Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

"The More Things Change" by Jim Murdoch (fandango virtual, 2017)

Spoiler Alert!

James Henry Valentine "had never happened upon anything of any real value in this life, least of all the secret to true happiness" (p.5). "James had never found himself either ... The trouble was Jim was never exactly sure what he was meant to be on the lookout for or beating himself up over" (p.6). Later he says "I think I figured out fairly early on that there was no me to find, that if I wanted to "find myself" I would need to invent myself" (p.178).

He's an English teacher, a loner, a budding writer. When 40 he talks to a strange man in the park then returns home to find he has a wife who he's known for over 20 years. He has grown children too. He has to reconstruct his new past from the evidence available. He takes 5 years to do so. The book he writes about it ("Memoirs of a Made-up Man") is a success but his wife leaves him 5 years later. He never really connects with his children. The follow-up short-story collection "The Man Who Wrestled Angels" fails, though the individual stories did ok in magazines. Finally, after a gap of years he meets the man (God) again. God points out that "Man is nothing other than what he makes of himself. With himself. Such is the guiding principle of existentialism" (p.295). There's a final, satisfying twist at the end involving a rake.

That's the plot. I'll now look at a few of the devices.

Extended analogies

There are several of them. For example there's "A sphere passing through a three-dimensional space appears in the distance as a speck ... Similarly a man moving through life may be perceived as an embryo, an infant ... It was the world that had changed about him" (p.9). The analogy sometime follows the statement it's illustrating - i.e. It's show and tell. There are also mixed metaphors. Take for example "Pleasure was an aside and rather surprised each of them when it did catch them unawares. It was like an attractive hitchhiker who might catch their eye but, while they were wrestling with their consciences, the moment would slip from grasp and there would be no turning back" (p.12). Note that we're given a fairly literal description, then we're given an analogy. The "no turning back" ending is apt, but not the "slip from grasp". An alternative style would be "Pleasure was like an attractive hitchhiker who might catch their eye but, while they were wrestling with their consciences, the moment would pass and there would be no turning back".

Sometimes figures of speech rather than clustering around a single analogy arrive like London buses - "the son proved a harder nut to crack. His poker face was no mere affectation either. The man seemed incapable of a knee-jerk reaction" (p.13)

Aphorisms

There are several of these too, including

  • "Jim was forty and had been since he was thirty" (p.14)
  • "Meaning is a symptom of action" (p.36)
  • "Feelings are like spots - you shouldn't pick at them or they get all infected and scabby" (p.49)
  • "The past is like yeast" (p.127)
  • "Pity is like guilt: both are binding agents, tying things together that would really rather be apart" (p.168)

They work well. Some of them are extended towards being analogies.

Writers

The role of writer acquires a cosmic significance eventually, but even early on it attracts attention.

  • "There is a special circle of hell earmarked for writers when they sit around all day long having great ideas but with no practical means of recording them" (p.24)
  • "the real him was a writer" (p.47)
  • "What aggravated Jim was that he had no feeling of empathy for his character" (p.90)
  • "Someone should invent a new word, wroter, past tense of writer, one who who once wrote but no longer writes" (p.167)
  • "I am a writer - we are always alone" (p.225).
  • "Writers don't have real lives, they have ongoing research" (p.226)

The Craft of writing

We're given little lessons in writing

  • "you decide, purely for the benefit of the plot you understand, your protagonist needs something, fleshing out, an idiosyncrasy" (p.83)
  • "Plot Point No 1: Start the ball rolling with an event outside of the protagonist's control that initiatives a chain of events" (p.171)
  • "Now would be a good time to take stock so far. A plot needs a number of elements for it to do its job: a believable and sympathetic central character - I nominate myself for that position ... " (p.183)
  • "It's always tempting late in a book to graft in a bit of backstory to kick the feet from under your audience" (p.241)

Narratology

At first the writing's in the 3rd person. On p.25 we're asked "Have you given any thought to who I am yet? You've probably taken it for granted I'm the omniscient narrator". The main narrational elements are

  • God/Joe
  • Jim Valentine (wannabee writer. Manipulated by Joe and narrator)
  • Narrator
  • Jim Murdoch (I've never met him, but I presume he's real)

