One From the Archive: ‘Born Weird’ by Andrew Kaufman **

First published in May 2014.
I will happily read everything which Kaufman writes, as I very much enjoyed both The Tiny Wife and the quirky and rather inventive All My Friends are Superheroes.  As soon as I spotted this in my local library, I immediately added it to the teetering pile in my arms without even checking to see what it was about.  As it turned out, the blurb of the novel piqued my interest:

“At the moment of their birth Annie Weird gave each of her five grandchildren a special power that she thought was a blessing.  Richard, the oldest, would always keep safe; Abba would always have hope; Lucy would never get lost and Kent would be able to beat anyone in a fight.  As for Angie, she would always forgive, instantly.  But over the years, these blessings turned out to be curses that ruined their lives.

Now Annie is dying and she has one last task for Angie, her favourite grandchild.  Angie must gather her far-flung brothers and sisters and assemble them in her grandmother’s hospital room so that at the moment of her death, Annie can lift these ‘blursings’.  And Angie has just three weeks to do it.”

The book itself is beautiful, particularly in the brightly coloured wallpaper-patterned paperback edition (slightly different to that pictured), and it looked as though I was the first library user to read it.  The story of the Weirds takes place in Canada, and the pivotal event which occurs at the beginning of the book, and which causes the siblings to start losing touch with one another, is the unexpected death of their father.  Each and every one of the Weirds holds so much interest, and each appears as an individual, even within the context of their extended family.  It seems – at the start of the novel at least – that Kaufman has really put his trademark stamp of peculiarity upon each of his characters.

The Weirds are rather… well, weird.  Their grandmother is a true eccentric; their mother has not known who any of her children are for years, and they are able to get close to her only when they allow her to – rather poorly – cut their hair; Richard is a serial divorcee who tends to get married again as soon as the divource papers have been filed; Lucy has been fired from numerous jobs for being caught in flagrante…  As one who has read Kaufman’s other work may expect, elements of magical realism – not all of them necessary – have been threaded throughout the novel.

Whilst the first portion of the book is most enjoyable and inventive, as soon as Richard was introduced, the whole thing felt as though it entirely lost the momentum which had been built up.  There was a lack of consistency from start to finish, and the entirety was rendered odd and rather disappointing, particularly after such a promising start.

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Poetry Picks: Where to Start, and Where to Continue

I have been speaking to a lot of English students about poetry of late, and it seems that they either adore it and cannot get enough, or really don’t know where to start.  I have been sharing weekly poems on the blog almost since its inception, and thought I would make a little guide of where to start with poetry, and where to continue with it if you are already a fan.  I have adored work by the poets below, and would highly recommend them, both for new and established readers of one of the most beautiful forms which literature has given us.

1. Stella Benson (1892-1933; British feminist); begin with Twenty
2. Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950; American lyrical poet and playwright); begin with Renascence and Other Poems

Edward Thomas

3. Edward Thomas (1878-1917; British poet, essayist, and novelist); begin with Collected Poems
4. Jo Shapcott (1953-; English poet, editor and lecturer); begin with Of Mutability
5. Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926; Bohemian-Austrian poet); begin with Letters to a Young Poet
6. Ted Hughes (1938-1998; English poet and children’s author); begin with Birthday Letters
7. Ruben Dario (1867-1916; Nicaraguan poet); begin with Eleven Poems


One From the Archive: ‘Breaking Away’ (****) and ‘Someone I Loved’ (***) by Anna Gavalda

Breaking Away and Someone I Loved are both beautifully produced novellas which have recently been published by Gallic books.  Both have been translated wonderfully from their original French – Breaking Away by Alison Anderson and Someone I Loved by Catherine Evans.

Breaking Away was first published under the title French Leave.  This novella – for both books are of novella length, despite the way in which they say ‘a novel’ on their respective covers – tells the story of four siblings, the Loriats – Garance, Lola, Vincent and ‘too nice’ Simon.  The entirety of the story is fraught with the tensions of different relationships – the conspiratorial nature of Garance and Lola’s sisterhood, their adoration of Simon, and Garance’s dislike of her sister-in-law Carine taking centre stage.  In Breaking Away, the Loriats are travelling to a wedding in the countryside, Garance and Lola being driven there by Simon and Carine, and Vincent making his own uncertain way.

The differences of the siblings are set out rather succinctly by Garance, our narrator: ‘Then there’s the obvious fact that all of it – our apparent indifference, our discretion and our weakness, too – is our parents’ fault…  So here we are.  Sublime losers.  We just sit there in silence while the loudmouths get their way, and any brilliant response we might have come up with is nipped in the bud, and all we’re left with is a vague desire to be sick.’

The novella is told in a series of small vignettes, the majority of which lead into one another seamlessly.  Gavalda’s writing style throughout is most interesting, and startlingly contemporary at times.  She has used a good balance of long and short sentences, and knows by instinct which to employ at any given time, in order to give her story power, or to take it away.  The style which Gavalda has employed is rather witty, and I admired how headstrong Garance was as her tale went on.  Breaking Away is a most enjoyable novella, but it is far more fulfilling on the level of psychological character study than as a piece of plot-driven writing.  The interest lies in the intricacies of the relationships which Gavalda brings to light, and the inherent differences manifested in the siblings.

Someone I Loved was first published in France in 2002, and in the UK it made up part of the collection entitled I Wish Someone Were Waiting For Me Somewhere.  Again, the prose here has been split up into distinctive short sections, all of which join up with one another to create a coherent whole.  Someone I Loved also takes relationships as its main theme.  It focuses upon Chloe, whose husband has decided to leave her and their two small daughters in order to continue his relationship with his mistress.  In this novella, Gavalda ‘poignantly explores the fragility of human relationships’ – a theme which she seems eminently comfortable with, and which weaves its way through many of her stories.  Here, rather than deal solely with the breaking up of a marriage, she shows how it is possible to forge relationships too – here, between Chloe and her father-in-law.

Chloe’s father-in-law, Pierre, is assisting her through her devastation.  Chloe, our narrator, states that: ‘I think he is as unhappy as I am.  That he’s tired.  Disappointed.’  He decides to take her and her two little girls, Lucie and Marion, from their home in Paris to his mother’s house in the countryside.  This sojourn is a learning curve of sorts, in which both protagonists get to know one another, and to leave their misapprehensions behind.  Throughout, Chloe continually explains her new position in life: ‘You love a man, you have two children with him, and one winter morning, you learn that he has left because he loves someone else.  Adding that he doesn’t know what to say, that he made a mistake.’

The emotional balance has been rendered perfectly.  Chloe’s distraught feelings are balanced with happier scenes, and Gavalda uses this technique to present a full picture of her main character.  It is quite heartwarming that Lucie and Marion are used as the glue which holds their mother together: ‘What a wonderful invention little girls are, I thought as I combed her hair.  What a wonderful invention.’  Pierre too is determined to give his granddaughters everything which his own children missed out on due to his reserve as a parent: ‘”I’ve done everything wrong,” he said, shaking his head.’  Again, Gavalda’s prose and the narrative voice which she has crafted are so well done, and she is certainly an author who deserves to be read by many outside her native France.

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