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‘Go, Went, Gone’ by Jenny Erpenbeck ****

Go, Went, Gone by German author Jenny Erpenbeck was my book club’s choice for January.  I have read all of her other books which have been translated into English thus far, and find them all wonderfully strange, and highly memorable.  I was therefore looking forward to dipping into this novel, which is the winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and the English PEN Award.  Go, Went, Gone was also longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize.  Sally Rooney has called it ‘vital’, and The Guardian ‘profound’.  It has been translated into English by Susan Bernofsky.

81bkztrl1zlThe novel’s protagonist is a retired University professor of Classical Philology named Richard, a man who has lived alone in Berlin since the death of his wife.  Early on in the novel, he finds ‘a surprising new community on Oranienplatz – among the African asylum seekers who have set up a tent city there.’  As Richard slowly gets to know them, his life starts to change, and his own sense of belonging is thrown into question.

The story begins on the first day of Richard’s retirement, in which he finds himself cast rather adrift: ‘He doesn’t know how long it’ll take him to get used to having time.  In any case. his head still works just the same as before.  What’s he going to do with the thoughts still thinking away inside his head?’  His existence, rather than peopled with daily interactions with students and other members of staff, suddenly feels suffused with loneliness.  The inability which he now has to share his work with his peers, and with the wider community, saddens him: ‘As it is, everything his wife always referred to as his stuff now exists for his pleasure alone.  And will exist for no one’s pleasure when he’s gone.’

I admired the way in which Erpenbeck brought together quite disparate goings on in the world, using Richard as the more focused, privileged, Western character, and placing not-so-faraway terrors in his wake.  I found the following scene rather startling: ‘This isn’t the first time he’s felt ashamed to be eating dinner in front of a TV screen displaying the bodies of people felled by gunfire or killed by earthquakes or plane crashes, someone’s shoe left behind after a suicide bombing, or plastic-wrapped corpses lying side by side in a mass grave during an epidemic.’  In this manner, and later through the individuals whom he meets, the migrant crisis is firmly embedded throughout the narrative, entwining with Richard’s own life.  I also enjoyed the parallels which Erpenbeck drew between the Ancient world and the modern; for instance, the comparison made between the anonymous demonstration of migrants on Alexanderplatz, who refused to give their identities or nationalities, to the story in which Odysseus ‘called himself Nobody to escape from the Cyclops’s cave.’

Erpenbeck’s commentary about the Berlin Wall, which ran alongside the present-day crisis, was a forceful tool, establishing similarity between Richard and the migrants.  When Erpenbeck describes the way in which the demolition of the Wall made Berlin almost unknowable to Richard, likenesses form with the borders which the migrants he meets have to try and overcome: ‘Now that the Wall is gone, he no longer knows his way around.  Now that the Wall is gone, the city is twice as big and has changed so much that he often doesn’t recognize the intersections.’  With the Wall as her focus, Erpenbeck is able to mark the passing of time, as well as the changing face of both the city, and its political climate.  Instead of the ‘good bookstore around the corner, a repertory cinema, and a lovely cafe’ around Oranienplatz, the scene now looks more like a ‘construction site: a landscape of tents, wooden shacks, and tarps: white, blue, and green…  What does he see?  What does he hear?  He sees banners and propped-up signs with hand-painted slogans.  He sees black men and white sympathizers…  The sympathizers are young and pale, they dye their hair with henna, they refuse to believe that the world is an idyllic place and want everything to change, for which reason they put rings through their lips, ears, and noses. The refugees, on the other hand, are trying to gain admittance to this world that appears to them convincingly idyllic.  Here on the square, these two forms of wishing and hoping cross paths, there’s an overlap between them, but this silent observer doubts that the overlap is large.

