A strong new voice…

Young God by Katherine Faw Morris

Young GodI bought this short novel on Elle’s recommendation after she responded to my post about the number of male authors I tend to read (that post in itself was a response to hers on the same subject). Young God is the debut novel by a young American author and the minute Elle told me that it was like Winter’s Bone but more so, I had to investigate – and indeed a quote from Daniel Woodrell tops the list on the back cover.  Sold!

It starts as it means to continue:

NIKKI IS ALL TO HELL. A boy jumps off the cliff in front of her. She peers over the edge, watching him go.

‘Nikki.’
‘How far down is it?’
‘Like a hundred feet,’ Wesley says.
Wesley squats near her feet. He wants to stick his dick in her. Nikki yanks tight all the bows of her bikini, hot pink. It used to be Mama’s. Now Mama’s too old to wear it. Nikki has been thirteen forever.

There is a technique to jumping. Nikki manages it, but her Mama, jealous of her, doesn’t. She slips and dies, smashed on the rocks. Nikki is left with her Mama’s pervy boyfriend Wesley, who gets his way with her. Her response is to steal his bag of pills and car and drive off in search of her real father.

In her mouth his name is shiny and bitter like a licked coin.
‘Coy Hawkins’
It rings out.

As you might expect, in this trailer park world in Appalachia, this is going from one bad situation into another. Coy has been a drug dealer, he used to be the ‘biggest coke dealer in the county’, but currently he’s just a pimp, living in a trailer with Angel whom he rents out. He also has a young son, Levi, by Crystal who lives down the road. Levi is always out on his bike, watching.

Nikki stays. Angel is hostile to her, her father is not bothered, although grateful for Wesley’s pills. Life carries on in the trailer and once Nikki finds out that Coy is just a pimp, she is disappointed – he used to be someone. Somehow, she stirs a paternal urge to impress in him and he attacks another pimp for her.

This is the start of a new relationship between Nikki and her father, steeped in drugs and prostitution. Nikki learns the value of being an underage virgin and tries to recruit a girl from the children’s home. You can tell it’s going to descend into a new level of hell – but will Nikki survive?

My word! This novel, once started, doesn’t let go. The language is very coarse, the violence and sex is very nasty, the poverty is extreme. It’s everything you might expect from a tale of poor white trailer-trash folk, but it goes beyond cliché to become something else entirely. You can’t ‘like’ any of the characters, but you have to respect that they have no other way out. Nikki has such strength, you have to admire her for it, as you do Ree in Winter’s Bone. Nikki has a harder edge though, honed by years of abuse, neglect and periods in the children’s home.

Nikki’s story is told in short chapters, sort of vignettes – some only a line or two long, others stretching to a couple of pages. Soon, you recognise that the white space around the shorter ones will usually signal a major moment, be it in thought, deed or conversation. The author never attempts to make us like or judge Nikki, she just tells it like it is in a triumph of understatement.  Brutal, sparse and shocking, this coming of age novel is maybe the darkest one I’ve ever read – but I loved it. You don’t have to take my word for it either, see what Eimear McBride thought of it in the Guardian here(10/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link):
Young God by Katherine Faw Morris. Pub Granta 2014. Paperback, 208 pages.

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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.

An Economic Allegory?

The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse by Iván Repila

ivan repila

At 110 pages, this short novel in the Pushkin Press Collection is easily read in one session. Once grabbed by this powerful story I wasn’t going to put the book down until I’d finished it.

It concerns two brothers, who are only known as Big and Small appropriately to their comparative sizes. They are trapped at the bottom of a well which, like a mould for an iceberg, is wider under the surface the further it goes down. Their attempts to climb out fail; Big tries to throw Small up and over, this doesn’t work either. No-one hears their cries, despite the well being not far from the path. Will they ever get out, or will they die down there?

