6 Degrees of Separation: Room

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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First up: Room by Emma Donoghue, the story of a young woman who is abducted, imprisoned, and impregnated. We see it all through the eyes of the son she has with her captor—Jack, who until he is five years old believes that the room where they live is all that there is.

How you feel about Room depends on large part on how authentic you feel Jack’s voice is. I liked it (many others didn’t), but another book with utterly convincing child characters is The Light Years, the first entry in Elizabeth Jane Howard’s sprawling Cazalet Chronicles, which tells the story of an extended upper-middle-class English family before and during the Second World War. It is much less sentimental Downton-esque pablum than it is an illuminating and moving look at what life used to be like, and how in many ways the emotional beats of life in the ’40s were the same ones we experience now. It’s also (The Light Years in particular) very funny.

The Light Years is a book I often recommend to people who tell me they’ve enjoyed Barbara Pym. Excellent Women is probably her most famous, centering on a group of Anglican church ladies in a small English village. Great on group politics and genteel rivalry.

Pym came back into fashion after her books spent many years under the radar. Pushkin Press tends to perform the same service for writers, often from Eastern or Central European countries, who haven’t had as much press as they should have had in the West. Stefan Zweig has perhaps not been quite as obscure as some others, but the recently republished edition of his The World of Yesterday has definitely pushed him further into the public consciousness.

Another Pushkin Press book that I reeeally want to hit the big-time is Sand (review), by Wolfgang Herrndorf. It’s basically John Le Carré as directed by the Coen Brothers in one of their blacker moods, and it’s insanely good.

Herrndorf’s book has the opposite of a false bottom: a huge twist comes far too late in the day for it to be anything other than the real ending. Emma Flint’s Little Deaths (review), while the twist is less huge, achieves the same effect with its ending, finally establishing how we’re meant to feel about a character who’s been giving off mixed signals since the beginning.

And that’s all, folks. Next month the chain will start with Christos Tsiolkas’s The Slap. And tonight, I’ll post my personal Baileys Prize shortlist, so stay tuned. HURRAH.

Baileys Prize Longlist Reading 3: McBride

Being a series of short reviews of the Bailey’s Prize longlisted titles I hadn’t read before the announcement. These are mostly hack-jobs, consisting of extrapolations of my reading notes. Luckily I tend to make notes in full sentences. Spoilers ahead.

41no-ogymgl-_sy344_bo1204203200_The Lesser Bohemians, by Eimear McBride

The definitive characteristic of The Lesser Bohemians is its style. You cannot extricate anything about this book from the way in which it is told; as in the most elegant biological structures, form equals function. The story is basic: Eily, an eighteen-year-old drama student, fetches up in London from Ireland (which, in the 1990s, doesn’t seem to have been a fun place to grow up). Over the course of her first year in drama school, she will meet and fall in love with a man twenty years her senior. Gradually, she will come to learn his past—which is, to say the least, disturbing—and he will come to learn hers, which is likewise. The development of their relationship is the central interest of the book: McBride is not even as interested in whether they will stay together or not as she is in charting the ways that this relationship enables Eily’s meteoric journey towards emotional maturity.

This is especially pleasing because it means that a book which spends a good portion of its middle section detailing the personal struggle of a male character—Eily’s lover Stephen—ultimately refuses to grant that struggle primacy. We are interested in Stephen’s redemption, of course, but we’re mainly interested in it for the effect it has on Eily. It’s a nice inversion of tropes that usually have women suffering in order to develop a male character; McBride isn’t so crass a writer as to simply gender-flip the trope, but the shape we get is of a man’s personal hell being definitive for a woman’s emotional development, and not just because it traumatises her.

To get to the middle section, though, you have to get through the first ninety pages, and to get through those, you have to warm to the style. The phrase “stream of consciousness” generally makes me want to kick something (all articulation is artificial to an extent! You can’t write a stream of consciousness by definition! And usually what people mean by this phrase is just “unpunctuated”!), but McBride comes close: her narrative lens is a tight, first-person one, and Eily’s voice comes to us in fits and starts, sentence fragments, ungrammatical, present tense. It’s a much truer way of portraying the experience of thought and perception, for my money, than (to take one example) the unbroken monologue that Joyce gives Molly Bloom in Ulysses. It lays the book open to charges of preciousness, I suppose, but McBride manages here to be less overtly poetic than in her debut, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, and so the voice doesn’t feel contrived. (It is also particularly well suited to a story about first love: the heart-pounding, the panic of jealousy, the grimness of the morning after a fight, all are rendered completely naturally in that slightly jerky present tense.) The test of a gimmick is whether it works, and this does. Once you realise that you’re not being narrated to, but instead are watching someone think, you know how to read it. (And we are very used to being narrated to, I admit. Having to do hard work as a contemporary reader, even as a reader of literary fiction, is fairly unusual.)

