A Sudanese modern classic …

Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih

tayeb salihThis was our July choice for book group, picked by a new member to our group who is Sudanese and was keen to introduce us to what is regarded as a classic of Sudanese literature and one of the most important Arabic novels of the twentieth century.

This short novel didn’t have an easy journey into print. It was published in 1966 at a time of great political and cultural change in Khartoum where Salih worked for the BBC. It was condemned by most factions there and in the introduction to this edition, Salih bemoans the fact that he has scarcely received any royalties from it –  as a banned book it was mostly distributed underground. It did, however, get attention outside Sudan, being translated into twenty languages. Notably, the English translation by Denys Johnson-Davies published in 1969 has stood the test of time.

Our narrator, a young man returns home to his village on the banks of the Nile in Sudan after seven years studying and living in London. He notices a new man in the village; Mustafa Sa’eed who married one of Mahmoud’s daughters and has been there for five years now. The narrator’s interest in Mustafa is increased when one night, when they had all been drinking together, Mustafa starts quoting war poems in perfect English. A few days later Mustafa comes to talk to the narrator and tells him his story, about how he’d gone to school in Cairo and on to London to study where he had affairs and two of the English girls committed suicide. Mustafa became obsessed with another English girl, Jean Morris, and she was to be his downfall…  After all that ensued, he escaped back to the Sudan and tries to live a normal life.

The narrator goes on to tell how Mustafa later disappears, presumed drowned in the Nile’s flooding, but he had left a will asking the narrator to take care of his wife and sons. There are some bitter scenes as Hosna’s father tries to marry her off again to an older man. Throughout there are flashbacks to Mustafa’s life in London.

This short novel has many sides, framed within an evocation of life in a Sudanese village by the Nile in the 1960s.

Women knew their place unless they were old and much-married like Bint Majzoub, who at seventy and having seen off eight husbands has the right to sit with the old men drinking and smoking. There was one really uncomfortable scene, which I’m not going to quote from, where the old men were all joking about female circumcision. It’s fair to say that the objectivisation of women made it difficult for the women in our book group to appreciate the humour – although Bint gives as good as she gets, commenting on the men’s prowess or lack thereof. She is a magnificent character.

One of the themes we discussed at length was how the author, having experience of the West himself, was trying to subvert the idea of being exotic – the Occident vs the Orient. Mustafa came to London to conquer the West. He is the Arab lover that drives women wild, until he meets his nemesis in Jean Morris. His life in London and after contrasts totally with the narrator’s. The narrator returns home a prodigal son, welcomed back to become a respected high-school teacher of pre-Islamic literature. Mustafa returns to hide from his past. This is really Mustafa’s story rather than the narrator’s; he subsumes himself in much of the novel – it is not always clear whether it is Mustafa or the narrator talking in some of the philosophical discussion that makes for a large part of the text.

While I can’t say I enjoyed this short novel, it was fascinating and certainly provided much to discuss in our book group. (6/10)

I should certainly seek out more African and Arabic literature to read – and indeed have found a newly published short novel by another Sudanese author which sounds like an African version of Miss Hargreaves! (my review of that here). Watch this space for Telepathy by Amir Tag Elsir.

For another view on this novel, do visit Jonathan’s post, who coincidentally read the book at the same time we did.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (Affiliate link):
Season of Migration to the North (Penguin Modern Classics) by Tayeb Salih. Paperback, 192 pages including preface.
Telepathy by Amir Tag Elsir, pub Bloomsbury, paperback 176 pages.
Miss Hargreaves (The Bloomsbury Group)

Simenon’s most autobiographical roman dur…

Three Bedrooms in Manhattan by Georges Simenon

three bedroomsLast month I had the opportunity to meet John Simenon, Georges’s son at an event celebrating the prolific Belgian author and his work. Apart from all the Maigret novels, Simenon was famed for his romans durs (hard novels) which are standalone, and typically quite dark and noirish in character  – I previously reviewed one of them, Dirty Snow, here. At the event, I mentioned to John that I’d read one of the romans durs in preparation for the event: Three Bedrooms in Manhattan, which is reputedly very autobiographical and he told me that it was basically a novelisation of how his mother and father met.

