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, 19 July 2017

"Some of us glow more than others" by Tania Hershman (Unthank books, 2017)

This book has about 40 pieces taking up roughly 150 pages. They're nearly all narrative, edging into vignette but never essay. The shortest piece is less than half a page. The acknowledgements last for 3 pages, mentioning Ambit, Bare Fiction, Nature, New Scientist, Stinging Fly, "The Verb" (BBC R3), etc.

I follow Tania Hershman's career with interest. At one point I thought I might be able to use her as a role model - she's a science-trained writer. But then she engaged warp drive, got a Ph.D in literature, and all hope of my catching up with her disappeared. She writes poetry too - unsurprising given the exploratory nature of her Flash. She's been a writer-in-residence in science establishments, and quite a few of the pieces involve science in some way, bio-fluorescence in particular featuring. When the result is SF it's of the Kazuo Ishiguro or Margaret Atwood variety. Opportunistic affairs seem common in labs. In "Experimentation" the scientific method and dating intermix.

Individuals are sometimes subsumed into types - phrases like "The scientists" and "the young scientist" are common. It's after all how society views individuals who introduce themselves as scientists. People who introduce themselves as "poets" are pigeon-holed just as much I think. The scientists come in different varieties. In "The Party" the biochemists seem to feel inadequate amongst physicists and mathematicians. They're asked "Please … give us some? Some of your words? Your biochemistry words!" And they do - "lymphocyte", "organelle", "lamellipodia and especially, "Green Fluorescent Protein" - which pleases the physicists and mathematicians. In "God Glows" Emmylene, who used to be a physicist, loves lymphocyte", "organelle", "lamellipodia and especially, "Green Fluorescent Protein" too. Emmylene thinks herself strange.

I might be the target audience for this book. I chat to post-docs at work - moving from contract to contract (and often country to country) they're a different breed to established staff and post-grads. I've a medical statistician in the family who helps runs cancer trials and is caught in statistics vs individual-case dilemmas. There's little here about conflicts between the scientific outlook and other approaches, except perhaps in "Hold the baby". Some of the characters struggle with technology, but don't we all. The focus is on people, and scientists can do other things than science -

  • In "There is no-one in the lab tonight but mice" "instead of experiments, the scientists are doing art, playing music, meeting in coffee shops to talk poetry"
  • In "The House of Meat" Ellen says "I've had it with bloody science. I'm going to retrain"

There's compression and imagery galore, e.g. -

  • "It begins with watching birds, in the trees, and in its middle, later, there is a kitchen, and the woman stands, the teakettle's small hard tears of water dripping onto her fingers" (p.4)
  • "I was the bird then, and you were in the chair" (p.143)
  • "Carly is a lonely child, time wandering through her like insects, and it scatters, like beetles surprised, whenever she is spoken to" (p.90)
  • "If kissed by a dragonfish, do not bite. If kissed by a dragonfish, make sure you are sitting" (p.143)

Bird imagery is frequent, and it's central to several pieces. There are encounters with unknowable others - people puzzled by people, people empathising with octopi. More generally people look to the elements of air and water for transcendence.

In "Burrowing Blind" a dead metaphor is revived - spies are blinded to become "moles". They burrow, doing underground work. Readers don't know whether the spies were operated on, or whether the blindness is symbolic. Other stories mention taking metaphors literally - "And What if Your Blood Ran Cold", for example. Sometimes there are more quirky deformations of standard usage - "A bad lie, she says, outbreathing" (p.5). In "And what if all your blood ran cold", alignment is used to show the passage's PoV. "The Plan or You Must Remember This" has 10 sections presented in reverse order.

One advantage of writing short pieces is that you can take more risks - if one story fails with a particular reader there are always other stories and readers. Some pieces puzzled me, in a "so what?" rather than meta-fictional way - "Tunnelling", "Empty Too", "The Perfect Egg", "A shower of curates". The pieces on p.74-83 didn't work for me. I didn't like "God glows" either. I liked "War Games", "Special Advisor", "There is no-one in the lab tonight but mice", "We are all made of protein but some of us glow more than others" (the top of p.116 in particular), and "Octopus Garden" with its surprising, satisfying finish. "The House of meat" certainly has its moments.

