Young Writer of the Year Award Reading: Conversations With Friends, by Sally Rooney

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Being a series of short reviews of the Young Writer of the Year Award shortlisted titles. Spoilers ahead.

I was really very determined not to like Conversations With Friends. In part this was pure obstinacy—the same sort of thing that has prompted me to refuse to read any Elena Ferrante until the whole furore around her writing dies down and I can focus on it without the background noise demanding that I love it—and in part it was more nastily envious, the self-defensive response of a twenty-five-year-old who’s trying to write a novel to a twenty-six-year-old who already has. And I was worried, too, about the way the book might present the experience of being young: its blankly descriptive title, like still life paintings whose titles enumerate every item in the image, gave the impression of a voice that was clever and ironic but ultimately soulless. It’s so easy to caricature millennials, especially intellectual ones, as brittle, brainy robots; I didn’t want to read that.

Well, I was wrong. Not totally wrong—Rooney’s protagonist, Frances, is often described as “cold” or “aloof”, although as we read further we realise that’s probably a function of anxiety and social uncertainty—but fairly wrong. There is sincerity and feeling here; it’s just very often hidden. As Rebecca notes, for a novel that signposts so clearly its interest in communication, an awful lot of the characters’ conversations fail vitally in conveying information about their emotional states.

The basic arc of the story is that two young women, Frances and Bobbi, who used to date each other and now perform spoken-word poetry together, meet a married couple, Melissa and Nick. Melissa is a writer and photographer; Nick is an actor. When Melissa decides she wants to write a profile of the two younger women for a magazine, they’re catapulted into her and Nick’s orbit. Bobbi is intellectually drawn to Melissa, who seems to dislike Frances, who in turn is mesmerised by Nick, who seems to have lost interest in his wife. Frances and Nick begin an affair, Melissa and Bobbi find out about it, and the rest of the book charts the fallout of that discovery on the complex relationships that bind the four of them.

When Naomi Frisby and I talked about this book, she described it as “very middle class”, which isn’t wrong. Conversations With Friends is intensely interested in money, class, and belonging: those are the issues that especially vex people of my generation. A sense of inheritance and legitimacy generally goes hand in hand with the financial freedom to pursue artistic projects: young writers, artists and actors are very often the ones whose parents can support them after university while they pursue their craft. Bobbi, a political radical who wants to be an academic, has a father who will take her out to three-course meals every few weeks and a family background that gives her the security to take risks. Frances, whose refusal or inability to be so loudly opinionated is generally read by the other characters as poise or self-confidence, comes from a less comfortable situation: her father, who left her mother years ago, is catastrophically alcoholic and financially unreliable. (In one horrible scene, he calls Frances to assure her that he’s just put her allowance in the bank. Since he never calls her to say this, she checks her account, which is, of course, empty.) And yet Frances’s flat in Dublin is owned by her uncle, who lets her stay there virtually rent-free. Privilege perpetuates itself—something that her fellow (unpaid) intern at a literary agency explicitly says during the course of the novel.

The ending, curiously, seems to abandon this relentless realism altogether. Frances has separated from Nick, but at the end of the book, the strong implication is that they recommence their relationship. Why? The dynamic that Rooney has established between her characters means that this ménage à trois cannot end well; either you can have an affair with a married man without his wife knowing, and end it, or you can have an affair with a married man with his wife knowing, and end it, or you can enter into an open relationship with a married couple. The choice Frances appears to have—to be in a relationship with a married man whose wife knows but is ambivalent about it—is fantasy; to sustain it even for a couple of months will be impossibly stressful and probably deeply painful for all parties. Perhaps that’s what Rooney wants us to recognise, but whether the point is that Frances and Nick will be punished for selfishness, or that they are both immature, isn’t clear. The other possibility—that the ending is meant to be happy, or happy-ish—is absurd and romanticises human behaviour in a way that none of the rest of the novel has done.

That aside, though, the dialogue is witty and believable, and Rooney is a canny chronicler of social faultlines, the way people’s insecurities and wants affect how they act in public. My vote is still for The Lucky Ones, but I wouldn’t be sorry if Conversations With Friends won.

The Young Writer of the Year Award winner is announced on 7 December. For more commentary, see the rest of the Shadow Panel: Rebecca, Clare, Dane and AnnabelConversations With Friends is published by Faber, and is available in hardback.

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Young Writer of the Year Award Reading: The End of the Day, by Claire North

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Being a series of short reviews of the Young Writer of the Year Award shortlisted titles. Spoilers ahead.

