Tag Archives: autofiction

The Best Books from the First Half of 2021

Hard to believe we’ve already crossed the midpoint of the year. My top 20 releases of 2021 thus far, in alphabetical order within genre (fiction is dominating this year!), are below. I link to those I’ve already reviewed in full here or on Goodreads:

 

Fiction

Under the Blue by Oana Aristide: Fans of Station Eleven, this one’s for you: the best dystopian novel I’ve read since Mandel’s. Aristide started writing in 2017, and unknowingly predicted a much worse pandemic than Covid-19. In July 2020, Harry and sisters Ash and Jessie are among mere thousands of survivors worldwide. Their plan is to flee England for Uganda, out of range of Europe’s at-risk nuclear reactors. An epic road trip ensues. A propulsive cautionary tale that also reminded me of work by Louisa Hall and Maja Lunde.

 

The Push by Ashley Audrain: Blythe Connor, living alone with her memories, ponders what went wrong with her seemingly perfect family: a handsome architect husband, Fox, and their daughter Violet and baby son Sam. How much of what happened was because of Violet’s nature, and how much was Blythe’s fault for failing to be the mother the girl needed? The fact that her experience with Sam was completely different makes her feel ambivalent about motherhood. A cracking psychological thriller with an unreliable narrator.

 

A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself by Peter Ho Davies: Davies’ minimalist approach – short sections skating over the months and years, wryly pulling out representative moment – crystallizes fatherhood, illuminating its daily heartaches and joys. The tone is just right in this novella, showing both sides of parenthood and voicing things you aren’t allowed to think, or at least not to admit to, starting with abortion, which would-be fathers aren’t expected to have strong feelings about. I loved the rumination on the role that chance plays in a life.

 

The Living Sea of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanagan: Extinction, personal and global, is at the heart of this timely and enchanting story. It starts off as a family drama. Francie, the 86-year-old matriarch, is in a Tasmanian hospital after a brain bleed. Her three middle-aged children can’t bear to let her go. In an Australia blighted by bushfires, species loss mirrors Francie’s physical and mental crumbling. Smartphone addiction threatens meaningful connection. And then characters start to literally disappear, part by part…

 

Mrs Death Misses Death by Salena Godden: Grief Is the Thing with Feathers meets Girl, Woman, Other would be my marketing shorthand for this one. Poet Salena Godden’s debut novel is a fresh and fizzing work, passionate about exposing injustice but also about celebrating simple joys, and in the end it’s wholly life-affirming despite a narrative stuffed full of deaths real and imagined. The novel balances the cosmic and the personal through Wolf’s family story. Unusual, musical, and a real pleasure to read.

 

Early Morning Riser by Katherine Heiny: This tickled my funny bone. A cross between Kitchens of the Great Midwest and Olive Kitteridge, it’s built of five extended episodes, crossing nearly two decades in the lives of Jane and Duncan and lovingly portraying the hangers-on who compose their unusual family constellation in Boyne City, Michigan. All the characters are incorrigible but wonderful. Bad things happen, but there’s a core of love as Heiny explores marriage and parenting. A good-natured book that feels wise and bittersweet.

 

No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood: This starts as a flippant skewering of modern life. A woman who became a social media star by tweeting quips like “Can a dog be twins?” reflects on life on “the portal” and under “the dictator.” Midway through the book, she gets a wake-up call when her mother summons her back to the Midwest for a family emergency. It’s the about-face that makes this novel, forcing readers to question the value of a digital existence based on glib pretence. Funny, but with an ache behind it.

 

In by Will McPhail: Alternately laugh-out-loud funny and gentle. This debut graphic novel is a spot-on picture of modern life in a generic city. Nick never knows the right thing to say. The bachelor artist’s well-intentioned thoughts remain unvoiced; all he can manage is small talk. That starts to change when he meets Wren, a Black doctor who sees past his pretence. If only he can find the magic words that elicit honesty, he might make real connections with other human beings. A good old-fashioned story, with a wide emotional range.

 

Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters: A sparkling, sexy comedy with a tender heart beneath the zingers. Peters has set herself up as the Jane Austen of the trans community, tracing the ins and outs of relationships with verve and nuance. For me this was a valuable book simply for normalizing trans sexuality. The themes are universal, after all: figuring out who you are and what the shape of your life will be. I admire when authors don’t pander to readers by making things easy for those who are unfamiliar with a culture. Great lines abound.

 

Brood by Jackie Polzin: Polzin’s debut is a quietly touching story of a woman in the Midwest raising chickens and coming to terms with the shape of her life. The unnamed narrator is Everywoman and no one at the same time. At one point she reveals, with no fanfare, that she miscarried four months into pregnancy in the bathroom of one of the houses she cleans. There is a bittersweet tone to this short work. It’s a low-key, genuine portrait of life in the in-between stages and how it can be affected by fate or by other people’s decisions.

 

 

Nonfiction

The Circling Sky by Neil Ansell: Hoping to reclaim an ancestral connection, Ansell visited the New Forest some 30 times between January 2019 and January 2020, observing the unfolding seasons and the many uncommon and endemic species its miles house. He weaves together his personal story, the shocking history of forced Gypsy relocation into forest compounds starting in the 1920s, and the unfairness of land ownership in Britain. The New Forest is a model of both wildlife-friendly land management and freedom of human access.

 

The Inevitable by Katie Engelhart: Engelhart spends time with doctors and patients who are caught up in the assisted dying argument, chiefly in Western Europe and the United States. Each case is given its own long chapter, like an extended magazine profile. The stories are wrenching, but compassionately told. The author explores the nuances of each situation, crafting expert portraits of suffering people and the medical professionals who seek to help them, and adding much in the way of valuable context. A voice of reason and empathy.

 

The Screaming Sky by Charles Foster: A Renaissance man as well versed in law and theology as he is in natural history, Foster is obsessed with swifts and ashamed of his own species: for looking down at their feet when they could be watching the skies; for the “pathological tidiness” that leaves birds and other creatures no place to live. He delivers heaps of information on the birds but refuses to stick to a just-the-facts approach. The book quotes frequently from poetry and the prose is full of sharp turns of phrase and whimsy.

 

Intensive Care by Gavin Francis: Francis, an Edinburgh physician, reflects on “the most intense months I have known in my twenty-year career.” He journeys back through 2020, from the January day when he received a bulletin about a “novel Wuhan coronavirus” to November, when he learned of promising vaccine trials but also a rumored third wave and winter lockdown. An absorbing first-hand account of a medical crisis, it compassionately bridges the gap between experts and laymen. The best Covid chronicle so far.

 

A Still Life by Josie George: Over a year of lockdowns, many of us became accustomed to spending most of the time at home. But for Josie George, social isolation is nothing new. Chronic illness long ago reduced her territory to her home and garden. The magic of A Still Life is in how she finds joy and purpose despite extreme limitations. Opening on New Year’s Day and travelling from one winter to the next, the book is a window onto George’s quiet existence as well as the turning of the seasons. (Reviewed for TLS.)

 

Dusk, Night, Dawn by Anne Lamott: Lamott’s best new essays in nearly a decade. The central theme is how to have hope in God and in other people even when the news – Trump, Covid, and climate breakdown – only heralds the worst. One key thing that has changed for her is getting married for the first time, in her mid-sixties, to a Buddhist. In thinking of marriage, she writes about friendship, constancy, and forgiveness, none of which comes easy. Opportunities for maintaining quiet faith in spite of the circumstances arise all the time.

 

A Braided Heart by Brenda Miller: Miller, a professor of creative writing, delivers a master class on the composition and appreciation of autobiographical essays. In 18 concise pieces, she tracks her development as a writer and discusses the “lyric essay”—a form as old as Seneca that prioritizes imagery over narrative. These innovative and introspective essays, ideal for fans of Anne Fadiman, showcase the interplay of structure and content. (Coming out on July 13th from the University of Michigan Press. My first review for Shelf Awareness.)