John’s mother was Denyse Ouimet. Georges met her in Manhattan in 1945 when he interviewed her for a secretarial job. She was seventeen years younger than Georges and they married in 1950, once Georges’s divorce from his first wife was finalised. Their relationship was, by all accounts, tempestuous and Denyse suffered from psychosis in later years, but Three Bedrooms was written in 1946 when the couple were still getting to know each other, and could seen as coming straight from the horse’s mouth so to speak. Being so autobiographical, it’s not perhaps a typical Simenon in plot terms being a romance, but it is a typical Simenon in writing style.

Francis Combe is middle-aged, a noted French actor who has escaped to Manhattan from Paris when dumped for a younger man by his wife. However, once in New York, he finds parts difficult to come by and makes ends meet voicing radio dramas and living in a small apartment in Greenwich village. The novel opens with him waking at 3am and going out to walk rather than listen through thin walls to the drunken antics of his neighbours:

What were they doing, up there in J.K.C.’s apartment? Was Winnie vomiting yet? Probably. Moaning, at first softly, then more loudly, until at last she burst into an endless fit of tears.

Forced to be an insomniac, he goes into a late night diner and meets Kay in a scene that comes straight out of Hopper’s painting Nighthawks which was painted in 1942, (and is even more amazing in real life at the Art Institute of Chicago – it was one of my main reasons for choosing to visit Chicago one vacation ages ago – another was to see Grant Wood’s American Gothic there too, but that was out on loan. Grr!)

Nighthawks_by_Edward_Hopper_1942

Nightawks by Edward Hopper, 1942. Art Institute of Chicago

‘You’re French?’
She asked the question in French, a French that at first he thought betrayed no accent.
‘How’d you know?’
‘I didn’t. As soon as you came in, even before you said anything, I just thought you were French.’

They eat a little, make small talk – he finds out she’s from Vienna – then, they walk through the streets of the Village and end up in the second bedroom – in a hotel.

The next day, Francis takes Kay back to his apartment, she essentially moves in straight away having been thrown out of the one she shared with a girlfriend which had been financed by Jessie’s now ex-boyfriend. At first Francis tries to resist falling in love with Kay, but Kay immediately and totally falls in love with him:

She said, ‘When we met’ – and she said it even more softly, so that what she was confiding to him now seemed to vibrate within his chest – ‘I was so alone, so hopelessly alone, I was so low, and I new that I’d never pull out of it again, so I decided to leave with the first man who showed up, no matter who he was.
‘I love you, François.’

Having been found and her feeling declared, Kay becomes resolutely upbeat, willing to put up with all of Combe’s moodiness (and boy, he is a moody one!). He is the half of this couple that needs convincing, allowing Kay to look after him, sometimes almost smothering him it seems, but over the course of a few weeks as they walk for miles, eat (slowly), drink (lots), smoke, talk, embrace, being quiet together, collecting Kay’s things from the third bedroom,  Combe will eventually succumb.  It’s touching that they find ‘their song’ on a jukebox, and this is a trigger for Combe – realising his own feelings after fits of jealousy, wondering what she is doing when they are momentarily parted.

The style may be typical Simenon but, there’s a Gallic coolness to it. If you weren’t aware of the autobiographical elements of the story, it would take you some time to warm to Combe, or Kay, but you actually do will them to work it out and find the happiness they are both searching for.  That certainly raised this short novel in my expectations, and I really enjoyed it. (8.5/10)

I read the NYRB edition which has an excellent introduction by Joyce Carol Oates.  The novel was translated by Marc Romano and Lawrence G. Blochman.  For another review of this story, read that by Jacqui – click here

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The Late Monsieur Gallet by Georges Simenon

galletSpace here for a short word about the second Maigret novel in the new Penguin editions, translated by Anthea Bell. This was the first Maigret to be published as a book, rather than serialised as Pietr the Latvian had been (reviewed here).

Maigret is sent to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of Monsieur Gallet, a travelling salesman – or so his widow thinks.  He turns out to be living a double life, and his family seem to be rather unpeturbed by his death – What is going on?

In a mere 155 pages it got so complicated I struggled to keep up and Maigret had to display much dogged determination to solve the mystery too. Aside from Maigret himself,  there were no characters to really warm to either. Not one of the best for me. (6.5/10)

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Source: Own copies. To explore further on Amazon UK, affiliate link, please click below:
Three Bedrooms in Manhattan (New York Review Books Classics)
The Late Monsieur Gallet: Inspector Maigret #2 Penguin classics.

