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?
Three new books with medical themes (no surprise there), including the first Covid wave in the UK; fertility and body issues in a new queer family; and pain management strategies.
Breathtaking: Inside the NHS in a Time of Pandemic by Rachel Clarke
Clarke is a palliative care doctor based in Oxfordshire. She runs the Katharine House hospice but during the coronavirus pandemic has also been on active duty in the Oxford University Hospitals system. If you’re on social media you have likely come across some of her postings as she has been equally vocal in her praise of the NHS and her criticism of Boris Johnson’s faltering policies, which are often of the too little, too late variety. So I was eager to read her insider’s account of hospital treatment of the first wave of Covid in the UK, especially because her previous book, Dear Life, was one of my top two nonfiction releases of last year.
The focus is on the first four full months of 2020, and the book originated in Clarke’s insomniac diaries and notes made when, even after manically busy shifts, she couldn’t rest her thoughts. Her pilot husband was flying to China even as increasingly alarming reports started coming in from Wuhan. She weaves in the latest news from China and Italy as well as what she hears from colleagues and disease experts in London. But the priority is given to stories: of the first doctor to die in China; of a Yorkshire ICU nurse’s father, who comes down with Covid and is on a ventilator in an Oxford hospital; and of her patients there and in the hospice. She is touched that so many are making great sacrifices, such as by deciding not to visit loved ones at the end of their lives so as not to risk spreading infection.
A shortage of PPE remained a major issue, though Dominic Pimenta (whose Duty of Care was my first COVID-19 book) pulled through for her with an emergency shipment for the hospice – without which it would have had to close. Clarke marvels at the NHS’s ability to create an extra 33,000 beds within a month, but knows that this comes at a cost of other services, including cancer care, being stripped back or cancelled, meaning that many are not receiving the necessary treatment or are pushing inescapable problems further down the road.
A comparison with Gavin Francis’s Intensive Care, published earlier in the month, is inevitable. Both doctors bounce between headlines and everyday stories, government advice and the situation on the ground. Both had their own Covid scare – Clarke didn’t meet the criteria to be tested so simply went back to work two weeks later, when she felt well enough – and had connections to regions that foreshadowed what would soon happen in the UK. Both give a sense of the scope of the crisis and both lament that, just when patients need compassion most, full PPE leads to their doctors feeling more detached from them than ever.
However, within the same page count, Francis manages to convey more of the science behind the virus and its transmission, and helpfully explores the range of effects Covid is having for different groups. He also brings the story more up to the minute with a look back from November, whereas Clarke ends in April and follows up with an epilogue set in August. A book has to end somewhere, yes, but with this crisis ongoing, the later and more relevant its contents can be, the better. And in any book that involves a lot of death, mawkishness is a risk; Clarke so carefully avoided this in Dear Life, but sometimes succumbs here, with an insistence on how the pandemic has brought out the best in people (clapping and rainbows and all that). Her writing is as strong as ever, but I would have appreciated a sharper, more sombre look at the situation a few months later. Perhaps there will be a sequel.
With thanks to Little, Brown UK for the free copy for review.
Some Body to Love: A Family Story by Alexandra Heminsley
From Heminsley’s previous book, Leap In, I knew about her getting married and undergoing IVF. It was also a book about outdoor swimming; I appreciated her words on acquiring a new skill as an adult and overcoming body issues. This memoir continues the story: in 2017, after a gruelling journey through infertility treatment, Heminsley finally got the baby she wanted. But not before a couple more heart-wrenching moments: the lab made an error and notified her that she shared no DNA with this last embryo, and while heavily pregnant she was assaulted by a drunk man on a train. Both incidents left her feeling a loss of agency. “Why was I consistently being deemed the least reliable witness of my own reality?” she asks.
As they adjusted to new life with a baby, Heminsley started to notice that she wasn’t connecting with her husband, D, like she used to. She felt emotionally unsupported and, in fact, jealous of D’s relationship with their son, L. And while they’d never been the most conventional couple, D’s changes of appearance and wardrobe seemed like a sign of something bigger. Indeed, when L was six months old, D told Heminsley, “this body doesn’t represent who I am” and announced a decision to begin transitioning.
As D moved towards having a body that fit their identity, Heminsley, too, needed to get back in touch with her body. After books like Running Like a Girl, she was considered an exercise guru, but she didn’t see herself in the new obsession with Instagram-ready images of fitness perfection. This is not, then, primarily a memoir of queer family-making, because D’s transitioning was not Heminsley’s story to tell and mostly occurs in the background. Instead she focuses on what she does know and can control: her relationship to her own body.
However, this entails what can feel like irrelevant flashbacks to her teenage years of undergoing rehab at a military clinic in Germany for hypermobility, trips to Trinidad and Italy, and the genesis of her two sporting memoirs. Much as I applaud the sensitivity to trans and body issues, the book ends up feeling scattered. Still, the writing is so candid and the narrative so eventful that you’ll race through this even if you don’t normally pick up nonfiction. (For a bit more information, see my short write-up of the virtual book launch.)
With thanks to Chatto & Windus for the free copy for review.
Pain: The Science of the Feeling Brain by Abdul-Ghaaliq Lalkhen
Originally from South Africa, Dr Lalkhen is an anaesthesiology and pain specialist based in Manchester. In a nutshell, his approach is “biopsychosocial,” meaning that he seeks to understand pain not just as a physical phenomenon resulting from acute injury or damage but as an ongoing process that is affected by emotional and psychological factors. Particularly in the context of chronic syndromes, he acknowledges that pain can continue even when its immediate cause has been repaired. Mental preparation can come into the equation: if a patient assumes they’ll wake up from surgery healed, they may be alarmed if pain persists. Lalkhen talks about managing patient expectations, perhaps with something as simple as the promise, “we’ll aim to get your pain down to a 4 after surgery.” In part, he blames Western society’s Cartesian philosophy for treating mind and body as separate rather than a system.
