Book Review: Asymmetry

by Lisa Halliday

Assymetry by Lisa HallidayTwo novellas set in different countries with apparently unrelated characters – plus an ingenious tailpiece. There is a connection, but you need to be on the qui vive to see it coming.

Asymmetry, as the title implies, is a novel about life’s lack of symmetry. A young woman has an affair with a man considerably older than herself. He is a rich, successful, world-famous writer, she a lowly editorial assistant. His health is failing. He is needy and lonely. She is grateful and acquiescent. They bond over a mutual passion for baseball.

An Iraqi-American economist is detained at Heathrow Airport on suspicion of… what exactly? We are never quite sure, but we can hazard a guess. Prior to his passport being seized, his intention had been to spend a couple of nights in London before flying out to visit his brother in Kurdistan. During his interminable wait for immigration officers to make enquiries, fill out forms and return to him with a decision, we are privy to his innermost thoughts as he relives his past and recalls events from the Iraq War.

Granta Books acquired the UK and Commonwealth rights to Asymmetry in a seven-way auction in 2016. The editorial director, Bella Lacey, has described the author as an “exceptional new American writer” and the book’s release on 1st March 2018 as “a major publishing event” – and yes, it’s quite true that the novel has generated excitement in literary circles. But why?

The Milan-based author, Lisa Halliday has written a startling début about power-play, in which literary and musical references abound. The characters are believable and likeable misfits, and the dialogue sharp and frequently amusing. I enjoyed the first part of the book, entitled Folly, far more than the second (II Madness), for its droll wordplay and New York-Jewish humour, although there were times when I found the pernickety Pulitzer Prize-winning Ezra Blazer extremely irritating and so much wished Alice would be more assertive.

Asymmetry is a story in which nothing and nobody is equal. It is inventive, compelling and altogether unforgettable. We should expect to hear a great deal more of its promising author over the coming months.

Many thanks to Granta Publications for supplying an advance review copy of this title.
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Book Review: Walking Wounded

By Sheila Llewellyn

waling wounded

“Daniel stared at the white-ish brain matter clinging to the haft and clogging up the eye of the needle. Can it really be as easy as that – to scrape out someone’s depression, their melancholy, their anxiety? To scrape out someone’s emotions?”

So assured is Sheila Llewellyn’s writing, one would never guess Walking Wounded was her first novel. Her portrayal of the emotional devastation caused by armed conflict, and the often unintentional misery brought about by misguided attempts to repair the damage is staggeringly accomplished.

Set in Birmingham’s once highly influential Northfield Military Psychiatric Hospital, it is tempting to conclude we are entering Pat Barker terrain – a writer well known for focusing on themes of memory, trauma, survival and recovery. Like Barker, the author has an uncanny ability to evoke the appalling mental anguish induced by war, she is seemingly able to fathom the suppressed male subconscious, and many of her characters are based on historic figures – but there the similarities end.

Inspired by her own experience of treating victims of PTSD in Northern Ireland, the author’s narrative switches back and forth between the fictitious characters: psychiatrist Daniel Carter and Corporal David Reece. It is 1947 and both doctor and patient have been profoundly damaged by their ordeals, but they also have the subliminal power to heal one another.

From the morale-destroying Burma Campaign to life in the old industrial city of Manchester (just before and immediately after the Second World War), Llewellyn’s historical and topographical research is scrupulous yet subtle. Speaking personally, as the daughter of a Mancunian who lived through the period described in this novel, I find her descriptions of the Manchester Blitz, and of The Manchester Guardian’s candid reporting of the Nazi atrocities, particularly fascinating

Walking Wounded is a brilliantly crafted, often harrowing, powerfully intense piece of work, which deserves to win awards. I hope very much that Sheila Llewellyn plans to write a second novel.

Many thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for gifting an advance copy of this title.

Book Review: Ru

by Kim Thúy, Sheila Fischman (Translation)

“In French, ru means a small stream and, figuratively, a flow, a discharge—of tears, of blood, of money. In Vietnamese, ru means a lullaby, to lull.”

It was over forty years ago, but I still have vivid memories of seeing the Vietnamese ‘boat people’ on the evening news, dazed faces staring into the camera, packed tightly into small crafts, fleeing their country in terror following the war. They risked much to escape torture, repression, disease, starvation and the notorious re-education camps where they were forced into hard labour. Many didn’t survive the perilous journey.

Kim Thúy, the author of Ru – a multi-award winning, fictional memoir – was born in Saigon in 1968. She fled the Communist regime via boat with her parents and two brothers, arriving in Canada (via Malaysia) in 1979. For a time she worked as a seamstress and cashier, before opening a Vietnamese restaurant in Montréal, and at the same time obtaining degrees in linguistics and translation, followed by law. Only when her restaurant closed did she fulfil her dream of becoming an author.

Ru is a brilliant yet unsentimental piece of writing about a woman called An Tinh who, like Kim, escapes from her country’s tyrannical regime to Québec, in search of the ‘American dream’. The prose is immediate and impressionistic, and whether she is describing maggots crawling in their thousands from a cesspit or detailing various members of her protagonist’s family, the writing is rich, mesmeric and subtle.

