Category Archives: Granta Books

First Love – Gwendoline Riley

One of the things that always excites me about any books prize longlist is the books that I know nothing or very little about. The latter was the case with Gwendoline Riley’s First Love which, bar the copy lovely Lamorna over at Granta – who publish the book – sent me, I knew next to nothing about other than she thought it was amazing and the author was originally from the Wirral where I live now. (For some reason I assumed it was a debut novel about love, neither of these things are correct.) Yet sometimes I find the idea of starting a book I know hardly anything about as exciting, if not sometimes more so, than starting something I have been meaning to read. So in I went, knowing not what to expect…

Granta Books, hardback, 2017, fiction, 168 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

I used to look at houses like this one from the train: behind the ivy-covered embankment, their London brick, sash windows. That was on the Euston approach. The back of this flat – that is, the bedroom, the bathroom and Edwyn’s study – looks out on the overground line, just past West Brompton.

The opening of First Love is quite an ingenious initial insight into the world of Neve whose life story we are thrown into. She is not only looking out on others wondering what they might see if they looked at her, she is also looking at the patterns of her life and how they are reflected from a girl looking in to being a woman looking out. Sorry if we got a little deep here but we get deep into Neve’s life just as quickly as we soon discover that she is married to Edwyn, of the study, an older man who seems to be suffering from some form of sickness. We also discover that the married life she has might not be the one which she was expecting and the cracks behind the veneer which within four pages are shrugged off.

Lately it’s the round of coughing in the hallway that lets me know he’s home. I go out and meet him, we have a cuddle, and then I look at the Standard while he gets changed. We don’t talk much in the evenings, but we’re very affectionate. When we cuddle on the landing, and later in the kitchen, I make little noises – at the back of my throat, as does he. When we cuddle in bed at night, he says, ‘I love you so much!’ or ‘You’re such a lovely little person!’ There are pet names, too. I’m ‘little smelly puss’ before a bath, and ‘little cleany puss’ in my towel on the landing after one; in my dungarees I’m ‘you little Herbert!’ and when I first wake up and breathe on him I’m his ‘little compost heap’ or ‘little cabbage’. Edwyn kisses me repeatingly, and with great emphasis, in the morning.
There have been other names of course.
‘Just so you know,’ he told me last year, ‘I’ve no plans to spend my life with a shrew. Just so you know that. A fishwife shrew with a face like a fucking arsehole that’s had… green acid shoved up it.’

It soon transpires that Edwyn is not just physically sick but possibly mentally too he doesn’t just have outbursts of verbal anger but also physical abuse, though it is the verbal to which he is most prone and is actually the more controlling. We quickly switch back to Neve’s younger years back in Liverpool where her father used to abuse her mother, something Edwyn knows and belittles – I know, he’s utterly vile. Yet where her mother also used to send her to once they had split up to ‘keep the peace’ even after her father assaulted her brother, where she gets to hear her father and his friends berate and demean women. Leading the reader to wonder if this is why Neve is so passive in her relationship with Edwyn, is it because it is what she was expecting and what she was taught about the value of her own worth?

If this sounds somewhat all over the place and slightly confusing it is because that is how Riley wants you to feel. These are snippets of memory, sometimes coming in a jumble or linking up in strange ways in a woman’s life. They continue in the second part of the novel, of which there are three, when we are taken to two periods between those years after her parents splitting up and before Edwyn. The first, living with a friend in Manchester where an ex-lover gets back in touch when he is back in the area; the second, which could be earlier or later, in Scotland when her mother comes to visit after the separation of her relationship after the one with Neve’s father. Still with me?

‘Oh, he just went mad. Absolutely mad. But – I was prepared, so… You know I have been making this list, well, you don’t know, but I have, of things he does that I don’t like, or, you know, not very nice things, and it ran into three pages in the end! So I did show him that.’
‘You showed him?’
‘Yes. And oh, he went mad. He just said – Out. Get out. So I went straight upstairs then and started looking at flats on Rightmove. But he has lifted that sentence now, so… I can go in my own time. But yes, I am going now.’
‘That’s good.’
‘Yes. Well. I think it’s just… I’d had enough really.’
‘Where will you go?’
‘Well, I don’t know. All my activities are in Liverpool, but then he says that’s over now. None of his friends would want to stay my friend, apparently, so I am to be ostracized, you see, he says, my name’s going to be mud, apparently, so… Persona non grata.’
‘That’s nice.’

 It is through this section that we begin to see how the situations of Neve’s past, using exes and abused yet demanding mothers, have led to her being in this relationship with Edwyn. Yet I spotted a few things that made me start to consider Neve in a slightly different light. Firstly, there was the abandonment of a friend who had let her live with her pretty much rent free for a long as she liked, without thanks or even any notice. Without a care in fact, quite coldly. This then made me reread some of the sections with her mother where I started to reread it less as the mother as the monstrous matriarch and more as the abandoned daughter who really just wanted, well needed as she comes across so needy at times, her daughters love, approval and opinion. I mean look at the end of the response to her mother being persona non grata, ‘That’s nice.’ Hmmm. Then I did the same with the relationship with her ex. And then her relationship with Edwyn.

