A vibration, very far off, chafing the air

The Greatcoat
by Helen Dunmore

Helen Dunmore, who sadly died on 5 June, spent the last years of her life in Bristol. I’ve read and enjoyed a few of her books and I wanted to honour her by reading one I had heard praised many times. It doesn’t hurt that this book was part of the launch of Hammer Books – a horror imprint from Arrow Books and the great film studio Hammer.

The story is set at the end of 1952. Winter is closing in on the small Yorkshire town where Isabel has moved with her new husband, Philip. He’s a doctor, working at the local surgery. She’s educated and would like to work, but Philip is keen for her to learn how keep house and prepare herself for motherhood. This leaves her sat at home struggling to learn to cook with still-rationed food, or out meeting other housewives who make it clear her education marks her as different. She’s lonely.

“She put her hands on the cold sill, ready to draw her head back inside, but a sound arrested her: a vibration, very far off, chafing the air. She listened for a long time but the sound wouldn’t come any closer and wouldn’t define itself. As it faded it pulled at her teasingly, like a memory that she couldn’t touch, until the town was silent.”

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In the endless silence of the night you watch your evil garden grow

My Beautiful Shadow
by Radhika Jha

This was an odd read – a well-written book about a character I found it extremely hard to empathise with. Which is not something I generally shy away from in my reading, but it turns out there’s only so much detailed description of shopping and fashion that I can cope with!

Kayo might live in Tokyo, one of the world’s largest cities, but her world is small. She marries her high school boyfriend straight from school, and is immediately plunged into the life of the housewife, only leaving home to shop or get her hair done. When she has her first child a year later, her life gets even more lonely. On her rare outings she feels keenly that she is the harassed unkempt young mother, sharing the streets with glamorous office ladies whom she can never befriend.

Two things step in to change this for her. Kayo’s mother, offended at not having been invited to her daughter’s wedding or told about the birth of her first grandchild, turns up on the doorstep one day and hands Kayo a large cheque in lieu of the wedding kimono a mother would usually buy her daughter. It is understood between the two women that this will be their last meeting. Kayo decides not to tell her husband and uses the money to open her own bank account. She finally has the means to create a little freedom for herself.

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A thick, pulsating silence gushed from the walls

A Handful of Sand

A Handful of Sand
by Marinko Koščec
translated from Croatian by Will Firth

I ordered this book after Tony of Tony’s Reading List blogged about new publisher Istros Books, who specialise in fiction translated from Eastern Europe. They have lots of authors who have won big literary prizes in the Balkans but somehow have not previously been translated into English, so I am glad that they exist. However, I must admit I was not entirely won over.

The writing is very lyrical. The story is about two lonely people (narrated by them alternately) who are heading towards romance, and how all-consuming and overwhelming passion can be. It takes its time, examining more than a decade of their lives and how they come to be the people they are with the attitudes to love that they have. But it’s not just a love story, it’s also a story about parents and children and how that relationship changes as the children become adults and the parents are the ones who need support.

“A thick, pulsating silence gushed from the walls, filling the whole space and burning my throat. I went to bed around midnight; Mother lay directly below, down on the ground floor. Needles stabbed from the depths of the night. At around four, the birds began to call with their inexhaustible joy at the breaking of a new day.”

I learned a lot about the atmosphere of modern Croatia, from this book. And while it’s a simple story, it felt very real, with people and emotions brought completely alive. Sometimes it verged on heartbreaking, and it certainly delved thoroughly and believably into different types of loneliness.

There were some passages that felt almost like set pieces – a mini rant on a given topic. But this is forgiveable because they tended to be well written and often funny.

“I came to hate that house with which we lived in symbiosis. We were vitally addicted to it, and it mirrored our inner states and limitations, never hesitating to show its disdain for all our efforts to retard its ageing. As restless as it was thankless, it added fresh cracks to the collection on the walls, rescrawled its mouldy graffiti in corners only just repainted, left rust on metal, and heralded each spring with clogged drains, peeling woodwork and a leaking roof. Selfish and ungrateful like a pre-pubescent child, it demanded constant attention to restrain even just the outward signs of decay.”

However, the two narrative voices were very similar, in fact two very different fonts had been used to distinguish between them, which is not a sign of faith in the writing or the readers. And I was not hugely impressed with the technical quality of this book – the paper and print quality, design, typesetting and proof-reading could all have done with more care. In the final chapter at least half a dozen times a sentence didn’t make any sense – I’m not sure if words were missing or lines transposed, but it jolted me out of the book at a critical juncture. I hope Ipsos Books is able to invest a little more in the production of future books so that good writing isn’t let down by such mundane and yet very important matters.

