February Superlatives

February! I started working at Heywood Hill. I followed the Jhalak Prize long list. In a perhaps not shocking turn of events, my to-read list grew significantly. I am beginning to worry about bookshelf space again. Not as many books this month—only fourteen update: fifteen! I forgot one!—but in a month as short as February, that’s a book every two days, which isn’t bad at all.

most whimsical: Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, the tale of a Danish woman’s travails in learning to drive as an adult, by Dorthe Nors. Poor Sonja; somehow her life has become something she never intended it to be, but she doesn’t know where she went wrong. It’s a fairly plotless book, but I think that suits its subject matter.

best short stories for people who don’t like short stories: Rick Bass’s beautiful, monumental collection from Pushkin Press, For A Little While. Bass writes stories the way Maxine Beneba Clarke does: they seem like miniature novels, tiny but perfectly formed and evocative, little jewels of description and characterisation. He writes like a dream on the sentence level, and his interest in the lost or confused people of the world is sincere and generous and kind. This collection is a marvel.

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THIS COVER. I DIE.

most thoroughly engrossing world: The Ghana/America splitscreen through the ages that you get in Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing. Starting with two estranged sisters in eighteenth-century Asanteland, the novel follows each woman’s descendants through history. Comparing the lives of the Ghanaian branch of the family to the American branch over the centuries is fascinating—such a tiny difference to start with, but such a huge gulf in only a few years’ time—and the ending is crazy satisfying without being completely unrealistic.

so close! so close!: Irenosen Okojie’s short story collection Speak Gigantular, which has fantastic, surreal ideas rendered in a highly original way, but which is let down by a general failure on her publisher’s part to check for things like typos. It’s an amazing collection, and it could be even better with a little attention to detail.

most skillfully written: This is a tough one to award elsewhere while Rick Bass’s stories are on the list, but Kei Miller’s prose in Augustown is so controlled, so subtle, so confident in itself, that from the very first page you can feel yourself relaxing, knowing you’re in good hands. It’s a lovely feeling to have when you open a book, that total trust in the writer’s ability.

best book to give someone who “doesn’t read YA”: Patrice Lawrence’s novel Orangeboy, which is significantly better than many adult novels. Marlon’s teenaged attempts to protect his family are rendered with such sympathy and lack of judgmentalism, I think it’s a book a lot of young people (and those who work with them) should be reading.

most fascinating: Not a shadow of a doubt here: Black and British, David Olusoga’s overview of black British history. I guarantee that you will learn something new from it, and that this new thing will be, moreover, wildly intriguing and contradictory to the history you remember from school.

most accidentally forgotten: Do not make assumptions about the fact that, in the first version of this post, I forgot Shappi Khorsandi’s Nina Is Not OK! It’s about a teenager who slowly comes to terms with the fact that, like her beloved and now dead father, she is an alcoholic. Nina’s situation is complicated by a trauma that happens at the beginning of the book and which she must acknowledge before she can begin to handle her alcoholism. Khorsandi is bitingly funny, sad, spirited, and never sentimental. I loved it.

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most grudgingly liked: I do not want to like the work of Paul Kingsnorth. It subscribes to a philosophy of back-to-nature manhood, unfettered by things like infants or women, that I find at best eye-roll-worthy, at worst destructive and juvenile. But his writing is none of these things; it is evocative, assured, and bold. His second novel, Beast, is about a man slowly unravelling on what seems to be Dartmoor. It’s short and very impressive.

best comfort read: The Uncommon Reader, Alan Bennett’s charming fable about what might happen if the Queen took up reading for pleasure. It’s so tiny and cute that you can read it in an hour, then go about the rest of your day with a small smile on your face. I particularly like the way Bennett characterises the Duke of Edinburgh—so succinct, so efficient!—through his curmudgeonly dialogue.

best reread: So, guys… whisper it. I didn’t really get all the love for The Essex Serpent when it came out. I mean, I liked the book, I thought the landscape and food descriptions were gorgeous, Perry’s writing is lush. But I also thought her first book hung together better, was a more perfect object, and I didn’t feel the same adoration for Cora and Will that lots of people seemed to. They were fine. I just didn’t love them. Then I read it again, really really slowly, over the course of about six weeks—mostly on my phone during five-minute bathroom breaks at the restaurant—and finished it this weekend, and although I still don’t feel fanatical about it, I think I understand it better.