A contemporary take on the myth of Athena

The Helios Disaster by Linda Boström Knausgård

The-Helios-DisasterTranslated by Rachel Willson-Broyles.

I am born of a father. I split his head. For an instant that is as long as life itself we face one another and look each other in the eye. You are my father, I tell him with my eyes. My father. The person in front of me, standing in the blood on the floor, is my father. … He looks at me. At my shining armour. … Lean against him. His arms, which embrace me. We cry together. … I want nothing but to stand like this with my father and feel his warmth, listen to the beating of this heart. I have a father. I am my father’s daughter. These words ring through me like bells in that instant.
Then he screams.
His scream tears everything apart. I will ever again be close to him Never again rest my head against his chest. We have met and must immediately part.

In Greek myth, Athena, one of the Olympian goddesses, is born of no mother. Zeus has a headache and asks Hephaestus to split his head open.  Out pops Athena – emerging fully formed in her armour.  However, this is modern-day Sweden and the ground is covered with snow. The girl who is twelve sheds her armour and leaves the house – the neighbours take charge of her.  They won’t believe that Conrad is her father. ‘Conrad is bit different, after all.’  She’s taken in by social services and given a name – Anna Bergstrom.

Then they find her a family. They already had two boys and had always wanted a girl. Sven and Birgitta live with their teenaged sons Urban and Ulf in a village of teetotallers and a Pentecostal church. ‘Most people were in both.’  Birgitta tries to involve Anna in family life, but Anna spends more time with Urban who persuades her to start speaking in tongues in church. Eventually she ends up being committed.  All the time, she dreams of her father – she’d been sending secret letters to Conrad. She’s desperate to find him again and to run away with him…

This is a strange story. Naturally it requires a suspension of belief to believe that was how Anna is born, but the intensity of the telling is such that you’re readily absorbed into it. At 125 pages, it can easily be read in one session. I immersed myself without thinking too much until after I’d finished reading it.

When I had finished, I was full of questions.  Why did the author called it The Helios Disaster. If you read the book and then Google ‘Helios Disaster’ you’ll find the answer to that question.  I wanted to know too if Athena had anything to do with Helios in the Greek pantheon of gods? Helios was the Greek sun god, one of the Titans, he drives his chariot through the sky each day. Apart from them both appearing in Homer’s Odyssey, (and some computer games inspired by Homer!) along with practically all the other Greek gods, I couldn’t find anything to connect them in the myths of antiquity, the connection alluded to above appears to be of the author’s invention.

You’ve probably wondered if Linda Boström Knausgård is anything to do with Karl Ove Knausgård, the author of the autobiographical series of novels My Struggle. Yes, she is his wife.  I did chuckle once during this novella – Birgitta takes Anna shopping in the city and Birgitta buys a book, ‘I’ll take one by our own … He’s just had a new one come out,‘ she said.  A little in-joke to acknowledge the publishing phenomenon he has become.

The Pentecostal community is an odd one too.  Glossolalia – or speaking in tongues – is an essential part of their way of worship.  In the book of Acts in the Bible, it tells about the Apostles speaking in tongues, where each person there heard their own tongue being spoken – it’s rather the opposite with Anna … less being filled with the Holy Spirit, rather something altogether more ancient and Olympian.

No-one understands Anna, neither her foster family nor her doctors. She, our narrator, tries to fit in and sometimes, just fleetingly, she feels part of the family, but always she ultimately holds back thinking of her father.

The author is also a poet, and that shows in the short sentences and rhythm of the text, preserved in Rachel Willson-Broyles’ translation.  I always enjoy reading modern retellings and reimaginings of old myths; The Helios Disaster is a challenging and thought-provoking example. (8.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you.

To explore further on Amazon UK, (affiliate links), please click below:
The Helios Disaster by Linda Boström Knausgård. Pub Feb 2015 by World Editions. Paperback original, 125 pages.
A Death in the Family: My Struggle Book 1 (Knausgaard) by Karl Ove Knausgård

 

Quick Reads – ideal for the train!

I’ve been terribly naughty and snuck in two novellas that got sent to me a couple of weeks ago, so not from my TBR piles.  But the TBR dare is a do it your own way challenge, and it’ll be back to books I already owned by the end of 2014 from hereon in – promise!