There are genetic and psychological reasons people might be predisposed to chronic pain. Pain itself can then change the brain chemistry, making the body more alert to pain signals. People can choose one of three paths, Lalkhen observes: “You can spend your time agitating about the alarm going off, you can try to ignore it (but the ignoring of it actually takes up more energy), or the final alternative is to learn to live with this deeply unpleasant situation.” Those who opt for pharmacological solutions can become addicted to opiates, which are less effective over time. Non-drug-related therapies involve the desensitization of nerves, the injection of anaesthetics or steroids, or the implanting of spinal cord stimulators. But all of these strategies have their limitations, and can diminish in efficacy. The patients he sees in his pain clinics may be disappointed that, rather than offering a panacea, he wants to wean them off their current pain relief and help them develop a new way of thinking about pain.
I felt I learned a lot from reading this. Lalkhen is careful to state that he is only referring to non-cancer pain (cancer pain in terminal patients will take all the morphine you can throw at it). Like many physicians, he worries about the modern epidemic of overtreatment and our obsession with wellness. I especially enjoyed the discussion of the understanding of pain and its treatment from the ancient world onward, and in particular the history of opiates. The prose is not literary, but this is an accessible and informational read if the subject matter draws you.
With thanks to Atlantic Books for the free copy for review.
What recent nonfiction releases can you recommend?
This Being/Becoming/Asking the Expert week of the month-long Nonfiction November challenge is hosted by Rennie of What’s Nonfiction.
I’m also counting this as the first entry in my new “Three on a Theme” series, where I’ll review three books that have something significant in common and tell you which one to pick up if you want to read into the topic for yourself. I have another medical-themed one lined up for this Friday as a second ‘Being the Expert’ entry.
I never set out to read several memoirs of women’s experience of postpartum depression this year; it sort of happened by accident. I started with the graphic memoir and then chanced upon a recent pair of traditional memoirs published in the UK – in fact, I initially pitched them as a dual review to the TLS, but they’d already secured a reviewer for one of the books.
Inferno: A Memoir by Catherine Cho
I was delighted to see this prediction of mine make the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award shortlist. Coincidentally, I was already halfway through the book on my Kindle (via NetGalley) at that point, but its nomination gave me the push to finish in a timely manner. Cho, a Korean American literary agent based in London, experienced stress-induced postpartum psychosis after the birth of her son, Cato. She and her husband James had gone back to the USA when Cato was two months old to introduce him to friends and family, ending with a big Korean 100-day celebration for him at her in-laws’ home in New Jersey. Almost as soon as they got to her in-laws’, though, she started acting strangely: she was convinced there were cameras watching their every move, and Cato’s eyes were replaced with “devil’s eyes.” She insisted they leave for a hotel, but soon she would be in an emergency room, followed by a mental health ward.
Cho alternates between her time on the New Bridge ward – writing in a notebook, trying to act normal whenever James visited, expressing milk from painfully swollen breasts, and interacting with her fellow patients with all their quirks – and a rundown of the rest of her life before the breakdown. Her Kentucky childhood was marked by her mathematician father’s detachment and the sense that she and her brother were together “in the trenches,” pitted against the world. In her twenties she worked in a New York City corporate law firm and got caught up in an abusive relationship with a man she moved to Hong Kong to be with. All along she weaves in her family’s history and Korean sayings and legends that explain their values.
Twelve days. That was the length of her hospitalization in early 2018, but Cho so painstakingly depicts her mindset that readers are fully immersed in an open-ended purgatory – a terrifying time when she questioned her sanity and whether she was cut out for motherhood. “Koreans believe that happiness can only tempt the fates and that any happiness must be bought with sorrow,” she writes. She captures both extremes, of suffering and joy, in this vivid account.
What Have I Done? An honest memoir about surviving postnatal mental illness by Laura Dockrill
Dockrill is a British children’s author. Her style reminded me of others of her contemporaries who do a good line in light, witty, warts-and-all, here’s-what-it’s-really-like-to-be-a-woman books: Dolly Alderton, Caitlin Moran and the like. From a labor that quickly deviated from her birth plan due to an emergency Caesarean to the usual post-baby blues to full-blown psychosis, Dockrill recreates her experience with fluid dialogue and italicized passages of her paranoid imaginings. Her memoir resembles Cho’s in its broad strokes but also in certain particulars, like imagining surveillance cameras and hearing a voice in her head telling her she is a bad mum. I skimmed this one because of a library deadline and because of an overload on similar content. I had a greater affinity for Cho’s literary style compared to the more between-girlfriends, self-help bent of this memoir. With the glossary and resources at the end, though, I’d say this one would be more useful for someone going through the same thing.
Dear Scarlet: The Story of My Postpartum Depression by Teresa Wong (2019)
Memoir as letter and as graphic novel. Wong narrates the traumatic birth of her first child and her subsequent postpartum depression in black-and-white sketches that manage to feel breezy and fun despite the heavy subject matter. “I felt lost. I had no maternal instincts and no clue how I was supposed to take care of a baby,” she writes to Scarlet. “Your first two months in the world were the hardest two months of my life.”
For Wong, a combination of antidepressants, therapy, a postnatal doula, an exercise class, her mother’s help, and her husband’s constant support got her through, and she knows she’s lucky to have had a fairly mild case and to have gotten assistance early on. I loved the “Not for the Faint of Heart” anatomical spreads and the reflections on her mother’s tough early years after arriving in Canada from China.
The drawing and storytelling style is similar to that of Sarah Laing and Debbie Tung. The writing is more striking than the art, though, so I hope that with future work the author will challenge herself to use more color and more advanced designs (from her Instagram page it looks like she is heading that way).
My thanks to publicist Beth Parker for the free e-copy for review.
What I learned:
All three authors emphasize that motherhood does not always come naturally; “You might not instantly love your baby,” as Dockrill puts it. There might be a feeling of detachment –from the baby and/or from one’s new body. They all note that postpartum depression is common and that new mothers should not be ashamed of seeking help from medical professionals, baby nurses, family members and any other sources of support.
These two passages were representative for me:
Cho: “I don’t feel a rush of love or an overwhelming weight of responsibility, emotions that I’d been expecting. Instead, I felt curious, like I’d just been introduced to a stranger. He was a creature, an idea, not even human yet, just a being, a life. … I’d thought I would reclaim my body after birth, but instead, it was now a tool, something to sustain life.”
