For my meager contribution to Annabel’s five-week Nordic FINDS challenge, I got out my copy of Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder that came from the free mall bookshop in 2020.
Sophie’s World: A Novel about the History of Philosophy (1994)
[Translated from the Norwegian by Paulette Møller]
Sophie Amundsen, 14 going on 15, starts receiving mysterious letters asking her life’s big questions: Who are you? Where does the world come from? Soon her anonymous correspondent starts sending whole sheaves of paper elaborating on episodes from the unfolding history of philosophy, from creation myths through the Greek philosophers to Marxism and Darwinism via the Renaissance and Enlightenment. She’s so engrossed in her impromptu philosophy course that she starts to neglect her schoolwork and worry her mother. Sophie identifies the letter-writer as one Alberto Knox, who perhaps lives in a lake cabin nearby, and starts to interact with him by writing back. (I loved that their letters are delivered by a golden Labrador named Hermes.) Meanwhile, she’s perplexed by all the postcards she receives addressed to “Hilde,” also 15. Is she reading Hilde’s story, or is Hilde reading hers?
I’ll be honest … I made it just 96 pages (out of 394) before I started skimming, flipping past big chunks to get to the story. As to what I did experience, my feelings are mixed:
- On the one hand, this is certainly a more fun way to encounter philosophy than the textbook I had in college, while still offering accurate and thorough information.
- On the other hand, is the novel’s young adult audience really going to stick around for all the talky/preachy bits surrounding the slightly magical, mind-bending plot?
I think this became a word-of-mouth bestseller a couple of decades ago because of its novelty value. It’s a book that asks and assumes a lot of its readers: that we be curious and diligent, that we engage in the universal search of meaning. As Alberto writes in his first proper letter, “We feel we are part of something mysterious and we would like to know how it all works.” I feel I missed my moment to read it, though I can admire its aim.
(See Annabel’s review here.)
My current Scandinavian read is Land of Snow and Ashes by Petra Rautiainen, a Finnish author, about the treatment of Sámi people during World War II (coming out from Pushkin Press tomorrow).
Browsing through old magazines, I found a fun BookPage reading list from October 2019 entitled “Pumpkin spice latte literature.” It asks, “what if autumn were distilled into a book? The mixture of crispness and warmth, the thrill of possibility, the bittersweetness of change—these books are pure pumpkin spice.” I love the lateral thinking that came up with
- The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach (back to school in the Midwest)
- I Remember Nothing by Nora Ephron (wry reflections from the autumn of a life)
- Possession by A.S. Byatt (bookish geeking out)
- Calling a Wolf a Wolf by Kaveh Akbar (taking comfort from a vision of recovery from alcoholism)
- An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson (wit and magic)
I’ve read the first three, and am keen to catch up on Akbar’s debut poetry collection after loving Pilgrim Bell this summer. I’m only unlikely to pick up Rogerson’s fantasy. In any case, I enjoyed seeing how the editors came up with their selections.
I tend to be rather more literal with my seasonal reading recommendations. Does it have autumn in the title or as a setting?! Is it about pumpkins or Halloween?
This year I happen to have amassed all children’s and YA selections.
October, October by Katya Balen (2020)
I’ll admit it: it was Angela Harding’s gorgeous cover illustration that drew me to this one. But I found a story that lived up to it, too. October, who has just turned 11 and is named after her birth month, lives in the woods with her father. Their shelter and their ways are fairly primitive, but it’s what October knows and loves. When her father has an accident and she’s forced into joining her mother’s London life, her only consolations are her rescued barn owl chick, Stig, and the mudlarking hobby she takes up with her new friend, Yusuf.
The child’s perspective is well rendered through artful run-on sentences. Balen is careful to show the consequences of October’s decisions and to present advantages as well as disadvantages so it’s not just countryside = good, city = bad. I thought the father’s recovery a bit too quick, but overall, this middle grade novel was a great read for any age, as well as one to get kids thinking about illness and loss. And how about these heart-tugging last lines? “There are stories everywhere and I want to tell them all. And all the world is wild and waiting for me.” (Public library)
Autumn Story by Jill Barklem (1980)
The second in the quartet of seasonal “Brambly Hedge” stories. Autumn is a time for stocking the pantry shelves with preserves, so the mice are out gathering berries, fruit and mushrooms. Young Primrose wanders off, inadvertently causing alarm – though all she does is meet a pair of elderly harvest mice and stay for tea and cake in their round nest amid the cornstalks. I love all the little touches in the illustrations: the patchwork tea cosy matches the quilt on the bed one floor up, and nearly every page is adorned with flowers and other foliage. After we get past the mild peril that seems to be de rigueur for any children’s book, all is returned to a comforting normal. Time to get the Winter volume out from the library. (Public library)
Une Chanson d’ours by Benjamin Chaud (2011)
The first whole book I’ve read in French in many a year. I just about coped, given that it’s a picture book with not all that many words on a page; any vocabulary I didn’t know offhand, I could understand in context. It’s late into the autumn and Papa Bear is ready to start hibernating for the year, but Little Bear spies a late-flying bee and follows it out of the woods and all the way to the big city. Papa Bear, realizing his lad isn’t beside him in the cave, sets out in pursuit and bee, cub and bear all end up at the opera hall, to the great surprise of the audience. What will Papa do with his moment in the spotlight? This is a lovely book that, despite the whimsy, still teaches about the seasons and parent–child bonds as it offers a vision of how humans and animals could coexist. I’ve since found out that this was made into a series of four books, all available in English translation. (Little Free Library)
Pumpkinheads by Rainbow Rowell; illus. Faith Erin Hicks (2019)
This YA graphic novel is set on a Nebraska pumpkin patch that’s more like Disney World than a simple field down the road. Josiah and Deja have worked together at the Succotash Hut for the last three autumns. Today they’re aware that it’s their final Halloween before leaving for college. Deja’s goal is to try every culinary delicacy the patch has to offer – a smorgasbord of foodstuffs that are likely to be utterly baffling to non-American readers: candy apples, Frito pie (even I hadn’t heard of this one), kettle corn, s’mores, and plenty of other saccharine confections.
Josiah’s goal, by contrast, is to catch the eye of Marcy, the beauty who works at the fudge stand. Deja convinces him to desert the Succotash Hut and go in pursuit of Marcy via as many food stands as possible. She’s willing to indulge his unrealistic fantasy even though, as a bisexual who’s dated just about everyone at the patch, she knows romance is sometimes not all it’s cracked up to be. Meanwhile, there’s an angry billy goat on the loose.