It's subsequently pointed out that "There is another thing with regards to storytelling that comes into play here and it has to do with who exactly is narrating. In some books the voice-over is never identified ... It is omniscient ... Omniscient narrators have zero invested in the outcome ... My narrators tended to be of the imperfect variety - unreliable witnesses" (p.174). Later, new elements emerge

  • On p.165 the text becomes Jim's 1st-person narrative
  • On p.222 the addressee issue is discussed. On p.240 there is "Why do we writers write? What do we get out of it and why do we need readers so? To validate who we are"
  • On p.229 Jim asks "if my life has been nothing but a work of fiction, who're the readers?". Joe answers "The angels", pointing out later that Jim isn't real, and that "Life does not imitate art ... Like is art" (p.303)

The most common mode is the monologue - raconteuring - even if two people are in discussion. Either God is lecturing Jim or the narrator is talking to the reader who can't interrupt.

Misc

  • I've never heard the phrase "loaded for bear" (p.30) before.
  • On p.181 "streaks ahead" (rather than "streets ahead") appears. I've not heard it before, though apparently it's fairly common.
  • The description of multi-dimensional time on p.85 will keep SF writers happy.
  • There are Beckettian flourishes: when the none-too-young home-help gives Jim occasional relief; on p.254 there's a passage about sharing ashes fairly amongst a family tree of offspring.
  • There are many allusions, of which I probably only picked up a few.

Summary

Character-development is a major theme, an analogy that works on 3 levels.

  • God made us
  • Authors create their characters
  • We create others and ourselves

These level can be nested and twisted. Occasionally, sometimes for comic effect, the layers are confused (metalepsis) - God creates authors who create God. At each level the creator needs readers. Because of Jim Valentine's amnesia, he has to re-create himself, but perhaps that's life's norm - "Nietzsche ... proposed the unimaginable: the God was dead (or had at least forsaken us), which would mean we are all writing ourselves" (p.261). Jim thinks his home help (who loves soap operas) is the sort of viewer who'd post cards to the characters, but he doesn't consider it that strange - aren't other people always creations of some sort? I'm sympathetic to the theme and empathize with the hero. I've recently read Maria Taylor's Instructions for making me poetry pamphlet which tackles similar issues.

When God appeared I was at first worried, for the same reason that I don't like "Q" episodes in StarTrek TNG - anything can happen. But there are few (albeit major) interventions. The novel could have excluded the God character entirely, beginning with an amnesia attack. It would have lost a level of analogy that way, but might have gained more readers.

There were passages when the conjecturing went on too long for me. On p.206-233 for example, nothing much happens and I struggled. But perhaps I'm supposed to. A character admits - "Granted, I am prone to rambling and beating around bushes" (p.245). What kept me reading through these passages were the aphorisms, analogies, references, and writing tips, and I was keen to see how the story would end.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

"Narcopolis" by Jeet Thayil (Faber and Faber, 2012)

Dimple was castrated before he was 10. In Bombay during the 70s she worked in a brothel, and got into drugs. She lived for 10 years downstairs from her drug-den boss and his family - she was his mistress. Life became more difficult when heroin took over from pipe-smoking ("This is the new thing, brown powder, garad heroin with the compliments of the Pakistani government", p.142), ("Garad, you know what it means in Urdu? Waste", p.199) and when Muslim/Hindu battles begin. Dimple switches religion, ending up Christian to go into Rehab. In the final section we jump forward years. Most of the main characters have gone.

There's a long interlude about the life of Mr Lee that I could have done without. On p.196 there are instructions on how a wife set on fire by her husband can get herself reincarnated as his next child. Monsoon scenes seem hallucinatory. There are lyric sections, serious sections, and several dreams. Quotable passages include -

  • Colour is a way of speaking, not seeing. Poets need colour, and musicians too. But painters shouldn't forget it. Colour, if you don't mind me saying, is a crutch, like the necessity of God. For some nineteenth-century European painters, the absence of God was as intolerable as the absence of colour. They used the entire spectrum for every negligible little thing (p.34)
  • Only the rich can afford surprise and or irony. The rich crave meaning. The first thing they ask when faced with eternity, and in fact the last thing, is: excuse me, what does this mean? The poor don't ask questions, or they don't ask irrelevant questions. They can't afford to. All they can afford is hunger and ghosts (p.39)