Dockrill: “If childbirth and motherhood are the most natural, universal, common things in the world, the things that women have been doing since the beginning of time, then why does nobody tell us that there’s a good chance that you might not feel like yourself after you have a baby? That you might even lose your head? That you might not ever come back?”
Nobody Told Me by Hollie McNish, one of my current bedside books, also deals with complicated pregnancy emotions and the chaotic early months of motherhood.
If you read just one, though… Make it Inferno by Catherine Cho.
Can you see yourself reading any of these books?
It’s my third year participating in Cathy’s 20 Books of Summer challenge. Two years ago I read only books by women; last year I did an animal theme. This year, my 20 books will all tie into a food and drink theme. This includes recognizable foodie lit, memoirs and travel books that have a food element (such as Dave Gorman seeking out non-chain restaurants in America Unchained and Alice Steinbach taking French cooking lessons in Educating Alice), and fiction or nonfiction works that just happen to have a food word in the title. To avoid being grisly, I’ll try not to include any animal books left over from last year!
I have around 30 books to choose from, including these slightly cheaty selections whose authors’ names bring food to mind.
The one constant in my three summers’ selections is that all the books have to be from my own shelves – it’s my way of trying to tackle my hundreds-strong physical TBR. I also have a few classics and two rereads (Dunn and Kingsolver) in the mix here, which would contribute to other ongoing reading goals.
I’m kicking off #20BooksofSummer20 with a quick win, only 85 pages long and read in a single sitting this morning. It was a great start to the project and had my mouth watering for elevenses two hours early…
Tiny Moons: A Year of Eating in Shanghai by Nina Mingya Powles (2020)
This lovely pamphlet of food-themed essays arose from a blog Powles kept while in Shanghai on a one-year scholarship to learn Mandarin. She’d lived in the city as a teen, attending an international high school, so it was somewhat familiar – yet she struggled with homesickness. From one winter to another, she explores the city’s culinary offerings and muses on the ways in which food is bound up with her memories of people and places.
As a child in a mixed-race household in New Zealand, she only knew food words in her Malaysian Chinese mother’s native languages. “My earliest childhood impressions are ones where I am just about to eat something,” she writes. That something might have been Western or Asian food – they coexist in the book (most delightfully on a long-distance train ride she takes: you can buy noodles and dried chicken feet, but also Oreos and Pringles).
As a student in Shanghai, she has dumplings and soup for lunch almost every day. She could live off of spring onion oil noodles and pineapple buns (named for their cross-hatched top rather than their flavour). Messy foods, greasy foods, comfort foods – “It is tiring to be a woman who loves to eat in a society where hunger is something not to be satisfied but controlled.” She and her classmates know that their time here is limited, and they’re going to make the most of these flavours you can’t find every day.
Two sets of cooking lessons add dishes like sticky rice dumplings and stir-fried aubergines to her repertoire. She learns about the traditional foods associated with Chinese festivals, and about the country’s north/south divides: wheat noodles versus rice and thick-skinned dumplings versus thin ones. Street food and snacks abound, including savoury and sweet buns, filled pancakes, tofu bowls and mooncakes.
This is a book about how food can help you be at home, despite loneliness or a language barrier: “In any city anywhere, if there’s a Chinatown I’ll feel at home,” Powles concludes. I love how she uses the senses – not just taste, but also smell and sight – to recreate important places in her life. A fresh banana fritter eaten at her grandparents’ home in Borneo brings it all back, with the senses mingling synaesthetically: “I taste tropical heat. I can taste the slow hours spent in the back garden beneath the mango tree … I taste the fierce sun on my neck”.
Readalikes: Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China by Fuchsia Dunlop & Two Trees Make a Forest: On Memory, Migration and Taiwan by Jessica J. Lee
Note: Last year Nina Mingya Powles won the inaugural Nan Shepherd Prize for underrepresented voices in nature writing, earning a publishing contract with Canongate for a nature/travel memoir that will be released in August 2021. I’m looking forward to it already.
Tiny Moons was published on February 27th. My thanks to Emma Dai’an Wright of The Emma Press, a small press based in Birmingham, UK, for the free copy for review. (Emma also illustrated the book!)
Are you joining in the summer reading challenge? What’s the first book on the docket?
Do you spy any favorites on my piles? Which ones should I be sure to read?
For this second half of the year I chose just 15 of the new releases I was most excited about. Limiting myself in that way has been helpful for focusing the mind: I’ve already read six of my most anticipated books, I’m currently reading another, and I have several more awaiting me. Had I chosen 30 or more titles, I would likely be feeling overwhelmed by now, but as it is I have a good chance of actually getting to all these books before the end of the year. These five September releases, while very different – their topics range from cancer and dead bodies to archaeological digs and family inheritance – all lived up to my expectations:
The Undying: Pain, Vulnerability, Mortality, Medicine, Art, Time, Dreams, Data, Exhaustion, Cancer, and Care by Anne Boyer
(Coming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux [USA] on the 17th and Allen Lane [UK] on October 3rd)
In 2014, Boyer, then a 41-year-old poet and professor at the Kansas City Art Institute (and a single mother) was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer. The book’s subtitle gives you clues to the sort of practical and emotional territory that’s covered here. Although she survived this highly aggressive cancer, she was not unscathed: the chemotherapy she had is so toxic it leads to lasting nerve damage and a brain fog that hasn’t completely lifted.
All the more impressive, then, that Boyer has been able to put together this ferociously intellectual response to American cancer culture. Her frame of reference ranges from ancient Greece – Aelius Aristides, who lived in a temple, hoping the gods would reveal the cure to his wasting illness via dreams, becomes an offbeat hero for her – to recent breast cancer vloggers. She is scathing on vapid pink-ribbon cheerleading that doesn’t substantially improve breast cancer patients’ lives, and on profit-making healthcare schemes that inevitably discriminate against poor women of color and send people home from the hospital within a day or two of a double mastectomy. Through her own experience, she reflects on the pressure women are under to be brave, to be optimistic, to go to work as normal, and to look as beautiful as ever when they are in excruciating pain and beyond exhaustion.