The days go on, they survive on worms, maggots and the earthy water from the sludge, portioned as per their size. Big keeps up his exercise regime. Small gets thin, sickly, and feverish but does recover a little. Big admonishes him for not eating.

‘You should eat even if you aren’t hungry.’
‘I’ll eat whem I’m hungry. I’ll drink when I’m thirsty. I’ll shit when I feel like shitting. Like dogs do.’
‘We aren’t dogs.’
‘In here we are. Worse than dogs.’

Later:

‘I think I’ve got rabies,’ he says.
‘No. You don’t have rabies yet.’
Small looks at him lovelessly, and asks:
‘Then what is this anger I can feel inside?’
‘You’re becoming a man,’ says Big.

The days go by and Small starts raving, making up tales including one that he was ‘the boy who stole Attila’s horse’. Big keeps up his regime. It gets harder and harder to find food, and all the time they have had a carrier of bread and cheese they were bringing back for their mother by their side – now beyond eating. The days carry on, Small gets ever-weaker. Big does his best to keep him alive…

This story is so Grimm – it is really a modern fairy tale. The boys’ struggle is told unsparingly in its detail in Sophie Hughes’ translation from the Spanish, from the taste of maggots to their physical state, yet it is not until near the end that we find out what happened. The brothers’ love for each other shines through, although there are some truly dark moments. On this level it is a compelling and touching tale with some flashes of humour just when you thought it was getting too black.

Where I had problems with it though was as an economic allegory of the state of Europe – that’ll teach me to read the publisher’s blurb just before I start a novel!  Indeed the whole book is prefaced with a rather nasty epigraph from Margaret Thatcher (and another by Bertold Brecht). It wasn’t until I read John Self’s excellent review at Asylum that I was able to formulate my thoughts in this regard: The hole or void is pyramid shaped – the boys are at the bottom where they are literal and metaphorical have nots. It would take a miracle for them to reach the surface where they’d join the haves – but how do you climb out of a void?  That’s my take, but I’m not sure I’d have got the economic allegory, even noting the quote from Thatch, if I hadn’t been pre-warned.

This strange little fable was definitely well worth reading for the writing is fine indeed. It’s Repila’s second novel; the first to be translated into English – it’ll be interesting to see what comes next. (7.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (Affiliate link):
The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse (Pushkin Collection)by Iván Repila, 2013 trans Sophie Hughes 2015. Pushkin Press, paperback original, 110 pages.

‘I like a fresh bowl.’

Yes, it’s a quote from that late 1990s TV series Ally McBeal which was set in a Boston legal firm. I watched it religiously for most of its run. Partner John Cage was the chap who said it – he had many quirks including a remote control for his favourite toilet stall, which he’d pre-flush before going… I bring it up because it was the first thing that popped into my mind when I spotted this book at a book sale last year!

 

The Lady Who Liked Clean Rest Rooms by J.P. Donleavy

donleavy lady clean Donleavy is Irish-American; born in New York he moved to Ireland after WWII where, now aged 88, he still lives. The Ginger Man was his first novel, published in 1955, and he continued writing up until the late 1990s. He wrote several plays in his early career in addition to his novels and occasional non-fiction.

I have The Ginger Man and A Fairytale of New York (1973) on my shelves but, despite them being broadly classed as comedies, I worried that they might be slightly challenging to read. This short, late novel from 1995 with its arresting title thus seemed a perfect compromise as a good introduction to the man and his writing.

Meet Jocelyn – a fit, fortyish divorcée living in Scarsdale, a prosperous suburb of New York City. Jocelyn got the big house and a chunk of cash from the settlement but is rattling around in this money pit and slowly going mad.

…she got so drunk she found herself sitting at midnight with a loaded shotgun across her lap, after she thought she heard funny noises outside around the house. Then watching a bunch of glad facing so called celebrities spout their bullshit on a T.V. talk show and remembering that once someone told her how, when having quaffed many a dram, they turned off T.V. sets in the remote highlands of Scotland, she clicked off the safety, aimed the Purdey at mid-screen and let off the no. 4 cartridges in both barrels. And she said to herself over and over again as the sparks and flames erupted from the smoke.
‘Revenge is what I want. Nothing but pure unadulterated revenge. But my mother brought me up to be a lady.’