First of all: the protagonist of this book, Charlie, is the Harbinger of Death. This doesn’t mean he actually is Death; Death is something else, unknowable but instantly recognisable. Charlie, as the Harbinger of his boss, goes before. He’s a human. He gets the job in the regular way—application, interview—and, much of the time, deals with other humans who are admin and support staff in Death’s office (which, delightfully and inevitably, is located in Milton Keynes). His job is to visit people—”sometimes as a courtesy”, he says, “sometimes as a warning”—and to bring them things.

His appearance doesn’t always signal the end of a human life, though that often happens in conjunction; we first meet him, for instance, drinking whisky and listening to the stories of an old South American woman who is the last native speaker of her language. Later, he visits an elderly member of the Ku Klux Klan, and a woman who runs an annual debutante’s ball, and an openly lesbian stand-up comedian in Nigeria who escapes dying by the narrowest of margins; what dies instead is her conviction that she can live as her true self in the country of her birth.

There are interesting, intelligent ideas being thrown around here, and North executes them, for the most part, with panache. My problem with the book is its pathological unevenness of tone. Sometimes we feel as though we are reading a literary descendant of Good Omens (that Milton Keynes gag, for one thing; Charlie’s commentaries about his flights and hotel rooms, and his occasional meetings with his colleagues, the Harbingers of Pestilence, Famine and War). Other times, the book feels un-self-aware and portentous: “Charlie looked up through a veil of tears” (interesting, that homophone with “vale of tears”—I’m hoping it’s intentional—) “and at the far end of the field he beheld a pale figure leaning against a blasted tree, and it seemed to him that the land withered beneath his feet, and the sky blackened above his head, and his name was Death, and hell followed him.”

But it’s not clear what that portentousness is in service of. We’re threatened with the end of the world, but it might just be the end of a world, and we never know what that might consist of. For most of the book it seems as though the climax is going to take the form of Charlie burning out, overwhelmed by the job. It’s difficult to feel too bad for Charlie, though, mostly because he’s a completely blank slate. Perhaps that’s the point—we’re meant to be able to see ourselves in him, because North hammers home the fact of his humanity again and again over the book’s 400 pages—but it results in dialogue that veers from the diffuse (Charlie’s speech is marked by a lot of ellipses) to the gnomicly clichéd (“To see life, to honour life, you must know that one day it will end”). That, in turn, means we have virtually no idea of what Charlie is like; his responses to his job are too generic to glean any sense of character from them, and the rest of the information we receive on him is equally hard to add up to a real person. We never hear whether he has parents, for instance, or even really friends.

The End of the Day is, for all that, affecting. North intersperses her chapters of action with chapters of pure dialogue, giving the impression of a crowded, chatty bus or train or restaurant. Those interrupted, overheard conversations, simultaneously absurd and poignant, are there to show the reader what the human condition really is: short-sighted, short-memoried, primarily interested in what’s for dinner, and yet still capable of surprising charm and appeal. It’s a book about living and dying; North wants us to know that the very banality of living doesn’t make it any less serious an undertaking. At the same time, the book’s many little vignettes make it hard to get a grip on the point of the whole thing: where the plot is going and why it might be going there, and by extension, what North wants to say about life and death, and why. There is, after all, very little original left to say about either of those states. It’s a diverting and sometimes disturbing read, but one that could be more coherent.

The Young Writer of the Year Award winner is announced on 7 December. For more commentary, see the rest of the Shadow Panel: Rebecca, Clare, Dane and Annabel. The End of the Day is published by Orbit, and is available in paperback.

Young Writer of the Year Award Reading: The Lucky Ones, by Julianne Pachico

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Being a series of short reviews of the Young Writer of the Year Award shortlisted titles. Spoilers ahead.

Julianne Pachico’s book The Lucky Ones is a collection of interlinked stories, set in Colombia between 1993 and 2013. During that time, the country was convulsed by drug wars, and Pachico focuses on the effect of those conflicts on a loosely connected group of characters: mostly schoolgirl friends (and frenemies), with forays into characters such as their English teacher, a maid who might or might not be employed by the family of one of the girls, and a rabbit: formerly a pet, now living wild in the tunnels beneath an abandoned country estate, hooked on coca leaves.

