November Superlatives

I’ve sort of forgotten about the end of November. It seems to have been an infinite month, on and on and on, late nights, late shifts, weekends alone or away. It doesn’t feel like the end of anything, especially given that things are only going to get busier at the pub from now until New Year. I’ve read twelve books this month, though—some of them quite long. I won’t lie, there was definitely some post-election comfort reading going on.

most disproportionately affecting: By size, I mean. The playscript for Camilla Whitehill’s play Where Do Little Birds Go (which I reviewed at Litro) takes a quarter of an hour to read, but the play is haunting. A one-woman show that dramatises the experiences of Lucy Fuller, a barmaid kidnapped by the Kray twins in the 1960s, it’s spare, effective, and completely engrossing.

best glimpse of another world: Alfred Russel Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago, his writings about the years he spent in Southeast Asia collecting specimens of birds, insects and mammals. He’s thoughtful and reflective, but still a product of time; reading his ruminations about the “natural character” of the indigenous people is an insight into a mindset that may not be cruel but is still limited. His writings on landscape are beautiful.

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most obscurely disappointing: There is nothing at all wrong with Fiona Melrose’s debut novel Midwinter. I just wanted more… juice, I said to Rebecca when she reviewed it, though I’m not sure that’s the right word. The story of a father and son struggling with the decade-old loss of mother and wife Cessie, it’s a quiet novel about quiet men, whose thoughts Melrose infiltrates and describes fluently. The writing is good. I can’t complain about it. I think it has been the victim of Twitter hype.

most relevant: The Dark Circle, Linda Grant’s new novel, which takes in the beginnings of the NHS and the global social changes of the 1950s, and leaves us believing that the strength of the individual character is our best hope. I reviewed it just after the US election and was comforted by its vision of a new, happy, modern life, despite the constant presence of the past.

warm bath books: The US election was hard. I woke up at eight the morning after, checked my phone, and began to cry, at which point the Chaos made me return to bed. I cried and demanded to be held and cried some more, went back to sleep for a few hours, woke up, cried again. I was very glad I had the day off. I read the second and third of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy: The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. It had been years since I’d read them and I was pleasantly surprised to find that they are not as intellectually antagonistic as I remembered; they are instead profoundly humane books, framing the human mind and human evolution as a source of wonder and power. They are soothing without being mindless or saccharine, and just about perfect.

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weirdest: I think Shena Mackay just writes weird books, and her novel Dunedin, though the first of hers that I’ve read, is probably pretty representative. It’s a split timeframe—the first half is set in nineteenth-century New Zealand; the second half follows the descendants of our original protagonists in southeast London—but the New Zealand bit is short-changed in the word count, and the plot of the south London bit has no obvious centre. She writes the same kind of tactile, color-and-light-filled prose as A.S. Byatt, though, so I liked it anyway.

most potential: This is, I admit, a backhanded compliment indeed. Stephanie Victoire’s debut story collection, The Other World, It Whispers, addresses issues of gender and sexuality through a fantasy lens that is fueled by a huge imagination. I also, unfortunately, found it under-edited and uneven. Swings and roundabouts…

second most potential: Wendy Jones’s collection of interviews with English women about their sex lives (helpfully entitled The Sex Lives of English Women) is, yes, totally fascinating. She has a decent spread of age, class, race and preferences—there is a 19-year-old devout Muslim, a 33-year-old ex-Buddhist nun, a 94-year-old former Land Girl who recalls having sex by the side of the road—but I wanted a little more structure; the chapters read as transcriptions of one half of a conversation, which is a bit disorienting, as it sometimes is in magazine interviews.

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best impulse buy: I’m not sure I’ve ever bought a book on the strength of one review, but I did it for Treasure Palaces: Great Writers Visit Great Museums, an anthology from The Economist whose subtitle tells you all you need to know. The museums range from the Pitt Rivers in Oxford to the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb, via the Frick Collection, the ABBA Museum, Kelvingrove in Glasgow, and many more. The authors range from Frank Cottrell Boyce to Don Paterson, Ali Smith to Jacqueline Wilson. The essays are elegiac, descriptive, lyrical, hilarious, strange. A total treasure box.

best debut: Eric Beck Rubin’s novel School of Velocity, ONE Pushkin Press’s new release. The control Rubin exercises in this tale of charisma, friendship, music and obsession is worthy of a veteran novelist. I’m very interested to read his next book.