Impossible to avoid comparisons to Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor, but this book has a personal power I don’t remember finding in Sontag’s more detached, academic-level work. Boyer sees herself as one in a long lineage of women writing about their cancer – from Fanny Burney to Audre Lorde – and probes the limits of language when describing pain. I was reminded of another terrific, adjacent book from this year, Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson, especially where Boyer describes her imagined 10-part pain scale (Gleeson has a set of 20 poems based on the McGill Pain Index).
I could quote excellent passages all day, but here are a few that stood out to me:
“People with breast cancer are supposed to be ourselves as we were before, but also better and stronger and at the same time heart-wrenchingly worse. We are supposed to keep our unhappiness to ourselves but donate our courage to everyone.”
“The moral failure of breast cancer is not in the people who die: it is in the world that makes them sick, bankrupts them for a cure that also makes them sick, then blames them for their own deaths.”
“If suffering is like a poem, I want mine to be lurid, righteous, and goth.”
My thanks to FSG for the proof copy for review.
Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?: Big Questions from Tiny Mortals about Death by Caitlin Doughty
(Coming from W.W. Norton [USA] on the 10th and W&N [UK] on the 19th)
This is the third book by the millennial mortician, and I’ve taken perverse glee in reading them all. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes explains cremation and combats misconceptions about death; From Here to Eternity surveys death rituals from around the world. This new book seems to be aimed at (morbid) children, but for me it was more like one of those New Scientist books (Why Don’t Penguins’ Feet Freeze?) or Why Do Men Have Nipples?
Some of the questions are more serious than others, but with her usual punning wit and pop culture references Doughty gives biologically sound answers to them all. For instance, she explains what might happen to a corpse in space, why the hair and fingernails of a cadaver appear to keep growing, and why the quantity of ashes from a cremation is about the same no matter the dead person’s girth (all the fat burns away; what would make your ashes weigh more is being taller and thus having longer bones). I was most interested in the chapter on why conjoined twins generally die at roughly the same time.
Doughty also discusses laws relating to the dead, such as “abuse of corpse” regulations and whether or not deaths at a property have to be reported to potential buyers (it depends on what state or country you live in); and what happens in countries that are literally running out of space for burials. In highly population-dense places like Singapore, but also in countries such as Germany, one is considered to ‘rent’ grave space, which is then recycled after 15 years and the previous set of remains cremated. Or graves might get stacked vertically.
This is good fun, and features lots of cartoonishly gruesome black-and-white illustrations by Dianné Ruz. If you’ve got a particularly curious niece or nephew who might appreciate a dark sense of humor, this would make a good Christmas gift for one who is an older child or young teen.
My thanks to W&N for the free copy for review.
Bloomland by John Englehardt
(Coming from Dzanc Books [USA only] on the 10th)
“you wonder if the scariest thing about all this is not that life can’t return to normal, but that it already has”
Especially after Gilroy and El Paso, I wasn’t sure I’d have the heart to pick up Bloomland, a novel about a mass shooting at (fictional) Ozarka University, Arkansas. But I’m very glad I did. Crucially, Englehardt’s debut doesn’t a) make easy assignments of guilt, b) resort to lurid scenes for shock value, or c) employ the cut-and-dried language of cause and effect. It’s a subtle and finely crafted piece of literary fiction. The second-person narration is an effective means of drawing the reader into the action, and inviting ‘you’ to extend sympathy to three very different characters: Rose, an Ozarka student who becomes romantically involved with one of the injured; Eddie, a professor whose wife dies in the massacre; and Eli, the shooter.
Both Rose and Eli lost their mothers when they were 11 years old. Six years before starting a poultry science course at Ozarka, Rose was caught up in a tornado that killed her grandmother and fractured her skull. The fact that her upbringing was even more traumatic than Eli’s is, I think, meant to discredit the lazy argument that dysfunctional families produce killers. In his early days at university we see Eli befriending a drug dealer named Gordon, whose hunting rifle he soups up to use in the shooting at the campus library in finals week. Englehardt also tests out another couple of predictors of violence: cruelty towards animals (au contraire, Eli can’t stand more than one day of debeaking chickens at a poultry factory and even takes one home as a pet) and violent, video-game-fueled fantasies (the story he writes for creative writing class is average for a teenage male so doesn’t raise any alarm bells).
Gradually we learn that there is an “I” behind this triple-stranded narrative: Dr. Steven Bressinger, an Ozarka creative writing professor. Although Rose, Eddie and Eli are all fully realized characters, we are also left to wonder how this Bressinger is able to access their memories and emotions. To what extent can he really put himself into their situations? And how much of the rest is made up? But then, that’s what the novelist does anyway: imagine what it’s like to be inside a character’s experience, especially when they’ve made unimaginable decisions.
So this novel within a novel thoroughly convinced me, especially as it moves into the future to examine how the campus and the wider community address issues of guilt and vengeance. Its timeliness is obvious, and Englehardt writes a gorgeous sentence, even when it’s about the homogeneity of the American suburb: e.g., “You start driving down MLK, past the mass grave of dollar stores, under the even clouds converging like one stoic slab of ice.”
My thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review.
Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie
(Coming from Sort Of Books [UK] on the 19th and Penguin Books [USA] on the 24th)
I’m a big fan of Kathleen Jamie’s work, prose and poetry. Like her two previous essay collections, Sightlines and Findings, both of which I read in 2012, this fuses autobiography with nature and travel writing – two genres that are too often dominated by males. Jamie has a particular interest in birds, islands, archaeology and the oddities of the human body, all subjects that intrigue me, too.
The bulk of Surfacing is given over to three long pieces set in Alaska, Orkney and Tibet. She was drawn to Quinhagak, Alaska, a village that’s about the farthest you can go before crossing the Bering Sea into Russia, by her fascination with the whaling artifacts found along the UK’s east coast. Here she helped out on a summer archaeological dig and learned about the language and culture of the Yup’ik people. Alarmingly, the ground here should have been frozen most of the way to the surface, forcing the crew to wear thermals; instead, the ice was a half-meter down, and Jamie found that she never needed her cold-weather gear.