The latter story, Junkie Rabbit, gives the best sense of the lengths to which Pachico is willing to go in her writing. It is, for want of a more sophisticated word, bonkers. The whole concept—domesticated animals displaying alarmingly human vices—is a bold one, flirting with allegory, which isn’t a very popular form these days; making your narrator an animal is bolder still. Yet the premise rings surprisingly true. Does it seem all that unlikely that young men working in drug trafficking might find it funny to get their boss’s daughter’s pets addicted to cocaine? The storied excesses of Saddam Hussein’s sons aren’t more extreme, and they are nonfiction. It’s that interplay of incredulity and plausibility at which Pachico excels, and it’s that which gives her writing a quality best described as “hallucinatory.” (I’m pretty sure every one of the shadow panel has used that word in our reviews of this book.)

Another reason, I think, for this sense of the uncanny or dreamlike, is that Pachico is often writing about the effects of trauma on a person’s perception of reality. Lemon Pie, the story that convinced me this collection wasn’t just good but brilliant, follows the schoolgirls’ former middle school English teacher—an American guy who has settled in Colombia, and has now been kidnapped by paramilitaries. Well into his second year of imprisonment, he attempts to retain his sanity by teaching his old Hamlet lessons to groups of sticks and leaves, but the combination of constant fear, exposure, malnutrition, and a jungle parasite is wearing him down. When, in a later story, we encounter another formerly imprisoned teacher who has been badly disfigured by the same parasite, it’s natural for us to read him as the character we knew several stories ago—but he isn’t; the points of overlap are mere coincidence, our sense of familiarity shaken in the same way that both teacher characters’ perceptions have been permanently altered.

The microcosmic consequences of Colombia’s drug wars play out on a personal level, inside individual human hearts, and two of the stories are particularly effective at conveying this: Honey Bunny, which follows one of the middle school girls after she moves to New York with her family (as a college student, she’s now dealing the cocaine that is ruining her home country), and Beyond the Cake, in which another of the girls visits Colombia with her boyfriend after a decade away. Beyond the Cake opens with a description of the birthday party that features in the first story and throughout the book; our main character in this story, Betsy, is recounting it to her boyfriend. She attends, but is embarrassed by the present she’s brought and calls her parents to come and pick her up. We know, from reading the rest of the collection, that this party turned into a massacre: the birthday girl’s father, a crooked businessman, was probably the target, but there’s no suggestion that anyone else survived. Betsy’s early departure saves her life. It’s one of those hairpin moments in time, and by positioning it at the very end of her collection, Pachico drives home the random nature of luck: in this kind of environment there’s nothing special about a survivor, she seems to be saying, except for pure chance.

Pachico has a broad range, and The Lucky Ones reads almost as though it was designed to show that off: there are stories in first, third, and the elusive second person. We see through the eyes of maids, warlords, waiters, children. Throughout the collection, the sense of something being off-kilter competes with an evocation of place and atmosphere so strong that the book practically creates its own weather. (It would be very interesting to see it adapted as an anthology mini-series.) So far, this is my favourite to win: the prose is flawless, the structure is complexly conceived and smartly executed, and it is the only book on the shortlist, out of the four I’ve read so far, that has left me feeling winded after closing its covers.

The Young Writer of the Year Award winner is announced on 7 December. For more commentary, see the rest of the Shadow Panel: Rebecca, Clare, Dane and Annabel. The Lucky Ones is published by Faber, and is available in paperback.

Young Writer of the Year Award Reading: The Lauras, by Sara Taylor

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Being a series of short reviews of the Young Writer of the Year Award shortlisted titles. Spoilers ahead.

Sara Taylor’s first book, The Shore, made me sob openly in a coffee shop. It’s a novel composed of interlinked stories, all set on Virginia’s Atlantic shore, and despite its great beauty, it is dark: the scene that made me cry is a rape scene, and it represents better than any I’ve ever read the way in which an assault is so often a betrayal of trust, that stomach-flipping slide from joyful banter with someone you consider a friend to the queasy realisation that that friend wishes to—is about to—hurt you. Her second book, The Lauras, is on the Sunday Times/PFD Young Writer of the Year Award shortlist, and on paper it’s nothing like The Shore, being a road trip novel and an exploration of mother/child relationships and a hymn to living unconventionally. But there is a genetic similarity: an interest in that same kind of darkness, a willingness to peer at the moments in which we realise ourselves to be in danger.

The title of the book is a bit of a red herring; yes, in theory, Ma and Alex are embarking on a two-year road trip across America to track down the five women—all named Laura—who played important roles in Ma’s life. But the focus of the book is not really on these women, or even necessarily on Ma’s past. Alex, who identifies as neither male nor female, is our narrator; we spend all of our time in their head, and what The Lauras is really about is the slow journey of a person towards comfort in their own skin.

