I read. A lot. When I'm not reading, I'm often thinking about what I could be reading. When I am reading, I'm often thinking about what I'll be reading next. Sometimes the idea of reading is almost as good as reading and then I'm making booklists about what I will read someday. But later I'll be reading. I'm Buried In Print.
Reading through the short stories of Mavis Gallant is taking time. Already. Still in the first collection.
Even though the early stories do not seem quite as layered and complicated as the stories of Alice Munro (my last reading project for short stories), they still invite rereading.
There is always something simmering beneath the scene. Mind you, a single read does sketch a lovely moment. But the rereading is very rewarding.
What reading project is taking a lot of your time these days?
Originally written after the author had been diagnosed with a brain tumour, Testament is a response to the news that Vickie Gendreau would have little time left to live: about a year.
She explains: "I have spent a lot of time trying to find a way into writing about this book. I wanted to talk about it, but then wasn't sure I knew how. I went looking."
She goes looking "for other novels written from similar places of suddenly-limited time" and writes about the novel in numbered paragraphs, assembling fragments of information and observation and reflection.
I find myself wondering where, in the sequence, it occurred to her that she could translate Vickie Gendreau's work. When she realised that it could work, could connect with English audiences despite the linguistic challenges.
In the translator's note, Aimee Wall observes that Testament "moves between the present and the near-future, between poetry and prose, between French and English" in a “textured, hybrid language” which makes translation particularly challenging.
And, then, there is a subject matter.
Debilitating illness is one thing.
"I never left the hospital. I will never fully leave the hospital. I come back every day for my radiation treatments. I have this little coloured scarf and a ton of hats to hide the hair I’m losing."
Fatal illness is yet another.
"You don’t want people talking about miracles when they’re discussing your recovery."
Testament chronicles present-day events ("My mother accumulates old visitor badges and cards for my appointments in her huge purse.").
But the bulk of the work is preoccupied with future events, imagined encounters with the author's friends after her death and imagined encounters with these imagined encounters.
So, Raphaêlle observes: "I’m wearing a black dress. Vickie too. We’re wearing balck. I think black is charming. It’s slimming." And Maman notes: "I didn’t understand any of Vickie’s book. Her friend Mathieu is going to help me make some sense of this document."
When she speaks to readers directly, Vickie Gendreau sometimes speaks of ordinary things. "There will always be a collection agency to wake me up in the morning. There will always be a pot of something rotten in my fridge. There will always be someone to hate me. Someone to make a fool of me on athe telephone at three in the morning. Someone to treat me like a slut in front of my family. Someone to steal my drink, someone to steal my purse."
And she is aware of the concept of readership, of the ways in which readers might interact with words on a page. Specifically her words. And difficulties with endings. "I won’t bore you with that too much. My stories never work. That’s why I like poetry, it’s always infinite. I’m suspicious of people who end their poems with a period."
But, more often it's as Aimee Wall describes. "Testament pulls the reader in close and then sometimes doesn’t let her in on the joke." As though we are "occasionally eavesdropping on snippets of conversation for which we have little context, smiling at inside jokes we don’t really understand".
Anyway, is that the point with a book like this: understanding? I wonder if one could adapt the translator's statement to imagine the author being interviewed about her work, after her death, after some time has passed: "I spent a lot of time trying to find a way into writing my book. I wanted to talk about everything, but then wasn't sure I knew how. I went looking."
Perhaps, in the end (for how can we not think of endings now), it is less about the reading, less about the writing, and more about the looking.
About leaving something behind which does not end with a period --
A white elephant was historically bestowed as a burden which had the outward appearance of a gift; a courtier charged with its care and upkeep would have a beautiful creature to display, but the weight of the responsibility undeniable.
In Catherine Cooper's debut novel, the question of gifts and burdens permeates the lives of its characters.
At the heart of the novel are a married couple, Ann and Richard, and their child, Tor; each of these characters is presented in alternating close-third-person narratives.
Perspective is everything: just as an elephant can be a gift or a burden, a single event can be a blessing or a curse, a single person provoking inspiration or desperation.
As the novel progresses, perspectives shift; what appeared to be an act of giving up in despair becomes an act of escape in triumph, what seemed a scientific certainty becomes an element of faith.
Richard has long wanted to practice medicine in Africa, and his desire to influence others raises questions of culture and faith, tradition and belief. Seeking to impose dramatic changes on the residents of a Sierra Leone community immediately provokes questions of power and control, vulnerability and neediness.
Ironically, the visitors who are apparently motivated by a desire to provide aid, are tremendously needy indiviuals.
This is to be expected from Tor's character, as a young child, but his parents relentlessly work to satisfy their own needs, under the guise of altruism, and leave behind a trail of devastation. In turn, Tor learns from these examples, and he, too, ranks personal convenience above compassion.
But whether the characters inhabit familiar or new territory, one theme echoes throughout the work: size does not equate with power. In the river of change, which these characters seek to cross, it's young Tor who leaves the boldest rift in his wake.
"Tor kept hacking at the [trunk of the] mango tree, and when he was worn out, he went down to the river’s edge and sat by himself. He wondered what was wrong with him. He didn’t mean to do those things. He didn’t want to hurt Aminata. He just wanted to go home. How much time had he spent listening to his mother talk about the mould and Richard, and now that she seemed to be getting better, he felt like he was losing her."
