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‘Ghost Wall’ by Sarah Moss ****

I consistently enjoy Sarah Moss’ novels, and was so excited when I found out about the 2018 release of her novella, Ghost Wall.  The premise, which revolves around a seventeen-year-old girl named Silvie, who is spending her summer at an Iron Age reenactment with her strict father and put-upon mother, intrigued me, and I found myself absorbed in the story from the very beginning.51uqxbrcmll-_sx324_bo1204203200_1

It is difficult to pinpoint quite when this takes place, but a couple of clues given place it in the late 1980s or early 1990s.  Silvie finds herself in the camp, which lies in a remote area of Northumberland, due to her bus driver father’s passion for history.  They are living there for some time, along with Professor Jim Slade and three of his students, as ‘an exercise in experimental archaeology’.  Silvie’s father is an ‘abusive man, obsessed with recreating the discomfort, brutality and harshness of Iron Age life.  Behind and ahead of Silvie’s narrative is the story of a bog girl, a sacrifice, a woman killed by those closest to her’.  The stories of Silvie and this unnamed ‘bog girl’ become linked in rather a horrifying way toward the end of the novella.

I very much liked the opening of this story, which felt stylistically Moss-like from its first paragraph.  The prologue begins with a series of quite choppy but very descriptive sentences, which immediately give one a feel for the darkness of the book: ‘They bring her out.  Not blindfolded, but eyes widened to the last sky, the last light.  The last cold bites her fingers and her face, the stones bruise her bare feet.  There will be more stones, before the end.’  As with this example, Moss places small clues throughout for the reader to piece together.

Ghost Wall is highly sensual.  As with all of Moss’ novels and, indeed, her non-fiction, there is a constant awareness of the natural world, and the ways in which it shifts.  Such an atmosphere is built, in what feels like an effortless manner.  In the prologue, for instance, Moss writes of the bog girl: ‘She is whimpering, keening now.  The sound echoes across the marsh, sings through the bare branches of rowan and birch.’  This is continued when Silvie’s first person perspective begins in the first chapter: ‘Within a few days, our feet would wear a path through the trees to the stream, but that first night there was moss underfoot, squashy in the dim light, and patches of wild strawberries so ripe and red they were still visible in the dusk, as if glowing…  Bats flashed through the space between branches, mapping depth into the flat sky, their calls brushing the upper range of my hearing.’

Silvie has depth and range to her character, and she is particularly believable for her flaws and naivety.  When asked by one of the students whether she plans to go to University, her immediate response demonstrates the stifled, lonely life which she has lived thus far: ‘Stop questioning me, I thought, but I didn’t quite know how to ask anything of my own.  How do you leave home, how do you get away, how do you not go back?’  As the novella goes on, Silvie lets the reader know small details of her upbringing.  She talks, to herself at least, about her father’s psychological abuse in an eloquent manner, but the physical abuse is almost baldly stated.  Of her mother, for instance, she says: ‘There was a new bruise on her arm’, before entirely changing the thread of her narrative.

Ghost Wall has been impeccably researched and, to me, the story felt like rather an original one.  I have never read anything quite like it before.  The sense of foreboding is built wonderfully, and whilst quite different in some ways to Moss’ other books, it is sure to delight and chill her fans in equal measure.

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Fairlight Moderns: Emma Timpany and Sophie van Llewyn

I published reviews of three of the Fairlight Moderns novellas recently, and having now read the last two in the series of five, thought that I would post reviews of these too.

Travelling in the Dark by Emma Timpany **** 9781912054480
In Travelling in the Dark, Emma Timpany’s protagonist, Sarah, is travelling back to her native New Zealand from her home in England, accompanied by her young son.  Her husband has recently left her, and she is making the journey in order to show her son where she spent her own childhood, and to meet an old friend with whom she has a lot of history.