The title piece contains many of the themes and devices used in the other stories. Readers have to weave together the back-story from episodes that jump back and forwards in time. It begins with a son showing his mother Sarah a beating fish heart under a microscope. Then a young scientist works with jellyfish. He wonders why they glow. Sarah, on the shore, is watching the young scientist lying in a rowing boat. Another man, in another time studies worms. A boy takes schoolgirl Sarah to a movie - her first date. Simon thinks about his son and daughter. Simon takes Sarah to a movie - their first date. Sarah's "skin is tingling and in her stomach is a glow". Sarah has a job cutting jellyfish. The young scientist has made a discovery. Sarah is pregnant. Her husband isn't Simon. The man who thinks only of worms succeeds with his glowing worm experiment. Sarah (now a mother) paints "silently luminous" pieces that she sells. She sees Simon and jellyfish on TV - "they show the pictures, little green glowing cells". Shouldn't "PH" on p.120 be "pH"?

Other reviews

  • Richard T. Watson (The prose is taut and tight, whipping along and leaving the reader to catch up in its wake – or not, as the case may be (some, like ‘Tunnelling’ could do with a few more words, and being a bit less oblique, for my taste). ... Like ‘Biography (Ongoing)’, ‘Burrowing Blind’ is admirable in its epic scope and brevity.)
  • skylightrain (unmistakable blend of the poetic, the uncanny and the deeply human ... Hershman explores our predilections and imperfections with effortless eloquence. ... A little beyond the central pages of the collection hovers the story There Is No-One In The Lab Tonight But Mice. On the surface it seems whimsical – a playful fantasy – but here we find the heart of Hershman’s curiosity, and a perfect truth that curls between the lines in many of the pieces here.)
  • Rupert Dastur (The reader is afforded a glimpse into a world usually hidden by closed doors, technical language, and spreadsheet models. Hershman lights upon some of this mystery and discovery, delighting in the sensuality and playfulness of scientific syntax, while also acknowledging the tedious reality of repetition after repetition that is so necessary to research. Two of my favourite short stories in this collection, ‘And What if Your Blood Ran Cold’ and ‘The House of Meat’ aptly explore these concerns ... Both stories step along the difficult lines of co-worker relationships (the driving force in most of these short fictions) ... Other short stories which I particularly enjoyed – ‘The Special Advisor’ and ‘Octopus’s Garden’ – deal with death, contain same-sex-relationships, and circle around loneliness. ... ‘Flavours’ ... stuck with me for a particularly long time.)

Saturday, 15 July 2017

"The Miniaturist" by Jessie Burton (Picador, 2014)

It starts in January 1687, in Amsterdam at a funeral. The deceased and the characters aren't named. The 2nd chapter is in October 1686. Nella arrives for the first time at her husband's house. They married a month before, then he dashed away on business. She comes from a little village with her parakeet Peebo into dowdy splendour. Already some of the clues in chapter 1 are given more context. We're soon informed of characters' names and ages: Petronella (Nella) Oortman (18, wife of Johannes; an arranged, unconsumated marriage), Johannes Brandt (39), Marin Brandt (c.28, Johannes' sister), Otta (c.30, manservant), Cornelia (c.20, maid - an orphan).

Nella feels out of her depth early on, when Marin and Johannes discuss trade. Well conveyed also are the tensions between members of the household sensed by the newcomer who's likely to affect power hierarchies. Already a contrast between rather Puritan principles and wealth acquisition is displayed. Each character seems to be hiding a secret. Marin has had an affair, Otta is from Surinam and attracts racial abuse. Cornelia has some surprising contacts. Johannes rejects Nella's advances.

The plot thickens further. She's given a display cabinet - a sort of giant empty doll's house - by her husband, a replica of their house. She's tasked with finding contents for it. When she orders a few items she gets some extra ones back indicating that the supplier - the miniaturist - has inside information. This thread supplies a sequences of mysteries, not least of which where the miniaturist goes, and how she knew so much about the future as well as the present.

Nella discovers Johannes naked with Jack - a sin punishable by death. She realises that the household knows - they're all in it together. Marin explains to Nella how women - her in particular - can exploit their situation. The pace never sags - Marin and Frans loved each other but Johannes stopped them marrying; the church bans dolls; Jack causes a scene and is stabbed by Otta. Johannes' is arrested for sodomy. Marin is pregnant. Agnes (wife of Frans) has a house-cabinet too. Marin dies in childbirth - the father is Otta who's fled, but returns at the end. Johannes is executed.

