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, 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.

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.)
  • 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

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