It does make me wonder where McBride will go next. To have written two novels in this style leaves her with a choice: write a third just like it, and become calcified in the public imagination as a one-trick pony in the style department, or write a third that differs from it wildly, and run the risk of disappointing the people who adore her work. Given the number of rejections her debut received, and how she persevered with it, though, I think she’s probably up to the challenge.

The remaining question is: would I shortlist this? The answer is that it depends heavily on how the rest of the longlist reading goes. I enjoyed it much more than I expected to, I think its stylistic choices work extremely well given the material, and I was hugely impressed by the way that McBride handles questions of love and trust: in the hands of a lesser writer this story could be 50-Shades-adjacent, but with McBride it isn’t; it is always about two people navigating the past inside the present, with varying degrees of success. But at the same time, for me, it lacks the visceral punch of Do Not Say We Have Nothing and The Power, and the gobsmacking ambition of The Sport of Kings, and the economical honesty of First Love (all on my tentative personal shortlist so far). The Lesser Bohemians might well make the grade if nothing else is better—which sounds like damning with faint praise, but believe me, whether it makes the personal (or the shadow panel’s) shortlist or not, it’s worth your time.

The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist is announced on 3 April. For more commentary, see the rest of the Shadow Panel: Naomi, Antonia, Meera and Eric. The Lesser Bohemians is published by Faber & Faber, and is available in hardback.

Baileys Prize Longlist 2017

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Aahhh, the Baileys Prize longlist announcement! Its timing is a boon to readers and booksellers alike: at the beginning of March, the next year’s big hitters mostly aren’t out yet (the first round will come in May) and last November’s surge of pre-Christmas publications has probably already been devoured by the serious and/or professional reader. March in books is like March in vegetables; you just have to lump it til spring starts. Except for the Baileys Prize, which provides a much-needed shot of excitement and, sometimes, impetus to check out titles you may have overlooked.

This year I am following the prize as part of the Shadow Panel, along with Naomi, Eric, Antonia, and Meera. This was also the first year in which I recognized every single title on the longlist, which is probably due to the fact that I’ve been paying ever closer attention to books news.

It is not as diverse as it might look. Most of the listed authors are established; only three are non-white. I’m not sure what constitutes a “small” or “independent” publisher – Serpent’s Tail are independent but have serious literary bona fides, as have Granta – but it’s interesting that none of these publishers are new to me either. In the past there has generally been at least one or two wild cards; none of these entries surprise me hugely.

What surprises a little bit is a host of absences: Idaho by Emily Ruskovitch. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton. Swing Time by Zadie Smith. Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn. I suppose this only goes to show that the state of English-language writing by women is flourishing – the longlist has 16 books on it instead of 12, which also supports this theory – but still, their absence is notable. (Especially given the presence on the list of Barkskins, which has provoked extremely tepid reactions from virtually every book person I know.)

Most appalling in its absence is Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing. What possible excuse can there be for leaving it off?

Anyway. I’ve read six and a half of the longlistees (including most of the big ones, hurrah!), which is good because we only have three weeks to the shortlist announcement. The full list is below; links are to my reviews, where they exist.

Stay With Me by Ayòbámi Adébáyò (Canongate) – read after announcement; review

The Power by Naomi Alderman (Viking) – read after announcement; short review

Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood (Hogarth) – read after announcement; short review

Little Deaths by Emma Flint (Picador) – read after announcement; review

The Mare by Mary Gaitskill (Serpent’s Tail)

The Dark Circle by Linda Grant (Virago)

The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride (Faber & Faber) – read after announcement; review

Midwinter by Fiona Melrose (Corsair) – reviewed in a Superlatives post

The Sport of Kings by CE Morgan (4th Estate) – reviewed in a Superlatives post

The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso (Chatto & Windus) – read after announcement; short review

The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill (riverrun) – tried to start three times, couldn’t bring myself to care about any of it, ended up abandoning

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry (Serpent’s Tail) – read twice, and discussed in a Superlatives post

Barkskins by Annie Proulx (4th Estate) – read after announcement; review

First Love by Gwendoline Riley (Granta) – reviewed at Shiny New Books

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien (Granta) – read after announcement; short review

The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain (Chatto & Windus) – read after announcement; short review


Which book are you most excited for? Is there a book I haven’t read that you think I should get to without delay? Any notable omissions or inclusions you’re furious about?

