What it’s about…

Welcome along to the Fiction of Relationships, my blog for commenting on, or – just about – reviewing, books I’ve read. I’ve been doing this on and off in Amazon for a long time but the comments kind of disappear there and when I want to look back to see what I thought about a book, perhaps because someone else is reading it, it is often hard to find them.

Increasingly, I’m getting books for pre-publication review from the kind people at NetGalley. If a book is marked as NEW it isn’t published yet but when it is I mark it as ‘Just Published’. Books without either are published and available!

I’m interested in the nuts and bolts of popular literary criticism and I think it’s interesting to share different readings of texts in trying to understand what the writer thinks they’re about, and what they might be also about, while putting into words where they might add to what I’m about.

I’m not precious about literary criticism. I have previously got into trouble for casually describing Manon Lescaut as porn for priests and suggesting that Jane Eyre might be related to chick lit but I was only trying to stir things up a bit and move beyond the literary voice.

My view is that you can read most of what you like into texts which is why they are so enjoyable. You should not have to take on received messages or recite ‘literary’ observations to get your grade or make your point. Being totally heretical, because you are talking to a group of collaborative readers, I’m not convinced that you have to evidence with quotation and reference every assertion that you make and there are certain disciplinary practices at work in the formal practice of literary criticism which Foucault would have a laugh about.

It might also be worth remembering that literary criticism has not been going on that long, has constantly been owned by a middle-class and allegedly educated elite, and is subject to constant internal arguments about what it actually is. It also easily leads to sloppy lists of conclusions about books which are simply assumed to be true. That doesn’t of course detract from the enjoyment of talking about books you’ve read!

Finally, one of the nice things about a blog like this is the element of social construction. The reality of any book can be built by readers contributing to blogs and forums, writing fan fiction or whatever and perhaps being informed by expert voices but not necessarily led. Comments are very welcome on any of these reviews!

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Hark by Sam Lipsyte

This book is set at some not too very distant time and place in the future where a dysfunctional couple called Fraz and Tovah Penzig get involved with an up-and-coming guru called Hark Morner who has developed this wonderful new strategy known as Mental Archery. Along with Kate, a wealthy donor, and a damaged woman called Teal they become part of Hark’s inner group tracking his rise to fame, the appropriation of his approaches by big business and an eventual tragic end.

The book is a satire, presumably of modern American life, and there are constant asides and throwaway lines referring to that country’s culture. So we get a subtext on childhood through the couple’s two children, David and Lisa, while Kate’s story drifts into healthcare as she spend her time transporting organs around the country for rich people. There is quite a bit in the book about mental archery with its potted philosophy, fake references to history, and the poses to adopt – as people use it for their own bizarre purposes.

Like a lot of American satire, the book takes itself quite seriously. Most English satire is based on ‘taking the piss’ out of institutions (sorry, there isn’t a better word) and comic situations but Hark is kind of serious in its unfolding although we are expected to laugh knowingly. That for me, is a weakness in the book. It tries too hard to be clever and knowing as if the author says follow me if you can.

It is also difficult to get involved in the characters. Fraz and Tovah have a collapsing relationship and Teal, someone who should probably be the last person to help, is counselling them. There is plenty that comes out of this but it is somehow undeveloped and it is then hard to feel sympathy for Fraz after Lisa falls into a coma when he has thrown her into a tree trunk while trying to be a good father.

I didn’t really enjoy the book but I can see it might appeal to a certain millennial perspective. It’s generally pretty bleak about the prospects for humanity!

The book goes all mystical at the end and Hark undergoes a bit of a resurrection and turns up to meet his followers in their last moments. Is that supposed to make us think some of this could just possibly be real or is it a bit more satire as the world continues to collapse into anarchy? You can take your pick.

(Hark is published in the UK by Granta Publications. I received an advance copy through NetGalley in return for an honest review.)

