Tag: W.B. Yeats

How to Be Human and Strange Heart Beating

I’m mostly grouping these two debut novels by women authors together for my scheduling convenience, but they do have things in common. For starters, both center on an encounter with another species that determines much of what follows. For another thing, they pivot on the end of one relationship and the potential beginning of another. And in the end they’re about how we retain our humanity in the face of loss – despite the strong temptation to give into madness. Although they are both notable and surprising books, I felt that one was significantly more successful than the other; read on to discover which I favor.

How to Be Human by Paula Cocozza

Thirty-four-year-old Mary Green is adrift after her long-term fiancé, Mark, moves out of their East London home. She works in university HR but hates her job and can never manage to show up to it on time. Though she and Mark broke up in part because she didn’t feel ready to commit to having children, she’s inordinately fond of the next-door neighbors’ baby, Flora. Most of all, she’s trying to reorient herself to the presence of a fox who slips in from the surrounding edgeland to visit her back garden each evening. He leaves presents: boxers, a glove, an egg, and – one disorienting evening – Flora herself, a live bundle on the back steps.

Whereas the neighbors are horrified at the thought of a fox infestation and ready to go on the attack if necessary, Mary is enraptured by this taste of wildness. Before long the novel is using almost erotic vocabulary to describe her encounters with ‘her’ fox; Mary even allows the neighbors and her ex to get the idea that she’s ‘seeing someone’ new. Yet even as Mary’s grasp on reality grows feebler, it’s easy to empathize with her delight at the unexpectedness of interspecies connection: “At the end of her garden she had found a friend. … His wildness was a gift. … He was an escape artist, she thought admiringly. Maybe he could free her too.”

I love this novel for what it has to say about trespass, ownership and belonging. Whose space is this, really, and where do our loyalties lie? Cocozza sets up such intriguing contradictions between the domestic and the savage, the humdrum and the unpredictable. The encounter with the Other is clarifying, even salvific, and allows Mary to finally make her way back to herself. There’s something gently magical about the way the perspective occasionally shifts to give the fox’s backstory and impressions as a neologism-rich stream (“Come fresh to stalk around the human Female with sly feet and rippety eyes. Spruckling toadsome”). Memorable lines abound, and a chapter set at the neighbors’ barbecue is brilliant, as are the final three chapters, in which Mary – like James Darke – holes up in her house in anticipation of a siege.

Detail from the cover.

As much as this is about a summer of enchantment and literal brushes with urban wildlife, it’s also about women’s lives: loneliness, choices we make and patterns we get stuck in, and those unlooked-for experiences that might just liberate us. The character Mary is my near contemporary, so I could relate to her sense of being stuck personally and professionally, and also of feeling damned if you do, damned if you don’t regarding having children. “Some part of her was made for a bigger, wilder, freer life.” One of my favorite books of 2017 so far.


Paula Cocozza is a feature writer for the Guardian. How to Be Human was published in the UK by Hutchinson on April 6th. My thanks to Najma Finlay for the free copy for review.

My rating:


If you’re in the London area, you may be interested in this animal-themed Faber Social event, also featuring Lucy Jones, author of Foxes Unearthed. I’ll be in America at the time or else I surely would have gone!

I also enjoyed these two articles by Paula Cocozza: one on the depiction of foxes in popular culture, and the other about a life-changing encounter she had with a wild fox.

 

Strange Heart Beating by Eli Goldstone

No doubt about it: the cover and title – from W. B. Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan” – can’t be beat. One day in late March this book showed up on my Twitter, Goodreads and Instagram feeds, and the cover lured me into requesting a copy right away. The elevator pitch is a winner, too: Seb’s artist wife, Leda, was killed by a swan. To be precise, she was boating in a London park and got too close to some cygnets; the parent bird upturned the boat and Leda drowned. The novel is narrated by Seb, an art history professor realizing just how little he knew about the woman he loved. When he takes a break from work to travel to Leda’s native Latvia in search of answers, he even learns that she was known by another name, Leila.

It’s as if Seb is running both towards and away from his sorrow:

What can I do to find some way back to Leda? I seek for meaning in every miserable glint and shadow … I felt I was starting to lose myself as well. Grief is the aggressive displacement of the self from a known universe to another … I want to bury myself neck-deep in the quicksand of grief.

When he gets to Latvia he stays at a guesthouse and communicates with the landlady in Russian. For a week running he meets Leda’s cousin Olaf at his clubhouse each night to drink and play cards, and later bags a boar with Olaf and his hunting buddies. While viewing a fresco in a picturesque church he meets Ursula, who is looking to build an eco-friendly resort to boost the country’s tourism industry. She soon emerges as a potential love interest for Seb.

As best I could make out, this is set roughly a decade ago. Interspersed between Seb’s rather aimless travels are passages from Leda’s diary between 1988 and 2005. These reveal her to have been a lonely, bullied youth who took refuge in art and music. If you’re familiar with the myth of Leda and the Swan, you’ll be expecting the trauma in her past. It’s a shame this has to be spelt out in Leda’s final diary entry; it was sufficiently foreshadowed, I think.