Galaxy Quick Reads is an expanding series of novellas written by best-selling authors and only cost a quid each. They are designed to encourage reluctant readers and so are all easy to read in terms of vocabulary and font-size but, that doesn’t mean that the stories suffer – they will engage any reader. For more information about the Quick Reads charity visit www.quickreads.org.uk.

Six new titles are being added to their list today:

  • Roddy Doyle – Dead Man Talking
  • Jojo Moyes – Paris for One
  • Sophie Hannah – Pictures Or It Didn’t Happen
  • Fanny Blake – Red for Revenge
  • Adèle Geras – Out of the Dark
  • James Bowen – Street Cat Bob

I got sent a couple (along with a welcome bar of chocolate) to try out:
IMG_20150130_154540 (1) (800x586)

I read these on the train last week – one on the way down to London, one on the way home and they fitted perfectly into that 50 minute slot.

Sophie Hannah’s novella Pictures or it Didn’t Happen tells the story of Chloe who is rescued by a complete stranger on a bike when she realises she’s left her daughter’s audition music in the car and they won’t have time to go back and get it. Tom Rigbey cycles into her life and seems to good to be true, but she still falls for him and they have a whirlwind romance – yet is he to be trusted? You expect complex plots and lots of drama from Sophie’s, and we get a good degree of drama built into the 123 pages with a neat twist.

Dead Man Talking by Roddy Doyle has a great pun in its title, and is the story of Pat and Joe, friends from childhood and now middle aged. However, they haven’t spoken for several years after they had a fight. Now Joe is dead. Pat and his wife go the wake held on the eve of the funeral and Joe, in his coffin in the front room, talks to Pat… Funny and a bit creepy, this novella was great fun.

So my first experiences with Good Reads were both good ones.

From Val McDermid and Ian Rankin to Jojo Moyes and Maeve Binchy, the list of Quick Reads has something for everyone including some non-fiction from John Simpson for example. I won’t hesitate to pick up other titles that interest me if I see them – at £1, they’re a bargain.

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Source: Publisher – Thank you.

Pictures or it Didn’t Happen (Quick Reads 2015)by Sophie Hannah
Dead Man Talking (Quick Reads)by Roddy Doyle

Three Slightly Shorter Reviews

I’ve got a series of posts lined up for the week in between Christmas and New Year with my hits, misses, finds and stats, so it’s time to catch up with my review pile backlog and some shorter reviews…

The Undertaker’s Daughter by Kate Mayfield

undertakers daughter For anyone who loved the TV series Six Feet Under, this is what it’s like in real life to grow up living in an American Funeral Home, and sometimes it’s not that different! Kate Mayfield’s family moved to the town of Jubilee in southern Kentucky in 1959 where her father could realise his dream of running his own funeral home. Kate was already used living in the same house:

Back in Lanesboro, I had been the first in our family to be carried as a newborn from the hospital directly into a funeral home. Birth and death in almost the same breath.

We grow up with Kate in the business. We experience the competition between the rival businesses, and the favours and kindnesses that her father secretly does for the owner of the funeral home for the black population – for Jubilee in the 1960s was segregated. Kate’s father is a bit of a conundrum, totally professional and controlled, yet charismatic and a real dandy and, with his own hidden secrets of hard-drinking and womanising, no wonder Kate’s mother is brittle and desperate to fit into this community where they are initially outsiders. We learn a lot about the funeral business with Kate as she grows up, becoming a quietly rebellious teenager in the 1970s. We also see how the business of death can divide communities, cause family feuds and rattle a lot of skeletons in closets.

This memoir was absolutely fascinating, I heartily recommend it. Source: Publisher – Thank you, (9/10)

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

kjfI’ve read this for book group – we’ll be discussing it in early January, but I won’t post about that discussion because I don’t want to spoil this novel for anyone that hasn’t read it yet – is there anyone?

The story is told by Rosemary who, at the start is at university, and still trying to come to terms with the disintegration of her family that started when she was five and her sister Fern disappeared from her life.

Rosemary takes us back and forwards through her life and the details gradually fall into place. However the big plot twist happens on page 77, early on in the novel.

