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‘Rhyming Life and Death’ by Amos Oz **

I received a copy of Amos Oz’s Rhyming Life and Death from a dear friend for my birthday.  I had not read any of prizewinning author Oz’s work before, and was suitably intrigued by the blurb of this novel, which was first published in 2007, and has been translated from its original Hebrew by Nicholas Lange.  The Guardian calls Rhyming Life and Death ‘A master class in interlocking character sketches, and a fable on the themes of sex, death and writing pitched somewhere between the fictional universes of JM Coetzee and Milan Kundera.’  The Scotsman declares it ‘a meditation on the art of writing, the relationship between literature and life, between life and death.’

9780099521020In the novel, which is set during the 1980s, an unnamed author spends a window of time, before he is due to give a reading, waiting in a bar in Tel Aviv ‘on a stifling hot night’, making up ‘the life stories of the people he meets.’  The story culminates in his asking a woman who declares herself a huge fan of his work for a drink.  Although she declines, he ‘walks away, only to climb the steps to her flat that night.  Or does he?  In Amos Oz’s beguiling, intriguing story the reader never really knows where reality ends and invention begins…’.

Rhyming Life and Death opens with a wealth of frequently asked questions which have been posed to ‘the Author’, as he is referred to throughout.  They include: ‘Why do you write the way you do?’, ‘Do you constantly cross out and correct or do you write straight out of your head?’, and ‘Why do you mostly describe the negative side of things?’  There are many such questions, and a lot of them cross the line between public and personal.

Oz’s writing errs on the sensual.  He seems particularly concerned with evoking the smells of Tel Aviv.  Of a man lying in the terminal ward of a hospital, he writes: ‘With every breath his lungs are invaded by a foul cocktail of smells: urine, sedatives, leftover food, sweat, sprays, chlorine, medicines, soiled dressings, excrement, beetroot salad and disinfectant.’  Sounds, too, are important to Oz’s descriptions of Israel, and they are paired in the novel with musings about the Author, and the strange power which his fans believe him to possess: ‘The night is pierced by the staccato alarm of a parked car struck by sudden panic in the darkness.  Will the Author say something new this evening?  Will he manage to explain to us how we got into this state of affairs, or what we have to do to change it?  Can he see something we haven’t seen yet?’

In this novel, Oz certainly gives insight into elements of what it is like to be a writer, and to be known.  The public throughout have quite unrealistic expectations of him, as, indeed, he has of others.  The stories which he invents of people whom he meets are often overly detailed.   I found some of these inventions more interesting than others, but the constant repetition of details did become tiresome rather quickly.  There are scenes here which are rather cringeworthy, and crammed with a series of cliched metaphors.

Whilst the novel was interesting enough to read, and I could never quite guess in which direction it was going, it has not made me want to pick up any of Oz’s other work in a hurry.  I found Rhyming Life and Death rather rambling and peculiar in places, and the story meanders rather than takes a natural path.  There is, however, a definite feeling of purpose to Oz’s chosen structure.  The novel is gritty at times, and muses upon the meaning of life.  I can certainly see why his writing has been compared to Kundera’s, but I must admit that on my experience of reading this book alone, I far prefer Kundera’s work to Oz’s.

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‘The Butcher’s Hook’ by Janet Ellis ****

Of former Blue Peter presenter Janet Ellis’ debut novel, Hannah Kent writes: ‘Ellis has created something marvellous in the character of Anne Jaccob – her voice is strange, dark and utterly mesmeric…  This is historical fiction as I’ve never encountered it before: full of viscera, snorting humour and obsessive desire.’  Other reviews which pepper the cover and the first page of The Butcher’s Hook describe it variously as ‘bewitching’, ‘dark, shocking and funny’, and ‘terrific.’  I was therefore suitably excited to begin, and snapped up a gorgeous turquoise hardback copy for myself. 9781473625112

The Butcher’s Hook is set in Georgian London during the summer of 1765.  Nineteen-year-old Anne Jaccob, the eldest daughter in a wealthy but unhappy family, is our protagonist and narrator.  Although ‘her family want for nothing, her father is uncaring, her mother is ailing, and the baby brother who taught her how to love is dead.’  In the novel’s first few chapters, Anne is ‘awakened to the possibility of joy when she meets Fub, the butcher’s apprentice, and begins to imagine a life of passion with him.’  However, as suited the time, Anne’s family have chosen her ‘a more suitable husband’ than the lowly Fub could ever become.

