Tag Archives: Yuri Herrera

Books of the Year 2015: Part 1

Last year I was off the blocks at the very beginning of December with my books of the year posts, barely waiting for the starter’s pistol. This year I’ve managed to restrain myself but I’m still incapable of cutting the number of favourites back to a sensible figure. Consequently I’ll be spreading my choices over four posts, picking them out month by month. Just as it did in 2014, my reading year got off to a very satisfying start, although a little more evenly spread this time. Last year’s first books of the year post saw seven titles crammed into two months; this one has six spread over three.

Cover imageIt begins with Ben Lerner’s 10:04, a smart little piece of meta-fiction which found its way on to the Folio Prize short list the month after I read it. Lerner’s first novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, was much talked about on publication – 10:04 is his second and it’s narrated by a writer whose first novel was much talked about on publication. He’s having trouble writing his second for which he’s got a stonking six-figure advance. Half-way through we learn that the narrator’s name is Ben. Your literary pretentiousness alarm may well be ringing loudly but Lerner’s novel is well worth your time: absorbing, amusing and very clever.

Emily Woof’s The Lightning Tree is a much more straightforward kettle of fish: Girl from one side of the tracks – comfy, middle-class, leftie activist parents – meets boy from the other side – council estate, working-class, Thatcherite mum and dad – they fall in love, the girl heads off to India, the boy to Oxford and then we see what happens, following them into their thirties. This kind of structure’s catnip for me – lots of lovely space for character development. Funny and a little eccentric, Woof’s book reminded me of the early Kate Atkinson novels while that structure has a touch of David Nicholls with a hefty dash of sassy wit and political savvy. I’d not got on with Woof’s debut, The Whole Wide Beauty, but this one hit the spot – so much so that I included it in my Baileys Prize wishlist although the judges disagreed.

They didn’t agree with me about my first February choice either even though Lucy Wood’sCover image Weathering is a striking novel right from the get-go. Its synopsis sounds prosaic enough – single mother returns to the village she left years ago, determined to renovate the dilapidated home she’s inherited from her mother, sell up and leave – but what makes Weathering an unalloyed treat is Wood’s gorgeous word pictures and sharp characterisation all wrapped up in an engrossing story.

February also saw the publication of Claire Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days. Most weeks, usually on Wednesdays or Thursdays, Fuller posts a hundred words inspired by a photograph. Sometimes funny, sometimes thought-provoking, they’re always inventive. She has a knack of making you look at the world in a slightly different way. No surprise, then, that her debut was on my reading list. It’s the story of Peggy whose survivalist father takes his eight-year-old daughter to the Bavarian forest in 1976 where they stay for the next nine years. True to form, it begins with a photograph as the seventeen-year-old Peggy looks back at that summer. Yet another of my Baileys wishes which failed to come true but Fuller’s wonderfully inventive debut did catch the eye of the Desmond Elliot Prize judges and went on to win it.

Two very different novels for March beginning with my first in translation for this year, Signs Preceding the End of the World. Drawing on Western and Mexican myth, Yuri Herrera tells the story of Makina’s journey from one world to another, beginning with the dramatic disappearance of a man, a dog and a car into a sinkhole, and ending with another journey underground. The simplicity of Herrera’s words makes the images which shine out of them all the more vivid. Herrera – and Lisa Dillman through what was obviously a difficult translation process – makes us view our world through the eyes of someone who doesn’t belong, leaving his readers pondering how being ‘other’ might feel. Quite a feat in just over one hundred pages.Cover image

Regular visitors to this blog may have noticed my tendency to bang on about jackets and their importance in snagging readers’ attention. This particular jacket fits its book like a glove. Molly Mc Grann’s The Ladies of the House begins with a middle-aged woman, about to take off on her first holiday abroad, picking up a paper in which the mysterious deaths of three people in north London are reported. She’s never met these three but somehow she’s convinced she’s responsible for their demise. There’s a pleasing dark edge running through this entertaining piece of storytelling and the ending is pure Southern Gothic.

That’s it for the first quarter of 2015. A click on a title will take you to my review. More very shortly, when it’s the turn of the Man Booker judges to let me down not once but three times…

Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera (transl. Lisa Dillman): A Mexican fable

Cover imageMade up of only nine short chapters, Yuri Herrera’s novella weighs in at just over one hundred pages. You might be forgiven for thinking you could knock it off in a few hours and move onto the next pressing book on the list that only seems to get longer but that would be a mistake. Herrera packs a great deal of food for thought into this short book. Reading Lisa Dillman’s illuminating translator’s note at the end of it might be best done before you start – there are a few hints as to the turns the story takes but plot isn’t the point here.

This is the tale of Makina and the journey she makes from the Little Town by way of the Big Chilango across the border to the United States in search of her brother who set off three years ago to lay claim to their father’s fabled patch of land. Makina is fluent in her own language, in anglo and in the lingo that has sprung up between the two. A switchboard operator, she’s privy to messages passed back and forth across the border, adept at reading nuance. She’s savvy, smart and – that word that’s always used for strong women – feisty, more than capable of fending off the endless lechery that comes her way. She has no intention of staying in the land of the anglos – she’s only going to please her mother. Her passage is eased by the repayment of favours owed by a gangster and what she finds is surprising. Drawing on Western and Mexican myth, Herrera’s novella tells of Makina’s journey – fraught with hardship and challenge – from one world to the other, beginning with the dramatic disappearance of a man, a dog and a car into a sinkhole, and ending with another journey underground.

The simplicity of Herrera’s words makes the images which shine out of them all the more vivid: a vigilante rancher’s ‘eyes shot bullets through the two windows between them’; ’you are the door, not the one who walks thorough it’ perfectly describes the job of the message carrier avoiding trouble. Makina is a memorable character, powerfully drawn, who makes you look at Westerners afresh. As she journeys from one world to the other, she wonders what to make of this place where there’s only one festival considered worth celebrating, where her fellow Mexicans tacitly recognise but dare not embrace her. She stumbles upon a gay marriage and wonders why the joyful couple might want to enter into this institution which seems to make so many people unhappy. Herrera – and Dillman through what was obviously a difficult translation process – makes us view our world through the eyes of someone who doesn’t belong, leaving you pondering how being ‘other’ might feel. Quite a feat in just over one hundred pages.