Jocelyn’s family harks back to the Mayflower, she went to Bryn Mawr – but since the divorce, her friends have melted away and her children don’t talk to her, she has no help any more. She cashes in the big house, but bad financial advice loses her her capital. She moves again into a tiny apartment in Yonkers (not Scarsdale – eek!), tries waitressing and finds that her fine palate is not suited to serving uneducated ones. She can’t find another job, so she wonders if she can get a man – maybe one of her old flames would pay her for it!

The one thing that keeps Jocelyn sane are her regular forays to the big art galleries in Manhattan. The only problem with being out though is the need to pee – and Jocelyn, like her South Carolina grandmother taught her, “My dear, if you really have to, only clean, very clean rest rooms will do”, and there aren’t many around in the businesses and big hotels that will tolerate regular non-resident visitors. But one day she finds the perfect rest room in a funeral home and has to pretend to be at a viewing …

I won’t deny that this text was an easy read – I so nearly let it bog me down, but persevered as it was only 100 pages or so! Donleavy’s sentence structure can be very convoluted in its clauses, and he ignores grammatical convention a lot of the time. His almost stream of consciousness style of writing, all in the present tense, felt more like the story had been written in the 1960s than the 90s, and it frequently obscured the laughs at first which did become apparent on closer reading – for underneath it all was a funny little plot, although it is a rather sad book.

It was surprisingly vulgar in places and at first I wondered how Jocelyn could stoop so low, but as we all know – social standing is no measure of bad behaviour, and what those Bryn Mawr girls got up to!… Despite her demotion from socialite to lonely mad cat-lady-type, I didn’t like Jocelyn at all and I wasn’t entirely convinced by her characterisation either.

This book is a definite Marmite one – some readers will love it and others will hate it. The experience reminded me of reading Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard as similarly challenging stylistically; I appreciated both, but didn’t like either particularly. (6/10)

Are all Donleavy’s books like this?
Should I go on to try one of his full length novels?

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Source: Own Copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Lady Who Liked Clean Restrooms: The Chronicle of One of the Strangest Stories Ever to Be Rumoured about Around New York by J P Donleavy. Paperback.

Book Group Report – Jean Teulé

The Suicide Shop by Jean Teulé

suicide-shopOur book group read for July into August was actually a re-read for me. We’d wanted something quick and light as due to our schedules we only had three weeks between meetings instead of our usual four or five. I had read Teulé’s 2007 novel, published in English translation by Sue Dyson in 2008 when it first came out pre-blog – but thanks to my spreadsheet that I was already keeping back then I can retrieve my capsule review:

This very French, dystopian fable reminded me very much of the stylish film Delicatessen (a hilarious post-apocalyptic French sort of Sweeney Todd), but lacking some of its virtuosity. That’s not to say that it is unimaginative … Some of the ways that the proprietors of The suicide shop devise to help their customers do away with themselves are really hilarious, but it lacks the film’s lightness of touch with its macabre material. In particular, the Alan Turing suicide kit is inspired, as is the Kiss of Death given to Marilyn as her coming of age birthday present.

The Tuvache family who own the shop are all cartoon characters, all named for famous suicides which tell you all you need to know about them – there’s the father Mishima, the mother Lucrèce, son Vincent, daughter Marilyn, and the wayward youngest son. He’s named Alan after Turing, but does not display any of his namesake’s traits! Alan is the despair of his parents being all too happy, and happiness is catching in this sulphurous City of Lost Religion (presumably a take on Paris being the City of Light?). Usually in novels, it’s the other way around with everyone starting out happy before diving into the slough of despond – but this does allow a neat ending. A clever and funny, quick novel to read, but a little heavy-handed.