The novel opens when Anne’s mother is in childbirth, and Anne fully expects that she will not get back up again.  She says: ‘This is my nineteenth summer, but I have known only thirteen happy years to this date.  And that is only if I include my early childhood in the reckoning, back when, in all honesty, I owned no accountable state of mind.  Without that, it is a very poor tally.’  Anne’s present is interspersed with memories from her childhood, many of them rather dark and maudlin.

Anne is a headstrong character, who does not let societal mores prevent her from living as she pleases.  This is a pivotal time in her life, in which she is learning about herself, her body, and her sexuality, along with the amount of power which she can wield.  Throughout, she ‘shows no fear or hesitation.  Even if it means getting a little blood on her hands…’.  Anne has a rather hard and cold interior.  Of the ‘Scrap in the cot’, as she addresses her new sister, she expresses: ‘Do not think me harsh that I do not coo at this new-born infant, but I had done much loving with that boy my brother, and he had coughed his last just before his third birthday two years ago, so a lot of good all that loving did him.’

As a character construct, Anne is fascinating and unusual.  She has psychopathic tendencies, which are revealed close to the novel’s beginning.  As a young girl, she collected dead things which she viewed as treasure, and fantasised about heavy stone curlicues falling on a peer: ‘If it cracked and fell, it would flatten her…  I wanted it to happen so much that my teeth felt loose in my gums.’  Anne is not likeable, but she has such a depth and complexity about her.

Ellis’ character descriptions felt vivid and curious from the outset.  For instance, she writes: ‘This man was a great long coil of a person, his face was a thin stripe of flesh with features squeezed on, even his hands were stretched and narrow.  I imagined his daughter perched beside me, so tall that her hair would catch the breeze, like a pennant on a ship’s mast.’  When Anne meets Fub for the first time, she says: ‘I have never seen him before, but it is as if I recognise him.  I stop in my tracks, because otherwise I might run to him.  He looks as if he would speak but cannot remember how.  We stare as intensely as if we’re about to jump together from a great height.  The world gives a great lurch then resumes its customary spinning.’  Similarly, when she first meets loathsome suitor Simeon Onions, who has been selected by her father, she muses: ‘The only way I can think of his heart without crying aloud is to imagine it impaled on a fruit knife and that lace shirt of his getting redder by the minute.’  Anne’s voice reminded me at times of the narrator of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace.

Georgian London has been vividly and vigorously applied to The Butcher’s Hook, and its dingy streets, strewn with poverty and disease, spring to life.  A real sense of place is evoked, and Ellis reminds one throughout of the nuances of the city in which Anne lives.  When she enters a church, she tells us: ‘Their numbers thin as I approach the church, and by the time I tread the path to the door, I am alone.  The huge heavy door is only slightly ajar, and it’s quite a struggle to push it further.  A smell of wax, incense, dust and something floral is so thick in the air it’s almost visible.  Not so any other person, for my footsteps sound loudly on the floor and even my skirt’s swish is distinctly audible.  There are no candles lit, doubtless to save money, for, even though it is morning and daylight outside, within is fusty darkness and shadows.’

The Butcher’s Hook is an unusual novel, with a vivid and realistic protagonist.  Its subject matter is rather dark, but its style is easy to read, and so immersive.  I found it engaging from the outset, and the volatility of Anne as a character made some of the twists quite surprising.  There are sparks of lovely imagery in the novel, and Ellis’ writing is taut and accomplished.  I found the ending markedly satisfying, and look forward to Ellis’ future publications with interest.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Snow Child’ by Eowyn Ivey *****

The Snow Child begins in November 1920 beside Alaska’s Wolverine River.  The novel, which is based upon a Russian fairytale, opens with the character of Mabel who has moved to the ‘wilderness silence’ of Alaska with her husband Jack.  The couple are previous residents of Pennsylvania.

9780755380534The tragic circumstances of their pasts are outlined from the start.  Mabel suffered a miscarriage ten years earlier, which has weighed on her mind and body ever since.  The couple are childless and have inadvertently moved to a secluded place which is void of children.  Their life together is consequently set against the backdrop of an all-invading winter darkness.

Ivey has woven a sombre darkness throughout the novel, which fits perfectly with both the setting and the characters.  As they realise just how isolated they are from the rest of the world, the loneliness of Jack and Mabel grows from the start and their relationship takes on a fractious hue.  The couple make their living with difficulty.  Jack is a farmer and Mabel sells homemade pies in the nearby town of Alpine, which is ‘nothing more than a few dusty, false-fronted buildings perched between the train tracks and the Wolverine River’.

Those around them try their best to help the couple, advising them on farming and how to survive in the Alaskan wilderness.  One couple in particular, George and Esther Benson, seem to take Jack and Mabel under their wing.  They slowly begin to let others into the isolation which they have themselves created.  In essence, Jack and Mabel’s new life helps them to connect with others in their community, as well as those they believed they had lost.  Relationships grow, build and shift as the story moves forwards.

