7 June 2017
Fell, by Jenn Ashworth
Published by Sceptre
I was prompted to read Fell by a book group on Twitter. I will write more about the group, and the theme of New Folk Lit that was its starting point in another post, including contributions from author Jenn, who was kind enough to make herself available for a Twitter Q and A, but first I wanted to write a review of Fell.
Fell is quiet and compelling. Atmospheric. I want to say damp if it weren’t for that having negative or unpleasant connotations. The word is a testament to the real presence of the atmosphere that the book creates. It seeps in and settles on you, with a gentle persistence. The themes are absorbed into your consciousness and around and through each other – predominantly for me, the idea of a kind of shifting hinderance that is halfway between invasion and restraint.
“The illness is itself a creeping illness and its main symptom has been to make Mum’s skin stop working. Everything that belongs inside: blood and sick and wee and number two and spit and some strange green-yellow stuff Mum leaves on the bed and on the back of her nightdress sometimes, is coming out through her skin to the world outside where it should not be.”
Netty and Jack are trapped by Netty’s illness. The house they leave to their daughter Annette is fatally undermined by the roots of the sycamore trees that give the crumbling house its name. The bay, the sands and mudflats seem to open up to wide skies and freedom but they are dangerous with absences; sink holes and drowning spots. After death, Netty and Jack themselves leach through the barrier between life and death and hover, like smoke on a still night, in the heavy air, observing their grown daughter with impotent, anguished love. Their unworldly voice, an amorphous ‘we’ is handled beautifully by the writer, eerie but somehow earthy and believable.
“It’s still strange to see ourselves like this. Unpleasant to have this time returned to us. It’s not what we would have wished for, if anyone had asked. With Annette gone, we’d rather sleep now – go back to the blankness of the no-time before she arrived, when we were aware of nothing.”
Charismatic chancer Tim has a gift that makes him the unwilling bridge between states of being but this is a skill that is uncertain in his hands as though to emphasise that otherness intrudes of its own volition. All the characters are in some way held by something, restrained by forces that intrude to shape and change their lives. This untrustworthiness is reflected in the landscape, a beach that becomes a salt marsh, a river that re-works, as if on a whim, the land.
“It was a hazy day, and all Eve saw was the misty, no-colour sky, the grey shapes of the fells and the dark shadows of the people walking with her reflected in the wet sand. They were barefooted and muddy-legged, all of them, and spread out in an uneven, straggling phalanx so as not to churn up the ground and turn it into quicksand. But it was there – he showed it to them, standing on the wobbling skin of the earth, until the dun-coloured surface began to bend and buckle, so saturated with water it showed signs of cracking wide open, falling into crumbling fissures that would set and ooze without warning.”
Fell describes the way that we are agents in the landscape but we are subject to it. The deft handling makes a case for life lived in layers, layers that might unwittingly invade or restrain each other, or, against the presumed laws of being, over-lap and blend. All of it is done quietly, with perhaps a hint of menace at the ultimate unpredictability of states that we would be foolish to take as absolutes; being, time and place. It is love that remains constant, a kind of care taking, a web that is subtle and agile enough to resist and save. It is a fascinating and beautifully written book.
17 April 2017
Grief is the Thing With Feathers, Max Porter
Published by Faber and Faber
IN my book Twice the Speed of Dark, there is a line in which grief manifests as a crow. It is a moment when Anna has finally found the fortitude to look at old photographs of her daughter Caitlin, who was killed by her violent boyfriend.
There is a picture of Caitlin and Anna standing together in the garden, hugging each other and smiling. They look happy in each others company, she thinks. A black crow screams between her and the picture. It lands clawing on her chest, flapping ragged blackness before her eyes. She cannot look any more.
It seemed like an appropriate embodiment, a harsh and scrabbling darkness. This mental image was one of the reasons I was drawn to reading Grief Ts The Thing With Feathers. Having noticed the connection and after reading Max Porter’s wonderful book, I looked up ‘grief and crows’ as the wild, disjointed logic of this book made it seem that crows and grief had an ancient, folkloric connection. But in my not very exhaustive search, I could only find the crow’s traditional relationship to death as a harbinger not a consequence.