October Superlatives

October has both flown by and been relatively unproductive on the blogging front. Oh well. I’ll use “adjusting to a new job/schedule” as my excuse; now when I come home from work, I’m physically tired as well as mentally so. (By the way, don’t let anyone ever tell you that working in hospitality is only hard on your body. Being nice to strangers, who often dislike you for no apparent reason and whose requests will frequently make your job harder, for seven hours, is hard on your intellect and emotional centers, too.) Anyway, I read eleven books this month. I reviewed…one of them. (Leave me alone.)

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This cover! Swoon.

most aptly praised: Eka Kurniawan’s novel Beauty Is a Wound was compared to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and I can totally see why. Set in twentieth-century Indonesia, it explores the family life of infamous prostitute Dewi Ayu while also providing a sharp portrait of the military and political upheavals of Indonesian history. There’s quite a lot of sexual violence, I’m afraid, but it doesn’t appear to be gratuitous, and the plot is spell-binding.

best find: This is going to be a shorter Superlatives post than normal because I’m grouping five of October’s books under this heading. Tana French’s work has been at the corners of my consciousness for years: I knew that she was an extremely well-respected literary crime novelist, and that I wanted to read her work, but I hadn’t really gotten round to it. Alerted to a sale of her books for 99p each, I bought them all and gobbled them. In each one, she focuses on a different lead detective in Dublin’s Murder Squad (usually someone who’s been a minor character in an earlier book). The first two, Into the Woods and The Likeness, are probably my favourites; their characterisation is fresh and intoxicating, and the complexity of the crimes always compels you. I also loved The Secret Place, set in an elite Irish girl’s school, which anatomises female friendship among teenagers in a way that’s totally without condescension and never uses “cattiness” as a lazy stereotype. Broken Harbour, the fifth novel, is also excellent, though less of a standout. Book three, however—Faithful Place—can probably be skipped; the writing is still great, but the plot is distinctly meh.

warm bath book: Garlic and Sapphires, Ruth Reichl’s memoir of the disguises she adopted to visit New York restaurants as the former Times restaurant critic. Her prose is solid, instead of outstanding, but I loved the reviews that she includes (she’s not afraid to tear into established places, nor to champion smaller, less fashionable ones), and I loved her descriptions of how she found her personality changing whenever she put on different wigs and clothes.

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tequila shot book: Jacob Tomsky’s memoir of the hotel industry, Heads in Beds, goes down fast, burns a bit after you’ve swallowed it, and then you’re moving on. He writes well for someone working in this genre (service memoirs are more and more A Thing these days, and most of the writing is fine but not inspired; people generally read these books for the crazy stories.) Apart from the crazy stories, Tomsky’s explanation of how to get good service in hotels is worth the price of admission on its own. (Here’s a clue: a lot of it is in your hands, and can best be summarised by a co-worker’s favourite expression: “don’t be a c*nt.”)

I might also put in this category Waiter Rant, the service memoir that launched a thousand ships. Released in 2008, the anonymous Waiter’s narrative of hospitality in a fine dining restaurant in New York lifted the veil in the same way Kitchen Confidential did: the illegals in the kitchen, the waiters snorting coke in the broom closet, the management scamming tips off their staff. It, too, is good for its crazy stories, though its prose is less impressive than Tomsky’s.

most lovely: In a sad and tender way, I really enjoyed Xiaolu Guo’s A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers. Her heroine, Zhuang (or Z.), embarks on a relationship with an older Englishman, and as her English improves, she also becomes more and more capable of describing the profound differences between the way the two of them see the world. For its window into an unusual relationship as it blossoms and then disintegrates, I’m not sure this book can be beaten.

most thought-provoking: A World Gone Mad, the diaries of Pippi Longstocking author Astrid Lindgren between 1939 and 1945. For Sweden, the war was much, much more bearable than it was for any other country, since they maintained official neutrality throughout. I loved the purity of Lindgren’s outrage when she hears about atrocities from Germans and Russians alike; I was moved by her constant gratitude for her own family’s safety; and I found the retelling of the war from a perspective new to me incredibly refreshing.

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up next: I’m currently reading The Malay Archipelago, an account of scientific travels in South-east Asia by Alfred Russel Wallace (the man who developed a theory of evolution by natural selection at the same time as Darwin—perhaps earlier—but who gave Darwin credit for it throughout his life). It’s thoroughly enjoyable, though rather long. Afterwards, I’ll be reviewing Fiona Melrose’s debut novel Midwinter, and participating in the blog tour for Linda Grant’s The Dark Circle—stay tuned!

