Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels

A novel about the children of the Holocaust, either survivors or children of survivors, Fugitive Pieces is a thoughtful, intellectual and stylistically rich novel built upon the necessity and pain of memory.

The main bulk of the narrative is about Jacob who witnessed his parents’ death at the hands of the Nazis and got away before he could discover what happened to his sister, Bella. He was found hiding in a bog by a Greek geologist, Athos, who smuggles Jacob into Greece hidden beneath his clothes. Athos gives Jacob all the love and learning any child could want. He is gentle, kind, loving and has an understanding of what it means to suffer tragic loss.

All of this I found deeply compelling. It was Jacob’s later life and the latter part of the narrative which is taken over by Ben, a child of Holocaust survivors keen to help find Jacob’s diaries in Greece, that I found harder to engage with. Not because there was any less examination of identity and memory, of carrying the unspoken and unlived in our present bodies, but because of the novel’s exploration of sexual and romantic journeys.

Jacob, a troubled translator and poet, takes a second much younger wife and finds peace in her forgetting the presence of her limbs. Ben writes about his wife and his lover, focusing on physicality as if it will save him from drowning in his own misery. Suddenly I found myself walking into the pages of a different sort of novel, one which my younger self might have responded to better. The exploration of sexuality and romantic love, for me, lacked the subtlety of the earlier novel, felt too heady with sentiment and left me feeling frustrated. A hard thing to feel reading a novel about the smiling face of fascism and the ease with which we can slip back into a society where the other is dehumanised for political gain (hard not to think of the way we – not just Trump’s America – treat refugees); a novel about the importance of remembering the past. Yes, bodies are important, our thoughts and memories live within our organs, and yes, romantic love is a powerful life affirming force, but somehow the writing of these truths felt verbose in a way that Ben’s description of his father weeping as he ate, or Jacob’s description of feeling Bella’s ghost enter his body and live within him, or even the love Athos has for Jacob, don’t.

Regardless of this quibble of mine, Fugitive Pieces lives up to its hype. It is a significant work. Bella loved Beethoven’s fugues and Jacob and Ben could be seen as two voices speaking against and in imitation of each other. Just as the novel could be said to be about a collective fugue state in which we attempt to retrieve the memories and identities of the dead in order to refind ourselves. And indeed, all survivors or surviving diaries and correspondence can be said to be fugitives. This kind of play on words and meaning runs throughout, challenging the reader to think beyond the plot into the story of their own lives within the world.

Next week I’ll be reviewing Lucia by Alex Pheby.  

Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge

I don’t often review non-fiction, but Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race is exactly what the Observer called it, ‘A wake-up call to a nation in denial’. I finished the book – mine is the edition with the new Aftermath chapter – and all I wanted to do was read more from Reni Eddo-Lodge.

With a brief overview of black British history (far more in depth than anything offered in schools, where the focus remains on black American civil rights, as if there has never been a need for a civil rights struggle in Britain), a clear depiction of institutional racism (not that we should need reminding after the Windrush debacle and those Home Office deportation targets), what white privilege really is, why and how white privilege is afraid, how feminism interacts with race, and an unpicking of race and class, the book is a call to action.

We need a broader, more accessible British history that accounts fully for the wrongs of the past in an attempt to redress racism in the system as well as the individual. To do that, the white privileged, people like me, need to take a hard look at themselves. We need to bring something to the conversation about race, once we’ve really sat back and listened.

This book is a great place to start listening and thinking about how to act for equality. I can’t recommend it enough. I’ll be reading it again.

 

American Innovations by Rivka Galchen

There is a questioning consideration to Rivka Galchen’s prose that reveals a consciousness constantly rethinking, an almost circumlocutory labyrinth of aiming for, and not necessarily expecting to reach, accurate representation, all in a rather tongue-in-cheek, relaxed tone. It’s very addictive. All the stories somehow feel as if they flow from the same place even if the characters and situations are different.

I should have written this review as soon as I finished the collection, but instead I allowed life to get in the way and several weeks later I find it difficult to organise my thoughts and memories coherently, but the first story expresses this circumlocutory striving well. ‘The Lost Order’ is about a married woman who finds herself living at home without a job. Her husband lost his wedding ring and he asks her to find it all while a man has called her assuming she’s the takeaway he orders garlic chicken from. But whose or what order is lost?

The woman’s self-consciousness is evident:

…’on the issue of getting dressed I consistently feel myself wishing that I were a man. I don’t mean that in an ineluctable gender disturbance way, it’s not that; it’s that I think I would have an easier time of choosing an outfit. Though having a body is problematic no matter what. Even for a dog. One summer…’ (p5)

When her husband first asks her to look for the ring, she initially says no.