This is a fun and quick romp, and the ending genuinely surprised me. I liked the story better than the art, though – my main problem was that these teen characters look more like they’re 30 (Josiah, especially, looks almost haggard what with the sharp lines down the sides of his face – I guess they’re to give him a ‘chiselled’ jaw?), similar to that weird phenomenon of much older actors playing high schoolers. So, I laughed to see in an afterword conversation between Rowell and Hicks that one of the major things they changed from early mock-ups was making the protagonists look older. (Public library)
Pick a Pumpkin by Patricia Toht; illus. Jarvis (2019)
From picking the best pumpkin at the patch to going out trick-or-treating, this is a great introduction to Halloween traditions. It even gives step-by-step instructions for carving a jack-o’-lantern. The drawing style – generally 2D, and looking like it could be part cut paper collages, with some sponge painting – reminds me of Ezra Jack Keats and most of the characters are not white, which is refreshing. There are lots of little autumnal details to pick out in the two-page spreads, with a black cat and crows on most pages and a set of twins and a mouse on some others. The rhymes are either in couplets or ABCB patterns. Perfect October reading. (Public library)
Any super-autumnal reading for you this year?
Do you read children’s picture books and YA novels even if you (and any children) are well past that age – or is it just me?
The 2021 Booker Prize shortlist will be announced tomorrow, September 14th, at 4 p.m. via a livestream. I’ve managed to read or skim eight of 13 from the longlist, only one of which I sought out specifically after it was nominated (An Island – the one no one had heard of; it turns out it was released by a publisher based just 1.5 miles from my home!). I review my four most recent reads below, followed by excerpts of reviews of ones I read a while ago and my brief thoughts on the rest, including what I expect to see on tomorrow’s shortlist.
Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
Why ever did I put this on my Most Anticipated list of the year and pre-order a signed copy?! I’m a half-hearted Ishiguro fan at best (I love Nocturnes but am lukewarm on the other four I’ve read, including his Booker winner) and should have known that his take on AI would be no more inspiring than Ian McEwan’s (Machines Like Me) a couple of years back.
Klara is an Artificial Friend purchased as part of an effort to combat the epidemic of teenage loneliness – specifically, to cheer up her owner, Josie, who suffers from an unspecified illness and is in love with her neighbour, Rick, a bright boy who remains excluded. Klara thinks of the sun as a god, praying to it and eventually making a costly bargain to try to secure Josie’s future health.
Part One’s 45 pages are slow and tedious; the backstory could have been dispensed with in five fairy tale-like pages. There’s a YA air to the story: for much of the length I might have been rereading Everything, Everything. In fact, when I saw Ishiguro introduce the novel at a Guardian/Faber launch event, he revealed that it arose from a story he wrote for children. The further I got, the more I was sure I’d read it all before. That’s because the plot is pretty much identical to the final story in Mary South’s You Will Never Be Forgotten.
Klara’s highly precise diction, referring to everyone in the third person, also gives this the feeling of translated fiction. While that is part of Ishiguro’s aim, of course – to explore the necessarily limited perspective and speech of a nonhuman entity (“Her ability to absorb and blend everything she sees around her is quite amazing”) – it makes the prose dull and belaboured. The secondary characters include various campy villains, the ‘big reveals’ aren’t worth waiting for, and the ending is laughably reminiscent of Toy Story. This took me months and months to force myself through. What a slog! (New purchase)
An Island by Karen Jennings (2019)
Seventy-year-old Samuel has been an island lighthouse keeper for 14 years when a brown-skinned stranger washes up on his beach. Sole survivor from a sunken refugee boat, the man has no English, so they communicate through gestures. Jennings convincingly details the rigors of the isolated life here: Samuel dug his own toilet pipes, burns his trash once a week, and gets regular deliveries from a supply boat. Nothing is wasted and everything is appreciated here, even the thirdhand magazines and videotapes he inherits from the mainland.
Although the core action takes place in just four days, Samuel is so mentally shaky that his memories start getting mixed up with real life. We learn that he has been a father, a prisoner and a beggar. Jennings is South African, and in this parallel Africa, racial hierarchy still holds sway and a general became a dictator through a military coup. Samuel’s father was involved in the independence movement, while Samuel himself was arrested for resisting the dictator.
The novella’s themes – jealousy, mistrust, possessiveness, suspicion, and a return to primitive violence – are of perennial relevance. Somehow, it didn’t particularly resonate for me. It’s not dissimilar in style to J. M. Coetzee’s vague but brutal detachment, and it’s a highly male vision à la Doggerland. Though highly readable, it’s ultimately a somewhat thin fable with a predictable message about xenophobia. Still, I’m glad I discovered it through the Booker longlist.
My thanks to Holland House for the free copy for review.
Bewilderment by Richard Powers
This has just as much of an environmentalist conscience as The Overstory, but a more intimate scope, focusing on a father and son who journey together in memory and imagination as well as in real life. The novel leaps between spheres: between the public eye, where neurodivergent Robin is a scientific marvel and an environmental activist, and the privacy of family life; between an ailing Earth and the other planets Theo studies; and between the humdrum of daily existence and the magic of another state where Robin can reconnect with his late mother. When I came to the end, I felt despondent and overwhelmed. But as time has passed, the book’s feral beauty has stuck with me. The pure sense of wonder Robin embodies is worth imitating. (Review forthcoming for BookBrowse.)
China Room by Sunjeev Sahota
Sahota appeared on Granta’s list of Best Young British Novelists in 2013 and was previously shortlisted for The Year of the Runaways, a beautiful novel tracking the difficult paths of four Indian immigrants seeking a new life in Sheffield.
Three brides for three brothers: as Laura notes, it sounds like the setup of a folk tale, and there’s a timeless feel to this short novel set in the Punjab in the late 1920s and 1990s – it also reminded me of biblical stories like those of Jacob and Leah and David and Bathsheba. Mehar is one of three teenage girls married off to a set of brothers. The twist is that, because they wear heavy veils and only meet with their husbands at night for procreation, they don’t know which is which. Mehar is sure she’s worked out which brother is her husband, but her well-meaning curiosity has lasting consequences.