On Westray, Orkney (hey, I’ve been there!), there was also evidence of environmental degradation in the form of rapid erosion. This Neolithic site, comparable to the better-known Skara Brae, leads Jamie to think about deep time and whether we’re actually much better off than people in the Bronze Age were. Prehistory fits the zeitgeist, as seen in two entries from the recent Wainwright Prize shortlist: Time Song by Julia Blackburn and Underland by Robert Macfarlane. It’s a necessary corrective to the kind of short-term thinking that has gotten us into environmental crisis.
A cancer biopsy coincides with a dream memory of being bitten by a Tibetan dog, prompting Jamie to get out her notebook from a trip to China/Tibet some 30 years ago. Xiahe was technically in China but ethnically and culturally Tibetan, and so the best they could manage at that time since Tibet was closed to foreigners. There’s an amazing amount of detail in this essay given how much time has passed, but her photos as well as her notebook must have helped with the reconstruction.
The depth and engagement of the long essays are admirable, yet I often connected more with the few-page pieces on experiencing a cave, spotting an eagle or getting lost in a forest. Jamie has made the interesting choice of delivering a lot of the memoir fragments in the second person. My favorite piece of all is “Elders,” which in just five pages charts her father’s decline and death and marks her own passage into unknown territory: grown children and no parents; what might her life look like now?
There is beautiful nature writing to be found in this volume, as you might expect, but also relatable words on the human condition:
What are you doing here anyway, in the woods? … You wanted to think about all the horror. The everyday news … No, not to think about it exactly but consider what to do with the weight of it all, the knowing … You are not lost, just melodramatic. The path is at your feet, see? Now carry on.
My thanks to Sort Of Books for the free copy for review.
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
(Coming from Bloomsbury [UK] and Harper [USA] on the 24th)
Maeve and Danny Conroy are an inseparable brother-and-sister pair. Their mother left when Danny was little, so his older sister played a maternal role, too. And when their father dies, they become like Hansel and Gretel (or Cinderella and her little brother): cast out into the wilds by an evil stepmother who takes possession of the only home they’ve ever known, a suburban Philadelphia mansion built on the proceeds of the VanHoebeeks’ cigarette empire.
It’s interesting to see Patchett take on a male perspective in this novel; she does it utterly convincingly. I also loved the medical threads running through: Maeve is diagnosed with diabetes as a teenager, and Danny spends many years in medical training even though his only ambition is to follow in his father’s footsteps as a property developer. There was a stretch in the middle of the book – something like 46% to 58% – when I was really bored with Danny’s dithering (‘but I don’t want to be a doctor … but I don’t want to marry Celeste’), and the chronology is unnecessarily complicated by flashbacks, though this is, I think, meant to convey Danny’s desultory composition of his memoirs.
In the end I didn’t like this quite as much as Commonwealth, but it’s a memorable exploration of family secrets and memories. As the decades pass you see how what happened to Maeve and Danny has been turned into myth: a story they repeat to themselves about how they were usurped, until this narrative has more power than the reality. Readers, meanwhile, are invited to question the people and places we base our security on, and to imagine what it would mean to forgive and forget and start living in a different way.
Patchett is always so good on the psychology of complicated families, and her sharp prose never fails to hit the nail on the head. The Goldfinch comes to mind as a readalike – not least because of the significance of a piece of art: the cover depicts a painting made of Maeve when she was 10 – as well as Nick Hornby’s How to Be Good.
I read an electronic proof copy via Edelweiss.
Have you read any September releases that you would recommend? Which of these tempt you?
Four February–March releases: A shape-shifting bereavement memoir; a poet’s selected works, infused with nature and history; a novel set among expatriates in Shanghai; and a graphic novel about a romance at the watershed of age 60 – you can’t say I don’t read a variety of books! I’m particularly pleased that two of these four are in translation. All:
When Death Takes Something from You Give It Back: Carl’s Book by Naja Marie Aidt
[Translated from the Danish by Denise Newman]
In March 2015 Aidt got a call telling her that her second of four sons, Carl Emil, was dead. The 25-year-old experienced drug-induced psychosis after taking some mushrooms that he and his friend had grown in their flat and, naked, jumped out of his fifth-floor Copenhagen window. In italicized sections she cycles back to the moment she was notified, each time adding on a few more harrowing details about Carl’s accident and the condition she found him in. The rest of the text is a collage of fragments: memories, dreams, dictionary definitions, journal entries, and quotations from the patron saints of bereavement (C.S. Lewis and Joan Didion) and poets who lost children, such as Stéphane Mallarmé.
The playful disregard for chronology and the variety of fonts, typefaces and sizes are a way of circumventing the feeling that grief has made words lose their meaning forever. David Grossman, whose son died during his service in the Israeli army, does a similar thing in Falling Out of Time, which, although it is fiction, blends poetry and dialogue in an attempt to voice the unspeakable. Han Kang’s The White Book and Yiyun Li’s Where Reasons End are two other comparable precursors.
A representative passage:
“no language possible language died with my child could not be artistic could not be art did not want to be fucking art I vomit over art over syntax write like a child main clauses searching everything I write is a declaration I hate writing don’t want to write any more”
With thanks to Quercus Books for the free copy for review.
Gallop: Selected Poems by Alison Brackenbury
I first encountered Alison Brackenbury’s poetry through her reading as part of the 2017 “Nature Matters” conference in Cambridge. From four generations of Lincolnshire shepherds, Brackenbury writes about history, nature, country life (especially horses, as you might guess from the title and cover) and everyday joys and regrets. A Collected/Selected Poems volume is often difficult to assess as a whole because there can be such a variety of style and content; while that is certainly true here in terms of the poems’ length and rhyme schemes, the tone and themes are broadly similar throughout. I connected most to her middle period. Her first and last lines are especially honed.