Language

I'm unsure about the language -

  • At the bottom of p.2 begins a passage of 5 sentences that has "as the ... As the .. as ... As the"
  • Nella's not stupid, but the words used to convey her thoughts are sometimes surprising - e.g. "The uninvited observation hovers like a challenge, and Nella wonders at its odd defiance. Perhaps this is fashionable conversation - combative and unsettling, passing for casual talk" (p.73)

Point of view

  • On p.8 there's this paragraph. I'm not picking it out because I think it's bad, but because it's typical -
    Nella turns back to the door, now slightly ajar. Was it like this before? She cannot be sure. She pushes on it, peering into the void as cool air rises from the marble. 'Johannes Brandt?' she calls - loud, a little panicked. Is this a game? she thinks. I'll be standing here come January. Peebo, her parakeet, thrills the tip of his feathers against the cage bars, his faint cheep falling short on the marble. Even the now-quiet canal behind them seems to hold its breath.
    Suspense is being generated and information (names, etc) is being conveyed. We're sometimes in the mind of Nella, using her language. Sometimes the omniscient narrator adds a description e.g. - "thrills the tip". Else when it's harder to assign a thinker to the thoughts - I'm unsure who thinks the canal is holding its breath (the phrase is melodramatic at best), or whether Nella is aware that she's loud and panicky.
  • The omniscient intrusions are sometimes a surprise - "Nella lifts the top one off the pile, too curious about Marin's reading habits to think about anyone coming up the stairs. The first book is a travel journal entitled The Unfortunate Voyage of the Ship Batavia. Most people in the United Provinces are familiar with the story of Corneliszoon's mutiny, the infamous onboard enslavement of Lucretia Jans and her implication in the murders of the survivors. Nella is no exception" (p.52). Sections sometimes end with mini-cliffhangers like "But the Kalnerstraat is once again quiet, unaware of the presence hiding in its heart" (p.132)

Imagery

It doesn't always ring true -

  • "His body is a story in itself, starting sharp with an uncertain end" (p.73)
  • "She feels drained by the chamber's energy, as crystalized as the chunks of sugar-dusted fruit" (p.73)
  • "Nella experiences the unprecedented sensation of being impaled - the woman's scrutiny is like a beam of cold light dissecting her, filling her with an awareness of her own body" (p.69)

Other reviews

  • Rachel Cooke (Nella, it soon becomes apparent, has a sensibility more akin to that of a 21st-century teenager than a 17th-century one ... for all its conceits and ingenuity, for all the lovely passages to be found among its pages, somehow it fails to convince. Again and again, I found myself thinking: that would not happen. ... Emotionally, they move from A to Z in the blink of an eye, and nothing in between ... much-hyped but unconvincing)
  • Rachel Hore (Nella is a heroine to suit a modern readership, but the nature of her tolerance and understanding would have made her highly unusual for her time. Much else, too, about the novel reflects the concerns of the 21st century and while this gives it edge and accessibility, occasionally I longed for the 17th century to be left to be itself.)
  • Holly Kyte (Counterbalancing all this filigree work is a bold plot. There’s no room for longueurs, even in 400-odd pages. It makes for a gripping read – there’s a tense trial at its heart – but it can feel a touch forced. Almost every kind of bigotry is stuffed in for scrutiny – gender, race, sexuality – which borders on overkill, too much 21st-century liberalism for our 17th-century characters to realistically bear.)
  • Melissa Harrison (Key scenes waver out of Burton’s control, leaving the reader unclear about what has happened and why; the flow of time is uneven, and some characters’ motivations (including that of the miniaturist) are unclear. A general sense of imprecision runs through the book, from plot right down to the level of metaphor and language: Marin collapses “like a particularly beautiful tree”; a baby “sallies a cry”; Nella “explodes her fury” in a letter, experiences “a cusping terror” and feels “differenced” by events. ... To manage a little dwelling filled with tiny likenesses of people is, of course, a metaphor for the act of novel writing, and one’s tolerance (or lack thereof) for the doll’s-house conceit here may well correlate with tolerance for the author’s handling of her readers.)
  • Carol Memmott (Is the miniaturist someone with access to the Brandt household? That Burton never gives us the answer, and the miniaturist remains in the shadows, is the novel's major shortcoming. ... Burton's main characters are not nearly as colorful or well drawn. They're complex and complicated and suffer terrible tragedies, but Burton doesn't give us a deep enough look into their psyches. ... And can one family harbor so many dangerous secrets that the sheer quantity challenges our suspension of disbelief? ... And their behavior, sometimes, just doesn't make sense. ... Few novels are perfect, and despite its flaws, there's much to like in "The Miniaturist")