At the novel’s opening, Erpenbeck lets us know that Richard has been shielded from the world around him – physically in terms of the marked space imposed upon him by the Berlin Wall, but figuratively too, moving as he does in the same circles and routines throughout his work, and with his wife.  In Go, Went, Gone, the refugees are given the ability to make Richard more malleable, to open his eyes to the wider world, and to shape elements of his persona.  Richard, despite his good education, job as a professor, and prior travels, was previously ignorant to such things as African geography, and could come across as ignorant.  When he meets a group of migrants for the first time, for instance, Erpenbeck writes: ‘The refugees weren’t all doing so badly, Richard thinks, otherwise how could this fellow be so burly?’ I found some of Richard’s gradual realisations quite moving; for example: ‘There’s something he’s never thought of since these men aren’t being permitted to arrive, what looks to him like peacetime here is for them basically still war.’

The novel’s blurb declares that in Go, Went, Gone, Jenny Erpenbeck makes ‘a passionate contribution to the debate on race, privilege and nationality’.  I agree with this; she certainly explores many issues which revolve around the notions of statehood and selfhood, and the difficulties which so many people have to overcome in order just to live in safety.  Reading such novels as this in our current climate, which places such emphasis on borders and boundaries, is pivotal.  The use which Erpenbeck makes of the present tense throughout just makes the realistic story which she has built feel all the more urgent.  So much of the human experience can be found within this novel.

The only drawback of Go, Went, Gone for me is that it only features the male perspective, but perhaps this is what Erpenbeck was going for.  The few female characters here are either absent – Richard’s wife, and the wives and sisters of many of the migrants – or on the periphery.  In some ways, this absence makes the book seem limiting; in others, I suppose, it is rendered more realistic, as Richard perhaps would not have been allowed the same access to female migrants.  The other slight issue that I had is with the translation; whilst I found Bernofsky’s work fluid, there were some overly long, and occasionally quite muddled, sentences within the novel.

Overall, I found Go, Went, Gone poignant and highly thought-provoking; it made me give so much consideration to the world in which we live, the terrible things which humankind daily proves itself capable of, and notions of privilege.  There is a strong sense of place, and of selfhood, here, and I really did like the way in which the author has not presented Germany, or the wider Western world, as a utopia. Throughout, I found Erpenbeck’s tone, and the omniscient narrative perspective, effective.  I admire the amount of themes which the author has been able to pack in.  She considers, with empathy, what it must be feel like to be an essentially stateless migrant in the modern world, and the injustices which face them on a daily basis.  Go, Went, Gone is a timely novel which I would highly recommend.

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The 1968 Club: ‘The Iron Man’ by Ted Hughes *****

I was hoping to be able to read and review something new for the wonderful 1968 reading club, hosted by Simon and Kaggsy, but my best intentions have been swallowed up in thesis writing.  I therefore thought that rather than miss out on contributing entirely, I would schedule a review for one of my favourite books, Ted Hughes’ The Iron Man, which just so happens to have been published in 1968.

indexThe Iron Man tells the story of a ‘man’ made entirely of metal, thought at first to be an enemy of the people.  He is found by a group of local villagers whilst snacking on their farm equipment, and they decide that the best thing to do in such circumstances is to build an enormous pit and lure the Iron Man inside.  This they do.  What they don’t factor into the equation is that the Iron Man is able to escape.  This he does.  A friendship with a young boy named Hogarth ensues, and to prove his worth to the sceptical adults, the Iron Man is tasked with saving the earth from an evil space creature.

This sounds very sci-fi, I know, and my wariness of choosing this as my first Hughes book to read was based purely upon the fact that I don’t overly enjoy science fiction as a genre.  All of my apprehension about it dissipated on the first page however, and I found The Iron Man to be an incredibly enjoyable little novel.  The story is one of the most inventive which I’ve come across in a long while, and I loved the way in which Hughes crafted his tale.  Despite the other-worldly beings, the writing style and descriptions throughout made it appear almost believable.