KLAXON – I’m selling some books

Two things, dear bookworms:

  1. I’m now an official affiliate partner of Amazon, which means on the one hand that I am a corporate sell-out, yes, okay, thank you, please stop throwing tomatoes, but on the other hand that I’m making a tiny tiny bit of commission if you buy a book that I recommend through a link on this site. So from now on, when there are links to buy books in reviews, if you click through and subsequently buy the book, I’ll get a fraction of the book’s cost. If you totally hate Amazon and don’t even want to consider doing this, I forgive you; but if you already buy books from Amazon and have made your peace with that, this is a way to really help me out and to enable this site to keep going. I don’t get paid for anything I write about books at the moment – not here, not on Litro, not on Shiny New Books – so the affiliate program is important.
  2. I’m also now an official seller on Amazon, which means that I’m flogging books secondhand (almost all in spanking-new or like-new condition) through them. I sell under my own name (Eleanor Franzén). My “shopfront” is here – you can browse to your little heart’s content, and if there’s something you’d like but it’s not there, ask me. Again, if you spot something you fancy, buying it from me (for half, or less than half, of the original price) is a great way to tangibly support this site and the work I do here. I’ll be regularly featuring the things available in my Amazon shop over the coming weeks, so keep an eye out. Below is your first sampler:

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 Multitudes – Lucy Caldwell

A debut short story collection that bounces between Belfast and London, and which is already being touted as one of the season’s hottest books. Lucy Caldwell is earning accolades everywhere: Eimear McBride loves her; Kevin Power loves her; Emerald Street loves her. You probably will too.

 

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13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl – Mona Awad

First of all, the title is a Wallace Stevens joke, which I have a lot of time for; second of all, this is a novel about losing weight, and about how that doesn’t guarantee you the fairytale ending that we’re taught it will. It doesn’t even guarantee you better self-esteem, as Lizzie, the heroine of Awad’s debut novel, proves. Nor is this a sad or self-pitying book; instead, it’s bruisingly funny.

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Rebel of the Sands – Alwyn Hamilton

Without a doubt, the best YA fantasy to be published this year. The blurb says it all: “the first in a trilogy packed with shooting contests, train robberies, festivals under the stars, powerful Djinni magic and an electrifying love story.” It’s The Horse and His Boy for girls and without the casual racism. You know you want it.

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The House by the Lake –  Thomas Harding

In 1993, Thomas Harding’s grandmother took him to a deserted house outside Berlin. It was, she told him, the house from which she and her family had been forced to flee the Nazis. In 2013, Harding went back, and realized that the house and its grounds held tangible evidence of German history: the scar in the garden where the Berlin Wall had run through; photographs slipped through cracks in the floor. He determined to write the story of the house, and the five families who called it home. This book is the result.

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Villa America – Liza Klaussmann

From their villa in the French Riviera, Gerald and Sara Murphy throw parties that draw celebrities such as Picasso, the Fitzgeralds, and Hemingway. But the entrance of a young and handsome pilot into their charmed circle throws their lives, and their marriage, into disarray. I’d throw this one in a beach bag without a second’s hesitation.

Capsule reviews: The Outrun + Dinosaurs On Other Planets

Another set of capsule reviews for you today, not because I don’t have 1,500 words’ worth of thoughts about either of these books (they are both fantastic), but because I’m afraid of falling behind in my reading/posting schedule. Maybe I should have started the year with fewer rabidly enthusiastic requests for review copies.

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The Outrun, by Amy Liptrot

This is a memoir about alcoholism and recovery, combined with nature writing, in a way that sort of recalls Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk. Liptrot grew up on Orkney Mainland, her father with bipolar disorder and her mother becoming ever more firmly enmeshed in evangelical religion as a method of coping. She’s a bright, restless, frustrated teenager who doesn’t feel at home in this tiny island community, and at eighteen she flees to university and to London, where she quickly develops a drinking and partying habit that spirals horribly out of control. Approaching thirty, she is in an intensive rehab programme, and when she gets out, she decides to come back to the islands. It’s meant to be temporary; it ends up lasting for two years, and she charts the process of her recovery along with the seasons on the islands and her growing awareness of the natural world, of how rich and rewarding sensory experiences can be when you’re sober.