‘It’s not really a decision, it’s more like a discovery. I’m not going to be a woman hopelessly searching for a wedding ring in a public courtyard. Even if the situation does not in fact carry the metaphorical weight it misleadingly seems to carry. Still no. I had recently seen a photograph of Susan Sontag wearing a bear costume but with a serious expression on her face; you could see that she felt uneasy.’ (p7)

And yet there is metaphorical weight. Just as the prose pretends it isn’t striving for coherence, that these sentences are all a bit of light-hearted fun, so does the character and story present an amusing situation that nonetheless carries the weight of metaphor. This story is about relationships and disappointed expectations on multiple levels. What is it that we are meant to do with our time? What really matters? These are questions that play themselves throughout the collection with the imbalance of gendered expectations a constant theme.

In one story a woman’s furniture walks out on her, in another a woman grows a breast on her lower back and yet all these unlikely, surreal things, feel believable, real, almost mundane; strange things happen, the world is not easily explained or contained. American Innovations is a fun and delightful collection. I thoroughly recommend it.  

Anyone who follows my blog will know that I’ve been rather silent lately. I ended up taking an accidental holiday from the blog. Another couple of posts will follow over the next few days so keep a look out. The next will be on Hold by Michael Donkor.

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

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

Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough

BehindHerEyes

I really enjoy Sarah Pinborough’s work. I’m not in love with every novel – I haven’t even read every novel as she is impressively productive across a range of genres – but more than her sharp dialogue, honed plot lines, and moments of beautiful observation, I love her ideas. This is a writer who sees something, writes about it, and makes you think. All this whilst the pages pass in a blur as you read eager to find out what happens next.

Ideas and thrills, it’s a tough combination and one that I expect will lead to Sarah Pinborough being much more highly acclaimed than she already is. Though I’m delighted that Behind Her Eyes will be BBC Radio 4’s book at bedtime from 20th March – this could lead to some unnerving dreams – and it is already a New York Times bestseller. So perhaps this will be the book to make Pinborough a household name. This would be well-deserved.

Behind Her Eyes is all of the things I mention above. You could argue there is a magical real or science fiction element to the novel, and it’s probably in the psychological thriller genre, but categories don’t really sit well with Sarah Pinborough. Behind Her Eyes is simply the novel it is: an obsessive love story with four characters at its heart. I’m prepared to say that lucid dreaming is central to the plot, but I don’t want to say more because uncovering what might be behind whose eyes is what propels us through the book and saying more would spoil the joys of discovery.

One of the characters says ‘people are only out for themselves’ and there is a natural savagery to this book that puts our acceptance of reality in question. As I said earlier, this is where Sarah Pinborough is so pleasing to read: she shows us that what we think we know about the world around us is only a tiny fraction of what is out there, or even what is in here (inside our heads). Being able to point this out in a dynamic page-turner makes Pinborough playful, clever, provocative and fun to read.

I don’t want say a lot more about the novel because I simply would like to know what you think. Read it. See if the characters of David, Adele, Louise and Rob come alive for you. Watch them have their affairs, keep their secrets, grow increasingly complex relationships. Then get back to me. If you enjoy it, you will definitely want to read The Language of Dying, my favourite of her novels that I’ve read so far.

Next week I’m reading Blind Side by Jennie Ensor.

King Rat by China Miéville

Saul is a disaffected young adult living with his father in London. He looks out at the unending sprawl hoping for some signs of his future in the maze of London’s streets and travel networks.

Then someone pushes his dad out of the living room window. Saul is wanted for his murder. King Rat, a stinking, wiry man with phenomenal strength and agility breaks him out of prison and offers him a new world; a world where the figures of myth and fairytale step out of the shadows in all their gruesome glory.

To tell too much more might spoil the story so let’s just say it gets more complicated. What is Saul’s true heritage? Should he trust King Rat? Who is the mysterious piper?

The novel is alive with three plot lines: Saul’s, Saul’s friends who become entangled with the piper, and that of the detective investigating Saul’s father’s death. Crime and science fiction blend well with a realistically noir depiction of London and there is no doubt that the writing is compelling.

I have been meaning to read a novel by China Miéville for a long time and I didn’t realise that King Rat was his first until I reached the end. Though I enjoyed the novel, I suspect this is only half of what China Miéville can do. There is a sense of promise, a sense that social justice, a knowledge of London, and a joy in mixing genres will bring about more interesting novels as he continues to write. Certainly it has whetted my appetite for reading more of his work.

King Rat is an energetic romp around London, the city itself seeming to provide the bass line to the melody of the story. The words enable you to see graphic art images and hear the drum and bass soundtrack. Those of you who like this sort of thing will recognise it and want to read it. I suspect some of his later work has a wider readership. I’ll have to read some and let you know.

Next week I’m reading What a Way to Go by Julia Forster, which was published this January by Atlantic Books.