Book Review: Her Body and Other Parties

by Carmen Maria MachadoHer-Body-And-Other-Parties

Carmen Maria Machado’s debut short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, has marked her out as an effervescent talent in fermentation.

Her gorgeously lubricious, fantastically deranged, genre-twisting stories explore women’s bodies and the physical violence all too frequently visited upon them. Her narratives are strewn with surreal situations masquerading as humdrum lives, and many of her characters are propelled into states of half lunacy by their circumstances.

Machado’s feminal leitmotifs progress from tales of bariatric surgery and outbreaks of a fading disease to a woman’s terrifying struggle to hang on to her sanity in the wake of a brutal attack. Nothing in these clever little fables is ever quite as it seems – and there is invariably a sinister something lurking just beyond our range of vision.

Her language is pleasingly inventive throughout. In The Resident, her protagonist describes a woman’s dress as a “shapeless frock whose fractal pattern spiralled dozens of holes into her torso and created in me immediate anxiety.”

Machado’s style won’t appeal to everyone – especially those who insist upon neat endings to their short fiction. Nevertheless, I feel sure there will be plenty of readers delighted by her virtuoso storytelling.

I look forward to the publication of House in Indiana, Machado’s forthcoming memoir, due for release in 2019.

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

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: The Reservoir Tapes

By Jon McGregor

reservoir13

First there was Reservoir 13, Jon McGregor’s highly acclaimed 2017 novel in which a teenage girl on holiday with her family goes missing. Eight months later we have The Reservoir Tapes, a companion piece, offering insights into the events leading up to Becky Shaw’s perplexing disappearance.

Set in a rural village in England’s Peak District – an upland area at the southern end of the Pennines – The Reservoir Tapes was first aired on BBC Radio 4 as a specially commissioned short fiction series (read by Neil Dudgeon), and has now been published as a volume of fifteen ‘prequel’ stories.

McGregor is a Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Nottingham, where he also edits the in-house literary journal, The Letters Page. Born in Bermuda in 1976, he grew up in Norfolk before moving to Nottingham, where, in 2002, he wrote the first of his four novels, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, while living on a narrowboat. Since then he has won the IMPAC Dublin Literature Prize, Betty Trask Prize, and Somerset Maugham Award, and has twice been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

He now gives us the opportunity to scrutinize the thoughts and actions of individual villagers associated with the Reservoir 13 investigation, looking back at events in their lives and focusing on their precise memories of the girl. He is a perspicacious observer of ordinary folk – in this case an old quarry worker, a cleaner, a young wife, park rangers, the local butcher, a newspaper delivery lad, an adolescent boy, a journalist, a prostitute and several others – giving us a tantalizing coup d’œil of a community with its own tale to tell.

McGregor is equally attentive of the surrounding wildlife and writes with exactitude of a deep, unstable quarry reclaimed by the natural world. A quarry at the very centre of this mystery. He leaves us wanting more.

Many thanks to 4th Estate for supplying an advance review copy of this title.

Book Review: Stories: The Collected Short Fiction

by Helen Garner

HelenGarner

Helen Garner is a versatile wordsmith. Should she ever require a curriculum vitae (unlikely as that seems), her résumé would include: novelist, short fiction writer, journalist, critic, translator and screenwriter among her superabundance of literary skills.

Born in the port city of Geelong, Australia, in 1942, Garner (neè Ford) worked as a high-school teacher from 1966 until she was sacked for “giving an unscheduled sex education lesson to her 13-year-old students” in 1972. She published her first novel, Monkey Grip, in that same year, since when it has become an important, though fiercely disagreed upon, part of the Australian canon. She is now widely regarded as one of the foremost Antipodean writers of her time.

Stories: The Collected Short Fiction – released to coincide with Garner’s 75th birthday – is a selection of neoteric tales from a hugely accomplished storyteller. Her characters are finely portrayed and believable, because flawed, and the narrative is wholly absorbing, often intense, although never to the point of seeming contrived.

Her protagonists tend to be lonely or desperate people who have Freudian-type dreams and bouts of anxiety, but an undercurrent of humour is detectable in each piece. Her stories never lack wit. Garner reaches her zenith in La Chance Existe and Dark Little Tales, but there are no weak parts to this collection – it is simply that some stories are more brilliant than others.

I started reading this book as a Helen Garner greenhorn. Appetite now whetted, I am keen to explore her substantial back catalogue, starting with The Children’s Bach, which is held by many to be one of the greatest short novels ever written by an Australian.

A truly bonzer discovery!

Many thanks to Text Publishing for supplying an advance review 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: A Maigret Christmas

by Georges Simenon, David Coward (Translation)

My 84-year-old mother is a great crime fiction buff. When she saw I was reading A Maigret Christmas by Georges Simenon, she commented that it was a great pity “Mr Bean” had been given the part of the French detective in ITV’s recent adaption, because “although he [Rowan Atkinson] is a very good actor, one keeps on expecting him to remove his trousers or do something equally silly in the middle of an important case.”

Mr Bean aside, the TV drama has merely brought renewed interest in Simenon’s shrewd, trilby-hat wearing, pipe-smoking commissioner of the Paris ‘Brigade Criminelle’. In 2013, Penguin Books started releasing new translations of his seventy-six Maigret novels, originally published between 1931 and 1972, and this collection of seasonal stories is the latest in their Classics’ series.

Simenon (1903-1989) was a prolific author, his novels, novellas and autobiographical works numbering almost five hundred. He was Belgian born, the son of an accountant, starting out as a cub reporter for the Gazette de Liège, before moving to Paris in 1922 following the death of his father. However, it was during his time as a young journalist that he came to know the seedier side of his city – his familiarity with local prostitutes, criminals and notorious drinking dens prepared him well for his profession as a writer of detective fiction.

A Maigret Christmas is the title story from this newly translated book of short fiction, in which the burly detective receives an unexpected visit from two ladies on Christmas morning. Maigret and his stoical wife, Louise (referred to throughout as Madame Maigret) are a childless couple in their fifties, endeavouring to be festive, though actually feeling rather melancholy in their soulless apartment. He is thus quietly relieved when his services are required by his neighbours following the appearance of a sinister intruder in their home. An intriguing case ensues.

The gruff but kindly Maigret was apparently based on Simenon’s good friend, Chief Inspector Marcel Guillaume, a man said to be the greatest French detective of his day. Whether “Mr Bean” was quite what he had in mind for his serial protagonist, we shall never know, but his most famous fictional character would appear to be more popular than ever.

Many thanks to Penguin Books (UK) for supplying the ARC of a single story from this collection.