Travelling in the Dark begins in such a vivid manner, in prose which feels at once simplistic and engaging: ‘Sarah is on an aeroplane, crossing the night sky.  Her hands are folded in her lap.  Outside the window there is darkness.  She could slide the small, white window blind down, close out the night, but somehow she cannot bring herself to make this one small act.  The sense that she sometimes gets, that she must keep watching or she’ll miss something of importance, is intense, though she cannot see anything beyond the veil of ice crystals.  No stars, no satellites.  No planets.  No moon.  No radiant light from some far city.’  As one can tell from this snippet, Timpany’s descriptions are often quite lovely, particularly when she gives her attention to the natural world.

Every other chapter, which is interspersed between details of Sarah’s present day journey, are vignettes set during her childhood.  Such a sense of place and character can be found throughout Travelling in the Dark, and I so enjoyed Timpany’s writing that I am now waiting eagerly for her next publication.
Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn ****
9781912054305Bottled Goods is Sophie van Llewyn’s first piece of ‘long fiction’.  This novella begins in the Communist Romania of the 1960s, where, in the first scene, protagonist Alina is taken on a roadtrip with her cousins and Aunt Theresa.  Short chapters ensue, some of which are told using the voice of Alina, and others which use an omniscient narrator.  A few chapters consist largely of lists.

From the outset, Bottled Goods is vivid in its descriptions, and culturally and historically fascinating.  Van Llewyn does incredibly well to put across the terror and strength of the regime in such a succinct yet harrowing manner.  She demonstrates how quickly things escalated in the regime, and how far-reaching its effect was upon every Romanian citizen.  The use of magical realism works very well too, particularly given the point at which it is introduced; it is used in quite a serious way, so does not tend to lighten the tone of the novella at all, but it does make one think.  Van Llewyn’s blending of realism with the element of magical realism is rather inventive, and certainly makes for a strange, quirky, and memorable novella.

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Fairlight Novellas

A wonderful, and relatively new, publishing company has come to my attention of late, after publishing five interesting novellas set all over the world.  I have read three of the currently published, and wonderfully designed, five to date, and thought that I would collect my reviews together here.
There Are Things I Know by Karen B. Golightly ****
‘Eight year old Pepper sees the world a little differently from most people.
One day, during a school field trip, Pepper is kidnapped by a stranger and driven to rural Arkansas. The man, who calls himself ‘Uncle Dan’, claims that Pepper’s mother has died and they are to live together from now on – but the boy isn’t convinced.
Pepper always found it hard to figure out when people are lying, but he’s absolutely certain his mother is alive, and he’s going to find her…’

There Are Things I Know is an intelligent, well-wrought novella, which deals with the abduction of a young boy, and is narrated from his perspective.  The narrator, who goes by the nickname of Pepper, is naive at first, feeling trusting toward ‘Uncle Dan’, who calls himself a relative.  As time goes on, however, he begins to learn that things are not as they seem, and that ‘Uncle Dan’ has nothing to do with his family.  Pepper is an entirely believable character, with a lot of depth, who I felt so much empathy for.  The tension which is built here is great, and I read it in one sitting, loath as I was to put it down.

The Driveway Has Two Sides by Sara Marchant **** 38720247
On an East Coast island, full of tall pine moaning with sea gusts, Delilah moves into a cottage by the shore. The neighbours gossip as they watch her clean, black hair tied back in a white rubber band. They don’t like it when she plants a garden out front – orange red carpinus caroliniana and silvery blue hosta. Very unusual, they whisper.  Across the driveway lives a man who never goes out. Delilah knows he’s watching her too and she likes the look of him, but perhaps life is too complicated already…

Sara Marchant’s core idea in her novella, The Driveway Has Two Sides, really intrigued me, and I couldn’t wait to read it. I enjoyed Marchant’s writing a lot; there were some really lovely turns of phrase here, and the characters felt utterly realistic. Whilst not a novella in which a great deal happens – it is largely about relationships and gardening, which do make for an interesting combination – I found it highly compelling.
38720284Inside the Bone Box by Anthony Ferner ****
Top neurosurgeon Nicholas Anderton is morbidly obese.  He doesn’t mind the sweats, the sleep apnoea, or the fact that he can no longer see certain parts of his anatomy. Even the sniggers that come from his registrars, behind what they think are closed doors, won’t make him change. He is also inured to his wife’s scorn as their marriage slowly disintegrates.  But when mistakes are made and the clinical director starts asking questions, Nicholas knows that things are coming to a head…

