‘I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death’ by Maggie O’Farrell *****

I very much enjoy Maggie O’Farrell’s fiction, and when I found out about her first foray into biography, I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death, I wanted to read it immediately.  The book, which reflects upon seventeen times in which O’Farrell’s life was in danger, or appeared to be, has been split into seventeen distinct sections.  These give a brief biological positioning of the problem which follows, as well as the year of their occurrence; for instance, ‘Circulatory System (1991)’, ‘Baby and Bloodstream (2005)’, and ‘Whole Body (1993)’.  The book has been named after one of my favourite Sylvia Plath poems, which feels highly appropriate given the subject matter: ‘I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart.  I am, I am, I am.’

9781472240743In the first section of I Am, I Am, I Am, O’Farrell writes: ‘I could have said that I have an instinct for the onset of violence.  That, for a long time, I seemed to incite it in others for reasons I never quite understood.  If, as a child, you are struck or hit, you will never forget that sense of your own powerlessness and vulnerability, of how a situation can turn from benign to brutal in the blink of an eye, in the space of a breath.  That sensibility will run in your veins, like an antibody.’  In the chapters which follow, O’Farrell is consistently honest and very direct about her own experiences, detailing the quick thinking which has helped her to get out of terrible situations, as well as the recklessness which consumed her as a child and teenager, and led her into trouble.

Of course, the situations recounted here have differing degrees of seriousness; some have repercussions which express themselves upon O’Farrell’s interior world, rather than upon her physical body.  The content too is varied; she discusses, amongst other things, a car accident, a traumatic birth, and being held by the throat with a machete whilst on holiday in Chile.  The structure suits I Am, I Am, I Am incredibly well, as does their ordering into a random rather than a chronological timeline.  Each of the chapters is separate but interlinked.

O’Farrell has such an awareness of her own place in the world, and the sometimes slippery grip which we have on our lives.  She extends her own opinion of this to include the reader, making it feel like an incredibly personal account for us, too: ‘We are, all of us, wandering about in a state of oblivion, borrowing our time, seizing our days, escaping our fates, slipping through loopholes, unaware of when we may fall.’

I Am, I Am, I Am is, like O’Farrell’s fiction, measured, intelligent, and surprising.  Whilst its tone and approach makes it immersive and very easy to read, it is also extremely touching and thought-provoking throughout.  I feel as though I now have an awareness and understanding, and above all, such admiration of O’Farrell the person, rather than O’Farrell the author.  I Am, I Am, I Am is a beautifully, and often scarily, personal account of danger and the fragility of life, which never once resorts to melodrama or exaggeration; instead, it is life-affirming in the most beautiful and direct of ways.  I had high hopes for O’Farrell’s newest tome, and it proved to be even better than I was expecting.  I Am, I Am, I Am is a wonderful book, which I will be thinking about for years to come.

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‘Here Is New York’ by E.B. White *****

E.B. White’s Here Is New York has been described as a ‘remarkable, pristine essay’, and The New York Times lists it as one of the best ten books ever written about the ‘grand metropolis’ of the city.  White’s essay was originally an article written for Holiday magazine; he declined to revise it at all before it was published in book form in 1948.  New York is one of my absolute favourite cities, and I have been eager to read White’s essay for years; thankfully, my parents bought me a lovely slim hardback copy, introduced by Roger Angell, for Christmas.10814

In Here Is New York, the reader receives the privilege of going ‘arm-in-arm’ with White as he strolls around Manhattan.  Of course, the view which we receive of the city is an antiquated one – seventy years can hardly pass without a great deal of change, after all.  White himself writes of his decision not to revise the piece: ‘The reader will find certain observations to be no longer true of the city, owing to the passage of time and the swing of the pendulum.’  Angell justifies this lack of revision: ‘The thought occurs that this book should now be called Here Was New York, except that White himself has foreseen this dilemma,  The tone of his text is already valedictory, and even as he describes the city’s gifts he sees alterations “in tempo and temper”.  Change is what this book is all about.’  Angell rather touchingly adds that ‘Even as he looked at the great city, [White] was missing what it had been.’