The Snakes by Sadie Jones

My wife and I once stayed in a house in Èze in the south of France along with several other couples with children. On paper, the attic looked like the room of choice with a separate staircase and a bit of peace and quiet so we decided to rotate it during the holiday to give everyone a treat. It turned out to be nothing like that. Every night as you tried to go to sleep there were strange slithering noises above and I imagined snakes, hungry, poisonous snakes! We were falling over each other to generously pass the room to the next couple! I mention that because this novel has a house with snakes in the roof and the snakes are dangerous!

However, the real snake in this story, the one that gets under your clothes and winds itself in knots around you is money. The central character Bea is a normal, fairly plain and ordinary girl with a pleasant enough husband called Dan living a life without wealth, but not poverty stricken, in London. However her father, Griff, from whom she is largely estranged is monumentally rich, corrupted by his wealth and the pursuit of more. He is rude, boorish and offensive and she is well off away from him. Her brother Alex has not escaped and has been driven by parental abuse of many sorts into mental collapse. At the start of the novel, Bea and Dan take a few months off work to travel and go to visit Alex en route, at what is allegedly a hotel he’s in the process of opening in central France.

It’s clear when they arrive that Alex can’t cope not only with life but also with an infestation of snakes in the roof. He is falling apart and, then, to make matters worse, the rich parents arrive. Without giving too much away, everything falls apart and the ending is hideously tragic. The driver for all of these events is money. The shambolic hotel is a front for money-laundering and poor, confused Alex is the messenger boy. Dan, another poor boy, is gradually drawn in to see what wealth can be like and finds it hard to resist. Bea sees him change and struggles to hold on both to him and her principles. Everyone finds the snakes first tempting them and then enveloping them and, ultimately, the snakes win…

It’s a good story and Sadie Jones tells it well. She has the same talent as William Boyd for setting a convincing scene and populating foreign places with realistic characters and details. You feel as if you are in France. She also develops some thoroughly nasty characters and an ambivalent view of wealth and its corrupting effects without ever seeming to sermonise. Russ, who rolls up at the end and kind of rolls up the story is simply someone else corrupted by the lure of the cash. It’s sad.

(The Snakes is published by Random House UK and I received an advance copy through NetGalley in return for a fair review.)

 

The Frank Business by Olivia Glazebrook

Although Frank gets a credit in this title he actually dies on the first page. His death reveals a range of dark secrets about his relatives and lover as the consequences rebound in the next generation. Maybe the name Frank is a pun because no one in this novel is frank in the sense of being honest with one another if they can get away with an evasion or a half-truth.

Kathleen Griffin, the central living character, is a bit of second-rate TV actress with pretensions to film and the stage. She has a son, Sonny, who is also an actor and at the start of the book they have featured as Gertrude and Hamlet in a radio production of Shakespeare’s play. Frank, her one-time lover, hears this broadcast at his home in France and is inspired to set off to London on Christmas Eve before unhappily collapsing at Heathrow Airport with a massive aortic aneurysm.

That is worth mentioning because it is a genetic condition and he has a daughter, official, and a son, unofficial, the product of a brief relationship with a passing film star who might inherit it. That’s enough of the plot without giving too much away.

I had a problem with this book in that I didn’t really warm to any of the characters. Kathleen doesn’t want the truth to come out but at the same time cannot be truly honest with anyone. I think you are meant to think she is scatty and doing her best in a sea of confused emotions but I didn’t really like her. She treats her daughter badly and exploits Frank’s wife without thinking twice.

I wasn’t so keen on her son and her cold fish daughter, Lauren, either. Sonny has an on and off girlfriend who he treats with minimal respect and the wronged husband, Walter, has his own secrets as some kind of war correspondent or photographer.

The story unravels with people jumping into cars and suddenly deciding to jump into planes which always seem to have one seat available. The plot takes place in a range of rather posh London houses and a rural French retreat and you never quite know who’s going to turn up where.

In the end it isn’t like Hamlet and everyone gets back together with someone and it’s all rather cosy. I wasn’t convinced by that really either but you can make your own judgements there! I think I might have enjoyed it more if the characters were less self obsessed but, then, I didn’t even like the family dog who comments occasionally from the sidelines.

(The Frank Business is published by John Murray. Thanks for an advance copy from NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.)