When the first snow of winter sets in, Jack and Mabel make the snow child of the novel’s title, an act which serves to bring them closer together.  It gives them a shared understanding and makes the balance of their relationship improve dramatically.  The morning after the snow child is made, Jack sees a figure dashing through the trees.  Both the relationship which the couple build with the snow child, and Ivey’s portrayal of it, are wonderful.

The Snow Child uses a third person narrative perspective throughout.  The chapters follow both characters equally and the thoughts of each character are shown within the narrative.  The inclusion of several letters between Mabel and her sister Ada was a lovely touch.  The interactions between Jack and Mabel are so touching.  The  characters have been formed with such sensitivity on Ivey’s behalf that their pain comes to life on the page.

Ivey’s writing style is beautiful.  It is clear that each word throughout the novel has been chosen with the utmost care.  The result is a wonderful flowing narrative which lends itself well to the story.  She sets the scene superbly with such vivid and well-written descriptions.

True to the form of traditional fairytales, The Snow Child is sinister and heartbreakingly sad in places.  The story is a beautiful one, filled with equal measures of hope and sadness.  It is a novel filled with small triumphs and kindnesses, a perfect wintry tale.  It is difficult to believe that The Snow Child is a debut novel.  It is incredibly accomplished, polished and skilled, and feels as though it was written by a master storyteller.

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Penguin Moderns: ‘The Cracked Looking-Glass’ by Katherine Anne Porter ****

The thirty-seventh book on the Penguin Moderns list, The Cracked Looking-Glass by American author Katherine Anne Porter, was one which I was particularly intrigued by.  In this story, which was first published in 1922, ‘a passionately unfulfilled woman considers her life and her marriage’.  This woman is named Rosaleen; she has been married to Dennis, thirty years her senior, for over two decades, and the pair live on a farm in rural Connecticut.

9780241339626I particularly enjoyed the opening scenes of the story, in which Porter sets both scenes, and the complexities of marriage, with precision and beauty.  She writes: ‘Dennis heard Rosaleen talking in the kitchen and a man’s voice answering.  He sat with his hands dangling over his knees, and thought for the hundredth time that sometimes Rosaleen’s voice was company to him, and other days he wished all day long she didn’t have so much to say about everything.’

Porter is so aware of her characters’ flaws, and how these adapt with the passing of time.  During their anniversary dinner, for instance, ‘He looked at her sitting across the table from him and thought she was a very fine woman, noticed again her red hair and yellow eyelashes and big arms and strong big teeth, and wondered what she thought of him now he was no human good to her.  Here he was, all gone, and he had been so for years, and he felt guilt sometimes before Rosaleen, who couldn’t always understand how there comes a time when  man is finished, and there is no more to be done that way.’

The Cracked Looking-Glass is quite tender in places.  Of Rosaleen, Porter writes: ‘She wished now she’d had a dozen children instead of the one that died in two days.  This half-forgotten child suddenly lived again her, she began to weep for him with all the freshness of her first agony; now he would be a fine grown man and the dear love of her heart.’  Given that this is a short story, there is a lot of depth here, and we learn a lot about the pasts of the characters, and how this has affected their present-day lives.

The looking glass of the story’s title is square in shape, and positioned in the living room.  ‘There was,’ writes Porter, ‘a ripple in the glass and a crack across the middle, and it was like seeing your face in water.’  Throughout the story, Rosaleen views herself in it, and Porter records her thoughts.  With this technique, and the scenes which she records, Porter has been able to create a fascinating portrait of a complex and complicated, and incredibly realistic, woman.  The Cracked Looking-Glass also presents a searing portrait of a troubled marriage in a skilfully crafted way.   I was reminded somewhat of Katherine Mansfield whilst I was reading, one of the highest accolades which I could give; not so much because of Porter’s prose style, but due to the way in which she builds her characters and their histories.

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‘Lost Things’ by Jenny Offill ****

I very much enjoyed Jenny Offill’s second novel, Dept. of Speculation, and happily hunted down her debut, Last Things, which was published in 1999.  The Irish Times calls the novel a ‘glorious debut’, and The Times writes that ‘Offill creates for Grace a mesmerising imaginary world…  She writes with a heartbreaking clarity… and is dextrously able to evoke emotional extremity through pitch-perfect narrative compression.’ 9781408879719

The protagonist and narrator of Last Things is Grace Davitt, who is seven years old when the novel begins, and who lives in Vermont with her parents.  She finds her volatile mother, Anna, ‘a puzzling yet wonderful mystery.  This is a woman who has seen a sea serpent in the lake, who paints a timeline of the universe on the sewing-room wall, and who teaches her daughter a secret language which only they can speak.’  Her father, schoolteacher Jonathan, is an antithesis to her mother; he trusts only scientific evidence, and ‘finds himself shut out by Anna as she draws Grace deeper and deeper into a strange world of myth and obsession.’