Highlights include “The Wood at Semmering” (“This is a dismal wood. We missed our train.”), “Half-day” (“Will she lift / Her face from cloth’s slow steam: will she find out / Ironing is duty; summer is a gift?”), “Hill Mist” (“I am too fond of mist, which is blind / without tenderness”), “On the Road” (the bravery of a roadkill squirrel), “Epigrams” (being in the sandwich generation), “The Card” (“Divorce comes close to death”), “Cycles” (“Would I go back?”), “The Jane Austen Reader” (“Welcome to the truth. Miss Bingley married Darcy”), “On the Aerial” (a starling’s many songs), and “Dickens: a daydream.”
Some favorite lines:
“we are love’s strange seabirds. We dive there, still.” (from “The Divers’ Death”)
“Ancestors are not in our blood, but our heads: / we make history.” (from “Robert Brackenbury”)
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free copy for review.
Besotted by Melissa Duclos
Sasha is soon to leave Shanghai, her departure hastened by the collapse of her relationship with Liz, whom she hired to work at her international school because she had no teaching experience or Chinese – and maybe because she signed her cover letter “Besottedly,” thinking it meant drunkenly. Even before Liz arrived, Sasha built romantic fantasies around her, thinking she’d show her the ropes and give her a spare room to live in. All went according to plan – the erstwhile straight Liz even ended up in Sasha’s bed – until it all fell apart.
The novel is set over one school year and shows the main characters exploring the expat community, which primarily involves going to happy hours. Liz starts language exchange sessions at Starbucks with a Chinese guy, Sam, and both women try to ignore the unwanted advances of their acquaintance Dorian, an architect. Little misunderstandings and betrayals go a long way towards rearranging these relationships, while delicate flashbacks fill in the women’s lives before China.
There were a couple of narrative decisions here that didn’t entirely work for me: Sasha narrates the whole book, even scenes she isn’t present for; and there is persistent personification of abstractions like Loneliness and Love. But the descriptions of the city and of expat life are terrific, and the wistful picture of a romance that starts off sweet but soon sours is convincing.
A favorite passage:
“Shanghai had found its own identity since then: a glittering capitalist heart, hardened into a diamond and barely hidden beneath its drab, brown communist cloak. … Constantly under construction, Shanghai was a place to reinvent yourself.”
Full disclosure: Melissa and I worked together on Bookkaholic web magazine, and are Facebook friends. She sent me a free proof copy for review.
Blossoms in Autumn by Zidrou and Aimée de Jongh
[Translated from the French by Matt Madden]
The French-language title, translated literally, is The Programmed Obsolescence of Our Feelings. (Talk about highfalutin!) Both that and the English title defy the notion that we become less capable of true love and growth the older we are – as will be dramatized through the story of a later-life romance between the two main characters. Ulysses Varennes, a 59-year-old widower who retired early from his career as a mover, hates books (gasp!) because moving boxes of them ruined his back (he even refuses to read them!). Mediterranea Solenza, coming up on 62, was a nude model in her prime and is now a cheesemaker. At the book’s opening she has just laid her mother to rest, and her affair with Ulysses serves as a chance at a new life that somehow counterbalances the loss.
We come to understand these characters through the sadness of their past but also through their hopeful future, both encompassed by the metaphor of a Homeric journey (Ulysses, get it?). Indeed, the book takes an unusual turn I never would have expected; if it beggars belief, it is at least touching. Zidrou is a Belgian comics writer and Aimée de Jongh is a Dutch-born illustrator. She portrays these ageing bodies sensitively but realistically, retreating into an appropriately impressionistic style for the spreads that show their actual lovemaking. In a nice touch, the first two words and last two words of the book are exactly the same.
With thanks to SelfMadeHero for the free copy for review.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
The Swansea University International Dylan Thomas Prize recognizes the best published work in the English language written by an author aged 39 or under. All literary genres are eligible, so short stories and poetry sit alongside novels on this year’s longlist of 12 titles:
- Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, Friday Black
- Michael Donkor, Hold
- Clare Fisher, How the Light Gets In
- Zoe Gilbert, Folk
- Emma Glass, Peach
- Guy Gunaratne, In Our Mad and Furious City
- Louisa Hall, Trinity
- Sarah Perry, Melmoth
- Sally Rooney, Normal People
- Richard Scott, Soho
- Novuyo Rosa Tshuma, House of Stone
- Jenny Xie, Eye Level
For this stop on the official blog tour, I’m featuring the debut poetry collection Eye Level by Jenny Xie (winner of the Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets), which was published by Graywolf Press in 2018 and was a National Book Award finalist in the USA last year. Xie, who was born in Hefei, China and grew up in New Jersey, now teaches at New York University. Her poems focus on the sense of displacement that goes hand in hand with immigration or just everyday travel, and on familial and evolutionary inheritance.
The opening sequence of poems is set in Vietnam, Cambodia and Corfu, with heat and rain as common experiences that also enter into the imagery: “See, counting’s hard in half-sleep, and the rain pulls a sheet // over the sugar palms and their untroubled leaves” and “The riled heat reaches the river shoal before it reaches the dark.” The tragic and the trivial get mixed up in ordinary sightseeing:
The tourists curate vacation stories,
days summed up in a few lines.
Killing fields tour, Sambo the elephant
in clotted street traffic,
dusky-complexioned children hesitant in their approach.
Seeing and being seen are a primary concern, with the “eye” of the title deliberately echoing the “I” that narrates most of the poems. I actually wondered if there was a bit too much first person in the book, which always complicates the question of whether the narrator equals the poet. One tends to assume that the story of a father going to study in the USA and the wife following, giving up her work as a doctor for a dining hall job, is autobiographical. The same goes for the experiences in “Naturalization” and “Exile.”
The metaphors Xie uses for places are particularly striking, often likening a city/country to a garment or a person’s appearance: “Seeing the collars of this city open / I wish for higher meaning and its histrionics to cease,” “The new country is ill fitting, lined / with cheap polyester, soiled at the sleeves,” and “Here’s to this new country: / bald and without center.”
The poet contemplates what she has absorbed from her family line and upbringing, and remembers the sting of feeling left behind when a romance ends:
I thought I owned my worries, but here I was only pulled along by the needle
of genetics, by my mother’s tendency to pry at openings in her life.
Love’s laws are simple. The leaving take the lead.
The left-for takes a knife to the knots of narrative.