 

Sanctuary by Emily Rapp Black: A continuation of The Still Point of the Turning World, about the author’s son Ronan, who died of Tay-Sachs disease at age three. In the months surrounding his death, she split from her husband and raced into another relationship that led to her daughter, Charlie. Rapp Black questions the sorts of words she got branded with: “brave,” “resilient.” Sanctuary is full of allusions and flashbacks, threading life’s disparate parts into a chaotic tapestry. It’s measured and wrought, taming fire into light and warmth.

 

 

Poetry

Pilgrim Bell by Kaveh Akbar: An Iranian American poet imparts the experience of being torn between cultures and languages, as well as between religion and doubt, in this gorgeous collection of confessional verse. Food, plants, animals, and the body supply the book’s imagery. Wordplay and startling juxtapositions lend lightness to a wistful, intimate collection that seeks belonging and belief. (Coming out on August 3rd from Graywolf Press. Reviewed for Shelf Awareness.)

 

Eat or We Both Starve by Victoria Kennefick: In this audacious debut collection, the body is presented as a battleground: for the brain cancer that takes the poet’s father; for disordered eating that entwines with mummy issues; for the restructuring of pregnancy. Families break apart and fuse into new formations. Cannibalism and famine metaphors dredge up emotional states and religious doctrines. There’s a pleasingly morbid cast to the book, but it also has its lighter moments. Rich with imagery and alliteration, this is just my kind of poetry.

 

What are some of the best books you’ve read so far this year?
What 2021 releases do I need to catch up on right away?

Three on a Theme for Father’s Day: Auster, Knausgaard, Lewis

In advance of Father’s Day, I picked out a few short memoirs from my shelves that explore the bonds between fathers and their children.

 

The Invention of Solitude by Paul Auster (1982)

This was the nonfiction work of Auster’s I was most keen to read, and I thoroughly enjoyed its first part, “Portrait of an Invisible Man,” which includes a depiction of his late father, a discussion of his relationship with his son, and a brief investigation into his grandmother’s murder of his grandfather, which I’d first learned about from Winter Journal. Auster finds himself unable to cry and has to deal with all his father’s possessions. “There is nothing more terrible, I learned, than having to face the objects of a dead man … everything from a set of barbels to a broken toaster.” A personalized family photo album he finds is blank inside. That and the cover image, a trick photograph taken of his father at Atlantic City in the 1940s, feel like perfect symbols of an elusive heritage. I didn’t connect with the second, slightly longer half, though: “The Book of Memory” is more like Auster’s novels, describing the exploits of a lightly fictionalized character named “A.” and full of copious allusions to the likes of Flaubert, Freud and Tolstoy.

My rating:

 

Fatherhood by Karl Ove Knausgaard (2009; 2013)

[Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett]

I assumed this was a stand-alone from Knausgaard; when it popped up during an author search on Awesomebooks.com and I saw how short it was, I thought why not? As it happens, this Vintage Minis paperback is actually a set of excerpts from A Man in Love, the second volume of his huge autofiction project, My Struggle (I’ve only read the first book, A Death in the Family). Knausgaard takes readers along on a few kiddie-oriented outings: a dinky circus, a children’s party, and baby rhyme time at the public library. His trademark granular detail gives a clear sense of all the characters involved. With him are his wife Linda and the three children they had by then, Vanja, Heidi and John; his friend Geir is his chief confidant.

It’s evident that he loves his children and delights in their individual personalities, but at the same time he feels his intellect assailed by the tedium of the repetitive tasks involved in parenting. He demands an hour to himself each afternoon to read and smoke in a café – even though he knows his wife doesn’t get such an allowance. Specifically, he writes that he feels feminized by carrying a baby or pushing a buggy. Recounting the children’s party, he recalls an earlier party when a heavily pregnant Linda got locked in a bathroom and not even a locksmith could get her out. He felt unmanned when a fellow guest (who happened to be a boxer) had to break down the door to free her. I didn’t know quite what to make of the fragile masculinity on display here, but was grateful to get some highlights from the second book.

My rating:

 

Home Game: An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood by Michael Lewis (2009)

This was expanded from an occasional series of essays Lewis published in Slate in the 2000s, responding to the births of his three children, Quinn, Dixie and Walker, and exploring the modern father’s role, especially “the persistent and disturbing gap between what I was meant to feel and what I actually felt.” It took time for him to feel more than simply mild affection for each child; often the attachment didn’t arrive until after a period of intense care (as when his son Walker was hospitalized with RSV and he stayed with him around the clock). I can’t seem to find the exact line now, but Jennifer Senior (author of All Joy and No Fun) has said something to the effect of: you don’t take care of your children because you love them; you love them because you take care of them. And that indeed seems to encapsulate Lewis’s experience.

The family lived in Paris when Quinn was tiny, and the pieces on adjusting to the French parenting style reminded me of Pamela Druckerman’s French Children Don’t Throw Food / Bringing Up Bébé. His parenting adventures take him everywhere from the delivery room to a New Orleans racetrack at Mardi Gras to a Disneyland campground. He also, intriguingly, writes about a visit paid to Roald Dahl in the writer’s later years. Even when he’s exasperated, his writing is warm and funny. I especially laughed at the account of his post-Walker vasectomy. This maybe doesn’t break any new ground in terms of gender roles and equal responsibility for children’s needs, but I expect it’s still true to the experience of a lot of hapless males, and it was an entirely entertaining read.

[Postscript: My timing on this one was pretty ironic: I read it on the plane to the USA to visit my family and then handed it off to my brother-in-law as I think he’ll enjoy it too. My sister looked at the cover and said, “wait, didn’t his daughter just die in a car crash?!” She’d seen it on her phone’s news feed just hours earlier. I couldn’t believe that the sweet little girl with the squinchy face on the middle of the cover was gone! (Dixie, aged 19.)]

My rating:

 

If you read just one … Make it Home Game.

 

Fathers seem to be a big theme in my recent and upcoming reading. There was Featherhood by Charlie Gilmour, a rare 5-star read for me, last month, and I have review copies of the thematically similar Will This House Last Forever? by Xanthi Barker as well as the essay collection DAD. I even pulled out another trio of father-themed memoirs from my shelves, but ended up running out of time to do a second set of three. There’s always next year!

An Embarrassment of Riches at the (Digital) Hay Festival 2021

There was a phenomenal program for this year’s digital Hay Festival. I signed up to a whopping eight events and enjoyed them all. If you missed watching live, it’s not too late to donate and catch up on the archived talks. For three of these, the host-cum-interviewer appeared in person on a studio stage, with the guest(s) joining, perhaps from thousands of miles away, on a large screen mounted on the wall behind them. I thought this was a neat hybrid approach. The rest of my sessions had interviewer and interviewee appearing remotely on a split screen. Let me know which, if any, events you attended and how you found them.

 

Richard Flanagan

Flanagan’s The Living Sea of Waking Dreams is my novel of 2021 so far (my review), so it was a delight to hear him say more (and in that fantastic accent) about it in the course of a conversation with Stephanie Merritt. Tasmania, where he lives, had always seemed like an ark for species, but now they are vanishing. Ninety percent of the kelp forest has disappeared within the last 20 years because of warming oceans; there are only 300 swift parrots remaining; and the bushfires of 2018–19 were unprecedented in severity. Although he had already roughed out the novel by the time of the fires, Flanagan said he rewrote it in response to the sense of accelerating environmental collapse.

The novel’s twin themes are species extinction and personal extinction, with an elderly family matriarch being kept alive at all costs. Flanagan spoke of the “evasions of the soul” that make us ignore the environmental losses around us and refuse to die – “the final avoidance of life.” He thinks the pandemic has forced people to rethink these ideas and ponder the meaning of life. At age 21, he nearly drowned while kayaking, and ever since he has been frightened not of death, but of the pain of dying. He is not optimistic per se, but hopeful because the world is still so beautiful – on the island he goes to for writing, he is surrounded by wild creatures.