Other reviews

  • Kevin Rushby ( There is a subplot about a murderer that doesn't add much to the story, and a dud note is struck when Dimple starts to opine on Baudelaire and Cocteau. ... Narcopolis is a blistering debut)
  • Salil Tripathi (The most striking section is in the middle, when Thayil introduces us to Lee, the elderly Chinese man who gives his pipes to Dimple)
  • Stuart Evers (Centred on Rashid’s squalid drug shack, this portmanteau novel picks up strands, weaves them with others, journeys to Mao’s China, only to drop us back, mesmerised, right where we began. ... The literature of drugs can be both wearisome and curiously smug: low-life glamour exulted with florid prose and cod-spiritual awakenings.)
  • thebookbag (On the surface of the book, it's very much about addiction, to narcotics but also to sex and alcohol, but at a deeper level it's also a using drugs as a huge metaphor for the changes in India over the period from the simplicity of opium, and the long-standing historical links between China and India, to the more damaging modern narcotics of heroin from Pakistan which has a more violent and damaging impact on its users. India remains a melting pot of religion, cultures and wealth throughout but Thayil is suggesting that it is the more modern influences that have made it more damaging and violent.)

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

"Addlands" by Tom Bullough (Granta, 2016)

It begins in 1941. Subsequent section are at roughly 5 year intervals, ending in 2011. I like the 1947 section the most (saving sheep from snow) and the 1976 section where Naomi appears, introducing a clash of cultures. Each winter takes its toll. The book's immersive, rural, the main character (who takes a pet crow around with him) hardly leaving his land, though his son (the offspring of a brief relationship with a woman who becomes a poet) travels the world before returning. Feuds last for decades, complicated by paternity doubts. Animal sounds are always ready to be interpreted. The occasional word of dialect didn't trouble me. The period detail sounded convincing -

  • "Oliver put his hot-water bottle on the draining board for his mother to empty for the washing" (p.20)
  • "put a brun on the fire and warm yourself up. Fodder the geese, if you're after a job" (p.22)
  • "He slipped the clips round the ankles of his uniform trousers then lifted his bicycle from the wall of the toilet block, flipping the dynamo onto the back wheel" (p.72)
  • "It was normally the geese that heralded a visitor: the geese then the dogs, which refined their cries with calls of greeting or warning" (p.75)
  • "The harrier was falling over Llanbedr Hill, vanishing behind the horizon to rise again in a tumult of silver, as if bouncing on a hidden trampoline" (p.97)
  • "The oak in the Oak Piece bore leaves in such numbers that it was only when Oliver climbed the gate into the Funnon Field and passed into its shadow that he could see against the high, hot sun some memory of its whorling skeleton ... A vapour trail passed straight through its crown, like an arrow through a cowboy's hat" (p.143)
  • "They did not speak. There was nothing to say. They moved around each other here like they always moved, like those spangled dancers he would see sometimes on the telly in the Awlman's Arms - certain of their purpose, their place in the space, following the music of the year" (p.182)

I liked it. The portrait of Oliver followed no tidy template, and the symbolism wasn't too heavy-handed.

Other reviews

  • Jem Poster (Guardian) (Bullough’s quiet insistence on the link between language and landscape crucially shapes the novel.)
  • Melissa Harrison (Financial Times) (a quiet rural novel of enormous power ... mentioning things only as they are observed by the book’s characters, to whom most things are deeply familiar and so require little description or comment. The penalty for this style is a slight loss of clarity and significance; at times it isn’t clear what has happened, where, or to whom. I found myself reading and rereading certain sections, trying to sift clues from otherwise oblique references to events)
  • Stuart Kelly (Spectator) (The novel has an elegant structural conceit. ... There are a few infelicities. Is it necessary that almost every female character, however fleeting, must have their breasts described? One character goes on to become a ‘post-pastoral’ poet, which seems more like a jibe than essential to the story. Nevertheless, at its heights the prose glimmers and shimmers. )
  • Kirkus Reviews (Bullough’s consistent use of Welsh dialect is at once colorful and something of a stumbling block ... (Bullough’s website has a glossary.) And the overall fecundity of the prose—Bullough delivers plenty of longueurs about the landscape—can swallow up his characters’ tensions)
  • David Hebblethwaite (Above all, though, what strikes me about Addlands is how the progression of the novel is oriented around the place rather than the characters)