The small - from another perspective, the insignificant - can wield tremendous power.
Ann is decimated by the mould which flourishes in the walls of the house they inhabit. Despite her ongoing costly and exhaustive contracts for renovation, these tiny organisms thrive in an environment which drains and exhausts (even nauseates) Ann.
From spores to insects to rats, small creatures wreck considerable devastation. They also serve as convenient targets for larger people to blame, as the impetus for their unhappiness and dissatisfaction. And, as such, their movements, on the periphery of significant relationships, have a peculiar resonance with the characters.
"The most unforgivable example of this was when he [Jusuf, who worked in the house] scraped the mould off the walls, releasing the spores that now lived in her lungs and consumed her thoughts. But this was only one of many examples of his incompetence. A few days earlier she’d caught him feeding sugar water to the ants in the kitchen. When she’d confronted him, he’d said, ‘If we give them what they want, they will go away.’"
The breakdown of a body (and, as perspectives shift, its endurance) is considered throughout the work, and physical vulnerabilities contribute to (and, other times, erupt from) spiritual and intellectual breakdowns.
"He [Richard] watched for a while as the insect flapped its wings in wild futility, and when it finally stopped, he poked at it with a pencil to start it up again, reasoning that the best thing was for it to wear itself out quickly."
This kind of detail is more important to White Elephant than setting, although one might expect otherwise in a novel which touches upon two regions as striking as Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone.
Perhaps this is a deliberate decision not to engage with traditional CanLit's emphasis on descriptions of the natural world, or perhaps it is a reflection of the characters' perspectives: it could be argued that none of the three - neither Richard, nor Ann nor Tor - truly inhabits Sierra Leone.
It could also be argued that none of these characters truly inhabits their own self. They live at a distance from themselves, literally and figuratively.
"Dot told the priest that their mother wasn’t herself, but Ann believed that her mother had never been herself before then, and that brief breach in the seemingly impenetrable wall that had always stood between them helped Ann to let go of years of bitterness and pain."
As such, letters are used to bridge gaps, from 'home' and 'away'. Throughout the novel, this is used effectively, particularly to capture whether a threat perceived by a character is realistic (or inflated).
The letters in the epilogue, however, seem to be included to offer an echo of something-like-closure (you can imagine, with three damaged and struggling characters, that there isn't any true closure awaiting a reader of such a story - no spoiler, right?).
They provide a voice to characters who only exist at a distance for both readers and characters, but these are characters who have not been afforded an independent voice in the narrative so far; this does serve as a reminder that beyond the preoccupations of three family members, many other lives unspool (for better or worse), but to conclude the story in such a manner seems a concession to convention.
Readers who have endured more than 300 pages in the company of Ann and Richard and Tor, smothered by their insular and angsty perspectives, could have accepted nothing-even-remotely-like-closure on the final pages.
Although being in close quarters with these characters is uncomfortable, White Elephant is not without its lighter moments. There are many scenes in which the overwhelming emotion is anger or fear, in which tension is palpable, but readers can catch a glimpse of a comic element, as the behaviour of the characters approaches a ridiculous level of self-absorption.
It's particularly amusing, for instance, to have Richard lament the fact that Ann has left his book out in the rain, so that "he would have to wait until he got back to Canada to find out what had become of the main character, although it had seemed obvious for some time that he was planning to off himself, a conclusion Richard had started to look forward to as the man became increasingly whiny and fanatical".
None of the characters in White Elephant would define themselves as whiny or fanatical, but any one of them exhibits characteristics which could be interpreted that way, depending on one's perspective.
Ultimately Catherine Cooper's novel reminds readers that one person's burdensome elephant is another person's beloved companion. Ann and Richard and Tor feel their lives pulling downwards at every joint. They cannot bear the weight of their own selves, even though they desperately want to slough them off.
Celine and Julie are negotating the borders of girlhood, wandering back and forth across dotted lines and territories both more and less available to them as the years pass.
They trade L.M. Montgomery's girlhood classics for "Law and Order" and Our Bodies, Ourselves, while readers follow in their footsteps in narratives which alternately focus on one girl, then the other.
Double Teenage is divided into four parts (delightful wordplay in their naming, alluding to some of the novel's themes and motifs), the first three presented chronologically and the last restarting the numbering and taking a more objective view.
It's as though the final section of the work is taking measurements and performing calculations based on some of the sensory and cultural details shared in the narratives of the girls' growing years, studies and analyses taking over where the imagery and emotions left off. (There are some lovely bits early on, like, "I carry you around in my mind like it’s a pocket.")
In the novel's early pages, readers have an eye on the girls' experiences, which Joni Murphy presents in such a way that, even if readers have not grown up in a small town, near the U.S./Mexico border, some aspects are familiar (for instance, classic novels, and TV shows with hundreds of episodes).
"The books were classic girl fiction: Alice in Wonderland and Anne of Green Gables and Emily of New Moon and all the Little House books and Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. As if she had been there, Celine’s mother spoke about prairie fires and scarlet fevers, initiation rituals and torrential downpours, family betrayals and corset-induced fainting spells. Her voice moved like a wagon. It moved like feet in leather moccasins padding through dust and starvation. Her voice lost children to fever."