(Rebecca posed the question, in an email thread between the shadow panelists, of how we see Alex’s sex or gender. I didn’t think very much about it until the point at which the book began to emphasise Alex’s non-binary identification, which doesn’t happen for some time. If I had to put money on it, I would say that Alex is probably biologically male. Obviously this isn’t the point of the book, but it makes the front cover design far more interesting: the person on the front is plainly coded as feminine—long hair, wearing a dress, seen from behind—which makes me think the whole design process was a piece of marketing bluff. The other option is that the design is a huge, ironic wink: there’s absolutely nothing in the text that suggests Alex is a girl, but because the book begins with a grown woman and a child fleeing a man in the middle of the night, our reading protocols are heavily weighted towards seeing them as such. One does not so readily picture adolescent boys escaping their fathers. It would probably be too much to hope that a commercial publisher’s design department would be so witty, though.)

Much of the book is told in flashback, as Ma tells Alex the parts of her story that are necessary for each new encounter. Most of these are interesting enough in themselves that the somewhat episodic nature of the tellings doesn’t drag: the story of Margaret-Mary, for instance, who is Ma’s friend and partner in crime at college until she meets and marries a devoutly Christian—and dour, humourless, repressive—man. Ma and Alex rescue Margaret-Mary’s eldest daughter, Anna-Maria, from the same fate, and Alex resents the way the two older women bond. It’s a clever way of incorporating another angle on what it means to be a good child, what it means to be a good parent, and whether, in the end, neither of those things is as important as developing your own sense of honesty and self-sufficiency.

There’s not a huge sense of urgency about The Lauras, so it helps that Taylor is capable of some really lovely turns of phrase: “We were caught on the thin, hungry edge of the morning,” she writes early on, “before the sun sliced itself open on the horizon and bled out across the sky.” There is also an emotional honesty to her treatment of potentially traumatic events that lifts them out of sordidness. Alex, trying to hitchhike back to the town where they’re staying after an ill-conceived jaunt to the next state over (so that they can send their dad a postcard without being traceable), is picked up by a classic Guy In A Car who ends up forcing them to give him a blowjob as payment for the lift. Taylor deals with it in the most astonishingly open and honest way: Alex is kind of grossed out, sure, but they’re also fourteen and desperate to get laid, and there’s a sense of grim determination in their efforts to get the guy off. When they think about it later, it is with disgust and fear, but never also without a faint tinge of excitement. That’s as true a reaction as any I can think of: reactions to assault are often complicated and inconsistent. Taylor’s willingness to explore that makes her an extremely brave writer, and she achieves the effect subtly.

Final verdict? Given that it’s the first of the shortlist that I finished, it’s impressive. Are there points at which the plot drags a little? Perhaps. But in a way, that is the purpose of the genre in which Taylor is working. A road trip novel, like a road trip, is never about where you’re ultimately heading, but about what you experience along the way.

The Young Writer of the Year Award winner is announced on 7 December. For more commentary, see the rest of the Shadow Panel: Rebecca, Clare, Dane and Annabel. The Lauras is published by Windmill, and is available in paperback.

October Superlatives

Thirteen books this month; an appropriate number for the month of Halloween, although I don’t really keep the feast anymore. Certainly not when it falls on a Tuesday. It’s been a busy old month and the near future won’t slow down much; maybe by the middle of November I’ll have a Saturday or an evening where I have time to cook a meal, stay up late reading, lie in bed doing nothing in particular. (Write a few book reviews?)

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party to which I was late: The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, the novel that made John Le Carré’s name. The most astonishing thing about it is its absolute, even-handed refusal to permit heroism to any of its characters. Everyone—the British, the East Germans, our protagonist, his boss—is weak, petty, self-serving, or cold. Sometimes all at once. It’s a devastating book, with a devastating ending: no one wins.

for Wodehouse fans: Max Beerbohm’s frothy Edwardian novel Zuleika Dobson, whose titular heroine visits her grandfather’s Oxford college and wreaks havoc amongst the undergraduates, who all end up committing suicide en masse in her honour. To be perfectly honest, it’s a slightly weird read, because Beerbohm never seems totally sure of how serious he wants to be; there are some moments between Zuleika and her most devoted lover, the Duke of Dorset, which I found quite moving, and yet the whole point of the book is this moment of comically extreme violence, which we’re apparently not meant to take more seriously than your average Tom and Jerry maiming. Still bloody funny, though.