Saturday, 11 March 2017

"Goodbye Earth and other poems" by I.A.Richards (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1958

My copy has the signature of "E.E.Duncan-Jonas" (Elsie Duncan-Jones?) in it, dated "June 23, 1962". In "Proem", the introduction, it says "to a writer much of whose life has been passed in studying the difficulties poems present to even very well-qualified readers the itch to lend a helping word becomes acute ... Explanations can do little more than play with surfaces. But it is through surfaces (is it not?) that we have to attempt to go deeper"

The first poem, "Lighting Fires in Snow", has a note saying "This practical poem aims to teach a useful art". It explains how to arrange twigs "Teepee-wise or wigwam,/ So that air can follow/ The match-flame from the start: As we begin a poem/ And some may win a heart", the indentation of the lines matching the rhyme scheme. Then "twig to twig will beckon/ If lightly laid above/ Better than you can reckon." In the final stanza, we're told that "The wise poem knows its father/ And treats him not amiss;/ But Language is its mother/ To burn where it would rather/ Choose that and by-pass this".

In the 2nd poem, "The Solitary Daffodil", the persona, after a day of committee work, sees a lone daffodil. The final stanza has some allusions I recognise

So, as a lost word found can say
The never-so-well-known-before,
It welcomed me into the Day
And almost opened me a Door
Through which I may still step to be
In recollected Company.

I don't think the poetry's aged as well as William Empson's, especially when it's about poetry. Here are examples -

  • A poem's not on a page,
    Or in a reader's eye;
    Nor in a poet's mind
    Its freedom may engage.
    (p.22)
  • And I (who am Creed) reveal
    Old wounds we cannot heal,
    I (who am Rite) enact
    Our inoperable pact.
    So we who could profess
    Now but co-confess
    (p.36)
  • Rainbow
    Balanced up somehow on a ball
    That spins
    And spirals
    as it plummets,
    Newton walked to Stourbridge Fair
    And bought his prism
    (p.37)
  • Alpine sketches
    Height's on display as well;
    And depth,
    Clouded or clear,
    But sheer:
    The full forefigurement of hope and fear
    (p.40)
  • Sometimes a word is wiser much than men:
    "Faithful" e.g., "responsible" and "true."
    And words it is, not poets, make up poems.
    Our words, we say, but we are theirs too
    For words made man and may unmade again.
    (p.43)
  • Cunninger still the Verse
    When with its ruddering Rime
    From perjured Breath it wrings
    Sincerity sublime.
    You'ld think a Poet had an End
    In View in what he sings.

    So then, in what I write,
    Look! Look not for me.
    (p.46)

Is there a typo on p.viii? "But there is great if rare example"

Other reviews

  • Kirkus Review (many of them already have appeared in The New Statesman, Encounter, The Yale Review, and Audience. They are of a high calibre and skill, even if sometimes obscure. As to their obscurity, Richards has helped out his readers with an occasional explanatory note.)
  • "In his longest, best, and title poem ... In another short poem, "Harvard Yard ..." Mr Richards' considerable semantic skills are in evidence" (Herbert Feinstein, Prairie Schooner)

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

"Banipal 52" , Samuel Shimon (ed)

A magazine of Modern Arab Literature - 224 pages with many extracts from novels. The translations are excellent as far as I can tell. There are quite a few tales of culture shocks. There are many prisons and injustices. Sometimes the pieces feel like sociology and politics made more entertaining. It's a risk the writers and reviewers are aware of. In his review of a book about Khaled Mattawa, Robin Ostle writes -

  • "Certain writers are inextricably linked with political causes, and their readers and public come to expect that they remain the voice of that cause", p.180
  • "In most cases the periods of positive interaction between art and politics are of short duration, and the longer they go on, the more problematic they are likely to be", p.181

Writers know that they'll get a wider readership if they deal with atrocities. With stories set in some places it's hard for writers to avoid dealing with topics that might appear sensationalist to UK-based readers.

