The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck

One of the things I like most about The End of Days is how a potentially sentimental plot is transformed into a thought-provoking and complex work of literature: it would take a rare creative writing tutor or editor to encourage the notion of writing a series of stories about the life of one woman, a series of stories that not only each end in a different time of death, but follow on one from another after interim sections that explore alternative events in which the woman would have evaded death. It is surprising to find not an irritating exploration of serendipity but a searching, eloquent narrative about the nature of chance and the value of human life. Part of each on-going story explores what only others can reveal about ourselves. If those others chose to keep that knowledge hidden, we will always remain a mystery to ourselves.

In a later section of the novel, the woman’s son is visiting Vienna, the city in which his mother once lived as a child.

‘As far as this descendent of a Viennese resident is concerned, Vienna has been washed clean of stories, it took less than a human lifetime for the city to lose all connection to him. Less than a human lifetime for homeland and origins to diverge. He is free, doubly free; he carries around within him a vast dark land: all the stories his mother never told him or that she hid from him; perhaps he carries with him even those stories his mother never knew or heard of, he can’t get rid of them, but he can’t lose them either, since he doesn’t even know them, since all of this lies buried deep within him; for when he slipped from his mother’s womb, he was already filled with interior spaces that didn’t belong to him, and he can’t just look inside to inspect his own interior.’ (Loc 2804)

This ‘vast dark land’ is what writing is all about. The woman herself becomes a writer. She uses words to make sense of the world, to bare witness, to try to be truthful and to hope for a better world to come. Her story is individual and it is the story of the 20th Century. A half-Jewish, half-Christian Austrian, much of the woman’s past is run from, but as the stories progress her desire to forge a new life with knowledge of the past consumes her. But finding one’s true identity is like searching a ‘vast dark land’, an unfathomable abyss of what ifs, where daily life unfolds without a map and leaves us all exposed: ‘Even so, some death or other will eventually be her death. If not sooner, then later.’ (Loc 2552) Are we meant to read the novel thinking that the greatest force in life is death? The son thinks of it as walking around accompanied all our lives by our own corpse. And is this something that is meant to force us to push for a better life or to accept the futility of trying to create change?

Perhaps, in the end, the ‘vast dark land’ inside us is the most important part of us. What matters more than anything are all the possible stories that could be part of us and our attempts to tell even the smallest proportion of them. Of course that’s the writer in me. What could be more important than telling stories? Lies are always the best kinds of truths. But whatever you take from The End of Days, it would be difficult not to be compelled and inspired by just how much one woman’s possible lives can explore.

Next week I’m reading The Fat of Fed Beasts by Guy Ware followed by Her by Harriet Lane.

Your Father Sends His Love by Stuart Evers

Your Father Sends His Love is a collection of twelve stories that together create a reflective and melancholic whole. I felt I knew the characters, felt I shared something with them and though the picture is at times amusing, there is an underlying bleakness that entices and appeals to me enormously. The stories are clear, precise and often unrelenting.

Though it is always difficult to decide upon favourites in story collections, especially as I liked all of the twelve and felt Evers moved easily between genders and ages, ‘Something Else to Say’ is the story that stays with me the most. The narrator is waiting to meet his best friend in a pub and endlessly runs through a list of what things, what facts he has to offer as conversation. As the story progresses, we learn what lies beneath their need to stick to safe, distant fact. It is a beautifully eloquent and moving story that highlights something Stuart Evers is particularly good at exposing, the absences and failures of our attempts at communication, communication with others and communication with ourselves.

Perhaps this is something the short story form lends itself to – it finds images and moments to represent lifetimes of striving for communion – nevertheless, Your Father Sends His Love is a particularly pointed collection of stories that questions our need to bridge the gap between self and other. Out in May, I can’t recommend it enough.

Next week I’m reading The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck.

By Night The Mountain Burns Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel

By Night The Mountain Burns is the story of a remembered childhood living on an Island off the West Coast of Africa. The narrator’s childhood is coloured by a murky period in the island’s history whose origins the narrator seeks and speculates upon forcing the story into a cyclical song-like pattern where repetition brings revelation and rhythm. Apparently simple, this resonant eloquence is enticing, suspenseful and offers history a flavour of myth.

Island life is ruled by suspicion and full of characters whose mystery is magical not just because the narrator remembers them through the eyes of childhood. We wonder what happened to the grandfather who shaves his hair only on one side, who rarely talks or comes downstairs and who built his house facing the mountain not the sea. We want to understand what makes the she-devils, women who grow so hot they bathe naked in the sea at night and gain evil powers. And while this seems like a safe magical place, full of ritual and song, the story circles around the public hounding and murder of a woman, the death of a child, the burning of plantations and the terrible spread of cholera. So whilst a feeling of the magical real and the haze of events seen through memory can create a sense of safety, of distance, the heart of the story is about the culpability of the witness and the true evil that resides in watching and doing nothing, a message very close to the bone.