Yes, it’s literally about a shop where you can buy everything you need to kill yourself in whatever way you please. M. & Mme. Tuvache are only too happy to will help you decide how. There are some delightfully gruesome jokes here – but I will only share a bit of the Alan Turing one with you in case you want to read the book yourself:

‘The inventor committed suicide in an odd way. On the seventh of June 1954, he soaked an apple in a solution of cyanide and placed it on a small table. Next, he painted a picture of it, and then he ate the apple.’
‘He never did!’
‘It’s said that this is the reason why the apple Macintosh logo depicts an apple with a bit out of it. It’s Alan Turing’s apple.’
‘Well, well… at least I won’t die an idiot.’

(Wikipedia tells me that a half eaten apple was indeed found beside Turing’s bed, but it wasn’t tested for cyanide. His inquest wondered if he had accidentally inhaled cyanide fumes from gold electroplating which he did in his spare room.)

I really enjoyed the book all over again, but what did the others in the group think?  Well – no-one hated it outright. We were split over the plot, or perceived lack of it – some wanted more, others somewhat disagreed with as it is only 160-odd pages of big print – a short novel really and it does have a main storyline with other elements. I think all but me felt a little cheated by the final ending, but I won’t expound further. Everyone did at least like some of the jokes. Needless to say, we all found it very French! Given the amount of discussion though, it did make quite a good book group read. I particularly loved the shop’s slogan – ‘Vous avez râté votre vie, réussisez votre mort…’ translated as, ‘Has your life been a failure? Let’s make your death a success.’ (8.5/10)

By the way, I recommend the film Delicatessen from 1991 directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro – a post-apocalyptic character-based French comedy about the inhabitants of a building block. Full of grotesques and very quirky – very Terry Gilliamesque, but in French. The Suicide Shop has been made into a French animated film too, but I haven’t seen it and aren’t sure if it’s subtitled.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Suicide Shop by Jean Teulé, Gallic Books, paperback 169 pages.
Le Magasin des suicides (DVD) ~ Patrice Leconte
Delicatessen [DVD]

Australia & New Zealand Literature Month

ANZ-LitMonth-200pixANZ Literature Month, hosted by Kim at Reading Matters is nearly over but I’ve finally managed to fit in a short novel by Tim Winton to take part reviewing, although I have enjoyed reading contributor’s reviews which are listed here.

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That Eye, The Sky by Tim Winton

that eye
This short novel was published in 1986, so early in Winton’s writing career – his third book. It’s a quirky little thing – not really a coming of age story, but it is definitely a tale about growing up and learning more about what to believe in for young Morton – known as Ort.

Eleven-year-old Ort is in his final term at junior school. In the autumn he’ll have to take the school bus to the city to join the seniors – something he’s not looking forward to.  He lives a way outside their little town – his hippy parents decided to forsake the city for the country when his Mum was pregnant with his older sister Tegwyn. His ancient Grammar also lives with them. His Dad works at the nearby garage for Mr Cherry, whose son Fat is Ort’s best friend. They’re looking forward to a summer swimming in the creek and doing nothing much at all.  Today starts off as a normal day …

‘Seeyaz.’ That’s Dad going. He revs the ute up. He’s in a hurry, going into town for Mr Cherry.
‘Wave him off, Ort,’ Mum says to me. She always reckons you should show people you love them when they go away because you might never see them again. They might die. The world might end. But Dad’s only going to town for an hour. It’s business for Mr Cherry. And there he goes, out the drive and onto the road.

It’s as well that they wave goodbye, for within a few pages, Ort’s Dad has had a bad car accident and is taken to hospital where he lies ‘crook’ in a coma. Neither Ort nor his Mum believe that he won’t come home – Ort himself was in a coma for a fortnight with meningitis as a babe.

