HAPPY NEW YEAR!
Can I still say that? Or is it already too late; our festive period already a fading sight in our rear-view mirrors. Never mind; onwards and upwards!
Though January can be a pretty slow month in many ways, it really isn’t in the publishing calendar. With the Christmas publishing schedule of celebrity memoirs, cook-books and fitness-pushing titles now out the way, we can look forward to a packed roster of big names and exciting debuts amongst the many new titles hitting bookstores over the next few months. And it starts right now.
This month, I’ve got reviews of six books to share with you – some already available to buy; some being published later this month. But all of them fascinating, unique and memorable. And I’ve read them all!
Books Published This Month
The Mystical Realism One
I’m all for new writers and new voices and so I was very excited to read Braised Pork by An Yu (Harvill Secker / Penguin), £13,99. Set in contemporary Beijing, the novel weaves themes of isolation and fragile human connections with a dose of magical realism as it follows Jia Jia, newly widowed after finding her husband dead in his bath with a drawing of a half-man half-fish creature close by.
Never happily married, Jia Jia responds to her husband’s unexplained death by trying to reconnect with herself and who she was before she married. A search for expression, individuality and a sense of freedom. However, unable to find answers, she instead becomes increasingly obsessed with the merman drawing her husband left behind and sets off to Tibet to find the source, or inspiration, behind it.
Now, there’s much to enjoy here, most especially in the moments where Jia Jia finds herself lost in the water world where the half-man half-fish creature lives; a world whose walls become increasingly porous with our own. There’s that wonderful dose of magic and fairy tales as Jia Jia immerses herself (literally and metaphorically) in a underwater world free from the expectations of the mundane ordinary world.
The problem is, is that she doesn’t do much in this world other than swim, and these passages are all too brief. You see, Jia Jia does very little for about 60% of the book; her husband dies in the first few pages and it’s not until we are over halfway that she decides to go in search of the fantastical creature. All the time in between these two points is rather wasted. There’s little character development or revelation and Jia Jia is not someone we ever really get to know.
I love An Yu’s vision and creativity and I’m looking forward to seeing what comes next; perhaps her first novel should have been more tightly edited, however. In fact, you can’t help but feel that this is the subject for a short story only; there is insufficient material here for a novel.
This writing reminds me of Margaret Atwood at her most curious, or Samanta Schweblin’s gloriously dark collection, Mouthful of Birds. With its gothic touches and shadows, Braised Pork fits beautifully amongst these but, even though the book is only about 200 pages long, it’s still too dragged out. Some nice ideas but not – for me – a fully fleshed out novel.
The Return of a Literary Giant
This month also sees the return of a literary great whose books I have been reading most of my adult life. I’ve already had the pleasure of reading A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende (Bloomsbury), £16.99, and I enjoyed it immensely. It is a fantastic work of historical fiction set in a period of history that gets little attention in the Western literary canon.
A Long Petal of the Sea follows a young idealistic couple through the ravages of the Spanish Civil War, with all the loss and suffering that brought, on to the agony of concentration camps at the French border before escaping for a new life in Chile – only to find themselves caught up as political refugees in their new home as the spectre of military dictatorship rears its ugly head.
Covering such an epic period in a single novel seems a Herculean task – after all, this book covers over 50 tumultuous years and, in addition, Isabel weaves into the lives of her fictional protagonists, Victor and Roser, such real-life persons as Salvador Allende and the Nobel Prize-wining Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda.
And that’s before we even get into the challenge of Isabel’s writing style. I think it’s been over a decade since I last read one of Isabel’s books but, though I loved them (The House of the Spirits remains her masterclass) I remember being exhausted by them – sentences that went on for pages and overdoses of magical realism left me a bit numb – so I wondered what I would find back in her world.
Well, I feel I’ve been away too long as Isabel’s writing is light, her passages seeming to effortlessly dance across the years. There’s drama and beauty, the intimate and the political. And Isabel punctures her beautiful prose with moments of real darkness as horrors of the Disappeared and atrocities are starkly realised.
This story is one that I sense Isabel has long wanted to tell. The treatment of Spanish refugees at the end of the Spanish Civil War and their flight to Chile is not one that is well-known outside of the impacted communities. And, of course, it is a historical subject with agonising and telling overtones for today’s world too. But this is also a novel that examines the fallout of these social upheavals that shatter class boundaries and bring together communities and people who would never cross paths in more ordinary times.