Celine's mother reads aloud, often stories that she thinks might ease her daughter's passage through girlhood. But other than the Little House books, which are clearly tales of survival against the elements (filled with natural disasters and the trials of pioneer life), these stories feature girls who learn that care-giving is the ultimate achievement.
The men and boys they meet? On the page and in the world? Their stories are epic, only pretending to hold little substance; they are inherently worthwhile. "He told the myth of his family like a flat but colorful film."
Not until they are older, starring in their own features, do Celine and Julie begin to tell stories in their own voices. "At eighteen they finally felt like performers rather than audience."
Not until they are older, do they recognize that the risks they face are an integral part of the narratives they inhabit, the stories told about their kind.
"They modeled new lives. Both Celine and Julie put deserts behind them, convincing themselves it was just a corrupted cowboy land – a myth world cast in violet light – which they were now safely out of. The real world felt brutal, yes, but also so beautifully visible, and they were finally in it."
Double Teenage considers the desire to consume stories, to transform experiences into types, dreams into expectations. "The people in the auditorium, classmates and teachers, trafficked in this material. They refined, packaged, traded, cut, and consumed these kind of ideas."
It's not only material which is treated in this matter-of-fact manner. What else is refined, packaged, traded, cut, and consumed?
Celine and Julie have so many questions, seemingly endless questions when they are girls, when they expect to feel aswim, and later even more questions, but the potential to give voice to them is diminished. It's as though these questions should not be asked, as though the asking of them violates a code.
"Who do dead bodies belong to? Who do women’s bodies belong to? Are women beings or objects? Is there something between?"
Joni Murphy's narrative straddles the line between a character-driven story and a treatise to be discussed, something living and breathing and something only understood from afar. There is more than one way to look at it, more than one valid formula.
"What grips their insides is knowledge of their value, their worthlessness. They flee because, in their world, existence hinges on a litany of imperatives. Be pretty, charm, adapt to threat. The lessons might be summarizde as Be good or else."
What happens when "or else" is the only answer?
<a href="http://www.buriedinprint.com/?p=16256">This review was originally published on BuriedInPrint.</a>
In the middle of her long, incense-soaked wedding ceremony, Lara Kulicz amuses herself by creating a philosopher's alphabet, assigning a name to each letter of the alphabet, identifying X for Xenophon just when the priest declares the couple "man and wife".
In much the same way, Domnia Radulescu incorporates light-hearted elements and subplots which offer readers relief from the novel's central theme - the devastating effects of the 1982 Bosnian War.
As with Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend, a friendship is a key component of the novel, and this is a friendship viewed from a distance too. Their friendship - like every other aspect of their lives - is fundamentally shaped by the genocidal war surrounding them, and readers are preoccupied more with the absences of the women in each other's lives than their presences, more with their feelings of separation and alienation than union and intimacy.
Katja Rudolph’s Little Bastards in Springtime would make a great reading companion, exploring the aftermath of this conflict from the perspective of a young man, Jevrem, who also survives the conflict, but is forced to draw and redraw his own borders in the aftermath.
“We call ourselves The Bastards of Yugoslavia, as a joke. We like the word bastard. It’s got a ring to it, and has a lot of different meanings. It’s what the nationalists who took over our country called us, the offspring of women in mixed marriages. They meant it as an insult, but we feel proud. It’s why we’re here, together, in this flat, endless city next to an abnormally large lake. They didn’t want us back home, not really, in all their new separate little cleaned-up countries, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro, Macedonia. And Bosnia, split completely in half, Croats and Muslims on one side, Serbs on the other. Where were we beautiful mongrels meant to fit?”
There are many Bastards of Yugoslavia, beautiful mongrels, whose stories have not been told, but Domnica Radulescu's Country of Red Azaleas brings forth one such story.
Both Lara and Marija are untethered. One of them is ostensibly more protected, able to ruminate on this sense of dislocation: "We spoke Serbian again and the many consonants of my native language soothed my burning mouth, my parched throat, my devastated soul. I need a break from English, from America, from idiomatic expressions and mannerisms." The other is more overtly vulnerable, in the thick of the conflict: "But a boot kicking you in your stomach is always real and you can’t mistake it for not real. And you can’t mistake the dead bodies strewn next to you for the images flickering on the walls of a cave."
The settings are significant as representations of the characters' choices (and reactions, for there are not always true choices): Belgrade and Washington DC. From the Ferhadja Mosque to the Hirshhorn Sculpture, the details matter; but the symbolic importance of the point of confluence, in Belgrade, where the Danube and Sava rivers meet, is perhaps most important of all.
Domnica Radulescu's style is spare and her language uncomplicated, perhaps deliberately, in light of the horrific details which underpin the story, from the Srebrenica massacres to the mass rapes and NATO bombings.
These devastating events play out alongside other losses (e.g. divorce, custody, adultery), tragedies broad and narrow, rooted in a "shiny web of lies and a second life of illicit encounters". This particular conflict perfectly reflects the reality of broader identities resulting in intimate betrayals, "lives of halves", a "missed heartbeat".