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most serviceable thriller: I read William Shaw’s Kent-set murder mystery, The Birdwatcher, because it’s gotten a lot of love from people at work and it seemed worth checking out. It was perfectly acceptable, but my benchmark for thrillers/mysteries is now Tana French. Not many people can meet that standard—certainly not on the qualities of dialogue, descriptive writing and psychological depth—so, while Shaw’s book was a pretty solid example of the genre, and gripping as hell, it won’t knock French from her pedestal.

most evocative: Days Without End, Sebastian Barry’s Costa Award-winning novel about nineteenth-century Irish-American soldiers John Cole and Thomas McNulty: best friends, brothers-in-arms, lovers. The way that Barry allows their relationship its proper dignity, the way that he balances maternal feeling with military prowess in the character of McNulty, the way that he writes about the American West, is both roughly beautiful and incredibly elegant. It reminded me a lot of True History of the Kelly Gang.

best holiday reading: My dilemma about what to take on a four-day trip to France was solved by my friend Helen, who recommended Zadie Smith’s Swing Time. It’s a long and thoughtful novel but it never fails to be interesting – on dance and the body, on opportunity, on girls and friendship and hateship and growing up, on selfishness and revenge. I know it’s had mixed reviews, but me, I really liked it.

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most pleasant surprise: Anthony Horowitz’s reboot of the Sherlock Holmes universe, The House of Silk. I bought it on my phone mostly because it was 99p, and read it because I didn’t fancy anything too involved given my levels of sleep-deprivation at the time. It turned out to be a pretty gripping and not ill-written book; maybe a little mannered, but then so is Conan Doyle, and Horowitz always has a sense of humour about the project. The dénouement could conceivably lay the book open to charges of homophobia, but I think Horowitz is aiming less at closeted men and more at men who exploit the powerless. Anyway, I enjoyed it.

up next: Currently reading Sand, another crime novel (I think I’m becoming old) by a German author called Wolfgang Herrndorf. It’s set in Morocco circa 1972 and extremely diffuse; only now, at 100+ pages in, do I feel I have a sense of what’s going on. Review to follow.

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Meanwhile, Over At Shiny: First Love, by Gwendoline Riley

1000x2000Shiny New Books has undergone a revamp and now sports a new look! I’m over there today talking about Gwendoline Riley’s new novel First Love, published by Granta. Riley eschews plot, for the most part, in favour of a flashback-heavy atmosphere that focuses on the emotional life of her main character Neve. It’s stark, brutal, and elegant.

The New York Times Book Review runs a regular feature called By the Book, a kind of questionnaire for celebrated authors about their reading habits. Recently, the feminist writer Roxane Gay was featured. In answer to one of the questions—“Which genres do you especially enjoy reading, and which do you avoid?”—she replies, “I love literary fiction so long as it is not about (a) writers, (b) sad white people in bad marriages or (c) sad white writers in bad marriages.” Gwendoline Riley’s novel First Love ticks box c; it is about Neve, a writer from Liverpool, and her marriage to Edwyn, an older man. Their marriage is vexed, to say the least: there is some sweetness and canoodling, but an awful lot of it is harsh and even cruel. Yet what makes First Love more than just a story about Sad White People (trademark pending) is the way Riley preserves a semblance of impartiality. We’re not meant to feel sorry for Neve, exactly, or to see her as a victim; we’re meant to understand why she made the decisions that led her to this place, and why she makes the decisions that keep her here.