Ultimately I felt this book had a promising setup but didn’t particularly go anywhere. It struck me as an excellent short story idea that got expanded and lost a good bit of its power along the way. This is a shame, as I was initially reminded of several excellent debut novels with Eastern European elements, especially in the excellent opening sequence about how Leda’s various female ancestors perished (Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated, Rebecca Dinerstein’s The Sunlit Night, and Jaroslav Kalfař’s Spaceman of Bohemia). There could have been a quirky family saga in there had Goldstone chosen to go in that direction.

By the end we’ve learned next to nothing about Seb despite his first-person narration, and little of interest about Leda either. I can see how this is meant to reinforce a central message about the unknowability of other people, even those we think we know best, but it creates distance between reader and narrator. You could easily read this 194-page paperback in an afternoon. If you do and find yourself, like me, a mite dissatisfied, never fear – Goldstone is so young and writes so well; I’m confident she will only improve in the years to come.


Eli Goldstone has a City University Creative Writing MA. Strange Heart Beating is published in the UK by Granta today, May 4th. My thanks to Natalie Shaw for the free copy for review.

My rating:

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Review: Darke by Rick Gekoski

Dr. James Darke, the narrator of rare-book dealer Rick Gekoski’s debut novel, is of the same lineage as titular antiheroes like Hendrik Groen and Fredrik Backman’s Ove, or J. Mendelssohn, protagonist of the title novella in Colum McCann’s Thirteen Ways of Looking: an aging widower and curmudgeon with an unforgettable voice.

As Darke begins, this retired English teacher is literally sealing himself off from the world. He hires a handyman to take out the door’s built-in letterbox, change the locks and install a high-tech peephole; he has all his mail redirected to an old colleague, George; he changes his e-mail address; and he compiles a thorough list of service providers who will come to him – everything from grocery deliveries to a doctor. Now, with any luck, he won’t need to set foot outside his London home while he writes this “coming-of-old-age book.”

img_1152For eight months Darke stays in self-imposed exile, his solitude broken only by visits from Bronya, a Bulgarian cleaner who engages him in discussions of his beloved Dickens. Although he’s only sixty-something, Darke sounds like a much older man, complaining of constipation and vision problems and launching a vendetta against the annoying neighbor dog. Ignoring the pile of adamant letters George guiltily delivers on behalf of Darke’s daughter, Lucy, he keeps up his very particular habits and rituals (I loved the steps of making coffee with an espresso-maker) and gives himself over to memories of life with Suzy.

The novel is tripartite: In Part I we meet Darke and get accustomed to his angry, hypercritical voice. In Part II we descend into a no-holds-barred account of his wife Suzy’s death from lung cancer. She’s another wonderful character: pessimistic, ungraceful and utterly foul-mouthed. Here Darke unleashes the full extent of his bitterness. He mocks the approach, advocated by Joan Didion (“that poor Joan D’Idiot,” he calls her!), of turning to sages of the past for comfort, instead insisting that literature – including W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot and all the rest – was of no use to him in the face of his wife’s impending death:

We don’t have God, so we have literature, with its associated proverbs and allegories, its received wisdom. We quote and genuflect and defer and pay homage, as if in a holy sanctuary. But just as God failed us, so too will reading. We will turn against it as certainly, and rightly, as we did against Him. Nobody, and nothing, can explain life for us.

Luckily, Part III is something of a reprieve, as Darke starts to come out of his temporary retreat and resume life. He has a rental car delivered and sets out for Oxford, where he revisits his and Suzy’s old university haunts and hesitantly reopens a connection with Lucy and her young son, Rudy.

Sebastian Barry astutely notes the novel’s debt to Dante, but the component parts of the Divine Comedy are reordered, with the purgatory of the house-bound months broken by the hellish narrative of Suzy’s dying, which is then lifted by Darke’s return to life.

Each section has a different tone and is enjoyable in its own way, but for me there was no getting around the fact that Part I is the most entertaining. I was surprised to read in the Acknowledgments that Gekoski toned down this first dose of Darke considerably, on the advice of his wife and his literary agent; I think he could have hammed him up a fair bit more. Also, Lucy didn’t ring true for me as a character, which detracted from what’s meant to be an alternately volatile and poignant relationship; I preferred Darke’s scenes with Bronya.

In any case, the novel makes great metaphorical use of light and darkness. Not so subtle, maybe, but it works:

witnessing a protracted and horrible death infects the soul, the images implant themselves, root and flourish, you can never look at yourself or others in the innocent light – you are tarnished, uncleanably darkened.

And of course, look to literature and you find nothing but “shitslingers – Kahlil Gibran, Mr Tolstoy, the dreaded Eliot – all of them. Just wandering in the dark with flashlights.”

With lots of memorable scenes and turns of phrase, Darke is a rewarding glance at loss, literature and the sometimes futile search for salvation. It’s inspiring to see Gekoski, an American-born academic and literary critic (he’s been dubbed the Bill Bryson of the book world), turn his hand to fiction at age 71. I knew of him through his nonfiction, including Outside of a Dog: A Bibliomemoir, which I read in 2010, and have also enjoyed a couple of his articles that nicely presage this novel, on the subjects of reading through grief and turning against print books. I hope you’ll give his work a try.


