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, 17 October 2018

"Sightings" by Elisabeth Sennitt Clough (Pindrop Press, 2016)

Poems from Confingo, Stand, Rialto, and her Paper Swans pamphlet, "Glass". In an Interview with Paul Stephenson she says that "My full collection is my MMU portfolio. It won the Michael Schmidt Prize and a poem from the collection was highly commended in the Forward Prize and appears in the Forward Book of Poetry 2018." So it's no surprise that this book has many worthwhile poems.

Context

The fens feature heavily. If you read this book along with Daisy Johnson's story collection Fen you'll get a fair idea of what growing up in the area's like, especially for girls. This book is more rural than Johnson's, and is more aware of geological history. And it sounds more autobiographical. At least 10 poems are about a mother, and there's a father figure too - "Forgive me, my stepfather/ wasn't always a brute" (p.16). In the interview she says

  • "As a child, I didn’t want to be female because I’d been conditioned into thinking girls and women were weak/lesser beings by my stepfather (who beat and humiliated my mother)"
  • "My mother and I have an open dialogue. She has been very supportive. My stepfather passed away a long time ago and has no living relations. Even so, there were times when I felt uncomfortable, that what I was writing was wrong, but I resisted the urge to silence myself, having often been too scared to speak during my childhood."

This contrasts rather with the approach taken by Ros Barber in "Material" where the Acknowledgements page ends with "Finally, apologies are due to all those individuals who find themselves incorporated as 'material' when they would have chosen otherwise". All the same, knowing that the contents are sensitive affects interpretation. A painting of a tragedy may have more impact than one of a tree, but does that make it a better painting? Should the poet's daring influence a reader's judgement? I have trouble enough assessing my own poems in these circumstances, let alone others'.

Poetry/Prose

There's much poetic description - e.g. "My mother is in the kitchen/ well before dawn, her backbone already sunk/ over the sink, elbows pistoning.// I watch her baptise a creature in the gleam/ of its own inner sleeve: easing pelt from membrane/ and loosening the densest caul to a bruise." ("Divining her firstborn"). That's balanced by pieces that aren't poemed-up, except for the line-breaks - e.g. "You don't move fast like that now/ you're in your eighth decade// with no calves to feed, steers to inject: I wonder if you remember// that winter of pneumonia" ("When my mother fell"). Or "Boy".

Who knows? Who says?

The past slowly emerges, one poem informing another - the mother's first child; the dark loam ("The Ouse was a tributary of the Rhine"). "Rebirth" and "The time has come to talk of many things" are just two of the poems where evidence of the past is hidden, neighbours sometimes knowing more about events in the house than the narrator knows. "Mother's Day Portrait" is partly about how people judge representations, how other factors colour the interpretation. "Unmade" (meaning "un-maid", as well as alluding to Emin's unmade bed) has Emin (or someone like her) as the PoV - "I don't/ coax gold into sunrises ... the man// who opened me when I was thirteen - // taught me/ not to let the wound heal,/ but to pick the scab until it bleeds". As in some other poems, italics are used to show the interjection of another voice - "Emin puts her pain on/ to attain fame and notoriety".

Forms

Forms don't figure much. "At the kitchen sink" is a 14-liner sort-of sonnet. All but one of the 17 lines of "Fidget" end with a variant of the verb "fidget". "Military Road" ends with repetition. Most stanzas are regularly rectangular. "Anguilla Anguilla" bends the rules with 4 4-lined rectangular stanzas that use "/" as a comma or line-break. Here's the first stanza -

The water delivered bold / lifeless things
into my gran's nets / a smell / sap
of Ouse / earth to air / peat to clay / seepage
through willow baskets / woven the old way.

She uses the same device in "Fallen".