Those last two lines are a good example of the collection’s reliance on alliteration, which, along with repetition, is used much more often than end rhymes and internal or slant rhymes. Speaking of which, this was my favorite pair of lines:
Slant rhyme of current thinking
and past thinking.
Meanwhile, my single favorite poem was “Hardwired,” about the tendency to dwell on the negative:
Though I didn’t always connect with Xie’s style – it can be slightly detached and formal in a way that is almost at odds with the fairly personal subject matter, and there were some pronouncements that seemed to me not as profound as they intended to be (it may well be that her work would be best read aloud) – there were occasional lines and images that pulled me up short and made me think, Yes, she gets it. What it’s like to be from one place but live in another; what it’s like to be fond but also fearful of the ways in which you resemble your parents. I expect this to be a strong contender for the Dylan Thomas Prize shortlist, which will be announced on April 2nd. The winner is then announced on May 16th.
My thanks to Midas PR for the free copy for review.
An offer of the latest Latin American import from Charco Press prompted me to scour my shelves and see what other books I might add for #WITMonth. I dug out two novella-length books I’d bought secondhand over the past year to make it a trio. My rating for all:
The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante
[Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein]
Leda is a 47-year-old teacher on holiday in southern Italy. She mostly sits on the beach, minding her own business, but still gets drawn into the minor daily dramas of a large Neapolitan family. One woman is pregnant; another has a small child named Elena who is devastated at losing her doll. Their mother–daughter dynamic takes Leda back to the time when she abandoned her own daughters and didn’t see them for three years. She temporarily found it impossible to reconcile motherhood with her career and her general sense of herself. Leda sees herself as part of a “chain of mute or angry women” – “I seemed to be falling backward toward my mother, my grandmother.”
I was definitely on board for the memories of motherly guilt. Where Ferrante lost me was when Leda steals the doll the child left behind and takes it up to her room to care for it – washing it, buying it new clothes, etc. Every time she sets out to give the doll back or at least leave it somewhere it will be found, she finds another excuse to put it off. Leda herself is unsure why she’s fixated on the doll; “The hardest things to talk about are the ones we ourselves can’t understand,” she says early on.
Most likely the doll could be interpreted as a symbol of Leda’s desire to be part of a functional family, to get a second chance at perfection with her daughters. But the book was a little too strange for me, and I never really engaged with the Neapolitan characters. After this and a skim of My Brilliant Friend a couple years back, I doubt I’ll pick up anything else by Ferrante. The themes and style of this one reminded me of Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy, A Separation by Katie Kitamura, and Hot Milk by Deborah Levy.
“Life can have an ironic geometry. Starting from the age of thirteen or fourteen I had aspired to a bourgeois decorum, proper Italian, a good life, cultured and reflective. Naples had seemed a wave that would drown me. I didn’t think the city could contain life forms different from those I had known as a child, violent or sensually lazy, tinged with sentimental vulgarity or obtusely fortified in defense of their own wretched degradation. I didn’t even look for them, those forms, in the past or in a possible future. I had run away like a burn victim who, screaming, tears off the burned skin, believing that she is tearing off the burning itself.”
Fish Soup by Margarita García Robayo
[Translated from the Spanish by Charlotte Coombe]
Fish Soup contains two novellas (one of them, Sexual Education, was previously unpublished) separated by a set of seven short stories, and marks the first time the Colombian author Margarita García Robayo’s work has appeared in English. I especially liked the title story, in which a widower starts to smell his dead wife Helena’s fish soup in the bar that he owns and goes to investigate, all the while mixing up his dreams and memories with what’s really happening.
My other favorite piece was the opening novella, Waiting for a Hurricane, in which the narrator longs for escape from her seaside home, wanting nothing more than to be a “foreigner.” She starts a law degree but gives it up to become an air hostess, making flights to and from Miami and elsewhere. From her childhood onward, Gustavo has been a major presence in her life, teaching her to prepare fish and telling her stories, but there’s an uncomfortable element to their relationship that’s never really addressed. The mixture of quirky happenings and darker material reminded me of Swallowing Mercury, while the cancer theme of the story “Like a Pariah” recalls Hair Everywhere.
One of my frequent issues with short fiction is a preponderance of inconclusive endings that make you wonder what the point could be. I experienced that a few times with this collection, especially at the close of Waiting for a Hurricane. Judging by the title, though, the main message I drew from the novella is that you can’t just go around waiting for momentous things to happen to you, for your ‘real’ life to start; you have to recognize that this is life, here and now: in storytelling, in spicy stews, in everyday moments with friends and family.
With thanks to Charco Press for the free copy for review.
Sky Burial: An Epic Love Story of Tibet by Xinran
[Translated from the Chinese by Julia Lovell and Esther Tyldesley]
In 1994 Xinran, a Chinese journalist who later moved to London, met a woman whose story captured her imagination. Shu Wen received word that her husband, Kejun, had died just months into their marriage. A doctor in the People’s Liberation Army, he’d been sent into Tibet in the 1960s after its ‘liberation’. With no details or body to confirm his demise, though, Wen refused to believe Kejun was gone, and traveled to Tibet to find him. She stayed there for over 30 years – more than half her life – living with a Tibetan family and adjusting to their culture and rituals as she sought word of her husband. The gender roles surprised her: men did the sewing and women had multiple husbands. It was a land of lamas and temples; “the whole of Tibet was one great monastery,” she felt.
Wen does eventually learn the truth of what happened to her husband (whew!), and after decades of living as a superstitious Buddhist in primitive conditions has to readjust to life in a new China, having completely missed the Cultural Revolution. She clings to words of wisdom from a military official: “Whatever happens, remember one thing: just staying alive is a victory” and “Writing can be a source of strength.” He then gave her a diary that she filled with letters to Kejun over the years.
It’s a pleasant, short book made up of layers of tales: the legends and history lessons Wen hears from Tibetans; what she conveys to Xinran during their two intense days together; and the resulting narrative Xinran spent nearly a decade imagining herself into. Kejun’s fate is worth waiting around to hear about (but if you know what the title refers to you might consider it a spoiler), though this is something of a thin story overall. I’ve seen it referred to as a novel, though I consider it more of a stylized biography.
