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Wednesday Song: ‘Shark Smile’ by Big Thief

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‘The Lost Daughter Collective’ by Lindsey Drager *****

I was immediately intrigued by Lindsey Drager’s novella, The Lost Daughter Collective.  Throughout, bedtime stories told to young girls are used as cautionary tales; each, like a fairytale, starts off in rather a beguiling and sweet manner, but soon the sinister begins to creep in.

The main narrative, which in its first half introduces us to a five-year-old girl and her father, is interspersed with the smaller ‘bedtime’ stories, all of which add a lot to the whole.  This approach to structure is simple yet clever, and works incredibly well.  We do not learn the girl’s name, but learn about her through her thoughts, fears, and dreams.31305921

Grief is one of the mainstays of the novella, in all its many forms.  The Lost Daughter Collective of the title is a group for bereaved fathers, who have lost their daughters either to death, or to life.  The collective ‘gathers on the top floor of an abandoned umbrella factory in the downtown of a mid-sized city.  The group is composed of men who meet weekly to harness their mourning, a delicate practice best not undertaken alone.’  The fathers, different as they are, have decided that the best way to meet is to categorise their daughters into two distinct groups; there are the Dorothys, who are dead, and the Alices, who are missing.  ‘Qualifying their lost girls in this way,’ writes Drager, ‘is a silently endorsed coping mechanism.  When a new father arrives, no one need articulate the method of daughter-exit from his life.  The others can tell whether he is the victim of a Dorothy or an Alice by the new father’s posture and gait.  Father sorrow is best read through the mobile body.’

I loved the stylish fairytale feel which the prose had, and the fact that all of the characters, for the first half of the book, are unnamed; instead, they go by their job titles.  The father of our unnamed young protagonist is known as the ‘Wrist Scholar’ for instance, working as he is upon that almost unidentifiable space between hand and arm.  The themes which Drager has woven in are rather dark on the whole, and her clever ideas have such a power to them.  There is an awful lot to think about and mull over in The Lost Daughter Collective.  There are interesting twists which cause one to consider exactly what loss is, and whether one can truly overcome it.

Drager manages to be both charming and unsettling in her prose and storyline, and strikes a balance between the two marvellously.  She uses familiar stories and tropes – for instance, using ‘Dorothy’ of The Wizard of Oz, and Alice of Lewis Carroll’s books – and sometimes simplistic, fairytale-esque prose, in which she fits all of the separate stories.  Really, though, Drager makes them all her own; there is little similarity here between other books which have at least a partial basis in fairytale.  Drager also cleverly weaves in semi-autobiographical stories which feature the likes of Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Mary Shelley, which are wonderful to behold.

There is no predictability here, and whilst similar structures have been used, and parallels can be drawn, the ideas are all Drager’s own.  The Lost Daughter Collective is at once familiar and fresh, and uses artful repetition at junctures; it is as beautifully written as it is startlingly profound.  It is short enough to be read in a single sitting, but its depth of ideas and prose will linger long afterwards.  The Lost Daughter Collective is quite unlike anything I’ve read in ages, with its reimagined and reshaped stories, and its original approach.  It is a real gem of a book, both enchanting and entrancing.

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‘Ms Ice Sandwich’ by Mieko Kawakami ****

The second book from Pushkin Press’s Japanese Novellas series which I am going to review today is Ms Ice Sandwich by Kawakami Mieko (yes, she shares the same last name as Kawakami Hiromi whose Record of a Night Too Brief I reviewed last week, but the two authors have no relation whatsoever as far as I am concerned).

Ms+Ice+SandwichI had never read anything by Kawakami Mieko before, but I have to admit that this novella caught my interest from the outset. It might have been very brief and left me yearning for more, but I developed an instant liking to her quirky yet utterly captivating writing style.

The story revolves around a young boy whose name and exact age are never really revealed (I’m guessing he’s a junior high schooler but I could be wrong), who has fallen in love with the lady who makes and sells sandwiches at the supermarket. His innocent infatuation drives him to visit her sandwich stand every so often just so he can catch a glimpse of her face. When he descibes the lady, he places specific emphasis on the beautiful characteristics of her face and her “ice-blue eyelids” which earned her the nickname Ms Ice Sandwich.