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big fat fucking awesome book: C.E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings has divided opinion since its release. Me, I like it. A chunkster indeed, but its tale of Thoroughbred horse racing, interwoven with a Southern family saga and the attendant agonies of racial prejudice right through to the present day, makes it all forgivable: its flaws are immense because its ambitions are immense, as someone once said of Dickens. I read it on many trains over about three days, and was delighted to have had it with me to pass the time.

up next: I’m reading Sarah Moss’s Signs for Lost Children and loving it. I loved The Tidal Zone, so this is hardly surprising, but still.

 

School of Velocity, by Eric Beck Rubin

There were also things we didn’t talk about, not even to each other. The things we couldn’t explain, but just did.

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~~here be (one or two) spoilers~~

Jan de Vries is a student at Sint Ansfried, an elite performing arts high school, when he meets Dirk Noosen. He is a pianist; Dirk is an actor. “I saw him several times before I even knew his name,” he tells us. “He was like a new word that, once learned, you heard spoken everywhere.” That is the reader’s cue to be aware that this book is going to be about charisma, about power, about the ways in which the charismatic behave that make them, at best, dubious idols. It’s also, because of this, highly relevant to the book I’m currently writing, which also wrestles with questions of charisma, school days (or adolescence in general) and power games.

Well. Reading School of Velocity has made me think two things: a) thank God someone else has written a book about this, it’s obviously possible; and b) bollocks, maybe I shouldn’t bother; how can I improve on this?

For this review I shall take a leaf out of Naomi‘s book and write, overtly, about what made this book so effective for me.

Thing one: the setting

Reviewers talk about setting a lot; often, I think, more than is necessary, because setting is very rarely “a character in its own right”. If you’re talking Wuthering Heights or, I dunno, Wolf Hall, or Ordinary People, then yeah, sure, but otherwise, setting isn’t always that big a deal. What I liked very much about School of Velocity is the mysteriously seamless way in which Rubin places the action in the Netherlands. He doesn’t drop a whole lot of place names, but he situates his characters in their provincial home town, and later in the city of Maastricht, so coolly and confidently that I thought he must hail from thereabouts. Evidently he doesn’t, which makes me wonder how on earth he managed such casually intimate descriptions of the place.

Thing two: the pacing

Really good authors know how to fast-forward. Rubin covers whole years of friendship in a couple of pages, with smartly structured montage flashbacks like this one:

During the years at Sint Ansfried, I must have had my own classes, spent time alone practising, spent lunches by myself, and I remember leaving Dirk’s house on Saturday afternoons, which means I must have spent the rest of the weekends away from him. But I cannot pick out a memory from those years that does not find Dirk by my side. We spent what felt like years at the movie theatre… We listened to experimental music in record shops and in his room and went to watch bands play in bars and small clubs. We walked every street in Den Bosch, where he lived, and Vught, where we cut classes, something we did with increasing frequency, ducking out of math and languages and going to sit in a cafe to talk, argue, laugh.

When, at the end of the novel, he tells Dirk it’s been thirty years since they saw each other in Maastricht, the reader is as vaguely surprised as Dirk is. Thirty years? Really? Well, that went by quickly.

Thing three: the descriptions of Jan’s illness

Jan and Dirk, as you might have guessed, stop speaking to each other at some point after they graduate from high school. It doesn’t quite happen slowly—they don’t call or write to each other at all during that first term at university. At Christmas, Dirk calls from America to say he’s spending the holiday with his girlfriend, leaving Jan, who’s turned down an invitation from his parents in anticipation of spending time with Dirk, alone on Christmas Day.

For a long time—years—this seems, both to Jan and to us, reasonably normal. Jan meets a girl, Lena, who believes in his playing. His career begins to take off. But he begins to develop strange auditory hallucinations: kettles boiling, buzz saws, roaring waves. The music that he ordinarily hears in his head just before a performance is transformed into something dissonant and violent. It begins to affect his playing. It begins to affect his sanity. He doesn’t tell Lena.