Life continues for the Flack family, with added visits to the hospital, when Mr Cherry agrees to take them – although the relationship between the Flacks and the cherries will go sour when Mum finds out what the errand was. Meanwhile, Ort and Fat muck around in the creek and spy on a bum who’s sleeping under the bridge.

Sure enough, one day Sam wakes up. The hospital soon ship him home – he breathes – voicelessly through the tracheostomy hole in his windpipe. He sees, but doesn’t appear to look. He’s little more than a vegetable in appearance, although Ort is sure he hears and understands everything. He’s going to need a lot of looking after.

Help arrives – but not the kind they’d been expecting. Henry Warburton turns up on the doorstep – saying he’s a volunteer. Ort recognises him – but his Mum accepts the offer as she’s getting desperate. So Henry joins the Flack household, an enigmatic stranger, big, grubby and with a speech impediment – he seems to fight with himself a lot. Should they trust him?

Big things in life tend to happen in clusters – and that’s what happens in this novel. Everything coincides that summer and for Ort, that means a certain loss of innocence, yet also an opening of his mind to new things – not always for the better perhaps. Ort has to man up and act as the head of the household. For his Mum, it’s the realisation that their hippy dream only works with both her and Sam in it – and it knocks her for six, making her extremely fragile emotionally and open to suggestion.

Henry brings with him a definite sense of threat; its hard to put your finger on exactly what it is, but intermittently I was reminded of Reverend Harry Powell as played by Robert Mitchum in the film Night of the Hunter, but I don’t think Henry was inherently evil in that way. Certainly creepy though. Winton leaves much to our imagination…

Ort is a great child narrator though, on the cusp of becoming a teenager soon, but not until after that transition year when you start seniors. He’s a practical nature boy too, looking after his ‘chooks’, catching lizards and looking up at that sky…

The sky is the same colour as Mum and Dad’s eyes. When you look at it long enough, like I am now with my nose up in it, it looks exactly like an eye anyway. One big blue eye. Just looking down. At us.

I loved Ort’s voice narrating the story. The contrast between long and short sentences. Winton captures the beginnings of his adolescence perfectly, and his rebellious sister Tegwyn too – she is confused and isolated living out there. Naturally, you cross your fingers when reading a story like this, hoping for a happy outcome – but you’ll have to read it for yourself if you want to find that out.

Although this probably wasn’t the best Winton novel to start off with, it’s the only one I had to hand. If it represents a writer beginning to find his stride, I have high hopes for his later books, as I enjoyed this one. (8/10)

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Source: Own Copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
That Eye, the Sky by Tim Winton (pub 1986, Scribner paperback 160 pages.)

Psst! Want to know a secret?

Secret by Philippe Grimbert

Secret

This short novel contains within its 154 widely spaced pages a tale so compelling you will want to read the whole thing in one sitting as I did and still have time to savour the exquisite writing as translated from the French by Polly McLean.

The only problem that I have in writing this review is that I can’t tell you much about it without giving away the central secrets that lie in this family’s past. The narrator tells of his childhood growing up in post-war Paris in the 1950s, the sickly only child of supremely fit and glamorous parents. He wishes he had an older brother and invents one, but it is when he talks to an old family friend once he reaches fifteen that he begins to find out the truth about his heritage, something his parents had wanted to stay buried.

One day while still a child, he helps his mother tidy in the attic …

She had opened a trunk in which she expected to find fashion magazines that used to publish her designs. She jumped when she saw the little dog with Bakelite eyes, sleeping there on top of a pile of blankets. Threadbare and dusty-muzzled, he was wearing a knitted coat. I immediately grabbed him and hugged him to my chest, but had to abandon the idea of taking him to my room: I could feel my mother’s unease as she asked me to put him back in his place.  (page 5)

You should never hide things like that where people may find them – at the very least they should have ‘lost’ the key to the trunk. I shouldn’t be so glib though.  Grimbert himself is a psychoanalyst and he uses all the tricks of the trade to gradually tease out what happened. He also shares a his surname with his protagonist, which will lead you to all sorts of questions, not least the killer one – are there elements of autobiography in this story?  I have no idea of the answer to that by the way.

