness vividly conveyed. At first Jay’s story seems like an abrupt interruption but as the novel progresses his narrative thread feels more neatly woven in. The book’s poignancy is leavened with a wry humour, occasionally downright comic – the vision of Jay’s hairless therapy cat, prescribed as a cure for his fainting fits, all done up in her ‘festive sweater’ will stay with me for some time. Buchanan ends her novel satisfyingly, deftly avoiding any sentimental conclusions. Altogether a thoroughly accomplished and enjoyable novel. I’ll be interested to see what she comes up with next.

The High Places by Fiona McFarlane: An inventive, disquieting collection

Cover imageI’m writing this review in March, long before the book’s publication date which is unusual for me but after being struck down by a particularly nasty bug leaving me with a head so stuffed full of cotton wool that I was unable to read for four days I needed a way back in. Short stories seemed to be the answer which led me to Fiona McFarlane’s The High Places. I’d enjoyed her debut, The Night Guest, very much so it seemed just the ticket. Apologies if what follows is a little pedestrian: my critical faculties are somewhat blunted by a brutal hacking cough and not much sleep but I’ll do my best.

The collection comprises thirteen stories written over ten years – eight previously unpublished – and ranges far and wide, both in terms of geography and subject. Some tend towards the slightly surreal while other are more conventional but all are inventive. A small selection should give you a flavour. In ‘Man and Bird’ a vicar seems disconcertingly inseparable from his parrot then it becomes clear he believes the bird to be a messenger from God. The inhabitants of a small town are so stricken when their brief flirtation with the movie world is over that they begin to dress in costume, re-enacting their walk-on parts, in ‘The Movie People’. Reunited in Athens, forty years after they first met, the anxious, happily married Dwyers find themselves overawed by the confident, self-regarding Andersons until, suddenly, it becomes clear they’re not quite as invulnerable as they appear, in ‘Mycenae’. ‘Buttony’ sees a quietly charismatic little boy thwarting his classmates’ passion for their teacher’s afternoon game with frightening results while ‘Those Americans Falling from the Sky’ is a vivid childhood memory of a small town, playing host to American soldiers practicing their parachuting skills and charming the local kids, with a shocking discovery at its end.

The disquieting quality of much of this collection is evident right from the get go with the opening story’s first line: ‘My wife was driving on the night they hit Mr Ronald’. These are not horror stories but they’re distinctly unsettling, often exploring the odder areas of human behaviour. McFarlane’s writing is as striking as I remembered it from The Night Guest. ‘Ellie was pretty in such a sensible way, but Kath required adjustments’ thinks Henry of the well-turned out young woman he’s selected for his wife over the lover he’s being spending his Sunday nights with for years, in ‘Art Appreciation’. In ‘Exotic Animal Medicine’ a couple ‘changed their clothes and it felt to Sarah, briefly, as if it had been David’s suit and her dress that had married each other earlier in the day’. Not all the stories worked for me – ‘Violet, Violet’ about an introverted young PhD student whose half-cleaned room leads him into very odd territory seemed to fizzle out, as if McFarlane wasn’t sure what to do with it next. That said, there’s enough here to please readers who enjoyed The Night Guest, all served up with an appealingly wry humour.

Stork Mountain by Miroslav Penkov: Stories within stories

Cover imageMiroslav Penkov’s collection East of the West was raved about by all and sundry when it was published back in 2012 including the BBC short story award judges who named it a winner. Being a recent convert to short stories, I haven’t read it but it’s safe to say that Stork Mountain offers something of a contrast weighing in at over four hundred pages. It’s set in the village of Klisura deep in the Strandja Mountains on the Bulgarian side of the border with Turkey within spitting distance of Greece. Once part of the Ottoman Empire, then part of the Communist state, it’s now a backwater. An unnamed American student with debts to settle has come to the village to sell his family’s land and seek out the grandfather he’s heard nothing of for three years.

The novel opens with our narrator traveling through Bulgaria, the country he left in 1991 when he was eight years old. It’s a tough journey – dust, incessant wind strong enough to shatter windows and peasants who regard him with at best suspicion, at worst murderous intent – but he finally arrives in Klisura helped by a passenger who he suspects might be his grandfather carrying a live rooster. The rooster, it seems, is to help a young girl, apparently suffering from a fever and the American’s grandfather has been called upon to slaughter it to ease her misery. The grandfather is contemptuous of such superstitious nonsense. As a teacher he knows that a doctor will do more good. Soon it becomes clear that Aysha is a victim of Saint Kosta’s fever which strikes annually before the saint’s day long celebrated by the nestinari, a Christian sect who danced on live coals. Several other children in the village are similarly afflicted but Aysha is the daughter of the imam. This is a Muslim village, the Christian half deserted after the Party tempted them away with the promise of modern city flats. It’s not long before our narrator realises that nothing is quite what it seems in Klisura, home to many storks who mate and raise their young on its roofs. Before too long, he’s fallen in love with the wrong woman and landed himself in all sorts of trouble just like his grandfather before him.