As it happens, I knew the twist and I can honestly say it wouldn’t have taken me by surprise. The clues are all there (don’t read the tagline on the back cover for starters!). I’ve read several other books over the years that cover much of the same ground – without the twist.

After that it’s all a bit inevitable. That said, I did enjoy this book a lot, although I didn’t like the way the author continually signposts where we are in Rosemary’s story by referring to the beginning, middle, end and points inbetween.  I’m still confused too why the Booker judges thought so highly of it as literature, but it is a good read. Source: Own copy, (7.5/10).

The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami

murakamiI’ve had mixed success with Murakami, but loved this beautifully illustrated novella, translated by Ted Goossen.

A boy gets an urge to find out about Ottoman tax collection and stops off at the library on his way home. Directed to the basement and the stacks of withdrawn books, he finds himself in the weirdest of horror stories featuring a sheep man, a cage, doughnuts and a girl who talks with her hands amongst many other strange things. It’s a very weird story – sort of Alice in Wonderland meets The House of Leaves.

The beauty of this little volume is in the illustrations, many of which are pages from old catalogues and text books. The end-papers are marbled and on the front is a pocket to hold the book’s ticket – Harvill Secker, the publishers have done a lovely job. I must admit I pored over the illustrations, finding the story almost as secondary, but loved the whole. (If you need a late Christmas present for someone this would be ideal.)  Source: Own copy, (9/10).

murakami spread

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To explore any of these on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate links):

 

‘After the first death, there is no other.’ – or is there?

Advantages of the Older Man by Gwyneth Lewis

seren_-_the_advantages_of_an_older_man

When this short novel popped through the door, I couldn’t resist reading it straight away. Gwyneth Lewis is a poet, author and playwright and I’ve previously read her volume in Seren Book’s New Tales of the Mabinogion series. The Meat Tree is a retelling of the strange and ancient story of Blodeuwedd, the woman made from flowers. Lewis’s version had a science fiction setting.

Her writings are very varied – so what could I expect from this new book?…

Now it can’t escape your notice that this new novella has the profile of Dylan Thomas lurking on the cover – indeed he looms large over the whole proceedings, so much so I dug around for an apt quotation to title this post and found his poem A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London.  (You can read it here.) In this elegiac poem, written in 1946, the death of an unnamed child is seen as a parallel to that of the Unknown Soldier.

However, the last line of that poem, taken slightly out of context, fitted perfectly – for this is an extraordinary little ghost story told with humour and a lot of heart…

Jennie has finished university and is back at home living with her parents in Swansea. She applies for a job with The Dylan Thomas Gallery which only shares the poet’s name – in their house her mother goes ‘Pig of a man,’ every time his name is mentioned and she is aghast when Jenny gets the job – it turns out she knew him – but she won’t give any details. It is there she meets Peter, a poet and hoping he’ll ask her out, she helps him to start up an Open Mic Poetry Club despite not being a poetry fan. Peter doesn’t seem to notice her though, so when he and Bernard decide to hold a Dylan Thomas celebration, Jennie leaps into helping and gets into the spirit of Dylan…

… or rather he gets into her. All this attention has brought the ghost of Dylan Thomas back and he appears to Jennie in her bedroom – he says he had no choice but to come:

‘If you’re worried, your reputation is still good. You seem to get more famous by the year, not less.’
‘The thing about death is that it’s very hard to accept, even when you’re dead. Maybe especially then.’
‘Mind you, I think that people know more about your rackety life than read your poems.’
For the first time, the ghost appeared perturbed. ‘Don’t they study me in schools and universities?’
‘They do. But you’re know as one of the Three Thomases.’
‘There are others?’
‘Yes, Edward Thomas, and then RS. He lived into his eighties. He wrote a lot about God.’
‘Was he known for being drunk on language like me?’
‘No. A vicar. Clean-living. Liked ornithology.’
‘Is he better known than me?’
‘Nominated for the Nobel.’
‘Bugger.’
‘You were telling me why I’ve been graced with your presence.’

He tells Jenny he’s writing new poems, haiku, she could ‘find’ them and make him more famous again, in return he could help her to get Peter…

There’s a lot more to his return than that deal though and I’m not about to spoil the story for you. Jenny and Dylan will strike up a love-hate relationship – at one stage he’ll possess her leading to the priest being called, at other times they’ll happily walk on the beach together. One thing is certain – a life which includes Dylan Thomas, alive or dead, is always going to be interesting!