Writers' tips

As I writer I picked up 2 tips -

  • There's a page listing the prizes and commendations that 14 of the poems won. I don't record my short-listings and commendations. I guess I should. I'd enter more competitions if I valued commendations more highly.
  • "A smallholding in the fens" is a list of sections, each pregnant with meaning - "Our home was full of hooks:/ for fish and for game ... My mother hung birds in the kitchen,/ sometimes their heads brushed hers/ as she walked underneath ...", "Once my stepfather caught a linnet:/ as his hand tightened around it,// it pecked at him,/ but it was the small heartbeat// he felt through the gourd of his palm,/ that made him set it free". These are the kind of symbolically significant, related details that I embed in prose. People more often notice them in Flash than short stories. In poems they're harder to miss.

Unknowns

I don't get "The bantam". One poem's entitled "Explanatory style analysis". I had to look up "Explanatory style" - it's "a psychological attribute that indicates how people explain to themselves why they experience a particular event, either positive or negative".

Other reviews

Sunday, 14 October 2018

"The Dog of the Marriage" by Amy Hempel (Quercus, 2008)

The collected short stories (her 4 books, 400 pages) of an author whose work I've wanted to read for a while. Here's a sample (the narrator's a widow, Nashville's a dog)

Here's a trick I found for how to finally get some sleep. I sleep in my husband's bed. That way the empty bed I look at is my own.
Cold nights I pull his socks on over my hands. I read in his bed. People still write from when Flea had his column. He did a pet Q and A for the newspaper. The new doctor sends along letters for my amusement. Here's one I liked - a man thinks his cat is homosexual.
The letter begins, "My cat Frank (not his real name) ..."
In addition to Flea's socks, I also wear his watch.
It's the way we tell each other.
At bedtime, I think how Nashville slept with Flea. She must have felt to him like a sack of antlers. I read about a marriage breaking up because the man let his Afghan sleep in the marriage bed.
I had my own bed. I slept in it alone, except for those times when we needed - not sex - but sex was how we got there.
(p.21)

It's fast, with jokes and feeling. Names mentioned in the introduction came to my name too - the wit of Lorrie Moore, the concision of Lydia Davis (some of Hempel's pieces are a page long, a few are much shorter). Or how about this, from "Going" -

In the desert I like to drive through binoculars. What I like about it is that things are two ways at once. Things are far away and close with you still in the same place.
In the ditch, things were also two ways at once. The air was unbelievably hot and my skin was unbelievably cold.
"Son," the doctor said, "you shouldn't be alive."
...
this nurse makes every other woman look like a sex-change. Unfortunately, she in love with the Lord.
But she's a sport, this nurse. When I can't sleep she brings in the telephone book. She sits by my bed and we look up funny names. Calliope Ziss and Maurice Pancake live in this very community.
I like a woman in my room at night.
The night nurse smells like a Christmas candle.

But sometimes a story looks as if it's been cobbled together hopefully from jottings in her notebooks. Maybe she watches QI. In "Murder" for example there are quirky details, but do they add up?

The bartender also has a crush on Sister Marianne, the former nun who moved to Phoenix for her health, then moved right back when she heard that the tarantulas there can jump eight feet, that some of them have landed on the saddle of a horse.
Sister Marianne, when her mind is someplace else, is not aware of the sound she makes there sitting at the bar - like a sprinkler kicker head going kk-kk-kk-kk-shooshooshooshooshoo.
Sister has her eye on the fellow from the post office. When you buy a sheet of stamps from him, he rubs the gluey side of the sheet across his hair. He says that the oil from human hair will keep the stamps from sticking to one another in your purse.

"Tumble home" is a novella of about 70 pages. The material is similar in style to the other pieces (indeed, at least two paragraphs are straight copies). The narrator is institutionalised, with time to write letters to a "you"

I have written letters that are failures, but I have written few, I think, that are lies. Trying to reach a person means asking the same question over and again: Is this the truth, or not? I begin this letter to you, then, in the western tradition. If I understand it, the written tradition is: Put your cards on the table.
This is easier, I think, when your life has been tipped over and poured out. Things matter less; there is the joy of being less polite, and of being less - not more - careful. We can say everything.
Although maybe not. Like in fishing? The lighter the line, the easier it is to get your lure down deep. Having delivered myself of the manly analogy, I see it to be not a failure, but a lie. How can I possibly put an end to this when it feels so good to pull sounds out of my body and show them to you. These sounds - this letter - it is my lipstick, my lingerie, my high heels.
Writing to you fills the days in this place. And sometimes I long for days when nothing happens. "Not every clocktick needs a martyr."