In the later storyline, a teenage addict returns from England to his ancestral estate to try to get clean before going to university and becomes captivated by the story of his great-grandmother and her sister wives, who were confined to the china room. The characters are real enough to touch, and the period and place details make the setting vivid. The two threads both explore limitations and desire, and the way the historical narrative keeps surging back in makes things surprisingly taut. See also Susan’s review. (Read via NetGalley)
Other reads, in brief:
(Links to my full reviews)
Second Place by Rachel Cusk: Significantly more readable than the Outline trilogy and with psychological depths worth pondering, though Freudian symbolism makes it old-fashioned. M’s voice is appealing, as is the marshy setting and its isolated dwellings. This feels like a place outside of time. The characters act and speak in ways that no real person ever would – the novel is most like a play: melodramatic and full of lofty pronouncements. Interesting, but nothing to take to heart; Cusk’s work is always intimidating in its cleverness.
A Town Called Solace by Mary Lawson: In 1972, Clara, a plucky seven-year-old, sits vigil for the return of her sixteen-year-old sister, who ran away from home; and their neighbour, who’s in the hospital. One day Clara sees a strange man moving boxes in next door. This is Liam Kane, who inherited the house from a family friend. Like Lawson’s other works, this is a slow burner featuring troubled families. It’s a tender and inviting story I’d recommend to readers of Tessa Hadley, Elizabeth Strout and Anne Tyler.
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.
Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford: While I loved the premise, the execution didn’t live up to it. Spufford calls this an act of “literary resurrection” of five figures who survive a South London bombing. But these particular characters don’t seem worth spending time with; their narratives don’t connect up tightly, as expected, and feel derivative, serving only as ways to introduce issues (e.g. mental illness, sexual assault, racial violence, eating disorders) and try out different time periods. I would have taken a whole novel about Ben.
This leaves five more: Great Circle (by Maggie Shipstead) I found bloated and slow when I tried it in early July, but I’m going to give it another go when my library hold comes in. The Sweetness of Water (Nathan Harris) I might try if my library acquired it, but I’m not too bothered – from Eric’s review on Lonesome Reader, it sounds like it’s a slavery narrative by the numbers. I’m not at all interested in the novels by Anuk Arudpragasam, Damon Galgut, or Nadifa Mohamed but can’t say precisely why; their descriptions just don’t excite me.
Here’s what I expect to still be in the running after tomorrow. Clear-eyed, profound, international; bridging historical and contemporary; much that’s unabashedly highbrow.
- Second Place by Rachel Cusk
- The Promise by Damon Galgut (will win)
- No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood
- Bewilderment by Richard Powers
- China Room by Sunjeev Sahota
- Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford
What have you read from the longlist? What do you expect to be shortlisted?
Are you having a groovy June yet? If not, I have just the remedy: a juicy coming-of-age novel that drops you directly into the Baltimore summer of 1975. Mary Jane Dillard, 14, lives in the upper-class white neighborhood of Roland Park. Her parents are prim types who attend church every week, belong to a country club, and pray for the (Republican) president’s health before each sit-down family dinner. When Mary Jane starts working as a daytime nanny for five-year-old Izzy, the Cones’ way of life is a revelation to her. They are messy bohemians who think nothing of walking around the house half-naked, shouting up and down the stairs at each other, or leaving a fridge full of groceries to rot and going out for fast food instead.
Dr. Cone is a psychiatrist whose top-secret assignment is helping a rock star to kick his drug addiction. Jimmy and his actress wife, Sheba, move into the Cones’ attic for the summer. If they go out in public, they wear wigs and pretend to be friends visiting from Rhode Island. While the Cones are busy monitoring or trying to imitate their celebrity guests, Mary Jane introduces discipline by cleaning the kitchen, alphabetizing the bookcase, and replicating her mother’s careful weekly menus with food she buys from Eddie’s market. In some ways she seems the most responsible member of the household, but in others she’s painfully naïve, entirely ignorant of sex and unaware that her name is a slang term for marijuana.
Open marriage, sex addiction and group therapy are new concepts that soon become routine for our confiding narrator, as she adopts a ‘What they don’t know can’t hurt them’ stance towards her trusting parents. Blau is the author of four previous YA novels, and while this is geared towards adults, it resonates for how it captures the uncertainty and swirling hormones of the teenage years. Who didn’t share Mary Jane’s desperate curiosity to learn about sex? Who can’t remember a moment of realization that parents aren’t right about everything?
Music runs all through the book, creating and cementing bonds between the characters. Mary Jane sings in the choir and shares her mother’s love of both church music and show tunes. Jimmy and Sheba are always making up little songs on which Mary Jane harmonizes, and a clandestine trip to a record store in an African American part of town forms one of the novel’s pivotal scenes. The relationship between Mary Jane and Izzy, who is precocious and always coming out with malapropisms, is touching, and Blau cleverly inserts references to the casual racism and antisemitism of the 1970s.
I love it when a novel has a limited setting and can evoke a sense of wistfulness for a golden time that will never come again. I highly recommend this for nostalgic summer reading, particularly if you’ve enjoyed work by Curtis Sittenfeld – especially Prep and Rodham.
My thanks to Harper360 UK and Anne Cater for arranging my proof copy for review.
I was delighted to be part of the blog tour for Mary Jane. See below for details of where other reviews and features have appeared or will be appearing soon.
Nonfiction about doctors’ memorable patients and a life of chronic pain and disability; novels set in 1970s Canada and contemporary (but magically outside-of-time) Paris.
That One Patient: Doctors’ and nurses’ stories of the patients who changed their lives forever by Ellen de Visser
[Translated from the Dutch by Brent Annable]
Ellen de Visser is a science writer for the most popular newspaper in the Netherlands, De Volkskrant. Her “That One Patient” column, which began in the summer of 2017, turns interviews with medical professionals into punchy first-person narratives. A collection of them was published in Dutch in 2019. This English translation tacks on 10 additional pieces based on conversations with English and American practitioners (including Dr. Anthony Fauci, immunologist and presidential medical advisor), four of them explicitly reflecting on COVID-19.
Many of the cases are decades old yet stuck with the doctor or nurse in question because of a vital lesson learned. Overtreatment is regretted just as much as an omission of care. Again and again, these medical professionals conclude that it’s impossible to judge someone else’s decisions or quality of life. For instance, a surgeon admits he had a hard time empathizing with his obese patients undergoing stomach reduction until he followed up with a young woman who told him about how invisible she’d felt before her surgery. Premature and disabled children bring grief or joy, not always in the expected doses. A doctor resents the work his team puts into repairing a woman who jumped from an eighth-floor window – why the heroic measures for someone who wanted to die? – until he learns she was pushed. A cancer surgeon develops breast cancer and now knows exactly what her patients go through.