Merritt asked about the novel’s magic realist element and how stylistically different his novels have been from each other. He was glad she found the book funny, as “life is tragicomic.” In an effort not to get stuck in a rut, he deliberately ‘breaks the mould’ after each book and starts over. This has not made him popular with his publisher!

Three take-aways:

  • The one obligation of a writer? “Not to be boring.”
  • Novels are not about messages; “that’s what Twitter is for.”
  • “To despair is rational, but to hope is the very essence of what it means to be human.”

 

Rachel Clarke interviewing Jim Down and Michael Rosen

All three authors have written books about the coronavirus pandemic (I have reviewed Clarke’s Breathtaking and Rosen’s Many Different Kinds of Love). Clarke said that the belief foundational to the NHS is that all lives have equal value, but as an ICU doctor Down found that the question of who would benefit most from the use of ventilation was creeping in as there was a risk that there would be more patients than there was equipment to treat them with. With decisions needing to be made very quickly, his hospital adopted the “three wise people” collaborative method. The element that often felt lost, however, was the patient’s wishes, since they might be unresponsive and no family or other visitors were around.

Rosen, who contracted Covid-19 in March 2020 and was in an induced coma for six weeks, included letters from his medical team in his book to give a 360° view of NHS treatment. He thinks of the NHS as being almost in the role of parents, giving altruistic care and support. “Tell the truth about herd immunity” was his pithy message to the government. He read the poem “These Are the Hands,” which he wrote for the 60th anniversary of the NHS, to close.

 

Bryan Washington and Raven Leilani

Last year’s Dylan Thomas Prize winner interviewed this year’s winner, and it was clear that the mutual admiration was strong. Though I had mixed feelings about Luster (my review), I was blown away by this high-level intellectual discussion. Both authors are invested in the debate around what it means to be a Black artist. Leilani said she did not want to make concessions in the form of Edie comporting herself better; this character is open about her wants, giving the novel a libidinal flavour. She said she almost envies her protagonist her autonomy, and thinks of the novel as a letter to her old self, granting permission and reassuring herself that “the mess has merit.”

Three take-aways:

  • Writing offers Leilani a sanctuary or sense of control.
  • While Washington sees works full of strife, grief, and malice as most likely to be considered the pinnacle of American literary fiction, he admires Luster for its theme of communion (especially via the character Akila).
  • Leilani sees her novel as being in conversation with Queenie, Sula, The New Me, and Detransition, Baby.

 

Maggie Shipstead

Shipstead (also a Dylan Thomas Prize winner) echoed something Leilani had said: that she starts a novel with questions, not answers. Such humility is refreshing, and a sure way to avoid being preachy in fiction. Her new novel, Great Circle, is among my most anticipated books of the year and tells the stories of a fictional female pilot from the golden age of aviation and the actress playing her in a biopic. The book was long in the gestation: In 2012 Shipstead saw a sculpture commemorating a female pilot in Auckland, and in 2014 she started researching. She came to appreciate the miracle of flight and read many books by and about female pilots. The book is dedicated to her brother, recently retired from 20 years in the Air Force. She told Sameer Rahim that, although she used to say this is not a love story, she has since changed her mind.

Three take-aways:

  • Shipstead was a competitive show jumper and applied to a creative writing program on a whim.
  • She has made a name for herself as a travel writer, too, often combining magazine assignments with her research for the novel (e.g., various trips to Antarctica).
  • While she has appreciated the year off from Covid, she is looking forward to getting back to travelling; her first booking is a women’s wilderness experience in Alaska.

 

Patricia Lockwood

Lockwood is the only novelist to be included on the Atlantic’s roster of best tweets. She and Nina Stibbe, who interviewed her, agreed that 1) things aren’t funny when they try too hard and 2) the Internet used to be a taboo subject for fiction – producing time-stamped references that editors used to remove. “I had so many observations and I didn’t know where to put them,” Lockwood said, and it seems to her perverse to not write about something that is such a major part of our daily lives. The title of her Women’s Prize-shortlisted novel, No One Is Talking About This (my review), refers to many things, including this reticence to grant the Internet a place in our discourse.

Lockwood said she has been delighted by the high-quality literary pieces coming out about her book, often in comparison with Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts. The timing of the publication meant that her initial (U.S.) media interviews ended up being more about Trump than she would have liked. “I think I’m not a natural fiction writer,” she said; it’s true that the novel is so autobiographical it can only be described as autofiction – the second half is all true and all sincere, she was careful to point out – but it’s a gem.

 

Julianne Pachico

Like Lockwood, Pachico was part of the “10 @ 10” series featuring debut novelists (though her first book, the linked story collection The Lucky Ones, was marketed as a novel in the USA). Her new book, The Anthill, another of my most anticipated books of the year, is about a young woman returning to Medellín, Colombia, where Pachico spent her formative years. Although she is not a citizen and only goes back on a tourist visa, it feels like going home each time. For her, writing fiction has been a way of sorting out her feelings about the place. She wrote 50,000 words of the novel at her sister’s apartment in Medellín. Pachico told Rosie Goldsmith that, though she considers herself part of the Latin American literary tradition, she is conscious of presenting the country to English-speaking readers: a politically divided place that has gentrified in pockets, but is still plagued by extreme poverty and hardship. She described The Anthill as “a ghost story without ghosts.” I can’t wait to dive into my copy.

 

Brit Bennett

Speaking to Arifa Akbar about The Vanishing Half, Bennett admitted that she was worried a historical setting was a cop-out, but reassured herself that she was not writing out of nostalgia and that she did not allow readers a sense of distance – the characters are so ordinary that we know we’d do the same sorts of things. She thinks of passing as a distinctly American project of self-reinvention but acknowledged that we have no definitive statistics on it because, if someone succeeds, they disappear. Some of Stella’s psychology – a very interior character who makes decisions that are difficult to understand – came from her reading of Playing Dead by Elizabeth Greenwood. She loves writing about small towns because they force people to interact with each other. Akbar noted that passing is a double-edged sword, involving subterfuge but also offering liberation (e.g. for a trans character later in the book).

Three take-aways:

  • “That’s the most exciting place to be, writing into a mystery.”
  • “Race is a fiction, but racism is a reality.”
  • An HBO adaptation is in the works, but Bennett doesn’t know if it will cast real twins, two actors, or meld separate people using CGI.

 

Rachel Cusk and Sheila Heti

I’ve read more of and gotten on better with Heti’s work than Cusk’s, so this was a rare case of being perhaps more interested in interviewer than interviewee. Heti said that, compared with the Outline trilogy, Cusk’s new novel Second Place feels wilder and more instinctual. Cusk, speaking from the Greek island of Tinos, where she is researching marble quarrying, described her book in often vague yet overall intriguing terms: it’s about exile and the illicit, she said; about femininity and entitlement to speak; about the domestic space and how things are legitimized; about the adoption of male values and the “rightness of the artist.”

Ironically, given that Cusk initially hesitated over revealing her debt to Mabel Dodge Luhan’s memoir Lorenzo in Taos, much of the discussion ended up revolving around Luhan and D.H. Lawrence, about whom Cusk now considers herself an amateur scholar. In his personal writings he reserved special scorn for Luhan, with whom he stayed in New Mexico in the 1920s. This was something Cusk wanted to explore: misogyny and Luhan’s “voice of obscurity.” She hopes that her book will contribute to a better understanding of Luhan’s; not vice versa.

Three take-aways:

  • A reviewer noted the use of exclamation points, counting 189 of them in the novel. Cusk equates an exclamation point to a laying down of arms – proof that someone (especially her protagonist, M) means to be nonthreatening.
  • Cusk thinks of this book as being like a play: staged and in the moment.
  • A woman observing but not being noticed is, like in the Outline trilogy, Cusk’s basic framework.

Recommended March Releases: Broder, Fuller, Lamott, Polzin

Three novels that range in tone from carnal allegorical excess to quiet, bittersweet reflection via low-key menace; and essays about keeping the faith in the most turbulent of times.