What I did find was that it made the book all the more unsettling because I started to question what if Neve isn’t the victim in this situation, what if she isn’t as passive or as innocent as she first looks? We are told Edwyn is sick, but what if she is making him sick, after all this is Neve’s version of events but how reliable a narrator is she? It throws the whole book in the air and flips it on itself. I could of course just be me misreading two moments completely.  I would love to know what anyone else who has read this thinks. Anyway…

At first I have to admit I was really quite bemused by First Love and didn’t know what I should make of it. I then had some cracking chats with my lovely booktube pals Lauren and Lauren about it who both also read it in very different ways. Since those chats and having some time away from it, the more and more interesting and clever and twisty I think it might be. How amazing that a book can be read in such different ways due to some subtler moments here or there. Gwendoline Riley shows with First Love that with subtlety and brevity you can still create the most complex and claustrophobic of characters and atmospheres. I shall have to read more of her work, and possibly this novel a few more times to find out which story is true.

Have you read First Love and what did you think of it? Which version of the two potential ways I have read it did you read it? Am I mad thinking it can be read in such different way? Have you read any of Gwendoline Riley’s other novels and if so where should I head to next? If you haven’t read it I do urge you to get a copy as I want more people to talk about it with. You can get a copy here.

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Filed under Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Granta Books, Gwendoline Riley, Review

The Vegetarian – Han Kang

It seems apt to be posting a review (which I meant to post last week) about this novel at a time when the idea of eating anymore meat makes me feel slightly queasy post Christmas dining like a loon. The Vegetarian by Han Kang is a book I have had on my shelves since this time last year, however the buzz and word of mouth praise around it had been building and building. Then when a copy of her next novel to be translated (again by Deborah Smith) Human Acts landed through my letter box I was reminded that I needed to get a wriggle on and read the first, erm, first.

9781846275623

Portobello Books, 2015, paperback, fiction, 186 pages, translated by Deborah Smith kindly sent by the publisher

When The Vegetarian opens we are taken into the rather contented, safe and traditional world (as he sees it) of Mr Cheong. He describes how he met his wife, Yeong-hye, and fell for her not because of love but because she was basically very average, quite unremarkable and wouldn’t threaten his life or lifestyle. Okay, so she didn’t wear a bra which was rather shocking but nothing too radical, she would be a good ‘wife’ to him. That is until a few nights ago when he is awakened to his wife getting all the meat out the fridge and freezer, throwing it away and declaring that from now on she is a vegetarian. Her reason? All she will say to him is that she has had a dream and from there the novel starts to spiral, first with Mr Cheong (with a small detour to his shocked and appalled colleagues) and then Yeong-hye’s immediate family reacting badly, a reaction – when her father tried to force feed her pork – which is the start of a real change in Yeong-hye’s life and those close to her.

People turn vegetarian for all sorts of reasons: to try and alter their genetic predispositions towards certain allergies, for example, or else because it’s seen as more environmentally friendly not to eat meat. Of course, Buddhist priests who have taken certain vows are morally obliged not to participate in the destruction of life, but surely not even impressionable young girls take it quite that far. As far as I was concerned, the only reasonable grounds for altering one’s eating habits were the desire to lose weight, an attempt to alleviate certain physical ailments, being possessed by an evil spirit, or having your sleep disturbed by indigestion. In any other case, it was nothing but sheer obstinacy for a wife to go against her husband’s wishes as mine had done.

I don’t want to give too much away, I never do, yet I will need to give a few additional teasers to really get into the heart of why I loved the book and also the way it was written, structured and stunningly translated by Deborah Smith. The Vegetarian is a book in three parts, which were originally three separate novellas about several stages in Yeong-hye’s life. What is really interesting is that none of them are told by Yeong-hye herself. Firstly we have the story told by her husband from the lead up to the announcement of her vegetarianism and to the family dinner where it all unravels. In the second section we switch to the viewpoint of her brother in law as he becomes erotically obsessed with his sister in law and believes she will be part of his next great art work. The third is told through her sister as she visits Yeong-hye who is residing in an institution after a breakdown.

There was much I loved about the way in which this works for a reader. As we read on we gain insights and glimpses into the society in Korea, what it finds acceptable and inacceptable and what your role within that society is deemed to be. Yeong-hye is meant to be the perfect wife, the perfect sister, the perfect daughter, the perfect muse. The simple act of becoming a vegetarian, I say that flippantly because here in the UK it is a simple act, conspires to a full breakdown not only of Yeong-hye herself but of those close to her and even those who have only met her a few times and/or have to interact with her.