The only people who know about the boy’s infatuation are his grandma, who is stuck in her bed, unable to move and to whom the protagonist often entrusts his deepest thoughts and feelings, and his best friend from school, Tutti, with who he seems to start developing a deeper relationship as the story progresses. During one of the boy’s visits to Ms Ice Sandwich, he hears one of her customers shouting ugly words at her about her face, which he also happens to overhear from some of his female classmates the day after the event. The author does not really spend any time weaving a mystery around the lady’s face (something which I rather expected to happen), she chooses to focus on the boy’s feelings and perceptions of the woman instead.

Ultimately, this is not at all a love story and it was never supposed to be one. Instead, it is a fascinating, touching and quiet coming-of-age story with a plethora of lessons to be taught and inspiring passages. One of my favourites was from Tutti’s motivational speech to our protagonist:

If you want to see somebody you have to make plans to meet, or even make plans to make plans, and next thing you end up not seeing them anymore. That’s what’s going to happen. If you don’t see somebody, you end up never seeing them. And then there’s going to be nothing left of them at all.

Another issue this short novella tackles is, of course, difference and how people and the society deal with people who are “different”. While I felt that the author could have expanded a lot more on this issue rather than just leaving it as a side-issue, perhaps nothing more was needed to be said. One thing I have definitely learned from reading Japanese literature is that, sometimes, subtlety is much more powerful.

That brings me to the last thing I want to discuss about this book. The translation was excellent and flowed very naturally, so very much so that at some point I forgot I was reading Japanese and not Anglophone literature. Not having read the original, I cannot know whether that was a feature of the original text itself or whether it was the translator’s magic, but I was quite satisfied with it.

Overall, Ms Ice Sandwich is a very heart-warming and quiet novella about growing up, first love, loss and learning to cope with all these new feelings which inundate kids at that age all of a sudden. I would definitely recommend this to anyone with no exception, as you are certain to gain something upon reading it regardless of your literary preferences.

This book was provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley.

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‘Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty’ by Ramona Ausubel *****

I was so eager to read Ramona Ausubel’s Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty that I ordered it directly from Washington state.  I adored her debut novel, No One Is Here Except All of Us, which was published in 2012, and takes place in Romania during the Second World War.  The storyline of Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty is rather different, but no less compelling.

1024x1024Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty, which has been so wonderfully received, begins in Martha’s Vineyard on Labor Day, 1976, and spans generations and decades.  Fern and Edgar, who were high-school sweethearts, are holidaying with their three children.  Despite their ‘deeply professed anti-money ideals’, both have been living a ‘beautiful, comfortable life’ thanks to Fern’s recently deceased parents.  When Fern receives a phone call to inform her that all of the money, which she and her family have been so reliant upon, is gone, their ‘once-charmed’ life unravels immediately.

Fern and Edgar both leave the familial home on separate adventures, unaware that the other parent has also escaped, and their three children have been left completely alone, in the care of seven-year-old Cricket.  As their ‘paths divide and reunite, the characters must make crucial decisions about their own values, about the space they occupy in American history, and about the inner mould of their family.’  Ausubel poses questions regarding their situation, using them to explore the bigger issues of inherited wealth and privilege.  Perhaps the most striking of these is: ‘When you’ve worked for nothing, what do you owe?’

When surveying his family’s vacation house, Ausubel writes the following about Edgar: ‘He knew that the summerhouse, the sea view, belonged to him because he paid for them, yet it felt like his bloodstream pumped with this place, like the rocks and waves and saltmuck were in him, that he was of them.  But money, old money, got all the press.’  His own parents are wealthy too, enjoying the profits of a successful steel business, which has even allowed them to purchase their own private island in the Caribbean.  He has repeatedly been offered a position in the company, which comes with a very healthy salary, but has so far turned it down; he sees himself, rather than a business operative, as an aspiring novelist, writing back against industry and inherited wealth.  ‘Being rich,’ writes Ausubel, ‘had felt to Edgar like treading alone for all of time in a beautiful, bottomless pool.  So much, so blue, and nothing to push off from.  No grit or sand, no sturdy earth, just his own constant movement to keep above the surface.’  Although the family protest about inherited money, when Fern tells Edgar of their wealth running out, ‘It was like announcing a death…  The money had lived its own life, like a relative.’