Some of these stories are disturbing: being stalked by a patient with a personality disorder, a man poisoning his girlfriend, a farmer predicting the very day and time of his death. A gynaecologist changes his mind about abortion after he meets a 15-year-old who gave birth at home and left her baby outside in a plastic bag to die of exposure. Other pieces are heart-warming: A paramedic delivers a premature, breech baby right in the ambulance. Staff throw a wedding at the hospital for a dying teen (as in Dear Life by Rachel Clarke). A woman diagnosed with cancer while pregnant has chemotherapy and a healthy baby – now a teenager. There’s even a tale from a vet who crowdfunded prostheses for a lively terrier.
One unique thing about the Netherlands is that euthanasia is legal and provided by doctors upon the express request of a patient suffering from a terminal illness. It is taken for granted in these essays, yet some interviewees express their discomfort with it as an option for young patients. De Visser is careful to note that, even with the situation as it is, only 4% of deaths in the Netherlands are by euthanasia, and the majority of these are end-stage cancer cases.
As with any collection of this nature, some stories are more enticing than others, but overall I found it a surprising and moving set of reflections that is alive to ethical complexities and grapples with tough issues like disability, doctor error, loneliness, pain, and sense of purpose.
Two quotes, in particular, stood out to me, one from a nurse – “We are only ever guests in other people’s lives, and that’s how we ought to behave” – and the other from Dr. Fauci’s piece. In 2014 he treated a doctor who had been volunteering in Sierra Leone after an Ebola outbreak but became ill with the virus and had to be evacuated. “He cited Hippocrates: ‘It is far more important to know what sort of person has the disease, rather than what sort of disease the person has.’ You treated me like a person, not a disease, he said. And that’s what medicine is all about.”
With thanks to 4th Estate for the proof copy for review.
A Still Life: A Memoir by Josie George
Over a year of lockdowns, many of us have become 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. (My full review will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Times Literary Supplement. See also Eleanor’s thorough review.) This is top of my wish list for next year’s Barbellion Prize shortlist.
With thanks to Bloomsbury for the proof copy for review.
A Town Called Solace by Mary Lawson
I discovered Mary Lawson in 2015 with Road Ends and caught up with Crow Lake in the summer of 2019. All four of her books are set in fictional locations inspired by the villages and rural areas of Northern Ontario, where the author grew up before moving to England in 1968. So Solace, while not a real town, is true to her memory and, despite the sometimes gruff or know-it-all locals, an emotional landmark for the three central characters, all of whom are processing trauma and looking for places of comfort where they can start over.
1972. First we meet Clara, a plucky seven-year-old sitting vigil. She’s waiting for the return of two people: her sixteen-year-old sister, Rose, who ran away from home; and their next-door neighbour, Mrs. Orchard, whose cat, Moses, she’s feeding until the old lady gets back from the hospital. As days turn into weeks, though, it seems less likely that either will come home, and one day Clara sees a strange man moving boxes around in Mrs. Orchard’s house. This is Liam Kane, who’s inherited the house from a family friend. In his thirties and recently divorced, he’s taking a break in this tiny town, never imagining that he might find a new life. The third protagonist, and only first-person narrator, is Elizabeth, who lies in a hospital bed with heart trouble and voices her memories as a monologue to her late husband.
As we cycle through these three characters’ perspectives in alternating chapters, we gradually come to understand the connections between them. There are satisfying parallels in that, on multiple occasions but in slightly different ways, a child attaches to an older person or an adult stands in as a guardian for a neglected child. All of Lawson’s creations, even the secondary figures, are dealing with distressing memories or a loss of some kind, the details of which might only emerge much later on. Solace offers myriad opportunities for recovery, whether kitty playtime at Mrs. Orchard’s or diner food and homemade ice cream.
Like Lawson’s other works, this is a slow burner featuring troubled families. Her characters, often full of regret and sorrow, take a shadowy past as a prompt to reset their lives. They’re charming in spite of their flaws. I recalled that Crow Lake also looks back to the climactic happenings experienced by a seven-year-old girl. And like Road Ends, A Town Called Solace makes a convincing case for present decisions being influenced by historical trauma. It’s a tender and inviting story I’d recommend to readers of Wendy McGrath and Anne Tyler, with Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley and Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout as specific readalikes. (My dilemma now is whether to read my only remaining Lawson novel, The Other Side of the Bridge, right away or save it: she’s not the most prolific author, with four books in 19 years.)
A favorite passage:
[Liam’s] life prior to coming north seemed to be taking on the quality of an old movie, one in which he’d been deeply engrossed while watching it but which now seemed trivial, unconvincing and profoundly lacking in either colour or plot. Solace had colour and plot in spades, maybe too much. In every way it was coming to seem more real than Toronto, with its endless malls and traffic jams and high-powered jobs. Though maybe, if he went back to Toronto, the same would be true in reverse. Maybe when he’d been back for a couple of months he’d find that it was Solace that seemed unreal, its unremarkable streets and stores like something from a dream, its dramatic landscape fading to nothing, like a holiday photo left in the sun.
With thanks to Chatto & Windus for the free copy for review.
The Strays of Paris by Jane Smiley
(Published in the USA in December 2020 under the title Perestroika in Paris. It’s been given a The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse treatment for its UK release.)
My summary for Bookmarks magazine: “A racehorse, Perestroika—nicknamed Paras—strays from her unlocked suburban stable one day, carrying her groom’s purse in her mouth, and ends up in Paris’s Place du Trocadéro. Here she meets Frida the dog, Sid and Nancy the mallards, and Raoul the raven. Frida, whose homeless owner died, knows about money. She takes euros from the purse to buy food from a local market, while Paras gets treats from a baker on predawn walks. Etienne, an eight-year-old orphan who lives with his ancient great-grandmother, visits the snowy park to feed the wary animals (who can talk to each other), and offers Paras a home. A sweet fable for animal lovers.”
Yes, this is a talking animal book, but the animals only talk to each other; they communicate with humans through their gestures and soulful eyes. Kindly shopkeepers work out what Frida wants to buy based on what she stares at or points to with a paw; the baker whose window Paras passes on her early morning walks intuits that the horse is hungry; Etienne, who gives a couple of the stray animals a home during a chill winter, learns to understand when Paras needs to go out to relieve herself, after piles of dung build up in the sitting room.
I liked how patiently and convincingly Smiley builds the portrait of each character – human or animal – and the overall situation of kindness and good fortune. Raoul is particularly amusing for his birdsplaining: “It is a feature of age. I have learned so many things in my life that they just force their way out of my beak,” he says. However, a crow would be much more realistic for Paris (or any city) than a raven, and, overall, this was a little twee and farfetched for my tastes. It was nice to read something a bit different from Smiley, who I haven’t tried since her Last Hundred Years Trilogy. She has a sideline in YA horse novels; this should probably have been lumped with those. (Annabel liked it a bit more.)
