This elemental silence which could crush you to nothing

magic-toyshopThe Magic Toyshop
by Angela Carter

This book was not what I had imagined, having read two previous works by Carter, but it was equally wonderful and has cemented her as one of the great authors for me.

The title had suggested to me something a bit fantastical, which aligned with my experience of Carter (I’d previously read Nights at the Circus and The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman) but – on the surface, at least – this book stays within the realm of reality. And yet from the very first page, there is an air of dark fantasy pervading the background.

The story centres on 15-year-old Melanie. She and her two younger siblings have to move from the middle-class comforts of their country home to live in relative poverty with their Uncle Philip in London. He is a toymaker but in every way defies the expectations of that label – he is tall, broad, strong, dark and frequently violent. He shows no kindness or empathy for the uprooted children.

“His silence had bulk, a height and a weight. It reached from here to the sky. It filled the room. He was heavy as Saturn. She ate at the same table as this elemental silence which could crush you to nothing.”

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Life is only worth living because we hope it will get better

Swimming Home
by Deborah Levy

I had heard quite mixed reviews of this novel but it was on the staff picks shelf at the very lovely Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath so I took a chance. I can see why it has divided people. As the blurb says, “it wears its darkness lightly”.

The set-up is that familiar one of the middle-class English family holidaying in a villa on the French Riviera when a stranger intrudes. Or is it? There are clues throughout that things are not what they seem and to the last page I was not sure if all or any of the events recounted had actually happened.

“He leaned his head out of the window and felt the cold mountain air sting his lips…They knew the past lived in rocks and trees and they knew desire made them awkward, mad, mysterious, messed up…He asked her again to please, please, please drive him safely home to his wife and daughter.
“‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Life is only worth living because we hope it will get better and we’ll all get home safely.'”

What it appears to be is the story of famous poet Joe Jacobs and his absent war correspondent wife Isabel, whose marriage is breaking down. But there’s also their teenage daughter Nina, childlike for her 14 years but trying to be one of the adults. And there’s family friends Laura and Mitchell, a couple who run a boutique shop in London and who never seem comfortable in this holiday setting. And then there’s Kitty Finch, the stranger who turns up floating naked in their outdoor swimming pool, unembarrassed by her nakedness or the apparent mix-up that has brought her there.

There are some plot threads that seem so inevitable that Levy has put their conclusions on the first page to save the reader wondering. Yes, we do have a philandering husband and a beautiful, strange young woman thrown in his path. Yes, we do have characters dealing with depression and thoughts of death. And if you take it all at face value then you might say that what happens is no more than the sum of these parts. But I think that the writing demands more of its reader.

There are two obfuscating themes: identity and fiction. Joe, we learn early on, is Jozef to his wife, JHJ to his readers. Everyone lies or withholds information or tells different versions of the truth. Not only is Joe a poet, but Kitty is an aspiring writer eager for his opinion of her work, and then later in a section told from Nina’s perspective there are short poems thrown into the narrative as if she, too, is a poet, an inventor of fictions. Characters seem to repeat each other’s words or actions as if the novel is being rewritten even as you read it.

“No one dared say they minded, because the war correspondent was controlling them all. Like she had the final word or was daring them to contradict her. The truth was her husband had the final word because he wrote words and then he put full stops at the end of them.”

Add to all this that two characters have a history of depression and related illnesses and a third character is constantly stoned, and you have yourself a thoroughly unreliable narrative. What seems like a quick, easy, fluid read becomes so much more than the sum of its parts.

Published 2011 by And Other Stories.
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2012.

I do not see him in the mirror but feel him

Anatomy of a Disappearance
by Hisham Matar

This short, quick read effectively covers a devastating subject: the loss of a parent. And somehow it manages to be about everything else as well: love, family, identity, growing up and lust.

It is this last that the book might seem to be centred around. The story is narrated by Nuri who is 14 when his father mysteriously disappears, never to be found. Born in Paris, raised in Cairo, Nuri’s family are outsiders, Arabs, from an unnamed other country suffering military dictatorship. Nuri’s father was a government adviser to their king so they are now effectively in exile. After the death of Nuri’s mother when he is 10, the father and son struggle to communicate until one summer they meet Mona, a half-British half-Egyptian beauty aged exactly between them. Father and son both fall in lust but of course it is the father she responds to and marries while 12-year-old Nuri is in torment.

Nuri, like most teenage boys, struggles desperately with his lustful feelings, which are complicated by Mona’s flirtatious behaviour with him and then, later, his father’s absence. Though there are so many other things going on in his life that he could fixate on (boarding school in England; his so-called mother country; his struggle to make friends), in this narrative at least it is Mona who takes centre stage for most of the story. It is only when he gets older that he straightens out his priorities and makes an attempt to look for his father and make a life for himself.

The story is simply told, with what might believably be a young man’s voice recalling his childhood and teenage years and their raw pain. Though the setting moves all over the world, nowhere is strongly evoked except his own mind. While it was beautifully, sparsely done, I couldn’t help but wish for something that had gone deeper. Perhaps follow the adult searches a little and the politics that that might dredge up. But that would be a very different book.

My only other difficulty with this book was that Nuri’s family is so extremely well off, that outside his family, life is made very easy for him. We never see him get a job or struggle for something to do in holidays from his boarding school when he does not feel comfortable staying with Mona. I know this might be petty but I might have sympathised a little more if he was scraping together the funds to go to Switzerland to search for his father.

Not naming the “mother country” is, I would guess, an attempt to distance the fictional story from the author’s true life experience. Matar’s family fled their native Libya to Egypt following political persecution and when he was 20 his father was kidnapped. For many years Matar did not know whether his father was alive or dead. All that must, of course, have informed his writing but in Nuri he has created a believable separate character from himself.

I think I would say I was not as bowled over by this as by Matar’s debut novel In the Country of Men but I would still rank him as an excellent writer to keep an eye on.

First published 2011 by Viking.