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‘Signs Preceding the End of the World’ by Yuri Herrera ****

I was determined to read more translated fiction from South America after realising a year or so ago that I had missed out on an awful lot of classics, or hotly tipped novels.  I travelled to the beautiful Mexican island of Cozumel in September too, and wanted to read some Mexican literature before I set off.  Yuri Herrera, deemed ‘Mexico’s greatest novelist’, struck me as an author whose work I should be more familiar with, and I thus requested Signs Preceding the End of the World from the library.

9781908276421The blurb of the novella states that Herrera ‘does not simply write about the border between Mexico and the United States and those who cross it.  He explores the crossings and translations people make in their minds and language as they move from one country to another, especially when there’s no going back.’  Signs Preceding the End of the World thus felt even more timely, dealing as it does with the migrant experience, which is, of course, at levels of crisis at present.

In Signs Preceding the End of the World, a young woman named Makina is tasked with crossing into the United States to find her brother.  Of his moving to a different country, Herrera writes: ‘…. but he insisted Someone’s got to fight for what’s ours and I got the balls if you don’t.  Cora [their mother] merely looked at him, fed up, and didn’t say a word, until she saw him at the door with his rucksack full of odds and ends and said Let him go, let him learn to fend for himself with his own big balls, and he hesitated a moment before he versed, and in the doubt flickering in his eyes you could see he’d spent his whole life there like that, holding back his tears, but before letting them out he turned and cursed and only ever came back in the form of two or three short notes he sent a long while later.’

Makina’s uncertainty about this task, and her place in the world, has been quite startlingly depicted: ‘She looked into the mirrors: in front of her was her back: she looked behind but found only the neverending front, coming forward, as if inviting her to step through its thresholds.  If she crossed them all, eventually, after many bends, she’d reach the right place; but it was a place she didn’t trust.’  Despite this, she is a headstrong and assertive protagonist; she is in control of her own body, to the point of violence at times.

Signs Preceding the End of the World has been split into relatively short sections, with headings such as ‘The Earth’, ‘The Place Where the Hills Meet’, and ‘The Obsidian Mound’.  It is short, even for a novella, and can easily be read in one sitting, but its themes and core ideas are so important that it will be thought about for weeks afterwards.  Herrera’s writing is sometimes beautiful, and at times startling; for instance: ‘There was still some light in the sky but it was burning dark, like a giant pool of drying blood.’

Lisa Dillman’s translation of Herrera’s novella is both intelligent and fluid.  Of course, it is difficult as a non-Spanish speaker for me to ever compare it to the original, but I very much enjoyed the reading experience.  Herrera is so perceptive of the entire migrant experience, and the wealth of emotions which swell within one.  He has made Makina’s crossing at once personal and universal.  Signs Preceding the End of the World is perfectly paced and important, and should be read and chewed over by everyone.

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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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‘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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‘May We Shed These Human Bodies’ by Amber Sparks *****

I adored Amber Sparks’ second collection, The Unfinished World and Other Stories, which my parents bought for me from the wonderful Strand Bookstore in New York last year.  I was therefore markedly impatient to get my hands on her debut short story collection, May We Shed These Human Bodies.  Despite the moderate expense for a secondhand book, and the fact that I had to order it from the USA, I decided that it would be the perfect treat to read whilst on holiday in France in August.

May We Shed These Human Bodies has been very well received.  Matt Bell writes that it ‘is a collection of marvellous inventions, each one a wonder-machine propelled by fairytale and dream and human and hope, ready to carry us off into new adventure’, and Ben Loory captures his thoughts thus: ‘I always love a book that makes me fear for the writer’s sanity.  I’m over here praying for Amber Sparks.’.

9780983422877There is almost an ethereal quality to Sparks’ books; her prose is complex and multilayered.  Some of the stories within May We Shed These Human Bodies are strange, and all are startling.  There are some very short stories to be found within her debut, which run to less than two full pages.  Others are quite a bit longer.  The individuality of each tale shines through; whilst none of them are alike, the collection is coherent, and reads like a singular unit.  This is helped, in part, with the unusual, intriguing, and quirky titles Sparks gives to her stories.  Here, they range from ‘The Monstrous Sadness of Mythical Creatures’ and ‘Gone and Gone Already’, to ‘All the Imaginary People are Better at Life’ and ‘The Ghosts Eat More Air’.

