How We Are Translated by Jessica Gaitan Johannesson

Kristen is a Swedish young woman living in Edinburgh with a Scottish man of Brazilian heritage. She works in the Castle Museum, the National Museum of Immigration, that celebrates the history of Scotland by providing a living exhibition of all the peoples who have contributed to Scottish history. She is part of the Nordic peoples exhibition, a Norse woman who came with the raiders to find a new place to farm. Her team speak Icelandic, which she doesn’t understand, and Norwegian of which she understands a little. They aren’t allowed to speak English during their shifts, not even with colleagues who don’t understand them.

As the novel opens, Kristen’s partner who is training to be a nurse, has decided to take a break and immerse himself in a new project: learning Swedish. He is so dedicated he refuses to speak English. Though it’s her language, this shuts Kristen out.

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The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

Frannie, the mulatta murderess (just one of the many names bestowed by the press), is on trial for murdering her master and mistress. It’s London, 1826 and Frannie can’t remember what happened the night before she was woken in her mistresses bed, her hands covered in blood, her mistress dead beside her. In order to find something to help her defense – a well-meaning abolitionist lawyer – she writes the story of her life from Jamaican plantation to London, from house-slave to London maid. 

Her ability to read and write, her eloquence, surprises all the English people she meets. She was taught to read by her mistress and then had her learning misused for her master’s intent. 

The story of Frannie is compelling and horrifying. All her choices are bound by those who own or control her making the ugly heart of England’s Empire what is really on trial. 

To say too much would take away the rush of the novel. 

If you’re looking for a tightly woven historical crime novel that exposes the sourness of the sugar and slave trade through feminist eyes, then this is for you.

I’ll be reviewing How We Are Translated by Jessica Gaitán Johannesson next. 

The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr.

In the acknowledgements of this extraordinary book, Robert Jones Jr. mentions so many names in gratitude, it feels like a lifetime of all those he may have met, been taught by, read, listened to, watched, and this collective speaks to the nature of the work itself. The prophets, the old gods of Africa who survive the slave ships to the plantations of the American South, alive in the blood of people tearing their hands picking cotton, are a group that speak together. Behind every foretelling, foreshadowing is perhaps a better word for them, is a history of multitudes that presents alternative social and religious structures unbound by a Christian, patriarchy of shame.

I appreciate this shift in contemporary literature to embrace the chorus, for individuals are always an expression of the whole and this book is so brilliant at making the horrors of life on a plantation breathe with different facets of one jewel.

Robert Jones Jr. also writes to Toni Morrison in the acknowledgements, wishing she’d been able to read the book, hoping that somewhere in the universe she is able to be pleased with it. I feel certain if she is somewhere and has been able to see this book, she would indeed be pleased with it. He does such a brilliant job of showing what it means to love, how it shines, attracting and repelling others with its magic. The love between two young male slaves in the barn is one of the most beautiful depictions of love I’ve ever read. Their looks and bodies speak without sound, their love creates an awesome hope in the darkness.

I don’t want to say a lot more about this book. It comes out on the 5th January 2021 and you should pre-order it now. This is a book that will be on all the prize-winning lists of next year. All the praise you read about it isn’t hype, it’s true. This book is a majestic epic that asks all sorts of questions of the past and present, that seeks to find new ways of looking at the history of slavery and our connection to the land. The writing is fresh and ancient all at once. The Prophets is a fabulous novel and Robert Jones Jr. a writer whose work I will be waiting to read again with great anticipation. 

Lost Cat by Mary Gaitskill

I’ve been carrying around this book for the last few weeks and now I sit down to review it, I can’t find my copy. In some way this chimes with my feeling for the work. I’m sad I don’t have the book in front of me so that I can copy down the passages that felt most relevant to summing up the book, but then filtering my responses to the writing through memory is perhaps better suited to the essay-cum-memoir that is Lost Cat.

A compelling contemplation of grief and longing, Lost Cat isn’t just about the kitten of the title and on the cover, it is a way for Mary Gaitskill to prize open the lid of her emotions about the death of her father and her attempts at caring for two children from a disadvantaged home that she and her husband looked after now and again. 

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Coventry by Rachel Cusk

I really enjoyed this collection of essays. As it says on the back of the book, the essays are a mixture of memoir and cultural and literary criticism. 

What I love most about the collection is probably what makes it most problematic: her very specific viewpoint. 