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

"What belongs to you" by Garth Greenwell (Picador, 2016)

A fairly young American man in Bulgaria frequents gay pick-up toilets. He becomes obsessed at first sight with Mitko. The initial pages express ambivalence and uncertainty using synonyms for "but" and "albeit" in sentence after sentence, as in the following - For all his friendliness, as we spoke he had seemed in some mysterious way to withdraw from me; the longer we avoided any erotic proposal the more finally he seemed unattainable, not so much because he was beautiful, although I found him beautiful, as for some still more forbidding quality (p.6)

He wants more than purchased sex yet he misreads signs of emotion, hopelessly gullible for one so experienced, and so literate too - "there's something theatrical in all our embraces, I think, as we weigh our responses against those we perceive or project; always we desire too much or not enough, and compensate accordingly", (p.9). All is mysterious, beautiful, astonishing. His main justification is that he has nothing to lose - no riches, reputation, security - yet he's a teacher at a prestigious school, with two-bedroomed accommodation and gadgets. Whenever he thinks Mitko is "artificial, calculated and sly", hormones take over. The suspended adolescence (leading to comical outcomes) is a conceit one needs to buy into.

He takes Mitko home. After sex, Mitko uses his host's laptop to Skype his clients/friends and arrange his week ahead. The host sits watching this happen, occasionally being introduced to a client while reading Cavafy and hoping for "the recovery of something like nobility from the mawkishness of desire" (p.28). His Bulgarian isn't good enough for him to understand all of what's happening. The gay jargon makes things harder still. Later we get one of many anecdotes about parenthood and lost innocence - "He watches a father embrace his little daughter, and imagines how that innocence will be lost - "as the man and his child released each other and moved away from the water, so it is that at that very moment we come into full consciousness of ourselves what we experience is leave-taking and a loss we seek the rest of our lives to restore" (p.34)

Part 2 begins with him being informed while he's teaching that his father is mortally ill. This triggers memories and reflections while he walks. He recalls becoming sexually excited while showering with his father - which compares with the observation on p.34 quoted above, and ended their father-son bond. He found out from his half-sister that her father used the web to contact lovers. So does the narrator - "it's one of the things I crave in the sites I use, that I can carry on these multiple conversations, each in its own window so that sometimes my screen is filled with them; and in each I have the sense of being entirely false and entirely true, like a self in a story, I suppose, or the self I inhabit when I teach, the self of authority and example. I know they're all I have, these partial selves, true and false at once, that any ideal of wholeness I long for is a sham; but I do long for it" (p.70)

We learn that in adolescence he'd become booky. Friends said he should get in touch with K, another booky boy. They have long phonecalls. When they finally meet he thinks they might have more than books in common. I like the father-son interaction on p.82-84 where the narrator and K. are in the car driven by the narrator's father. But K. finds a girlfriend, asks the narrator to help him have sex with his girlfriend by being present in K.'s room while it happens, acting as lookout in case K.'s parents pry - "if this wasn't the intimacy we had known or that I craved it was still a kind of intimacy, which I could be part of even if it wasn't mine ... I understood that this was what he wanted me to see all along, that I was there not as guard but as audience. I was there to see how different from me he was ... He knew I was watching and let me watch. It was like a parting gift ... I've sought it ever since, I think, the combination of exclusion and desire I felt in his room, beneath the pain of exclusion the satisfaction of desire" (p.86-90).

He recalls how his father reacted when he came out and decides not to see his father again. At the end of this part of the book he finds a horse - "It wasn't tied up, I saw, it could have wandered off anytime it chose; but there was nowhere for it to go, of course" (p.102)

Mitko returns in part 3 after a 2 year gap to tell the narrator he's been in jail and has syphilis. The narrator (who has a regular boyfriend now - R., Portuguese) has mixed emotions - "I realized too late that I had used the polite form of the verb, so that my invitation at once welcomed and held him off" (p.107). They go to MacDonalds and have sex in the toilet - "I was used to feeling regret in such moments, of course, sometimes I thought it was part of my pleasure" (p.134). After tests he finds he has syphilis, so does his absent lover. Mitko asks for more money. The narrator breaks things off.