A Long Petal of the Sea sees Isabel in top form blending the personal and political to manifest the horrors and hope of life as a refugee. A contemporary subject, yes, but one that has a long history. A surprisingly uplifting work that causes us to wrestle with themes such as the nature of ‘home’, the passage of time and the source of hope. I loved every minute of this, I really did. I flew through it.
When memoirs are great, they are breath-taking. And what makes a good memoir? For me, honesty, revelation and one that can capture how the individual life fits into wider social changes. That’s what I’m after. I want the personal, yes, but when it brings to life the experiences of a community too, that’s when you know you’re on to something special. And Motherwell: A Girlhood by Deborah Orr (W&N), £16.99, is very special indeed.
Now, I can’t claim to be too familiar with Deborah’s work as a journalist, so it wasn’t that which drew me to this; more, it was what Deborah was exploring.
Born and raised in Lanarkshire in Scotland, Deborah lived in a working-class community decisively shaped by the nearby steelworks. The cradle of Labour and betrayed by Thatcher, Motherwell was also a community blighted by sectarianism.
And all of this provides the backdrop and the context to Deborah’s childhood. But whilst all this impacted the home, Deborah’s focus in her memoir is critically centred around her fractious, at times even toxic, relationship she had with her parents, and specifically her mother, Win.
“For a time, it felt like only sexual abuse and serious neglect could have a negative psychological impact on a child. A psycho analyst told me, when I was fifty-five, that it was the little things that you needed to watch out for…”
Deborah’s writing is blindingly good. She captures in her mother a woman so at odds with herself, caught up in ‘keeping up appearances’, battling with a lack of agency yet, all the while, misdirecting all her bitterness and anger towards her only daughter. It’s a distressing observation on narcissism and self-loathing, but it also reflects the wider societal battles for women then and now: for Win, her life had to revolve around her husband and when she found that her daughter wanted a freer life, it shook her to her core.
Yet Motherwell is not a depressing book. In places, it’s even brilliantly charming and funny (“We had our own sink, in the kitchen-cum-living room. Open-plan, as it’s called today.”) but it is also immensely profound.
Sadly, Deborah is no longer with us, having died from cancer last year, but her memoir is a brilliant legacy. It is an extraordinarily good memoir.
Books Already Published
The Controversial Prize-Winner
Literary prizes can do wonders for a book’s sales – even if that win is considered controversial. Enter Milkman by Anna Burns, (Faber & Faber), £8.99, the winner of the Booker Prize in 2018 and probably its most hotly debated victor since Graham Swift’s Last Orders some 20 years ago. That one created waves because it was roundly considered to be not that good; Milkman, however, is routinely considered fantastic but a hell of a slog to get through, so the question was, is that ever OK?
Well, I’m here to tell you, YES, IT IS because Anna Burns is a writer of immense skill and this book is not always easy-going for a damn good reason. And HUGE props to a writer willing to take such a risk, let alone pull it off, which Anna does with aplomb.
Milkman is narrated by a Catholic girl of 18 who lives with her family in an unnamed town/city in Northern Ireland during The Troubles. We never know the Narrator’s name but it’s clear she’s thought of as a bit odd by her family and neighbours – a bit of an introverted bookworm with intimacy and attachment issues.
However, from her viewpoint, we get to bear witness to the impact of the civil war; the punishing, terrible and sometimes almost comical rules and recriminations that bind this community together, from the hidden stashes of guns in neighbours’ gardens to the requirements to eat only certain types of butter, from the criminal disappearances to which side of the road everyone must walk on.
Into this hellfire walks the Milkman, a feared paramilitary who takes an interest in our Narrator; an interest that manifests in stalking, harassment and intimidation. The young woman doesn’t want his interest but, in the eyes of her community, not only did she probably ask for it but she is now someone of note. Someone with power.
Sounds amazing, doesn’t it? Fascinating, even. And it is; it’s phenomenal. So, why is it such hard work to get through?
Well, it is because our narrator is autistic/on the spectrum. It’s never spelt out, but it becomes increasingly clear this is so. Her stream of consciousness is therefore intense, dense and spins off on seemingly random trajectories. Paragraphs take up whole pages and other people’s actions and reactions are meticulously noted.
