Dream-catchers that have been there so long their tinkle’s all tinked out

Devoured by Anna MackminDevoured
by Anna Mackmin

This is a strange tale told in a strange way, and I loved it. Sometimes a bit of originality is just what I hanker for.

It’s the tale of a commune in 1970s Norfolk. Beth owns a big farmhouse, which she has opened up to a raggedy crew of hippies from around the UK and the US. She and her partner are raising their two daughters in true New Age style: no school, treated like adults when it comes to chores and conversation topics, encouraged to be artistic in every way.

The novel is told from the perspective of the older daughter, but it is not narrated by her. The narration is in the 2nd person, addressing the older daughter. It’s also told in mostly incomplete sentences, a sort of stream of consciousness. It’s never quite clear if this is meant to be the 12-year-old girl addressing herself from the future or an unusual take on the omniscient narrator.

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Someone started to draw on two extra eyes with a felt-tip pen but stopped halfway

ms ice sandwichMs Ice Sandwich
by Mieko Kawakami
translated from Japanese by Louise Heal Kawai

I picked up this novella primarily because it’s Japanese and I am still excited about all things Japan. And the title is intriguing.

The story is narrated by a young man who, over his summer holiday, becomes slightly obsessed by the sandwich server at his local supermarket. She is aloof, never smiling, never engaging with customers, precise in all her movements. When he starts back at school, he hears rumours about his beloved “Ms Ice Sandwich” and they upset him.

“Ms Ice Sandwich’s eyelids are always painted with a thick layer of a kind of electric blue, exactly the same colour as those hard ice lollies that have been sitting in our freezer since last summer. There’s one more awesome thing about her – if you watch when she looks down, there’s a sharp dark line above her eyes, as if when she closed her eyes, someone started to draw on two extra eyes with a felt-tip pen but stopped halfway. It’s the coolest thing.”

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They didn’t look for long, it was more a practice series of glances

boy snow birdBoy, Snow, Bird
by Helen Oyeyemi

I remember reading Oyeyemi’s debut novel The Icarus Girl in 2005. I was simultaneously highly impressed by her writing, and jealous that someone so young was so talented. (I was at the time trying to sell my own debut novel. It was terrible. I do not blame the publishers and agents who rejected it.) Icarus Girl and Oyeyemi’s 2011 novel Mr Fox both received a rare five-star rating from me, and Boy, Snow, Bird followed suit. Oyeyemi is truly brilliant.

Boy, the lead character, runs away from her abusive father in 1950s New York and sets up home in a small New England town called Flax Hill. She takes a series of short-term jobs, never really fitting in until she marries a local man. Finally she has found safety and security. Boy finds herself stepmother to the beautiful, delicate Snow, a young girl she loves dearly until she finds herself pregnant with her own daughter, Bird.

“I was on shaky terms with [Flax Hill] for the first few months. Neither of us was sure whether or not I genuinely intended to stick around. And so the town misbehaved a little, collapsing when I went to sleep and reassembling in the morning in a slapdash manner.”

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The baby eyed him with a frozen watchfulness

ghost childrenGhost Children
by Sue Townsend

Despite its author, this book is not a comedy. It is not remotely funny. It is a book fuelled by anger, which in retrospect was there in Townsend’s comedy too.

In some ways this is the book that My Name is Leon managed not to be; both look at unwanted or unplanned children, class, social services, neglect and adoption. Where Kit de Waal was all humanism and understanding, Sue Townsend is bleak and unforgiving. It’s a powerful, upsetting book railing against…life? Inequality?

The story follows Christopher Moore, a lonely middle-aged man who is still in love with his ex, Angela, who is now married to another man. 17 years earlier she had an abortion without telling him and it destroyed their relationship, but now he wants to hear the full story.

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I can hardly begin to describe to you what I saw

Optician of LampedusaThe Optician of Lampedusa
by Emma Jane Kirby

This book, like The Gurugu Pledge falls somewhere between journalism and novel – a true story retold in novel form.

Lampedusa is an Italian island that is closer to Africa than Europe. Though refugees crossing the Mediterranean rarely aim intentionally for Lampedusa, it has over the last decade become a common site for boats gone astray. A few years ago Lampedusa’s optician Carmine Menna was taking a pleasant boat trip with his wife and friends when they heard the screams of hundreds of drowning men and women. He was reluctant to speak to reporters, but BBC journalist Emma Jane Kirby talked him into this method of telling his story.

“I can hardly begin to describe to you what I saw as our boat approached the source of that terrible noise. I hardly want to…You see, I thought I’d heard seagulls screeching…Birds. Just birds. We were in open sea, after all. It couldn’t be anything else.”