His mother visits. They find seats on a train, which leads to a typically long meditation - "My mother took my lead, dismissing any discomfort as she arranged her things, even as her discomfort was clear, not least in how she eyed the other passengers sharing the small space. My mother has always been mistrustful of strangers, a part of the timidity or fear that at times seemed to dominate her life and that I feared I had inherited, learning from her a hesitancy, a kind of suspicion or doubt of my forces that kept me, that might still keep me, from finding how far they could run. Anything foreign could her alarm, as I could see in the way she grasped her purse, even when she delighted in the newness of what she had seen. She was uneasy now, too, though any sign of it was restrained by the politeness that was an imperative almost equal to her fear" (p.159). Several pages are taken up describing the antics of a little boy. It's done well. The narrator realises that "What was charming in the child would not be charming in the man, I thought, remembering Mitko and his bewilderment at my exasperation, his disbelief at every refusal. He had been a child just like this" (p.167) ... "I knew I would write a poem about him, and then it would be the poem I remembered, which would be both true and false at once, the image I made replacing the real image" (p.170).

Mitko returns to the narrator's door after a few weeks, looking ill and drunk. Despite himself, the narrator lets Mitko in. Mitko cries, says he has a year to live. He eats, lies on the bed, leaves on his own accord. The narrator watches as he disappears down the street.

Mitko is I think the only character given a name. K. and R. are mentioned. The narrator's name isn't revealed. At one point Mitko "stopped his chant and said my name, or not my name but that syllable he used to approximate it, since my name was unpronounceable in his language" (p.177). There's much reminiscing while walking, or on a bus or train. His father's (and society's) disgust became internalised, and never quite went away. There's Proustian analysis of emotion, the main ploy being that emotions are never pure - the boy on the train is both sweet and naughty; self-humiliation can be exquisite. At first, allowing himself to be exploited was in exchange for pleasure but later it became a pleasure in itself, a deserved punishment.

Other reviews

  • Neil Bartlett (By the end of this short, intense novel it becomes clear that the collision between our hard-won new capacity for frankness and a deep-rooted sense of archaic guilt and grief is precisely Greenwell’s subject. ... In the book’s opening third ... I found it hard to believe the narrator’s implicit claims that his mutually exploitative relationship with Mitko provided any sort of model for more general workings of desire. In the second part of the book’s triptych ... The writing becomes fired by some much-needed anger, and a convincing voice begins to rise from Greenwell’s prose. ... The last sequence includes some marvellous vignettes of loving kindness between parents and children, but they are presented as something that only other people can ever have, and the final pages of the book are memorable for their bleak and desperate sadness.)
  • James Wood (In an age of the sentence fetish, Greenwell thinks and writes, as Woolf or Sebald do, in larger units of comprehension; so consummate is the pacing and control, it seems as if he understands this section to be a single long sentence. Rhythm, order, music, and lucid exposition: there is undeniably a mandarin quality to the way that Greenwell narrows the frame of his inquiry and then perfectly fills this reduced space. ... “What Belongs to You” is fairly explicitly about shame, punishment, and disgust, among other things. What is unusual is not the presence of these themes but the book’s complicated embrace of “foulness,” and a barely suppressed longing for punishment, a longing embodied in the narrator’s relationship with Mitko. Greenwell’s novel impresses for many reasons, not least of which is how perfectly it fulfills its intentions. But it gains a different power from its uneasy atmosphere of psychic instability, of confession and penitence, of difficult forces acknowledged but barely mastered and beyond the conscious control of even this gifted novelist.)
  • Jonathan McAloon (it is the book’s midsection, unconcerned with the Mitko plot, which proves we are dealing with a writer who deserves his plaudits)
  • Arifa Akbar (My discomfort, amid my awe at Greenwell's talent, is over the politics of its central relationship: that between an older, richer, expat American and a young, foreign, dispossessed rent-boy lover, who must, through these inbuilt inequalities, play the part of the Other, and never become more human for us. ... That the American narrator seems aware, and in mourning, over the "othering" of this gay "lover" (does he become the lover or is he really a rent boy until the end?) does not entirely excuse their clich├ęd dynamic.)
  • Max Liu (Erotic holding, emotional withholding and the question of who holds power in a relationship are all examined in a work which gripped me all the way to its sad and beautiful ending)
  • Jeffrey Zuckerman (The compression, made possible by poetry, is evident in the way Greenwell’s sentences effortlessly encompass multiple time frames (recollected memories are often alluded to; “I would learn” is a frequent parenthetical aside), and slide easily from immediate descriptions to larger-scale observations and considerations. Narrative time expands and contracts)

Saturday, 8 July 2017

"Coastal" by Jane Duran (Enitharmon, 2005)

Poems from Poetry Review, Poetry London, etc. The first part is about places, returning to the past, recapturing lost moments, and her mother's decline. The second part (which I didn't think as good) is about adopting in a hot country.

