Life Ceremony by Sayaka Murata

This is a really thought-provoking collection. Sayaka Murata has a way of shifting the ground beneath your feet without you really noticing. Suddenly you look around the fictional landscape and realise it works in ways you really hadn’t considered and these ways reflect on the real landscape and make you question your assumptions there too.

Most of the stories have domestic settings that look at the finer details of relationships between couples, close family, friends and coworkers. What humans eat, wear, fuck and what is considered normal or acceptable, is Murata’s territory, from a world in which people are turned in useful objects at their death – ‘A First Rate Material’ – , to a world in which it is normal to eat the flesh of the recently departed as part of a life ceremony in which the old life gives birth to the new as people couple off and copulate in the streets – ‘Life Ceremony’ – every story introduces an element of the unfamiliar into the meticulously observed detail of daily life. It is the stories that humans tell that justify their behaviors and make them acceptable to others. We can understand how children might care for a dog that is really a middle-aged salaryman (‘Poochie’) but can we understand grown-ups admiring human bone wedding rings (‘A First Rate Material’), or two women living together and bringing up children as friends, not lovers (‘Two’s Family’)? Where does our ability to accept cultural shifts end? What is reality?

This investigation of shared truth is one that I delight in.

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Companion Piece by Ali Smith

I loved this book. With all the hallmarks of Ali Smith – word play, interpretive attention, great dialogue, a sense of shifting times and a re envisioned female history – Companion Piece felt exactly like its title; it offered a sense of companionship, a book that stretches out its hand in greeting to its reader. I wouldn’t say that I’m naturally drawn to reading fiction that deals head on with the pandemic, but this novel somehow achieves a straightforward depiction that tugs at the sense of unmooring it unleashed without trying to offer the kind of historical perspective it would be very hard to give when we are still enmeshed in its effects.

Everyone comes to Sandy for stories, for interpretations. As she worries about her hospitalised father to get better, occasionally able to visit, often speaking to him through the internet with kind nurses holding up a screen in the hospital where her father was lucky enough to get a bed in a cupboard, an old acquaintance from university rings her up out of the blue. Sandy has to stretch her memory to unearth this acquaintance who once came to her for her interpreting an e. e. cummings’ poem. Martina has called her because she can think of no one else able to untangle her recent experience as she was transporting the famous Boothby Lock to the museum she works for.

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A Certain Hunger by Chelsea G. Summers

The protagonist and narrator of A Certain Hunger is a sassy, female serial killer and food critic who likes to eat her kills. In a sense there is very little more I need to say. 

She is writing from prison. Slowly she reveals the reasons and methods of her murders, along with some sumptuous writing about food.

I have no doubt that the book will sell incredibly well, but it wasn’t really for me. It is salacious. It does exactly what it sets out to do and it is fast-paced. If the description tickles, you’ll know if it’s for you. 

I’ll be reviewing Companion Piece by Ali Smith next.

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursual K. Le Guin

Genly Ai is an ambassador, an envoy from a confederation of planets and peoples, the Ekumen. He has been sent down to the planet, Gethen, to see if they will join the Ekumen. 

It is a winter world, cold and alien to Genly who nonetheless almost blends in with the humanoids. He has learnt their languages. He is learning about their cultures.

The novel is a famous, classic of science fiction, mostly because the people of Gethen are genderless. They only develop female or male sexual traits at the peak of their sexual cycle and do not always become one over the other, meaning that they can both father children and gestate and birth them. When not at that point in their cycle, they do not engage in sexual intimacy.

Of course, the novel isn’t just about gender and sex, it is about cultural misunderstanding, the weight of preconceptions, the wheels of power and politics, and the trust and honesty required for love.

It is a dense book that would reward multiple readings. It has all the joys of Le Guin’s ability to invent alternative mythology and legend. Inventive, awkward and provocative. It is a book that lingers in the mind. As well as politics and philosophy, there is adventure and a long journey across an extreme winter landscape. The wild fantasies of interstellar travel are brought down into the minutiae of food rationing and frostbite. I hope I will return to it.

I’ll be reading A Certain Hunger by Chelsea G. Summers next.