 

Milk Fed by Melissa Broder

Rachel’s body and mommy issues are major and intertwined: she takes calorie counting and exercise to an extreme, and her therapist has suggested that she take a 90-day break from contact with her overbearing mother. Her workdays at a Hollywood talent management agency are punctuated by carefully regimented meals, one of them a 16-ounce serving of fat-free frozen yogurt from a shop run by Orthodox Jews. One day it’s not the usual teenage boy behind the counter, but his overweight older sister, Miriam. Miriam makes Rachel elaborate sundaes instead of her usual abstemious cups and Rachel lets herself eat them even though it throws her whole diet off. She realizes she’s attracted to Miriam, who comes to fill the bisexual Rachel’s fantasies, and they strike up a tentative relationship over Chinese food and classic film dates as well as Shabbat dinners at Miriam’s family home.

If you’re familiar with The Pisces, Broder’s Women’s Prize-longlisted debut, you should recognize the pattern here: a deep exploration of wish fulfilment and psychological roles, wrapped up in a sarcastic and sexually explicit narrative. Fat becomes not something to fear but a source of comfort; desire for food and for the female body go hand in hand. Rachel says, “It felt like a miracle to be able to eat what I desired, not more or less than that. It was shocking, as though my body somehow knew what to do and what not to do—if only I let it.”

With the help of her therapist, a rabbi that appears in her dreams, and the recurring metaphor of the golem, Rachel starts to grasp the necessity of mothering herself and becoming the shaper of her own life. I was uneasy that Miriam, like Theo in The Pisces, might come to feel more instrumental than real, but overall this was an enjoyable novel that brings together its disparate subjects convincingly. (But is it hot or smutty? You tell me.)

With thanks to Bloomsbury for the proof copy for review.

 

Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller

At a glance, the cover for Fuller’s fourth novel seems to host a riot of luscious flowers and fruit, but look closer and you’ll see the daisies are withering and the grapes rotting; there’s a worm exiting the apple and flies are overseeing the decomposition. Just as the image slowly reveals signs of decay, Fuller’s novel gradually unveils the drawbacks of its secluded village setting. Jeanie and Julius Seeder, 51-year-old twins, lived with their mother, Dot, until she was felled by a stroke. They’d always been content with a circumscribed, self-sufficient existence, but now their whole way of life is called into question. Their mother’s rent-free arrangement with the landowners, the Rawsons, falls through, and the cash they keep in a biscuit tin in the cottage comes nowhere close to covering her debts, let alone a funeral.

During the Zoom book launch event, Fuller confessed that she’s “incapable of writing a happy novel,” so consider that your warning of how bleak things will get for her protagonists – though by the end there are pinpricks of returning hope. Before then, though, readers navigate an unrelenting spiral of rural poverty and bad luck, exacerbated by illiteracy and the greed and unkindness of others. One of Fuller’s strengths is creating atmosphere, and there are many images and details here that build the picture of isolation and pathos, such as a piano marooned halfway to a derelict caravan along a forest track and Jeanie having to count pennies so carefully that she must choose between toilet paper and dish soap at the shop.

Unsettled Ground is set in a fictional North Wessex Downs village not far from where I live. I loved spotting references to local places and to folk music – Jeanie and Julius might not have book smarts or successful careers, but they inherited Dot’s love of music and when they pick up a fiddle and guitar they tune in to the ancient magic of storytelling. Much of the novel is from Jeanie’s perspective and she makes for an out-of-the-ordinary yet relatable POV character. I found the novel heavy on exposition, which somewhat slowed my progress through it, but it’s comparable to Fuller’s other work in that it focuses on family secrets, unusual states of mind, and threatening situations. She’s rapidly become one of my favourite contemporary novelists, and I’d recommend this to you if you’ve liked her other work or Fiona Mozley’s Elmet.

With thanks to Penguin Fig Tree for the proof copy for review.

 

Dusk, Night, Dawn: On Revival and Courage by Anne Lamott

These are Lamott’s best new essays (if you don’t count Small Victories, which reprinted some of her greatest hits) in nearly a decade. The book is a fitting follow-up to 2018’s Almost Everything in that it tackles the same central theme: how to have hope in God and in other people even when the news – Trump, Covid, and climate breakdown – only heralds the worst.

One key thing that has changed in Lamott’s life since her last book is getting married for the first time, in her mid-sixties, to a Buddhist. “How’s married life?” people can’t seem to resist asking her. In thinking of marriage she writes about love and friendship, constancy and forgiveness, none of which comes easy. Her neurotic nature flares up every now and again, but Neal helps to talk her down. Fragments of her early family life come back as she considers all her parents were up against and concludes that they did their best (“How paltry and blocked our family love was, how narrow the bandwidth of my parents’ spiritual lives”).

Opportunities for maintaining quiet faith in spite of the circumstances arise all the time for her, whether it’s a variety show that feels like it will never end, a four-day power cut in California, the kitten inexplicably going missing, or young people taking to the streets to protest about the climate crisis they’re inheriting. A short postscript entitled “Covid College” gives thanks for “the blessings of COVID: we became more reflective, more contemplative.”

The prose and anecdotes feel fresher here than in several of the author’s other recent books. I highlighted quote after quote on my Kindle. Some of these essays will be well worth rereading and deserve to become classics in the Lamott canon, especially “Soul Lather,” “Snail Hymn,” “Light Breezes,” and “One Winged Love.”

I read an advanced digital review copy via NetGalley. Available from Riverhead in the USA and SPCK in the UK.

 

Brood by Jackie Polzin

Polzin’s debut novel is a quietly touching story of a woman in the Midwest raising chickens and coming to terms with the shape of her life. The unnamed narrator is Everywoman and no one at the same time. As in recent autofiction by Rachel Cusk and Sigrid Nunez, readers find observations of other people (and animals), a record of their behaviour and words; facts about the narrator herself are few and far between, though it is possible to gradually piece together a backstory for her. At one point she reveals, with no fanfare, that she miscarried four months into pregnancy in the bathroom of one of the houses she cleans. There is a bittersweet tone to this short work. It’s a low-key, genuine portrait of life in the in-between stages and how it can be affected by fate or by other people’s decisions.

See my full review at BookBrowse. I was also lucky enough to do an interview with the author.

I read an advanced digital review copy via Edelweiss. Available from Doubleday in the USA. To be released in the UK by Picador tomorrow, April 1st.

 

What recent releases can you recommend?

Two Novels of Ambivalent Parenthood: The Push & A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself

These 2021 releases I read from the library stood out to me for daring to suggest that sometimes children aren’t little angels and parenthood isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

 

The Push by Ashley Audrain

“Do you wish you weren’t a mother?”

“Sometimes I wish I were a different kind of person.”

A cracking psychological thriller with an unreliable narrator, this is in the same vein as The Woman in the Window, Gone Girl, and A Good Enough Mother. I hardly ever pick up novels that fit into this genre, but these were all well worth making an exception for. The Push feels closer to literary fiction than to crime. Blythe Connor, living alone with her memories, ponders what went wrong with her seemingly perfect family: a handsome architect husband, Fox, and their daughter Violet and baby son Sam. Now reduced to being a stalker and an impersonator, Blythe vows to write everything down as evidence, taking care to note when she first had cause to question whether Violet was normal. A daddy’s girl from the start, Violet never bonded with Blythe and admitted to deliberately hurting other children in her preschool. But how much of what happened next was because of Violet’s nature, and how much was Blythe’s fault for failing to be the mother the girl needed?

The inkblot design of the cover cleverly evokes classical psychological concepts and experiments. A key topic the novel explores is how trauma is passed down through the generations: Blythe had worried that she wasn’t cut out for motherhood, chiefly because her mother and her grandmother both abandoned their daughters. “Blythe, the women in this family, we’re different. You’ll see,” her mother had warned. The exchange between Blythe and her mother that opens my review reiterates her suspicion: some people just aren’t cut out for parenting. Blythe can’t dismiss her daughter as evil because she knows how much guilt rests on her own shoulders, and because she doubts that she saw what she thought she saw. Moreover, the fact that her experience with Sam was completely different makes her feel ambivalent about motherhood: she’s seen how wonderful it can be, but also how it can turn bad. The nuance sets the book apart from run-of-the-mill thrillers. Yet it’s in short, page-turning chapters, so it reads very quickly and would make a great book club selection.

