The Dollmaker by Nina Allan

A modern gothic inspired by, amongst other things, a poem, ‘The Dwarf’, written by Matthaus von Collin and set to music by Schubert in Vienna in the early 1800s, the main character of The Dollmaker, Andrew is of short stature and his love of dolls not only provides him with a career but puts him in the way of another doll collector, Bramber, who is particularly interested in the dolls made by Ewa Chaplin, a woman who also wrote short stories that explore an uncanny fascination with dolls and dwarfs. Continue reading

Mother by Hannah Begbie

Dave and Cath have been trying for babies for years. They had pictured a large house bustling with the noise and clatter of a happy family—several children, four perhaps?—and as the months and years of failed attempts build up the distance from their dreams feels suddenly shorter at the birth of their daughter, Mia. But Mia isn’t all right. Her little face grimaces at feeds. Her sweat tastes of salt.

At only a few weeks old, Mia is diagnosed with cystic fibrosis. Continue reading

Vox by Christina Dalcher

Vox is a very powerful and timely novel that follows hot on the heels of books like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale or Naomi Alderman’s The Power. It is set in a near future in which the Christian religious right has taken control of America. With The Pure Movement, the government seeks to return America to a state of grace in which the family and the patriarchy are key. Women must understand their place as home makers, supporting their husbands through deed and not word.

Bracelets are introduced for all women and girls that count the number of words they can say in a day. Once they go over 100 they are given a mild electric shock. Keep talking and the severity of the shocks increase. Continue reading

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