Occasionally there is an emotive burst (Sarajevo described as a "delicious secret" and an experience as a "volcano of sorrow") but the language is simple. The structure is chronological, with half the book covering a broader swath of time (1980 - 2003) and the second half covering only 2003 and 2004. The narrative voice is first-person, consistent and direct.
Ultimately the novel's success lies in characterization, but this is a difficult connection to forge because of the element of distance inherent in the key relationships. Domnica Radulescu uses the motif of audience and performance to allow the reader to settle into a seat from which they can view at a distance.
Lara is named for the heroine of Doctor Zhivago, a story better known via the film version than the book, an American interpretation better known than the Russian original.
She imposes the perspective she learned from Hollywood on everyone she encounters, one man her Marlboro Man and another a mix of Clark Gable and Omar Sharif. She recognizes the tilt of a woman's chin to be the same angle as Ingrid Bergman's in the final scene of "Casablanca".
Both these references include strong relational plots but ultimately their stories are shaped by war, just as in Country of Red Azaleas.
Ian Colford's work has been shortlisted for the Journey Prize, and his first published work was a collection of stories. It's no surprise that he can write succinctly and put a short form to work.
In 2012, he published his first novel, The Crimes of Hector Tomás, which honed his skill with building tension and transforming the ordinary events of a life into elements of extraordinary importance in a work more than 400 pages long.
His novella, Perfect World, seems to combine the strengths of his earlier works, with spare prose and snapshot glimpses of a life presented in such a way that readers are more compelled to turn the pages even as the main character's company becomes harder to bear.
"There is, however, an expression in his father’s eyes when he speaks of his mother that Tom doesn’t like, that he wants to challenge and wipe out – a mournful, canine acceptance of yet one more thing that is beyond comprehension."
Tom Brackett is thirteen years old when readers meet him, a resident of Black River, comprised of 50 families and 6 churches along the highway. In short order, an event both commonplace and disturbing, results in his being sent to live with his grandmother, outside Liverpool on the South Shore.
From there, readers follow his experience as the years pass, his “warped vision of what passes for normal”, both from within and without.
As a youngster, Tom is most keenly aware of the pressures from without, his realisation that "...this is his family. He can’t escape them. Even if he got on a bus this afternoon and didn’t get off for a week, or a month, or a year. Each moment he would be reminded, simply by the act of running, of what he was running from."
Characters from inside and outside the family are tightly drawn, as Tom grows from boyhood into “marriage, mortgaged, a father”. Often the characterization settles in simple details, like the way someone drives, or the way in which clothing hangs from (or clings to) someone's body.
This is deft handling, but it is the way in which time and motion are negotiated in the book which is truly remarkable.
The passage of time and its relationship with memory is even more complex in narrative than it is in life.
Even while Tom is a teenager and recognising his grandmother's neurological decline -- first, laughing with her about her temporary confusion about his identity, then moving beyond laughter into something darker -- he is aware that his own confusion lurks beneath the surface of his consciousness.
Not even Tom can "be sure if the images that come to mind are the product of memory or imagination." But Perfect World is Tom's story, and readers experience it alongside him, affirming and allowing his confusion to pass for normal, whether memories or fantasies.
Partly because this basic distinction is unreliable for Tom, his experience of time is altered as well (and, hence, the reader's experience of time).
Some chapters are very short but manage to feel lengthy and heavy; others are longer, but more scenic in nature, and sometimes "Tom imagines them frozen forever in these expectant poses".
The reader tiptoes and darts through the glimpses into Tom's life, moments frozen and thawed, sometimes observing that the "almost ceremonial caution with which he navigates his way around the stones littering the lawn resembles the slow progress of a man wading through deep water".
Other times, the tempo contrasts. "As he draws near to her his heart lurches to a stop, then stutters back into motion like some wounded engine."
In some chapters, time is elastic and, in others, taut: "Having her with him is what he’s referring to, the mingling of past and present to create something that is neither.
Frequently there is a rhythm to the events, but one which the reader feels second-hand, slightly discomfited though solidly invested inTom's experience.
"What he wants is distraction, an end to the questions. He leads her upstairs to the bedroom, but even as he buries himself in her, he cannot erase from his mind the face in the mirror, nor shut his ears to the beating of wings."
Tom is forever in motion, seeking a balance which seems just out of reach, even when he brushes against stability and comfort.
"Part of him doesn’t care, part of him cares deeply. Both are dangerous. How will he ever learn to steer between the two?"
This kind of steering is prominent in the world of Canadian letters, from classics like Timothy Findley's Headhunter to contemporary works like Lauren B. Davis' The Stubborn Season and Barry Dempster's Outside World ( as well as international bestsellers like Jacquelyn Mitchard's Now You See Her, Joanne Greenberg's I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, and Wally Lamb's I Know This Much Is True).
Ian Colford's vision is deliberate and focussed, Tom's unravelling all-the-more compelling against the backdrop of exacting and meticulous construction.
This review originally appeared here, on BuriedInPrint.
It's with a subtle touch, but Nadia Bozak solidly roots the reader in time and place.
This is not an easy task, because Shell only grows to the age of seventeen in Thirteen Shells -- across thirteen stories, and childhood is inherently rootless.