At 162 pages, Ru is a short but intense potpourri of vignettes – powerful, superbly realized and well worth reading.

Book Review: Love

by Hanne Ørstavik

Winters are bitingly cold in northern Norway, with an average temperature of around -17°C. Yet it is to a bleak little village in this region that Vibeke moves with Jon, her eight-year-old son, in order to make a fresh start. The story begins as the circus arrives, on the eve of his birthday.

Both mother and son are intense, cerebral individuals, who lose themselves in daydreams and struggle to communicate their thoughts and feelings to others – she chain-smokes, he continually blinks. Even so, they are overly trusting of strangers and have oddly naïve personalities. The greatest void, however, is between the two of them, and they seem to view each other from opposite sides of a wide crevasse. There is love (adoration on his part), but it is ill-defined, unfocused.

“She gets through three books a week, often four or five. She wishes she could read all the time, sitting in bed with the duvet pulled up, with coffee, lots of cigarettes, and a warm nightdress on.”

Voted the sixth best Norwegian book of the last 25 years, Love, by Hanna Ørstavik (originally published as Kjærlighet in 1997), has been translated into English by Martin Aitken, and is due for release in February 2018. It is an existential novel, with narratives drifting back and forth between Vibeke and Jon – they all but merge when either one or both of them become anxious. As the story develops, Ørstavik skilfully effects a feeling of dread – an unpleasant, tense, vaguely sinister sensation of impending catastrophe pervades the icy air.

Has anything significant been lost in translation? I think there probably has, but as an inveterate unilingual English-speaker I simply cannot judge. Nevertheless, I am able to say with certainty that Love is an intelligent, thoughtful, if melancholy tale, which demonstrates what can happen if we become too internalised and fail to be mindful of those we love.

Many thanks to Steerforth Press for supplying an advance review copy of this title.

Book Review: Novel On Yellow Paper

by Stevie Smith

I rather like Pompey Casmilus, the narrator of this slightly off-kilter stream of consciousness novel, which in Stevie Smith’s opinion makes me a “foot-off-the-ground” sort of person. Not only is this a jolly good thing to be, but it is wholly necessary if one is to fully appreciate her exuberant chatter.

This was Smith’s first novel, printed in 1936, and could perhaps be described as a frenetic, not quite fictional, ingeniously funny memoir. The sagacious Pompey (secretary to magazine publisher, Sir Phoebus Ullwater) confabulates on topics as diverse as sex, The Church, Nazism, single women, death, matrimony and oh so much more. She discusses and analyses the people in her life – characters quite obviously based on Smith’s actual friends and relatives – and leaves the reader feeling altogether exhilarated, enervated and not infrequently bewildered.

I expect people either love or loathe this book. I loved it!

NB The text is peppered with German words and expressions (Latin and French, too), but this wasn’t a problem for me because my Kindle offered instant translation.

Also see: Book Review: Me Again: Uncollected Writings Of Stevie Smith

Book Review: Life After Life

by Kate Atkinson

It is difficult to know how to define Life After Life, Kate Atkinson’s 2013 Costa Book Award winning novel. It is part Historical Fiction because of its authentic depiction of English life both during and between the World Wars, however, since the protagonist is repeatedly reincarnated into the same life, it could more precisely be placed in the Sci-fi sub genre category of Time Travel.

It all begins (and keeps beginning) on 11th February 1910, during a particularly heavy snow storm, but the end date varies according to what at first appear to be quite minor decisions on the part of Ursula – the third child of Sylvie and Hugh Todd – which only too often lead to devastating, life-changing and not infrequently tragic consequences for herself and those around her.

This is a book about second chances and what-ifs. It also reveals hidden secrets, explores love in its myriad forms and displays sheer British pluckiness in the face of nightly bombing raids during the Blitz. All this is borne with understated humour and stiff upper lip by the Todd family as they move through varying versions of the same life.

Kate Atkinson’s ingenious novel shows us how small changes of behaviour can have seismic repercussions throughout history. She also left me wondering how some of the terrible events of the 20th century might have been avoided.

Incidentally, this is the first in a duology about the Todd family, the second being A God in Ruins (2015).

Book Review: Zennor in Darkness

by Helen Dunmore

The British poet, novelist and children’s writer, Helen Dunmore died of cancer at the age of 64 on 5th June 2017. Sad to say, I have only now come to her work with this, her very first novel, published in 1993.

Winner of the McKitterick Prize, Zennor in Darkness could best be described as a rich, intricate, intensely lyrical historical novel. Set in the spring of 1917, at a time when the controversial author, D.H. Lawrence, and his German wife, Frieda (pejoratively referred to as “Hunwife” by wary locals who suspected the unconventional couple of being enemy spies) sought refuge from war-obsessed Britain in a tiny Cornish coastal village close to St Ives. Their story is interwoven with those of finely drawn fictional characters, in particular, Clare Coyne, a young artist they befriend.

This mesmerizing, poignant novel, which explores what it means to belong and how it feels to be an outsider in a tight, ultra-traditional community, seeks to define courage amid a miasma of gossip, scandal and innuendo.

All told, Dunmore published twelve novels. I intend to read each one of them, probably in sequence. Sheer indulgence? Maybe, but I’m thoroughly hooked and have much catching-up to do!