most thought-provoking: American War by Omar El Akkad, a new novel set in the 2070s, after a ban on fossil fuel usage has provoked a Second American Civil War. Our protagonist, Sarat, is a young displaced girl from the South, and the novel charts the course of her radicalisation and eventual deployment as a terrorist. A lot of El Akkad’s extrapolations about the future are surprising: he totally ignores issues of race, for example, which I can’t see completely disappearing in fifty years unless something socioculturally cataclysmic happens before the start of the book, and none of his characters make any reference to such an event. And his Southerners don’t feel like Southerners to me: first of all, race is always a major if unspoken factor in the South, and secondly, there is a semi-feral attachment to land and land’s history there that I don’t see in his characters. But what American War did was force me to reevaluate how children are radicalised, simply by making me watch it happen in a landscape I was familiar with and to people whose cultural referents are roughly my own, and that’s a hell of an important thing.

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most a victim of its time: I actually quite enjoyed most of The Black Cloud, a hard sf novel from 1957. It’s a fascinating insight into the status of science fiction at the time—one of its major selling points is that it’s written “by a scientist”, and Hoyle clearly cares a thousand times less about characterisation and the social implications of global natural disaster than he does about explaining to us exactly what kind of natural disaster we’ll get, and why. (There are equations.) But his protagonist (who, intriguingly, holds the same post at Cambridge University that Hoyle did) is not to be borne: he’s a patronising, info-dumping egotist with a Messiah complex who doesn’t understand a) why it’s not okay to kidnap a beautiful young pianist and hold her hostage in your Science Lair so that you can have some culture and eye candy whilst saving the world, and b) why your government might be completely justified in thinking you’re a megalomaniacal world-dictator-in-waiting, given that YOU HAVE A FUCKING SCIENCE LAIR. And the less said about attitudes towards women, the better. (They literally make the tea, I cannot.) File under enjoyable but deeply flawed.

most jaw-droppingly transcendent of its genre: Dodgers, a crime novel by Bill Beverly that won the CWA’s Debut Dagger Award. My God, this book. It’s a crime novel in the sense that Crime and Punishment is. East is fifteen years old. He used to supervise lookouts at a crack house in LA, running a yard full of boys ready to sound the alarm at a moment’s notice, but his house gets busted. He’s given a last chance to prove himself, a drive with three other boys from California to Wisconsin to assassinate a judge. Things get complicated. Beverly nails interpersonal dynamics, the Morse code of young men communicating with few words, and the sense of responsibility and despair that East feels for his younger brother Ty, who’s already much better at this life than he is. And he nails atmosphere, most particularly the atmosphere of the road trip: the jittery smeared-neon eye-gritting blur of America, the cold blue light in the front of a gas station just before sunup. It’s an astonishing book; it left me with a hole inside.

most humane: Autumn, by Ali Smith, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and might easily have won it. It’s rather difficult to summarise this book, which is presumably why most of the writing I’ve seen about it online hasn’t tried. Effectively, there are two main characters: Daniel Gluck, now an old man, and Elisabeth Demand, once a precocious schoolchild who was his neighbour, now teaching art history. Woven in between their stories are the stories of Pauline Boty, one of Britain’s few female Pop Artists (in fact, identifying her as such is the source of an argument between Elisabeth and her initial postgraduate supervisor), and of Christine Keeling, the model involved in the Profumo Affair of the 1960s (Britain’s Watergate, in that you can argue for its being the modern moment when the public stopped trusting politicians). Smith is, I am convinced, a genius; she thinks on the very highest level, then tells her stories as though she is sitting cross-legged on a sofa.

most utterly predictable reread: The Likeness, by Tana French. It makes me weep every time, that last page. You know how much I like Tana French. Moving on.

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most disorienting: The Rules of Attraction, by Bret Easton Ellis. Unusually, this was a book someone recommended to me (it doesn’t happen often); my childhood best friend’s partner heard about the book I’m writing and told me I should read this. There’s a rough similarity—college students, a love triangle, people who refuse to deal with their sexualities—but the odd thing about Ellis’s book was that I couldn’t find the heart of it, I couldn’t sense where my attention and investment was meant to be directed. It’s written in a lot of short, choppy sections, from the perspectives of about half a dozen different people; you often get wildly varying versions of the same situation. The experience of reading it is a lot like wandering through a party in a darkened flat that you’ve never been to before, six glasses of wine down, looking for your friends, your shoes, your coat, and/or somewhere to throw up: everything goes past at the wrong speed, seems to be in the wrong place, keeps happening for too long, and you really want to just lie down. Not that drugs and sex aren’t valid subjects for fiction, it’s just…awfully hard to know what Ellis was getting at with this one. (Patrick Bateman makes an appearance, though; Sean, one of the main characters here, is his younger brother.)