So the details noted must be those within a child's reach, displayed without context, but generously, so that readers can inflate their understanding. Her use of language is most often straight-forward, only occasionally poetic (like snow with "wet, melty flakes the size of teabags").
Consider this observation in “Please Don’t Pass Me By”: "Dad and Kremski shake their heads and talk a lot about the USA. The words they use are long and sticky: fundamentalist, hegemony, ideology. 'Imagine if Ronald Reagan actually gets in?'"
Key concepts are undefined, vague and amorphous, and readers are left to imagine a time in which that election's outcome was still unthinkable for left-wing voters (who are now asking the same question about Donald Tr*mp).
A political awareness simmers beneath Thirteen Shells, primarily via Shell's parents, but the bulk of the narrative is preoccupied with a young girl's everyday life (parents moving closer to the periphery as the years pass and pages turn).
In “Snow Tire”, Shell observes different details as an older girl (fashion and other consumer goods) and although she hasn't yet begun to make some of the value judgements that an adult observer might make, sometimes there is room for readers to peek between the lines:
"Vicki’s mum starts doing things like raking the leaves and walking slowly up to the store to get small bags of chips, or she picks Vicki up from school and walks back with her and Shell. She goes from the white jeans to a new pair of stonewash that don’t show her underwear lines and she cuts her hair so it’s feathery like Princess Di’s. And then, more and more, when Clarke is at work, a black Trans Am is parked in the drive."
Often, Nadia Bozak simply captures Shell's childish misunderstandings, but she leaves them untouched and unexplained, so that readers can reach for another understanding, if so inclined.
"Shell should learn to be Muslim: gentle and polite and pleasing to adults. Girl Muslims must be super pretty if Marmoon is and he’s a boy, and they probably don’t lie or steal or dig holes in the backyard with their dads. Shell checked, but none of the makeup in her shoebox would turn her skin darker, so instead she lies out in the sun and brushes her teeth extra hard so they look white against her deepening tan." (“Fair Trade”)
Shell's growth can be charted by birthdays and other marks on the wall/page, but also by the kinds of details which take on a new prominence in the stories, like her appreciation of Patti Smith, The Clash, Talking Heads, and Sonic Youth in “Hole in the Wall”.
"It’s good to be in the immensity of Sam’s and with a sense of purpose. She heads for Rock and fills her arms with so many tapes she might not have enough money to pay for them."
So, here she is old enough to want to go to Sam the Record Man, but not old enough to recognize the restrictions of an adult's entertainment budget, but sometimes her growth is more deliberately indicated:
"Suddenly Shell’s eyes surge with tears. Because she loves Mum so much and Dad and even Valery, with her chocolate chicken and caramel eyes, and she loves Maček too – of course she does! – but with those words she knows she’ll have to leave here – the cool bed sheets that smell like Nivea and the rap of Maček’s sturdy, steady hammer. She’ll have to go someplace where the library has more books and the essays she writes can be longer and harder and so beautiful and in a way Somerset can’t ever understand. And she’ll have to go soon. A world lives out there. She’s already seventeen." (“New Roof”)
Similarly, sometimes the passage of time is more deliberately charted, as when particular elements in earlier stories reappear in later ones, with a fresh outlook and new level of comprehension.
Gaps in the story are handed deftly, so that readers can fill in the spaces which remained unexplained for the children who were unmoored by dramatic changes.
Her friend Vicki articulates one of the work's central themes: home (which also surfaces in Nadia Bozak's prior works, like Orphan Love and El Nino) Vicki says: "I miss you, Shell. And when I have a dream that’s set in a house, it’s always yours.”
A conversation with her friend Wendy not only reveals aspects the girls' personalities, but also a plot development which occurred off-stage (I'm not saying which story this comes from, to avoid a spoiler about when Wendy might have an occasion to wonder about this).
"When they’re checking out library books, Shell says to Wendy, ‘Oh, you like Judy Blume. You ever read Tiger Eyes?”
But all Wendy wants to know about is how Shell’s dad doesn’t live with her anymore. Is it true strangers pay rent to live in Shell’s old bedroom while Shell sleeps in the basement like a hobbit?
Relationships are at the heart of Thirteen Shells. Her parents are vivid and multi-dimensional characters (whose identities become increasingly coloured as time passes), and her friendships undergo many changes as well.
But Shell also has important relationships with books, from Judy Blume to Noam Chomsky: her reading taste changes as she grows. "Sometimes she walks and reads at the same time, or reads in class, a paperback hidden inside her textbook."
See, if you didn't already like Shell, now you do, right? You want to get to know her, don't you?
This review originally appeared <a href="http://bit.ly/1Q4LDaW">here, on BuriedInPrint.</a>
Fever at Dawn by Péter Gárdos began with a box of letters, or, more accurately, the letter-writers, who would become his parents.
"But for fifty years I did not know that their letters still existed. In the midst of political unheaval and the chaos of moving to new apartments, my parents had carted them around without ever talking about them. They were preserved by being invisible." (This quote is from the epilogue.)
The novel is translated from the Hungarian by Elizabeth Szász, the language straight-forward, the cadence uncomplicated, and the tone ever-so-slightly formal.
