Tag Archives: Serpent’s Tail

Topics of Conversation by Miranda Popkey: ‘Conversation is flirtation’

Cover imageIt was its structure that attracted me to Miranda Popkey’s Topics of Conversation. That and its cover image of two women alongside each other rather than face to face intrigued me. Popkey’s debut tells the story of an unnamed woman through the conversations she has with other women at various points in her life beginning when she’s twenty and ending seventeen years later.

Our narrator’s first conversation is with the mother of the twins she’s looking after on holiday in Italy. She’s there both as a nanny and as the friend of her charges’ sister but her most intimate connection proves to be with their mother. From there, our narrator takes us to a messy, post-party apartment with her grad student friends, listening to a story of seduction and abandonment. Almost a decade later she’s consoling a friend about her break-up, surrounded by images of female subjugation by a Swedish artist. The last five years see her angry at the friend who’s moved in with her parents when her marriage breaks down, recalling a one-night stand, listening to a woman recount her memories of Norman Mailer’s wife covered in blood at a party, drunkenly exchanging stories with other single mothers, listening to a stranger’s tale of giving up her child, cringing at her mother’s exhortation to start dating and, finally, exchanging news with her babysitter. By the end of her conversations, our narrator has taken us from young adulthood to early middle-age by way of marriage, divorce and motherhood.

I am often thinking of the better story because the actual story is so boring.

The narrator of Popkey’s episodic novel constructs her own story from her exchanges with other women, revealing herself to be much more attracted to the immediacy of intimacy with a stranger than to the slow maturing of a long friendship. She is, as she frequently reminds us, a supremely unreliable narrator, constantly shifting perspective, not knowing what she wants to be or how to be it. She’s one paper away from finishing her PhD, unsure whether she wants a child, would much rather be told what to do than live with a man who expects her to be and do what she wants. At the end of her book, Popkey includes a long list of ‘Works (Not Cited)’ which is almost as fascinating as her novel, ranging from specific episodes of Mad Men to novels such as Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be to Antony Minghella’s screen adaptation of The English Patient. It’s an impressive debut, clear-eyed in its depiction of life’s messy confusion and indecision, which leaves you with a great deal to think about. Definitely a book to revisit.

Serpent’s Tail: London 2020 9781788164047 240 pages Paperback

Say Say Say by Lila Savage: Caring for others

Cover imageI spotted Lila Savage’s debut on Twitter quite some time ago and liked the look of it. Say Say Say explores the job of the caregiver, one which is becoming increasingly common as we call on the services of others to look after us in our old age and one which Savage spent more than a decade in herself. Her novel personalises this most difficult and delicate of roles, so often undervalued, through Ella who never expected to inhabit it.

Ella is a bright young woman, close to thirty and a grad school dropout. She’s settled into life with Alix with whom she’s very much in love, dabbling in a variety of artistic pursuits and earning her money from looking after those who need it. Usually, it’s a job which combines the domestic with a modicum of care: she makes cookies for Sharon – vastly over weight but eager to be enveloped in the smell of baking – cleans her bathroom and clears up after her incontinence. Ella’s new job is caring for Jill, a woman whose brain injury has left her incoherent, caught up in meaningless repetitive routines and seemingly unreachable. Jill lives with her husband Bryn, who has given up work to look after his beloved wife but is looking for a little respite although finds himself almost incapable of taking it. Ella is simply to sit with Jill, to ensure that she doesn’t harm herself. Through Ella’s head runs a multitude of concerns – about Jill, about Bryn and how he is coping, about the life they once had together and whether she’s fulfilling their needs – while fretting about what she should be doing with her life. Eventually, as all her jobs do, her time with Jill comes to an end and she must leave what has come almost to feel like family.

And so Ella had learnt to step in and out of grief, to sample it on demand  

Rather like Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, I found this book getting under my skin but not being able to quite define why. Savage narrates her brief novella from Ella’s perspective which underlines the odd relationship between carer and client – intimate yet not – demanding a delicacy of navigation that Ella constantly re-evaluates. She’s the insider-outsider who must perform the most private of functions, witness the grief and distress of her clients, while safeguarding her own emotional wellbeing. Ella is constantly questioning herself, perpetually conscious of the effects of her actions on others. All this is explored with great humanity but also with wit: there’s an episode when Bryn takes Ella and Jill to the bike shop which is both comic and poignant as Ella attempts to shepherd a ranting Jill around the car park.