There is also a mythical manifestation of the crow as the smart trickster, an aspect that comes out in Grief Is The Thing With Feathers. Crow is an absurdist, a ruffling, raucous presence. Unsettling and welcomed. Why make sense when there is no sense to be made, he seems to propose. Permission to not make sense, he seems to offer. And in grief, perhaps that is what is needed.
He sits still. His neck ceases jutting, his beak refrains from jabbing. For the first time since his arrival he stops suggesting constant readiness for violence with his posture.
He sits as still as I have ever seen an un-stuffed animal sit. Dead still.
Grief Is The Thing with Feathers
In grief, for some, in my experience, a kind of undoing seems to proliferate. There is no sense to be made. As much as making sense of any given situation is often hailed as the way to manage it, with grief this is often not possible. The death of a loved one marks another of the profound mysteries that cannot really, easily be understood. Thus, each must find a new path, with a map they write themselves. Why am I here? Why is my beloved not here? Where does my love go now? The period of grieving is, often, not the time to answer such questions but the time to learn to bear their weight and irresolution.
I missed her so much that I wanted to build a hundred-foot memorial to her with my bare hands. I wanted to see her sitting in a vast stone chair in Hyde Park, enjoying her view. Everybody passing could comprehend how much I miss her. How physical my missing is. I miss her so much it is a vast golden prince, a concert hall, a thousand trees, a lake, nine thousand buses, a million cars, twenty million birds and more. The whole city is my missing her.
Eugh, said Crow, you sound like a fridge magnet.
Grief Is The Thing with Feathers
Max Porter’s book describes this undoing beautifully. There is in the text comedic failure, stubborn practicality, sniping irritation, glorious humour. The grieving are not saintly, heroic, or necessarily landed with any other further burden than that of being laid before us in their muddled, loving, confused and unravelled state.
This book, though slim, though with a light and beautiful touch, gets into your face, a waggle of glimmering black, a sharpness of claw and beak, a croak of misery and the caw of a derisive laugh. Dad, Boys and Crow, with the supporting presence of Ted Hughes, sweep across the pages, the terrible pain of their loss smoothed and made holdable, manageable, in the shake and role of the glittering tumble. It is a beautiful, moving book.
23 March 2017
Martin John, Anakana Schofield
Published by And Other Stories
I picked up Martin John after hearing Anakana Schofield interviewed on Woman’s Hour. It was a very interesting interview and immediately had me ordering the book. In hindsight, I am surprised by the squeamish response of the presenter, but we are in an age when only brave writers approach such subjects. It is as if in this time, not even books should imagine that which does harm and it is better to inhabit a bland goodness rather than risk a taint. This makes Scholfield’s subject unusual and because of that, it is an important book as much as a fascinating and enjoyable one. It is a book about the eponymous Martin John, a man held equally between fetish and phobia. A man whose sexual pleasure has been forged into an objectifying, self-gratifying, lonely mode of expression. He is a sex offender.
He is beset by compulsion yet not the passive victim of it. He likes the discomfort he causes. A troubling refrain rings through the book – ‘harm was done.’ There is an ambiguity about the harm as we wonder if harm was done to Martin John before it was passed on by him. There is no obvious sympathy inveigled for him. He has a monstrous, self-serving, violent and abusive attitude to women and easy compassion is not what we are delivered.
And yet, a strange kind of sympathy grows. It is so well handled that though we are not invited to forgive, though there is avoidance of either moral outrage or bleeding heart excusing of his trapped, damaged responses to the world, we find a strange compassion for Martin John. And Mam, beset by a frantic, churchy hypocrisy, a handling that knows the damage but allows a kind of faith-fuelled blinding to dictate her responses. Hide it, hide it. Stay out of trouble. Don’t do harm, but go away to London so harm being done will not be seen. Thus the culpability of society, its colossal and time-worn collusion in all manner of abuse and sexual hypocrisy has a little place at the table.