I was sent an unsolicited review copy by Picador/Mantle.
What recent releases can you recommend?
Happy Halloween! I enjoyed taking part in R.I.P. for the first time this year. My top two choices out of the six fantastical and/or spooky books I managed to read would be The Loney and The Graveyard Book (see below). For this second installment I’ve been reading eerie short stories that take place in the English countryside, a young adult fantasy novel set mostly in a graveyard, and a ghost story that unfolds in the Himalayas of the 1930s.
Help the Witch by Tom Cox (2018)
I knew Tom Cox for his witty books about his many cats, including The Good, the Bad and the Furry. His first foray into fiction was published by Unbound earlier this month; I pre-ordered it on a Kindle deal for £1. The settings are dilapidated cottages, moorland and villages, mostly in the North of England. Even in the spookier stories, there’s always a welcome touch of humor. “Seance” raises the ghost of a cyclist who was killed on his bike and now is destined to cycle evermore. He doesn’t, at first, realize that he’s dead. “‘Morning!’ he called to a middle-aged couple with a labradoodle, cheerfully, as he cycled past Whiddon Scrubs. They ignored him. ‘Shitbags,’ he said under his breath.”
The three sets of flash fictions, “Listings,” “Nine Tiny Stories about Houses,” and “Folk Tales of the Twenty-third Century,” particularly made me laugh, though each perhaps overstays its welcome a bit. My two favorites were proper ghost stories: “Speed Awareness,” about a peculiar mix-up with the course teacher, and “Just Good Friends,” in which a woman’s Internet dating experiences turn strange when she meets someone with inside knowledge about her past. I could see the latter being anthologized. These are enjoyable enough stories to flip through around Halloween.
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (2008)
Nobody “Bod” Owens has lived in a graveyard ever since the night he climbed out of his cot and toddled there – the same night that a man named Jack murdered his parents and older sister. He was the only member of his family to survive the slaughter. Although he passes a happy childhood among the graveyard’s witches, ghouls and ghosts from many centuries, he knows he’s different. He’s alive; he has to eat and craves human friendship. As valuable as his lessons in Fading and Dreamwalking prove to be, he longs to attend school and discover more of the world outside – provided he can keep his head down and avoid notice; previous trips beyond the cemetery walls, such as to a pawnshop, have bordered on the disastrous.
Bod’s japes with his returning friend Scarlett turn more serious when he learns that Jack is still after him. This is quite a dark book for its young teen audience, but as I remember from the only other Gaiman book I’ve read, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, he’s a master at balancing sadness with humor and magic. The illustrations by Chris Riddell are terrific, too.
Silas, Bod’s guardian: “You’re alive, Bod. That means you have infinite potential. You can do anything, make anything, dream anything. If you change the world, the world will change.”
“Mother Slaughter’s headstone [was] so cracked and worn and weathered that all it said now was:
which had puzzled the local historians for over a hundred years.”
Thin Air: A Ghost Story by Michelle Paver (2016)
In 1935 Dr. Stephen Pearce and his brother Kits are part of a five-man mission to climb the most dangerous mountain in the Himalayas, Kangchenjunga. Thirty years before, Sir Edmund Lyell led an ill-fated expedition up the same mountain: more than one man did not return, and the rest lost limbs to frostbite. “I don’t want to know what happened to them. It’s in the past. It has nothing to do with us,” Dr. Pearce tells himself, but from the start it feels like a bad omen that they, like Lyell’s party, are attempting the southwest approach; even the native porters are nervous. And as they climb, they fall prey to various medical and mental crises; hallucinations of ghostly figures on the crags are just as much of a danger as snow blindness.
This is pacey, readable historical fiction with a good sense of period and atmosphere. I enjoyed Pearce’s narration, and the one-upmanship type of relationship with his brother adds an interesting dimension to the expedition dynamics. However, I never submitted sufficiently to Paver’s spell to find anything particularly scary. I’ll try again with her other ghost story, Dark Matter, about an Arctic expedition from the same time period.
“The Sherpas are wrong. This mountain has no spirit, no sentience and no intent. It’s not trying to kill us. It simply is.” [famous last words…]
Have you been reading anything fantastical or spooky this October?
I have an all-female line-up for you this time, with selections ranging from a YA romance in verse to a memoir by a spiritual recording artist. There’s a very random detail that connects two of these books – look out for it!
In Paris with You by Clémentine Beauvais
[Faber & Faber, 7th]
I don’t know the source material Beauvais was working with (Eugene Onegin, 1837), but still enjoyed this YA romance in verse. Eugene and Tatiana meet by chance in Paris in 2016 and the attraction between them is as strong as ever, but a possible relationship is threatened by memories of a tragic event from 10 years ago involving Lensky, Eugene’s friend and the boyfriend of Tatiana’s older sister Olga. I’m in awe at how translator Sam Taylor has taken the French of her Songe à la douceur and turned it into English poetry with the occasional rhyme. This is a sweet book that would appeal to John Green’s readers, but it’s more sexually explicit than a lot of American YA, so is probably only suitable for older teens. (Proof copy from Faber Spring Party)
“Her heart takes the lift / up to her larynx, / where it gets stuck / hammering against the walls of her neck.”
“an adult with a miniature attention span, / like everyone else, refreshing, updating, / nibbling at time like a ham baguette.”
“helium balloons in the shape of spermatozoa straining towards the dark sky.”
Implosion: A Memoir of an Architect’s Daughter by Elizabeth W. Garber
[She Writes Press, 12th]
The author grew up in a glass house designed by her father, Modernist architect Woodie Garber, outside Cincinnati in the 1960s–70s. This and his other most notable design, Sander Hall, a controversial tower-style dorm at the University of Cincinnati that was later destroyed in a controlled explosion, serve as powerful metaphors for her dysfunctional family life. Woodie is such a fascinating, flawed figure. Manic depression meant he had periods of great productivity but also weeks when he couldn’t get out of bed. He and Elizabeth connected over architecture, like when he helped her make a scale model of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye for a school project, but it was hard for a man born in the 1910s to understand his daughter’s generation or his wife’s desire to go back to school and have her own career.