Still, she felt like a malevolent bully, like a sadistic prison guard, though she experienced no anger, or pleasure, in thwarting Jill’s will

Savage questions the gendered ‘pink-collar’ nature of caring, as Ella puts it, forced to re-think this idea as Bryn performs the most distasteful of tasks for Jill out of love, while Ella is simply paid to sit with her. Say Say Say is a thoughtful, humane and compassionate meditation on the toll caregiving exacts both on loved ones and professionals, delivered with acuity and style. I’m looking forward very much to seeing what Savage writes next.

The Warlow Experiment by Alix Nathan: The rights of man

I’m beginning to wonder if I’m undergoing a similar conversion to historical fiction that I did with short stories having read several books over the past year which fit that description, not least Imogen Hermes Gowar’s The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock. Truth be told, many of the novels I read are not bang up to date in their setting but I tend to think of historical fiction as taking place well before the twentieth century, often lushly jacketed. Alix Nathan’s The Warlow Experiment fits both those criteria. Beginning in 1793, it tells the story of Herbert Powyss and John Warlow who answers Powyss’ advertisement for a man willing to be sealed underground in solitary confinement for seven years in exchange for fifty pounds for life.

Powyss is a recluse, pursuing an interest in natural science at Moreham Hall in Herefordshire. He has no family, no wife, no children and just one man he calls his friend with whom he corresponds. Frustrated in his ambition to be recognised by the Royal Society, Powyss conceives an eye-catching experiment: a volunteer will live in a luxuriously furnished apartment, complete with library, beneath Moreham Hall with no human contact for seven years. In return, the chosen applicant will receive fifty pounds a year for life and his family will be supported throughout his seven-year confinement. An advertisement is posted laying out these conditions but only one man applies: the semiliterate John Warlow, an agricultural labourer and father of six. In April 1793, Powyss ushers Warlow into his new living quarters, careful to show him the organ of which he is inordinately proud. Warlow is to communicate by note and will be given whatever he wants within reason. In order that he not harm himself, he will have no means of shaving or cutting his nails. Needless to say, things do not go according to plan. Meanwhile, the revolutionary fervour which has gripped France finds a toehold in Britain, its supporters encouraged by the ideas promulgated in Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man. In Herefordshire, Powyss’ gardener decides it’s time for the working man to rise up, leading to an act which will unleash a trail of destruction and bring Powyss’ experiment to a dramatic end.

In her author’s note, Nathan explains her novel was sparked by a record in the Annual Register, dated 1797, indicating that such an experiment had reached its fourth year. The Warlow Experiment is her response to this extraordinary idea, telling the story from both Warlow and Powyss’ points of view. Deeply introverted, Powyss is incapable of understanding the potential damage of imposing a regime he might find rather attractive on an uneducated man with no inner resources. There are glimmers of grotesque comedy in Nathan’s story, which exposes the chasm between rich and poor, but she’s careful to avoid caricature: Powyss’ idea is monstrous but it’s as much the product of emotional ignorance as overweening ambition. The servants with their politicking and their resentful self-interested complicity are particularly well drawn. There’s much to enjoy in this absorbing story, well told, but it’s chilling to think that it orginated from an historical record. In a neat illustration of the novel’s theme, if you look closely at that jacket, you’ll notice there are insects crawling over its enticing fruit.

The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann (transl. Jen Calleja): To the north

Cover imageThis is the third novel I’ve read from this year’s Man Booker International Prize longlist. The other two are Hubert Mingarelli’s Four Soldiers, beautifully translated by Sam Taylor, which didn’t make it onto the shortlist, and Olga Tokarczuk’s quirky Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of The Dead, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, which did alongside The Pine Islands. One of the things I like about the prize is the joint credit given to the translator who often seems to be overlooked, even by publishers. Why not include their name on the cover? If it were not for Jen Calleja this monolingual wouldn’t have read Marion Poschmann’s novella which would be a shame. It follows a man woken by a vivid dream of his wife’s infidelity, convinced of its truth.

When Gilbert wakes from his dream, he’s affronted by Mathilda’s unfaithfulness, brooding on it all day and unconvinced by her denials. He heads to the airport, boarding the first plane that will take him far away and finds himself in Japan. He wanders the streets of Tokyo, sure that Mathilda’s failure to contact him proves the reality of her infidelity, eventually falling into conversation with a young man bent on finding a romantic suicide site. Gilbert is irritated by Yosa’s wan behaviour which reminds him of his students but takes it upon himself to deflect him from his mission, agreeing to visit a celebrated roof with its supposed view of Mount Fuji and the suicide forest where they inadvertently spend the night, before persuading the young man to accompany him to the pine islands of Matsushima, following Bashõ’s journey. They’re whisked along the poet’s route in high-speed trains, stopping here and there, composing haikus at Gilbert’s insistence. While Gilbert attempts to quash his annoyance, composing letters to Mathilda in his head and indulging in philosophical musings, Yosa seems to be fading away.