Thing four: the ending

It is, to be short, spot on. Jan’s quest to see Dirk again, to recapture the magic and the headiness and, yes, the romance of their school days, is doomed from the start. The savvy reader knows it, but still hopes, horribly, desperately, pathetically, as Jan hopes, that something can be salvaged from the wreckage. Dirk’s disappointingly ordinary life—his reversion to Sint Ansfried, where he is now the head of the drama department—is our first warning: promises don’t always come true. Potential isn’t always realised. Dirk’s kind of charisma, his flamboyant irreverence, doesn’t necessarily go down well in the real world, the adult world. For Jan to seek it out again and believe that it is the key to his salvation is at best immature; at worst, it romanticises the past in a way that could stunt him for good. Indeed, when he does find and reunite with Dirk, the terms of that meeting are so unexpected that he cannot recover.

Thing five: the title

School of Velocity is the name of a set of piano pieces by Carl Czerny, designed to help train pianists in passage work by exercising them at different tempi. It’s also a clever reference to the games of chicken that Dirk and Jan play on their bikes—who can cycle the furthest with their eyes shut? Dirk claims to be able to count thirteen; Jan only manages twelve. And, not least, it suggests the philosophy that gets Dirk—who is, we suspect, more lonely and conflicted than Jan ever realises—through school and early adulthood. Go faster; be louder; never stop moving. But Dirk doesn’t die young: he burns out. And perhaps it’s Jan, in the end, who suffers most from adhering to the School of Velocity.

It’s a small and compact book, this one, a square shape easily hefted in the hand, slipped into a purse (or, dare I say it, a Christmas stocking). Its subject matter may look obscure—classical piano playing isn’t everyone’s bag—but at its heart, it’s about huge and basic emotions: insecurity, friendship, need, sex. It delivers all of this in elegantly readable prose, efficient and yet deeply moving. I loved it. I hope, this season, it receives the attention it deserves.

Many thanks to Tabitha Pelly at ONE Pushkin for the review copy. School of Velocity was released in the UK on 21 November.

The Other World, It Whispers, by Stephanie Victoire

I want to find her and ask her to show me what other creatures I could be.

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Fabulism isn’t a literary mode that I have a particularly easy time with. The discomfort that I often feel when reading something with an overtly “magical realist” tinge is, I’ve discovered, the same as the discomfort I get from “contemporary” translations of texts from classical antiquity. It’s a form of register clash. Reading a translation of Virgil’s Eclogues that includes the phrase “Put up or shut up” (as I once did) is jarring, a yank out of the clearly established classical context into a slangy modernity that feels false. In the same way, reading a story obviously set in a world like our own becomes bewildering when elements of fantasy creep in: witches, spells, sculptures that come to life, but also Paddington station, a bar called the Red Oak, Paris’s Sacré Cœur glimpsed from an apartment window. More often than not, when stories like this work, it’s because the author has planed her prose smooth, every word chosen to encourage and nourish the reader’s belief.

Stephanie Victoire’s stories manage this about half the time, and half is a pretty good ratio for a young author (she graduated from London Met in 2010) whose first collection this is. The first story, “Time and Silence”, and the third, “Layla and the Axe”, work very well because they remain basically unmoored from an easily identifiable contemporary world. “Time and Silence” is told from the perspective of an adolescent boy who is abused, Cinderella-fashion, by a mother who believes in the fundamental badness of males. A mysterious girl with no name appears outside their forest-bound shack. His friendship with her gives him the strength to defy his mother and leave his situation of domestic slavery, but the world into which he escapes is, in many ways, no safer:

As for me, there’d be new lands and the sea, and that thought got me excited. I only looked back once to see the small glow of light from the house disappear behind the arms of the trees. Snow tugged my arm, urging me on. There was no way I could let go of her now. I looked up one more time at the moon before moving quicker, because it was then I was sure I heard the howling of a wolf.

I have always liked ambiguity in short stories, especially in their endings. “Layla and the Axe” also derives its strength from the ambiguity of its ending, indeed of its whole plot: a young girl moves through a similar forest, her faithful fox by her side, carrying an axe. She is on her way to wreak vengeance on a mysterious man who has emerged repeatedly from the trees to seduce, or rape, girls from the village. She finds a house at the story’s end:

“Come in! Come in!” says the voice again and, at the turning of the handle and the creak of the door, Layla pushes through the aches in her arms, ready to swing, and thinks Pa’s axe could be a hero.