As a character, I adored the Iron Man.  He was wonderfully invented, and the passage about how his destroyed body rebuilt itself was so beautiful and startling that I read it numerous times.  Hughes’ imagination is a marvellous one, and Andrew Davidson’s monochrome illustrations which accompany the volume are beautiful.  The prose throughout is enchanting and vivid, and is certainly no less fascinating to read as an adult than I imagine it would have been to read as a child.

As a youngster, in fact, I would have been both terrified and utterly enchanted by the brilliant and memorable story and its characters.  There is nothing at all in the novel which I feel could be improved, and it has become a firm favourite of mine.

I feel that I should end on the wonderfully heartwarming message of the book:

“You are who you choose to be.”

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‘The Natural Way of Things’ by Charlotte Wood ****

Australian author Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things was mine and Katie’s March book club choice.  We were both eager to read it, and whilst I have seen some largely positive, but ultimately rather mixed reviews floating around, I am delighted to say that I was immediately pulled in, and could barely put the novel down.

Let us begin with some of the more positive criticism.  The Economist believes that ‘Charlotte Wood’s writing is direct and spare, yet capable of bursting with unexpected beauty’.  The Sydney Morning Herald deems it ‘an extraordinary novel: inspired, powerful, at once coherent and dreamlike’.  Author Liane Moriarty writes that it gives ‘an unforgettable reading experience’.  It is also the winner of 2016’s Indie Books of the Year prize.

The Natural Way of Things is an incredibly dark novel.  In it, ten young women awake from sedation, knowing not where they are, nor what they are doing there.  They are in the middle of the Australian bush, in a camp; they are stripped of their humanity, with heads shaved, and their own clothes taken away upon admission.  The girls find, after quite some time, that they have been taken to this camp as punishment for being embroiled in sexual scandals; from sleeping with several members of a football team, to having an explicit affair with a man in the public eye.  The girls are all markedly different, but their shameful secrets are what brand them the same.

9781760291877From the first, we feel protagonist Yolanda’s disorientation; we are privy to it: ‘So there were kookaburras here.  This was the first thing Yolanda knew in the dark morning. …  She got out of bed and felt gritty boards beneath her feet.  There was the coarse unfamiliar fabric of a nightdress on her skin.  Who had put this on her?’  Wood allows us to see her dilemma: ‘She knew she was not mad, but all lunatics thought that’.  Yolanda also, rather touchingly, takes an inventory of herself during her first morning in captivity: ‘Yolanda Kovocs, nineteen years eight months.  Good body (she was just being honest, why would she boast, when it had got her into such trouble?). …  One mother, one brother, living.  One father, unknown, dead or alive.  One boyfriend, Robbie, who no longer believed her…  One night, one dark room, that bastard and his mates, one terrible mistake.  And then one giant fucking unholy mess.’

There is a nightmarish quality to the novel, and the reader cannot help but put themselves into Yolanda’s shoes.  Her only company in the compound comes from fellow inmate Verla.  The present of both girls is interspersed with memories from their pasts; in this simple yet effective manner, we learn a great deal about them.  Yolanda particularly uses her memories as a coping mechanism against the uncertainty she feels.

The core plot of the novel reminded me, perhaps inevitably, of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, but in a way, I feel that it goes further.  Like Atwood, Wood ‘depicts a world where a woman’s sexuality has become a weapon turned against her’, but there is something darker at play here.  The Natural Way of Things is incredibly tense, and is so horribly vivid in the scenes which it depicts.  Gripping and disturbing, this is a must-read novel, which raises powerful questions.

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‘Wasted’ by Marya Hornbacher *****

Marya Hornbacher’s Wasted, a memoir of the author’s struggles with bulimia and anorexia, was March’s choice for the Mad Woman’s Book Club which I run on Goodreads.  I was quite interested to see firsthand what coping with an eating disorder is like, particularly over such a prolonged period, having never read a book which deals with the issue.