Mixed feelings towards a charismatic creative genius who made home life a torment and the way their fractured family kept going are reasons enough to read this book. But another is just that Garber’s life has been so interesting: she witnessed the 1968 race riots and had a black boyfriend when interracial relationships were frowned upon; she was briefly the librarian for the Oceanics School, whose boat was taken hostage in Panama; and she dropped out of mythology studies at Harvard to become an acupuncturist. Don’t assume this will be a boring tome only for architecture buffs. It’s a masterful memoir for everyone. (Read via NetGalley on Nook)
Florida by Lauren Groff
[William Heinemann (UK), 7th / Riverhead (USA), 5th]
My review is in today’s “Book Wars” column in Stylist magazine. Two major, connected threads in this superb story collection are ambivalence about Florida, and ambivalence about motherhood. The narrator of “The Midnight Zone,” staying with her sons in a hunting camp 20 miles from civilization, ponders the cruelty of time and her failure to be sufficiently maternal, while the woman in “Flower Hunters” is so lost in an eighteenth-century naturalist’s book that she forgets to get Halloween costumes for her kids. A few favorites of mine were “Ghosts and Empties,” in which the narrator goes for long walks at twilight and watches time passing through the unwitting tableaux of the neighbors’ windows; “Eyewall,” a matter-of-fact ghost story; and “Above and Below,” in which a woman slips into homelessness – it’s terrifying how precarious her life is at every step. (Proof copy)
“What had been built to seem so solid was fragile in the face of time because time is impassive, more animal than human. Time would not care if you fell out of it. It would continue on without you.” (from “The Midnight Zone”)
“The wind played the chimney until the whole place wheezed like a bagpipe.” (from “Eyewall”)
“How lonely it would be, the mother thinks, looking at her children, to live in this dark world without them.” (from “Yport”)
The Most Beautiful Thing I’ve Seen: Opening Your Eyes to Wonder by Lisa Gungor
You’re most likely to pick this up if you enjoy Gungor’s music, but it’s by no means a band tell-all. The big theme of this memoir is moving beyond the strictures of religion to find an all-encompassing spirituality. Like many Gungor listeners, Lisa grew up in, and soon outgrew, a fundamentalist Christian setting. She bases the book around a key set of metaphors: the dot, the line, and the circle. The dot was the confining theology she was raised with; the line was the pilgrimage she and Michael Gungor embarked on after they married at 19; the circle was the more inclusive spirituality she developed after their second daughter, Lucie, was born with Down syndrome and required urgent heart surgery. Being mothered, becoming a mother and accepting God as Mother: together these experiences bring the book full circle. Barring the too-frequent nerdy-cool posturing (seven mentions of “dance parties,” and so on), this is a likable memoir for readers of spiritual writing by the likes of Sue Monk Kidd, Mary Oliver and Terry Tempest Williams. (Read via NetGalley on Kindle)
Orchid & the Wasp by Caoilinn Hughes
[Oneworld, 7th] – see my full review.
Ok, Mr Field by Katharine Kilalea
[Faber & Faber, 7th]
Mr. Field is a concert pianist whose wrist was shattered in a train crash. With his career temporarily derailed, there’s little for him to do apart from wander his Cape Town house, a replica of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, and the nearby coastal path. He also drives over to spy on his architect’s widow, with whom he’s obsessed. He’s an aimless voyeur who’s more engaged with other people’s lives than with his own – until a dog follows him home from a graveyard. This is a strangely detached little novel in which little seems to happen. Like Asunder by Chloe Aridjis and Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner, it’s about someone who’s been coasting unfeelingly through life and has to stop to ask what’s gone wrong and what’s worth pursuing. It’s so brilliantly written, with the pages flowing effortlessly on, that I admired Kilalea’s skill. Her descriptions of scenery and music are particularly good. In terms of the style, I was reminded of books I’ve read by Katie Kitamura and Henrietta Rose-Innes. (Proof copy from Faber Spring Party)
This came out in the States (from Riverhead) back in early April, but releases here in the UK soon, so I’ve added it in as a bonus.
The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer
[Chatto & Windus, 7th]
An enjoyable story of twentysomethings looking for purpose and trying to be good feminists. To start with it’s a fairly familiar campus novel in the vein of The Art of Fielding and The Marriage Plot, but we follow Greer, her high school sweetheart Cory and her new friend Zee for the next 10+ years to see the compromises they make as ideals bend to reality. Faith Frank is Greer’s feminist idol, but she’s only human in the end, and there are different ways of being a feminist: not just speaking out from a stage, but also quietly living every day in a way that shows you value people equally. I have a feeling this would have meant much more to me a decade ago, and the #MeToo-ready message isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but I very much enjoyed my first taste of Wolitzer’s sharp, witty writing and will be sure to read more from her. This seems custom-made for next year’s Women’s Prize shortlist. (Free from publisher, for comparison with Florida in Stylist “Book Wars” column.)
What June books do you have on the docket? Have you already read any that you can recommend?
The 11 stories in Jennifer Caloyeras’ new collection, Unruly Creatures (released on October 3rd by West Virginia University Press), feature characters who find themselves in extreme situations and/or are let down by their bodies. Often, their tentative steps outside their own problematic situations involve making unexpected connections with the animal world: a neglected boy learns from a taxidermist, a trainer at the Institute for Privileged Primates is surprised by the depth of her feelings for one of the gorillas in her care, a woman who has just had a double mastectomy empathizes with a cow stuck in the crater left by a crashed meteor, and two teens realize they can only bond with their father when in animal costumes.
I appreciated the variety of forms and voices here. One story set in a dystopian future has an epistolary element, including letters and memos; two others use second-person or first-person plural narration, respectively. There’s also a lot to think about in terms of gender. For instance, one protagonist frets about out-of-control pubic hair, while another finds it difficult to maintain her trans identity on a male prison ward. “A Real Live Baby” was a stand-out for me. Its title is a tease, though, because Chloe is doing the Egg Baby project in school and ‘babysits’ for her delusional neighbor, who keeps a doll in a stroller. The conflation of dolls and babies is also an element in recent stories by Camilla Grudova and Lesley Nneka Arimah – proof, if we needed it, that modern motherhood is both an enigma and a work in progress.
I’d recommend this story collection to readers of Margaret Atwood and Karen Joy Fowler – and to book clubs. You certainly won’t run out of things to discuss!
Jennifer kindly offered to take part in a Q&A over e-mail. We talked about eco-lit, fairy tales gone wild, and how writing and marketing short stories is different from novels.
Animals take on a variety of roles in these stories: research subjects, art projects, friends. Are you an animal lover? Or was that linking theme incidental? And what did you hope to convey about the ways the human and animal worlds intersect?