Ausubel writes with such clarity, and there is a wonderful depth to Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty.  She notices and relays the most minute things back to the reader, making them astonishingly beautiful; for instance: ‘Fern had felt the very specific warmth of Edgar’s skin, different from anyone elses.  Suddenly, the car had slowed and they had both jolted forward.  The road ahead of them had turned all silver, shimmering and slippery, like mercury had spilled all over it.  It had melted like the sea.’  Ausubel’s characters are multi-dimensional, and she has a real understanding both for the adults and children whom she has created.  Cricket particularly is an endearing creature; she has been rendered vivid in both her actions and speech, and one warms to her immediately.  The family’s story plays out against important elements of social history – the Vietnam war, for example.

Whilst Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty has perhaps a more conformist feel to it than No One Is Here Except All of Us, it is no less beautiful.  Ausubel deftly and brilliantly evokes a once perfect relationship which soon becomes a troubled marriage, and explores such themes as belonging, trust, the notion of inheritance – both bodily and monetarily, and love.  Her prose is thoughtful throughout, and some passages incredibly sensual.  Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty is a deeply human novel, and I did not want it to end.

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‘The Hidden Room’ by Stella Duffy ***

Stella Duffy is a prolific author, but before picking up her newest novel, The Hidden Room, I had shamefully never read any of her work.  She goes back to her roots, so to speak, with this title, returning to the genre of psychological thrillers after twelve years.

The Hidden Room has been wonderfully reviewed.  Crime writer Val McDermid writes: ‘Nobody turns the screw of tension tighter… 9780349007878[it] left me gasping’, and Alex Marwood adds: ‘Duffy roars back into crime writing with her trademark intensity.  The Hidden Room is spooky, atmospheric and as psychologically on point as it could be.  If you want to be disturbed, read this book.’

The novel follows a married couple named Laurie and Martha, who should, by all accounts, be incredibly happy.  They have three healthy teenage children, and live in an enormous house, a finished renovation project which they undertook together, in the middle of the Lincolnshire countryside.  After Laurie’s architectural career takes off, ‘Martha had become the prime carer by default, which had never been the plan, and had almost grown into a problem – until Martha had something else to occupy her thoughts, someone else.  Someone to think about when she was increasingly the only parent picking the kids up from a late practice or date, the only parent around to enforce Sunday-night homework.  Someone to make her feel a bit sixteen again, and a lot less thirty-nine.  A lot less almost forty.’

The novel’s opening paragraph sets up the creepiness and tension almost immediately:

‘Laurie lived in a community when she was a child.
Some people called that community a cult, and she was taken away when she was nine years old.
She didn’t stay in touch with anyone from there.
She never went back.
Nothing remains from that time in her life.

Laurie keeps secrets.’

Throughout, Duffy introduces a series of flashbacks which relate to Laurie’s early life, and the cult which she belonged to.  When still a child, she was ‘covenanted’ to a boy two years older than her.  After the ceremony, they ‘led the community in their dance that night.  They led stumbling, unsure, it was difficult to make the steps with their hands crossed and bound to each other, but they led anyway.  Exactly as Abraham often explained, they led because the others followed – he had dreamed the community into being, and it was a community only because they all surrendered to the dream.  The dream and the promise, all tied together in a long, thin strip of tired red cotton.’

When Laurie is alone in the house, she finds a small crawlspace in the attic, which she soon begins to refer to as her ‘hidden room’; it is ‘narrow, wide enough for a single bed with a very little space to move alongside, and just over six feet long.  It was definitively a part of the house, and it had once been a room, the bookcase had been nailed and drilled into place against what had been a door frame.’   She tells nobody about it, and when her past comes back to haunt her, it is to this space that she retreats: ‘So when she found the little room behind the bookcase she saw it as a gift.  She didn’t think Martha would have minded if she’d said she wanted a space, for her work, or even just to think.  But it wasn’t only a room that Laurie wanted, she wanted a secret, something of her own.’