You can read the rest of the review here.

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts

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  1. Two and a half weeks into the new job, and I LOVE it. In week one, I handsold books I’d been raving about on this very blog to real people, which was such a great introduction to the many ways in which bookselling is essentially a practical application of reviewing. At the end of week two, I got the nod to manage our social media accounts on a trial basis until April, which is amazingly exciting. On Monday I went with two colleagues to sell books at an event with brilliant American philosopher Daniel Dennett. I am so bloody lucky.
  2. My grandpa had a mild stroke last week (he’s doing well, home from hospital, and recovering incredibly swiftly), so I went down to visit him and my grandmother over the weekend. They live in a village by the South Downs that’s so ridiculously lovely it’s practically fictional. Everyone there is either a retired brigadier or related to a duchess. My auntie came down too and we had some gorgeous walks with the (horrible little) dogs.
  3. On the other hand, it turns out that working a full week, then handling someone else’s ironing, recycling, dishwashing and phone contract admin for two days, then going back to work on Monday, is tiring.
  4. The other day I had to skip my morning coffee and by 11:30 a.m. had acquired a headache that lasted on and off until 5 p.m. This is Not A Good Sign.
  5. We’re going to France for four days on Friday and I don’t know which books to bring. I have two review copies, Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada, and Sand by Wolfgang Herrndorf, which I will definitely finish in four days. Should I bring them both, or bring one and then knock out one or two of the books on my phone? Or should I bring one of the books I’ve been allowed to take home from work because they’re damaged: Swing Time by Zadie Smith, The Dry by Jane Harper, and Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett? Or should I bring the proof I just got today from a debut author: Larchfield by Polly Clark? SO MANY CHOICES. (Seriously, if you have an opinion, let me know. I need help.)
  6. Right now I’m reading Sebastian Barry’s Costa Award-winning Days Without End, as a buddy read with the indomitable Esther of Esther Writes. (You heard me! Stay tuned.) Holy moly. It’s so dense, the writing is so thick with imagery and none of it is strained or pathetic, and it reminds me of so many different things at once. It reads a little like a more poetic True History of the Kelly Gang, though there are also very light shades of Blood Meridian. It is really superb.

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts is run by Christine at Bookishly Boisterous. Link back, say hi.

The Jhalak Prize, pt. 2: Orangeboy and Black And British

9781444927207Orangeboy, by Patrice Lawrence

Marlon can’t believe his luck: he’s a sixteen-year-old Star Trek nerd living in east London, and he’s at a fairground—on a date!—with the gorgeous and desirable Sonya, the coolest girl at school. He’s desperate to impress her, so when she asks him to hold onto her stash of pills while they go on one of the rides, he’s happy to oblige. By the time the haunted house ride ends, Sonya is slumped in the seat next to Marlon, dead. Which makes the police very interested in Marlon. Which is not good, since Marlon’s big brother Andre used to be one of the most notorious drug dealers and gang members round their way—though things have changed since Andre had his car accident and ended up with brain damage. And once the police finish up with Marlon, he starts to get weird calls on his mobile: “Tell Mr. Orange I’m coming.”

From this, Patrice Lawrence weaves an utterly gripping story about being young and scared, about making decisions that you think will protect you but ultimately only drive you further into danger: we understand, even as we mentally shriek Go to the police! at Marlon, why he doesn’t feel that he can. Lawrence invests some of these scenes with menace so convincing that you feel as though you’re reading an adult thriller, not a YA one: there’s a particularly eerie scene in the crowded Westfield mall at Stratford, and when Marlon is attacked by a group of boys from south London, the descriptions of the beating are truly scary. If you have ever wondered what victims of mugging or robbery mean when they mention a sense of violation, reading Orangeboy will give you an idea.