The title poem begins with "I love your old age". Here's stanza 4 -

The seals have grown old
here too, in the worn-out
quilts of the sea, gusts.
We breathe the same air.
Some nights they look in at us
from the galleries of their whiskers,
streaked with salt, with mating.

Note how "Seals" are equated to "you" and then to "we". "galleries" is audacious - I suppose their eyes above their whiskers are like spectators above a box at a theatre. I don't get "with mating" though I don't know anything about seal sex.

Here's the start of "Cape Porpoise, Maine" - "I go back to that walk,/ island to island/ across the mind at low tide". The substitution of "mud" by "mind" changes a lot. The penultimate stanza continues the figurative thread - "I go back so I can walk/ past my own past into hers"

Later, in section 6 of "Overlays", the seals and islands are brought together - "the seals are see-through, like an anguish.// My boy follows a wavy line with his fingers./ At low tide we can still walk out to the islands./ We can walk as far as we can see,/ as far as you can remember"

At times there's very deliberate juxtaposing that I don't get. "I climb into a boat on the pond ... On the steep hill above the pond a harvester is gathering hay ... My boat is bent flat, gathered as if to fit into a bottle/ and the harvester is loading the high fields/ with tiny bales of hay" (p.16)

Punchlines can appear anywhere - e.g. "Stroke" has "I go in search of what is missing" 6 lines from the end, whereas "In the certainty that everything can change/ in a moment" (p.43) is line 2.

Other reviews

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

"Days without end" by Sebastian Barry (Faber and Faber, 2016)

"The method of laying out a corpse in Missouri sure took the proverbial cake" begins this novel, which we later realise is from the viewpoint of Thomas McNulty, from Sligo. He went to Canada in the mid 1800s because of famine, met John Cole on the road. They dressed up as girls and danced with miners in a bar until puberty, after which they joined the army, fighting Indians. He's involved with massacres, with fire squads. Indians are an alien culture, impossible to understand. Amongst them are cross-dressers. Some work with the soldiers as scouts. Some of the officers are cruel to the Indians. Others are charitable - "Major instituted an Indian school for the many children racing about and the offspring of the troopers that have took Indian wives" (p.83). The major returns one year with a wife - "Every little thing she says has grammar in it, she sounds like a bishop" (p.87).

When they're 25 they leave the army for a while, take with them a 9 year-old Indian girl, Winona, share a house, perform in a variety show, Thomas in drag. Then, because their ex-officer asks them, they return to fighting, this time in the Civil War. They surrender to the Rebs, spend time in a prisoner camp, get released, go south to help an ex-soldier friend on his Tennessee farm. They marry in 1866. Winona, now 17, is asked to return to her tribe in exchange for the major's daughter. She does so. Thomas retrieves her after the exchange and dresses as a woman to escape with her back to the farm. He adopts a female persona from then on. There's a legal complication that causes him to be given a death sentence, but he's spared.

McNulty's language is surprisingly lyrical at times -

  • "The grasses were sere and indifferent really, scratching the horizon of the sky" (p.42)
  • "Then rain began to fall in an extravagant tantrum" (p.48)
  • "The snow storm is just a thing of threadbare veils, we can see everything" p.112
  • "Old lakes like seas, old woods as dark as childhood fears, and sudden towns all swank and mud. Mr Noone he still ain't so old we find. He is as dapper as a mackerel" p.123
  • "The war is widening everywhere. But the clock of the day turns just the same. Bugle and barked order. The big supply wagons dragged by oxen hove into camp. Well we was nearly eating bullets. got a little boneyard full of the winter's haul. Fr Giovanni likes his brandy but he always does the honours" p.163
  • "The breeze has swung round to the east and now a million small waves appear on the river. Lace from a million seamstresses. The old heralds of the twilight are a slow blindness across the land and a long high colour the colour of apples seeps into the sky" p.171

Such a style makes even the battle scenes readable. McNulty's Irishness is brought into play - "When that old ancient Cromwell come to Ireland he said he would leave nothing alive. Said the Irish were vermin and devils. Clean out the country for good people to step into. Make a paradise. Now we make this American paradise I guess. Guess it be strange so many Irish boys doing this work" p.263

Information's delayed.