I am an animal lover. I always have been. When I was younger I really wanted to be a marine biologist. I couldn’t quite get around the math. Then for a while, I thought, animal psychologist. I’ve always been obsessed with animals and animal behavior and the ways in which humans are constantly distancing themselves from animals and their behavior. We have a bit of an unfair superiority complex when it comes to the animal world. I ended up going down an entirely different path (musician and singer) before applying to graduate school for a MA in English and then a MFA in creative writing.
But to get back to your question, I didn’t set out to write a collection of linked animal stories; that ended up happening organically. I like to use animals as a mirror or lens through which we see ourselves: sometimes at our worst, most instinctive behavior – sometimes at our best. I think an apt metaphor is that of child staring at an animal at a cage in the zoo, internalizing the thought, “I am nothing like that animal. I am everything like that animal.”
Sometimes the humans are the truly unruly creatures – thinking especially of the obnoxious plane passenger in “Airborne” and Ernest, the persnickety postman in “Big Brother.” How does placing them alongside animal characters point up their flaws?
I am a huge fan of unlikable and unreliable narrators. And I think the short story genre lends itself to utilizing these types of narrators, because you don’t have to sustain this for the duration of an entire novel. In “Big Brother”, the reader aligns with everyone else in the story, not the protagonist. Ernest can’t get over the fact that Les, his co-worker, could have such a bond with a parrot, when Ernest has such a difficult time connecting with anyone, yet in the same story, Ernest’s earnest love for his dog is apparent. He has the key to connecting with people, he just doesn’t have the means to put this knowledge to use.
“H2O” imagines a future extreme drought situation in which only the elite can afford fresh water. Does this feel like a plausible scenario, especially where you live in California?
Oh, the water situation is really scary. I don’t think we’re far off from the scenario presented in this story. It’s always absurd to me when we hear about drought conditions and yet, here I am, driving by a huge verdant golf course. And the access for the wealthy in this particular story resonates in terms of access in general in a capitalistic society. In the story, which is a sort of eco-lit satire (I think I just made up that genre), water is the most coveted commodity, yet it’s marketed differently depending on economic status. Living in Los Angeles, there seems to be a production value to everything here, so I wanted to add that twist in the story – the commercialism of a commodity – how it would be talked about on a production set. How to do the perfect “hard sell” when it comes to water.
I especially love the fairy tale-gone-wild mood of “Unruly”: Caroline loathes the Rapunzel-like abundance of her pubic hair, and instead of a glass slipper we get glass shards in Tom’s arm. How does twisting a fairy tale play with readers’ expectations for a story?
I’ve always been obsessed with fairy tales. My second young adult novel, Strays, has a whole component where a high school English teacher introduces 16-year-old Iris, the protagonist, to Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber (if you’re a fairy tale fan, you have to read this one!), which is a feminist reinterpretation of fairy tales. I love how familiar all the fairy tale tropes are. I love the use of magical realism in fairy tales and I love the idea of playing with a familiar and predictable story and undercutting the reader’s expectations. To that end, I recently read (and loved) A. Igoni Barrett’s Blackass – which was a retelling of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. But instead of waking up as a cockroach, in this version – a black man in Lagos wakes up as a white man, afforded all of the benefits of white privilege. As a reader you’re thinking, “I know the story, but I don’t know this story.”
The story “Stuffed” was also inspired loosely by the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel. The witch in the woods is replaced by a taxidermist (who is not evil) and instead, things with the child go dark pretty quickly.
Occasionally ersatz creatures are on display: doll babies, taxidermied animals, or animal costumes. What are we to make of that gulf between the real thing and the false one on display?
Surrogates are some of my favorite things to explore! I took a deep dive into the world of taxidermy while doing research for “Stuffed”. I really couldn’t get enough. I remember as a child getting lost for hours in the Hall of Mammals at the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles. I think, for me, it’s the idea of creating something to replace something, but the replacement is complete artifice. In terms of taxidermy, essentially, you are replacing death or recreating death to imitate life. A real dead animal is ugly, sunken, decayed. But we have these artists who take death, stuff it with synthetic material, replace eyeballs with beads and you have a recreation of an animal that sometimes looks better off than a live version of that animal. A lot of what is explored in these stories is a stripping down to raw human behavior. People hide behind the masks and costumes and artifice, but placed in certain situations, their animal instincts will always emerge.
[See also my review of the taxidermy-themed English Animals by Laura Kaye.]
Can you remember what the seed was for some of these stories? A particular line, scene, image, or character? Do you start writing a story with a title in mind, or does the title usually suggest itself later on?
Titles always come last for me. Always. I can’t name a thing until I know what that thing is. Writing is such a process and oftentimes I won’t end up where I think I’m going when I’m writing a story. They always surprise me. “Unruly” (the story of the pubic-haired Rapunzel) came directly out of this vivid dream I had when I was pregnant with my first child. I dreamed that I was naked with long flowing hair everywhere and a squirrel came out of a tree, nipped off a chunk of my hair and ran back to her nest and wove the hair into the nest. I remember waking up hysterically laughing. In hindsight it was such an obvious fertility dream; for the sake of the story, I made it a representation of coming-of-age/adolescence – a time where one’s body feels out of control, but I took it to the next level.
“The Sound of an Infinite Gesture” came directly from Koko the signing gorilla. It’s amazing that a gorilla can use sign language and communicate, but there was also something odd about people putting these very human ideas on a gorilla (remember they got her a pet kitten? And now I see they have her signing PSAs to save the environment?), so I started ruminating on what if we took this idea further – the gorilla communicates so well with her trainer that they begin to develop intimate feelings for one another.
Stories will often come out of an article I read (how leeches are being used in modern medicine led to “Bloodletting”) or from a friend, “Hey, did you know that people go to furry parties where they dress up in costumes and hug one another?” which led to “Plush” and I start playing around with what that might look like. It’s a lot of imaginative play involved. That’s my favorite part of writing – that dreamy time before I actually sit down to type – when it’s all just floating around my head and I’m trying to make a movie of it in my mind.
You’ve previously written YA novels. How different was the experience of writing these short stories? Do you see this work finding a dissimilar audience?
Writing a short fiction collection is not for the faint of heart. I was actually shocked at how slim the collection looked when it arrived in the mail. I kept thinking, “but I did all that work!” Each story, in a way, is treated like a novel. And I’m not talking just about the structure from beginning to end. Every word in a short story is precious; you have to economize. And, in order to get momentum for the collection, you want to publish stories from the collection in literary journals, which takes the same amount of energy and query letters that sending out your novel to an agent or publisher takes!