I could quote extensively from May We Shed These Human Bodies, beautiful and thought-provoking as it is, but rather than ruin some great surprises for those of you whose interest is piqued, I shall whet your interest by sharing the initial paragraph of ‘The City Outside of Itself’: ‘The City longed to travel.  He hadn’t been anywhere in ages, and wanted to see what things looked like outside of himself.  So the City asked his best friend Tammie if she would mind giving him a lift.  Tammie took her gum out of her mouth and twirled it around and around her index finger, pink on peach on pink, while she thought about it.’

May We Shed These Human Bodies is a beguiling and absorbing collection, from an author who already has such a distinctive voice.  Sparks’ use of language is often beautiful and original, and sometimes loaded with meaning.  A great balance of reality and magical realism has been struck.  All of these stories here chill, and sing, and sparkle, and Sparks’ playfulness serves to make the collection entirely surprising.  Inventive, creative, and intelligent, May We Shed These Human Bodies became a firm favourite of mine on my first reading, and is certainly a tome which I hope to pick up many more times in the future.

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Reading the World: ‘Human Acts’ by Han Kang **** (From the Archive)

Human Acts was Katie’s choice for the May instalment of our Chai and Sheep book club.  I had a slight mishap with the library, in that both our May and June choices had rather large waiting lists, and then came in during April; I thus had to read them way ahead of time and try and hide my thoughts.

The novel, Han Kang’s second, has been described as ‘a riveting, poetic and unrelentingly powerful examination of humanity at its most appalling, and its most hopeful.  It is an act of extraordinary resistance and a refusal to forget’.  It is ‘a radically brave novel about an atrocious episode in Korean history’.

Human Acts has been translated from its original Korean, and Deborah Smith won the English PEN Award for doing so.  Kang was adamant that the ‘translation maintain the moral ambivalence of the original, and avoid sensationalising the sorrow and shame which her home town was made to bear’.  The novel itself has won awards in Kang’s native country.  I haven’t read much Asian fiction at all, but it does seem to be rather in vogue at the moment, and this book, to me, sounded both strange and intriguing.  9781846275968

The setting is Gwangju, South Korea, in 1980, where Kang herself spent some of her childhood.  Following a ‘viciously suppressed student uprising’, many searches ensue – a boy’s for the corpse of his friend, and, perhaps above all, that of a ‘brutalized country’ for its voice.  The novel is told in a sequence of interconnecting, and sometimes overlapping, chapters.  It took until 1997 for this brutal uprising, in which many died, to be memorialised; in fact, ‘casualty figures remain a contentious issue even today’.

Interestingly, the novel begins with a chapter which uses the second person perspective.  This is a relatively simple but incredibly effective tool to set the scene: ‘When you let your eyelids part just the tiniest fraction, the gingko trees in front of the Provincial Office are shaking in the wind.  So far, not a single drop of rain has fallen’.  It continues with our journey, as it were: ‘You step into the gym hall, fighting down the wave of nausea that hits you with the stench…  The coffins that have already been through the memorial service have been grouped neatly near the door, while at the foot of the large window, each covered with a white cloth, lie the bodies of thirty-two people for whom no relatives have yet arrived to put them in their coffins.  Next to each of their heads, a candle wedged into an empty drinks bottle flickers quietly’.  This well-evoked setting is a centre filled with volunteers, who are housing the massacred as they await identification.

The next chapter is narrated by the boy’s friend, Park Jeong-dae; he and his sister, Jeong-mi, have both been murdered.  It begins as it means to go on, with the following striking sentence: ‘Our bodies are piled on top of each other in the shape of a cross’.  Bodies are a central theme to the whole: ‘From that moment on, I was filled with hatred for my body.  Our bodies, tossed there like lumps of meat.  Our filthy, rotting faces, reeking in the sun’.

Translator Deborah Smith’s introduction gives valuable background information into the history of Korea, setting out the political and social backdrop which Kang writes against.  ‘Military strongman’ Park Chung-hee has been assassinated when this book begins, and his protege, Chun Doo-hwan, steps up to the plate, expanding martial law and curtailing the freedom of the press, amongst other dictatorial things.  Kang, Smith writes, ‘starts with bodies.  Piled up, reeking, unclaimed and thus unburied, they present both a logistical and an ontological dilemma’.