My rating:

 

A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself by Peter Ho Davies

At its best, autofiction is an intriguing blend of memoir and fiction, all of it true and universal in appeal. Davies’ minimalist approach – short sections skating over the months and years, wryly pulling out representative moments here and there, all in a mere 180 pages – could hardly be more different from Karl Ove Knausgaard’s, but both are equally dedicated to the unique alchemy of crystallizing fatherhood by illuminating its daily heartaches and joys.

Years ago, “the writer” and his wife were presented with a choice. When genetic tests indicated mosaicism, they terminated their first pregnancy. Instead of a little girl, they later had a baby boy who presented his own challenges, including delayed development and possible ASD. Years later, the abortion still haunts “the father.” He attempts to exorcise his shame (the title = how Anaïs Nin defined it) by volunteering at an abortion clinic. Escorting patients to and from their cars, ignoring the taunts of protestors, he lives out his conviction that you can never fully know what others are going through and why they make the decisions they do.

Davies gets the tone just right in this novella, showing both sides of parenthood and voicing the things you aren’t allowed to think, or at least not to admit to – starting with abortion, which would-be fathers aren’t expected to have strong feelings about. Soon after the writer’s son is born: “He feels about himself for love, the way he might pat his pockets for his wallet and keys. Do I love him yet? Is this love?” As the boy grows into a figure of pathos: “All the things they’ve imagined him growing up to be: A basketball player, a fireman, a chef. [vs. what he actually seems to be] Allergic, friendless, autistic.” Davies also has a gift for zinging phrases, like “the deification of babies” and “the baby-industrial complex” of Babies R Us.

But what I most loved was the rumination on the role that chance plays in a life. “All the coin flips. All the what ifs. Like the litany of prompts he uses in writing class. Heads and tales.” The writer has a background in physics (as Davies himself does), so often brings up Schrödinger’s cat as a metaphor – in any situation, things might have gone either way. Now that the possibilities have narrowed to one and the path has been started, what will you do? The treatment of luck, in particular, led me to think of this as a cross between Larry’s Party by Carol Shields and What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez. The style is similar to Jenny Offill’s; another similar and nearly contemporaneous release is Brood by Jackie Polzin.

I know I read The Fortunes back in 2016 but I retain virtually no memory of it. Davies’s prose, themes, and voice stood out much more for me here. I’ll try his novel The Welsh Girl, too, maybe even for book club later this year. This is an early entry on my Best of 2021 list.

Favorite lines:

“this is also what the internet is for, he thinks. If online porn universalizes shame, social media universalizes judgment. Both exercises in self-gratification.”

“An older colleague told him once cats were baby substitutes. ‘They weigh the same, they sleep on you, they roll around on their backs kicking their legs in the air. They mewl.’”

For more on abortion from a male perspective: The Cider House Rules by John Irving and Ars Botanica by Tim Taranto.

My rating:

Rathbones Folio Prize 2021 Shortlist Reviews & Prediction

I’ve nearly managed to read the whole Rathbones Folio Prize shortlist before the prize is announced on the evening of Wednesday the 24th. (You can sign up to watch the online ceremony here.) I reviewed the Baume and Ní Ghríofa as part of a Reading Ireland Month post on Saturday, and I’d reviewed the Machado last year in a feature on out-of-the-ordinary memoirs. This left another five books. Because they were short, I’ve been able to read and/or review another four over the past couple of weeks. (The only one unread is As You Were by Elaine Feeney, which I made a false start on last year and didn’t get a chance to try again.)

Nominations come from the Folio Academy, an international group of writers and critics, so the shortlisted authors have been chosen by an audience of their peers. Indeed, I kept spotting judges’ or fellow nominees’ names in the books’ acknowledgements or blurbs. I tried to think about the eight as a whole and generalize about what the judges were impressed by. This was difficult for such a varied set of books, but I picked out two unifying factors: A distinctive voice, often with a musicality of language – even the books that don’t include poetry per se are attentive to word choice; and timeliness of theme yet timelessness of experience.

 

Poor by Caleb Femi

Femi brings his South London housing estate to life through poetry and photographs. This is a place where young Black men get stopped by the police for any reason or none, where new trainers are a status symbol, where boys’ arrogant or seductive posturing hides fear. Everyone has fallen comrades, and things like looting make sense when they’re the only way to protest (“nothing was said about the maddening of grief. Nothing was said about loss & how people take and take to fill the void of who’s no longer there”). The poems range from couplets to prose paragraphs and are full of slang, Caribbean patois, and biblical patterns. I particularly liked Part V, modelled on scripture with its genealogical “begats” and a handful of portraits:

The Story of Ruthless

Anyone smart enough

to study the food chain

of the estate knew exactly

who this warrior girl was;

once she lined eight boys

up against a wall,

emptied their pockets.

Nobody laughed at the boys.

Another that stood out for me was the two-part “A Designer Talks of Home / A Resident Talks of Home,” a found poem partially constructed from dialogue from a Netflix documentary on interior design. It ironically contrasts airy aesthetic notions with survival in a concrete wasteland. If you loved Surge by Jay Bernard, this should be next on your list.

 

My Darling from the Lions by Rachel Long 

I first read this when it was on the Costa Awards shortlist. As in Femi’s collection, race, sex, and religion come into play. The focus is on memories of coming of age, with the voice sometimes a girl’s and sometimes a grown woman’s. Her course veers between innocence and hazard. She must make her way beyond the world’s either/or distinctions and figure out how to be multiple people at once (biracial, bisexual). Her Black mother is a forceful presence; “Red Hoover” is a funny account of trying to date a Nigerian man to please her mother. Much of the rest of the book failed to click with me, but the experience of poetry is so subjective that I find it hard to give any specific reasons why that’s the case.

 

The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey

After the two poetry entries on the shortlist, it’s on to a book that, like A Ghost in the Throat, incorporates poetry in a playful but often dark narrative. In 1976, two competitive American fishermen, a father-and-son pair down from Florida, catch a mermaid off of the fictional Caribbean island of Black Conch. Like trophy hunters, the men take photos with her; they feel a mixture of repulsion and sexual attraction. Is she a fish, or an object of desire? In the recent past, David Baptiste recalls what happened next through his journal entries. He kept the mermaid, Aycayia, in his bathtub and she gradually shed her tail and turned back into a Taino indigenous woman covered in tattoos and fond of fruit. Her people were murdered and abused, and the curse that was placed on her runs deep, threatening to overtake her even as she falls in love with David. This reminded me of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea and Lydia Millet’s Mermaids in Paradise. I loved that Aycayia’s testimony was delivered in poetry, but this short, magical story came and went without leaving any impression on me.

 

Indelicacy by Amina Cain 

Having heard that this was about a cleaner at an art museum, I expected it to be a readalike of Asunder by Chloe Aridjis, a beautifully understated tale of ghostly perils faced by a guard at London’s National Gallery. Indelicacy is more fable-like. Vitória’s life is in two halves: when she worked at the museum and had to forego meals to buy new things, versus after she met her rich husband and became a writer. Increasingly dissatisfied with her marriage, she then comes up with an escape plot involving her hostile maid. Meanwhile, she makes friends with a younger ballet student and keeps in touch with her fellow cleaner, Antoinette, a pregnant newlywed. Vitória tries sex and drugs to make her feel something. Refusing to eat meat and trying to persuade Antoinette not to baptize her baby become her peculiar twin campaigns.