The Wolf and the Watchman by Niklas Natt och Dag

Mickel Cardell is a night watchman in Stockholm in 1793 summoned to pull a body out of the waste filled river. That might be a fairly common occurrence but this body has no arms or legs; they have been surgically removed one by one and the wounds sewn up as a form of extended torture. Wanting to know more, he finds himself involved with Cecil Winge, an ex-detective who is dying of tuberculosis and has been asked by the local police chief to investigate the case. So far we have a standard detective story trope; a body mutilated in interesting ways, a cerebral detective and a hard man sidekick with insights and local knowledge.

It’s not a very pleasant story. Along the way to solving the crime Cardell is seriously beaten up twice although he already lacks an arm. Winge is steadily haemorrhaging and dying and Stockholm is buried in mountains and rivers of human waste. There are also only dilapidated buildings and slums, the supporting cast are villains and prostitutes and there is revolutionary unrest in the streets. You wouldn’t want to watch this in smellyvision!

Just to make things worse, Winge has left his wife who he loves so that she is not subjected to his final disgusting illness and has gently inserted a potential lover into her company and created absences to further their relationship. You don’t need more details but it’s not fun.

There is also a suicide, a bungled public execution, a shadowy secret society and a series of graphic letters from the young man who is recruited to remove the limbs of the murder victim (and his tongue for good measure).

There is a subplot with a woman character who ends up being unfairly charged with whoring, is sent to the workhouse, brutally beaten, escapes, gets back to normality, fears she has been identified and will be rearrested and so buys some kind of acid to destroy her face. That’s just to cheer the reader up between amputations.

It would be giving away too much to explain what finally happens to the mutilated man but it’s pretty disgusting and when the detective and his sidekick track down the real killer it turns out his upbringing was to blame so they find a convenient way to have him executed without trial and Winge can die at peace.

And that’s it really. It’s not quite Scandinavian Noir but a rather stinking deep Scandinavian excremental brown. If you’ve got a strong stomach and you like violent detective stories this could be for you. And one other thing, you can read a lot of historical novels where the events and context are sanitised. At least this book gives you the real thing and if you can stomach the descriptions they are well described!

(The Wolf and the Watchman is published by John Murray. Thanks for an advance copy in return for a fair review.)

The Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli

This is a stunning story – absolutely appropriate for our times and with multiple layers of meaning. I believe that it is her first book in English (the previous ones were published in Spanish initially) and it is well worth seeking out. I’d be tempted to give it the Booker Prize as well!

At first sight, it isn’t an easy text. The structure of the book into four parts sub-sectioned into boxes (among other things), the intertextuality that pervades the story, the different observational standpoints and the constant references to something else you should have read all makes for a challenge. This isn’t a straightforward narrative!

The heart of the story is a road journey across America to the Mexican border undertaken by a nameless man and wife and their two nameless children. The husband wants to relocate in order to record Apache soundscapes but the relationship with his wife is all but broken and she intends to leave him there and start a new project back in New York. The wife and, later, the son document the journey.

The story of the journey is intermingled with another journey told in a series of ‘elegies’ about a group of Latin American children being slowly smuggled towards the United States border with some vague hope of finding relatives there, and the concerns of the liberal wife for a friend of a friend whose two daughters may have been ‘lost’ making this journey. The long car journey is interspersed with the father’s stories of the Apache Indians and Geronimo, and the repetitive playing of David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ and an audio tape of ‘Lord of the Flies’. Ultimately, after travelling for many days in the ‘tin can’ of their Volvo the two children go off on their own, living the primitive life of the boys in the audiobook and they become lost as the two ‘lost children narratives’ coincide.

I love the children in the story who are so well drawn from the start that the almost symbolic climax is believable. Most readers would want to take them to a place of safety as far away from their deluded parents as soon as possible. The father records sounds, allegedly randomly but assuming that from multiple recordings some kind of reality will emerge. He is hopelessly wrong as he stumbles around with his microphone boom and headphones accidentally objectifying his surroundings by what he selects. He is somehow lost as well.