  • On p.33 we learn that McNulty and John Cole are secret lovers.
  • It's only on p.62 that we learn whose funeral began the book.
  • On p.88 it says "I look back over fifty years of life" - the first clue that the narrator's retrospecting.

There are several plot-turns that sound contrived, and I don't think that 2 men could live that way without being found out. I don't find that a problem.

Other reviews

  • Katy Simpson Smith (With uncommon delicacy, Barry reminds us that individual humans buzz about the land like mosquitoes: causing mischief, dying, being born, forgetting.)
  • Allan Massie

Saturday, 1 July 2017

"The Shuttered Eye" by Julia Copus (Bloodaxe, 1995)

I like quite a lot of this book. Typically all the lines of a poem are nearly the same length, and all the stanzas are the same length except for the final stanza, which is often a single line. This is symptomatic of pieces that nowadays might more naturally be prose. In a bio it says this book contains "the first of several ‘specular’ poems, a form she devised in which the second half of the poem is an exact mirror of the first". To me they're palindromes where the unit is the line (rather than the more common letter-unit palindromes). Word-unit palindromes exist too. Palindromes aren't necessarily poems.

There are many poems about parents and poems about Greek myths. Some poems use little imagery, other perhaps too much. I like the wit of "giant mosques// shoulder their way out of the mist at some/ unearthly hour just to be certain// of a place in the skyline" (p.46) but some of the other imagery sounds less original - something to give a poem a big finish.

  • "Orange" for example starts and ends thus - "He comes back to a house/ where the dark has splintered/ in through every crack; broken/ and entered. Inside, the clock ticks// loudly, like a heart in shock ... And by his head the black/ phone hangs silent like the// shell of a foetus on its coiled/ umbilicus, not moving".
  • "his breathing like the sound of the whole sea in one, small// uninhabited shell; like the sighing of steam which starts/ deep in the pistons, then shudders an engine into life" (end of "All these miles").
  • "Don't Talk to me about fate" starts with "There are still nights I wake into darkness,/ Dry-mouthed, unable to find myself.// And minutes later in the x-ray glare/ of the kitchen, over-exposed, the migraine-// hum of the fridge, hogging its cool dark/ like a secret". It ends with the more successful "What you hear is the flush of your own pulse./ Close by. Regular. Like a shuffling of cards." which returns to the title, though the pun on "flush" might be one twist too many.

"The Last Days of Proverbia" is light relief, prose - "all the eggs are gathered/ into a basket (several hatch/ even before they are counted) ... Reluctantly, we leave the dead/ digging graves for one another/ and set off in search of a fence". "Major Harwell Experiences Bliss" is a refreshing change, though I don't think it's much good. Nowadays it and "The Botanic artist" would surely be prose. The line-breaks fade into insignificance in pieces like "Digging the Pond" - "The colours have all/ faded but the image// remains clear: three thin/ shapeless bodies - me// in the middle with my hair/ blown across my eyes,// squinting. On either side/ my two brothers leaning// on spades and smiling,/ faces and hands// muddied with clay.".

In conclusion: a lot of words and many opportunities to go wrong, but she doesn't often. I wasn't keen on "Digging the Pond", "Homeopathy", "The Marriage", "The Sea-Polyp", "Cut", "Spring Bank Holiday". I liked "Song of the Clock Girl", "Bomb", "The Back Seat of my mother's car", and the changing subject matter sustained my interest.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

"Gods & Angels" by David Park (Bloomsbury, 2016)

13 stories, mostly in the 20-30 page range. In "Learning to Swim" a university lecturer new to the city falls in with some other middle-aged men at the Health Club. One suspects that the title will have more than a literal meaning. Two-thirds of the way in we're told what by then we already know -

There were so many questions but something - perhaps it was fear - stopped me from asking and it felt as if I had stumbled by chance into a world far beyond mine whose existence was governed by rules and principles of which I had only the most tenuous grasp (p.14)

Then at the end, when he's thrown into a pool

And this is how I have come to remember them and everything that happened during those months - finding myself floundering in that strange element of a city, their faces and voices increasingly blurred as if they too were cast adrift in some world that was partly of their own making, but in part of things they didn't fully understand (p.21)

The story and characters were interesting enough, but it doesn't quite deliver.