The contextual information about Korea – a country in which, I must admit, my historical knowledge is rather lacking – was fascinating, as are the facets of culture which are embedded within.  For example, ‘In the Korean context… violence done to the body is a violation to the spirit/soul which animates it’.  Gender politics and regionalism are touched upon in the novel too, and one cannot help but feel that they are learning about a completely different world when they are reading.

Kang’s descriptions are vivid; throughout, there is a very tight control over the vocabulary and the translation.  The characters, even those who are deceased, feel realistic; they all have different wants and longings.  The translation has been perfectly rendered, and there is such a marvellous flow to the whole that it is difficult to believe it has been translated in places.  Kang certainly has a deft hand for writing, and I have heard from so many people that they very much enjoyed The Vegetarian too.  Human Acts is a captivating, stark, and memorable novel, with much to discuss within its deceptively slim covers; the perfect choice for a book club.

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‘Mirror Shoulder Signal’ by Dorthe Nors **

Critical reviewers seem to adore her work on the whole, but the incredibly mixed reviews of Dorthe Nors’ Mirror Shoulder Signal which I have seen around the Internet intrigued me far more than the gushing positives.  Let us begin with some of the more favourable reviews.  Daniel Woodrell writes: ‘To read a Dorthe Nors story is to enter a dream and become subject to its logic’, and the Independent follows a similar thought pattern, stating: ‘Her words whip along, each idea cascading into the next: it’s like having a window into someone’s thoughts’.  The novel – or, rather, novella, as it runs to just under two hundred pages – which was first published in Denmark last year, has been translated from its original Danish by Misha Hoekstra. 9781782273127

Mirror Shoulder Signal follows protagonist Sonja, a translator living in Copenhagen.  She has finally decided to take driving lessons, now that she can afford to, and part of the novel takes place within the space of the car in which she is practising.  The novella opens when Sonja and her driving instructor, Jytte, are getting used to one another in the rather stressful setting: ‘It’s difficult to maintain boundaries in an automobile.  When you’re a driving student, you have to relinquish free will…’.

The novella flits back and forth from the present day to Sonja’s childhood memories.  Whilst I ordinarily find that this technique works well in building up a character in a novel, or a film, Sonja feels relatively one-dimensional.  At first, she comes across as a promising construct, but this is somehow lost.  Her experience with the city was certainly the more interesting part of her story for me: ‘…  the city was overpowering.  The sounds, the faces, the colors all seemed chaotic, and she remembered how she’d lain in bed with earplugs and a blindfold.  Molly lay in the next room and blossomed, but Sonja had to switch off.  She turned down that knob in her brain that let her take in the world at full blast, and once the knob had been turned almost all the way down, the heath, the tree plantation, and the sky overhead seemed empty of content.’  Sonja is the undoubted focus of the novella, but it does not feel as though we ever really get to the core of her; she does not have enough substance to sustain the whole.

The plot within Mirror Shoulder Signal is not the most interesting, and nor does it have much impact.  There are some surprising moments from time to time, and Nors occasionally presents glimpses of character which would not be out of place in a Katherine Mansfield story, but the matter-of-fact prose and way in which loose ends have not been very well pulled together let the whole down immeasurably.  Perhaps if more Danish history and culture had been included, the city would have come to life, and added a sense of immersive reality to the whole.  As it is, the small details of the political climate which have been invited feel a little too brief to satisfy.

Nors’ short stories have been highly praised, and, with hindsight, would have perhaps been a better introduction to her work than Mirror Shoulder Signal proved to be.  At first glance, it appears that it would fit wonderfully upon the Peirene Press list of short, sharp translated fiction, but there is not quite enough depth to it to match any of their other titles.  Mirror Shoulder Signal does not pack a punch in any way; in fact, it is almost profoundly disappointing in its execution.  The third person perspective which has been used throughout adds a detachment to the whole, and despite Hoekstra’s fluid translation, it does not live up to its potential.  The pacing is off too, and the whole feels a little plodding from its outset.

The real joy in Mirror Shoulder Signal is in some of the more poetic sentences, particularly those which deal with the art of translation, such as the following: ‘Language is powerful, almost magic, and the smallest attention can elevate a sentence or be its undoing.’  Every now and then, there was a sentence such as the above, or an idea, which really piqued my interest, but these threads were soon lost, unfortunately replaced by dullness and predictability.

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