It is not just people and their roles or their expectations that Kang is looking at either. In the first part Mr Cheong looks at his career, the corporate world and the traditional roles of marriage and the expectation of each spouse. In the second part we look at the art world, the creative, the erotic and the role of desire (in good and bad ways) and society’s views on sex in and outside of a marriage. Thirdly we see society’s attitudes to mental health, and the health care system as it stands, which of course by its very nature defies ‘the norm’ or what is deemed acceptable behaviour. This last section I found incredibly powerful. Pressure and judgement is everywhere, one act can have major reverberations and one small fracture in a family can cause complete wreckage, whereupon who is left to pick up the pieces, if anyone wants to.

 ‘Ah, you’re visiting today?’
The woman is Hee-joo, how is receiving treatment for alcoholism and hypomania. Her body is stout but her round eyes give her a sweet look, and her voice is always somewhat hoarse. In this hospital, the patients who are in good control of their faculties look after those with more acute psychological problems, and receive a little pocket money in return; when Yeong-hye had grown difficult to manage, refusing point blank to eat, she had come under the care of Hee-joo.

It actually turns out that Yeong-hye is not the small act that lead to this, in a way is a case of her using some form of control to deal with another act from her past, which I don’t want to spoil for anyone who hasn’t read it because it is incredibly powerful, from a single line, when the penny drops. I was left feeling very numb for sometime afterwards. I will say no more on this part of the book, other than it is superbly, superbly done showing the power of Han Kang’s writing and Deborah Smith’s marvellous translation from the original Korean.

Speaking more of the writing, to avoid any spoilers, not a line is wasted in this book; it is precise, beautiful and quite searing. Kang manages to create scenes, landscapes and sections of society and the culture around it effortlessly – let us not forget this is a slim volume even made up of three novellas. Her triumph in The Vegetarian though is the creation of Yeong-hye and her story. Yeong-hye is at once a complete individual and also a symbol of many, many women and the pressure and expectation that is put on them. She speaks for no one and yet everyone, and yet she also never speaks. Her family, society and everyone else does the talking for her and yet somehow Kang makes these characters see her from only their viewpoint yet the reader is given her fully formed. The only things we ever hear from her are a few small sections from her dreams/nightmares and I think we all know what Kang is trying to say with this.

Dark woods. No people. The sharp-pointed leaves on the trees, my torn feet. This place, almost remembered, but I’m lost now. Frightened. Cold. Across the frozen ravine, a red barn-like building. Straw matting flapping limp across the door. Roll it up and I’m inside, it’s inside. A long bamboo stick struck with great blood-red gashes of meat, there’s no end to the meat, and no exit. Blood in my mouth, blood-soaked clothes sucked onto my skin.

If I am making this book sound to heavy it is honestly not, which is also what is so brilliant about it. There are some very funny, magical, titillating and sexy moments in the book amongst the thought provoking and questioning layers throughout. You can also just read this as being a book about a woman who decides to stop eating meat and become a plant. Yet The Vegetarian is so, so, so much more than that. It is a book that has imprinted itself on my brain and one I will be recommending to anyone and everyone, it is certainly one of my books of the year. I cannot wait to read Human Acts which I have on my bedside table waiting for the first week of January when I will devour it. If you haven’t read The Vegetarian yet I seriously recommend you do and will be reminding you so again in a few days – yes, it is one of my books of the year!

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Filed under #DiverseDecember, Books of 2015, Granta Books, Han Kang, Portobello Books, Review

Dept. Of Speculation – Jenny Offill

My lovely friend Catherine Hall is a book tease. I went and stayed with her quite a lot last year and every time she would rave and rave about Jenny Offill’s Dept of Speculation as being the best book she had read in ages, and every time she would have lent it to someone else. It also seemed to be a book that had always sold out in bookshops I happened to fall into when it was in hardback. When it came out in paperback though I snaffled it on its day of release, and read it on its day of release, twice. It has just taken me a while to get round to writing about it to the point where I feel I do it justice because Catherine Hall was right, it is one of the best books I have read in quite some time.

Granta Books, 2015, paperback, fiction, 192 pages, bought by myself for myself

That one was so beautiful I used to watch him sleep. If I had to sum up what he did to me, I’d say this: he made me sing along to all the bad songs on the radio. Both when he loved me and when he didn’t.

They say that there is not a single new story under the sun, or something like that, and if I was to say to you that Jenny Offill’s Dept of Speculation was the story of a couple from their first meeting to the time after one has an affair and the fall out of that, you might think ‘oh nothing new there’. Normally I would be with you, rolling my eyes the loudest, however whilst that story arc might be well trodden in literature I don’t think that anyone has done it in such an original manner as Offill.*

In a series of chapters that are really made up of many short paragraphs or sentences Offill builds us a fully formed vision of a relationship. We have those first moments of connection, the first conversations, the first night of passion, the working out the unwritten rules as the relationship defines itself. We go through moving in together, marriage, children. Then we hit the affair, the questions of forgiveness and of if staying together is right. We have the highs and we have the lows and we have them in possibly some of the most intimate bursts of description I have ever read.