There the story ends; we never find out whether she brings the axe down in time, whether the person she kills is the person she is looking for. There is just enough uncertainty about the mysterious man’s provenance to make the reader wonder: is it possible that Layla doesn’t, can’t, succeed?

The stories I found less convincing were “The Animal Ball” and “Dark Arts and Deities”, the penultimate story in the collection. “The Animal Ball” is a brilliant idea wrapped in an execution that feels too hurried. A wealthy couple, the Barringtons, invite everyone they know to an animal-themed costume ball. Over the course of the evening, there is a murder, and the Barrington marriage—thanks in no small part to the presence of a fortune-telling guest dressed as a snow owl—begins to disintegrate under the weight of lies, jealousy, and revenge. My problem with it is that the writing just feels undercooked. The story asks the reader to do quite a lot of emotional work as it progresses, but there’s no sense of the words being arranged artfully in order to help the reader do that. It’s probably easier to illustrate this by quoting:

The swan went over to the snow owl to explain that she’d have her payment the next day as she didn’t have any more cash on her.

“Oh no, all that has been sorted with your husband,” the snow owl replied, stroking the feathers of her cloak.

“What do you mean?” The swan gulped down the lump in her throat, discreetly she thought, but the snow owl saw it.

“I think you ought to talk to him about it.”

I don’t know, it’s just a little too much, or not enough: the casual colloquialisms when the rest of the story is on a higher thematic plane (“didn’t have any more cash on her”; “been sorted”), the tang of cliché (“gulped down”, “lump in her throat”). It didn’t work for me at all.

A similar set of problems plagues “Dark Arts and Deities”, which focuses on a twenty-something wild child summoning a pantheon of historically and culturally diverse gods to wreak revenge on the small town whose provincial inhabitants have snubbed her. Why would any of these divine powers give the slightest damn about a vaguely sexy woman being misunderstood? What about our protagonist is compelling enough to make us believe that she is herself a candidate for apotheosis? The sex scenes are just embarrassing, the info-dumping is excessive, the clichés reach new heights (“the usual suspects”; “sobbing her eyes out”; “all of her emotional cuts were closing up”). The story needs, in effect, a more judicious editorial eye. I know I say this a lot about contemporary fiction but I think it’s true; there are many, many competent stories and novels being published which could have been excellent with a little more attention and criticism.

The collection’s triumph, though—and it does have one—is the presence of two stories which deal with gay and transgender themes. “Shanty”, the inner monologue of a biological male who knows he is a girl, invokes the archetype of the mermaid:

I wish I’d been created so. Imagine being that magnificent, that magnetic and that ethereal… Just a tail that allows you to soar and pirouette, like a ribbon being twirled in the air…in pure, blissful freedom.

Freedom is the key. In the final story, “Morgana’s Shadow”, a young girl from a deeply religious family is imprisoned after she’s seen kissing a woman in the forest. “It was a kiss to seal a deal”, she explains, the deal being that in exchange for the kiss she acquires the power of shape-shifting. It’s one of the shorter stories, but in it, Victoire seamlessly literalises the feeling of not being oneself, or of not being the self that others believe one is or should be, that often haunts people struggling with their sexuality. Her interest in liberation—physical, mental, emotional—is rooted in a belief in the power of transforming magic. But it is very easy to see how literal magic can stand in for the intoxicating feeling that comes from finally, finally being true to yourself:

I rip myself free from the rags and my large wing bats Joshua away from me. …I test out my new lungs and a loud cry sweeps across the room with my breath—the sound of freedom.

Many thanks to the publicity folks at Salt for sending me a review copy. The Other World, It Whispers was published in the UK on 15 November.

The Dark Circle, by Linda Grant

Life was better when something mattered, even if it was just putting on your war-paint in the morning.