Whether you chose to hear this message, or simply enjoy a journey, By Night The Mountain Burns is a delight to read.

Next week I’m reading Your Father Sends His Love by Stuart Evers.


The Book of the Crowman: The Black Dawn Volume II by Joseph D’Lacey

The Book of the Crowman is an apocalyptic work about the importance of death and renewal. The Crowman, part man and part crow, who often appears as a scarecrow in a feathered top hat, harnesses the duel power of the land that needs death to sustain it. The people have forgotten to think of the earth and their greed for power is knocking life off balance. The earth has started to hibernate, waiting for men to die out before putting forth seed once more.

In England, in the face of this crisis, a group called the Ward rise up and seize control, promising to safeguard all of England whilst in reality running a brutal and selfish regime. Those who see clearly and long to survive with the land awaken the spirit of the Crowman. In order for balance to be restored, a boy must find the Crowman and persuade him to reveal his power.

This story of the Crowman is a faith that must continue to be witnessed and retold across generations to keep the balance alive. Those entrusted with this witness and retelling are the Keepers, individuals who are able to follow the feathered path of the Crowman into the weave of stories past, present and future. Each Keeper tells a slightly different tale. We follow the story through Megan Maurice, the first female Keeper, whose time is again facing rising greed for power over the land requiring a new faith-inspiring retelling. Her story is told alongside the boy’s as together they fight to overcome man’s lust for the machine and for dominion over the earth.

Without saying more about the plot it is already clear that familiar myths, legends and religious stories work within The Book of the Crowman: Prometheus wrestles with Christ; Cassandra and Mary Magdalene lend magnitude to Megan. This makes the story of the Crowman – and I wish I had read the two volumes closer together – resonant with a reverberation that is pleasing, relevant, occasionally irritating, but undoubtedly gripping. Meat is still my favourite Joseph D’Lacey novel, but if you are a fan of The Stand by Stephen King you will want to read these volumes and Spring is the perfect time for them.

This coming week I’m reading By Night The Mountain Burns by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel.

The Last Lover by Can Xue

‘Underfoot the mess of spread-out books started to shake their pages, become fan-shaped, but there was no wind in the house. Maria knew these were the original source of Joe’s square, from which his stories extended, becoming a limitless web of stories. Now he had abandoned all this and become the story himself.’ p 249

Reading The Last Lover is like entering a labyrinth. All of the characters move between states of varying degrees of reality leaving the reader no firm ground upon which to gain a sense of stability so that the very nature of the real is itself put into question. The implication is that we all exist as simultaneous but varying versions of ourselves as interpreted by us and by others; identity becomes a series of interrelated stories.

Every possibly way of enhancing this outlook seems to be explored by Can Xue. As we move through different aspects of the different characters lives – all of whom seek to run from and to their lovers or loves – we are accompanied by differing hoards of animals or insects. Snakes, crows, mosquitoes, wolves, fish, wasps all buzz and bite, sting and poison, humming with a multitudinous singularity, all representing the complex nature of being alive as a unique reflection of an interconnected multitude of facets. The teeming sense of fecund nature overwhelming and infusing human life with, alongside the animals and insects, mudslides, earthquakes and the immensity of mountainsides, brings desire and procreation into the dream-weaving mix. Even plants are not to be left out with the disorientating power of woods and forests, the scent of roses and the haze of the poppy’s opium hanging in a complex fug over a novel whose heady cocktail induces a reader into a wandering mental state where the logic of dream takes over. This makes reading The Last Lover an imaginative feat.

Even as I read I knew I should be paying greater attention, thinking about how different characters stories took similar turnings, met with parallel dead ends. This is a book that could be read many times and even if I were to read it again and possibly again, I suspect that there would still be references lost to me, repetitions as yet unnoticed. Once again, it seems important to revisit the notion of this book as a labyrinth. It even feels like it could be the labyrinthine book at the heart of Borges’ story, ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ (there’s probably a nice academic essay in their comparison). The shadows cast by some of the characters, the mysterious Eastern woman whose appearance shifts when seen through different characters’ perspectives, the need for witnesses, the distance perspective brings (because to look head on would blind), not only brings to mind Plato, but also suggests that the true last lover is the reader.

I haven’t outlined the plot and I don’t intend to. If you like the idea of being lost, trapped even, in worlds you can’t control, if you like having your mental landscape shifted off kilter and leant the uncertain clarity of dream, The Last Lover is for you. The Last Lover is entrancing, ensnaring, and vicious. I think it is no coincidence that this is the novel that broke my novel-a-week rule.

Next week (or rather this week) I’m reading Joseph D’Lacey’s The Book of the Crowman: Black Feathers Book Two, followed by By Night the Mountain Burns by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel.