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.

Sand, by Wolfgang Herrndorf

“Are you entirely sure that you don’t know who you are?”

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Let’s start with what I put on Goodreads, five minutes after finishing Sand:

Excellent and horrible. Parts of it are reminiscent of what James Bond might have been like if Fleming had been a decent writer; parts of it are like desert Le Carré; quite a bit of it is like surreal, blackly-comic Greene. You have no idea what’s happening for the first hundred pages and then it all clicks, the characters’ relations to each other make sense, and you’re off. Gloriously, there are no good guys, except perhaps for our amnesiac protagonist, who takes his name (Carl) from the designer’s label inside his suit. The ending laughs majestically in the face of narrative justice. It’s incredible.”

Now let’s back up. Sand does not start with amnesiac Carl. It starts with Polidorio and Canisades, two post-colonial policemen in Morocco circa 1972. The Olympic Games at Munich have just been defiled by the abduction and murder of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists. The world is hot and nervous. Polidorio and Canisades are called upon to investigate the murder of four people at a hippie commune, apparently by a Moroccan national of seemingly boundless stupidity by the name of Amadou Amadou. Something about the case feels not quite right, but the evidence all adds up and Amadou is on his way to be hanged—until his prison truck is involved in a traffic accident and he is sprung free. The police seem incapable of finding him again; Polidorio is summoned to his chief inspector’s office and informed that, due to the wishes of important people, Amadou will not be found at all, full stop, end of story.

Interspersed with this are chapters following American Helen Gliese, who supposedly works for a cosmetic company but whose sample case was mysteriously and conveniently lost on the docks as she disembarked in Morocco. Helen, who has what the back cover describes as “a talent for being underestimated”, picks up Carl at a desert petrol station; he is wandering aimlessly, covered in blood, having just extricated himself from a scene of distressing violence at a barn in the middle of nowhere with no memory of who he is or what he was doing there. Helen is also acquainted with one of the residents of the commune, a dippy woman called Michelle who reads tarot cards but tends to cheat the deck by removing the Hanged Man.

Once Helen and Carl come together with Michelle, it’s clear that there are wheels within wheels. Up to this point, it hasn’t been at all clear; because Herrndorf starts us off at a point so peripheral to the main action (and, perhaps not coincidentally, to the description on the back of the book), we’re left completely disoriented for quite a long time. Being thrown off balance at the start doesn’t always impress me, but it does here because Herrndorf so obviously knows what he’s doing, even though we don’t. On he marches through the setup of his plot, unspooling authorial confidence behind him, and we follow. By the time Carl meets Helen, you’re in it for the long haul.

Carl is an innocent, and not only by virtue of being unable to remember anything. His actions and reactions (and inactions) are often inexplicably odd. Briefly captured by a white-haired crime lord named Adil Bassir, he has his hand nailed to the table by a letter-opener but does not take the opportunity to explain that he has lost his memory. Helen is baffled: “If I’d been nailed to a desk with a letter-opener I’d have told him a thing or two.” “I had the feeling,” Carl says helplessly, “that I didn’t know what he didn’t know. He just didn’t know that I didn’t know. If I had told him, what would he have done with me?” He panics at the wrong times, is calm at the wrong times. He cries a lot. He is simply, undeniably goofy. And yet we can also feel terrible pity for him, because we can project onto his blank exterior: is there anyone more deserving of kindness than someone lost and vulnerable who doesn’t understand what’s happening to them?

But it’s precisely Carl’s amnesia that also complicates his character. Late on in the book, he is captured and tortured for information that he doesn’t (of course) have. In the course of this unpleasantness, one of his tormentors pinpoints the problem with creating sympathy for the unknown:

“You have something that belongs to us. That we discovered. Our scientists. And that’s why we are the good guys: we built the bomb and wreaked havoc with it. But we learned from that. We’re the adaptive system. Hiroshima shortened the war, and you can argue about Nagasaki—but it’s not going to happen a third time. We will stop it from happening a third time. In our hands the bomb is nothing more than an ethical principle. Put the same bomb in your hands and we’d be heading toward a catastrophe that would make everything else look like nothing more than a minor headache by comparison.”