It was still months before we’d tell each other all our stories. And even then some seemed too small to bother with. So why do they come back to me now? Now, when I’m so weary of it all.

Because Dept. of Speculation is a novella, and the way it is constructed is so swiftly done, I don’t really want to give you any more of the story than that. All I will say is that you feel for the narrator as they unravel these moments partly because you have been there before and in some ways feels like you are getting snippets of conversation from a friend. Or if you are like me, snippets of a conversation that is going on at a table not far from you that you simply cannot stop listening to. What I have to tell you about is just how ruddy marvellous Jenny Offill’s writing is, so don’t you try and stop me.

One of the quirky, for I think that is a word which can be applied to this novella, things that I found most affective (after some of the heartbreaking poignant moments) in her writing is the way that as we read on we are given random facts that seem to have absolutely nothing to do with the story. For example we are told about antelopes vision, the habits of birds and facts about microbes. Initially you find yourself thinking ‘what on earth are these about’ and yet as you read on you realise that these seemingly random paragraphs and facts actually bear an uncanny relationship to where our narrators head or heart is at and it gives the novel this additional force of emotion when you (literally) least expect it. There is also no seeming rhyme or reason to them, sometimes they arrive solitary, sometimes in unrelated (yet somehow apt) groups. I found this really powerful.

There is a man who travels around the world trying to find places where you can stand still and hear no human sound. It is impossible to feel calm in cities, he believes, because we so rarely hear bird song there. Our ears have evolved to be our warning systems. We are on high alert in places where no birds sing. To live in a city is to be forever flinching.

The Buddhists say there are 121 states of consciousness. Of these, only three involve misery or suffering. Most of us spend our lives moving back and forth between these three.

Offill might keep her prose short, sharp and sparse but it is filled with imagery, colour, emotion and atmosphere. One of the ways in which I think her writing can be at its most powerful is when (and I know I mention this a lot but it is something I love when done well) she writes a moment that is initially really, really funny and then smacks you round the chops with a sudden realisation of the sadness behind it. There were several moments during Dept. of Speculation where I would laugh out loud and then suddenly be hit with the bittersweet tang of the undertone that was lying in wait for me. Like when Offill writes…

At night, they lie in bed holding hands. It is possible if she is stealthy enough that the wife can do this while secretly giving the husband the finger.

Or…

And that phrase – “sleeping like a baby.” Some blonde said it blithely on the subway the other day. I wanted to lie down next to her and scream for five hours in her ear.

I found these moments incredibly real. No, I haven’t had a child but I have babysat a lot and indeed when my little sister was born, when I was just sweet sixteen, her crying would lead me to sneak into her room take her out her cot and cuddle her much too the fury of my mother and step father who were trying to create a routine. It is probably the level of reality in Offill’s writing that is where the book chimed so much with me. As I read on I found myself having had the same thoughts and emotions as the narrator. It took me back to those wonderful first flutterings of love and lust and those dark moments of utter heartbreak. It delivers all this simply and succinctly, no bells and whistles, just wonderful writing.

Are animals lonely?
Other animals, I mean.

I think Dept. of Speculation is something quite special. It is a book of observations that will speak to you. You will converse with it in your mind, you will relate to it and then you will want to talk to lots of people about it. I also think in living through its protagonist’s relationship you will come away feeling like you understand and value the relationships you have now and the ones that you have had before. It will make you laugh, it will make you cry and you will feel better for both. I highly, highly recommend you read it.

*Note: I will now get lots of emails telling me this has been done before. I won’t believe one of them, ha.

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Filed under Books of 2015, Granta Books, Jenny Offill, Review

Noontide Toll – Romesh Gunesekera

When the Gordon Burn Prize shortlist popped/ thumped through my letterbox (kindly sent by New Writing North who run the prize) I thought that I would head to the biggest first and work my way down, literally in size. However as my trip to America gets ever nearer so does my reading for it, which is roughly eight books some of which are massive, so I decided to pick a more slender volume and grabbed Noontide Toll. I soon discovered that Romesh Gunesekera’s latest work might be slender in size yet is a book that keeps on giving and most importantly keeps making you think both whilst reading and long after.

Granta Books, 2014, paperback, fiction, 256 pages, kindly sent by New Writing North

On the island of Sri Lanka we meet our narrator “Vasantha the van man” who, as you might have guessed from his nickname, spends his days driving around the island ferrying tourists, soldiers, business men and their colleagues or wives, ex pats, aid workers and more to their various destinations. In doing so, in what is a collection of short stories which form the novels narrative, he introduces us to all the aspects of present day Sri Lanka, it’s history, its people and also the predicament that it seems to find itself in as a place that has often been torn apart by wars and natural disasters.