Sometimes a metaphor shines forth. (Here's a gem: "The occasional Swedish nurse, with her braided hair, crisply starched cloak and bonnet, was squeezed in between them [200 soldiers] like a raisin in a bun.")
Mostly, however, the emphasis is on the broader story, and even though the two letter-writers are at the heart of it, they are not necessarily presented clearly to readers. (In some ways, they, too, are preserved by being invisible.)
Consider this description of Miklós, who has decided that he will send a photograph to Lili, even though he is not satisfied with his appearance.
"Tibor Hirsch, electronic radio technician and photographer’s assistant, hesitated. But Miklós was his friend, and was giving him begging looks, so he put aside his professional pride.
Within five minutes he had worked out how to take a photograph in which my father would be more or less recognisable. He posed Harry in the foreground. In half-profile, at the most flattering angle. A watery sun came out for the briefest moment. Hirsch positioned them with backlight for an artistic feel. He instructed Miklós to run up and down a few metres behind Harry."
Miklós is caught in the image, in a blur, behind his friend. This is highly appropriate, as readers are really only catching a glimpse of him as well, between the lines of letters that he wrote.
But somehow it also captures an aspect of a playful but shy, honest but off-beat man, who, while recovering from the horrors of WWII, in a Swedish hospital, wrote letters to many women seeking companionship, romance even.
When his doctor realises how serious Miklós is taking his pursuit, Dr.Lindholm is not impressed.
“'Last time I tell you, say good bye to her, remember? But even if you were healthy, and you are not, I don’t allow female visitor to male hospital. As a reading man you must understand this.'
'What should I understand?'
'You once mentioned The Magic Mountain? Sensuality is…how I put it…unsettling. Is dangerous.'"
But Miklós is determined: unstoppable and unflappable. He has a poet's heart, and he has something to say.
"The poem soared above the noise of the wheels. Miklós, like a cross between a troubadour and train conductor, marched the length of the carriages. He left half-empty compartments behind him without regret. He had no intention of sitting down. Instead he wanted to form some sort of bond with his fellow travellers, / strangers who were staring in astonishment or sympathy at this passenger holding forth in an unfamiliar language. Maybe some of them could sense in him the lovesick ministreal. Maybe some thought he was a harmless madan. Miklós didn’t give a damn; he walked on, reciting his poem."
Unlike his, Lili's photograph is straight-forward, but her story takes some unexpected turns as well. (Her experience in another Swedish hospital bears some similarities to Miklós' but the relationships between her and her friends are drawn in greater detail, and her prognosis is not determined to be fatal.)
In the wake of a genocidal war, there are deep and devastating themes at work here: freedom and recovery, faith and mortality, loneliness and devotion.
But these ideas are explored in a broader context, so that readers can explore the layers at will.
Rather like Lili's father's suitcase: "Every Monday at dawn Lili’s father, Sándor Reich, trudged down Hernád Street in Budapest carrying two huge Vulkan cabin trunks. In each one, like the layers of an onion, dozens of smaller and smaller cases and bags lay one inside the other."
Fever at Dawn is a simple and short story, but its reverberations cross generations and will attract a wide variety of readers.
This review originally appeared here, on BuriedInPrint.
It's clear from the beginning: one might long for escape from this narrative, might opt for a bloody end rather than endure more misery.
"No one but a fool could look so happy in a miserable house, could they? The mice here probably throw themselves on the traps for a quicker end."
But Anne Jaccob's life in 1763 London is sketched with external details designed to assemble interior worlds, dark and uncomfortable places.
We are meant to understand something elementary about our heroine, when Janet Ellis determines to spend more time describing the butcher's shop than many other locales in the novel.
"Creatures that could never in life have shared the same field, for they would have fought or cowered, have had no choice but to jostle close together in sullen deathly silence. The smell is so strong that it is almost visible, a great sour reek, pricked with a sharp rang. Gobbets of blood stick to the sawdust on the floor; they look solid enough to thread on a ribbon like beads."
In the beginning, substantial narrative is devoted to characterization, backstory and atmosphere, but the novel's second half is more scenic and plot-driven.
Less of this: "I am describing the passage of some two years, I suppose, but there were few anniversaries to punctuate the passing months."
And more long reflective passages like this: "'Do not let Fub love that girl,' I say to my plaster companions, those several saints. 'How can she be to him what I am? Her button mouth would not open wide and take in his bone to suck at it for the marrow. She would not let his finger go inside her or his tongue either. She would be as solid and smooth below as china.'
This excerpt illustrates the use of direct language which feels more contemporary than many works of fiction set in Georgian England (there is also, for instance, much talk of menstruation, which fits with the bloody themes).
There is a wickedly playful note to the tale. "We sound playful. We are not playing."
There is something vicious about it, too. "He must intend Onions to be my wedding present. He would make an oddly-shaped parcel. I should not be able to keep from shrieking in horror when I undid the ribbons and discovered him inside."
Some themes feel remarkably modern. Like the approval of a parent: "It is the moat of my father’s constant disapproval that I try and avoid, for it wets so much and stinks when it dries." Or first love (first lust): "He has said my name. I wish it had more syllables to keep it in his mouth for longer."