Hornbacher begins with some startling admissions: ‘I became bulimic at the age of nine, anorexic at the age of fifteen’.  Her introduction is insightful; she states that she chose to write the book because, fundamentally, she disagreed with the majority of what had been written about eating disorders prior to 1998.  Hornbacher writes: ‘It is, at the most basic level, a bundle of deadly contradictions: a desire for power that strips you of all power.  A gesture of strength that divests you of all strength…  It is a grotesque mockery of cultural standards of beauty that winds up mocking no one more than you.  It is a protest against 9780006550891cultural stereotypes of women that in the end makes you seem the weakest, the most needy and neurotic of all women.  It is the thing you believe is keeping you safe, alive, contained – and in the end, of course, you find it’s doing quite the opposite.’  She makes clear throughout that Wasted tells of a singular experience, but does hint at its terrifying commonality: ‘So I get to be the stereotype: female, white, young, middle-class.  I can’t tell the story for all of us.’

Hornbacher is incredibly frank, and much of her writing about eating disorders is highly psychological.  She writes: ‘Body and mind fall apart from each other, and it is in this fissure that an eating disorder may flourish, in the silence that surrounds this confusion that an eating disorder may fester and think.’  This, however, is not a memoir written as a coping mechanism from a position retrospect; Hornbacher makes this as clear, as she also does with the way in which she hopes the publication of the book will help others in a similar position to the one she was in.

Hornbacher discusses the rigidity of the classification of eating disorders; simply because her father was not ‘absent and emotionally inaccessible’ and her mother ‘overbearing, invasive, [and] needy’, she was not deemed to come from the right family type to develop bulimia and, later, anorexia.  Whilst she says that her home life was relatively ordinary for the most part, as she grows, she realises that, as an only child, she is used as a focus for her parents’ own relationship issues: ‘The child becomes a pawn, a bartering piece, as each parent competes to be the best, most nurturing parent, as determined by whom the child loves more.  It was my job to act like I loved them both best – when the other one wasn’t around.’  She does detail her mother’s own neuroses with eating, determined as she was to stay thin, and never eating more than half of the food on her plate.

One of the most remarkable things about Wasted is that Hornbacher was only twenty-three when it was written; it is one of the most eloquent memoirs which I have ever read.  She is incredibly humble too, despite her own experiences: ‘I do not have all the answers.  In fact, I have precious few.  I will pose more questions in this book than I can respond to.  I can offer little more than my perspective, my experience of having an eating disorder.’

Wasted is a compelling memoir, and a fierce honesty has been stamped onto every single page.  When describing herself as she falls into substance abuse, she says: ‘I was vivacious, rebellious, obnoxious, often sick, sometimes cruel, and sometimes falling apart on the locker room floor, usually seething at something, running away from my house in the night.’  This no-holds-barred approach works wonderfully within Hornbacher’s book; we are simultaneously frightened and repulsed by her graphic descriptions of purging and her body, and want to read on.  There is a fantastic balance between the personal and psychological.  Wasted is intense and important, and a real eye-opener for those who have never experienced the disease.

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‘The Quiet Room: A Journey Out of the Torment of Madness’ by Lori Schiller ****

The Quiet Room by Lori Schiller, which was first published in 1994, was February’s choice for my Mad Woman’s Book Club.  It sounded incredibly intriguing to me, and created quite a lot of buzz with other members.  Schiller’s account of her schizo-affective disorder, which contains elements of both schizophrenia and manic depression, has been written with the guidance of Amanda Bennett, a Wall Street journalist.