What I particularly like about Orangeboy is how neatly Lawrence sidesteps stereotypes. Marlon’s dad isn’t around, but that’s because he died of cancer. Marlon’s mum is a librarian in Willesden. His best friend is a sassy girl named Tish (short for Titian), whose mother—also apparently a single mum—attends a monthly book club. You can’t dismiss them as “disadvantaged”; they might not have a ton of money, but they’re smart and cultured. It’s easy for any kid, Lawrence is saying, to get off the straight and narrow. You can’t just pin it on skin colour or poverty. There’s always more to the story.

Marlon’s story has a non-disastrous ending, but it’s proof of Lawrence’s skill as a writer that I seriously wondered at several points whether it was all going to finish in tragedy. It’s the best possible kind of book to give a thirteen-or fourteen-year-old: completely non-patronising, and gripping from start to finish. If it represents current YA writing as a whole, maybe I should read more.

methode2ftimes2fprod2fweb2fbin2f596731f6-ac19-11e6-9d1d-8992545bee51Black and British: a Forgotten History, by David Olusoga

Last year we went to an exhibit at the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton, a museum I would unreservedly recommend to all of you. We learned about black Georgians like Bill Richardson—a former plantation slave from Virginia who moved to London, became a national boxing champion, and eventually opened his own gym in Leicester Square, where he trained other pugilists. There was a cartoon by Thomas Rowlandson, entitled “Marriage a La Mode”, featuring several women enthusiastically pursuing a terrified-looking, bandy-legged bachelor; one of these wealthy middle-class ladies is a black woman. That exhibition raised so many questions for me: if black Britons existed before the voyage of the Empire Windrush, who were the first ones? How did they live here? Where did they come from? David Olusoga’s book, published alongside a BBC television series, attempts to answer those questions.

It is fascinating. Did you know, for instance, that there were African Roman legions stationed in York? That an ancient skeleton discovered near Beachy Head belongs to a woman from sub-Saharan Africa, who was buried with grave goods so elaborate and expensive that she was clearly a woman of some means? Did you know that there was a black trumpeter at the court of Henry VIII named John Blanke, that he married a white English woman and had mixed-race children? That racial prejudice of the kind we associate with American history was not echoed in England? (Intermarriage and mixed-race families were pretty much the norm for black Britons up until the introduction of nineteenth-century imperialism; many black Stuart and Georgian men in the British Isles married white women.) Olusoga’s research is deep and thorough, and it is both enlightening and, frankly, scary to read about how relatively quick and recent the turn towards racial prejudice was. It is not an ancient prerogative of Englishmen; it is connected first with plantation slavery in the Caribbean, but there were many court cases brought in London about the legality of planters bringing their “house slaves” back to the UK when they retired. It was the Scramble for Africa—starting only in the 1880s—that made racial prejudice in the UK a national phenomenon.

My only complaint, again, is that the manuscript doesn’t appear to have seen a copy-editor. There are lots of sentence fragments, a couple of verbs that don’t match their subjects; this is a completely natural byproduct of writing a draft, but then someone has to go back and smooth it over, make sure it all lines up. My only guess is that this process was telescoped so that the book’s release would coincide with the television programme, but again, it’s a shame. It is, however, much less intrusive than in Irenosen Okojie’s book previously mentioned (and there are no typos!) And it is not enough of a problem to stop me from heartily recommending this book: both accessible and crammed with information, it is a masterpiece.

This is the inaugural year of the Jhalak Prize, for the best book written by a BAME author in the UK. Both of these books were longlisted; Black and British has made the shortlist.

Orangeboy was published by Hodder on 2 June 2016. Black and British was published by Pan Macmillan on 3 November 2016.