Offill captures her young protagonist’s voice wonderfully and believably.  She weaves in childish fantasies of Grace’s, which are rather lovely at times: ‘I closed my eyes and tried to dream in another language’, for instance.  From its opening pages, the novel is an incredibly thoughtful one.  Grace imparts: ‘Another time, my mother told me that when I was born every language in the world was in my head, waiting to take form.  I could have spoken Swahili or Urdu or Cantonese, but now it was too late.’  Throughout, and with the guidance of both her parents, Grace is trying to make sense of the world around her.  This is made more difficult, as her parents tend to disagree about everything.

Grace’s mother is bound up in stories which she fashions both for her daughter, and for herself.  These stories confuse Grace, and serve only to muddle the truth for her: ‘Sometimes I tried to guess which of my mother’s stories were true and which were not, but I was usually wrong.’  Anna takes Grace to a nearby lake each morning, before anyone else arrives, in order to try and catch a glimpse of a monster which she is convinced lives there.  She has some rather peculiar notions about the world, and how one should behave.  ‘Sometimes,’ Grace tells us, ‘my mother tired of looking for the monster and we’d go to the park instead.  The rule about the park was that we could only go there if we went in disguise.  Otherwise, men might stop and talk to us.’

All of the characters in Last Things have unusual quirks.  Grace’s babysitter, sixteen-year-old Edgar, is a science prodigy, who answers questions only if he is interested in the answer.  One morning, he imparts a dream of his, in which ‘one day entire cities might be illuminated by mold.’  Of her cousin, Grace states: ‘Grooming was important to Mary because she believed her portrait would one day appear on a dollar bill.  The summer before, she had sent away in the mail for a kit to start her own country.  Martyrdom, it was going to be called.  It wasn’t ready yet because there was a lot of paperwork to do, she said.’  Her father carries around a book entitled Know Your Constitution!, which he uses to write letters to the newspaper.

The family dynamic which Offill presents is fascinating.  Offill probes the decisions which Grace’s parents have made, and the sometimes amusing effects which they have had on their only child: ‘I had never been to church because my father had vowed to raise me a heathen.  A heathen was a godless thing, my mother explained.  In some parts of America, it was against the law to be one.  On Sundays, I watched from the woods as the Christians drove by.  The women had on dresses and the men wore dark suits.  Sometimes I threw rocks at their cars and waited to see what God would do.  Nothing much, it turned out.’

I rarely see reviews of Offill’s work, which I feel is a real shame.  I can only hope the this review has piqued someone’s interest in this novel, or her more popular Dept. of Speculation.  This novel is funny, and whilst at times it appears lighthearted, there is a darker undercurrent to it.  The characters are realistic creations, and will stay in your head for weeks afterwards.  Particularly for a debut, Last Things is accomplished, and has such a surety about it.

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Penguin Moderns: Hans Fallada and Saul Bellow

9780241339244Why Do You Wear a Cheap Watch? by Hans Fallada *** (#34)
I have really enjoyed what I have read of Fallada’s work thus far, and was therefore looking forward to Why Do You Wear a Cheap Watch?, a short story collection included in the Penguin Moderns series.  These are ‘darkly funny, streetwise tales of low-lifes, grifters and ordinary people trying to make ends meet in pre-war Germany.’  All of the stories collected here – ‘Why Do You Wear a Cheap Watch?’, ‘War Monument or Urinal?’, and ‘Fifty Marks and a Merry Christmas’ – have been taken from Tales of the Underworld, which first appeared in English in 2014.  All have been translated by Michael Hofmann.

I found Fallada’s prose style interesting; he uses a rather conversational narrative voice, which I did not feel always worked.  I must admit that I found this collection a little disappointing.  The title story is a little odd, and seemed to end quite abruptly.  Given the beauty of Alone in Berlin and Every Man Dies Alone, I was expecting something rather different from these short stories.  Whilst they have a considerable amount to say, there is little cohesion between them.  The second story is clever, and makes many comments about German politics, and I did enjoy the third, about a couple who are adamant to have the happiest Christmas they can, despite the husband not expecting payment of his yearly bonus.  Why Do You Wear a Cheap Watch? isn’t a bad collection by any means, but if I had come to Fallada’s work with no preconceptions and read this, I can’t say I’d rush to get to the rest of his oeuvre.