Although a comedy, this novel has some great moving moments and a couple of fantastic twists. (Yes! and all inside a mere one hundred pages). I loved it, and it would make an ideal stocking filler. (9/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you.
To buy or find out more visit:

Amazon or Seren Books directly (which may be cheaper for new copies for non-Amazon Prime members).

Mothers and Daughters again…

Clara’s Daughter by Meike Ziervogel

Layout 1The relationships between mothers and daughters, or daughters and their mothers – whichever way around you want to put it, is obviously something that fascinates Meike Ziervogel.

Her first novella, published away from her own Peirene publishing house was also about a mother and daughter, and the daughter’s own daughter. Magda, based on the life of that Magda – Goebbels that is – is an immensely powerful novella that looked hard at the dysfunctional relationship between the Nazi wife and her own mother, (read my review here).

Ziervogel’s second novella, Clara’s Daughter is a contemporary story set in leafy North London and may not have a famous protagonist, but is none the less powerful for that. Michele is a successful businesswoman, yet feels defined by her relationship with her ageing mother as Clara’s Daughter. Michele’s own children are grown-up and have flown the nest and now her job and her mother taking over again from her childrens’ needs have put Michele’s marriage under a terrible strain. Michele feels increasingly trapped – something will have to give, but Michele can’t let it be her.

Then Jim betrays her with a younger woman, and she starts to snap…

I take a pencil and snap it in half, just because I have to do something. I can’t sit here and do nothing. Then I am still, and the house is still, and I know it wasn’t enough simply to break a pencil. I want to do more. So I take the metal pen holder, turn slightly on my chair and throw it straight through the open door across the balcony and into the garden. The clattering noise as it hits the patio tells me I have achieved my aim. I get to my feet and pick up the two cushions from the chair and fling them into the garden too.

Having bagged up his clothes and got the need to throw things out of her system, Michele retaliates by phoning the builder and commissioning the conversion of their basement into a granny flat, something Jim hadn’t wanted (after having a fall, they had planned to move her mother into a retirement home). Her sister Hilary will be delighted with Michele taking on their mother…

This all unfolds within the first twenty pages of this novella. We really do get to feel Michele’s anger. Later we’ll see other sides of her, especially once her mother is installed. Clara, naturally enough, resents being moved out of her own home and her growing confusion with having to face new things is scarily real.  I have to say that the author absolutely nails it again – they all love each other, but find living together even more of a strain.

Reading about this unhappy family does make you stop and think about your own situation. It’s not an easy read; there are many elements in this story that undoubtedly will have happened, or may happen later to any of us. Meike successfully makes us sympathise with and understand both mother and daughter’s points of view right through to the story’s moving conclusion.

If mothers and daughters are something of an obsession for the author, the novella form is another. As many of you will know, Ziervogel is the founder of Peirene Press which publishes novellas in translation, in addition to those she writes herself. I’m a big fan of novellas and short novels, they allow a story to be told in full without diversions getting in the way of the arc and, for me, they are more satisfying than short stories. I’ll stick my neck out and christen Meike ‘Queen of the Novella’. I hope to read many more, whether written by her or published by her. Meanwhile I’d highly recommend that you get your hands on Clara’s Daughter. (9/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you! To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Clara’s Daughter by Meike Ziervogel. Salt Publishing, September 15th 2014, paperback original.

Life by the tracks …

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

train dreamsI couldn’t bring myself to spend £12.99 on the hardback of this novella, but now it is out in paperback I snapped it up as I’d heard great things about it – and wilderness novels always seem to appeal to me.

Train Dreams tells the life story of Robert Grainier, who as a child arrives in Idaho on the train in the 1880s to live with his uncle having lost his parents – we never learn how. Robert becomes a hard worker, on the railroads and in the forests in the northern tip of the state close to the Canadian border. He marries relatively late, in his thirties, and after his wife and child are presumed dead in forest fire, lives on his own for the rest of his days into his eighties.