‘You ok?’ I asked Chen.
‘Sure, sure.’ His head tilted, not quite as buoyant as he had been at the start. Perhaps he was too young to know any of the gruesome history of his homeland. Maybe there they don’t talk about the terrors of invasion, the herding of people, the famine, the ideological culling, the suppression of the decent. All that probably disappears in the harmonious joy of economic development. At least that’s the idea, I think.

I have to admit that reading Noontide Toll had a slightly shaming effect on me whilst being utterly fascinating, sometimes grimly so. Despite having some friends from the country I had absolutely no idea, other than the Boxing Day Tsunami, what turmoil the country had been through. As Vasantha drives through both the North and the South (which is also how the book is divided in parts as well as stories) we meet the landscape and people who have been scarred by the historical tumultuous past. Old mansions which if haven’t been blown up or destroyed have been ransacked for anything or worth, wrecked ships that have now become the backdrop to music videos. Hotel managers who can throw bottles at rats with such precision you know they have had to defend themselves, people whose grief at losing a family is etched on their faces and yet manage to stay positive on the lookout for turtles laying eggs at sunset.

Whether you know the whole history or not one of the most intriguing things which Vasantha notes when he is with any client, is that his homeland is now free of war yet is struggling in a whole new way as it tries to reclaim itself as a country and with other countries around the world. In some aspects, like with The Weightless World which I discussed a while ago, it is trying to work out what its place and its worth is within the economic worlds (be it tourism or business and trade) of both the West and Asia. It is also a country that is trying to decide what to do with its history; should it embrace it and own it or should it erase any sight of it? Can we really simply remember and move on? What is also somewhat unsettling is that it seems that those who live there are both wary and befuddled by their own homeland being a place of peace can it really last?

I asked the soldier whether I could park the van around the side. He shrugged. In the military I thought one had to be more decisive and heroic, but perhaps that was further up the chain of command and only in times of real conflict. Peace has made us all dozy, I guess. Even the crickets were muffled.

If this all sounds very serious, rather maudlin and a little heavy going, I promise you it is not. With the structure of this book Gunesekera gives you these wonderful intense vignettes from Vasantha that you can read as a single short standalone story in itself or indeed read a few as you are utterly charmed by Vasantha and some of the characters that he meets along the way and interweave creating a patchwork of views and insights into all walks of life from all over the place which form this incredibly complex world yet all in bite size portions which really entertain you whilst leaving lingering, occasionally unsettling, thoughts in your mind.

I found Vasantha a really interesting character. By the end of Noontide Toll you are utterly charmed by him and yet he remains something of an enigma. He gives you insight into the history of Sri Lanka and the lives of those in his van, yet bar the occasional titbit keeps himself something of a mystery. I wondered if this was because Gunesekera wanted him to literally be a vehicle for the reader, or if we were meant to feel like one of his clients on a long road trip around the island being told the tales of previous clients yet never themselves, as is the case often when you go aboard and have a driver. That slight customer and contractor relationship which is intimate yet distant all at once.

I think Vasantha is a marvellous creation and a brilliant character. He embodied everything l  admired so much about Gunesekera’s colourful and vivid writing. As you go along his humour and (mainly) joyful wonder of everything around him is a delight. He always knows just when to tell you something funny amongst it all, one of my favourite moments which I think sums him up is when he describes a lighthouse as a naughty beacon of the south, perfect. I was completely charmed by him and his narration as we drove around and often felt his musings about life were very much like mine and in particular my thoughts on why we read.

I like to know about the world beyond our shores. About faraway countries where people behave differently. I like to hear about their food and customs. How they deal with the cold and the rain. What it is like to drive on the other side of the road. I like to take foreign tourists around because it gives me a glimpse of a place that is different in touch, taste, smell, sound and look, from the place I am stuck in. I watch how they sit, how they walk, how they talk, and I try to see what they want to escape from and return to. They are not all driven by the desire for sex in new places. Some want to know our history and our culture and what makes us live the way we do. So do I.

I am not sure I would have read Noontide Toll if it hadn’t been shortlisted for the Gordon Burn Prize, as I have  to admit I hadn’t heard of it until then, so I am very grateful that it has. It is a wonderfully narrated and intricately detailed tale of a country its history and its people, by the end I felt Gunesekera had educated me with writing of delicacy, wit and slight horror. It is also a book that will remind you why we read and why we should read as widely as we can to experience and learn through other people’s eyes. I would highly recommend giving it a read.

Have any of you read Noontide Toll or any of Gunesekera’s other novels? I have that lovely feeling you get when you discover a new-to-you writer where you want to run off and get your hands on everything else that they have written.