Here Is New York is not a long essay, by any means, and is made up of just 7,500 words.  In his introduction, Ansell writes that whilst this book is ‘of modest length… it speaks more eloquently about what lasts and what really matters than other, more expansive pieces.’  White is not always complimentary about the city, although one can tell that he is impassioned of his chosen topic; rather early on in the essay, he writes: ‘The capacity to make such dubious gifts is a mysterious quality of New York.  It can destroy an individual, or it can fulfill him, depending a good deal on luck.  No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.’

As a modern reader, I was obviously unfamiliar with many of the places which White mentions.  However, his descriptions feel wonderfully vivid, as though one could walk around the corner and find oneself somewhere he has mentioned, which has not stood in that particular place for decades. Much of what he says, with regard to the inhabitants of the city for instance, still feels pertinent: ‘Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness; natives give it solidity and continuity; but the settlers give it passion.’

Here Is New York has a wonderfully, and sometimes sadly, nostalgic feel to it, and throughout, White’s writing is both measured and intelligent.  New York is a character in itself throughout the essay, and it is recognised in all of its grit and beauty.  I shall end my review with a gorgeous and sweeping description of the city, as White saw it all of those years ago: ‘The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines.  The island of Manhattan is without any doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain elusive.’


One From the Archive: ‘Tell the Wolves I’m Home’ by Carol Rifka Brunt *****

Tell the Wolves I’m Home is the debut novel of Carol Rifka Brunt. Its story focuses upon fourteen-year-old June Elbus, whose uncle, Finn, is the ‘only person who has ever truly understood her’. The novel takes place in the New York suburbs and opens at the end of 1986.

9781447202141The opening sentence of this beautifully crafted novel captures the attention immediately: ‘My sister Greta and I were having our portrait painted by our uncle Finn that afternoon because he knew he was dying’. Finn has AIDS at a time in which no cures were available, and in which the horrors of the disease were just beginning to come to light. June tells us: ‘We’d been going to Finn’s one Sunday afternoon a month for the last six months. It was always just my mother, Greta, and me. My father never came, and he was right not to. He wasn’t part of it’. His decline is tough on the entire Elbus family: ‘All those Sundays, my mother hardly looked at Finn. It was obvious that she was being broken up into pieces about her only brother dying’.

June’s narrative voice is engaging, and we are plunged straight into her story from the outset. We feel her fears and grief, along with the small triumphs she overcomes along the way. Throughout, her childish naivety adds a lovely touch to the novel. During the portrait painting session, June tells us, ‘I felt like grabbing the paintbrush right out of his hand so I could color him in, paint him back to his old self’. This innocence of June’s, particularly when it focuses upon Finn’s illness, is touching. Whilst she understands that her uncle is ill, she does not know about the intricacies of the disease as nobody is willing to discuss them with her. She asks such things of her elder sister as whether she could ‘catch’ AIDS if Finn kissed her hair or her forehead. Such naivety is truly heartbreaking at times.

As a protagonist, June is an interesting choice. Many original personality traits can be found within her, and rather than being the make-up and fashion loving stereotype of a teenage girl, her hobbies and interests feel rather unique – for example, the way in which she likes to pretend she lives within the Medieval period, and her dreams of being a falconer when she finishes school. She and her sister are complete opposites, and June is somewhat lonely in consequence: ‘Greta got prettier and I got… weirder’, she tells us. June is a vivid and wholly realistic character in consequence. The novel is told in retrospect, and June is around one year older than she was when Finn’s death occurred. This present day narrative is woven with memories from June’s past.

