C. G. Menon is a multiple prize-winning short story writer so it comes as no surprise that her collection feels so accomplished. Not only do the stories range across different countries and counties, they cross into the magical real world of myth and mystery as much as the mundane. From Malaysian vampires – pontianaks – to mermaids and magical mountains filled with trolls, Subjunctive Moods is nonetheless a collection that feels very grounded in the real narratives that we use to shape our identities and journeys through life. Continue reading
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.
I found Transit, the second in Rachel Cusk’s trilogy, just as compelling as Outline (which I review here).
The ostensible plot – action, as in Outline, not being the driving force of the novel – is about the narrator moving to London and having her house renovated. Her children are forced to move out for two weeks. Her neighbours, who live below, are aggressive in the extreme – something she was warned about by the previous occupier. She teaches, goes on a date, and visits her cousin who bullies his new wife. This doesn’t tell you what’s actually happening in the novel, however, which expresses a significant shift in the outlook of the narrator.
The distinction between the two novels can, for me, be summed up by the narrator herself who says the following in conversation on a dinner date: Continue reading
I was reading one of those lists – ‘what to read next after watching or reading The Handmaid’s Tale’ – and came across this novel by Lousie O’Neill. Its concept intrigued me. The idea that women were no longer ‘born’ but genetically designed to fulfil certain roles: companions, concubines or chastities. Continue reading
I’ve come to Rachel Cusk late. Having heard so much about her and her work before even turning the first page, I wasn’t sure what to expect. What I found was a very compelling novel almost of absence. It was as if the main character existed only to hear and record what others said to her, as if she herself were only an excuse for others to express themselves and show their best theories and thoughts. Of course, what I read was actually what the narrator chose to tell me. The self-effacement was a choice which I couldn’t be certain existed for the other characters. Perhaps this character was as verbally present as they were, but that part of the story was elided for the purposes of retelling.
It’s delightful to read a novel that has a sense of movement but no discernible plot as such. The narrator goes to Athens to teach creative writing. She teaches, meets some friends and acquaintances, then prepares to travel back. There is no great moment of epiphany (apart perhaps from the moment at the end with the other woman coming to teach screenwriting and live in the apartment that the narrator has been renting), and the dramatic moments fall quietly into the fabric of her days, so that a verbal attack by a student and an attempted kiss from her neighbour on the airplane she flew in on, aren’t the central moments, as they might be, but are instead part of the stories of these other people’s lives who seem to have taken all the drama, all the comedy and tragedy for themselves. Continue reading
I’ll be reviewing Outline by Rachel Cusk in the next few days and have another Author QH interview coming up in July with C. G. Menon whose debut collection of short stories, Subjunctive Moods, comes out in July, published by Dahlia Publishing.
After a weekend with Terence McKenna, Ian Muir Winn takes DMT and not only sees the gods – many of them, most notably Lord Shiva – but comes to believe he is one with the gods, a messiah destined to bring a new awakening to the world through his writing. He is also reminded of a dream he had in childhood about travelling to the pyramids. Continue reading
The novel opens with the discovery of an abandoned baby on a farm in Mazowe Valley, Zimbabwe. An English woman, Natalie, is visiting her aunt and uncle on their farm, riding out over the landscape when she hears the cries of a lost baby that echo the loss she left England to escape.
Alongside her story, and the story of the farm and her family’s legacy on that land, is the story of a Zimbabwean man whose family owned the land long before the white men came and took it for themselves. His is another story of loss and as we read, we uncover his identity, and follow him on his quest to reclaim his birthright. Continue reading
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.
I loved this novel. Hidden within multiple questionable accounts is the story of the One Who Has No Name, the Whatsitsname fashioned from the mutilated corpses of US-occupied Baghdad’s many victims of violence. Supposedly formed by the hands of Hadi, the drunken junk dealer and teller of tall tales in coffee shops, the Whatsitsname takes on the spirit of a bombed man whose body was blown apart and whose spirit was unable to find its resting place. Continue reading