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Filed under Gordon Burn Prize, Granta Books, Review, Romesh Gunesekera

The Dig – Cynan Jones

I have been pondering why it is that I am becoming a fan of shorter fiction more and more. I have heard many people saying shorter fiction is perfect for the social generation who find it very hard to concentrate on reading anything longer than a status update. There may be a modicum of truth in that I suppose, on occasion, yet when you read a book like Cynan Jones’ The Dig and undergo what is an incredibly visceral, earthy, upsetting (I cried and I heaved – seriously) and emotionally intense experience you wonder why any author bothers writing anything over 160 pages. Of course some short works do not come close to that experience and some long books are immersive wonders, you get my point though I am hoping.

Granta Books, hardback, 2014, fiction, 156 pages, kindly sent by the lovely folk at Fiction Uncovered HQ

In The Dig we follow the lives of two men who live in the same remote countryside and who have met briefly once and who couldn’t be more different. Daniel is a farmer who is struggling both with keeping his farm profitable and running and also with a personal tragedy. I will not give away what because when you find out early on it is like a physical punch. I cried that is all I will say. The other character, who we only know as ‘the big man’ is a much darker kind of fellow; one who trains his dog to kill rats, catches badgers for baiting and has been to prison for something we are unsure of. The question is of course how and why might these two men meet up again?

The Dig is incredibly written. It consists of paragraphs that give us snapshots into both characters feelings, occasionally slipping us up as to who is narrating, meaning that both characters show their darker and lighter sides. I love books set in the countryside because behind the picturesque white fences and lace curtains, or down the back alleys and over the hills, there is a dark animalistic nature (pun not intended) to the countryside which is isolating, hard and dangerous. Jones depicts this beautifully, yet without ever getting flowery. This book is all about cold drips, muddy squelches, twigs cracking and fires crackling. Note – those are all my words just for illustration, Cynan has a much broader vocabulary than I.

The scent of her was in the room and it almost choked him to understand how vital to him this was; how he could never understand her need for his own smell, could not even understand howshe could find it on him under the animal smells, the carbolic, the tractor oil and bales and all the things he could pick out on his own hands. He had this idea of smells layering themselves over him, like paint on a stone wall, and again he has this sense of extraordinary resilient tiredness. He wondered what isolated, essential smell she found on him, knew the mammalian power of this from the way pups would stumble blindly to their mother’s teat, the way a ewe would butt a lamb that wasn’t hers. In the shock of birthing, all that first recognition would be in that smell. They would take the skin sometimes of a dead lamb and tie it on an orphan like a coat in the hope that the mother who had lost her lamb would accept and raise it as her own.

Now when I say the book looks at nature and humans in at its most raw, I am not kidding and it may be too much for some people. There’s blood, there’s badger baiting, there’s putting hands into sheep’s wombs (I wanted to say up sheeps bottoms to break the tension slightly and make you all chuckle, but that would be anatomically incorrect). Yet they are described naturally, frankly and without any sense of voyeurism or only writing to shock. Even the shocking parts have their importance within the novel be it the badger baiting (which made me cry, did I mention I cried quite a lot at this book) or some of the raw basic nature of the farming, one scene which lead me to heave as Daniel has to deal with a problem many farmers are sure to face in their career. They show another sense of duality that The Dig seems to have throughout. Here it is the acts of violence we humans can inflict upon nature and the acts of violence nature can inflict on itself and humans.

These dualities appear a lot in The Dig and I wondered if that was an intention of Jones’? From the start Daniel and the big man are polar opposites, Daniel being vulnerable and the big man being dangerous. Then we have the dualities of their thoughts and actions. The big man having some nasty thrill at watching his semi starved dogs killing rats or trapping badgers, yet constantly fearful of being trapped or caught out himself. Daniel is at the darkest depths of his emotions and yet he witnesses the amazing gift of new life with his animals. There is also the question of traps and not only the ones we set for others, or fall into, but the ones we create for ourselves. The beauty of nature vs. the brutality of nature. All this interwoven in a sparse swift book, it’s quite astounding.

It feels almost wrong to say I enjoyed The Dig, in fact at one point between weeping for the badgers and heaving at the bluntness of what I was reading I may have cursed Cynan Jones, yet at the end I was really thankful for the gut wrenching experience. (It also helped that I reminded myself that no badgers were actually harmed in the making of this book.) I think in many ways The Dig is something of a masterpiece. I have not read a book quite like it and certainly not one that in so few pages creates the essence of the countryside at its raw and wildest, the animalistic nature of, erm, nature and the fact that we humans are really nothing more than animals too. Oh and the inherent evil of horses.

The Dig was one of this year’s winners for Fiction Uncovered and once again proves why it is such a bloody marvellous initiative as it highlights such brilliant books. You can also see a fantastic spoiler free review here from Just William’s Luck and a brilliant one with a slight spoiler here at The Asylum, I have warned you of the spoiler. Who else has read The Dig and what did you make of it? Have any of your read his other novels The Long Dry or Everything I Found on the Beach, as I am now desperate to get them in the TBR.