Such a brief synopsis does little or no justice to Penkov’s novel which weaves folklore, dreams and history through its long and winding narrative, often turning back on itself. This is an area long beset by division and conflict – both political and religious – and still riddled with superstition. Our Cover imagenarrator is an unreliable one but his grandfather is even more so, smartly pulling the rug from under his grandson’s feet on more than one occasion as he unfolds his own story and the story of Klisura, each with its many convolutions. Penkov’s writing is beautifully expressed but it’s also very funny at times: ‘My erections are more frequent than your calls’ complains Grandpa to his grandson; ‘her father, upon hearing the baby’s girlish cries, lay down, closed his eyes, and had a stroke right there on the floor of the birth-room. Entirely out of spite’ says the imam’s daughter of her father. It’s not an easy read, bewildering at times with its many stories, myths and legends overlapping with history, but it’s worth the effort. You’d think it would be hard to come up with a similar a novel but Louis de Bernières’ Birds without Wings popped into my head while reading it. Set not a million miles away in a small Anatolian village riven by religious differences, it’s a love story which also charts the rise of Ataturk, Turkey’s founder. Well worth seeking out.

The Rise and Fall of Great Powers: Storytelling that pulls you in

Cover imageI loved The Imperfectionists. Funny, poignant and thoroughly entertaining it was stuffed full of engaging characters caught up in their own lives seemingly oblivious to the fact that the newspaper for which they worked was being pulled inexorably down the tubes by the brave new world of the internet. Expectations were high, then, for Tom Rachman’s second novel which begins in a Welsh bookshop run by Tooly Zylberberg who finds a message on her Facebook page – her father is in trouble, can she come and help? As far as Tooly’s concerned she hasn’t seen her father since she was eleven, abducted in Bangkok by a women called Sarah who promptly disappeared leaving her with Humphrey, the Russian chess-playing bibliophile who brought her up – and it’s Humphrey who’s in trouble. So begins Tooly’s story in which many of the players are far from what they seem.

Three narrative strands, each separated by a decade, alternate through Rachman’s novel, slowly – a little too slowly at first – beginning to mesh with each other as small details are slipped in answering some of the many questions that Tooly’s story throws up. Tooly has spent the first part of her life with her father, an itinerant IT specialist, donning a new personality each time they move and obligingly watching the wrestling videos he buys for her as treats. When a smiling woman takes her out of school one day, she’s a little puzzled then charmed by Sarah and her boyfriend Venn. Sarah disappears telling Tooly she’ll be back and leaving her with Humphrey, who will look after Tooly for the next ten years. Venn pops up now and again, a romantic figure, full of ideas who invents a game in which Tooly knocks on apartment doors and asks to use the toilet under instructions to find out as much as she can about the people who live there, a variation of which she carries into adult life. One day, following a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig and its owner, she meets the awkward, introverted Duncan whom she charms, spending more and more time in his flat getting to know his roommates. Cue Venn, now running Brain Trust, a cooperative for bright young things with big ideas. Tooly’s unguarded remarks lead her to make a sharp exit and she doesn’t see Duncan again until his Facebook message summons her back to the States where she finds a much reduced Humphrey speaking in an English accent, his memory cobwebbed by a stroke. Tooly sets about filling in the gaps, making some surprising discoveries along the way. It ends where it began in a small Welsh village, in a bookshop pulled back from the brink of bankruptcy. Always the observer, never entirely involved, the scales have fallen from Tooly’s eyes and she finally knows who she is.

Hmm..  rather a lot about plot there but there’s an awful lot of story telling and Rachman takes his time about it, saying much along the way about both history and how we live our lives now, often in arresting, seemingly throwaway, comments  – Venn’s assessment of progress as ‘those double clicks that turned everyone into rodents pressing buttons for the next sugar pellet’ was particularly striking. It’s full of colourful characters, which seems to be a speciality of Rachman’s: the pontificating Fogg, widely travelled in mind if not in body; volatile Sarah, hopelessly unreliable but charming with it; the mysterious Venn, master of the zeitgeist and Humphrey, lover of facts but not of fiction or so it seems. The only weak link for me was Tooly’s father, who never quite came alive. Altogether, a book to be drawn into and take your time over.