Whether this rosy picture of American military morality is legitimate or not isn’t the point of this passage; the point of the passage is to awaken uncertainty in the reader. Who, after all, is Carl? We know nothing about him. He knows nothing about himself. Can we be so certain that he isn’t—or wasn’t—involved in hideous plans? We only know what we’ve seen of him, in a very particular, impotent context. What is the difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist? One’s point of view. And the difference between an innocent man and a guilty one, Herrndorf seems to be saying, is sometimes just the same.

Readerly investment in Carl increases as the book goes on. He is made to suffer a great deal, and by the end of the book our perspective is confined almost entirely to his experiences, so that we can’t help but identify with him. Whether he was or is a terrorist or not, Herrndorf clearly shows us a human: one who fears and tries and clings tenaciously to whatever scrap of a chance is held out to him, one who wants more than anything else to live. So when I say that the ending laughs in the face of narrative justice, what I mean is that it leaves the reader with a sense of wall-pounding noooooooo-ness that you might recognise if you’ve read Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s Waking Lions or watched the film There Will Be Blood. It’s an ending that looks sideways at your high school lit class and everything you learned there about the blueprints for fiction, then smiles wryly, puts out its cigarette on its tongue, and kicks the shit out of teleology. It is, in other words, an ending as true to true life as anything I’ve ever read, and it makes the point that Friedrich Durrenmatt is trying to make in The Pledge about falseness in genre narrative with significantly greater raw grace than Durrenmatt manages. (Sorry, Durrenmatt.)

Wolfgang Herrndorf died of a brain tumour in 2013, at the age of forty-eight. He wrote an earlier book, translated in English as Why We Took the Car, but Sand will be his last. It alone ought to assure him a place in twenty-first century literary history: it’s bold, anarchic, blackly funny, and completely unafraid.

Many thanks as always to the publicity folks at Pushkin for a review copy. Sand is published in the UK on 30 March.

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.

Waking Lions, by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen

She would take the money. But not only the money. The people here needed a doctor.

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~~here be a couple of spoilers~~

The synopsis of Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s second novel, Waking Lions, is like the premise for a movie: Eitan Green, an Israeli doctor exiled to a provincial hospital for whistle-blowing, leaves work one night. Exhausted and demoralised, instead of going home, he drives his SUV out into the sand dunes around Beersheba. Speeding on the deserted roads, he hits an Eritrean man walking along the roadside, but instead of calling an ambulance or the police, he leaves him to die. Why? He’s afraid for his job, of course; he fears for the comfortable life he’s built for himself, his wife Liat, a police detective, and their two little boys. But it’s not that simple, either: the man is an illegal immigrant, an African, totally alien to him. He can’t bring himself to think of what he’s done as a real crime. He drives home, goes to sleep next to Liat. The next morning, when no one else is home, there’s a knock on the door. It’s the dead man’s wife. She was there last night, although he didn’t see her. Her name is Sirkit, and she wants something from him in exchange for her silence.

She wants him to work. So he does, spending his days on long shifts in the Soroka hospital and his nights in a garage near Tlalim with a rusty table to operate on and only the most rudimentary instruments and drugs. And then Liat gets assigned the hit-and-run case. Her colleagues think they’ve cracked it within a few weeks, blaming an Arab boy, but Liat’s pretty sure it wasn’t him, and when a girl from his village steps forward to be his alibi, she’s sure of it.

This isn’t a hopeful book. The strapline on the cover asks, “How do you know what you’re capable of?”, and Gundar-Goshen’s position, pretty clearly, is that you don’t; you can’t. Eitan is a doctor, an occupation that is defined by its goodness. Doctors save lives, mitigate pain, do their best to help. But doctoring is compromised from the start of the book: Eitan is only in Beersheba because he insisted on confronting a colleague and former professor, the eminent Dr. Zakai, about his habit of accepting large bribes from patients’ families. Nothing is done about Zakai’s corruption, but Eitan is reassigned from glamorous Tel Aviv to dead-end Beersheba. Zakai reappears throughout the book in Eitan’s memories of him as a guiding light and mentor. We hear bits and pieces of his lectures, the received wisdom passed down from senior doctors to trainees. His overwhelming character trait, perhaps unsurprisingly, seems to be arrogance.