The novella belongs to no specific time or place; while Cain lives in Los Angeles, this most closely resembles ‘wan husks’ of European autofiction in translation. Vitória issues pretentious statements as flat as the painting style she claims to love. Some are so ridiculous they end up being (perhaps unintentionally) funny: “We weren’t different from the cucumber, the melon, the lettuce, the apple. Not really.” The book’s most extraordinary passage is her husband’s rambling, defensive monologue, which includes the lines “You’re like an old piece of pie I can’t throw away, a very good pie. But I rescued you.”

It seems this has been received as a feminist story, a cheeky parable of what happens when a woman needs a room of her own but is trapped by her social class. When I read in the Acknowledgements that Cain took lines and character names from Octavia E. Butler, Jean Genet, Clarice Lispector, and Jean Rhys, I felt cheated, as if the author had been engaged in a self-indulgent writing exercise. This was the shortlisted book I was most excited to read, yet ended up being the biggest disappointment.

 

On the whole, the Folio shortlist ended up not being particularly to my taste this year, but I can, at least to an extent, appreciate why these eight books were considered worthy of celebration. The authors are “writers’ writers” for sure, though in some cases that means they may fail to connect with readers. There was, however, some crossover this year with some more populist prizes like the Costa Awards (Roffey won the overall Costa Book of the Year).

The crystal-clear winner for me is In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado, her memoir of an abusive same-sex relationship. Written in the second person and in short sections that examine her memories from different angles, it’s a masterpiece and a real game changer for the genre – which I’m sure is just what the judges are looking for.

The only book on the shortlist that came anywhere close to this one, for me, was A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa, an elegant piece of feminist autofiction that weaves in biography, imagination, and poetry. It would be a fine runner-up choice.

(On the Rathbones Folio Prize Twitter account, you will find lots of additional goodies like links to related articles and interviews, and videos with short readings from each author.)

My thanks to the publishers and FMcM Associates for the free copies for review.

Review Book Catch-Up: Fox, Le Riche, Nunez, and Thammavongsa

Today I have a book of poems about Covid lockdown and being autistic, a reprint of a vintage cookbook with a difference, the pinnacle of autofiction that I’ve found thus far, and a prize-winning collection of short stories about immigrants’ everyday challenges.

 

The Oscillations by Kate Fox (2021)

The first section, “After,” responds to the events of 2020; six of its poems were part of a “Twelve Days of Lockdown” commission. Fox remembers how sinister a cougher at a public event felt on 13th March and remarks on how quickly social distancing came to feel like the norm, though hikes and wild swimming helped her to retain a sense of possibility. I especially liked “Pharmacopoeia,” which opens the collection and looks back to the Black Death that hit Amsterdam in 1635 – “suddenly the plagues / are the most interesting parts / of a city’s history.” “Returns” plots her next trip to a bookshop (“The plague books won’t be in yet, / but the dystopia section will be well stocked / … I spend fifty pounds I no longer had last time, will spend another fifty next. / Feeling I’m preserving an ecology, a sort of home”), while “The Funerals” wryly sings the glories of a spring the deceased didn’t get to see.

The second section, “Before,” is more wide-ranging, responding to artworks, historical events, family situations, and more. Fox has been vocal about her ASD, which is the subject of “What Could Be Called Communication,” about some habits of the neurodivergent that you might recognize. I also liked “The Fruits,” which narrates the end of a pregnancy, and the closing poem, “Emergency” (“between us, / sometimes despite us / love spreads like a satellite signal, / like sea foam, / like spilt coffee on a counter top, / like home.”). That was one of the few places in the whole book where the language (alliteration and an end-rhyme) struck me; elsewhere, the themes felt more notable than the poetic techniques.

With thanks to Nine Arches Press for the proof copy for review.

 

Eating Alone by Kathleen Le Riche (1954)

Recently reprinted as a facsimile edition by Faber, this was Le Riche’s third cookbook. It’s like no other cookbook I’ve read, though: It doesn’t list ingredients or, generally, quantities, and its steps are imprecise, more like suggestions. What it reads like is a set of short stories with incidental recipes. Le Riche had noted that people who live alone some or all of the time, for whatever reason, often can’t be bothered to cook for themselves properly. Through these old ladies, bachelors, career girls, and mothers with children off at school, she voices her ideas on shopping, food storage, simple cooking, and making good use of leftovers, but all through the medium of anecdote.

For instance, “The Grass Widower,” while his wife is away visiting her mother, indulges his love of seafood and learns how to wash up effectively. A convalescent plans the uncomplicated meals she’ll fix, including lots of egg dishes and some pleasingly dated fare like “junket” and cherries in brandy. A brother and sister, students left on their own for a day, try out all the different pancakes and quick breads in their repertoire. The bulk of the actual meal ideas come in a chapter called “The Happy Potterer,” whom Le Riche styles as a friend of hers named Flora who wrote out all her recipes on cards collected in an envelope. I enjoyed some of the little notes to self in this section: appended to a recipe for kidney and mushrooms, “Keep a few back for mushrooms-on-toast next day for a mid-morning snack”; “Forgive yourself if you have to use margarine instead of butter for frying.”

I don’t think there are any recipes here that I would actually try to reproduce, though I may one day attempt the Grass Widower’s silver-polishing method (put a strip of aluminium foil and some “washing soda” (soda crystals?) in the sink and pour over some boiling water from the kettle; dip in the silver items, touching them to the foil, and watch the tarnish disappear like magic!). This was interesting as a cultural artefact, to see the meals and ingredients that were mainstays of the 1950s (evaporated milk, anyone?) and how people coped without guaranteed refrigeration. It’s also a good reminder to eat well no matter your circumstances.

With thanks to Faber for the free copy for review.

 

A Feather on the Breath of God by Sigrid Nunez (1995)

My third from Nunez, after The Friend and What Are You Going Through, and my most loved of her books thus far, cementing her as one of my favourite authors. Like the other two, it’s narrated by an unnamed woman who defines herself by the people she encounters and the experiences she has in an unforgiving but still somehow beautiful and funny old world. From the little I know of Nunez, this seems the closest to autofiction, especially in terms of her parental origins. The father, Chang, born in Panama and raised in China, immigrated to the USA at age 12. In Germany for war service, he met her mother, Christa, just after VE Day.

Chang and Christa, the subjects of the book’s first two sections – accounting for about half the length – were opposites and had a volatile relationship. Their home in the New York City projects was an argumentative place the narrator was eager to escape. She felt she never knew her father, a humourless man who lost touch with Chinese culture. He worked on the kitchen staff of a hospital and never learned English properly. Christa, by contrast, was fastidious about English grammar but never lost her thick accent. An obstinate and contradictory woman, she resented her lot in life and never truly loved Chang, but was good with her hands and loved baking and sewing for her daughters.

Growing up, the narrator never knew quite what to make of her mixed, “exotic” background. For a time, she escaped into ballet, a tantalizingly female discipline that threw up a lot of issues: class pretensions, the eroticization of young girls and of pain, and eating disorders. When she went without solid food for days at a time, she felt she was approaching the weightlessness Saint Hildegard likened to being “a feather on the breath of God.” The final chapter, “Immigrant Love,” jumps ahead to when the narrator taught English as a foreign language and had an affair with Vadim, a married Russian taxi driver full of charisma but also of flaws. This finale is a brilliant twist on her parents’ situation, and a decision to teach English in China brings things full circle, promising a connection to her late father’s heritage.

The strategy of identifying the self by the key relationships and obsessions of a life struck me as spot on. This short novel punches above its weight, with profound observations on every page. Its specific situations are engaging, yet it speaks to the universals of how we cope with a troublesome past. “One wants a way of looking back without anger or bitterness or shame. One wants to be able to tell everything without blaming or apologizing,” Nunez writes, crystallizing her frank, wry approach. I’m eager to read all the rest of her oeuvre.

First published in the UK in 2021. With thanks to Virago Press for the free copy for review.