Poschmann’s novella is both playful and poignant. Gilbert cuts a comic figure with his pomposity and his research into the role of beards in the movies, ridiculous even to him, but he’s unable to shake off his concern for the young man who accompanies him, despite a constant and growing sense of irritation. Poschmann weaves references to Bashõ lightly through her narrative, her descriptions of the Japanese landscape providing a lyrically beautiful backdrop to this journey which becomes as much philosophical as physical. The novella ends on a hopeful note for Gilbert who may well have found what he was looking for even if it’s not quite what he expected.

The Gunners by Rebecca Kauffman: The Big Chill reprised

Cover imageThe Gunners is built around a structure that rarely fails to attract me: a group of people, once friends as children or young adults, are brought together by an event which affects them all. Weddings and funerals are a favourite trigger for this kind of reunion and in the case of Rebecca Kauffman’s novel it’s a funeral just as the friends enter their thirties. The five remaining members of the group that dubbed themselves the Gunners are brought together by the suicide of the sixth who none of them had heard from since she left the group aged sixteen with no explanation.

Mikey is the only one of the five who stayed close to their Ohio childhood home town. Jimmy has long since moved into finance making enough money to have a palatial summer home nearby to which he’s invited the other four for a lavishly catered meal. Sam has flown in from Georgia and appears to have taken to religion; Alice arrives with her girlfriend, as loud and tactless as ever while Lynn and her partner make up the party, both musicians now running an AA group. These five who have been friends since they were six years old are only loosely in touch, having drifted apart after Sally’s unexplained departure. There’s a great deal of catching up to do but overarching it all are two questions: why did Sally not only desert the Gunners but determinedly avoid contact with Mikey, once her best friend, and why did she take her own life.

If you’re of a certain age you may well have seen The Big Chill which has one of the best opening sequences I’ve seen, complete with the Marvin Gaye’s sublime ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’ playing over it. Shortly after starting The Gunners, I was struck by what a good film it would make, then I realised it had already been made. This is not to criticise the novel which I thoroughly enjoyed. Kauffman’s charactericisation is strong, the flitting back and forth between childhood memories to adult reunions deftly developing each of them. Secrets are revealed, and if the two big questions are not entirely answered it doesn’t detract from the novel merely reflecting what might well happen in real life. This is a satisfying, often poignant read. There’s not a huge amount of bite to it but once I’d settled into The Big Chill vibe I was more than happy to enjoy the ride.

The Summer House by Philip Teir (transl. Tiina Nunnally): A smart piece of summer reading

Cover imageI reviewed Philip Teir’s debut, A Winter War, back in 2015 when I described it as the perfect winter read, a book to tuck yourself up with. It may seem a little lazy but it’s hard to resist describing The Summer House as the perfect summer read. Set against a backdrop of a long holiday spent in the Finnish countryside, Teir’s second novel explores the dynamics of modern family life.

While Julia packs up the car ready to drive to Mjölkviken, she wonders where Erik has got to, idly trying life as a single parent on for size. They drive off later than planned with ten-year-old Anton and twelve-year-old Alice, each with their own expectations and worries. Erik plans to find his way back into fatherhood after long hours spent working in the IT department of a Helsinki department store; Julia is intent on making headway with her second novel while the children fret about phone reception and how many new people they will be expected to meet. After an uneventful first week, with nothing more troubling than a bad smell emanating from the drains and the constant sound of a bouncing tennis ball, they’re invited to a midsummer party by a neighbour. Much to Julia’s surprise, Chris turns out to be the partner of her close teenage summer friend Marika who plays a starring but not very flattering role in her first novel. While Chris expounds his doomsday views on climate change, Julia frets about whether Marika has read her book and admires the couple’s apparently liberated lifestyle. Before the end of the summer, the lives of everyone at the party will have changed and Julia will have come to a realisation about her safe, secure marriage.

The Summer House offers a neat seasonal counterpart to A Winter War. Marriage, family tensions and coming-of-age are all handled with the same sympathy and deftness. Teir shifts smoothly from character to character as he unfolds each of their preoccupations and stories: Alice constantly worries about the way she looks; Julia is convinced other people’s relationships are more exciting than hers; Erik keeps his worries about work and losing Julia to himself. A violent thunderstorm brings the novel to a satisfying conclusion, complete with a dramatic revelation and the resolution of that troubling smell. With its adroitly managed characters and involving story, The Summer House is well worth thinking about if you’re after an intelligent summer read.