To malo pijeska na dlanu published 2005 by Profil International.
This translation published 2013 by Ipsos Books.

Source: Waterstones.com. (I tried to order direct from the publisher but their online store didn’t seem to want to sell me anything!)

Challenges: This counts towards the 2013 Translation Challenge.

The wrong side of quirky

No one belongs here more than you
by Miranda July

This collection of short stories is probably best described as…odd. July is a filmmaker, writer and performance artist and I remember liking her film Me and You and Everyone We Know. The stories in this book have a similar sense of humour, offbeat and candid, but they also put me on edge.

July’s characters tend to be loners, sometimes for good reason. They are the socially awkward, the fantasy dwellers, the perpetual outsiders. And some writers do a fantastic job of making characters like these sympathetic, of making the reader inhabit them and their view of the world. July somehow does the opposite. She shows the world from their perspective but makes it jagged, difficult and largely unsympathetic. The humour is that awkward, “isn’t real life odd” humour of films such as Napoleon Dynamite or The Squid and the Whale, which for me is a bit of a hit and miss style.

The stories are interesting and explore quite different situations (generally awkward ones) but my main criticism would be that the narrators all tended to sound the same. They considered themselves more observant then others, felt they were making sacrifices for others without ever trying to see a situation from someone else’s perspective, and they were lonely. The other recurring theme (than being an outsider/lonely) was sexual taboos, by which I don’t mean the homosexuality that does indeed crop up several times, but rather themes such as sexual obsession, sex and old people, masturbation; even crossing the line into incest and paedophilia. The former I am fine with reading about but the last two do unnerve me.

July definitely has an original voice and perspective, and some of her observations were beautiful, while others were frankly disturbing. I suppose you might call this the darker side of quirky. Interesting, but not entirely comfortable reading.

Published 2007 by Canongate Books.

Finding my inner geek

The Guild volume 1
story by Felicia Day, artwork by Jim Rugg

This is a comic prequel to the web show The Guild created by and starring Felicia Day, a series I haven’t watched by the way. I guess that makes me an atypical reader, but I loved her in Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog and the comic was in the car with me on a long drive so, what else was I going to do?

It’s the story of Cyd, a violinist with a loser boyfriend and therapy sessions that are failing to help her depression at all, thanks to a particularly awful psychiatrist. On a whim she buys a computer game, an online RPG that allows her to create a whole new character for herself called Codex, make friends and follow structured rules that make sense.

So yeah, it’s geeky, but don’t let that put the non-geeks among you off. It’s a human story with a lovably flawed character at its centre. Cyd’s mistakes are harder to correct than Codex’s, but by being Codex and interacting with lots of new people, people who for the most part are positive and want to help her, Cyd learns to deal better with her real life.

The important message is, of course, that online friends can be “real” friends even if you never meet them in person. The beauty of the Internet is that it gives you access to the whole world, to find others who share your interests, who lift you up and make you smile. You don’t need to be in a physical bar with someone to swap stories of drunken exploits, or share your baby’s first words, or open your heart.

Which all sounds a little cheesy. Sorry, that’s only my interpretation. The comic is not cheesy, it’s awesome. Day hits just the right balance between sentiment and straight-talking. It helps that her main character is struggling to figure out how she feels, or whether it’s okay to feel a certain way, and her sense of loneliness translates well in comic form.

Well, I’m off to check out the web series. I can feel my geekiness increasing already.

First published as three comics in 2010 by Dark Horse Comics. This edition published December 2010.

Under their skin

The Black Album
by Hanif Kureishi

Despite having been written 15 years ago, this book is very relevant to the world of today, giving a frighteningly believable insight into the world of British Asians. I say “frightening” because the story’s main theme is Muslim fundamentalism and it definitely gets scary.

Shahid was raised in well-to-do south-east England and moves to London to study at college and get away from the family business. He is tired of being looked down on for his bookishness and wants to experience “real life”. Quiet and studious, he finds himself a little lonely and excluded, so when a group of British-Asian neighbours led by the charismatic Riaz reach out to befriend him, he is eager to please them. Although it is clear from the start that the relationship is all about what they can get from him (his clothes, his typing skills, his links to some college professors, his good looks) Shahid doesn’t seem to notice the bizarre nature of their interaction and agrees to everything he is asked, even when it places him in danger.

At about the same time, Shahid’s favourite college professor Deedee prompts the start of a relationship that is almost the opposite in nature – it is loving, giving, free-spirited, frenzied, with a cacophony of drugs and wild parties interlaced with their bedroom adventures. It is against college rules, which concerns Shahid, but it is also against Allah, which concerns his new friends and his life turns into a tug of war between the two.