The trees are all on crutches, on sawed-off braces of deadwood notched into Y-shaped crooks for support. The birds that nest in these crippled trees line their nests with the clumps of fur that come loose to float over brambled grass when the house cat is groomed outdoors.

In "At the gates of the animal kingdom" Mrs Carlin has an animal fact for every occasion - a story I suspect the author found easy to write.

I enjoyed many passages in the book, e.g.

  • Jean was trying to describe what she felt it would be like to be married to Larry; she said it would be like staying in a bad hotel and being forced to send postcards of it to your friends with arrows pointing to "my room." (p.147)
  • He thought that travelling alone was like being in therapy - the things you found out about yourself (p.209)
  • They look like a gift from someone who likes me but doesn't know me very well (p.249)
  • I was playing Scrabble with Karen. I saw that I could close the space in DE-Y. I had an N and an F. Which do you think I chose? (p.262 and elsewhere)
  • The pills that she swallowed were mine. They were pills prescribed to me because I couldn't sleep. With as much thoughtfulness as she showed in her life, she left one behind in the vial. Presumably, it would be hard for me to sleep the night we found her (p.276)
  • Often, after an intimate visit, a man will pick a fight. ... To separate himself, to keep from being pulled in. I have learned to head this off. I find an excuse to take myself away (p.276)
  • I am like those people who hold grudges for what someone has done to them in a dream (p.283)
  • The dog had been our second choice. My husband wanted the pretty one and I had wanted to keep the runt. But we each picked the same runner-up. (p.361)

In the notes to the stories she points out the source of some of these phrases.

A reviewer described her as a writer's writer. I can see why. For a start, there's the brevity of her pieces. Also I suspect that writers are more impressed by the good fragments and less disappointed by the final effect than readers are. My favourite pieces are "San Francisco", "In the cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried", "Weekend", "The Uninvited" and maybe "Offertory". I didn't get "Housewife".

Other reviews

  • Patrick Ness (Hempel puts together sentences and paragraphs of idiosyncratic beauty and unnerving precision. The opening of the title story reads: "On the last night of the marriage, my husband and I went to the ballet. We sat behind a blind man; his guide dog, in harness, lay beside him in the aisle of the theater. I could not keep my attention on the performance; instead, I watched the guide dog watch the performance. Throughout the evening, the dog's head moved, following the dancers across the stage. Every so often the dog would whimper slightly. 'Because he can hear high notes we can't?' my husband said. 'No,' I said, 'because he was disappointed in the choreography.'" Here is an entire relationship in 95 words, delivered with such fluid efficiency that it should be required reading for every creative writing course the world over.)
  • D.T. Max (Dogs appear everywhere in Hempel's fiction, gentle, intuitive counterparts to our neurotic selves)
  • Peter D. Kramer (her interest is in the women who allow those predators and narcissists to injure them)
  • Catherine Taylor (the voice in each tale – sometimes no more than a paragraph long – is generally that of a woman, sardonic, disaffected, lived in and lived through, often finding herself in blackly comic situations with neighbours, parents, in cars, and hospitals; always at the fag-end of a relationship.)
  • Owen King ("Al Jolson..." is a devastating work of fiction. Hempel's story of two friends, one terminal and hospital-bound, the other come to comfort her, is a model of economy. In fewer than 5,000 words, Hempel manages to develop a friendship and a situation that is as complex and real as anything that fiction can hope to produce. ... [this book] rises only occasionally to the heights of that early story ... While Hempel is an extraordinary stylist, she often shows a depressing disinterest in narrative. ... The next two collections in the volume , "At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom" and "Tumble Home," are shot through with similar flat notes, characters in search of stories. ... the patience of those who find their way to her latest collection, "The Dog of the Marriage," will be rewarded. Here, Hempel has come almost all the way back to the balance of character and story that made "Al Jolson" so affecting.)