There are reviews of (re-printed) novels that have complex or modernist structures, but the published texts were rather traditional.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

"A short history of synchronised breathing" by Vanessa Gebbie (Cultured Llama Publishing, 2017)

These short pieces (2-15 pages long) come from BBC Radio 4, Smokelong Quarterly, and several anthologies. I'm playing safe by calling them "pieces" rather than stories because some of them step outside the story-frame. For instance, the first begins as follows

There is, in Rue Carnot, a greengrocer's that still bears the name of Claude Romerin. But this is not necessarily a story about greengrocers. This is the story of how the electrification of a small railway led to a most miraculous near-disaster. And it is a story about facts. How, in the wrong hands, they mean nothing.

Post-truth it's not, but the collection's often non-mimetic. The title story also has numerous authorial interjections - e.g.

(I am very sorry this story begins with a secondary character. The main character is also secondary, at least at the beginning)

Non-standard though several of the pieces may be, they're all accessible, set recognisably in France, the Far East, Brighton, Prague, etc. No tear-jerkers, though lots of wry humour. Whatever criteria you classify texts by (narrative distance, metafictionality, realism, essay/story, etc), you'll find texts in this book that span a range. I'll look at a few themes that emerge, then I'll consider some individual pieces.

Names

"Frank Merriman" is an ironic name for a taxi driver and "Ed" might be editing himself, but it's the very concept of naming that matters in several pieces.

  • Why could he not stay 'a waiter'? Now he has a name (p.32)
  • This woman has a name, but Ed doesn't want to think about that (p.36). What was the woman's name, this morning? What is a name anyway? (p.38)
  • "Naming Finbar" has a lot of names in it (though I don't think it's one of the best pieces)
  • "Literary Analysis" studies names. Re "Earnest" - "the last four letters spell 'nest'. Nest is synonymous with 'Bed', therefore the author was thinking of sex and sex is communicating itself subliminally to the reader via Ear 'nest'. He is serious about bed. Or seriously good in bed. ... But what of the 'Ear' of Earnest? We are meant to think of ears of corn, perhaps? Is he a country man? Or maybe he is deaf?". Later it's considered "important that THE station has no name"

Symbolism

In stories generally, symbols can be explicit or have varying depths of embeddedness. For example, a story could include the phrase "life is a maze", or the story could be set in a maze with significance attached to each decision, or the maze could be a minor (albeit synecdochal) incident in a story.

Authors often have a favoured symbolic depth. In this book however there's much variety. Symbols are contrasted with proper nouns - people's names especially. In "Literary analysis" the trick's explained - THE station. THE. Symbolic, important that THE station has no name. In "Parallax" the characters point out the effects of parallax explicitly.

Communication

Most of the characters are single - some have always been, and it's easy to see why. Though two pieces involve a Vulcan-like mind-transfer there's no love-driven meeting of minds. In "Parallax" it's clear that two people will always see the same thing differently. People can spend decades together and still not know each other. In contrast, people like those in "Taxi" who've never met can strike up a relaxed bonding.

In "Selected Advice for Strangers" people seeking company are told "They cannot fathom any more about you than you can about them". Communication is frequently via objects. The woman in "Housekeeping" tries to seduce the man she's only talked to once by leaving articles of clothing around. In the epistolary "Letters ..." the narrator "began to think of letters, and why we write them at all. I began to think about whether anyone will ever write the definitive letter, after which there will be no need to write anything. Ever.".

In some pieces, the most direct channel of communication is from narrator to reader, talking over the heads of the characters.

Parts

Several pieces involve objectifying, making something into a (lifeless) part so that it can be stored or exchanged. Things represent people, and sometimes things are thought to be animate in some way -

  • partial mind-swapping ("How Claude Romarin ...")
  • part of a deceased body is created in wax ("The Properties of Wax")
  • parts of a wife are spread about an apartment ("Wei-ch'i")
  • a stone baby ("Letters from ...") is put on a shelf
  • a package without an addressee is taken away in an unexplained hearse ("Gifts")
  • a person gains an additional persona ("Third Person Singular")
  • a painting represents a father ("Pavel's Grey Painting")
  • "Ed's Theory of the Soul" dissolves some differences between humans and the inanimate world.