The audience for this book is completely different than the 13–17 demographic of the two other books. I have had a few people say, “Oh I bought your latest book for my child” and I’m quick to say, “it’s not for kids!” But read at your own risk.
Who are some of your favorite writers? Who has inspired your prose style or your story strategies?
I have so many favorite writers! And I read across all genres. It’s hard to say exactly who has influenced my work, but I will share my favorites! I love Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America. I think she is the best at synthesizing humor and pathos in the same space. I strive to do this in my stories. Pastoralia by George Saunders is another favorite collection. He is a master storyteller, satirist, humorist and his stories bring me to my knees from emotion in unexpected ways. I love Aimee Bender’s use of magical realism. I recently read Ottessa Moshfegh’s Homesick for Another World and loved it! There are so many amazing and varied voices when it comes to contemporary short fiction! The faculty member I worked closely with at the University of British Columbia when I was working on my MFA in creative writing was the Giller-nominated writer, Zsuzsi Gartner. In addition to being an incredible writer herself, she opened up the world of endless possibilities in short fiction, which was incredibly liberating.
What are you working on next?
Last year, I was selected as the writer-in-residence at the Annenberg in Santa Monica and I began working on a contemporary novel about expectations and parenthood. I’m still working on it and hope to be finished by the beginning of the new year. (Now that it’s in writing, maybe I will be further motivated!) I was pretty sure that I was done with short fiction for a while, but then ideas started coming to me again, so it’s my job to listen.
I also teach writing at UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program. I will be teaching a new course, “Writing the Young Adult Novel”, in the winter and my usual “Intro to Short Fiction” in the spring. The classes are online, so if any of your readers are interested, sign up!
I spend a good amount of my time editing and helping to develop manuscripts and stories for clients. So it’s a nice balance between writing, editing and teaching.
My father, screenwriter Ron Clark, and I are toying with starting a podcast. Stay tuned!
Other places to reach Jennifer on social media:
Facebook Author Page: Jennifer Caloyeras
Don’t talk like we were stuck in a lift.
Why would I be missing you so violently?
We’re all the hero when directing the scene,
But therapy for liars is a giant ice cream.
(from “Montparnasse” by Elbow)
I broke one of my cardinal reviewing rules—write about the book while it’s still fresh in your mind—and waited two weeks after finishing Martine McDonagh’s Narcissism for Beginners before writing it up. Luckily the Elbow stanza above (Guy Garvey’s lyrics are like poetry, after all) brought back to me some of the themes I want to explore: how you can miss someone you barely know, the way that ties ebb and shift such that your blood kin are strangers and the unrelated become like family, and how a narcissistic personality can use coercion and deception to get his or her way. Plus there’s the ice cream metaphor of the last line, a link to the terrific cover on finished copies of the novel—not on my proof, alas.
The novel is presented as Sonny Anderson’s extended letter to the mother he doesn’t remember. He’s lived with his guardian, a Brit named Thomas Hardiker, in Redondo Beach, California for 11 years; before that they were in Brazil with Sonny’s father. A month ago, on his twenty-first birthday, Sonny received the astounding news that he’s a millionaire thanks to a trust fund from his late father, Robin Agelaste-Bim, better known as Guru Bim. His mother is Sarah Anderson: once a Scottish housewife, now untraceable. Despite his youth, Sonny has been a meth addict and kicked the habit through NA. This kid’s done a lot of living already, but sets out on a new adventure to learn about his parents from those who knew them. And while he’s in Britain, he’ll squeeze in some tourism related to his favorite movie, Shaun of the Dead.
Starting with Sonny’s plane ride to Heathrow, the book is in the present tense, which makes you feel you’re taking the journey right along with him. Although this isn’t being marketed as young adult fiction, it has the same vibe as some YA quest narratives I’ve read: John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, both of David Arnold’s books, and Nicola Yoon’s The Sun is Also a Star. Sonny is more bitter and world-weary than those teen protagonists, but you still get the slang and the pop culture references along with the heartfelt emotions.
Sonny’s first visit is to Torquay octogenarian Doris Henry, who was the Agelaste-Bims’ servant and Robin’s wet nurse circa 1970. Next up: London and Ruth Williams, whom Sonny’s mother, then going by Suki, recruited into a LifeForce meditation group. Ruth remembers taking against Guru Bim immediately: “He was faking it to get in with Suki. I understood the attraction, though; those narcissistic types are always charming.” Bim and Suki formed a splinter group, Trembling Leaves and soon announced Suki’s pregnancy, but things went awry and Suki fled to Scotland with her ex-boyfriend, Andrew.
This slightly madcap biographical trip around Britain also takes in Brighton, Scotland and Keswick in the Lake District. At each stop Sonny’s able to fill in more about his past, but it’s the letters Thomas sent along for him that contain the real shockers. It’s an epistolary within an epistolary, really, with Thomas’s series of long, explanatory letters daubing in the details and anchoring Sonny’s sometimes-earnest, sometimes-angry missive to his mother.
I loved tagging along on this kooky hero’s quest. My one small criticism about an otherwise zippy novel is that there is a lot of backstory to absorb, from Sonny’s former drug use onwards. For an American expat, though, it was especially fun to watch Sonny trying to get used to some peculiarities of Britain: “apparently it’s compulsory to eat potato chips and on Brit trains” and “We argue about which floor she lives on. I say second and Ruth says first, until we realise we mean the same thing.”
In a year that opened with a narcissist being installed in the White House and will soon see the publication of a new book about cult leader Jim Jones (The Road to Jonestown by Jeff Guinn, April 11th), McDonagh’s picture of Guru Bim is sure to strike a chord. As Ruth tells Sonny, in Ancient Greek an agelast was someone with no sense of humor; and she accused Bim of being “a manipulative charlatan.”
For Sonny, whose very name places him in relationship to others, coming to grips with who he came from means deciding to live differently and be content with his own piecemeal family, including Thomas, the Great Dudini (their dog), and maybe even a cool old lady like Ruth. You’ll love spending time with them all, and I imagine you’ll get a particular kick out of this if you like Shaun of the Dead. (Whisper it: I’ve never seen it.)
Narcissism for Beginners was published in the UK on March 9th. With thanks to Unbound for the review copy.
Martine McDonagh was an artist manager in the music industry for 30 years and now leads the Creative Writing & Publishing MA at West Dean College, Sussex. This is her third novel, following I Have Waited, and You Have Come and After Phoenix.