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Lenny and Miriam Lynskey are an East End brother and sister, twins, from a Jewish immigrant family. Lenny is being groomed to take over his uncle Manny’s property development business; Miriam works in a florist’s shop. The Second World War has just ended, but National Service is still in force and Lenny has been called up for his medical exam. He’s not worried—Uncle Manny has paid someone and he’ll be declared “unfit for service”. Except when the results come back, it turns out Uncle Manny didn’t need to pay anyone: Lenny’s unfit for service anyway. The x-rays show he has tuberculosis, and Miriam does too. They’re packed off to a TB sanatorium in Kent, which, under the auspices of the new National Health Service, is now open to non-fee-paying patients for the first time.

This is the premise of Linda Grant’s new novel. There is a lot going on. By far the longest section of the book is the part actually set in the sanatorium, in 1955. I am accustomed to thinking of the NHS as one of Britain’s claims to greatness, a beneficent institution that made social equality a reality, not just a talking point for armchair socialists. It’s unnerving, therefore, to read about the strong resistance to NHS oversight that permeated UK medicine in the 1950s. The attitude wasn’t just held amongst medical professionals, but also amongst patients themselves: the “better class” of people at the Gwendolyn Downie Memorial Hospital see Miriam, in her tight dresses and bright lipstick, and immediately write her off as vulgar and common. The old-fashioned approach to medical treatment—that the patient must passively submit to treatment, which in TB cases usually consisted of “allowing the disease to take its course”—was paternalistic and patronising in the extreme. Grant captures it, and the class undertones, so well:

“Why wouldn’t they let you back in? What’s all this about?”

“It’s the cure, it’s supposed to be a cure.”

“We had the bed rest already.”

“But this is in the fresh air at low temperatures,” said Matron. “It’s a completely different experience. People pay hundreds of pounds to go to Switzerland for this you know, and look at the Alps all day, but here, you’re getting almost as good and for nothing.”

“So you keep saying,” said Miriam. “We know what we’re entitled to.”

Anxiety provoked by encroaching socialism is everywhere, but the Gwendo (as the sanatorium’s inhabitants call it) is no better: medical director Doctor Limb fears the “interference” of the Health Ministry but fails to see how destructive it is for him to force passivity and conformity upon his patients. The arrival of Arthur Persky, a sailor from Brooklyn whose brief docking in London was enough for him to be diagnosed with TB and barred from re-entering his ship, is an explosion of colour and rebelliousness in this closed-off, grey-and-beige world. He completes the process that Lenny and Miriam have started, thoroughly shaking the Gwendo’s social foundations:

A few hours observation had led to an emerging idea. That the Gwendo might be a kind of experimental station for what could be done to tear down the individual self and rebuild it in the model of the well-behaved citizen. And this thought made him sick because there would be no greater power over Persky than Persky.

The Dark Circle is one of the few novels I’ve read that is explicit about the fact that the whole world changed radically after the Second World War. It follows its characters to 1991, which really lets the reader see the enormity of the difference (Miriam visits the Gwendo again in her seventies, and revels in the knowledge that she can buy an ice cream in the local village whenever she likes; when she first arrives, in March of 1950, ice creams are only sold in shops two months out of the year.) But it also acknowledges the changes in real time, as it were; characters in the 1950s are aware that they’re living in a world where nothing will ever be the same again, and by and large, they’re okay with that.

It was nice being in a decade with a pleasant number, the curly 5, the fat 0, no longer the sharp points of the 4 which could rearrange themselves into a swastika if they felt like it, and had done. They were exactly halfway through the century. War was in the process of becoming a memory, not a situation to be endured and survived. Anything new had to be a good thing. She sometimes had a vision of all the red-brick Victorian houses of London being flattened to make way for unassuming beige and white boxes in which everyone could live calmly, with central heating and fitted kitchens.

Reading a paragraph like that in a south London Victorian conversion flat is a bit of a shock to the system: now we venerate those old brick houses with their ceiling roses and their stained glass above the doors. That longing for change, for modernity, for something new, explains a lot about the worst of post-war architecture (Brutalist tower blocks, the Gwendo itself, which is described in the 1991 section: “The optimism of its form was at odds with the stained walls, the cracks in the structure, the unforgiving greyness of its materials.”)