The Accusation by Bandi (transl. Deborah Smith): Please read this book

Cover imageIt’s rare for me to feel that I owe it to a writer to read their book but the anonymous North Korean author of The Accusation risked his life to get it published, and continues to do so. Bandi, which translates as firefly, still lives and works in North Korea. Should he be unmasked he would undoubtedly be executed. His short story collection was first published in South Korea after being smuggled out of his own country. As the Afterword urges: ‘This work should be heard as an earnest entreaty to shine a spotlight on North Korea’s oppressive regime’

The Accusation comprises seven stories, each based on a real situation occurring between 1989 and 1995. In ‘City of Spectres’ a family faces dire consequences after the mother’s attempts to hide their toddler’s hysterical terror of Karl Marx and Kim Il-Sung’s images which adorn Pyongyang’s main square in celebration of National Day. ‘Life of a Swift Steed’ sees an old man who once championed the idea of a Communist North Korea where all is plentiful reveal his shattered illusions the day he receives yet another medal commemorating his service. In ‘So Near, Yet So Far’ a man, desperate to see his dying mother, flouts draconian travel regulations and pays a brutal price for it while ‘Pandemonium’ sees a grandmother’s choice of myth to entertain her granddaughter after a surreal meeting with the Great Leader neatly mirror her own country’s plight. I could describe all seven, but you should read them for yourself

Bandi’s stories reveal a world ruled by the whim of a capricious all-powerful regime in which guilt by association is punished for generations and the slightest perception of disrespect is met with harsh retribution. Unquestioning obedience is demanded, the smallest transgression provoking vengeance. Shortages are endemic: bean paste is made from acorns, stoves fuelled by sawdust. Officialdom’s callousness in the face of loss and pain contrasts with the compassion and concern of ordinary people for their friends and family, even for acquaintances despite the constant threat of spies in their midst. Almost as if in defiance of their dour subject, these stories have a rich vein of humour running through them, a sharp satirical wit: Died at her new place of residence, from resentment toward her husband’s punishment declares one man’s file sourly.

The collection’s Afterword provides a little context for both its author and his country. Reading it makes me shiver. Long may this brave man’s identity be preserved. He’s risked so much to shine a light into his strange, frightening country. We owe it to him to read his stories and take note.

Let Us Be True by Alex Christofi: A story about love

Cover imageAlex Christofi’s Let Us Be True is one of those books I’m delighted was sent my way. I’m not sure I would have happened upon it otherwise but it turned out to be absorbing, insightful and beautifully written. Largely set in Paris during the middle of the twentieth century, it’s the story of Ralf who becomes smitten with Elsa and remains so for decades after their brief affair ends.

In 1958, Ralf spends his evenings drinking at Jacques’ bar and shooting the political breeze with his Algerian friend Fouad. He and his mother fled Germany for London in 1933 after the death of Ralf’s Jewish geneticist father. His mother still lives in London but Ralf left to study in Paris, distracted by easy ways to make money tutoring language students. One evening, rifling through an apparently abandoned handbag, trying to find details of its owner, he’s punched in the face by a woman. This seemingly unpromising meeting marks the start of Ralf and Elsa’s affair in which she apparently blows hot and cold, rarely telling him anything about herself until Ralf decides to find out who she is. What he discovers is hardly a surprise but it’s far from the entire story. When Elsa leaves Paris, Ralf stays, occasionally involving himself in the Algerians’ protests against French oppression alongside Fouad and later becoming caught up in the student protests of ’68 before moving back to London. Ralf’s is a life lived alone, continually buffeted by the events that marked both the century and the countries in which he lives, adopted or otherwise.

Christofi explores the way political events can shape ordinary lives through the framework of Ralf and Elsa’s love affair: both are Germans who survived the war which ripped apart their childhoods; Fouad fought for the French but finds himself without rights as an Algerian; Ralf’s dulling of his pain leads him into the student protest against French political stalemate in 1968. All this is done with a light touch, a vivid background to Ralf and Elsa’s stories, told from both perspectives before and after they knew each other. The striking opening sentence sets the tone for the rest of the novel which is pleasingly uncluttered, letting its characters and their histories speak for themselves. It’s an engrossing, thoughtful novel with important things to say exemplified by Ralf’s reflections on his solitary life after the death of his mother: ‘How easily one might neglect those one loved by chasing the big story, the big lie that history was a matter of ideals and not compassion’. It ends, I’m pleased to say, on a hopeful note.