"Boxing Day" has some nice touches and observation. A 17 year-old boy is being driven to his mother by his father. The boy's reluctant to go - he likes living with his father and a new family.

'Why do I need to keep doing this?' I asked, turning off the radio to signal my seriousness.
'Because it's the right thing to do and because when all's said and done she's still your mother.'

Sentences like "I walked to the window. The sea seemed locked into a stupor, slumbering in some forlorn memory of its former motion" ensure we don't forget the mood. Not for the first time, she falls asleep on the couch during his stay. He looks through the old Christmas decorations. She's given him a present of a magnifying glass. He uses it to study her scalp. Later "There was a coldness eddying off a sea that still looked bored by its own motion as it broke lifelessly on the single beach". He steals a photo when his father picks him up (his mother still asleep) because he doesn't plan to return though he's noticed for the first time scars on her wrist. They play "The Very Best of The Smiths" on the way home, a compromise.

"The Kiss" intersplices a Caravaggio episode with some modern life. "Keeping Watch" also uses juxta-position. A cop on look-out duties ("The mist-raddled morning air clings to my face and crimps the skin so it feels as if I'm wearing a mask", p.66) also sneaks into the house of his ex-wife and son. "The Strong Silent Type" features a first-person male shop mannequin - "Then the light goes out and I'm left with nothing but the thin sift of dreams where as always my companion reaches out her hand to meet mine and when we embrace I feel the flow of her warmth press against me and in that sudden flush our mouths blossom with words" (p.76). "The Bloggers" starts with "The divorce didn't go well, as might have been expected from how badly the marriage went." (p.107). It has entertaining parts within a predictable narrative arc. "Skype" is uneventful, set on a Scottish/Scandinavian fishing island where the children keep leaving - "The desire to share the little they have been given by children children ensures the word Skype has become as common as references to the weather in the islanders' exchanges" (p.141). "Heatwave" is amusing; an avalanche of little failures.

In "Man Overboard" some lads ("stranded in the wrong side of forty" (p.188) - one of them, Douggie, depressed) leave their wives for an angling weekend. They're not sure whether they should have invited Douggie, though they're nice to him. Duggie jumps off a boat. Suicide? No, he swims to an island - "'I wanted to know what the water felt like. Wanted to be on the island,' Douggie said" (p.197). "Gecko" features a couple married for 25 years, childless. For their silver wedding anniversary they go on an arctic holiday with no guarantee of seeing the Northern Lights. They're still in love "It was too cold to linger long and when they went inside their travel tiredness encouraged them to bed. They both knew they should made love and so they helped each other into the needed responses and afterwards in the silence they listened briefly to the fire's final surrender before they too fell asleep." (p.212). "'We've always been sensible,' she said but it wasn't clear if she meant it as a compliment or a criticism." (p.218).

"Old Fool" (the longest story but not the best) is about a widowered charity shop volunteer who tries to help a young mother customer, Georgie. They exchange life stories. He does odd jobs for her - "That was how we became part of each other's lives and like the shop you don't need to be an expert to grasp the need it fulfilled for me although below the surface there were occasions when I was conscious of other complications of feeling" (p.259). They sleep together, once, after which he realises he's gone too far. He notices she's wearing a bracelet that he'd bought for his wife in Barcelona. He'd donated it, and Georgie had stolen it from the shop.

"Crossing the river" has Charon as its first-person narrator. There's competition from "the young ones with their customised and pimped carriers, all glittering with technology and toys, their sat navs and their entertainment centres". He rows illegal immigrants over. His last passenger of the day is his slightly demented mother.

I feel for the people in these stories despite the hint of heart-string-pulling.

Other reviews

  • John Boyne (David Park [is] a writer’s writer, a creator of provocative, light-footed novels of understated sophistication that deserve to reach a wider audience than they have to date ... At its best, as in the second story, Boxing Day, Park proves adept at scrutinising that most elusive and disquieting institution of Irish life – the family ... Less successful is The Strong Silent Type ... Similarly, the opening story, Learning To Swim, which should pack a punch and set the reader up with excitement for what is to come in the stories ahead, is something of a damp squib)
  • Kirkus reviews
  • Sarah Ferguson (Park is a skilled craftsman who serves up some memorable passages, yet several of the entries in this collection seem too slight, proving just how delicate and elusive the alchemy of the short story form can be.)