The secret which June clutches close to her chest is the way in which she felt about her uncle. At his funeral, she confesses to us, almost as though we are her only confidant in life: ‘I kept quiet, knowing that the sadness I was feeling was the wrong kind of sadness for a niece… Nobody knew my heart even a little bit. Nobody had any idea how many minutes of each day I spent thinking about Finn, and, thankfully, nobody had any idea exactly what kind of thoughts they were’. The grief she feels is tender, and the way in which she expresses it is touchingly honest: ‘Finn kept sneaking inside my head. I wished he’d been buried instead of cremated, because then I could take off my gloves and press my palms to the ground and know that he was there somehow’.

At the funeral, she and her sister are instructed not to let a certain man into the service. When June asks Greta about the man’s identity, her sister delights in telling her: ‘He’s the guy who killed uncle Finn’. A couple of weeks after this incident, June receives a package in the mail – a beautiful porcelain teapot which used to belong to her uncle. It arrives with a note from Toby, Finn’s partner whom the girls knew nothing about, which says: ‘I know you saw me at the funeral. I was the man nobody wanted to see… I think you are perhaps the only person who misses Finn as much as I do, and I think just one meeting might be beneficial to us both’. A clandestine friendship, taut at first and touching throughout, ensues. Both realise that the concrete foundations of their love for Finn and their grief at his passing are stronger than anything, and that they can help one another through it in consequence.

Brunt writes beautifully, and she has portrayed the hideous realities of the 1980s AIDS epidemic in the most heartfelt of ways, by examining not only the space left behind when a death is caused by the disease, but the memories too. Although Finn is not alive during the novel’s telling, we still learn a lot about him and can see why June adores him so. This multi-layered novel is about so many things – love, remembrance, trust, understanding and family dynamics – and is incredibly sad and moving throughout.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home is a coming-of-age story of the most touching kind. The character development throughout is incredibly well crafted, and the novel itself is magnificent, particularly when one takes into account that it is a debut. Had it come from an already established author, it would be something akin to a masterpiece. Brunt has written a book which is incredibly difficult to put down, and has crafted a story which is sure to stay with its readers for a long time to come.

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‘Don’t Go to Sleep in the Dark: Short Stories’ by Celia Fremlin *****

Having read two of Celia Fremlin’s books now, The Hours Before Dawn, and this rather wonderful and chilling short story collection, I feel that I can say with some compunction that she is an undeservedly neglected writer.  I have plans to read all of her books – and she was rather prolific, it must be said – over the next couple of years on the strength of just these two tomes, as what I have seen within both has impressed me no end.

Don’t Go to Sleep in the Dark: Short Stories, which has recently been reissued, along with the rest of Fremlin’s work, by Faber Finds, includes a fascinating and insightful introduction by Chris Simmons, which tells of the author’s life and inspiration: ‘Here was a middle-class woman who seemed to delight in re-inventing herself; and while all writers draw upon their own experiences to some existent, “reinvention” is the key to any artist’s longevity.’  He goes on to praise her writing, saying that Fremlin ‘succeeded in chilling and thrilling her readers without spilling so much as a drop of blood.’ 9780571312719

Simmons also states that Fremlin’s work in its entirety offers ‘authentic snapshots of how people lived at the time of her writing: how they interacted, what values they held…  Every interaction between her characters has a core of truth and should strike a resonant note.’  Indeed, that is very much the case with this collection of short fiction.  The tales here are variously described as ‘eclectic, delectable, perfectly formed nibbles’.

The overarching feeling one gets from Don’t Go to Sleep in the Dark is an unsettling one, with something sinister waiting just around the corner.  The first piece in the collection, ‘The Quiet Game’, for instance, has a second paragraph which begins thus: ‘But madness has a rhythm of its own up there so near to the clouds; a rhythm that at first you would not recognize, so near is it, in the beginning, to the rhythms of ordinary, cheerful life…’.

Fremlin’s writing throughout is strong.  In ‘The New House’, for example, she writes: ‘The hatred seemed to thicken round her – I could feel giant waves of it converging on her, mounting silently, silkily, till they hung poised above her head in ghostly, silent strength.’  The stories here come from a more mature point in Fremlin’s life, written as they were whilst the author was in her fifties.  There is, perhaps unsurprisingly with that in mind, an emphasis upon ageing, and the stories which deal with senility are the most chilling of all.