Apart from the reading of this book, the enjoyment of its bleak humour and subtle balancing that neither invites rash judgement or simplistic exoneration, Schofield gets my gratitude for writing a book that is bold enough to go into murky, difficult areas. It is a book that reminds us that literature must be the place where boundaries are wide, where all is possible, where we are given the wonderful and disquieting gift of temporarily inhabiting dark, confusing, uncomfortable places. And where the invitation is not necessarily to bay for blood the instant we get there. Terrific.
24 February 2017.
Solar Bones, Mike McCormack.
Pub. Tramp Press
The title Solar Bones made me want to read this before I knew anything about it. The excellent reviews it received strengthened that intention. It lived up to my expectations and gave me much to think about. Some aspects seemed to run in parallel with my own soon-to-be-published book Twice the Speed of Dark. The main reason for this I am unwilling to present, as in the book we don’t discover it until the last few pages. Though the back cover blurb weighs in from the off, rendering my anti-spoiler decorum somewhat old-maid-ish and unnecessarily coy. In spite of that, though I write as an enthusiast rather than as a bona-fide reviewer, I’ll forego the self-indulgent pleasure of discussing why the connection occurs to me, but next time someone asks me what writing I see as similar to my own, I will have this fine example and will secretly hope to gain a little in the reflected lustre of this beautiful book.
The whole is one long sentence, one long series of shifting recollection, the gathered reflections of a man sitting in his home. Sometimes it is this home, the actual building, that seems the most solid thing in the text; a living thing providing a structure for the gentle, absorbing actions of his recollected family life. At other points too, the protagonist, being an engineer, the worthiness, the durability or otherwise of buildings crops up, as if they stand in for the bones of the title.
The main character experiences a mixture of elevation and inadequacy as he wrestles with a complex mix of love, perplexity and awe while he waits for his family to come back to the house, back to the kitchen where he waits, uncertainly, for them. It is in this ordinariness that a grand beauty appears. And yet, threaded through is a glimmer of sickness, danger, fault. I put the book down with a sense that the beauty had triumphed but the fault was always there, undeniable.
I began to interpret as an appeal that
I should meet it with an improved version of myself or at least work to make myself worthy of this new, pristine version of my young wife, a demand I took so seriously that I sat down and gave myself over to it with sober concentration, surveying my soul in the light of Mairead’s pregnancy which showed on her as if she were illumined from within and which I read now as nothing less than a sacred injunction that I should look to my own soul and rid it of all those slurs and injuries which had accrued to it over my lifetime, all this in preparation for our child, Mairead so radiant that
something petty in me felt sorely jilted by her elevated condition which, day by day, appeared like a higher, more refined evolutionary stage and which inspired so little in me save this wish to turn inward and inventory my own soul, a self-defeating instinct,
20 February 2017
The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Five star review – easily worth the praise and prizes.
The Sympathizer (Grove Press) was the book I chose when on a birthday book-token jolly in Kemptown Bookshop. It was a very good choice. The writing is lucid and elegant, calm. But there is, just underneath that calm, what sounded to me like a howl. It was the kind of howl that brought Catch 22 (another favourite of mine) to mind. Partly because both deal with the absurdities and the devastations of war and both are darkly funny. But also because of the subtle manner in which the humour shifts back and forth, becoming absurdity or despair in such a subtle transition that you are tripped up, your own laughter seeming suddenly to be misplaced, gauche.
One of the things I most enjoyed was a sense of there being many dualities. But dualities that shifted, blended and flipped. The narrator is himself half Vietnamese and half French, a state that causes him to be only partially welcome in either sphere. He is also a deeply embedded spy, so his role is dual. These characteristics work well as a backdrop for the book’s exploration of life as a refugee – a further duality, a state of being caught in between. This folds back to further reflection on the narrator’s ambiguous acceptance in his country of birth.
There was too a shift between the culpabilities of the state in general and, in waging war at all in Vietnam, the culpability of The States specifically. To make refugees, then denigrate them as Boat People, to unwillingly accept their presence, these dual hypocrisies are still so pertinent.
As well as these fascinating explorations of states of being, in both political and heartfelt iterations, it is a gripping story of espionage and action. I highly recommend it.
It continues to live in my thoughts, I come back to mull over themes and ideas that it awoke in me. I can’t ask more of a book than that.