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Leaving because it is no longer possible to stay

We Need New Names
by NoViolet Bulawayo

This was my favourite of the six books I read over Easter weekend on the theme of refugees and migration. Perhaps it’s because it’s written from the perspective of a young girl. I know child narrators are difficult to do well, but when they are, I really respond to them.

Darling is 10 years old and lives in a shanty town called Paradise in Zimbabwe (though the country is never named, it’s clear where it is). She spends her days with her friends and lives with her mother and Mother of Bones.

At first it seems innocent, though the poverty is clearly extreme. Hints are dropped, details revealed of how far from paradise this is. Darling and her friends have their ways of dealing with unfairness and poverty and violence, but something worse is always just round the corner.

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Whichever history the whites chose for you

The Gurugu PledgeThe Gurugu Pledge
by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel
translated by Jethro Soutar

This is the first of three books I read last weekend that create fiction from real-life accounts. It hadn’t even occurred to me before that was a genre!

On the Gurugu mountain in Morocco next to the border with the small Spanish enclave of Melilla, people from all over Africa hide in caves and tents in a makeshift camp, waiting to make their attempt on the border wall that could get them to European soil. To pass the time, the people on Gurugu mountain tell stories about where they have come from and play football (which also keeps them warm on this northerly point of the continent).

“There are some five hundred of us, black Africans all, and we just want to live, you know? We just want to live, but living is a serious business in Africa, for it’s often very hard and lots of people barely manage it…we need to eat. Do you understand me, Sir? Eat or manger, according to whichever history the whites chose for you.”

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The time from the other room beats waves

The PassportThe Passport
by Herta Müller
translated from German by Martin Chalmers

I bought this book in Berlin a couple of years ago, attracted by the cover line “Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature”. And the owl on the cover, if I’m being honest. I had no idea what the book was about, when it was written or who Müller was.

Having read the book, I am surprised to discover that it’s set in Romania, not Germany, and it’s about events that happened in my lifetime, under a dictator I had heard of but did not know the full extent of his awfulness. (The Berlin connection is that Müller fled from Romania to Berlin and she has lived there since 1987.)

This is the story of a village in a minority German-speaking corner of Romania in the 1980s. Ceaușescu’s regime is increasingly oppressive, and this minority in particular are being killed – or to call it by its true name, ethnically cleansed. Most people in the village are trying to get out, and they will all do whatever it takes to get that precious passport. The main character, Windisch, a miller, is bribing the mayor with sacks of flour, but he knows what all the officials really want and he is trying to resist. He talks unkindly of how his fellow villagers managed to obtain their passports, but it is inevitable that he will have to follow in their footsteps.

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Hypocrisy was the sole explanation she could find

The GroupThe Group
by Mary McCarthy

This is often mentioned as a feminist classic alongside the likes of The Awakening and Herland, so it should have been right up my street. The thing is, the other word thrown around about this book is “satirical”, which I have no problem with in theory, but in practice I have often taken a dislike to satirical books (for every Scoop there’s also an Emma). Humour is a tricky thing.

This is the story of a group of eight women, friends who graduate from Vassar College in 1933, and follows the next few years of their lives. Each chapter centres around a different member of “the group”, some with more crossover between the friends than others. It opens at the wedding of Kay and Harald one week after graduation. Kay is the first of the group to get married, though not the only one to have a fiancé before finishing college. The others are fascinated by her low-rent, friends-not-family wedding and its indication of her bohemian life to come (Harald is a playwright).

“To Elinor, this wedding was torture. Everything was so jaggedly ill-at-ease…Intelligent and morbidly sensitive, she was inwardly screaming with pity for the principals and vicarious mortification. Hypocrisy was the sole explanation she could find for the antiphonal bird twitter of ‘Terribly nice’ and ‘Isn’t this exciting?’ that had risen to greet the couple in lieu of a wedding march. Elinor was always firmly convinced of other people’s hypocrisy since she could not believe that they noticed less than she did.”

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Given a legitimate reason to be cruel, we jump at it

Awakening by S J BoltonAwakening
by S J Bolton

I really enjoy Sharon Bolton’s thrillers, even if I am beginning to spot recurring themes and tropes. They’re easy and quick to read but still well and intelligently written.

Clara is a vet in a small village on the border of Devon and Dorset. She is more comfortable with animals than people, but her colleagues and neighbours recognise her competency and call on it whenever needed. Her background includes studying reptiles, so when snakes start turning up in people’s homes, and a man even dies from a snake bite, at first the locals and the police turn to her for help, but they soon start to suspect her instead.

“Sleep was a long time in coming. And when it did arrive it was restless, filled with dreams and shivery half-wakings. Towards dawn I had the recurring dream that I most dread. I am in a hall of mirrors. Everywhere I turn I see reflections of myself. As the dream goes on, the reflections become more and more distorted. No longer is it just my face that’s scarred, but the rest of me as well.”

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