Both the present and past stories which Duffy builds in The Hidden Room are engaging, and her often breathy prose sets the pace marvellously.  Whilst the novel was nowhere near as taut, nor as tense, as I was expecting, and whilst I did guess the twists, I found the novel compelling nonetheless.  Some elements were predictable, and others strange, but overall, the balance which Duffy has struck here works well.

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Reading the World: ‘The Beauty and the Beast’ by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve ****

2017 seems a fitting year in which to read The Beauty and the Beast, as Disney released its live action blockbuster just a few months ago.  I did love the cartoon film as a child – my particular fondness, of course, was for the tiny chipped teacup and the glimpse of Belle’s library – but was very underwhelmed by the new interpretation.  Regardless, I had never read Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s original story before, and made up my mind to do so, tying it in with this year’s Reading the World Challenge.9780062456212

I’m sure everyone already knows the story of The Beauty and the Beast, but if not, I will offer a short recap.  The tale of a merchant opens the story; once prosperous, he has lost his fortune due to one catastrophe after another.  He moves his sizeable family – six daughters and six sons – to a secluded house which he owns, one hundred miles away.  Of the effects which this has upon the merchant’s largely spoilt and self-obsessed daughters, de Villeneuve writes: ‘They thought that if they wished only for a husband they would obtain one; but they did not remain very long in such a delightful illusion.  They had lost their greatest attractions when, like a flash of lightning, their father’s splendid fortune had disappeared, and their time for choosing had departed with it.  Their crowd of admirers vanished at the moment of their downfall; their beauty was not sufficiently powerful to retain one of them’.  The girls have no choice but to ‘shut themselves up in their country house, situated in the middle of an almost impenetrable forest, and which might well be considered the saddest abode in the world.’

The family’s youngest daughter, sixteen-year-old Beauty, is the anomaly.  She has so much compassion and empathy for her family, and is a refreshing addition to a brood of rather horrid, vain girls.  She in fact shows strength in the face of the family’s new-found adversity: ‘She bore her lot cheerfully, and with strength of mind much beyond her years’.  When her father has to undertake a long journey in the hope of reclaiming some of his former possessions, her sisters clamour for new dresses and finery.  Beauty simply asks him to bring her back a rose.  Her father is subsequently caught in a snowstorm which disorientates him, and seeks shelter in an enormous, grand castle.  He finds no inhabitant, but regardless, a meal is presented to him in a cosy room.  He – for no explicit reason – decides that, with no sign of an owner about, the castle must now belong to him.

The merchant becomes rather cocksure, and decides to kill two birds with one stone, taking a rose for his beloved younger daughter from the castle’s garden.  It is at this point that he is given his comeuppance, and reprimanded by the Beast, the castle’s owner: ‘He was terribly alarmed upon perceiving at his side a horrible beast, which, with an air of fury, laid upon his neck a kind of trunk, resembling an elephant’s…’.  The Beast pardons him only in exchange for one of his daughters.  When the merchant describes his plight, five of his six daughters are, unsurprisingly, selfish, and believe that he should sacrifice himself for their benefit.  Beauty, however, steps up to the mark, and is taken to the castle to live with the Beast.

The Beauty and the Beast has been so well plotted, and has many elements of the traditional fairytale in its favour.  Despite this, it goes further; its length allows de Villeneuve to really explore what could be termed magical realism.  The vivid dreams which Beauty has are beautifully depicted, and tension is built at times.  I found The Beauty and the Beast just as enjoyable as I would have as a child.  The magic which weaves its way through the novel cannot fail to draw one under its spell; there are talking animals, enchanted mirrors, and things which appear and disappear.  The talking crockery and candelabra are very much Disney additions; the novel reads as a far more fresh, and less gimmicky, version of the story.

I am pleased that I chose to read the unabridged version of de Villeneuve’s story, which was published in its original French in 1740.  This particular edition has been translated and adapted by Rachel Louise Lawrence, who has very much retained a lot of its antiquity.  The sentence structure is quite old-fashioned – charmingly so, in fact.  The writing and translation here are fluid and lovely.  I would urge you, if you’ve not seen the film, to pick up this delightful tome instead.  There is so much substance here, and it should definitely be placed alongside children’s classics such as The Railway Children and Mary Poppins.

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