I am really enjoying these thoughtfully curated, and rather unusual, Fairlight Books novellas. I did not remind myself of the synopsis of this one before I began to read, and was rather surprised at times by the multilayered story which awaited me. Here, Ferner presents an intimate portrait of a husband and wife, and the ways in which their relationship has shifted since the beginning of their marriage. I found Inside the Bone Box incredibly well written, and wholly absorbing.

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‘The Silence and the Roar’ by Nihad Sirees ***

As with many of the reviews which I am writing of late, I chose to include Nihad Sirees’ The Silence and the Roar on my Around the World in 80 Books challenge list.  The novel, which is written by an exiled Syrian author, is set in an unnamed dictatorship, which resembles that of Syria.  The lovely (as ever) Pushkin Press edition which I purchased has been translated from its original Arabic by Max Weiss.

The Independent on Sunday declares The Silence and the Roar ‘Profound and topical…  a chilling portrait of a people whose lives are dominated by fear.’  The novella’s central character is Fathi Sheen, a writer ‘who is no longer permitted to write’.  In its opening couple of chapters, he decides to pass against the mandatory participants of parades for the unnamed dictator, which are taking place all over the city on this particular Sunday.  Of these, he observes: ‘Looking down at the corner where the two streets intersect, I saw a remarkable scene.  Both streets were packed with crowds that undulated and surged as hundreds of pictures of the Leader fluttered over the heads of the masses like waves on the sea.’  Upon leaving his flat, he plans to visit first his mother, and then his girlfriend, Lama.  Such an act, and his lack of participation in the parade, marks him out as ‘an individual so a traitor.’ 9781908968296

Fathi is troubled; many issues which he faces stem from his place as almost a pariah in society, unable to work at the craft which he loves.  His days begin to lose shape, and he alters greatly due to the conditions which he is forced to live with: ‘In the bathroom I took stock of what I did yesterday.  For some time I have been suffering from unhappiness and self-loathing because I don’t actually do much of anything.  Yesterday was like the day before and like the day before that and like any day months earlier.  I don’t do anything any more.  I don’t write.  I don’t read.  I don’t even think.’

The Silence and the Roar is a diurnal novella, which takes place on one single stifling Sunday.  Sirees’ descriptions of the city and its heat are sensuous, and one can almost feel the searing of their skin as they are taken around the city by Fathi.  His narrative voice is measured and intelligent, and gives us potted histories of other characters whom he comes across as the book goes on.  On the whole however, despite some wonderfully vivid descriptions, the prose was a little too matter-of-fact for my particular taste.

The blurb states that ‘The Silence and the Roar is a personal, urgent, funny and aggrieved novel.  It asks what it means to have a conscience, or to laugh, or to endure in a time of the violence, strangeness and roar of tyranny.’  Whilst some very current, issues are explored here, the lack of distinct setting did feel a little distancing.  I respect what Sirees was trying to do here, in demonstrating that such dictatorships can occur all over the world, but I do feel as though it made the whole feel rather impersonal. The fictional aspect of it made it lose some of the horror and tension which I believe it would have had had it been directly about Syria.

Sirees also shows how little has really changed in those parts of the world which are forced to live under such conditions, originally published as it was in 2004.  The Silence and the Roar was written several years before the Syrian conflict began, but there are many echoes of the destruction and fear to come within its pages.  As a social document, it is both important and fascinating.  Regardless, The Silence and the Roar did not quite have the impact which I was expecting.

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‘Tomorrow’ by Elisabeth Russell Taylor ****

I very much enjoyed Elisabeth Russell Taylor’s short story collection, Belated (review here), when I received a review copy upon its publication, and have been trying to seek out her work ever since.  It has unfortunately proved difficult to find any of her titles, but thankfully, Daunt Books have recently reissued her 1991 novella, Tomorrow.