Meanwhile, Over At Shiny: The Pledge

pledgeShiny New Books has undergone a revamp and now sports a new look! I’m over there today talking about Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s detective novel The Pledge, reissued by Pushkin Vertigo and made into a movie a few years ago starring Jack Nicholson and my beloved Robin Wright. Dürrenmatt challenges the very foundations of the detective genre, in a short novel about an obsessed policeman whose strict adherence to “the rules of the game” still isn’t enough to overcome the factor of random chance that inheres in all criminal investigations. It’s atmospheric, postmodern, and highly tricksy:

In a mountainous Swiss canton not far from Zurich, a little girl’s body is found. She is only seven or eight, with blonde braids and wearing a distinctive red skirt. She has been murdered, brutally, with a straight razor. It’s the last day on the job for Inspector Matthäi, of the Zurich police: he is about to be seconded to Amman as a consultant working on the reform of the Jordanian police system. He does the necessary preliminary work, then hands over the case and prepares to fly out the next day. But the girl—Gritli Moser—haunts him. At the airport, he can’t bring himself to board the plane; instead he rushes back to Zurich, determined to bring Gritli’s killer to justice. The fact that someone has already been arrested, confessed, and hanged himself in his jail cell doesn’t matter to Matthäi; he believes the man was innocent. The rest of Dürrenmatt’s novel recounts Matthäi’s increasingly desperate attempts to find the real killer.

You can read the rest of the review here.

The Jhalak Prize, pt. 1: Speak Gigantular and Augustown

Speak Gigantular, by Irenosen Okojie

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The blurb on the back of Speak Gigantular is terrific. It primes you for “worlds where lovelorn aliens abduct innocent coffee shop waitresses, where the London Underground is inhabited by the ghosts of errant Londoners caught between here and the hereafter, where insensitive men cheat on their mistresses”. And this delightfully weird, unpredictable, electric short story collection delivers all of these things. Often, you don’t quite know what’s going on until the very end, as with the story “Walk With Sleep”. Its two protagonists, Haji and October, come together in the tunnels under London, but parallel narrative strands describe their lives above ground; I didn’t understand how these two time periods related to each other until the story’s final pages. Okojie keeps her exposition to an absolute minimum, assuming that the reader will be able to use dialogue and detail to work out the trajectory of a story for herself. Most of the time she’s right, though occasionally I would have liked a little more authorial guidance: “Please Feed Motion”, for instance, a bizarre and beautiful fable about an imprisoned woman and the statues of London, left me baffled at the end, wondering what exactly we were meant to be concluding (and what on earth the title meant.)

But that’s a risk with magical realism, which is the territory of Okojie’s stories here, and the fact that they don’t always succeed only reinforces their ambitiousness. The ones that worked best for me were the ones that merely glanced at the uncanny. “Why is Pepe Canary Yellow?” is a painfully good, mildly surreal story about a man who robs banks dressed as a chicken; the weirdness here is the kind that is actually believable, and when Okojie delves into Pepe the bank robber’s backstory, it remains convincing: we know that this kind of misfortune happens all the time, for no good reason. On the other hand, “Animal Parts” is a highly fantastical story about a Danish woman named Ann whose attempts to conceive a child with the help of a sperm bank result in a son, Henri, who has a tail. The end of that story is uncompromisingly violent—emotionally as well as physically—and it left me pinned and gasping in the same way as a good Angela Carter story does.

My one quibble with this book is in the copy-editing, which is going to sound churlish but is nevertheless important. It’s published by a small press, Jacaranda Books, and I can believe that money for a full-time professional copy-editor is possibly not at the top of their priorities list. But mistakes like “dessert” instead of “desert” (twice) and “mushroom and leak soup” are not the sorts of mistakes that you need a professional to spot. If a casual reader can spot an error at first glance, the editor in charge of this book should have done so too. It does a disservice to Okojie’s vivid, untrammeled imagination to leave clangers like this.

Augustown, by Kei Miller

28447227More magical realism, this time in novel form, from the Jamaican poet Kei Miller, who won the Forward Prize last year. Miller’s publishers, at least, know what they’re doing—no infelicitous typos here—and the prose is of that assured sort that lets you sink into it with confidence from page one, knowing that you can trust it; that you don’t have to be on your guard for an awkward turn of phrase or a poorly executed line of dialogue. It is such a relief to be able to relax into a book like this.