 

How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa (2020)

Thammavongsa pivoted from poetry to short stories and won Canada’s Giller Prize for this debut collection that mostly explores the lives of Laotian immigrants and refugees in a North American city. The 14 stories are split equally between first- and third-person perspectives, many of them narrated by young women remembering how they and their parents adjusted to an utterly foreign culture. The title story and “Chick-A-Chee!” are both built around a misunderstanding of the English language – the latter is a father’s approximation of what his children should say on doorsteps on Halloween. Television soaps and country music on the radio are ways to pick up more of the language. Farm and factory work are de rigueur, but characters nurture dreams of experiences beyond menial labour – at least for their children.

The stories are punchy: perfect snapshots of lives lived on the tightrope between expectation and despair. In “Mani Pedi,” Raymond is a former boxer who starts working at his sister’s nail salon and falls in love with a client. His sister warns him, “Don’t you be dreaming big now, little brother. Keep your dreams small. The size of a grain of rice.” In “Slingshot,” an older woman loses touch with her much younger lover, while in “The Gas Station,” Mary, a prim tax accountant, opens herself to love but ends up disappointed. The great-grandmother in “Ewwrrrkk” warns an eight-year-old that “I love you” pries open one’s legs like nothing else. “Randy Travis” and “Picking Worms” were probably my two overall favourites. Looking back, I have trouble remembering some of the individual stories. It’s not so much that they all blend into one, but that they form a cohesive whole. I’d recommend this even to readers who don’t normally pick up short stories, and will look out for more from this author.

Out in paperback on Thursday the 18th. With thanks to Bloomsbury for the free copy for review.

 

Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?

Introducing the Barbellion Prize & A Review of Sanatorium by Abi Palmer

New this year, the Barbellion Prize will be awarded annually “to an author whose work has best represented the experience of chronic illness and/or disability.” It’s named after W.N.P. Barbellion (the pen name of Bruce Frederick Cummings), the English author of The Journal of a Disappointed Man, which he started writing at 13. A self-taught naturalist, he specialized in lice when he worked for the British Museum’s department of natural history in London. He was rejected for war service in 1915 after a doctor found him to have multiple sclerosis. At that time, the diagnosis was like a death sentence; indeed, Cummings died at age 30 in 1919, though by then he had managed to produce two volumes of memoirs as well as a daughter.

Here’s some more information on the prize criteria from the website: “Eligibility for the prize is predicated on the author’s presentation of life with a long-term chronic illness or disability, whether that be in the form of blindness, MS, cystic fibrosis, dwarfism, or another comparable condition that may substantially define one’s life. Authors – such as those in a carer’s capacity – who themselves are not ill may be considered for the prize if their work is truly exceptional as an articulation of life with illness, but authors who themselves deal personally with illness or disability will take priority in any selection for the prize.”

Especially in the absence of the Wellcome Book Prize, which has been on hiatus since the announcement of the 2019 winner, I’m delighted that there is a new prize with a health slant, particularly one that will lead to greater visibility for disabled writers and their stories. From a longlist of eight, in January the Barbellion Prize judges chose a shortlist of four titles: three memoirs and a work of autofiction. The publishers kindly agreed to send me the shortlist for review. Two have arrived so far (there have been postal delays in the UK, as in many places).

I have already read one of the nominees and will do my best to review the rest before the £1000 prize is awarded on the 12th. The others are:

  • Golem Girl by Riva Lehrer – An illustrated memoir by a visual artist born with spina bifida.
  • The Fragments of My Father by Sam Mills – A memoir of being a carer for her father, who has paranoid schizophrenia; also includes musings on Leonard Woolf and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who cared for mentally ill wives. I’m currently reading this one.
  • Kika & Me by Amit Patel – Patel was a trauma doctor and lost his sight within 36 hours due to a rare condition. He was paired with his guide dog, Kika, in 2015.

 

 

Sanatorium by Abi Palmer (2020)

Water is a source of comfort and delight for Abi, the narrator of Sanatorium (whose experiences may or may not be those of the author; always tricky to tell with autofiction). Floating is like dreaming for her – an intermediate state between the solid world where she’s in pain and the prospect of vanishing into the air. In 2017 she spends a few weeks at a sanatorium in Budapest for water therapy; when she returns to London she buys a big inflatable plastic bathtub to keep up the exercises as she tries to wean herself off of opiates.

Abi feels fragile due to a whole host of body issues, some in her past but most continuing into the present: an autoimmune connective tissue disorder, psoriatic arthritis, Crohn’s disease, and sexual assaults. Her knee is most immediately problematic, leading her to use a mobility scooter. As her health waxes and wanes, other people – unable to appreciate any internal or incremental changes – judge her by whether or not she is able to walk well.

The book is in snippets, often of just a paragraph or even one sentence, and cycles through its several strands: Abi’s time in Budapest and how she captures it in an audio diary; ongoing therapy at her London flat, custom-designed for disabled tenants (except “I was the only cripple who could afford it”); the haunted house she grew up in in Surrey; and notes on plus prayers to St. Teresa of Ávila, accompanied by diagrams of a female figure in yoga poses.

Locations are given in small letters in the top corner of the page, apart from for the more dreamlike segments that can’t be pinned down to any one place. For instance, I was reminded of a George Saunders story by the surreal interlude in which Abi imagines Van Gogh’s Starry Night reproduced in the hair on a detached pair of legs mounted on a wall as a work of art.

The different formats and short chunks of prose generally keep the voice from becoming monotonous, though I did wonder if occasional use of the third person (and some more second person) could have been effective, too. Far from a straightforward memoir, the book incorporates passages that are closer to fantasy and poetry, and the visual elements and fertile imagery attest to Palmer’s background as a mixed-media artist.

Sanatorium is a fascinating work – matter-of-fact, playful and sensual – that vividly conveys the reality of life with a chronic illness. It was already on my wish list, but I’m so glad that this shortlisting gave me a chance to read it. Though I haven’t read the other nominees yet, the passages below are proof that this would be a deserving Barbellion Prize winner.

You go through life as a chronically ill person with so many different people who have so many different opinions about how your treatment should be. They’re not always useful or right. You have to build your own narrative and your own sense of what feels appropriate. You have to learn to trust your body to tell you what’s working. But that’s hard too, when your body keeps changing the rules.

I am one of the more privileged ones and still I’m screaming. God, it would be so nice just to dissolve into nothing and wash up onto a lonely beach.

I wonder if what I’ve learned about chronic illness, more than anything, is that it’s a constant cycle. You fall apart, then you try your best to rebuild again. I wonder what would happen if I stopped trying.

Readalikes I have also reviewed:


With thanks to Penned in the Margins for the free copy for review.

Six Degrees of Separation: From Margaret to This Cold Heaven

This month we’re starting with Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret (which I have punctuated appropriately!). See Kate’s opening post. I know I read this as a child, but other Judy Blume novels were more meaningful for me since I was a tomboy and late bloomer. The only line that stays with me is the chant “We must, we must, we must increase our bust!”

 

#1 Another book with a question in the title (and dominating the cover) is How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti. I found a hardback copy in the unofficial Little Free Library I ran in our neighborhood during the first lockdown before the public library reopened. Heti is a divisive author, but I loved Motherhood for perfectly encapsulating my situation. I think this one, too, is autofiction, and the title question is one I ask myself variations on frequently.

 

#2 I’ve read quite a few “How to” books, whether straightforward explanatory/self-help texts or not. Lots happened to be from the School of Life series. One I found particularly enjoyable and helpful was How to Age by Anne Karpf. She writes frankly about bodily degeneration, the pursuit of wisdom, and preparation for death. “Growth and psychological development aren’t a property of our earliest years but can continue throughout the life cycle.”

 

#3 Ageing is a major element in May Sarton’s journals, particularly as she moves from her seventies into her eighties and fights illnesses. I’ve read all but one of her autobiographical works now, and – while my favorite is Journal of a Solitude – the one I’ve chosen as most representative of her usual themes, including inspiration, camaraderie, the pressures of the writing life, and old age, is At Seventy.

 

#4 Sarton was a keen gardener, as was Derek Jarman. I learned about him in the context of nature helping people come to terms with their mortality. Modern Nature reproduces the journal the gay, HIV-positive filmmaker kept in 1989–90. Prospect Cottage in Dungeness, Kent, and the unusual garden he cultivated there, was his refuge between trips to London and further afield, and a mental sanctuary when he was marooned in the hospital.