That arrogance is shared by Eitan himself. What makes this book so incendiary, and such an emotional challenge for a reader, is that Eitan constantly misses opportunities to expand his understanding. He is narrow in his comprehension of Sirkit, for whom he feels an obsessive, exoticizing lust that makes for pretty uncomfortable reading. He is narrow in his comprehension of the Africans who come to the garage for treatment. He is narrow in his obliviousness to Liat’s struggle against disgusting levels of misogyny and racism at work; he fails to understand that his own army buddies speak about women and Arabs in the same way that Liat’s colleagues do, that he’s no better. It is not fun to spend time in his head. It’s illuminating, but it’s also infuriating.

Here he is, for instance, on Semar, a woman whom he’s just assisted in giving birth. Her baby is the result of a rape perpetrated on her by her Israeli employer at a roadside restaurant; the rapist, as a result of plot machinations, has just turned up at the garage and been stabbed by Sirkit:

The thought of the rape nauseated him, but he was honest enough to admit that the nausea he felt was only indirectly related to Semar. First and foremost, he thought of himself. He wasn’t supposed to see it. He wasn’t supposed to know about it. …It was the same feeling he had when he went into a public bathroom and saw that someone had defecated and not flushed the toilet… What that man had done to Semar was horrible, but it wasn’t Eitan’s shit.

Much like certain passages from Mary Gaitskill’s The Mare, this reminded me of Orange Is the New Black. People in that show who are lucky enough to be able to ignore the shit become enraged when they’re forced to confront it. They’re happy enough, as Eitan is, to elect people who assure them that the shit will be dealt with. But engaging with it themselves is too much, too hard, unfair, and, moreover, it upsets the hierarchy. This is not the sort of thing a man like Eitan is meant to see. This is not how his world works, and his world is the only world there is.

There is a plot turn—it’s not quite a twist—about four-fifths of the way through the book which stretches credulity if you think about it too hard, but it has the tremendous advantage of sharpening Sirkit’s character for us. Is she a “good” person? Not in the way that Eitan is “good”. She demands money from the immigrant community before she’ll bring them to the garage; she refuses a Sudanese woman treatment because she can’t pay; she feared and hated her husband, the man Eitan killed, although she had good reasons to. There’s a level of steely indifference in Sirkit that makes her one of the novel’s greatest assets. She thinks of how Eitan must think of her: mopping floors, suffering. The truth is that suffering comprises only a part of Sirkit’s life. She’s also a skilled nurse, good enough to train as a doctor (Eitan is genuinely shocked to realize that she could be just as good as him. He doesn’t think of an Eritrean immigrant woman as the kind of creature that is capable in that way. It’s not that he thinks she can’t do it; it doesn’t occur to him that she can, any more than he would expect the ability of a goat.) And she is a survivor. And she is ruthless. Is she a “good” person? Who cares? She’s alive, and she commands respect.

But this isn’t, as I said before, a hopeful book. It’s so unusual to get to the end of a literary novel without some form of emotional closure, some kind of redemption, that when I got to the end of this one and found that was exactly what we were dealing with, it came as a real surprise. For (here is the biggest spoiler, probably) nothing happens to Eitan. No one ever finds out the full truth: not Liat, not his colleagues, not the rest of the police force. He is never discovered. And the saddest thing is that, even as I read the final page with surprise, I knew that I should not be surprised. Nothing about Eitan’s reprieve from the legal repercussions of his crime is surprising. It makes the novel’s ending lines, so calm and tranquil in their rhythms, look more like a cry of bitter rage:

How beautiful the earth is when it moves properly. How pleasant to move with it. To forget that any other movement ever existed. That a different movement is even possible.

It’s our privilege to be able to forget. Eitan’s, and mine. And yours. And Gundar-Goshen, in this book, is telling us all to go fuck ourselves for that. It isn’t the kind of book you can love. But that’s the point.

Many thanks to Tabitha Pelly at Pushkin Press for the review copy. Waking Lions  will be published in paperback in the UK on 1 September.

May Superlatives

May started slowly, but finished fast, and every book I read was worthwhile. That’s as much as you can ask for, really. I read all of my pre-pub review copies first, which is a strategy that seemed to work well enough (at least I met all of my review obligations); I’m going to try it again in June. The bank holiday weekends (both of them) were lovely and needed. The month itself was hard: bereavement, work. Still, I feel incredibly happy. It might be pouring now, but the summer is coming.

best backlist author: I’d only ever read one of Daphne DuMaurier’s books before now (Rebecca, obviously, at school), but My Cousin Rachel has convinced me that she was a proper genius. The story of a woman who may or may not have murdered two rich, controlling husbands, and who may or may not be planning to murder a third hapless young man, our narrator, Philip—it messes with your head unmercifully and it is brilliant.

most unexpected ending: That belonging to Shawn Vestal’s debut novel Daredevils, which managed to shake off tropes about boys and girls in a way that really delighted me. For a novel set in the 1970s about oppressive midwestern Mormons, it inspires in its reader a terrific sense of freedom.

best state-of-the-nation book: Journeyman, by Marc Bojanowski, which links the construction of tract homes to the unnameable malaise sweeping America in the wake of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and makes both phenomena echo in the lives of construction worker Nolan and his reporter brother, Chance. I think on Twitter I called it the first book I’d read about an American man in a long time that didn’t make me loathe said man. A real gem, in fact.

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I much prefer the US cover, for once

aptest timing: Katie Roiphe’s The Violet Hour, subtitled Great Writers at the End, which I read the week after my uncle died. I’d have preferred more analysis of each writer’s body of work, but I still appreciated it for its careful, methodical examination of other people’s deaths, and attitudes towards death.

most epic: LaRose, Louise Erdrich’s fifteenth novel. It spans 170 years and tells the story of LaRose Iron—given up as a surrogate son to the family of the boy his father kills by accident—as well as the story of his family and Ojibwe heritage. In a way, it was almost too epic: I found it difficult at times to track the reasoning behind Erdrich’s introduction of a new theme or character or episode. Then again, this kind of alien-ness in a reading experience is one of the major reasons to read outside of your comfort zone of race and gender and class and nationality.

most violent: Martin Holmén’s Clinch, a noir thriller set in 1930s Stockholm and published by Pushkin’s Vertigo imprint. I’m not sure how convinced I was by the actual trajectory of the crime, sleuthing, and final revelation, but I’ve only just realized that, because I was so utterly seduced by the blood, the sex, and the cool knowingness of our protagonist, Harry Kvist. I’d nominate this as the thinking person’s beach read this summer.

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most pleasant surprise: One of my work colleagues told me, in conversation, that her favourite book was The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera. I’d never read it (I tried in high school, but I generally find Eastern European writing, especially by men, to be a curious combination of the intimidating and the outrageously boring—mostly because of what I see as a sort of dramatic indulgence in the style)—anyway, she lent it to me, I read it, and by God, I was moved. I actually cried a bit at the end (the bit with the dog, for those of you who’ve read it.) I can heartily recommend this one as a beach read too, though for totally different reasons: it asks the sort of questions that we only have time to answer when we’re on holiday.

most harrowing: Human Acts, the second novel by Han Kang to be translated from Korean to English by Deborah Smith. (Kang and Smith won the Man Booker International Prize in May! Hurrah.) It focuses on the Gwangju massacre of students and labour rights demonstrators in 1980, and on its aftermath. It’s very quiet but extremely affecting: the  night I finished it, I dreamed of murder. Worth reading, even if you ordinarily shy away from tough stuff.