Darke was published in the UK on February 2nd. With thanks to Becca Nice and Jamie Norman of Canongate for the free copy for review.

My rating: 4-star-rating

Literary Tourism in Dublin

Almost immediately after our trip to Manchester (see my write-up of the literary destinations), we left again for Dublin, where my husband was attending a Royal Entomological Society conference. Like we did last year when he presented a poster at a conference in Florence, I went along since we only had to pay for my flight and meals.

We stayed north of the Liffey at one of the branches of Jurys Inn. For some reason they put us in a disabled room, which meant the bathroom was a bit odd, but I can’t complain about the breakfast buffet, which included black pudding, soda bread, fruit scones, and particularly delicious porridge.

Across the street was the terrific Chapters bookstore, with extensive secondhand and new stock. I highly recommend the Lonely Planet guide to Dublin, which provided my maps and many of my ideas for the week; I even managed to do 8 of their 10 recommended activities.

On Wednesday I wandered just a few minutes down the road to the Dublin Writers’ Museum. An audio guide takes you through the chronological displays about minor figures as well as the big names like W.B. Yeats, Oscar Wilde, and George Bernard Shaw. One caveat: only dead writers are considered; the museum is definitely missing a trick there – they could easily fill another room with living authors.

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George Bernard Shaw
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A case on Oscar Wilde. (That’s his wife in the portrait.)
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A striking bust of Beckett.
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Poor Yeats is looking a bit cross-eyed.
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I somehow hadn’t realized that Frank McCourt died six years ago.
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Painting of Elizabeth Bowen (I really need to read something by her…).

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On the whole I found the place looking a bit shabby nowadays, but I passed a pleasant hour and a half here before popping a few doors down to the Dublin City Gallery, where they have multiple paintings by Jack B. Yeats (William Butler’s brother) as well as gems like a Monet and a Monet.

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The museum could do with a little TLC.

On Thursday I used the DK guide for a recommended walk through literary and Georgian Dublin. Along the way I discovered plaques to Yeats, Wilde (his home is now the headquarters of the American College and not open to the public, alas), ghost story writer Joseph Sheridan LeFanu, Bram Stoker, and Elizabeth Bowen, and a statue of poet Patrick Kavanagh by the canal. Fitzwilliam and Merrion Squares reminded me of London’s Bloomsbury Square (the latter houses a deliciously camp statue of Wilde), and St. Stephen’s Green would be a Hyde Park-type lovely spot for a sunny stroll – though it was drizzling and chilly as I walked through.

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One of Yeats’s Dublin residences, 82 Merrion Square.

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At the National Museum (Archaeology), I learned about Brian Boru, the national hero who kicked out the Vikings at the Battle of Clontarf and united the country.

My husband’s conference was at Trinity College, so he had a special chance to look in at the Old Library and the Book of Kells for a discounted price, but I didn’t end up going. On Thursday night we did something quintessentially Irish: found a pub with live traditional Irish folk music. Although we paid through the teeth for a pint of Guinness and a bottle of cider, it was an experience we wouldn’t have missed.

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On Friday, after finishing up some reviewing work in the morning and checking out of the hotel, I returned to the Lonely Planet for a guided walk through Viking and medieval Dublin. The route took in the two cathedrals plus various other churches, ending up at the Castle and the Chester Beatty Library. I skipped the former but enjoyed a brief look at the rare books and manuscripts of the latter (mostly relating to the Far East, with a special focus on Asian religions) before walking back to the National Gallery to see the permanent collection.

That afternoon we moved on to Howth, a Dublin suburb only about 20 minutes away on the DART commuter train, but that somehow feels a world away: it’s a pleasant seaside village with heather- and gorse-covered hills and a lighthouse. It felt good to get out of the city – which was extremely busy and seemed to be mostly full of fellow tourists and the homeless – even if just for a little while.

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This was our first AirBnB experience and turned out well after some unfortunate communication difficulties. Before settling in to our B&B we found a cheap and filling meal of fish and chips. The next day we explored the cliffs and met some friendly hooded crows before heading back into Dublin for a look at the wonderfully musty Natural History Museum and an excellent dinner at The Woollen Mills (interesting American fusion food: I had pork belly mac & cheese, and our dessert platter included an Oreo peanut butter tart).

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My overall feeling was that Dublin still isn’t making as much of its literary heritage as it might do. I was perhaps not as impressed as I’d hoped to be – it’s a lot like London, and not as quaint as I might have expected. Still, I’m glad I went. Next time, though, I suspect we’ll go to less inhabited and more picturesque areas in the south and west.

I hadn’t the courage to face Joyce’s Ulysses or some other monolith of Irish literature, but I did continue Anne Enright’s The Green Road while in Dublin. I was also working on My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff, Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham (my current doorstopper), and The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood.


Any comments about Ireland and its literary sites and/or heroes are most welcome!