It also has one of the best lines about keeping books that I’ve across as Tooly surveys Humphrey’s tattered collection: ‘People kept their books, she thought, not because they were likely to read them again but because these objects contained the past’ Certainly true for me – looking at a book’s spine can summon up both the world within it and what I was doing when I read it. Is it the same for you?

Visitation Street by Ivy Pochoda: More The Killing than Karin Slaughter

Cover imageVisitation Street opens in a steamy Brooklyn heat wave. Two fifteen year-old-girls decide to escape their stultifying boredom, floating off into the bay’s greasy waters on a bright pink inflatable raft watched by two young men. Only one girl returns, washed up under the pier and in bad shape. The rest of the novel explores the aftermath of June’s disappearance through the eyes of a neighbourhood divided by race and expectation, some hoping for a reversal of fortune others resigned to defeat.

Visitation Street runs through Red Hook at the bottom end of Brooklyn. The local bar is run by an ageing red head who regularly beds the reluctant Jonathan, a music teacher with a past and a part time job accompanying a drag queen. Fadi runs the Lebanese bodega ever hopeful for a brighter future, particularly now that cruise ships will be stopping in the bay, reaching out to the community with his daily news letter. Cree hopes for escape until his mother, still talking to his father murdered five years ago, suffers a stroke. Colourful murals tagged RunDown appear on the street. Fadi accepts help from a young black man who seems to be more educated than his appearance suggests. Cree finds evidence of someone else using his hideouts. And as the summer wears on Val, friendless and isolated, refuses to mourn June in the hope that it will bring her back.

With its cinematically vivid descriptions and strong characterisation, Visitation Street plays out like an HBO miniseries. Ivy Pochoda’s exploration of grief, hope and redemption is gripping and although it seems to have been categorised as a crime novel by everyone from Waterstone’s to the New York Times, perhaps because it’s published in the States under Dennis Lehane’s imprint, it doesn’t deserve to have its readership curtailed by pigeonholing. I’m not a crime reader but this one’s much more The Killing than Karin Slaughter.

The second novel conundrum

Cover imageI’ve been circling warily around Andrew Miller’s Costa Prize winning Pure for some time now. Miller’s first novel, Ingenious Pain, is one of my favourite books. Set in the 18th century, its main protagonist, James Dyer, is conceived on an icy night as a result of an adulterous coupling with a stranger. James cannot feel pain which appears to be a blessing but is, of course, a curse because he’s unable to understand the human condition. He attaches himself to a quack show, is abducted and kept in a rich man’s house as a curiosity, acts as an assistant to a ship’s physician and later, becomes a brilliant but supremely arrogant surgeon in fashionable Bath. His greatest and final adventure is to take part in a race to St Petersburg to inoculate the Empress of Russia against smallpox, and it’s on this journey that he meets his nemesis – a strange woman whose miraculous powers Puregive him the gift of pain. There, just writing that has made me want to rush off and read it for the third time. Ingenious Pain was published in 1997 and every time I’ve got wind of a new Miller novel I’ve looked forward to it eagerly. It’s not that they’ve been bad novels – far from it – but none has matched the magic of his debut for me hence the hesitation over Pure even though several people whose opinions I trust assured me that this one really did hit the spot. I’m half-way through the tale of the clearing of Les Innocents Cemetery in pre-revolutionary Paris and although not quite as smitten as I was by Ingenious Pain it’s a close run thing.

As a keen reader of debuts, always on the hunt for new talent, I’ve found that the second novel is often a disappointment. Jake The Long FirmArnott’s excellent The Long Firm is a case in point. Set in mid-60s London it explores the sinister underworld of gangland London and is written with a wit as sharp as the cut of a gangster’s suit, not too mention sufficient period accuracy to satisfy even my contemporary historian partner. Sadly the next two in the trilogy didn’t cut it for me. T C Boyle’s Water Music is Water  Musica rattling good yarn based on the 18th-century explorer Mungo Park’s compulsive quest to find the source of the Niger. It’s packed with extraordinary characters who never seem to have a dull moment and is very funny indeed but my copy of Budding Prospects, Boyle’s second novel, landed up in a charity shop. Of course, it’s not always the case – Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum was a joy as is everything else she’s written, and Audrey Niffenegger did a fine job with Her Fearful Symmetry after The Time Traveller’s Wife – but it’s happened enough to make me wonder why given that most of us get better at something the more we do it. Perhaps it’s the rabbit in the headlights syndrome – having laboured away quietly, some times for years, suddenly having so many expectations from both readers and publishers must weigh heavily. Perhaps it’s having the luxury of time to lavish on writing and research the first time around and being rushed the second. Or maybe I’m just being greedy.