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Filed under Books of 2014, Fiction Uncovered, Granta Books, Review

May We Be Forgiven – A.M. Homes

A while back I asked you about the Great American novel and how I would like to read more of them be they classic or modern (indeed so much so I asked you about them not once but twice, oops). One of the reasons for this was that I had been discussing it on The Readers, with my new guest American co-host, and also because I had not long finished May We Be Forgiven, A. M. Homes Women’s Prize winning novel, as October’s book club choice. I have taken this long to write about it because I have had to really mull over my rather mixed thoughts on it. Plus as the book starts and finishes on a thanksgiving I thought it might be apt to discuss today, after yesterday.

Granta Books, 2012, hardback, fiction, 368 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

May We Be Forgiven takes place from one thanksgiving to another as Harry Silver’s life is turned completely upside down in the space of a single year. All it takes is a single kiss to set the ‘chaos ball’ rolling in Harry’s life after his sister-in-law Jane kisses him between washing up the remains of the turkey dinner. A few weeks later when his brother, George, is arrested after a fatal motor incident and promptly has a breakdown (that seems may have been looming for a while) and Harry and Jane start an affair. This is soon followed by a murder, a divorce and suddenly Harry is left as the guardian of his brother’s children. You are left feeling rather breathless after just fifty pages, yes that is right we are only fifty pages in here and all this has already happened, what could possibly follow?

Drenched in her scent, but too shaken to shower or fall asleep in their bed, I wait until she is asleep and then go downstairs, to the kitchen, and wash myself with dish soap. I am in my brother’s kitchen at three in the morning, soaping my cock in his sink, drying myself with a towel that says “Home Sweet Home.” It happens again in the morning, when she finds me on the sofa, and then again in the afternoon, after we visit George. “What’s the story with your hand?” George asks Jane the next day, noticing her bandages. He’s back in his room, with no memory of the night before.
Jane starts to cry.

That was the question I found myself asking as I read on, where on earth will Homes take me next? The answer is that, pretty much, anything you could think imaginable may well be on the cards. We watch as Harry tries to cope with enforced parenthood, divorce, becoming addicted to random sexual encounters through the internet with frustrated (and occasionally crazy) housewives, children with disabilities, even American’s political past via Harry’s obsession with Nixon. Anything it seems that Homes can use to create a satire of the American dream and how delicate it really is and how easily it can all fall apart.

There are some wonderful set pieces here; an unwanted dog who doesn’t want to be walked for good reason, the bumping into a previous casual sexual encounter who now wants to date, a holiday away with three children who aren’t yours and all get violently ill. I could go on, in fact on occasion I was thinking this was a series of short stories (which is how this book started in Granta in 2007) that had all been interlinked to make a tapestry of American life. The problem for me with this was that it what held it together seemed to be less tightly knitted as I went on and the loose threads started to show. There is almost too much going on and too much happening to one man, and the background and fibre of the piece seems to be missing.

As Harry’s ‘new life’ developed the less I started to believe in him. How could so much stuff happen to one man? Seriously, Harry can barely garden without some tool almost decapitating him of inadvertently getting cat poo in his eye. He is really rather an ineffectual character, everything happens to him and he began to feel less and less like a character and more and more like a plot device and one which was simply there to hold the story together and give us some belly laughs along the way. Yet as with all good things – yes, even doughnuts – too much of a good thing can leave you feeling a little queasy. I wanted less of Harry’s antics (I also wanted the whole Nixon stuff to be taken out; I didn’t see the need for it personally) and more of a look at why Harry and his brother George were the way they were which is only ever hinted at on the odd occasion.

The soup warms me, reminding me that I’ve not eaten since last night. A man with two black eyes passes, lunch tray in hand, and I think of how my father once knocked my brother out, flattened him, for not much of a reason. “Don’t be confused who’s the boss.”  

The thing that vexed me the most was that I loved (and I mean really loved) Homes’ writing. I think she is a genius. Every paragraph has some form of genius in it or simply ‘a moment’, every character has some essence of the familiar and real whilst flawed. Every dark moment has some light and laughter to it. Brilliant. Yet it gets too much. A book which is constantly on ‘max power’ doesn’t seem to know where to stop. The clever satire becomes an overdone farce, as I read on I started to find I was getting annoyed by how brilliant it was, because I felt it knew how brilliant it was and was showing off. Not the intention I am sure but there was something in the delivery (and a big edit/shortening would have helped) that jarred and it lost me through the middle. Like with Zoe Venditozzi’s  Anywhere’s Better Than Here after it changed tempo in the second half, I found myself wanting to say to Homes too as the author ‘it’s alright you have me, I think you are a genius, just stop with all the bells and whistles you don’t need it’.