Each of the stories within Don’t Go to Sleep in the Dark is vivid and perfectly paced.  Some of them have otherworldly and fantastical elements to them, but the way in which they and their characters have been built and presented smacks of realism, which serves to make the whole even more unsettling.  Each story is filled to the brim with tension, suspense and intrigue, but at no point is anything overdone.  Rather, Fremlin’s writing is incredibly controlled, and every single one of her characters is startlingly realistic.  The tales veer off in unexpected directions, making Don’t Go to Sleep in the Dark both surprising and compelling.  Fremlin demonstrates on every page that she truly is a marvellous writer, one which deserves to be read far more widely.

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A Month of Favourites: ‘The World’s Wife’ by Carol Ann Duffy

‘The World’s Wife’ by Carol Ann Duffy

I was so excited when I opened this most beautiful of books on Christmas morning.  The entirety is so well presented, from its beautiful silver-foiled cover, to the fact that it comes complete with a contents page.

The blurb of The World’s Wife is so enticing: ‘That saying?  “Behind every famous man…?”  From Mrs Midas to Queen Kong, from Elvis’ twin sister to Pygmalion’s bride, they’re all here, in The World’s Wife.  Witty and thought-provoking, this tongue-in-cheek, no-holds-barred look at the real movers and shakers across history, myth and legend…  the wives of the great, the good, the not so good, and the legendary are given a voice in Carol Ann Duffy’s sparkling and inventive collection’.

Each and every poem within the book’s pages is so clever.  Duffy tells tales which we all know, and which form great parts of our human consciousness, from the perspectives of the women who appear within them.  ‘Little Red Cap’ is narrated by Red Riding Hood, and ‘Queen Herod’ from the viewpoint of Herod’s wife, who states that it was her idea to ‘kill each mother’s son’ so that no man would be able to make her baby daughter cry, for example.

The World’s Wife is absolutely beautiful in terms of the writing within each poem, and each syllable has clearly been so carefully thought out.  Duffy has a marvellous way with words, able to craft such vivid images in just a single line or two.

(From ‘Thetis):
‘I was wind, I was gas,
I was all hot air, trailed
clouds for hair.
I scrawled my name with a hurricane
when out of the blue
roared a fighter plane’

I love the different techniques which have been used throughout.  This causes each and every poem to stand out within the collection.  Each voice which has been crafted is distinctive.  In The World’s Wife, Duffy has demonstrated that she is the creme de la creme of contemporary poetry.

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‘Letters from Klara’ by Tove Jansson *****

‘The rich seam that is Jansson’s adult prose continues with this penultimate collection of short stories, written in her seventies at the height of her Moomin fame and translated into English for the first time. In these light-footed, beautifully crafted yet disquieting stories, Jansson tells of discomfiting encounters, unlooked for connections and moments of isolation that span generations and decades. Letters From Klara proves yet again her mastery of this literary form.’

9781908745613I could not resist ordering a newly translated collection of short stories by one of my absolute favourite authors when I first heard about it, and I dove in almost immediately. Tove Jansson’s Letters from Klara is such a treat. Each tale was written whilst Jansson was in her seventies; one can see a marked shift between these contemplative pieces, and those of her younger years, which share an extremely perceptive vivacity. The stories within the collection are largely quiet and slowly paced, but they are all the lovelier for it. The blurb of Letters from Klara, in fact, describes them as ‘subtle’ and ‘light-footed’ stories, descriptions which I wholeheartedly agree with.

Letters from Klara provides a wonderful breather from the hectic modern world. Its stories are varied and quite diverse, but humanity is at the core of each. A lot of the stories are about ageing and death, clearly subjects which become more pressing and important during Jansson’s literary career. Letters from Klara is neither her best, not her most memorable, collection, but it is absolutely filled to the brim with tiny gems, and gorgeously evoked slices of life which appeal to all of the senses.

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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.