Did you do any special reading for Women in Translation month this year?
Song escapes the poverty and natural disasters of his hometown in China by sailing to Guiana. The village medicine man describes Guiana as a kind of paradise, and tells him he can earn free passage if he presents himself to the Englishmen in Guangzhou. What he doesn’t realize is that he will effectively be an indentured servant, working in the sugarcane fields for years just to pay for the voyage. From Singapore to India to Guiana, it’s a long and fraught journey, and though his new home does dazzle with its colors and wildlife, it’s not the idyll he expected. Still, Song is determined to make something of himself. “He would yet live a life that was a story worth telling.”
I have an extract from Chapter 1, about the flooding in China, to whet your appetite:
Lishui Village, China, 1878
At first they were glad the rains came early. They had already finished their planting and the seedlings were beginning to push through. The men and women of Lishui straightened their backs, buckled from years of labouring, led the buffalo away and waited for the fields to turn green. With such early rains there might be three rice harvests if the weather continued to be clement. But they quickly lost hope of that. The sun did not emerge to bronze the crop. Instead the clouds hung heavy. More rain beat down upon an already sodden earth and lakes were born where even the old people said they could not remember seeing standing water.
The Li rose higher and higher. Every morning the men of the village walked to the river to watch the water lap at its banks like flames. Sometimes they stood there for hours, their faces as grey as the flat slate light. Still the rain fell, yet no one cared about their clothes becoming wet or the nagging coughs the chill brought on. Occasionally a man lifted his arm to wipe his face. But mostly they stood still like figures in a painting, staring upstream, watching the water barrel down, bulging under its own mass.
Before the end of the week the Li had spilled over its banks. A few days later the water had covered the footpaths and cart tracks, spreading like a tide across the land and sweeping away all the fine shoots of newly planted rice. Further upstream the river broke up carts, bamboo bridges and outbuildings; it knocked over vats of clean water and seeped beneath the doors of homes. Carried on its swirling currents were splintered planks of wood, rotting food, and shreds of sacking and rattan.
Song awoke to feel the straw mat wet beneath him. He reached out his hand. The water was gently rising and ebbing as if it was breathing. His brother Xiao Bo was crying in his sleep. The little boy had rolled off his mat and was lying curled up in the water. He was hugging his knees as if to stop himself from floating away.
Song’s father was not home yet. He and the other men had been working through the night trying to raise walls of mud and rein back the river’s strength. But the earthen barriers washed away even as they built them; they could only watch, hunched over their shovels.
The men did not return that day. As the hours passed the women grew anxious. They stopped by each other’s homes, asking for news, but nobody had anything to say. Song’s mother Zhang Je was short with the children. The little ones whimpered, sensing something was wrong.
Song huddled low with his sisters and brothers around the smoking fire which sizzled and spat but gave off no heat. They had wedged among the firewood an iron bowl but the rice inside was not warming. That was all they had left to eat now. Xiao Wan curled up closer to Song. His little brother followed him everywhere nowadays. His sisters Xiao Mei and San San sat opposite him, adding wet wood to the fire and poking at the ash with a stick. His mother stood in the doorway, the silhouette of Xiao Bo strapped to her back and her large rounded stomach tight with child.
The children dipped their hands into the bowl, squeezing grains of rice together, careful not to take more than their share. Song was trying to feed Xiao Wan but he was too weak even to swallow. The little boy closed his eyes and rested his head in Song’s lap, wheezing with each breath. Their mother continued to look out towards the fields, waiting, with Xiao Bo’s head slumped unnaturally to the side as he slept.
‘I don’t think they’re coming back.’
Song could barely hear what his mother was saying.
‘They’re too late,’ she muttered.
Song wasn’t sure if she was talking to him. ‘Mama?’
Her voice was more brisk. ‘They’re not coming back, I said.’
Lisa Ko’s exceptional debut novel, The Leavers, was hand-picked by Barbara Kingsolver for the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, was a finalist for the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction in the States, and is now the launch title for Little, Brown UK’s new imprint, Dialogue Books, which will feature “stories from illuminating voices often excluded from the mainstream,” specifically those “for, about and by readers from the LGBTQI+, disability, working class and BAME communities.” I highly recommend it to fans of Nathan Hill’s The Nix, Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life and Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere. It’s an ambitious and satisfying novel set in New York and China, with major themes of illegal immigration, searching for a mother and a sense of belonging, and deciding what to take with you from your past.
Eleven-year-old Deming Guo and his mother Peilan (nicknamed “Polly”), an undocumented immigrant, live in New York City with another Fuzhounese family: Leon, Polly’s boyfriend, works in a slaughterhouse, and they share an apartment with his sister Vivian and her son Michael. Deming gets back from school one day to find that his mother never came home from her job at a nail salon. She’d been talking about moving to Florida to work in a restaurant, but how could she just leave him behind with no warning?
Ten years later, Deming is Daniel Wilkinson, adopted and raised in upstate New York by a pair of white professors, Peter and Kay. He’s made a mess of his life with drinking and an addiction to online poker, and has been expelled from college. Now the guitar is his life, but even his best friend and bandmate Roland Fuentes isn’t willing to cut him any slack when he doesn’t show up for rehearsals and performances. Peter and Kay are pulling strings to get Daniel accepted into their college, but he keeps screwing up every chance he’s given. He can only hope his efforts to reconnect with his birth mother will be more successful.
The novel shifts fluidly between a third-person account of our protagonist then (Deming) and now (Daniel) and a first-person confession as Polly explains all: her upbringing in poverty in China, her pregnancy out of wedlock, her illegal entry to the United States, and why she had to leave Deming so suddenly. Polly and Deming/Daniel are vibrant characters, and I ached for their struggles. Both have the sense of being split between lives, of “juggling selves.” Their collective story is about figuring out who you are, what can be made right, and what to leave behind as you move forward in life. It’s such a beautiful novel, and an impressive debut from Lisa Ko.
The Leavers will be published in paperback by Dialogue Books on April 26th. My thanks to Little, Brown for the free copy for review.