Published in 2004 in France as Un Secret, and 2007 in the UK dropping the ‘A’, this book was a bestseller in France and won a Prix Goncort. It was also filmed and I can certainly see it as a French drama. Please be aware that it is also available under the title ‘Memory‘.

The style is spare, yet full of the details that we need to get pulled into the story. I enjoyed this novel very much indeed. (9/10)

For another non-spoiler review see Vulpes Libris here

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Secretby Philippe Grimbert. Pub 2007 by Portobello Books, paperback 154 pages.

‘My Heart Belongs to Daddy’ …

Reasons She Goes to the Woods by Deborah Kay Davies

reasons-she-goes-to-the-woods-9781780743769_0 Deborah Kay Davies is one of those writers who does dark brilliantly.

Her first novel True Things About Me (my review) was disturbing yet unputdownable – about a thrill-seeking young woman who gets into an abusive relationship.  Her second novel, the Baileys longlisted Reasons She Goes to the Woods is also disturbing and unputdownable…

It’s about a child, Pearl, and her family. There’s her little brother The Blob, there’s her mother and her beloved Daddy.  The book’s blurb quotes from the nursery rhyme There was a little girl, (which was actually written by Longfellow, I found out!).

When she was good
She was very, very good,
And when she was bad she was horrid.

Except that Pearl is more often horrid than good. She’s an experimenter on other people – when she gets found out, they don’t like it – especially her mother who punishes her. She hides in the woods behind their house. It soon becomes clear that the mother has mental health problems, and Pearl gets blamed, and as she grows up and becomes a teenager, her experiments get nastier, and her mother carries on getting worse. Her poor beloved Daddy is beside himself with worry.

Some might say that the outcome of the novel is predictable given Pearl’s seeming single-mindedness in her actions; the route to get there though is not so obvious and builds up gradually over the course of the book.

The author, tells the story with a great deal of style. Although the book is nominally 250 pages long, only half the pages contain the story. Each pair of pages contains a one or two word heading on the left, and then a single paragraph that fills the page on the right. So the book is only really about 120 pages long.

Each right hand page is a vignette recounting one snapshot of Pearl’s life, moving from primary school through to teenage years. The extract below is the last third of the first of these little stories that make up the whole:

The living room is quiet. In the entire world there is only Pearl and her father. Her mother laid a fire before she went out; taking ages, leaving instructions, dropping things, then slamming the door and coming back. Now Pearl listens to the sounds coming from the grate as the flames lick each other and purr. From the place pressed against her father’s knee she feels a rippling sensation move through her body, as if a delicate, frilled mushroom were expanding, elongating, filling her up. She exhales slowly. She mustn’t disturb him. He would push her off with his beautiful hands if he woke up.

Told in the present tense, there is a dreamy otherworldliness about Pearl’s actions that belies the fact that a lot of what she does is downright nasty. It’s clear that the mother-daughter relationship never happened and that she idolises her father. She also has a controlling relationship with her few friends, and The Blob too of course. After all, Pearl only wants one thing …

Deborah Kay Davies has again probed the dark side of relationships – different ones this time.  I wonder where she’ll go for her next novel?  As I said at the top, this book is disturbing and unputdownable, an uneasy but thought-provoking read.  (8.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – thank you! To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Reasons She Goes to the Woods by Deborah Kay Davies, pub Feb 2014 by Oneworld, 250pp, Hardback.

Where is your North?