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party to which I was late: Sarah Perry’s debut novel, After Me Comes the Floodread in advance of The Essex Serpent‘s release in June. Borrowed from a different work colleague (they’re good, my colleagues!)—I was expecting something rich, strange, and excellent, and I got it. The story of a heatwave, a case of mistaken identity, and a strange house whose inhabitants all seem to be expecting our protagonist, with plenty of Biblical and Old English references along the way (which delighted me no end), it reads like a slow-burning horror film which turns into a drama of simple human sadness. I’m even more thrilled for The Essex Serpent now.

most one-sided story: This isn’t meant to be a criticism or a declaration of allegiance, but obviously Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters. They are very beautiful and they give me a lot of hope for free verse as a poetic strategy, and they were very good to read after reading Plath’s poetry. Simultaneously, they are only one-half of the sum total of the memories of their marriage, and you can see the partiality in places. In particular, Hughes seems to both accept and promulgate an autobiographical reading of “Daddy”. Maybe he’s right, maybe he’s wrong; it’s worth remembering that Plath herself identified the speaker of “Daddy” as a fictional construct, though of course she may not have been entirely truthful there either.

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second most pleasant surprise: Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being. I have to say, knowing that it was narrated by a Japanese teenager, I was expecting it to be a bit twee and tedious. Mais non! It is about quantum physics and the autonomy conferred by suicide and losing your home and intertextuality and Buddhism and terrorism and all sorts. It is vaguely reminiscent of David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten, and ridiculously enjoyable.

straight-up best: The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry’s second novel. Set in the late 1800s (some time after the explosion of Krakatoa in 1883, so probably the ’90s), it moves back and forth from London to Aldwinter, a small Essex village, following Cora Seaborne, a widow and keen amateur geologist, and Luke Garrett, the arrogant surgeon who’s in love with her, and Francis, her probably autistic son, and the Ransomes, a vicar and his beautiful, kind, sickly wife. That makes it sound deeply Victorian and stodgy; it is not. This book is sexy and upsetting and, in places, Gothic; it made my heart pound and it made me sad and it made me laugh aloud and it stopped me in my tracks with its accuracy: the way Cora comes to terms with her dead husband’s abuse, the selfishness of wanting people to like you. I can’t recommend it highly enough. I’m afraid I can’t sell it more articulately, really. It’s very beautiful and sly and surprising. Please go and read it at once.

what’s next: I’m currently reading Matthew Desmond’s Evicted, a journalistic non-fiction study of eviction in Milwaukee, which is breaking my heart. Next up for review is Margo Jefferson’s memoir Negroland, from Granta Books, which I think will be fascinating: the black middle classes are often invisible in America, their experiences not considered sufficiently picturesque perhaps. I’m looking forward to reading it.

 

Clinch, by Martin Holmén

My old trainer once said that boxing, at its best, makes you feel properly alive. This is wrong. Boxing is at its best when you’re completely empty inside.

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It’s Stockholm, Sweden, in the 1930s. Harry Kvist (“Kvisten”, or “twig”, to his friends, in what can only be irony) is an ex-sailor, ex-boxer, currently a heavyman-cum-debt-collector for whoever wants to hire him. He’s also skilled at tracking down unfaithful spouses, prostitutes, and teenaged runaways. When we first meet him, he is descending on the apartment of the hapless Zetterberg, who has defaulted on a loan. He scares Zetterberg, roughs him up a little, says he’ll come back for the payment tomorrow. So far, so good. But when he comes back, he finds Zetterberg murdered, and himself a person of interest in the inquiry. He’s released after the evidence of Zetterberg’s neighbour clears him, but the police know Kvist rather too well already, and they’re happy to take him in again if they can’t turn up anyone else. He’d rather not have them anywhere near his personal life, so the novel turns into a familiar path for the contemporary thriller: innocent man seeks to save his own skin by uncovering the real wrong-doer.

The reason the police know Kvist so well already is because he’s a practicing homosexual. (In point of fact, he’s bisexual, since he has an involved and very definitely sexual affair with a woman during the second half of the novel, but his relationship with Doris seems devoid of actual feeling. They fuck a lot, but the tumult and conflict of Kvist’s emotions are all directed towards men. It’s men with whom he shares the few moments in the book in which he shows tenderness.) The police have booked him twice, under what they refer to as “paragraph eighteen”—presumably, a Swedish anti-sodomy statute. The inspector who interviews him, Olsson, immediately makes clear his disgust and distaste for this “bloody homophile”, although he does have to grudgingly admit that Kvist is also a hard bastard.