most intriguing opening: I read a graphic novel this month, volume 1 of Y: the Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan of Saga fame and drawn by Pia Guerra. The premise is that a virus has killed all men and male animals – everything with a Y chromosome – simultaneously, except for one man (Yorick) and his pet monkey Ampersand. Various groups want them, for experiments or vengeance or other things, and all Yorick wants is to find his girlfriend Beth, who was in Australia when global communications broke down. Yorick’s an infuriating character, full of a young man’s arrogance, and I’m not sure that Vaughan always does a totally convincing job of standing outside of that character inviting us to assess it, as opposed to appearing to endorse it. Still, there are some great scenes, including one where the wives of now-dead Republican congressmen storm Capitol Hill, armed, demanding their husbands’ seats.

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most balls-to-the-wall bonkers: This, mind you, is a good thing. The honour goes to China Miéville’s novel Kraken, which is universally considered to be not one of his best, and I can kind of see why, since it tastes very similar to Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and indeed to Miéville’s own early works like UnLun Dun and King Rat. However, it has still got the theft of a giant squid, a section of the Metropolitan Police that deals entirely with cult activity, a mysterious society of Londonmancers, a strike by the Union of Familiars, and just in general quite a lot of good mad stuff. I love the idea that the places of great inherent power in this city aren’t always where you think they might be (though of course there’s plenty of it round the London Stone); that you could also find it round back of a chippy on the Edgware Road, or in a lock-up in Hoxton.

most unnerving to my boss: E. Gabriella Coleman’s seminal book, Coding Freedom: the Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking. I picked it up because of my interest in the intellectual struggles around copyright and freedom of information, and because in the spring I read an incredible biography of Aaron Swartz, who helped to develop Reddit and Creative Commons before being arraigned by the FBI for mass-downloading a bunch of JSTOR articles. Coleman’s focus is actually much less on the law and much more on the anthropological structures of hacker culture, but as these have a lot to do with shared, deeply internalised ethics, there’s enough overlap for it to be fascinating too.

most moving: Another road trip novel, this one by Sara Taylor, who wrote The Shore. Her second novel, The Lauras, follows a mother and child (we never know what sex Alex is, or what gender, and Alex themself is pretty clear: they don’t feel they fit into either box) as they drive across America. It’s sort of an escape from Alex’s father, but he’s not exactly a villain, just a mediocre guy; it’s more to do with Ma’s need to visit pieces of her past. Taylor evokes rootlessness well, and she’s tenderly open-minded on the complexities of maternal love, and the myriad ways in which it’s possible to make or have a family. Beautiful writing, too. (review)

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most gonzo: Is that actually the right word? I don’t know. It feels like it, for Julianne Pachico’s short story collection The Lucky Ones. They’re interlinked, so that characters who appear peripherally in one story become the centre of another. Set in Colombia, mostly during the drug wars of the early 1990s, they circle around a group of schoolgirl friends and frenemies – Stephanie, Betsy, La Flaca, Mariela – with other stories from the point of view of a kidnapped teacher, a teenage soon-to-be-paramilitary recruit, and (really) a bunch of pet rabbits hooked on coca leaves. It’s an absolute knockout.

up next: The last two books in October were read as part of the Young Writer of the Year Shadow Panel, which I’m delighted to be on this year. I’m now reading The End of the Day by Claire North, a novel about the Harbinger of Death, who turns out to be a nice, kind of schlubby guy called Charlie. It’s an odd mix, the witty apocalypticism of Good Omens mingled with a more serious humanitarian flavour. I think I like it.

Dunbar, by Edward St Aubyn

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Back at the energy level where full reviews are hard but I still want to write about what I’m reading, I’ve decided to try—for probably the seventeenth time—just writing shorter ones. Dunbar is the most recent installment in Hogarth’s Shakespeare update project; this time, Edward St Aubyn takes on the monumental King Lear. Of the aging king, he makes a self-made media mogul, Henry Dunbar, who has signed over most of his assets and all of the real decision-making powers to his daughters Megan and Abby. They, in turn, have colluded with the crooked Doctor Bob to medicate Dunbar to the point of paranoid insanity, and after an unfortunate incident on Hampstead Heath, he’s been relegated to a nursing home in the Lake District. Escaping with his roommate, the alcoholic ex-comedian Peter Walker (who bears a personality resemblance to Tommy Cooper), Dunbar must brave a stormy night in the fells, and the good daughter Florence must find him before it’s too late.