However May We Be Forgiven’s main theme was what won me round again towards the end as it is less a book about the American dream and how it can crack and actually all about what the word ‘family’ means and what a family is. At the start we have the stereotypical ‘blood linked’ family which is clearly fractured and falling apart, quite probably because of the generation above, unwittingly. By the end of the novel we have a very different family, one by no means ‘the norm’ yet one that feels like a true family all the same and I think that is what is at the heart of May We Be Forgiven and is what resonated with me and so its soul saved it. I am certainly left wanting to read much more of Homes work because as I mention, she is a stunning writer.

Who else has read May We Be Forgiven and what did you make of it? I am expecting some interesting mixed responses as we had quite the debate at book group (over whether it depicted a real true America or was a farce, I was in the latter camp), with some of the Green Carnation judges and also recently on the phone to my mother! Have any of you ever found a book where the authors writing is so brilliant and so full on that as it doesn’t let up you find you struggle, or is that just me? Which of Homes’ previous novels should I give a whirl?

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Filed under A. M. Homes, Book Group, Granta Books, Review

Ways of Going Home – Alejandro Zambra

I am wondering, though maybe after yesterdays post I should be careful what I say here, if there is a genre to describe when an author writes their book about writing their book, be it in a fictional or non fictional way? Is it simply metafiction? This is part of what Alejandro Zambra’s latest English PEN winning novel, if that is the right term, ‘Ways of Going Home’ does and I have also seen this in a recent Graham Greene read and ‘HHhH’ by Laurent Binet, a book that I need to get back to. It is a style that I find I liked and wasn’t expecting when I picked this latest book up completely by whim – it was the cover that did the trick, though I was in the mood for a book and author I knew nothing about; we all get that craving now and again don’t we? This appealed because I know little about Chilean fiction and I also want to read more translated fiction. All boxes ticked then!

**** Granta Books, hardback, 2012, fiction, 139 pages, translated byMegan McDowell, kindly sent unsolicited by the publisher

‘Ways of Going Home’ opens during at time of both a political time of unease and natural physical concerns in Chile. General Pinochet is dictator of the country and there is murder and torture going on, oblivious to this, initially, is a young unnamed boy who is camping out on the streets as the Santiago has been hit by an earthquake. On that night the boy meets a mysterious girl called Claudia who he becomes infatuated with and who asks him to spy on his neighbour who turns out to be her cousin. The boy doesn’t know why but does it, and we are left to work it out ourselves.

Suddenly though we are drawn out of that narrative to find that we are now in the mind of the author who himself is writing about a young boy who meets a mysterious girl called Claudia on the night of an earthquake. Is this in fact a fictionalisation of his childhood of relative safety under the rule of a dictator that he is looking back on and dealing with the guilt of coming away from such a time so apparently easy? Well the thing is we are never really sure and this adds intrigue along to an already very interesting premise. Is the boy therefore really Zambra? Is the ‘writer’ that we meet? We are never really sure, either way Zambra uses this double narrative and fictional hindsight, as it seems to be, to look at a man’s thoughts at that slightly naive time in youth and then now with adult eyes.

“Back then I was, as I always have been, and I always will be, for Colo-Colo. As for Pinochet, to me he was a television personality who hosted a show with no fixed schedule, and I hated him for that, for the stuffy national channels that interrupted their programming during the best parts. Later I hated him for being a son of a bitch, for being a murderer, but back then I hated him only for those inconvenient shows that Dad watched without saying a word, without acceding any movement other than a more forceful drag on the cigarette he always had glued to his lips.”

The fact this second section, which alternates with the younger aspect again once more in this very short book (which is actually Zambra’s longest at 139 pages), then comes into play made the book doubly intriguing for me. I found this ‘fictional narrators’ reaction of guilt at not being a victim of Pinochet oddly fascinating though I did feel that this reaction in itself highlighted to me that no one in a country where such things are going on ever comes away with an easy mind. Zambra’s writer, and therefore Zambra either way that you look at it (though it can hurt your head), also discusses how writing and reading deal with these things also.

“To read is to cover one’s face, I thought.
To read is to cover one’s face. And to write is to show it.”

As much as ‘Ways of Going Home’ looks at the Pinochet regime in Chile and how it affected the country afterwards, how hingsight comes into play, how children of the murdered and murderers going to school together etc. It is also a book about the importance, and indeed the power, of books and the relationship between reader and writer and fictional and the non fictional. It is a book that leaves you with a long list of other books to read and plenty to go away and think about and discover more on too.

Has anyone else read this novel and what did you make of it? Are Zambra, the boy and the fictional author all one and the same? Has anyone else read any of Zambra’s other works? If they are as interesting as this one I will have to seek them out.

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Filed under Alejandro Zambra, Books in Translation, Granta Books, Review