 

#5 One of the first memoirs I ever read and loved was Heaven’s Coast by Mark Doty, about his partner Wally’s death from AIDS. This sparked my continuing interest in illness and bereavement narratives, and it was through following up Doty’s memoirs with his collections of poems that I first got into contemporary poetry, so he’s had a major influence on my taste. I’ve had Heaven’s Coast on my rereading shelf for ages, so really must get to it in 2021.

 

#6 Thinking of heaven, a nice loop back to Blume’s Margaret and her determination to find God … one of the finest travel books I’ve read is This Cold Heaven, about Gretel Ehrlich’s expeditions to Greenland and historical precursors who explored it. Even more than her intrepid wanderings, I was impressed by her prose, which made the icy scenery new every time. “Part jewel, part eye, part lighthouse, part recumbent monolith, the ice is a bright spot on the upper tier of the globe where the world’s purse strings have been pulled tight.”

 

A fitting final selection for this week’s properly chilly winter temperatures, too. I’ll be writing up my first snowy and/or holiday-themed reads of the year in a couple of weeks.

Join us for #6Degrees of Separation if you haven’t already! (Hosted on the first Saturday of each month by Kate W. of Books Are My Favourite and Best.)

Have you read any of my selections? Are you tempted by any you didn’t know before?

Five Novellas in Translation

We’re coming to the close of Literature in Translation week of Novellas in November. Cathy and I have both noted that novellas seem more common in other languages, with the work is more likely to take on experimental forms. We wondered why this is – do foreign languages and cultures somehow lend themselves to concise storytelling that takes more risks? However, a commenter on a post of Cathy’s suggested that economic realities may have something to do with it: translating short works is faster and cheaper. In a recent blog post, Louise Walters, whose indie publishing imprint is preparing to release its shortest book yet (In the Sweep of the Bay by Cath Barton, 22,000 words), confirms that production and shipping costs are lower for novellas, so she has the chance of recouping her investment.

I’ve gotten to five short translated works this month: three fiction and two nonfiction. (Or should that be four fiction and one nonfiction? With autofiction it’s hard to tell.)

 

Dependency by Tove Ditlevsen (1971; 2019)

[Translated from the Danish by Michael Favala Goldman]

The final volume of the autobiographical Copenhagen Trilogy, after Childhood and Youth. Ditlevsen recalls her upbringing in poverty and her early success as a poet. By the end of the second book, she’s engaged to a much older literary editor. A series of marriages and affairs follows: Viggo, Ebbe, Carl and Victor are the major names, with some others in between. She produces stories and poems as well as a daughter and a son, but also has two abortions. Carl performs one of these and gives her a Demerol shot; ever afterwards, she takes advantage of his obsession with her chronic ear infection to beg for painkiller shots. “Then time ceases to be relevant. An hour could be a year, and a year could be an hour. It all depends on how much is in the syringe.” Addiction interferes with her work and threatens her relationships, but it’s an impulse that never leaves her even when she swaps the harder stuff for alcohol.

I only skimmed this one because from the other volumes I knew how flat and detached the prose is, even when describing desperate circumstances. I can admire this kind of writing – the present-tense scenes, the lack of speech marks, the abrupt jumps between time periods and emotional states, all coldly expressed – but I’m not sure I’ll ever love it. Of the three books, I liked Childhood the best for its universal observations.

 

La Symphonie Pastorale by André Gide (1919; 1931)

[Translated from the French by Dorothy Bussy]

“Love is blindness / I don’t want to see” (U2)

I had a secondhand French copy when I was in high school, always assuming I’d get to a point of fluency where I could read it in its original language. It hung around for years unread and was a victim of the final cull before my parents sold their house. Oh well! There’s always another chance with books. In this case, a copy of this plus another Gide novella turned up at the free bookshop early this year. A country pastor takes Gertrude, the blind 15-year-old niece of a deceased parishioner, into his household and, over the next two years, oversees her education as she learns Braille and plays the organ at the church. He dissuades his son Jacques from falling in love with her, but realizes that he’s been lying to himself about his own motivations. This reminded me of Ethan Frome as well as of other French classics I’ve read (Madame Bovary and Thérèse Raquin). Melodramatic, maybe, but I loved the religious and medical themes (deaf-blind Laura Bridgman gets a mention; when the preacher and Gertrude attend the title symphony, he encourages her synesthetic thinking).

 

Stammered Songbook: A Mother’s Book of Hours by Erwin Mortier (2011; 2015)

[Translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent]

In fragmentary vignettes, some as short as a few lines, Belgian author Mortier chronicles his mother’s Alzheimer’s, which he describes as a “twilight zone between life and death.” His father tries to take care of her at home for as long as possible, but it’s painful for the family to see her walking back and forth between rooms, with no idea of what she’s looking for, and occasionally bursting into tears for no reason. Most distressing for Mortier is her loss of language. As if to compensate, he captures her past and present in elaborate metaphors: “Language has packed its bags and jumped over the railing of the capsizing ship, but there is also another silence … I can no longer hear the music of her soul”. He wishes he could know whether she feels hers is still a life worth living. There are many beautifully meditative passages, some of them laid out almost like poetry, but not much in the way of traditional narrative; it’s a book for reading piecemeal, when you have the fortitude.

 

Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan (1954; 1955)

[Translated from the French by Irene Ash]

Like The Go-Between and Atonement, this is overlaid with regret about childhood caprice that has unforeseen consequences. That Sagan, like her protagonist, was only a teenager when she wrote it only makes this 98-page story the more impressive. Although her widower father has always enjoyed discreet love affairs, seventeen-year-old Cécile has basked in his undivided attention until, during a holiday on the Riviera, he announces his decision to remarry a friend of her late mother. Over the course of one summer spent discovering the pleasures of the flesh with her boyfriend, Cyril, Cécile also schemes to keep her father to herself. Dripping with sometimes uncomfortable sensuality, this was a sharp and delicious read.

 

The Order of the Day by Éric Vuillard (2017; 2018)

[Translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti]

February 1933: 24 German captains of industry meet with Hitler to consider the advantages of a Nazi government. I loved the pomp of the opening chapter: “Through doors obsequiously held open, they stepped from their huge black sedans and paraded in single file … they doffed twenty-four felt hats and uncovered twenty-four bald pates or crowns of white hair.” As the invasion of Austria draws nearer, Vuillard recreates pivotal scenes featuring figures who will one day commit suicide or stand trial for war crimes. Reminiscent in tone and contents of HHhH, The Tobacconist, and the film Downfall, this starts off promisingly and ends with clear relevance to the present moment (“a mysterious respect for lies. Political manoeuvring tramples facts”) and a brilliant final paragraph, but in between was dull. You’d have to have more interest in history than I do to love this Prix Goncourt winner.

 


Publishers that specialize in novellas in translation:

 

Charco Press – I’ve reviewed:

The Wind that Lays Waste by Selva Almada

Fish Soup by Margarita García Robayo

Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz

 

Peirene Press – I’ve reviewed:

Mr. Darwin’s Gardener by Kristina Carlson

The Looking-Glass Sisters by Gøhril Gabrielsen

Ankomst by Gøhril Gabrielsen

Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel

The Last Summer by Ricarda Huch

Snow, Dog, Foot by Claudio Morandini

Her Father’s Daughter by Marie Sizun

The Orange Grove by Larry Tremblay

The Man I Became by Peter Verhelst

 

A few more favorite novellas in translation:

The Plimsoll Line by Juan Gracia Armendáriz

Silk by Alessandro Baricco

Agatha by Anne Cathrine Bomann

Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg

 


Next week, we’re closing out Novellas in November with a focus on short classics. I’ll introduce the week’s theme with some of my favorite examples on Monday.

 

Any theories as to why so many novellas are from other languages?

What are some of your favorites?