The wife is in a lost relationship selfishly pursuing her own liberal ideals, full of self-analysis and righteousness while accidentally neglecting the children. I didn’t like her either. Perhaps other readers will look more kindly on the parents but they seem to be embedded in, and are perhaps the products of, a culture where nastiness to children has constantly featured – the book provides the evidence.

The elegies about the other children are haunting and harrowing. The construction of the narrative means that you keep returning to them and sense the passing of time as they make this desperate journey with little sense of where they are and what is happening while being coerced along by men whose only interest is being paid for their delivery. This part of the story doesn’t end well. It is tragically where fiction collides with documentary and the contemporary world and it is hard not to be moved.

(The Last Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli is published by HarperCollins. I received a copy via NetGalley in return for a fair review.)

The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal

The Doll Factory conjures up a view of central London in the 1850s which is as visceral as it is violent. It is a time of massive change with the Great Exhibition being launched at the Crystal Palace and the Pre-Raphaelite artists challenging the established order of the day. The central character is Iris, doomed initially to work painting dolls in a sweatshop, but destined to meet Louis Frost one of the Pre-Raphaelite artists working in London and to become his model – and then more.

But, this certainly isn’t a romance! Iris has a damaged shoulder from some congenital injury, her sister has been horribly scarred by smallpox and she is stalked by Silas, a malevolent stalker and, ultimately, evil taxidermist with a penchant for dead things. Her young toothless ally, Albie, who might have been her rescuer comes to a sad end as well.

Much of the book features the happy gallivanting and free-living of the self-labelled PRB amidst the poverty, filth and stink of London. They sometimes seemed a little cheerful and carefree to me, raucously rubbing up against the establishment but perhaps that’s how it was. In return for extracting Iris from her terrible job causing her to lose contact with her shocked sister and family and ultimately, in a fairly friendly way, seducing her Louis teaches her to paint and, predictably, she proves to be talented.

So far so good, then Silas intervenes and the cheery narrative slips into Stephen King territory – not to give away any more. It’s unpleasant but with a bit of pluck and courage it all ends happily.

There’s lots to like about this book. The evocation of the filthy lowlife contrasted with the flamboyant artists and the technological advances of the Great Exhibition is well developed. The way that Iris, struggling with her upbringing and guilty about her sisters scarred condition, pursues her desire to paint is also well described and the obsessive nasty animal stuffer is a really unpleasant character.

Having said that, I’m not sure if the whole thing held together as an artistic whole but that’s a quibble about a very assured writing debut.

(The Doll Factory will be published in May 2019 by Picador. I received a pre-publication copy through NetGalley in return for a fair review.)

Notes to Self by Emilie Pine

This is an extraordinary book. I hesitate to call it a book because it is really a collection of unconnected essays which add up to a picture of someone’s life. Emilie Pine writes most powerfully about her father and his battles with alcoholism, about her own struggles with fertility and about her teenage years. She also provides one of the most insightful accounts ever of what it means to be a female academic today.

She is a detached observer, providing the most intimate details laconically and then worrying that they might not give the full picture. However, what comes across is what it feels like to be in that place. That’s a triumph.

I don’t know if women and men will read it differently. I finished it thinking that my teenage daughter ought to read it just to understand a bit more about how the world operates but maybe that’s just a kind of fatherly guilt. Maybe because I have daughters, the section on growing up, the pitfalls of life and, especially, the loneliness of adolescence really moved me. The book is also quite funny in a black sort of way with humour in unexpected situations.

I liked the sense throughout the book that men are not the enemy, just victims of the same system acting out their roles in different ways. I liked the way that Emilie slowly comes to find agency in all of these ghastly situations she describes even sorting out a way of coming to terms with her own body or rather her sense of it.

Although some people might find the book rather grim (slow deaths and quite a lot of blood) she does work through to solutions and accommodations even if they’re not always easy to find. Her style makes for an easy read but don’t be fooled – there are hidden depths to be negotiated.

(Notes to Self will be published in 2019 by Penguin Books. Thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for the chance to read it in return for an honest review.)