A blurb on the back suggests that we are to see the novel as sly meta-fiction, despite its comfortably conversational tone, and I think that’s accurate. Miller tells a story (or two) within a story; we start out focusing on the little boy Kaia, coming down John Golding Road in tears because of an incident that happened at school that day. But we quickly dive into other stories: his great-aunt Ma Taffy says to him, “Did I ever tell you ’bout the flying preacherman?” and we’re off into the story of Master Bedward, a real-life Jamaican prophet who assured his flock in 1920 that the day of reckoning was nigh. In Ma Taffy’s retelling—and she positions herself as an eyewitness—Bedward really did begin to ascend into the sky that day, but “Babylon”—the system, The Man, in this case represented by the white police force—pulled him back down. There is a lot in Augustown about the history of Rastafari, the ways in which its practitioners have historically been suppressed and unfairly targeted, the weight of oppression that makes what happens to Kaia at school an injury not to be borne. But Miller does it all carefully, almost colloquially; there is very little in the way of overt parallel-drawing. You feel mostly as if you are being told a lot of stories. Only halfway through the book do you start to realise how relevant they all are to one another.

This is true, too, of the personal relationships in the book. Kaia has a particular connection to the principal of his school, who in turn has a particular connection to the maid who cleans her house, but they don’t know this; in the crowd of angry Rastafari marching to the school there is a man, Bongo Moody, who has a particularly strong reason for being angry, but few other people know it. In almost any other novel, the unknown connections between these people would be the focus, but Miller doesn’t look at them too closely. He just holds them before us, along with all the other events of the book, and lets us realise the implications. It takes a strong writer to resist the temptation to over-explain, but this restraint and subtlety are characteristic of Augustown. I’d highly recommend it to people who liked Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, and also to people who didn’t: it’s much less violent and sweary, while also exploring Jamaican history and social issues in magnificently confident prose.

This is the inaugural year of the Jhalak Prize, for the best book written by a BAME author in the UK. Both of these books were longlisted; Speak Gigantular has made the shortlist. I’m reading my way through some of the other longlisted books and will continue to post thoughts on them.

Speak Gigantular was published by Jacaranda Books on 3 January 2017. Augustown was published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson on 14 July 2016.

Two New Books From Pushkin Press

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, by Dorthe Nors

the place you come from is a place you can never return to

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Sonja is forty and has never learned to drive. Now, living in Copenhagen and working as a translator of Swedish crime fiction into Danish, she’s going to learn. But the project doesn’t start out well—her instructor, Jytte, barks instructions and makes her anxious—and when she asks to switch instructors, she’s landed with the driving school owner himself, Folke, a man of disconcertingly present sexuality. Nor is all going well in other parts of Sonja’s life: her sister, Kate, won’t return her phone calls; her parents are rapidly aging in a rural part of Denmark that seems to be dying along with its old farming inhabitants; and her oldest friend, Molly, is drifting further and further away from her.

If that makes this sound like a romantic comedy or a fluffy piece of relationships fiction, it’s not. It isn’t full of gloom, either, though: the prevailing mood of Mirror, Shoulder, Signal is a kind of gentle melancholy. Sonja constantly drifts back in her thoughts to the safe place at the centre of her parents’ rye field, where she loved to hide. She fantasises about the huge skies of the countryside, the whooper swans. She tries to find green spaces in Copenhagen that will satisfy her need for landscape: “it looks like a piece of wilderness, but it isn’t, it’s Valby Park.” What the book seems to be trying to explore is how a woman—a person, really, but Sonja’s womanhood is important, I think—can come adrift. It’s not dramatic; she isn’t drinking too much or spending too much money or wandering around talking to herself. But she is very, very lonely nonetheless.