Dunbar, like most of the Hogarth series, fails, and like the others, it fails for several reasons. Most particularly, it fails because it entirely lacks a moral component, and—relatedly—any sense of universality. Shakespeare’s Lear is a King, of course, so hardly an Everyman, but the actors who play him have the opportunity to invest him with the most human of fears: “let me not be mad”. Dunbar says this too, but St Aubyn doesn’t give him the chance to be an Everyman; instead he’s an aggressive and deeply unpleasant businessman who’s suffered a drug-induced psychotic break. Where is the tragedy in this? Where is the audience’s self-identification with the fallen man, the terror and the catharsis? Nothing in Dunbar’s state of mental collapse is inherent to him; it is all the result of Doctor Bob’s prescriptions and his daughters’ machinations. By contrast, Lear’s fall comes about precisely and only because he is who he is. A different man would not have made the decisions he makes. That’s the heart of tragedy—the fatalism of it—and St Aubyn misses it entirely. Glimpses of Dunbar’s childhood—a cold and distant mother, a stint in provincial Winnipeg—might have made it possible for a reader to identify the events and experiences that have warped Dunbar from the start, but St Aubyn never does more than glance at them. (The mother, clearly, is meant to explain some of the Lear story’s misogyny).

Additionally, there are technical issues. The characterisation is both tissue-thin and daft. Abby and Megan are psychotic vamps without a shred of psychological realism between them; it’s totally possible to write believably empty characters motivated only by sex and violence, cf. Patrick Bateman, but these women are cartoonish nymphomaniacs, first presented having sex that terminates with the biting off of a man’s nipple. Doctor Bob (that very man) is a helpless, hand-wringing fool without any clear motivations or passions. (He’s also an instance of bad naming; quite apart from the fact that his name is inexplicably bland, anyone who’s ever seen The Simpsons will think of Sideshow Bob whenever the good doctor is mentioned.) Florence, as is often the case with Cordelia, is sweetly dull. Mark, the Albany analogue, could have been interesting given more time and attention—Albany’s horror as he realises what his wife has done is one of the more moving and distressing elements of Lear, like Emilia standing up to Iago at the end of Othello—but in this treatment, he comes across simply as a pawn, doing what he does because that’s what happens in the play. St Aubyn’s much-vaunted prose style, meanwhile, is nowhere in evidence. I’ve read one of the Melrose novels, Never Mind, and am willing to accept that he could write a good sentence in 1992. But this is 2017, and the sentences in Dunbar are, at best, fine. Absolutely none of them stands out. Taken together, they comprise a thoroughly medium-roast reading experience.

I’m left wondering, as always, whether this is an inherent problem of form; whether these stories are so plainly play-shaped that making them into novels is doomed; or whether there is something about consciously attempting to adapt Shakespeare that makes even revered writers choke; or whether (shall we whisper it?) these writers have been ill-chosen, whether they have been selected on the basis of name recognition or other dubious merits, and whether the Hogarth committee ought to have looked further afield for their project. It is clearly not impossible to write an excellent novel that brings the concerns of King Lear into the present day: Jane Smiley did so years ago, with A Thousand Acres, and Preti Taneja has just done the same thing in We That Are Young. But maybe we ought to stop expecting such a thing from established literary names. There have been too many disappointments already.

Dunbar was published in the UK on 5 October, 2017, by Hogarth Press.

My Cat Yugoslavia, by Pajtim Statovci

We should come up with another word for evil, and that name should be laziness.

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Pajtim Statovci’s debut novel, like a lot of debut novels, has some parallels with the writer’s own life: it focuses on a young gay man living in Finland named Bekim, whose family moved from Kosovo during that country’s political unrest in the late 1980s. Statovci, too, was born in Kosovo and now lives in Finland. Bekim’s sense of displacement and awareness of the hatred directed at him from native-born Finns is surely based on personal experience—though the rest of the novel, in which Bekim, friendless and living alone, buys a pet snake and shacks up with a large and abusive talking cat, is surely not. My Cat Yugoslavia is a delicate, highly constructed book, full of symbolism and surrealism, and as such the story can feel difficult to connect with. But at its most effective, it combines the playful weirdness of Murakami with the satirical wit of Bulgakov, and tops it off with a style and an aesthetic that’s reminiscent of Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs To You. It is, in short, not a book for which I am the ideal reader, but it is an objectively impressive achievement.