The Hidden Keys by André Alexis: A hugely enjoyable, sophisticated caper

This is the first book I’ve read by André Alexis. His last novel  was narrated in the voices of its titular dogs which brought back memories of Paul Auster’s Timbuktu, and not happy ones. That said Fifteen Dogs went on to win the Scotiabank Giller prize in 2015 so what do I know? This latest novel is entirely different: a funny, clever and intricately plotted piece of storytelling full of puzzles within puzzles involving an honourable thief, a rich beyond imagining junkie and a treasure hunt.

Tancred Palmieri is a complex character brought up by a single mother whose deathbed wish was that he change his thieving ways. He’s known Willow Azarian for a little while. She’s a junkie, drawn to telling Tancred her story, impressing upon him that she’s an heiress and eventually presenting him with an intriguing challenge. Her stupendously rich father has left each of his five children a memento, something which is of particular significance to them. Willow’s is a beautiful facsimile of a Japanese screen, one panel left blank but for an inscription. She’s convinced that her father has set a puzzle which can only be solved by examining all the artefacts together. Tancred is to steal each one, quietly returning the item once Willow has scrutinised them all. He will, of course, be recompensed. Reluctantly, Tancred agrees and has hardly begun his exacting task when Willow dies. Having given his word, Tancred has no choice but to continue only to find that his best friend is the detective investigating the burglaries and his bête noir, Willow’s dealer, has got wind of what he’s up to together with the reward it might bring. As each piece of this elaborate puzzle painstakingly slots into place, another mystery opens up until finally Tancred is left face to face with himself.

This is a hugely enjoyable novel, a good old-fashioned caper which twists and turns in a baroque fashion as its many conundrums are unfolded. It’s very funny at times – Castle Rose whose designer took his inspiration from M. C. Escher is a particular delight. Alexis excels at elaborate yet flawless plotting, smoothly switching perspective from character to character. The book’s premise reminded me of Scarlett Thomas’ The Seed Collectors and its style of Robin Sloan’s Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, both favourites of mine. If there’s any disappointment at the resolution its matched by Tancred’s own and offset by the development of his character. Altogether a delight – packed full with colourful detail and characters, each with a story to tell or be told, and funny with it. I think I should try Fifteen Dogs after all.

Broken River by J. Robert Lennon: Literary mashup

Cover imageI’ve been a fan of J. Robert Lennon’s fiction since reading The Funnies, way back when. I reviewed his last novel, Familiar, in the very early days of this blog and enjoyed it despite its rather messy conclusion. He’s a writer unafraid to take risks, a point that Broken River proves with its mashing together of genres, from gothic to noir, twisted love story to coming-of-age novel, set in upstate New York.

Karl and Eleanor have moved from Brooklyn in a last-ditch attempt to save their marriage, taking their precociously bright twelve-year-old, Irina, with them. The derelict house in Broken River that Karl has had renovated has been empty for twelve years since the unsolved murder of the Gearys which left their five-year-old daughter an orphan. Karl’s had a studio built for his work although little of that gets done. Eleanor is struggling with her novel, worried about her persistent back problems and wondering if her cancer has returned. Irina spends her time on her own novel when not chatting on Cybersleuths about the Geary murders. To spice things up a bit, she’s posted a picture of the young woman she’s convinced herself is Samantha Geary, unwittingly setting in train a series of events that will devastate her family. Meanwhile Joe has contacted his unwilling accessory, Louis, and coerced him into tracking down the dealer who’s stepped onto his Broken River patch. As Karl predictably fails to remain faithful, Eleanor spends much of her writing time on Cybersleuths, unaware that she’s feeding her daughter information. A web of coincidence and misunderstandings finally unravels watched with interest by the Observer who views the motivations, actions and behaviour of the rest of the characters with increasing interest and amazement.

There’s much to enjoy here. The family thread and its noir counterpart are absorbing and entertaining, their many coincidences deftly handled cleverly bringing them together. Lennon can be very funny at times – both Irina’s precocity and Louis’ increasing horror at Joe’s shenanigans are amusing, as is Eleanor’s heartfelt exchange with her agent on delivering something other than her customary chick lit. Irina is a particularly endearing character, caught between a philandering stoner of a father and an increasingly distracted mother. What didn’t work for me was the role of ‘the Observer’ who becomes all-seeing and all-knowing if increasingly puzzled at human irrationality. I’m not entirely sure of its point although at times it seemed almost to be a description of the writing process. That said, the Observer’s sections are short and infrequent, their slightly jarring effect compensated for by the rest of the novel. Not an unalloyed success, then, but it won’t stop me reading Lennon’s next novel.