Individual stories

  • "Were it possible to just have sustenance" - The 2nd-person persona wants some quiet time in a little Parisian café but a distressed man comes in thinking he's soon going to be the victim of a firing squad (Life/Death), three women come in, having had a good time (Living the moment), then a wigged judge plus another man come in, both with dogs which may need putting down (Judgement). The persona (whose aspects may be represented by the others) can't cope. As he leaves, the first man says "Mind. Aim straight for the heart. It is quicker that way", which is open to interpretation. It needn't be a plea. It could be a suggestion to use his mind, to aim for love, to kill all thoughts of Life/Death issues.
  • "Ed's Theory of the Soul" - Ed's walking into the sea to kill himself. A woman's just left him - "She'd said to him, his woman, that he was hopeless. Treated her like an object" (p.37). But Ed has a revelation that "there is a soul in the smallest thing" (p.37) and turns back.
  • "Taxi" - a taxi driver who's had two women (mother, then wife) desert him, picks a woman up from Brighton station who tells him to "just drive", and he does. They're last seen heading north into a new life. One of my favourite pieces.
  • In "Revisiting Luther" Letitia Hooper comes to believe that a parrot that she's looking after for a colleague is really her ex-husband. In the penultimate paragraph, "Letitia settled down on the settee with a new book, Best American Short Stories. I happen to own "The Best American Short Stories 1996" which contains "Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot" by Robert Olen Butler, a story in which a woman buys a parrot, not knowing who the parrot was in a previous life. That story is told from the parrot's PoV. Like the parrot in "Revisiting Luther" he still has yearnings. Unlike Luther, he sees his ex-wife with another man.
  • "Captain Quantum's Universal Entertainment" (subtitled 'an expanding story, with no boundaries') never sags, though it's long. It's my favourite piece - a tour de force. No surprise that it's already been printed elsewhere. A reporter (with a recorder - this is the quantum world) visits a fairground, shown around by the "Most Qualified Guide to the Fairground". "Captain Quantum" is the ring-master. "The Great Maximilian" (a juggler) and "Lucille, The Incredible Shrinking Bearded Lady" are the star turns. It's their last show, and perhaps the universe's last too. The piece is replete with scientific allusions that like their quantum counterparts, flicker in and out of existence. In the extracts below I detect black holes, special relativity, space-time curvature, epicycles from a bygone age, black holes, worm-holes, and quantum vacuum
    • "Your dark, veiled hats - so attractive and mysterious, the very thing our greatest stars cannot resist"
    • "But wait. Is the story going a little fast? Let's slow it down a little. Too slow? Then speed it up by all means. It is simple enough - this is a partnership, is it not? Everything is relative."
    • "Knives ought to fly in straight lines, these do not. (Apparently)"
    • "The schnauzers also 'speak' in nursery rhymes (their Twinkle Twinkle Little Star is unforgettable, apparently), and ride penny-farthings round the perimeter"
    • "as she nears her own vanishing point"
    • "The [tunnel's] ceiling sags. You can reach up and touch it, covered as it is in half-hearted stars"
    • the spectators ... sit separated from each other by patches of darkness that seem almost elementary, full of strange possibilities"
    At the end the big stars disappear. "Just the dwarves remained with their little rakes, sadly smoothing infinite grains of sand, ready for whatever came next".

One nit-pick - the passage "in the kitchenette, Shaozu found no note. Instead, in a room in which" (p.12) has too many "in" sounds for my liking.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

"What is not yours is not yours" by Helen Oyeyemi (Picador, 2016)

Stories from White Review, Granta, Ploughshares, etc. It's a hardcover book without a spine. There's little description, but many stolen keys. Some characters are ghosts or puppets who I couldn't care about. Some characters are human and I couldn't care about them either. There's more to literature than the manufacture of empathy, but I found it hard to concentrate while reading these pieces, interesting though they were in bursts. "a brief history of the homely wench society" is especially tedious. "presence" is better - Jill and Jacob had both been fostered. Now they were married, both psychologists. But Jill thinks he wants to break up with her. He asks if she'd help with his project about how bereaved people sense the departed. The project involves the two of them living separately in prepared, controlled housing conducive to the conditions that seem to encourage sensations of absent people. In such conditions she experiences an imagined future, and thinks he does too.