Words like ‘fierce’, ‘original’ and ‘formidable’ get used to describe Rachel Cusk and her writing and I think these words are code for our confused feelings about her viewpoint and the precision with which she expresses it. We remain uncomfortable about a woman able to reflect upon her experiences in a dispassionate manner. We might not always like what she has to say – this is where Cusk is interesting and possibly pushing against our gender stereotypes – but she does say it well and she does offer intriguing ways of looking at the world and our relationship with story.

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Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson

Open Water is an intensely powerful novel about being seen; not observed or objectified, but seen in all the ways that make a person what they are. Because of this Open Water is more than a love story – which it is: two black artists meet, become best friends and fall in love. It is also an exploration of vulnerability and honesty, a search for freedom in a white world that sees the black body, and particularly the black male body as a perpetrator of violence, as ignorant and illiterate, as criminal. 

More than anything else I’ve read, Caleb Azumah Nelson explores what it means to feel the inevitable fear brought on by this objectification; the fear that life is survived, not lived, because any day could be the day that your life is cut short by some kind of oppressive act, mostly enacted by the police.

This fear is then compounded by a desire to repress and suppress, a fear mingled with anger, also suppressed. The beautiful central character, a photographer – which intensifies the exploration of image and objectification – even in the act of expressing his fear, anger and depression which pushes the rhythms of his heart off-kilter (more metaphor embodied, trauma literary living in his flesh), has to do so at an awkward distance from himself in the liminal space of the second person. 

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The Push by Ashley Audrain

The Push is a thriller with the complexities and difficulties of motherhood at its heart.

Blythe is writing to her ex-husband, Fox, explaining their lives together and since exploring, in particular, her role as a mother to their children Violet and Sam. Blythe’s history as a daughter haunts her mothering and confuses Fox whose family has always been tight-knit, his relationship with his mother a loving and positive one. 

The focus of Blythe’s narrative is her daughter, Violet. Given her own difficult history with her mother, and in turn her mother’s relationship with her own mother who committed suicide, the story allows rooms for us to question natural mothering instincts and to ask whether Blythe might have been predisposed through nature or nurture, to struggle with the demands of motherhood. And the book is full of these difficult questions about how society views motherhood and how those ideals then torture the lives of individual mothers attempting to embrace them. 

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10 Minutes, 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak

One of the most exciting things about this novel is its structure. Written from the end of Leila’s life as her consciousness flows from her body, dead and dumped in a rubbish bin in Istanbul, we explore her life through those last conscious moments and then watch as her friends attempt to celebrate her life and release her spirit. 

As a prostitute Leila is one of the undesirables, rejected by her family, and therefore buried in the Cemetery of the Companionless, the proper rites of death left unfinished, her grave marked by a small wooden plaque with a painted number that will undoubtedly soon fade into obscurity.

More than a novel about people pushed to the margins in Istanbul, this is a book that celebrates friendship and puts love above politics, religion and propriety.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel and tasting the world and lives of its characters through rich sensory prose. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2019, 10 Minutes, 38 Seconds in This Strange World is more than worthy of the time it takes to read those dying embers of consciousness.

I’ll be reviewing The Push by Ashley Audrain next.

Death in Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh

Vesta has moved to a lakeside cabin, once an old girl guide outpost, in the middle of a wood with her new dog, Charlie, after the death of her husband, Walter. The novel begins with her and Charlie on a walk. They discover a note in the undergrowth: 

‘Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.’

Vesta, who is in her 70s, has moved to be free of the constraints of her life with her husband whose undermining and irritatingly gentle misogynist approach to their marriage becomes increasingly clear as the novel progresses. Since her move she has acquired Charlie – something Walter would not have tolerated – and embraced the earth, soil and isolation of her home. She has got muddy, eaten and drunk what she likes and written herself to do lists in which every day is pretty much like the last.

But the note introduces mystery. Who is this Magda? Who killed her? Where is the dead body? Who wrote the note?

Vesta becomes obsessed with uncovering these mysteries, and for want of spoiling the plot, ends up rewriting the world around her in her attempt to review her world through Magda’s eyes.

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Tender is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica

I was excited about reading this novel. It felt like it would be the perfect Halloween read and I wasn’t wrong. If you can imagine a world in which a virus has made all animal flesh deadly for humans, our hunger for meat leaves only one option available. No guesses as to what that might be.

Once you’ve separated out your herds, made choices about how to dehumanise the meat – remove its vocal chords, never dress it, bring it up in cages, remove pregnant heads’ limbs to keep them from harming themselves, refer to it euphemistically etc. – there is still no getting away from the look of an arm or torso hanging in a butchers shop, or the desirable curve of a naked male or female; the bestial pretence is wafer thin.

Tender is the Flesh is of course an exploration of monstrosity. Who are the real beasts? No question, it is us.

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