9781911547129Shena Mackay writes that Tomorrow is ‘a memorable and poignant novel made all the more heartbreaking by the quiet dignity of its central character and the restraint of its telling.’  Elaine Feinstein points out that Russell Taylor ‘writes brilliantly of emptiness, and the need for love’, and Publishers Weekly highlights, rather fantastically, that ‘Russell Taylor mingles the elegant with the grotesque, as if seating Flaubert next to William S. Burroughs at dinner.’

Tomorrow takes place in 1960, on the Danish island of Mon, where ‘a number of ill-assorted guests have gathered’ to spend their summer holidays.  The protagonist is Elisabeth Danzinger, ‘plain, middle-aged… a woman so utterly predictable in her habits that she has come to the island every summer for the last fifteen years.’  Elisabeth grew up holidaying on Mon, where her parents owned a holiday home.  The pilgrimage which she makes for seven days each summer gives her the opportunity to remember her tumultuous past.  Her itinerary never changes, and she expects that every holiday will be exactly the same as the one before; she revels in, and takes comfort from, this certainty.

At the outset of the novella, which runs to just 136 pages, the current employer of Elisabeth in England writes in a letter: ‘Despite living under the same roof as Miss Danzinger for fifteen years, I can tell you little about her.  You must have noticed for yourself: she was hardly prepossessing.  As for her character, I would describe it as secretive, verging on the smug.  I do not know anything about her background, she never mentioned it, but I did observe she spent her afternoons off differently from my English servants.  She was a great aficionado of the museums and once a month, I believe, she attended a theatre.’  This is the first description which we as readers receive of Elisabeth, who proves to be rather a complex character.

Russell Taylor continues with this level of depth and attention to detail throughout.  When Elisabeth arrives at the hotel, Russell Taylor describes the way in which ‘She could hear the sea breathing through the twittering of the sparrows that nested in the wisteria.  She consulted her watch; she rose, put a cotton kimono over her petticoat, threw a salt-white bath towel over her arm, picked up her sponge bag, opened the bedroom door quietly, looked right and left along the corridor and, satisfied that no one was about, crossed quickly to the bathroom.’  Mon has been made a presence in itself, with Russell Taylor’s vivid descriptions and sketches of island life building to make it feel as though one is there, alongside Elisabeth at all times.  A wonderful focus has been given to sight and colour; for instance, when ‘Far our at sea, when ultramarine turned to Prussian, three fishing boats floated motionless’, and later, ‘Over a barely discernible grey sheet of water was thrown an equally grey shroud of sky, but the shroud was torn in places to reveal streaks of blood red and aquamarine blue.’

The loneliness which Elaine Feinstein picks out in her review has been given such attention, and is written about with emotion and understanding: ‘She was filled with an overwhelming sense of loss as she wandered from tree to tree, recognising many, feeling herself refused: she had overstayed her welcome in the world.  Life conducted itself independently of her.  The scents from the sodden earth filled her with an intolerable weight of memory; not that of individual occasions but of the entire past.’

Tomorrow is a beautifully written novella, filled with depth.  Mon comes to life beneath Russell Taylor’s pen, as do the characters she constructs.  From time to time, the secondary characters do not feel entirely realistic or plausible, but the very depth of Elisabeth’s character more than makes up for this.  Tomorrow is so well informed, and feels timeless; the issues which it tackles – in part, grief, solitude, and the legacy of the Holocaust – are written about with such gravity and compassion that one cannot help but be moved as the work reaches its conclusion.

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‘Ways of Going Home’ by Alejandro Zambra ****

Alejandro Zambra’s novella, Ways of Going Home, which was first published in 2011, was chosen for the stop in Chile on my Around the World in 80 Books challenge.  I had originally decided that the novella would be the last stop on my reading journey, but I was so intrigued that I just had to pick it up earlier.  This particular winner of the English Pen Award is set in Pinochet’s Chile, circling around districts of the capital city, Santiago.  This particular edition has been translated from its original Spanish by Megan McDowell.