Grant also weaves in the coming of television, the age of air travel and package holidays, and the defeat of the Labour government. Hannah Spiegel, an inmate of the sanatorium who was in Ravensbruck concentration camp during the war, is privately pleased by this defeat, which seemed to me inexplicable until I read the following:

Not everything needed to be subject to socialist planning and the people had understood this and rejected it. There were parts of the country, she’d heard, that still believed in their hearts in an Olde England of pixies and ghosts and magic and privately, she thought that was a good thing, though obviously preposterous.

Grant’s characters are all like this—we might not agree with or fully understand their reasons for holding an opinion; we might even think their opinions are internally inconsistent; but they always, always make sense in the context of the character. Of course Hannah Spiegel fears government interference and enforced togetherness. Her history ensures that fear. Even on holiday in Spain, years later, a group of revel-makers passing her on the road is cause for alarm: “She still did not really like to see columns of people on foot. They gave her what she could only describe as ‘a terrible feeling.’ It came up from her stomach like acid reflux and spoiled everything.”

The Dark Circle is a complicated book. One reading will not do; you may need, and will almost certainly want, to read it a few more times, squirreling out thematic connections. Grant’s preoccupation with Jewishness is here; so is a terrible resonance with the modern-day conditions of our NHS, our parliamentary corruption. Through it all, Lenny and Miriam, Arthur Persky and Hannah and her lover Sarah, continue to live vociferously, to take up space. Putting on your war paint is sometimes the only thing keeping you from destruction, and these characters put on their war paint with a vengeance right to the very end. It’s a joy and a pleasure to read about them as they do so.

This review is part of The Dark Circle blog tour—you can catch the next few days of the tour, and the previous installments, at the brilliant blogs listed below. Many thanks to Poppy Stimpson at Virago for the review copy. The Dark Circle was published in the UK on 3 November.

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Hungry Generations Chapter 1 is up

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If you want to read part of the book that I haven’t actually finished writing yet, the first chapter is now up on the book’s own website! (ohgodohgodohgod) I’ve edited it a little to make it fit for human eyes, but there’ll be more changes—this is still very much a first draft—but I’m very excited to share it in its current state. Here’s the first paragraph:

At the interview, Simon talked about epiphany. He’d brought a piece of work he’d done on Dubliners. It was mostly on one story, ‘Araby’; he’d focused on the boy whose point of view the story took, his horrible shame and embarrassment as he realises he can’t afford a present for his friend Mangan’s older sister. He was about to start unfolding the way Joyce’s few paragraphs of description framed the sister as a saint, or possibly even as the Blessed Virgin, when the senior English tutor, a tall woman with long white hair twisted into a chignon, leaned forward in her chair and said, “Tell me about epiphany.”

You can find out just what the hell is going on in this scene here. I would be so pleased if you did.

6 Degrees of Separation: Never Let Me Go

This game is like “6 Degrees from Kevin Bacon” only with books. You can join in too; the rules are here.

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  1. This month, we start with Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro’s completely heart-rending near-future tale about love, death and cloning. I read it in my first year of university, during Hilary term.
  2. The only other non-coursework book I read that term was Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl, by Belle de Jour, which was utterly excellent and was made into a less excellent miniseries starring Billie Piper.
  3. The most recent literarily-inspired miniseries I watched was The Secret Agent, adapted from Joseph Conrad’s novel about a Victorian shopkeeper who becomes embroiled in an anarchist group’s plot to blow up the Royal Observatory at Greenwich.
  4. Modern-day terrorism is beautifully written about by Hassan Blasim in his collection of short stories The Iraqi Christ, which won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and explores the effect of war on Iraqis from all walks of life.
  5. The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize merged with the Man Booker Prize this year, to become the Man Booker International Prize. It was most recently won by Han Kang’s novel The Vegetarian, a delicately written and highly disturbing book about a woman whose vow to eat no more meat has far-reaching consequences.
  6. Han Kang’s UK translator, Deborah Smith, has started her own press which focuses on translated fiction (especially by women). Their new release, Panty by Sangeeta Bandyophadhyay, is a disorienting short novel about sex and identity as well as religion and nationalism.

From dystopian future England to modern-day Calcutta by way of nineteenth-century London, Baghdad, and Korea: hooray!