Here are some examples of the book style -

  • From where Lucy sat beside her gambler she had a view through a casement window, a view of a long street that led to the foot of a mountain. And what Lucy liked best about her casement-window view was that as night time turned into dawn, the mountain seemed to travel down the street. It advanced on tiptoe, fully prepared to be shooed away. Insofar as a purely transient construction of flesh and blood can remember (or foretell) what it is to be stone, Lucy understood the mountain's wish to listen at the window of a den of gamblers and be warmed by all that free floating hope and desolation. Her wish for the mountain was that it would one day shrink to a pebble, crash in through the glass and roll into a corner to happily absorb tavern life (p.12)
  • one evening at the pub down the road from her house she found a ring at the bottom of a pint of lager she was drinking. The ring was heavier than it looked, and she recognized it without remembering exactly where she'd seen it before. Since no one at the pub seemed to know anything about the ring, she took it to the police station, only to return there to collect it at the end of the month: there had been no enquiries related to the item, so it was hers. And when she wore it she felt that a love existed. For her ... her, of all people. (p.54)
    "A writer of sentences so elegant that they glean" says Ali Smith on the back cover, but I find "one evening at the pub down the road from her house she found a ring at the bottom of a pint of lager she was drinking" rather casual. How about "one evening at her local she found a ring in her pint of Carlsberg".
  • If she isn't growing something (she is the reason Noor finds toadstools in his shoes) or brewing something (she's the reason it's best not to leave any cup or drinking glass unattended when she's at home) she'll pass by singing and swishing her tail around (she put her sewing machine to work making a set of tails that she attaches to her dresses: a fox's tail, a dragon's tail, a tiger's tail, a peacock's. On a special occasion she'll wear all of them at once (p.55)
  • Hamlet with his pudding-bowl haircut, Chagati, who was both assassin and merman (he kills sailors with his sexy falsetto!), Brunhild the shipbuilder, and an astronaut named Petrushka who answered any question put to him in exhaustive detail (p.99)
  • The problem with Wayland is that he's a puppet built to human scale. Masterless and entirely alive. No matter how soft his skin appears to be, he is entirely wooden, and it is not known exactly what animates him - no clock ticks in his chest. Rowan is male to me, since he moves and speaks with a grace that reminds me of the boys and men of my Venetian youth. He's female to Myna. (p.105)
  • Since neither of us need sleep we take night buses, sharing earphones and listening to knitting podcasts. If anyone else on the bus notices anything about us they assume it's because they're drunk. (p.106)
  • Ed was working on a piece about hierarchies of knowledge for female love interests in the early issues of her favourite comic books; how very odd it must be to operate within a story where you're capable, courageous, droll, at the top of your field professionally and yet somehow still not permitted the brains to perceive that the man you see or work with every day is exactly the same person as the superhero who saves your life at night. 'Seems like someone behind the scenes clinging to the idea that the woman whose attention you can't get just can't see "the real you", no?' (p.195)
  • Well, Dornicka met a wolf on Mount Radhost.
    Actually, let's try to speak of things as they are: it was not a wolf she met but something that had recently consumed a wolf and was playing about with the remnants. The muzzle, tail and paws appeared in the wrong order.
    (p.210)

Other reviews

  • Kate Clanchy (“Is Your Blood as Red as This?”, takes Oyeyemi’s radical disregard for physical description to the point of perversity ... Only a few of the tales, in fact, settle at all easily into the confines of the short story. ... Hers is a rare talent, and it is frustrating not to see it at full stretch in this collection.)
  • LAURA VAN DEN BERG
  • Stuart Evers ("presence" is the kind of story you immediately want to press upon people.)
  • Rebecca Adams (Just as the stories seem in danger of spiralling off into the fantastical abyss, Oyeyemi pinions her characters and situations with a deft phrase that renders them entirely credible.)
  • Michael Shaub (Oyeyemi seems to be incapable of writing anything that's not wholly original)
  • Good reads