For me, the book’s first section doesn’t quite deliver on its promise. It focuses on Liptrot’s life in London: her inability to keep a flat, friends, a job, her breakup with her boyfriend. This is the collateral damage of addiction. It’s painful and moving to read about; you want to reach into the past, scoop up her young self, and tell her it’s okay. Where I found the  memoir less effective was in its apparently intentional feeling of distance. When you read H Is for Hawk, you have the sense that you’re right there, watching Helen Macdonald’s disintegrating sanity from inside her skull. Liptrot’s prose has a different effect. It’s as though she needs to create a certain space between her present and her past, the person she was and the person who’s writing now. That’s understandable, but I still wish it wasn’t the case. She analyses herself almost too completely; rehab and the island nights have given her a set of tools, a vocabulary, to discuss addiction and its consequences, but by making use of that vocabulary in her creative writing, she tends to diminish the impact of her observations on the reader.

That said, this is still a very powerful book. By far the best sections were the ones that dealt with life on the remote Scottish islands; she doesn’t just stay on the Orkney mainland, but moves out to Papay, an island off Westray, which is itself off of Orkney, and she takes some day trips here and there to even more isolated rocks. The awareness of nature that pervades her days is beautiful and forbidding. She works for the RSPB, counting corncrakes, a job which requires her to drive around the islands late into summer nights, her car often the only one on the road. That stillness and solitude are conveyed perfectly. So is the appeal of sea swimming, which shocks and invigorates the body in a way that drinking and drugs used to do for her; she also writes about becoming addicted to the Internet–the shipping forecast, maps of the stars–and how it can both facilitate communication and cause meaningful connections to elude us entirely. She doesn’t draw many conclusions about this, just observes and discusses it. People on Papay use Facebook to compare weather warnings, photos of the Merry Dancers (the Northern Lights), water conditions. The people she knows in London, a fairly homogeneous group of young striving media professionals, use Twitter for vastly different ends.

I hesitate to be too critical, because it is such a brave thing to do, to write about your weaknesses and your pain and the ways in which you’ve fucked up and tried to do better. Ultimately, for alcoholism, I’d rather read Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring, and for finding the wild in yourself and yourself in the wild, I’d still plump for H Is for Hawk. But Liptrot does show us real beauty: the tombs at Maeshowe, aligned so that the setting sun shines straight down their entrances on solstice days; an island-wide primrose count; her, sitting in the front garden of her cottage on Papay, staring at the stars. I wanted to run off to Orkney by the time I was halfway through. It’s good escapism for January.

Thanks very much to Canongate Books for the review copy; The Outrun was published in the UK on 14 January.

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Dinosaurs On Other Planets, by Danielle McLaughlin

On the back cover of my copy of Dinosaurs On Other Planets, there’s a blurb from Anne Enright, the first Irish fiction laureate. It is to the effect that this collection does not (as debut collections are often said to do) “mark the arrival” of a fresh and exciting new voice; that voice–McLaughlin’s voice–is already here. She’s landed; all this collection is doing is announcing her presence.

It certainly doesn’t have any of the wobbles or uncertainties that can mar debut story collections. I’m not a short story kind of girl; things I can’t sink my teeth into tend to bore me, and I cavalierly dismiss stories as being in this category. McLaughlin’s stories are different. They’re sort of like contemporary Flannery O’Connor if you stripped out the religion and replaced it with something very difficult to identify: maybe the clarity of despair, maybe just the lifelong act of putting one foot in front of the other.

She’s got some specific preoccupations: mental illness, especially undefined mental illness, is one of them, as are small children. She tends to come at similar ideas and images from different angles. In one story, a man with a corporate job in Dublin struggles to maintain a work-life balance, with a wife whose flashes of eccentricity are sliding into something more careless, and more dangerous to their little daughter, Gracie. Much later on in the collection, another story focuses on a woman with a corporate job in Dublin whose nine-year-old son Finn’s strange behavior is also performing this inexorable decline from childish peculiarity into something more pathological, but equally vague. She writes several stories about pregnant women, generation and mortality encountering each other in a nursing home or on the seashore among dying seals. None of the marriages in her fiction are happy; all are hobbled by a refusal or an inability to communicate, a crack in the foundations of the relationship caused by personality or timing or stubbornness or bad luck.

Unlike O’Connor’s fiction, McLaughlin’s doesn’t hold disasters, or rather, she doesn’t show us any disasters. She turns away just before the point of no return. One character is left stranded at the end of her story, about to club a seal to death in order to put it out of its misery; another, a habitually unfaithful husband, is just touching the cheek of his ex-lover’s daughter before McLaughlin brings the curtain down. When you read these endings, your stomach lurches. You know the drop is there, but you haven’t been allowed to travel down it. It creates a sort of endless literary vertigo. It’s genius.

Thanks to the kind folks at John Murray for the review copy; Dinosaurs On Other Planets was published in the UK on 14 January.