Soonchild by Russell Hoban, illustrated by Alexis Deacon

220px-Soonchild_Cover

This was the last book that Russell Hoban finished before his death in 2011. It was published posthumously by Walker Books as an illustrated short novel for a teen audience, and it is dedicated to Hoban’s grandchildren who are probably the perfect age to read this modern folktale of the frozen north…

Maybe you think there isn’t any north where you are. Maybe it’s warm and cosy and outside the window the street is full of cars or maybe there’s just emptiness and a train whistle. There aren’t any Eskimos or dog sleds, nothing like that. But in your mind there is a North.

There’s a north where it’s so cold that your nose hairs get stiff and your eyeballs get brittle and your face hurts and your hands will freeze if you leave them uncovered too long. A north where the white wind blows, where the night wind wails with the voices of the cold and lonesome dead. Where the ice bear walks alone and he’s never lost. Where the white wolf comes trotting, trotting on the paths of the living, the paths of the dead. Where the snowy owl drifts through the long twilight without a sound. Where the raven speaks his words of black.

In this north there’s a place on the shore of the great northern bay with forty or fifty huts and a co-op and some boats and some of those motorized sleds they call skidoos. Some of the people still live by hunting and fishing but many have jobs and buy their food at the co-op.

These are the opening paragraphs of Soonchild, and those of you who’ve encountered Russell Hoban before will recognise his trademark way of bringing a flight of fantasy down to earth with the introduction of the mundane and a dash of humour.  This novel is full of these touches of humour, but underneath that is a rather dark and profound story of death and rebirth based on Inuit folklore. 

Soonchild is an unnaturally quiet baby, and she plans on staying in her mother No Problem’s womb. She can’t hear the ‘world songs’, so there is no point in coming out, she doesn’t believe there’s a world out there.

Sixteen Face John is her father, he is the local shaman, as was his father and grandfather before him, but he has got fat and lazy drinking Coke and watching baseball on the telly.  No Problem challenges John as shaman to fix it.

Illustration by Alexis Deacon from Soonchild by Russell Hoban

Illustration by Alexis Deacon from Soonchild by Russell Hoban

Somewhat reluctantly, John goes off and makes a big-dream brew – and he jumps into the raven’s eye to go and visit Nanuq, the ice bear, chasing these elusive songs. He will meet all manner of wildlife of the North as well as his ancestors in his quest in which he will die and be reborn many times in his search for the songs, and he will need courage as he finds out some hard truths about himself too.

With the exception of the mysterious snowy owl, Ukpika, many of the animals that John meets are straight talking and worldly.  “… my houth is youw houth and you’we my browther. What can I do fow you, bwo?” says Timertuk the walrus with a shocking lisp.  However, if you took out these playful bits of vernacular and the references to Coca-cola and pizza, what’s left could be a traditional folktale.

What makes the story really come alive, and takes it to a whole new level though are Alexis Deacon’s superb monochrome illustrations as above. They are ghostly and slightly savage – you can see the ribs and skulls of some of the wolves showing through their skin. You can sense that it’s hard to stay alive for the animals in this harsh landscape.

monster 1Given the fantastic nature of Hoban’s story, it lends itself to being illustrated. This was the same for Patrick Ness’s novel A Monster Calls, which I reviewed here. Jim Kay’s Greenaway Award-winning illustrations for that book were elemental, full of a life darker than the story itself. Reading the illustrated version was an absolute pleasure, yet Walker Books also produced an picture-less version of the paperback as a conventional adult crossover edition. I don’t think this would benefit Soonchild – it needs the illustrations to take you past the humour so you can savour the story underneath.

I’m a fan of Hoban, and the allure of the frozen North and its spirits, encountered from my cosy armchair made for a magical hour or two of reading. (9/10)

By the way: Another novel for older children and teens with its roots in the far north that I’d recommend is The Secret Ministry of Frost by Nick Lake, which I reviewed here.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Soonchild by Russell Hoban, illustrated by Alexis Deacon. Walker Books 2012, 144 pages, paperback – Feb 2014.
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, illustrated library binding.
The Secret Ministry of Frost by Nick Lake