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

"Moon deluxe" by Frederick Barthelme (Penguin, 1984)

13 of the 17 stories were in the New Yorker. They're all about the same length - 12 pages or so. Several of them have a first person male PoV, a rather passive man who's approached by an attractive woman (shop assistant, waitress, etc) who uninhibitably wants to socialise with him. Men are unconcerned if their wife/underage-daughter goes off with other men. The women's appearance and clothes are described - lots of white shorts. There are breaches of social etiquette - light comedy at the expense of realism. No nasty, manipulative people - characters are trusting and nothing goes wrong. People are unexpectedly, suddenly friendly or distant, with no later explanation. Lots of outdoor pools, slaps on backsides, sending out wrong messages, unusually tall/short people. Men turn down sex.

The stories at the start seem the weakest to me. The title story has more going for it - two couples fall out when their dogs fight, with cake-making and an escaped toad adding to the drama. "Pool lights" is ok too - an accumulation of incidents (the narrator shops with a woman he barely knows who fancies him. She causes a scene in a butchers by complaining about the quality of the produce, etc).

The stories towards the end have more variety, with sufficient interest to make me feel that reaching the open ending was just about worthwhile.

  • "You've got to keep after it," I say to Teller. "Can't lay off."
    "Yeah," he says, "The lungs go. Like horn players."
    "The lips go on horn players," Clare says.
    "Lips, lungs," Teller says, "Whatever."
    "Yeah," I say.
    Jennifer sees me and waves at my pants with a piece of meat on the end of a toothpick. "Snappy, Bosco," she says.
    "Bosco?" Teller says. "Your name is Bosco? Did you know that there used to be this drink called Bosco? Wow. That's neat."
    "Thank you," I say.
    (p.158)
  • I like the way we both stop and wait for the remark to get sexy; in eight months as neighbors, this has become a routine. (p.162)

Other reviews

  • Kirkus review (Barthelme's stories--and their vapid narrators--are as interchangeable and affectless as plastic stacking chairs: examples of the new Yorker story at its most trendy, precious, and Warhol-flat.)
  • Rebecca Rosenblum (Though they vary in quality, all 17 of these stories are about male protagonists with very little will or desire, who are lusted after by beautiful women who don’t get them, or not really. But that’s ok, because the women require little from them other than that they go to many restaurants and hang out by the sides of pools.)

Saturday, 6 October 2018

"Another mother's son" by Janet Davey (Chatto and Windus, 2015)

Lorna Parry, a divorced archivist, has 3 sons: Ewan, who gave up Uni after 2 months and hardly leaves his room; Oliver, who's at Brighton Uni; and Ross, 17, who's at a 6th form college with a girl-friend, Jude - he avoids his mother.

It's her PoV, though the register's elevated in places, and some of the analogies are strained. -

  • The woodwork, defaced by old torn-off stickers in shards of colour, resembles the site of a butterfly massacre (p.12)
  • There have been too many parts to the day, each element differentiated and with its own particular hue. All they have in common is myself - and that is not enough to bind them together (p.14)
  • The suspended foot in a chunky shoe is an independent form of life. Two creases above the metatarsal bones are like the frown on the brow of a dog (p.54)
  • Each family in its own little island, grouped around a teacher, shares noses and chins and smiles. In films and the theatre, all children look adopted. Hamlet never takes after Gertrude. Reality is more uncanny (p.59)
  • I had looked up the classic signs of depression, though I already knew what they were; a slippery list that applies to most people some of the time. The experts seem to agree that in the tick box five is the key number, the same that they recommend for daily consumption of fruit and vegetables (p.71)
  • her eyes, brown as a dog's, remain soulful even when her mouth - the business end of her face - tightens in annoyance (p.74)
  • in the self-justifying list of my failings ... he likened me to a calendar, a reminder of passing time ... I imagined something more Pirelli ... I had become too closely associated with the process: back to the wall, spiral bound. If only he compared me to an hourglass (p.97)
  • If Sunday evening were a location it would be a harbour wall by an estuary, tidal water slapping against stone. The ferry timetable on a board attached to a post: '10-11 and 3-4 daily. Monday to Saturday. Wave or phone for service.' The far shore is visible, similar to where I stand but out of reach. It is a nothing kind of time (p.241)
  • My capacity to distance myself has the staying power of a dandelion clock (p.252)
  • If I have a complaint against new technology it is that it plays straight into the fantasies of men. Machines, a need to control, fiddling. These are my three waymarks to world meltdown. The first time I heard the words 'search engine' I knew what we were in for (p.272)