But all the overt parallels with the lives of modern readers only serve to emphasize Anne Jaccob's unpleasantness. "Sudden as a lightning strike, I have the thought that if they all died, together, I would not mourn. My father, Evelyn, even my mother, every last one of them, I would see them set sail in a ship that I knew would sink or watch them fall into a hold that droped them down to the earth’s molten core and not mind. A plague could ravage or a stampede of mad bulls flatten them, it would be all the same to me. I wait for guilt to nibble at these thoughts and make me regret them, but it does not come."
And the story, too, is uncomfortable: The Butcher's Hook depends upon misunderstandings and misrepresentations. "How strangely easy it is to lie. Like a parasite on its host, my falsehoods take their nourishment from being believed and gain more strength."
Anne is not the only dissatisfied woman in the tale.
“Love grows where it will and as it wants.”
“If you feed it, it does. It’ll latch on like a parasite and be all the more difficult to remove.” Jane sounds so sour that I have to look at her to make sure she is not replaced by an imposter. “I’ve said enough,” she says. “You know the truth of what I say.”
Parasites and imposters, sour reeks and sharp rangs, hooks and blades: these accumulate throughout the pages of The Butcher's Hook but ultimately Janet Ellis is aiming to leave readers with a particular taste in their mouths.
"Artists lie about our last moments, painting them decorous and noble. The daintily speared leak only drops of blood and the elderly drift into a peaceful sleep. It is no wonder that they depict it thus, the truth is so much uglier. From what I’ve seen, Death come with suppuration, protestation and no grace. It makes a great deal of noise, too, and this man’s last breaths are loud, sputtering coughs and squeaks. There is a strange odour coming off him: he is already rotting."
Though drenched in the visceral, Anne's story feels like a bloody romp a good deal of the time, although the swell of sensory detail as the novel progresses might nudge some readers into abandonment.
I hear there is a quicker end if one but throws herself upon the trap. (See: we were warned.)
This review originally appeared here, on BuriedInPrint.
Although Middenrammers is set in 1970s England, it is not the England of English literature which Helene Hanff discovered in 84 Charing Cross Road.
Nonetheless, the hospital which lies at the heart of the story does have a familiar air to it, for narrator and reader alike.
"Sweport Maternity had the same air of dilapidated efficiency of other hospitals where I had worked. Snapping Sisters in starched blue and white, their fiefdoms at the ends of long corridors with chip-marble floors that curved up gloss painted walls, all the corners rounded."
Not all the corners are rounded, however; Brian runs into some sharp edges in his placement.
“Don’t look gobsmacked, Brian,” said Arjun. “This is only a small part of what goes on here. There’s more to come. We are in a misogynist’s playground.”
The instruments on the cover of John Bart's debut novel are potentially life-saving tools, but in the context of Arjun's observation, their gleam can be more menacing than promising.
"My life was now centred round the Delivery Suite. When I was there life was technicoloured, urgent, fulfilling; outside of it there was nothing of any importance. I was unbalanced, like a soldier in a distant war, cut off from home, but needed where he was."
The natural tension of the delivery suite is echoed in other stresses and strains in the story, from memories of student protests overseas to local issues revolving around workers' rights and the lives of trawler fishermen.
Overall, ironically, Brian is looking for harmony. Not only because he becomes involved in a romance. But because of his history with conflict.
"At any rate, least said, soonest mended; I did not want to argue with a man who believed so deeply. I had been through that with David, my radical friend, and come off the worse for it each time."
Relationships, friendship and love, can be both liberating and restricting, can be filled with both promise and confinement.
“Barbara folded her apron, “Albert always told me it was harder to know if Sweport women were more trapped by their men or their religion.”
On a broader scale, characters have to make choices in which risk is attached to every option.
‘It’s hard to change from what you’ve taken to heart,” I said. “But sometimes you have to. You get boxed in by life.”
Traditionalism abounds. Despite a few heroic individuals spearheading change, there is a sense of a pervasive undertow.
“It’s like that bloody fish-gut smell, one-off and no escaping it.”
John Bart's use of language is spare and direct, embodying the matter-of-fact-ness that one imagines a small-town physician would acquire with years of experience dealing with crises large and small.
Although it is clear that the events recounted in Middenhammers are viewed from the perspective of years having passed, the author avoids the tendency to instruct readers as to the appropriate response to the story, although Brian's perspective is inhabited consistently.
This sense of detachment leaves readers strangely unmoored when a climactic scene erupts suddenly, although the scene is clearly necessary to aid the narrator in making a difficult decision which will have a life-long effect and which aids readers in understanding the basis for his choice.
Another writer might have emphasized this sense of dislocation (which is certainly credible in Brian's life, given the "technicoloured" and "urgent" work he does), allowed the scene to close the novel without commentary.
This would have ended the story abruptly, just as Brian's character abruptly understood that what he had interpreted as a decision was really something he had already decided, and this event was simply a confirmation. But it also would have left readers with the taste of blood in their mouths.
Middenrammers does scratch the skin, but there's a plaster to salve the cut, so that even sensitive readers will be satisfied in the end.
This review originally appeared <a href=" http://www.buriedinprint.com/?p=16092">here, on BuriedInPrint.</a>
Christopher Marlowe's story begins and ends with a brawl, in the hands of Michelle Butler Hallett.