 

Leaving the Yellow House by Saul Bellow *** (#36) 9780241338995
The thirty-sixth book on the Penguin Moderns list is a short story entitled ‘Leaving the Yellow House’ by Saul Bellow, which was first published in 1956.  In it, ‘a stubborn, hard-drinking elderly woman living in a desert town finds herself faced with an impossible choice, in this caustically funny, precisely observed tale from an American prose master.’  I do not recall reading anything of Bellow’s before, and as I am always keen to discover new to me short story authors, I was looking forward to reading this.

The opening of the story really sets the scene, and the period in which the story is set: ‘The neighbors – there were in all six white people who lived at Sego Desert Lake – told one another that old Hattie could no longer make it alone.  The desert life, even with a forced-air furnace in the house and butane gas brought from town in a truck, was still too difficult for her.’  Hattie has settled here after being left a yellow house by her friend India, described throughout as a real ‘lady’.  I did enjoy Bellow’s portrayal of Hattie, and found this one of the strengths of the novel.  He describes her, for instance, in the following way: ‘You couldn’t help being fond of Hattie.  She was big and cheerful, puffy, comic, boastful, with a big round back and stiff, rather long legs.’

After having ‘a few Martinis’ one evening, Hattie loses control of her car, and it veers onto the railway tracks.  ‘Leaving the Yellow House’ is ultimately a character study of Hattie, which charts her gradual decline.  She begins to plan for her death, and debates who to leave the yellow house to in her will.  The premise of the story is interesting, and it is well executed.  Whilst it kept my interest throughout, I was not quite blown away by it, however.  This taster of Bellow’s work has unfortunately not made me want to pick up any of his other books in the next few months, as I had hoped it would.

 

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Penguin Moderns: Cyprian Ekwensi and Jack Kerouac

Glittering City by Cyprian Ekwensi *** (#32) 9780241339848
In Cyprian Ekwensi’s short story, ‘untrustworthy, charming Fussy Joe spins tall tales and breaks hearts in this rollicking story set in the “sensational city” of 1960s Lagos.’  First published in 1966, reading Glittering City was my first taste of Ekwensi’s work.  I found that the opening descriptions of person and place helped to set the tone of the whole, rather than paying too much attention to the scene.  I did find that Nigeria was used barely at all as a setting, aside from several short and random descriptions of Lagos.  I know that this is a short story, but I would have enjoyed more content like this within it.

Fussy Joe has depth to him, and comes across largely as an untrustworthy creep.  When the story begins, he takes a young girl, who has arrived alone at the train station, back to his room in another part of Lagos.  It is here that she begins to feel frightened: ‘All of the tales she had heard about the bad men of the city came crawling back.  They were the exciting stories they whispered after lights out in the boarding-house.’

I felt rather uncomfortable whilst reading parts of this story.  Whilst I enjoyed Ekwensi’s prose style, and found the whole well written and nicely paced, there were elements which detracted from my enjoyment.  I did not like Fussy Joe at all, or his constant dishonesty; he tells various people that he is employed in all manner of different jobs, and has several women on the go at once.

Throughout, I could not quite tell in which the direction the story was going, and it did surprise me in a couple of places.  There did feel at times as though there was too much going on in the story, and whilst I enjoyed some elements, others I felt indifferent to, or disliked altogether.   I’m not going to rush to read any of Ekwensi’s other work, but I would be intrigued to try another of his short stories at some point, just to see how it compares.

 

cover-jpg-rendition-460-707Piers of the Homeless Night by Jack Kerouac *** (#33)
I do really enjoy Beat writer Jack Kerouac’s work, and was looking forward to reading these ‘soaring, freewheeling snapshots of life on the road across America.’  Piers of the Homeless Night, which is the thirty-third publication on the Penguin Moderns list, is composed of two journal entries – ‘Piers of the Homeless Night’ and ‘The Vanishing American Hobo’ – which were first published in Lonesome Traveler (1960).

I tend to find that Kerouac has a lot to say about American society, and that is certainly the case here.  The stream-of-consciousness style, with its longer than usual run-on sentences did take me a little while to get into, but it works on the whole.  I admire Kerouac’s writing, largely in that I would find it impossible to emulate.  His prose is fascinating, too.  There is structure here, but elements of both journal entries are a little garbled and confusing.  If this was the first work of Kerouac’s which I had read, I would be largely indifferent to picking up anything else by him.  As it is, I enjoyed On the Road and Maggie Cassidy far more than I did Piers of the Homeless Night.

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