Nors works at showing us that loneliness through clean, clear, present-tense sentences. She isn’t verbose, though we get no sense of superhuman restraint in the prose either; it doesn’t feel minimalist, although it sort of is. In a way this makes it difficult to write about: I can sense the details of the book slipping from my memory, though I read it less than a week ago. The ending, though, is perfect: hopeful without sentimentality, allowing for love but not equating love with magic. And the love comes from a most unexpected place, one that made me smile with surprised delight. You’ll have to read it to see what I mean.

For A Little While, by Rick Bass

as much grace in the laying down as in the building up

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Rick Bass is all but unheard of in this country. In America, when I worked as a bookseller in high school, we would sell a couple of his books every month or so, but it has taken his name a long time to reach these shores. Pushkin Press’s collection of selected and new short stories from his pen is one of the best books I have read for a very long time; I’m hoping that it helps him make his name here, and I’m also going to be tracking down more of Bass’s work, for the beauty of his writing on the sentence level as well as the beauty of his ideas.

He writes mostly about people in the South and West and Southwest: the deserts of New Mexico and Texas, mountainous or forested regions where hunting and logging are part of daily life, Alabama during the oil boom. These are places where people live near to the earth. Bass stands out, as a writer of such places, because he does not allow for despair or tragedy to intrude into a story where it has no right to be. Again and again, he creates situations where people are vulnerable—lonely, desiring love, reaching out for something, asking. Many of them reminded me of Flannery O’Connor’s setups, but whereas O’Connor will inevitably tip the story into scorn at grotesquerie and what seems like a kind of mean-minded divine punishment for presumption, Bass’s touch is gentle, generous, loving.

In “Field Events”, one of my favourite of the stories, two brothers who excel at the shot put adopt an enormous young man called A.C., intending to train him to greatness. Their sister, Lory, is a miserable schoolteacher: her students are disinterested and often cruel to her, and she is chronically depressed. She falls in love with A.C., and he with her: his hugely muscled body cradling her tiny frame in a sitting room armchair when she can’t sleep. If this were O’Connor, you would be bracing yourself hard, waiting for the point at which A.C. mugs Lory and abandons her, crushing her heart. But that point doesn’t come. Bass is more interested, I think, in observing the strangeness of reality than in creating a philosophical structure, and that makes his stories more beautifully, lopsidedly convincing.

And he can imbue his prose with a weightiness that, somehow, does not embarrass. He describes the natural world—trees and game and snow—in vivid, serious detail. “Her First Elk” is a story about a young woman named Jyl whose first solo hunt kill is an elk stag. Hunting, for her, is tied up with the memory of her beloved father, now dead. She is helped to skin and cure the elk by two elderly brothers, Ralph and Bruce. There is a mythic element to this story that would not feel out of place in a Cormac McCarthy novel, but look how much less irritating Bass is than McCarthy:

Bruce poured a gallon jug of clean water over Ralph’s hands and wrists to rinse the soap away, and Ralph dried his hands and arms with a clean towel and emptied out the old bloody wash water, then filled it anew, and it was time for Bruce to do the same. Jyl marveled at, and was troubled by, this privileged glimpse at a life, or two lives, beyond her own—a life, two lives, of cautious compentence, fitted to the world; and she was grateful to the elk, and its gone-away life, beyond the sheer bounty of the meat it was providing her, grateful to it for having led her into this place, the small and obscure if not hidden window of these two men’s lives.

The prose uses some of the same tricks as McCarthy’s, but uses them sensibly (the mild archaism of “anew”; the faint ecclesiasticism of “into this place”), and we feel not daunted or halted but let in, like Jyl, to a small and obscure window. I am so grateful to Rick Bass for writing these stories, I cannot tell you. He has written novels, too; I will be seeking them out.


For A Little While was released in the UK on 2 February; Mirror, Shoulder, Signal will be released in the UK on 23 February. Many thanks to the publicity folks at Pushkin Press for the review copies!