We first meet Bekim as he is arranging a casual hookup through Grindr or an equivalent (the book opens with a forum message from username blackhetero-helsinki). The sex goes well, but he asks the man to leave directly afterwards, and from glimpses we get of his life as a student, it’s obvious that he is deeply lonely. When he buys a boa constrictor from a pet shop—despite being terrified of snakes—he is kind to it, and Statovci describes his first interactions with the snake with a tenderness that nearly brought me to tears. Yet there’s also an edge of hazard to the whole transaction; the snake is large and permitted to roam freely about the flat, since it hates its terrarium, and when it gathers enough confidence to approach Bekim, it ends up twined around his chest and arms, lying heavily in his lap. (It’s a constrictor, remember.)

The book thus starts by inducing a sense of unease, which is only compounded when Bekim meets a handsome talking cat in a bar. My Cat Yugoslavia is the sort of book in which readers are not expected to be remotely surprised at a character’s commencing a romantic relationship with a cat, or to undermine the conceit by asking prosaic questions like how do they have sex? The point is not that the cat is a cat; rather, he represents an abusive authority to which Bekim becomes enslaved. The title of the book suggests that we should be thinking about the cat allegorically, though the terms of the allegory are not clear-cut: is the cat representative of the country that Bekim’s family left behind? Is he, rather, an embodiment of the abusive relationship of Bekim’s parents? His homophobic remarks and personal attacks echo the racist bullying that Bekim recalls suffering in school from Finnish children; perhaps the cat is a reminder of the legacy both of political turmoil and of violence within the family.

Bekim’s mother Emine is the second point-of-view character, and her chapters are more immediately engaging than her son’s. She begins to narrate her life for us at the age of sixteen, when she happens to accept a ride in a car from an older man who eventually asks her parents for her hand in marriage. Knowing nothing about him, her parents accept, and she becomes the wife of Bajram, who showers her with gold and jewels, then has entirely inconsiderate sex with her on their wedding night and becomes a predictably appalling husband. (Statovci is careful to make him, not ogre-ish, but aggressively, exhaustingly entitled; Emine’s greatest grudge against her husband is that while she cooks, cleans, waits until he’s finished his meal before beginning her own, bears him several children, and brings them all up with the strictest discipline, he has never once said the words “thank you” to her.) Where Bekim needs to become trusting—to fall in love—in order to work through the pain of his past, Emine needs exactly the opposite: her victory comes on the morning when she packs a small bag and leaves Bajram without explanation or excuse. Living alone, befriending a cashier at the local grocery store who is widowed (and pretending that she too has lost her husband to an untimely death), she begins to be more of a person than she has ever been.

I have an occasional problem with novels in translation, especially novels that rely for their effect upon a whimsical quality in the prose. Statovci’s book was first written in Finnish and translated into English for Pushkin Press by David Hackston; I can’t know whether the problem I had with My Cat Yugoslavia is down to the original or to the translation. Ordinarily it’s an excess of tweeness that gets me; in this book it’s a kind of randomised specificity. The most indicative passage is when Bekim describes driving past billboards in Prishtina: red, orange, yellow and blue ones. Why? Why do we have to know what colours they are? Why would you write (and I’m not quoting directly here because the book isn’t with me, but this is the structure of the sentence) “I drove past red, orange, yellow and blue billboards”? It’s outrageously dull. You can’t even say that it’s like writing a shopping list, because at least a shopping list tells you something (a person shopping for artichokes, preserved lemon, salmon and kale is not the same person as the one buying lightbulbs, sanitary pads, orange juice and chocolate biscuits, or at least not on the same day.) It’s not as though Bekim is a Curious Incident-type savant, either; he doesn’t go around telling us the colours and numbers of everything he sees, just occasionally gives us this oddly pointless level of detail.

That problem is particular to me, though, and it may not have any bearing on your reading of the novel at all. I have to confess that My Cat Yugoslavia left me feeling a tiny bit empty: there’s a happy ending, which is nice, and the snake meets a fate that will devastate you if you’ve anthropomorphised it as much as I did, but the way that the book signposts its own symbolic nature makes it hard to take the whole thing very personally. It is, however, a fresh and subtle way of looking at the Balkan conflict of the 1990s, and I prefer Statovci’s approach to that of, e.g., Sara Nović in Girl At War. His focus on the lives of refugees after they’ve escaped the immediate danger is an important reminder to a Western world currently struggling with the consequences of global conflict: for a migrant, the past is never dead.

Many thanks to Tabitha Pelly at Pushkin Press for the review copy. My Cat Yugoslavia was published in the UK on 7 September.