Set in 1989, one of the main storylines is the fatwa against Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses. Though he and the book in question are not named directly, his previous works are and the themes of the book are discussed a lot. The fundamentalist group are keen to get behind the fatwa and have the book banned in their district, despite not having read it. This is the point when Shahid tries his hardest to stand up to them, touching as it does directly on something that he loves dearly. The other time that he argues hard in favour of something is when he is asked to give up his music collection, including his dearly beloved Black Album by Prince.

The central themes of religious groups trying to change the world to fit their views and book banning/censorship are interesting ones but frustratingly, as is too often the case in life, they are not really debated here. Too few of the characters are willing to openly debate matters so attempts at discussion quickly flounder.

What this book does not include – and I would have to guess that this is deliberate – is any more moderately religious characters. There are fundamentalists and there are non-believers. At one point Shahid’s sister-in-law berates him for going to the mosque to pray, saying that she thought he was raised better than that. The viewpoint is very much that religion is for the uneducated, the great unwashed, and is essential to teach them basic morality and keep them in line. But once a person has money and education it becomes useless, or worse, dangerous.

In fact there are few if any moderate characters. Deedee’s life is outrageously liberal, a sea of raves, sex and drugs. Shahid’s brother Chili also seems to be caught up in this world of drugs and is spiralling downward from what was once a comfortable married life. I suppose this is to make Shahid’s choice more even, because he is so level-headed and rational that it would be hard to believe he’d stay involved with the fundamentalists if he had a more straightforward alternative. But that might also be a more interesting story, if the author had had to dig down into what would keep Shahid with the “brothers” if the alternative wasn’t a level of drink and drugs that’s beyond the average student life, so far as I’m aware. Maybe the author is trying to be equally stereotypical on both sides of the coin. There are no greatly sympathetic characters.

The threats and violence escalate, making this work better as a thriller than as a social study. There is a prescient storyline about a bomb in a London tube station and Shahid walking miles across the city in the aftermath. It’s never clear whether the bomb is related to fundamentalism or race tensions, but that’s certainly the implication.

There are moments of humour. The book begins with one of the “brothers” persuading Shahid that he has lost all of Riaz’s clothes, so Shahid will have to give him all the clothes he wants. Later on a local Muslim claims to find a message from God in an aubergine and the vegetable becomes a minor attraction, with attempts to get in installed in the town hall. But each of these is bound up with threats and violence, so that the ridiculous becomes something more frightening than if it were rational.

It’s a well written book, full of passion and anger, but it’s not an easy read. I found it hard to sympathise with Shahid for getting into trouble by failing to say no at key points. He is too meek and obedient a hero for my taste, though that’s probably supposed to be a product of his upbringing.

Published 1995 by Faber and Faber.

Warmth behind the sadness

The Bell Jar
by Sylvia Plath

I have been putting off reading this book for years because I expected a very dark, heavygoing affair. In fact, though it’s hardly light reading, it was much more readable and warm than anticipated. And, of course, the language is exquisite.

Plath had clearly borrowed heavily from her own life in this tale of New England college girl Esther Greenwood who is winning writing prizes and attracting men and has the world at her feet but somehow feels distant from it all, as though she doesn’t fit in, as if the rest of the life stretching out before her is terrifying and dull. As she recedes into herself her depression worsens and a long series of doctors and potential cures are tried.

So it goes to some dark places, certainly. Esther develops an obsession with methods of suicide, collecting press cuttings and secretly reading the scandal sheets. But her tone throughout is chatty and open, with amusingly catty descriptions of the people around her and a sense of humour even when she’s talking about death or when she’s confused and hallucinating due to drugs or lack of sleep.

I should have thought, considering the real life of the author, that this is a very genuine, realistic account of depression and I find it interesting that, while there are moments of melancholia and sadness, that isn’t the overriding theme or tone of the narrative. It’s more about loneliness, being somehow different, not understanding and being convinced that everyone else does understand and is together and fits in. Though of course the realisation that that isn’t true isn’t a cure for Esther, it is a step forward.

Knowing a little about the author from newspaper articles, excerpts of her journals and the film Sylvia (which I loved) I did find it a little creepy reading the parts that I knew were closely if not directly autobiographical. Chills down the spine may be a good effect for some books to achieve but here it was horror tinged with deep sorrow.

I definitely recommend this to everyone. The language is beautiful and yet straightforward. It’s not a hard read but it does effectively cover a hard subject.

First published 1963 by William Heinemann.

See also: reviews by Novel Insights and Farm Lane Books.