Lorna tries to befriend Jude, ending up meeting her father, Dirk ("She has talked a bit about you," Dirk says, "She is quite a mimic"). Jude's mother's having an affair.

A young teacher that the parents were going to complain about has died. Ross is suspended afterwards for using Social Media to suggest he died in a school store room, perhaps the result of a sex game that went wrong. Lorna thinks that Ross might have posted hints before the teacher died. She finds a photo of Jude and Ewen together. She does an inspirational talk about archiving at the school.

The asides - observations, extended metaphors, changes of register, the passage about old London rivers on p.266, the flight of imagination (or is it) on p.291 - distract me. Chapters 29 and 35 do nothing. Chapter 43, though equally detachable, is excellent. We meet Richard, her lover, right near the end. Why? Is her father worth his appearances?

Other reviews

  • Grace McCleen (It is precisely Davey’s attempt to faithfully represent “real life”, however, that can make this novel feel drab and exhausting.)
  • Sophia Martelli (Lorna’s flights of fancy do become frustrating, even irritating, as they distract from the story but this authorial sleight of hand is forgiven because Davey’s aim is realism – and there is no truth but the one that we arrive at through our own, tangential vision.)
  • Dinah Birch (Like much of Davey’s work, it broods over a death that takes place offstage. ... Each of Davey’s five novels has a different social setting, but patterns of tone and technique recur. Their protagonists are often shrewd about the lives they see around them, but withdraw from any understanding of their own behaviour. They are achingly vulnerable. ... Her fiction takes the reader beyond the oppressions that might account for the frustration, or tragedy, of female experience, or the manifold deficiencies of contemporary culture, or the insecurity that stalks us all, men and women alike. What concerns her most deeply is an inevitable vortex of absence, disappearance and loss. She writes about nothing.)
  • Claire Harman (Janet Davey is ambitious, clever and recklessly prepared to lose readers on every page in this, her fifth novel.)

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

"The Calcutta chromosome" by Amitav Ghosh (Picador, 1997)

Set in the near future, this novel starts slowly. Antar (an Egyptian living in the US) is at his computer, Ava (an AI program capable of 3D projection). He comes across an ID card of Murugan, a co-worker who disappeared decades before. The plot thickens, with framed monologues going on for several chapters -

  • Antar recalls when he met Murugan - 1995 in a restaurant. At that meeting Murugan recounts events from 1895 when Ronald Ross (who stayed at Robinson Street when in Calcutta) made a breakthrough regarding Malaria. He has a theory about Ross's assistant, Lutchman - that's he's a counter-scientist ("knowledge is self-contradictory; maybe they believed that to know something is to change it ... Maybe they thought that knowledge couldn't begin without acknowledging the impossibility of knowledge" - p.103). Murugan (bizarrely) has a hunch that in 1895 they might have been into the idea of gene-transfer. Competing theories about malaria causes are expounded at length.
  • From Murugan's PoV we follow his visit to Calcutta in 1995. He stays at 8, Robinson Street for Ross's anniversary. His landlady is Mrs Aratounian, who happens to know Urmila well
  • Urmila (a reporter) and Sonali (an ex-actress) attend an award ceremony for the writer Phulboni in Calcutta, 1995. They briefly cross paths with Murugan. A chapter ends with Urmila asking Sonali whether she knows if Phulboni (an old family friend) wrote about Laakham (which we've been told earlier is a regional variant of the name Lutchman). We meet Urmila's poor family. Romen Halder, who runs a football club, is coming round to sign up her brother. He (a builder/property-speculator with a site at 8, Robinson Street) is a friend/lover of Sonali.