Schiller’s diagnosis was not reached until she was twenty-three years old, and a graduate of Tufts University in Massachusetts.  Prior to this, she is in an almost constant state of turmoil; she wakes up hearing voices whilst at a summer camp when she is seventeen, and they remain with her.  To her strength, she does not let anything interfere with her education, but soon after she has finished her degree and is looking at beginning a career in a shared apartment in New York City that she is immersed within the mental care system.  ‘Along the way,’ writes Schiller, ‘I have lost many things: the career I might have pursued, the husband I might have married, the children I might have had.  During the years when my friends were marrying, having their babies and moving into the houses I once dreamed of living in, I have been behind locked doors, battling the Voices who took over my life without even asking my permission.’  Schiller’s description of these voices is often chilling.9780446671330

We are given Schiller’s opinion of events throughout, as well as those of her parents, brothers, friends, and psychiatrist – pretty much everyone who experienced the worst of it with her.  This use of multiple perspectives helps to fill those memory gaps which Schiller has about some of her darkest points, and gives a fuller picture of the disease and its effects.  The position of retrospect which Schiller, of course, has to take, is fascinating to draw out here.  It comes in a sort of double dose, I suppose; the book was written with several years of distance, but reading it in the 21st century allows one to see just how much things have altered with regard to  treatments being tailored to individuals rather than the mass.  The same can be said for the diagnostic process.  Those I know who have suffered with mental illness suggest that diagnoses are not made in such a trial-and-error manner as they appear to have been in Schiller’s case.

At the beginning of The Quiet Room, I felt quite distanced and wasn’t overly engaged with it.  It changed dramatically at around the fifty page point for me though, after which I could barely put it down.  Schiller’s case is harrowing; it takes an awfully long time for a diagnosis to be reached, and many treatments fail to work for her, either exacerbating her symptoms or making her withdraw further into herself.  One feels an awful lot of empathy for her.

The Quiet Room presents enlightening and scary details about firsthand drug use, which Schiller turns to when the more traditional treatments fail to work for her.  It is certainly a no-holds-barred memoir.  Throughout her ordeal, Schiller shows great bravery; when released after one of her earliest hospitalisations, she applies for a job in a psychiatric hospital.  The reading process involved here is intense, and rather draining at times.  It is difficult to really enjoy a book of this sort, but it is not difficult to admire the writer and her courage in making such a horrific story publicly available.  The Quiet Room is honest and powerful, and a must-read if you are at all interested in mental illness and its effects.

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‘Faces in the Water’ by Janet Frame *****

Janet Frame’s Faces in the Water was a book club pick for January, and a book which I had not expected to love quite as much as I did.  Whilst I have wanted to read it for years, it is a tome which has so far evaded me in bookshops and the like; I had to resort to the Internet to find a copy of it.

From the outset, I was immediately captivated.  We are effectively living inside protagonist Istina Mavet’s head, as she negotiates the mental hospital in which she is incarcerated.  As this account is based upon Frame’s own experiences, there is an added edge of horror to the whole.  Frame’s writing is striking and beguiling, and every sentence is memorable: ‘I will write about the season of peril.  I was put in hospital because a great gap opened in the ice floe between myself and the other people whom I watched, with their world, drifting away through a violet-coloured sea where hammerhead sharks in tropical ease swam side by side with the seals and the polar bears’.  Istina’s voice is sharp, and her ideas verge upon the theatrical: ‘I was not yet civilized; I traded my safety for the glass beads of fantasy’, and ‘9781844084616I swallowed a stream of stars; it was easy…’.

Frame’s account is vividly appealing particularly when she discusses the outside world, which is barred to Istina and her peers, and the whole is so well paced – for instance, the passage in which Istina discusses the dangers left behind ‘all the doors which lead to and from the world’.  There is a dreamlike element ever-present within, and one can pick out nods to various fairytales and other childhood stories too: ‘… I dream and cannot wake, and I am cast over the cliff and hang there by two fingers that are danced and trampled on by the Giant unreality’.

Despite this, Istina is still poignant and to the point – as well as unarguably chilling – when discussing the doctors and nurses who walk the corridors of the hospital: ‘Every morning I woke in dread, waiting for the day nurse to go on her rounds and announce from the list of names in her hand whether or not I was for shock treatment, the new and fashionable means of quieting people and of making them realize that orders are to be obeyed and floors are to be polished without anyone protesting and faces are made to be fixed into smiles and weeping is a crime’.