It’s tough going – so, why did Anna choose this? Because a writer of Anna’s skill was never going to give us a run-of-the-mill insight into Northern Ireland; rather, I sense she uses the narrator for both representation, a clever way to minutely observe so much of the oddities of a community enforcing bizarre rules on itself – and as a brilliant attack on ‘otherism’.
Our narrator is considered odd, but she has clinical insight into social conventions and, the more we see her community through her eyes, we are forced to weigh up who exactly is the odd one here?
A masterclass and a worthy winner.
2019’s Booker Prize Winner
Last month, I read and reviewed Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments; this month, it was all about Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (Hamish Hamilton), £16.99, also winner of the Booker Prize 2019.
Margaret Atwood’s book was never going to be short of attention but winning the Booker will bring thousands of new readers to this absolute gem. Girl, Woman, Other (“Gender is one of the biggest lies of our civilization.”) is an achingly relevant and much-needed insight into contemporary Britain.
Bernardine’s book is collection of reflections on life – its trials and tribulations, its joys and disappointments – by a number of “girls, women, others” whose lives are interconnected by the opening of a new play about Black women in London’s National Theatre.
The writer of that play, Amma, is a black lesbian socialist playwright who is reflecting on what drove her to write her play, what she wanted to convey, and those experiences that shaped her outlook. (“while troublemaking on the periphery’s all well and good, we also have to make a difference inside the mainstream, we all pay taxes that fund these theatres, right?) From here, the connections trickle out across the, mostly, Black woman whose lives have impacted her and her daughter.
Race, gender, identity and the lived experience are all key themes, as is feminism, clearly. This is a book that grapples with big questions such as, what would a completely feminist life look like in a patriarchal society? What expectations does white society, and white feminism, place on Black women? What is privilege and how does it manifest and fluctuate? What does liberation look and feel like?
“You see, Megan, I learnt first hand how women are discriminated against, which is why I became a feminist after I’d transitioned, an intersectional feminist, because it’s not just about gender but race, sexuality, class and other intersections which we mostly unthinkingly live anyway.”
What’s interesting to me is how some criticisms of the work have focused on the lack of overarching storyline. In fact, it astounds me as this is exactly the point Bernardine is making. There is no single experience that can be defined as “the gay experience”, “the Black experience”, “the poor experience.” It’s all so much more complex than that; we are all full of complexities and contradictions. But it is empathy and understanding that will bring us together; that is the message of this book that radiates with life.
Flawless, just flawless.
The Big One
I was away most of the tail-end of last year, so I didn’t see the much-anticipated TV adaptation of His Dark Materials. One of my favourite stories ever. However, Santa Claus was good enough to leave me The Secret Commonwealth: The Book of Dust Volume Two by Philip Pullman (Penguin Books), £20, under the Christmas tree.
La Belle Sauvage was set ten years before the events of His Dark Materials and, in The Secret Commonwealth, we are now ten years past the climactic scenes at the end of The Amber Spyglass. Lyra is now 20 years old and much of her adventures as a child are now fading memories. No one talks to her about Dust anymore, and she hears no more about witches and bears. In fact, the only lasting impact on her life is the physical split with her daemon, Pantalaimon. Now separate entities, the two barely talk and their relationship is almost non-existent.
But when a murder in Oxford coincides with the arrival of a new Master at Jordan college, Lyra’s mundane life is thrown into turmoil. It quickly becomes apparent that the Magesterium is building up power once more – and Lyra, with her reputation, her knowledge of Dust, and her skills with an alethiometer, is a woman in danger.
With reports that an abandoned city in the deserts in the East may hold the key to greater knowledge about Dust, Lyra and her daemon, once again, throw themselves into harm’s way to save the world from darkness and terror.
It’s a whip-cracking adventure, this. The book is over 700 pages but the narrative drive is so strong; no let up at all. And Philip is obviously keen to hold up a mirror to contemporary politics today with issues of refugees and facts in post-truth eras raising their heads. But this is also a novel that welcomes wonder, magic and the curiosities of the natural world back into our life.
It is remarkable that Philip finds even more about the universe that he has created to explore, and it is always an experience that lights up the imagination to lose yourself into Lyra’s world again.
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