These threads continue in parallel. Ross received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1902, but I've no idea how much of the extensive information in this novel about him and his work is true.

Murugan tries to convince Urmila that the coincidences are part of an experiment they're trapped in. He thinks some people have "been planting carefully selected clues for the last century or so, and every once in a while, for reasons of their own, they choose to draw them to the attention of a couple of chosen people."

Phulboni's adventure at Renupur feels like a too long aside - though it help explain Laakhan, it begs more questions than it answers - altered realities. However Renupur becomes more relevant toward the end.

Sonali witnesses a ritual involving Mrs Aratounian and Romen Halder (who was called Laakham during the ritual). We learn that Phulboni is Sonali's father, and that there aren't as many independent characters in the novel as it initially appears.

Other reviews

  • Goodreads
  • James Saynor (This Rubik's Cube of a novel seems perfect for dismantling by news groups on the Internet. But some die-hard print lovers may find that it lacks emotional depth. There is no ghost in this machine.)

Saturday, 29 September 2018

"Ice" by Gillian Clarke (Carcanet, 2012)

The poetry's nearly all in tidy box-shaped stanzas, sometimes with end-rhyme. I like "Swans", but not "Burnet Moths, "Blue sky thinking", "Pebble" or "Osprey". Especially later in the book there are dutiful, conscientious poems that mix phrases from a pretty standard pack of nature imagery. There's much personification, especially when snow's concerned. In small doses it can work well -

  • Tonight we lie together listening
    as miles of silence deepen to the coast.
    Snow blinds the rooflights.
    Roads forget themselves to north and east.
    (p.15)
  • We're brought back to our senses, awake
    to the black and whiteness of world.
    Snow's sensational. It tastes
    of ice and fire. Hold a handful of cold.
    (p.16)
  • trees stand in their bones
    asleep in the creak of a wind
    with snow on its mind.
    (p.18)
  • and she's gone, night-river slipping its chains,
    fluent, reflective, pulling to sea
    under winter's weight
    (p.30)

I like "Lambs", but I feel I've read it before, and descriptions like "a second lamb come slippery as a fish in a stream, steaming in moonlight" have mixed results. Some lines niggle me - "Glâs" ends with "like those rivers, reservoirs, aquifers underground,/ invisible silvers silent as ultrasound (my italics). The sonnet "The Fish Pass", about "homing salmon" ends on a tedious couplet - "it leaps through air, water, weir waterfall to spawn/ in shallows of the stream where it was born".

Other reviews

  • Stevie Davies (Clarke has always had a sensitive feel for line-placement and assonantal rhyme)
  • Dave Coates (This is a good book of poetry. Unlike some of its TSE-contemporaries, Ice is clear-headed about its artistic goals and scores more than it misses. ... The drawback of this focus on the past is that it appears to have little to say to the present: one particularly failed poem, “Blue Sky Thinking”, is an exhortation for the business travel industry to ‘ground the planes for a while’, which ends with the total negation of ‘No mark, no plane-trail, jet-growl anywhere’. The line is almost touching, but comes across as curmudgeonly and naive ... It’s a difficult book to love, however, ... The book is in awe of the natural world, but its rejection of modern life, though understandable in an author born in 1937, misses the chance to say something truly unique. Readers might find the repeated trope of wives waiting at home for their mining husbands, the ‘heroes’ of Gleision, difficult to swallow)

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

"The Opoponax" by Monique Wittig (Peter Owen, 1966)