As the novel opens, Grainier is working on a railroad bridge across a gorge, and lends a hand to colleagues who are planning to throw a supposedly thieving Chinaman off the bridge. The Chinaman escaped, but Grainier feels cursed by having taken part in the shameful exploit…

Walking home in the falling dark, Grainier almost met the Chinaman everywhere. Chinaman in the road. Chinaman in the woods. Chinaman walking softly, dangling his hands on arms like ropes. Chinaman dancing up out of the creek like a spider…

Now Grainier stood by the table in the single-room cabin and worried. The Chinaman, he was sure, had cursed them powerfully while they dragged him along, and any bad thing might come of it. Though astonished now at the frenzy of the afternoon, baffled by the violence, and how it had carried him away like a seed in a wind, young Grainier still wished they’d gone head and killed that Chinaman before he’d cursed them.

He feels the Chinaman’s curse is responsible for the presumed death of his wife and daughter when a terrible forest fire burns everything in the whole valley where their homestead was built. He will eventually return there and rebuild the cabin, living a near hermit life with just his dog for company for half of each year, working the other months. Once his ageing joints are no longer any good for logging work, he becomes a haulier for hire with horses and wagon. He makes enough to get by, but it is a hard life.

I’m not generally comfortable with short stories, which often feel as if they’re over before they’ve started for me. However, I am happy with the novella / short novel form which has enough length to tell a good story, but in keeping it short makes every sentence count.

This is the case with Train Dreams. Johnson manages to compress eighty years into not many more pages, but also to encompass all that was important in Grainier’s life within that constraint, always with the railroad somewhere in the distance or in his dreams. We appreciate Grainier’s sheer hard work and pioneer spirit, we’re sad with him for the loss of his wife and child, and feel his loneliness when he returns to his backwoods cabin where he is left to commune with nature.

Grainier’s life in the cabin brings to mind another book rich with the pioneer spirit – Eowyn Ivey’s wonderful novel The Snow Child. There is more than that point of similarity, but I won’t expound for fear of spoiling, suffice to say that magic plays no part in Grainier’s life, except in his dreams and grief.

What is amazing about this short novel is that, despite its condensed nature, like Doctor Who’s TARDIS, it is bigger on the inside. Every sentence does indeed count. Its beginning featuring the episode with the Chinaman may not initially endear you to Grainier, but his strength of character will get you as you read on.  This was my first experience of reading Denis Johnson, I’m sure it won’t be my last. (9/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore on Amazon UK, please click below:
Train Dreams by Denis Johnson – Granta paperback, 116 pages. First published 2002 – Buy

Finding one’s inner animal?

A Man in the Zoo & Lady into Fox by David Garnett

A Man in the Zoo & Lady Into Fox by David Garnett Until I encountered the blogosphere, I had only ever encountered David Garnett (1892-1981) as the author of a novel that Andrew Lloyd-Webber based his musical Aspects of Love on. Garnett was part of the Bloomsbury Group. He was lover of Duncan Grant, and his second wife was Angelica Bell.

His place in the literary pantheon was assured when his 1922 novella Lady Into Fox was a success; it was followed in 1924 by A Man in the Zoo.  These two novellas have, in recent years, been frequently paired, both being about ‘animals’.  Interestingly, Garnett’s Wikipedia biography says: “As a child, he had a cloak made of rabbit skin and thus received the nickname “Bunny”, by which he was known to friends and intimates all his life.” so maybe it’s not so surprising that amongst his first works were these novellas which are all about ‘animals’.

Both novellas do ‘exactly what they say on the tin’. A Man in the Zoo, features a man who becomes an exhibit in the zoo, and in Lady into Fox, a lady turns into a fox. However, they couldn’t be more different in their approaches to animals…

A Man in the Zoo is the story of John Cromartie and Josephine Lackett, and as it opens, they are visiting London Zoo in Regents Park; John is trying to persuade his posh girlfriend to marry him, but it turns into an argument:

‘No! You silly savage!’ said Josephine. ‘No, you wild beast. Can’t you understand that one doesn’t treat people like that? It is simply wasting my breath to talk. I’ve explained a hundred times I am not going to make father miserable. I am not going to be cut off without a shilling and become dependent on you when you haven’t enough money to live on yourself, to satisfy your vanity. My vanity, do you think having your in love with me pleases my vanity? I might as well have a baboon or a bear. You are Tarzan of the Apes; you ought to be shut up in the Zoo. The collection here is incomplete without you. You are a survival – atavism at its worst. Don’t ask me why I fell in love with you – I did, but I cannot marry Tarzan of the Apes, I’m not romantic enough. I see, too, that you do believe what you have been saying. You do think mankind is your enemy. I can assure you that if mankind thinks of you, it thinks you are the missing link. You ought to be shut up and exhibited here in the Zoo – I’ve told you once and now I tell you again – with the gorilla on one side and the chimpanzee on the other. Science would gain a lot.’  (page 7)