Which he most certainly is. The front cover quote explicitly invites us to compare Holmén’s work with Raymond Chandler’s, which is a hell of an invitation but, as far as I can tell, a completely legitimate one. (Now is probably the time to mention that I have never read Chandler, but I have: listened to Garrison Keillor’s Guy Noir segments since I was six years old; read the Calvin and Hobbes strips where Calvin pretends to be a P.I.; and seen a fair few gangster movies. I feel like the lineaments of the noir genre are pretty well known, anyway.) Clinch commits, with manic glee, to its own atmosphere: it’s set in a perpetually snowy Stockholm winter, full of dark back alleys, shack-like tenement flats, and underground nightclubs for the consumption of illegal liquor. (Prohibition-era Stockholm is basically Prohibition-era Chicago.) Kvist, while not given to quite the level of throwaway wisecracks that we expect from Chandler’s protagonists, is a wryly sarcastic, enjoyably cynical narrator. He is much given to punching people’s lights out while detailing the gruesome shifting of bones in his hand as he connects. As an ex-boxer, he lives by sporting metaphors, and his stock of experience gives him an air of dangerous, world-weary authority as he explains street fighting to us:

I close my eyes, inhale what feels like an ice block, and listen. I’ve had to trust in my hearing many times when I was on the ropes, when the swelling around my eyes was such that I couldn’t even orient myself, or when I was blinded by blood or sweat.

Like many a detective, Kvist also has an alcohol problem and is terrible at relationships—in his case, a wife and daughter set sail for America at least ten years ago, but he has not followed them—but this is all complicated by his sexuality. Sweden actually legalised same-sex intercourse in 1944, and has in general been in the forefront of international LGBT rights during the twentieth century, but this story is happening in the 1930s and so Kvist must still cruise in silence and in danger. Although that is somewhat misleading; in most of the encounters he has, he is the danger. The first sex scene takes place less than thirty pages into the book and ends with Kvist punching into unconsciousness the boy who’s just sucked him off. In this combination of hypermasculine aggressive violence with queer sexuality, Kvist reminded me forcefully of Weeper in Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings: here’s another man who both reinforces and challenges “manliness”. Later, when he first has a sex scene with his mistress, Doris Steiner, the atmosphere is just as violent: from both sides, there are punches, slaps, bloody noses, hair-pulling. Where Holmén is maybe more modern than Chandler is in his willingness to write in detail about the mechanics of fucking itself; some of these scenes border on the pornographic, which is to say that they are excellent, evocative, achieve what they set out to do, and had me bending the pages away from people on the Tube.

Doris is a fascinating creation: she’s the classic noir dame, the bored hot wife of a rich man. She’s also an alcoholic and a heroin addict, and a former film star. We know from the start that there is something off about her, about the way that she meets Kvist: supposedly she has come to him for proof that her maid is thieving from her jewellery box, but she doesn’t seem terribly concerned, and after they fall into bed, we hear no more about it. When she tells Kvist a little more about her life and history, he seems to take it more or less at face value, which is surprising given his cynicism up to now. Is he blinded by lust, or does his indifference to her mean he doesn’t see her as a potential threat? (Or both?) Either way, alarm bells have started ringing for the reader now: surely Doris isn’t all she appears…

Indeed, she isn’t, though not quite in the way I had hoped. Still, the ending is delightfully, unabashedly melodramatic, with its tense showdown in an opulent setting, the iniquities of the rich and powerful finally entered into the ledger of justice. (Even if that justice happens to be extrajudicial.) It’s strong stuff, but Clinch is a fabulously classy twist on pulp fiction: it’ll be a top-notch summer book for readers looking for something diverting but smart, as long as they don’t mind a little blood and bonking.

Many thanks to Tabitha Pelly at Pushkin Vertigo for the review copy. Clinch is published in the UK on 20 May.