As readers, we are immediately aware of the never-ending, and frankly terrifying, cycle of waiting for Electroshock Therapy every day.  Frame really pulls the innards of the institution out to be looked at by us, the outsiders, who do not have to live with the consequences of being deemed unsafe within the wide society.  She lays the life of the mental hospital bare; yes, there is an element of retrospect and historical contextualisation at play here, but it does not serve to make the scenes which Istina describes any less appalling.

The stream-of-consciousness style of narration, as well as the use of fragmented prose and fractured memories, allow the story to come through in all of its horror.  Istina is fascinatingly complex, and oh-so-real.  The novel itself is stunning and hard-hitting, and not one which can be read lightly, or without dedication from the reader.  Faces in the Water is undeniably intense, and reading it is, at points, decidedly exhausting, but when an author reminds you this much of the utterly wonderful Shirley Jackson, you know that you really should read her entire back catalogue as soon as you are able to get your hands on it.

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‘Mothering Sunday’ by Graham Swift ***

Getting my hands on a copy of this book was rather difficult.  There was a one hundred and twenty-person strong waiting list in my home library system, and I felt guilty trying to procure a full-price copy whilst on a book buying ban.  My patience (yes, for once I had some) paid off, and I was able to borrow it from a Glasgow library by just walking into a branch and locating it on the shelf.  Wonders shall never cease.

9781471155239Mothering Sunday was a choice for mine and the excellent Katie’s Chai and Sheep book club, and both of us very much liked the premise when the book was co-selected.  At the time of picking it up, it seemed fitting; I had just been in a three-hour induction session led by one of my dissertation supervisors, whose current specialism is in daily novels.  This marked my first foray into Swift’s work too; he has been on my to-read list for quite some time, but I was unsure as to which book of his I should begin with.  Then this incredibly hyped, very popular (in my home county, at least!) novella came along, and I hoped that it would provide a good introduction to his work.

The novella’s setting is Mothering Sunday in March 1924: ‘It wasn’t June, but it was a day like June.  And it must have been a little after noon’.  Jane Fairchild, ‘orphan and housemaid’, has nothing with which to occupy her time on this, the day in which maids nationwide were allowed the day off so that they could visit their mothers.  The blurb which accompanies the book is rather intriguing, particularly with regard to the questions which it asks: ‘How, shaped by the events of this never to be forgotten day, will her future unfold?’  It goes on to praise the novel highly, as ‘constantly surprising, joyously sensual and deeply moving’, and declares it ‘Graham Swift at his thinking best’.

Paul, beloved sole remaining son of the well-to-do Cunningham family, has been having clandestine liaisons with Jane for quite some time, but on this Sunday, the pair being the only two in the house after his parents travel ‘to Henley for lunch’, things escalate, and they make love in Paul’s bedroom.  The aftermath of the act is what Swift appears to be interested in: ‘… and she wasn’t going to say, now he was on his feet and the decision all but made, “Please, don’t go.  Please, don’t leave me.”  She was disqualified from the upper world in which such dramas were staged.  She had her lowly contempt for such stuff anyway.  As if she couldn’t have used – but she wasn’t his wife, it was all the other way round – a different, quieter but fiercer language.  Or just the bullet of a look.’

The opening sentence of Mothering Sunday marvellously sets both the scene and the historical period: ‘Once upon a time, before the boys were killed and when there were more horses than cars, before the male servants disappeared and they made do, at Upleigh and at Beechwood, with just a cook and a maid…’.  Some of Swift’s imagery is just lovely; for instance, when he writes: ‘The shadows from the latticework in the window slipped over him like foliage’.

Whilst I wasn’t blown away by the whole, I did find the class divides which Swift portrayed rather interesting.  His descriptions were largely well evoked, and did work well with the story, but I found some of his prose rather jarring in its style.  I’m unsure as to whether Swift is an author I’ll pick up again; I certainly wasn’t as enamoured with this as I believed I would be at the outset.

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