This Marlowe focuses on the final months of the playwright's life, with his death registered as May 30, 1593.
His patron, Thomas Walsingham, openly supported his plays and verses, but they were indeed controversial, in an age characterized by tensions between church and state.
"--Violence, degradation, deceit: thou dost write them well. Doth this cause thee no shame?"
While accusations and suspicions simmered beneath the surface, violence and conflict erupted on- and off-stage, even though the theatres were closed in the wake of the plague.
"--I write what I see. History is no window but a mirror."
Snippets of lines which Marlowe penned are scattered throughout This Marlowe, along with references to the works of Thomas Kyd, a scrivener whose bed Marlowe shares in Michelle Butler Hallett's novel.
Because few records exist, the author has room to play in her depiction of these Elizabethan writers. Whether or not there is evidence of an intimate relationship historically, between Kyd and Marlowe, it is at the heart of this contemporary work.
Marlowe is not easy company. "He stopped outside another tavern, small and dark, called Cry of the Kite and, recognizing no one, drank alone, drank enough to trick out a sense of confidence and calm, not quite enough to make him obnoxious – a fine line, he knew."
Nonetheless, he is as often charismatic as he is obnoxious, and this quality pulls readers into the story, but it is Tom's character who invites readers to invest in the outcome.
His love for Marlowe makes him vulnerable, not only on the pages of fiction but of history. The historical record reveals that he was questioned about writings deemed heretical, which were found in his lodgings and attributed to Marlowe.
Michelle Butler Hallett is not alone in believing that this statement was elicited under torture, and her depiction of these events is visceral and raw. Elizabethan England in This Marlowe is as bloody as it is tapestried, as fragmented as it is luxurious.
Authorship in this time is a slippery concept. Plays were not typically printed, only a few in quarto editions. Playwrights often officially collaborated (partly because writers were paid intermittently and sometimes unpredictably) and sometimes unofficially, by "borrowing" or "elaborating upon" successful and popular works. With few written documents as evidence, scholars in recent years have continued to debate which plays are attributed to individual authors. Echoes abound, even between works currently attributed to different authors
Loyalty, too, is complicated, and conversations amongst a large number of secondary characters seem to echo as frequently as the allusions and tributes.
At times, the deceptions blur and the distrust swells: readers unfamiliar with the era might temporarily lose their footing on the details, and there is no overarching authorial voice to lean on (which leaves readers free to respond on a personal level).
The depiction of the time and place are vibrant and consistent; although the central characters are literary giants, the setting offers readers a broader understanding of sixteenth-century life.
Michelle Butler Hallett's use of language allows the contemporary reader to feel the flourishes of the Elizabethan era (just a sprinkling of 'thee's, for instance) without a burdensome, trying-too-hard reproduction. The modern reader feels appropriately displaced but not overwhelmed by the weight of the centuries between.
"--Whores in the pillory? Slow patch, is it?
--We all got our quotas. See you Thursday."
Ultimately, the overarching questions have endured. The death of one man: is it an assassination or a tragedy at the hands of one misguided assailant? What might a government sanction in the pursuit of truth or in the desire to quell dissent? What power truly exists in the capacity to shape words in the posting of bills and the telling of tales?
This Marlowe by Michelle Butler Hallett is a quietly mesmerizing tale, which rewards a patient and attentive reader.
This review originally appeared on BuriedInPrint.
Although highly-entertaining and a satisfying page-turner, there is more substance to this novel than the cover might suggest.
Not only is the duality of a shadow-court inherently intriguing ("a castle with its king and all his courtiers who were real, yet without substance, moving always as a mirror to their counterparts across the sea"), but the mirror imagery operates at a variety of levels.
One woman is in the present, who has learned to mimic others around her in order to camouflage her Aspergers, is near Paris (at La maison de chatou).
And she is decoding the experiences of a Jacobite exile, written 300 years ago in the past, who learned to mask her true feelings and transform like a fairy in an old-fashioned tale.
The diary presents itself with two faces as well. Readers see it in the present-day with "worn cloth-covered boards and pages turned a golden beige by time and ...[ink once] black, but time had faced it to brown".
And, through the original writer's eyes: "with all its pages blank, exactly like the one in which her uncle kept household accounts, with cloth boards and a leather spine, and with it had been a cylindrical travelling pen set, the inkwell and talc in small sections that screwed one on top of the other beneath the only section ta held three plain quill pens with neatly carved nibs."
Even the fairy tales have more than one layer of meaning reflected within.
"‘Well, these are not the fairy tales that we grew up with. These were written for adults, and they belonged to a distinct period of time, and a distinct group of women, nearly all of them women of the novel class. It was a clever and subversive thing they did, to tell these fairy tales. Sometimes they would take well-known tales from folklore and adapt them, but as often they created them from their imaginations, and you see how they are commenting on how life is around them, on the world and how it limits them."
And this is precisely what it seems that Susanna Kearsley aims to do: comment on how life is around these women, on history and how it has limited them, but also comment on how these women's cleverness and revolutionary thoughts and actions allowed them to adapt and endure.
These thoughts originally appeared on BuriedInPrint.