Ghostcloud by Michael Mann

Twelve-year-old Luke has been kidnapped and taken to Battersea Powerstation, forced to shovel coal and hidden from the outside world of a reimagined smog-filled London. With his friend, Ravi, he is desperately trying to earn an amber ticket, a way out of the station and back to his family. Then a new girl, Jess, turns up on their line and threatens to ruin everything.

But that’s not all…

Punished for trying to help Jess, Luke and Jess are sent to clean the sewage from a room full of pipes. Somewhere inside one of these pipes is a voice, calling to Luke. That voice is Alma and she is a ghostcloud. 

What is a ghostcloud? How did Luke hear her? Will they ever escape?

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Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder

This is a much talked about book of 2022 and for good reason. 

The woman of this novel has given up her career as an artist – she had a dream job at a gallery – in order to care for her son. The maths, as is so often the case, helped in this decision. She earned less than her husband and, on top of that, she felt the pain of leaving her son to scream at daycare. So she is at home, all day, and for most of the week – as her husband is away for work – with only her two-year-old son for company.

What Yoder does so brilliantly – and I would recommend reading reviews of this novel just to see how unsettling some find it – is express the passive aggressive rage that builds up in a mother (I would say a care-giver of any gender in the same situation) who has been told she should be able to have it all, who has been told that feminism has done its job, and discovers with the arrival of her child that she is the ultimate authority over and caregiver for the baby and that, though it is exceedingly hard, tiring (and of course also fun and rewarding at times) work, no one in the world of paid work considers motherhood to be work. A woman who gives up her job to care for her child should consider herself to be luckily luxuriating in all that free time.

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Let The Great World Spin by Colum McCann

This is my second novel by Colum McCann. Set mostly in New York in 1974, with the Vietnam war as its backdrop, a series of characters spin around the tightrope walk of Philippe Petit who managed to break into the Twin Towers, stretch a rope between the two and walk right out over the city. 

The different characters all turn around this walk. What was happening as it took place and whether they saw it, and how their lives were somehow linked by that and by a car crash involving an Irish monk and a prostitute who he driving back to the Bronx from jail.

To say too much more about the plot would spoil the novel. What surprised me was how particular to McCann the book felt. Though he’s writing about different characters, McCann has a style that is recognisably his. His imaginative retelling of Philippe Petit’s love of the highwire is probably most moving to me. Perhaps it is no surprise that he reappeared in the other, and later, novel of McCann’s that I read, Apeirogon, set mostly in Israel and Palestine. 

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Cleopatra and Frankenstein by Coco Mellors

Cleopatra and Frankenstein is a clever and thoughtful examination of relationships in a particular social milieu, for the most part in New York. However, I don’t like the marketing strategy of ‘move over Sally Rooney’. There is room for more than one writer to examine modern love, friendship and society and whilst the comparison works to some extent, it doesn’t always work in Mellors’ favour whose debut should be given the space to form its own territory.

Cleopatra and Frankenstein is a compelling read. Cleo is a young British artist studying in New York, Frank is a wealthy forty-something who owns his own up-and-coming advertising agency. Cleo’s visa is about to run out…

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Tender by Ariana Harwicz

I was so excited about reading this book having enjoyed both of the previous novels of this ‘involuntary trilogy’, Die, My Love and Feebleminded. Harwicz’s prose, and this must be partly due to the fabulous translations in this instance by Annie McDermott and Carolina Orloff, is like a drug – it pulls you under and along, compelling through the mind of this frighteningly desperate, once-model mother whose teenage son rolls on top of her in his sleep. There is a lawlessness to the way thought, desire, violence and love rage through the book.

It’s a short book, but it blazes. I read it all in one go like a glutton and wanted to start all over again. 

The relationships are not healthy, either familial ones or those with education, work or societal and governmental law. It is not an easy book to read in that it pushes you viscerally against the violent edge of emotion.

If this is the kind of work you like, you will be as hooked as I am. 

Out just this month, buy yours from the fabulous Charco Press now.

I’ll be reviewing Cleopatra and Frankenstein by Coco Mellors next.