So John, maybe to spite Josephine’s rejection, does exactly what she suggests.  The zoo jumps at the chance to exhibit a human alongside the other great apes, and ere long, John, installed in his cage becomes the new star attraction.

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He uses his time to read and meditate on his new situation, finding himself quite at home and able to ignore the gawpers outside.  The only thing that scares him is that Josephine might come to view him; likewise, she is scared of what she might find too.  I can’t say more for there are many developments in this tale before it reaches a definitive ending.

In Lady into Fox, Richard and Sylvia Tebrick, a few months married are out walking in the countryside when they hear the hunt. Sylvia is scared, and cries out. A moment later:

Where his wife had been the moment before was a small fox, of a very bright red. It looked at him very beseechingly, advanced towards him a pace or two, and he saw at once that his wife was looking at him from the animal’s eyes.  (page 4).

Richard saves Sylvia from the hounds and takes her home where he dismisses the servants, shoots his dogs, and they continue to live a semblance of normal life, she dressed in a little jacket. However, as the weeks go on, she starts to lose what keeps her human, and begins to become more feral, leaving Richard in anguish.  As to what happens, again, I can’t say more.

The two stories may have opposite approaches towards animals, but they share a lot about what it is to be human rather than an animal.  In one a human sees what is like to be treated as an animal, in the other a human actually becomes an animal and we’re shown that anthropomorphism is merely fantasy. Both require a leap in the imagination for the story to deliver, and both have difficult characters – the initially ghastly Josephine, and Richard in the other who can’t believe what is happening. I preferred A Man in the Zoo which is lighter than the other, but they were a fascinating counterpoint to each other. I’ll happily read more Garnett. I nearly forgot to mention the charming woodcuts that populate this edition. They’re by RA Garnett – a relative?

For some other views see:  A Man in the Zoo at Fleur Fisher in her world; Lady into Fox at Simon T and Simon S

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
A Man in the Zoo & Lady into Fox by David Garnett, Vintage paperback, 137 pages.

“A story of literature and obsession”

The Paper House by Carlos Maria Dominguez, Translated by Nick Caistor

This beautifully illustrated novella by Dominguez, an Argentinian author, is about people who are obsessed by books, and whose houses become libraries, (much like Gaskell Towers then, but I jest).

It starts with a death…

One day in the spring of 1998, Bluma Lennon bought a secondhand copy of Emily Dickinson’s poems in a bookshop in Soho, and as she reached the second poem on first street corner, she was knocked down by a car.

Books change people’s destinies. Some have read The Tiger of Malaysia and become professors of literature in remote universities. Demian converted tens of thousands of young men to Eastern philosophy. Hemingway made sportsmen of them, Alexandre Dumas complicated the lives of thousands of women, quite a few of whom were saved from suicide by cookery books. Bluma was their victim.

The unnamed narrator is a colleague of Bluma’s in the Department of Hispanic Studies at Cambridge.  When a package arrives from Uruguay for Bluma, containing a book which has a dedication handwritten by her to a ‘Carlos’ in the front, he decides to return it to ‘Carlos’, and sets out to find its reclusive owner. The journey will take him from Cambridge to his home city of Buenos Aires and on to Montevideo.

In between his travels he philosophises about books and their owners, and there are many truths in there, including:

“It is often harder to get rid of books than it is to acquire them.”

“There is a moment, however, when we have accumulated so many books that they cross an invisible line, and what was once a sense of pride becomes a burden, because from now on space will always be a problem.”

Although set in the world of academia, and featuring some books I’ve never heard of, this story is not totally dry. There is humour, but there is a dark side to the final events that recall the moral consequences present in all such fables. An odd, but strangely entrancing little book. (7/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click through below:
The Paper House by Carlos Maria Dominguez. Pub 2005 by Harvill Secker. Illus hardback, 103 pages.