The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen, trans. by Don Bartlett

I really enjoyed being immersed in the natural world of The Unseen. Island life off Norway’s coastline back in the 20th Century – though it could almost be anytime – is a delicate balance of resources, humans against animals, crops, the ocean and the weather. The blowing of the wind, the changing of the seasons, the softness of the eider down plucked from the eider ducks that nest beneath their front step, these things have a texture and smell, a visceral life that ensnares the reader. Continue reading

I am the brother of XX by Fleur Jaeggy

The stories of this collection are undoubtedly precise. In their concision an air of disdainful melancholy hangs over the prose as if the terrors of ordinary life are too mundane to speak of and yet they must still be spoken of. Boredom, loneliness, sleeplessness, loss, all squirm under the surface of the characters who try so hard to make sense of it all that anger, violence or simple disinterest result.

Having only just finished reading the collection, I feel I must turn to the beginning and start again. There is an aesthetic quality, a vision that entices and repels me; it’s almost like learning the nuances of a new language: it takes study. Continue reading

Attrib. and other stories by Eley Williams

As the title suggests, Attrib. and other stories is a collection of works that delights in examining and redefining the often surprising characteristics of people and things, particularly in terms of their etymology. Many of the stories echo with birdsong, and many burn with the intensity of emotions associated with falling in and out of love. They reexamine the periphery of events, so that saying goodbye to a loved one is set against the simultaneous loss of a man’s toupé caught up by the wind and blown into someone else’s face (‘Platform’), or the view of another goodbye scene is reimagined through the witness of a spider in the corner of the room (‘Spins’).

Perversely, because this story is not typical of the collection given that it isn’t in first person and doesn’t overtly play with words, my favourite story of book is ‘Spines’. It’s about a family who discover a hedgehog in the pool of their French holiday home. Their life is lived around the creature’s struggle to survive. Continue reading

Seeing Red by Lina Meruane

Lina is a writer and PhD student from Chile, living in New York. The book opens as the veins in Lina’s eyes hemorrhage. An event long dreaded from childhood, the incident leaves her blind, but for how long?

Seeing Red follows Lina as she waits to see if she will ever see again. Looking through her fingers, her writing so reliant upon those fingers to shape it, Lina complains that she can’t write if she can’t see. And as the days and weeks go on who can she rely on? Her relationship with her parents is complicated by the history of her illness and the guilt and resentment it generates. Her relationship with her boyfriend is now equally fraught. Whose eyes can she now see through? Who will give her their eyes? Continue reading

May We Be Forgiven by A. M. Homes

It is thanksgiving and Harold kisses his brother’s wife, Jane.

This is the beginning of Harold’s tale, one which not only brings catastrophe but also self-awareness and healing.

George, the younger brother but the one always assumed to be the elder due to his bullish behaviour and career success, loses it. His rage turns everything upside down.

I’m tempted to say more about the plot and though that would not ruin the novel – May We Be Forgiven isn’t only about plot – it would take away some of the drama of the first few sections. Instead, I want to talk about the American Dream. Continue reading

Autumn by Ali Smith

Daniel is sleeping in his bed at the care home. He is slowly making his way closer to death.

Elisabeth, a girl who used to live next door, whom Daniel babysat and inspired while Elisabeth’s mother went on dates, discovers his care home is not far from where her mother now lives and comes home more and more often to visit Daniel, pretending to be his granddaughter, waiting patiently for him to wake. Continue reading

First Person by Richard Flanagan

Kif is desperate to be a writer. Taking odd jobs and shift work, he spends every last minute scribbling or tapping away at an old computer in the tiny spare room regardless of his baby daughter and pregnant wife. Unsurprisingly, the lack of money begins to press heavily upon them.

Then Kif’s old childhood friend, Ray, gets him a job ghostwriting the autobiography of Ziggy Heidl the notorious Australian fraudster. The chance to be spoken of as a writer, but mainly the offer of a large sum of money, takes Kif from Tazmania to Melbourne into the frustrating world of Heidl whose stories play upon the sympathies of the listener, encouraging them to create their own version of Heidl’s past, one which hangs upon a few cleverly chosen but mundane words that fail to withstand any historical scrutiny. Continue reading

Elmet by Fiona Mozley

Elmet is a beautifully written novel. There is an atmosphere that draws you in, a sense of being in and of the landscape that feels both gritty and timeless, putting human beings onto a level with the animals and foliage of England’s wooded land. At the centre of this wood are Daniel and his sister, Cathy.

Daniel and Cathy haven’t had a stable upbringing. Their father and mother move in and out of their lives and they are cared for mostly by their grandmother. When she dies and their mother has moved out for last time, their father pledges to stay with them always and to build them a home where they’ll be safe. A home, it turns out, in the woods on land that once belonged to their mother.

Divided between an italicised account in which Daniel searches for a her that you soon realise is Cathy, and an account of the events that led him to this search, there is a taut line of telling that flexes over the bones of a story about relationships between people, land, family, community and society. It is bleak and it is raw – drawing attention to those who live at the edges of official society, those who are poor and easily exploited – but it is also thoughtful and articulate, weaving a kind of magic of the faery tale into the modern world. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Read it and let me know what you think.

Next week I’ll be reading First Person by Richard Flanagan.

Gnomon by Nick Harkaway

Set sometime in the future, in a radically democratised UK under the constant and supposedly benign surveillance of a computer programme, a woman dies in custody. Diana Hunter was a known antagonist of the system and was having her head examined – her memories literally reviewed – by the Witness when she died.

Inspector Mielikki Neith will be investigating the circumstances of her death and, as the novel itself explains in the opening, she will soon lose ‘faith in everything she has believed in her life’, especially the system. Continue reading