Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri

Reading Whereabouts felt very much like opening the pages of a slightly seachanged Dorthe Nors. A woman both at home and out of place watches the ease and discomforts of others’ lives as if she herself is untouched and yet every day, every moment is an exercise in overcoming disappointment. She does not have the perfect job, or a partner. She has never lived anywhere else. She remains the loyal friend whose passion is somehow never fully engaged. She has freedom but does not use it.

The writing is elegant, quietly sharp. Its blade has slipped between your skin before you even notice.

For some reason, for me, the overwhelming image left by the book is a small shrine to a dead son, pressed against a wall half way up a hillside. A road snakes up past the path and it is along this path that she occasionally bumps into a man she finds attractive who is married to a friend of hers. A crackle of desire hums between them but is never explored. The shrine stands for all she has lost without ever having had it to begin with. She hovers, for me, at the side of that road, on that hill, near the wall, neither fully up or nor down, watching a potential lover walk past her for the sake of propriety, for fear of consequence.

It’s a beautiful, meditative piece of writing that so carefully expresses what it can be to be a woman of a certain age without her own family, still somehow unrooted to the world around her, living anywhereabouts. Out in April this year, put it in your wish list.

I’ll be reading The Manningtree Witches by A. K. Blakemore next.

Luckenbooth by Jenni Fagan

Luckenbooth is a striking novel spanning 100 years in a tenement building in Edinburgh. Weaving stories across and between flats, decades, people and ghosts, we watch the devil’s daughter move in but it is many years before she finally walks out.

The slippery stream of reality is a glorious riot of genre, as each section brings new characters whose lives present new styles, new modes of expression, and from the moment the devil’s daughter sails to Edinburgh in a coffin, her father’s dead eyes watching her from a crack in the rock where his body was thrown rather than buried, we know we’re on a ride that could take us through many planes of existence. It’s a thoroughly joyous, depressing, enlightened read that seeringly burns a host of Edinburgh’s people onto a reader’s mind. The writing is rich, inspired and inspiring.

I particularly loved the chapters from William Burroughs, who lives in the building for a while, on holiday from America. He voices the powerful magic of words that time travel and the miraculous intimacy and philosophical complexity we all love without divorcing thought from the messy sensations of living. And it is this mixture of down to earth with philosophy, murder with spirits, magical real with mental illness, that makes the novel so startlingly its own.

Life: A User’s Manual for Edinburgh, Luckenbooth is a fabulous book that should definitely hit the prize lists this year. I loved it and find images, sensations and ideas evoked by its pages, occupying my mind long after I’ve finished reading it. Definitely go and buy this one, now!

I’ll be reviewing Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri next.

Nightshift by Kiare Ladner

A summary of this fabulous debut from Kiare Ladner doesn’t do justice to the deeper themes that resonate beneath its surface. Meggie, a twenty-three-year-old woman living in London, leaves a stable life and relationship in pursuit of a woman whose behaviour, appearance and attitudes attract and fascinate her.

Meggie is worried about being staid, about following the trajectory middle-class life lays out of university, job, marriage, children, retirement, death, and ultimately missing something more. She wants something against which she is forced to react, to change, something for which she has to risk, to stretch the limits of standard expectations. 

Sabine is a reflection of all the things she desires. When Meggie meets her in her day job, a job she does solely to support her studies, she is immediately drawn to Sabine. She wants to be friends with this interesting woman, clearly so much cooler and more edgy than Meggie feels. So when Sabine leaves to take on a night shift at the same company, Meggie is sure she’ll be able to balance her life and studies better if she too, follows Sabine into a nocturnal lifestyle of shift work that gives you periods of night work against weeks free of any work at all.

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A River Called Time by Courttia Newland

This novel defies easy categorisation. Yes, it is about parallel worlds and astral planes through which our spirits can move. Yes, that makes it speculative fiction but one in which our world is altered at a historical and spiritual level both in the future and in the past – something not many books in the genre attempt to do. 

A River Called Time reimagines our world without the colonialism we know, allowing for a culture that prizes older religions and cultures from Africa, India and China above Christianity, Islam, Judaism. But humans remain humans and our ability to create division and discrimination continues. The Ark, the promised structure created as a haven and saviour from a world crippled by environmental collapse, isn’t all Markriss Denny thought it was promised to be. His journey behind its walls lifts him out of his body and into alternative histories in which the same characters must be met and understood anew.

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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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