Translated by Helen Weaver. An extract will help -

Her right side slides down the chair, pulling her down, Catherine Legrand follows it down, they see her between the chair and the floor, she stays there wedged. Catherine Legrand can't go either way, she is looking at the floor, she is jerking back and forth like a mechanical toy. Catherine Legrand has been attack. The thing climbed up her chair while they were eating and not watching and now it has jumped on her right under her father's and mother's noses. They look at her without moving. They can't help her. She must fight it herself. Catherine Legrand tries to get out a few words, her efforts are terrible, and before she knows they come out as screams. The garden is full of water. You can see the branches of the tree through the window when you are sick in bed. There are two pillows under your head so you can be sitting up and lying down at the same time. Mother says, Look at the bullfinch. Where mama, show me where, There, on the fork of the cherry tree. Catherine Legrand sits up. Down below the ground is all black and covered with petals that have fallen off the cherry tree. The flowers broke last night, mama. The tall little girl whose name is Inès calls for Catherine Legrand to take her to school. She has some other children with her. Mother calls her the little girl from town. You walk along the national highway, you cross it when you come to the supermarket, Inès says, That is where my mother does her shopping. You are on a road. There are lilac leaves and red dahlias against the high diamond-shaped fencing. In the meadow by the shed Monsieur Magnier's mare is standing with her head down. She begins to run against the wall as fast as she can. There are covered paths where people go by on bicycles. In the winter you wear woolen socks. Your thighs are red and chapped from the wind. You play in a ring in the covered playground with Sister. You ask Sister Where is your husband? She says Up above, pointing to the sky. You look at the sky. You don't see anything. You tell Sister, You can't see your husband

I'm attracted by the style - I like the details that have been chosen, the easy switching between 2nd and 3rd person, the fragmentary style. The lack of paragraph breaks becomes tiring though. I think I'd prefer white space between fragments (i.e. after "screams", "last night, mama" and "bicycles"). The lack of complex multi-clause sentences lead to a uniformity of sentence length. Below I've added line-breaks to emphasize the point

He whistles through his fingers.
This means that everything is all right.
You feel like watching the river.
You can just see it at the far end of the field.
The water glistens, there is grass on each side.
You sit down on the flat stones on the bank.
Up close the water is the same color green as the grass.
You can't see the bottom.
(p.21)

Consequently I read in short bursts.

The style of the language may appear influenced by Nouveau roman, but the bildungsroman content is familiar - being locked in school toilets, trespassing in a farmer's field, catching snakes, finding tadpoles to feed the snake, attending funerals, etc. - and the main character has thoughts - "The most beautiful of these kinds of trees are the cherry trees, especially those that bear bigaroons. They are very straight their trunks are not very thick these trees remind you of horses because you feel as if there were blood racing beneath the bark", p.65

I think it could be far shorter. Some sections drag -

Catherine Legrand asks Valerie Borge to take off a piece of mica for her from the block of scist she has in her desk. Valerie Borge passes her the stone telling her to do it herself. Catherine Legrand does it with Marielle Balland's pocket knife. The first pieces she gets crumble into dust. Catherine Legrand cuts deeper sticking the point of the knife into the particles of quartz which hold the particles of mica in place. By using the knife as a lever Catherine Legrand manages to get a small flake of mica whole. Marielle Balland watches her do it and begins to fume because the blade of the knife gets chipped in one place. Catherine Legrand fastens the flake of mica next to the broom. (p.131)

or

On the third bench to the right to the aisle there are Marielle Balland Nicole Marre Marguerite Marie Le Monial Valerie Borge Laurence Bouniol Catherine Legrand. Catherine Legrand is standing in the aisle waiting for the pupils who are in front of her to sit down on the bench. She will sit beside Valerie Borge because Valerie Borge has been in front of her in the line ever since it formed to go down the aisle. Catherine Legrand stands in the aisle waiting but lo and behold Laurence Boumiol who was originally seated between Marielle Balland and Nicole Marre gets up passing in front of everybody and places herself between Valerie Borge and Catherine Legrand so that now Catherine Legrand is sitting next to Laurence Boumiol. (p.141)

Other reviews

  • Jean Duffy (If L’Opoponax remains fresh fifty years after its publication, it is, I would argue, not so much because of any particular message or messages that it might be construed as imparting, but above all because of this particular combination of close observation and radical formal experimentation, the finely judged balance between mimesis and intertextual play, and its enduring capacity to amuse.)
  • Somewhereboy (the ‘you’ in Wittig’s original is actually not ‘tu’ or ‘vous’ but ‘on’, i.e. ‘one’ in English. I can understand Helen Weaver shunning this in her translation )