9781847086273Every single review which I had seen of Ways of Going Home prior to reading it myself was highly positive.  Nicole Krauss notes that ‘Zambra’s novels are like a phone call in the middle of the night from an old friend, and afterward, I missed the charming and funny voice on the other end, with its strange and beautiful stories.’  Edwige Danticat proclaims: ‘I envy Alejandro the obvious sophistication and exquisite beauty of the pages you are about to read, a work which is filled with the heartfelt vulnerability of testimony.’  The Observer calls it ‘Complex yet sophisticated…  Zambra [weaves] some of the continent’s most difficult historical themes into an exciting modern art form.’

The blurb on the Granta edition is beguiling in its sparsity: ‘A young boy plays hide-and-seek in the suburbs of Santiago, unaware that his neighbours are becoming entangled in the brutality of Pinochet’s regime.  Then, one night a mysterious girl appears in his neighbourhood and makes a life-changing request.’  Claudia, this ‘mysterious girl’, meets the narrator on the 3rd of March 1985, the night of an earthquake in Santiago.  Of their ensuing relationship, which is more of an infatuation than a friendship, the narrator tells us: ‘She was twelve and I was nine, so our friendship was impossible.  But we were friends, or something like it.  We talked a lot.  Sometimes I think I’m writing this book just to remember those conversations.’

Ways of Going Home uses a structure of very short, and often quite poignant, vignettes.  These are made up at first of retrospective memories and memorials from the narrator’s childhood, and then from his adulthood.  This structure works wonderfully; I often find that books made up of vignettes build a wonderful story, allowing us to learn about the characters, as well as the conditions under which they live, piece by piece.  Zambra’s writing style is gripping from the very first page; it begins in the following manner: ‘Once, I got lost.  I was six or seven.  I got distracted, and all of a sudden I couldn’t see my parents anymore.  I was scared, but I immediately found the way home and got there before they did.  They kept looking for me, desperate, but I thought they were lost.  That I knew how to get home and they didn’t.’

The undercurrents of politics are interpreted by the child narrator in very thoughtful ways. The angle from which the perspective has been shaped is fascinating, and adds so much depth to the whole.  Zambra shows rather than tells, demonstrating that though young, his child narrator knows that horrendous things are happening to people he knows due to the regime.  He cannot quite fathom why, however and, quite like Scout in Harper Lee’s wonderful To Kill a Mockingbird, he devotes a lot of thought to the hatred present around him, and whether any justified reasoning can possibly explain its existence.  Of his young life in Santiago, for instance, the present-day narrator writes: ‘Now I don’t understand that freedom we enjoyed.  We lived under a dictatorship; people talked about crimes and attacks, martial law and curfew, but even so, nothing kept me from spending all day wandering far from home.’  He goes on to say, rather poignantly, ‘While the adults killed or were killed, we drew pictures in a corner.  While the country was falling to pieces, we were learning to talk, to walk, to fold napkins in the shape of boats, of airplanes.’

Zambra has been selected as one of Granta’s Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists for a reason.  Ways of Going Home drips with beauty, and vocalises the impact of violence in such a harrowing and memorable manner.  It is beautiful; it is striking; it is profound.  It is my first taste of Zambra’s work, but I am certain that it will not be the last.

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‘The Finishing School’ by Muriel Spark ***

My University held a two-day conference to mark Muriel Spark’s centenary in early February, and it seemed rude not to buy a book whilst I was volunteering.  I have read quite a few of Spark’s books to date, but The Finishing School is one of those outstanding which I have had my eye on for quite a while.  I was intrigued enough, in fact, to begin reading it right away.

According to a few of the lecturers and general Spark fans whom I spoke to at the conference, The Finishing School is her weakest book.  Ali Smith, however, deems it ‘one of her funniest novels…  Spark at her sharpest, her purest and her most merciful’.  The Smith quote held weight for me, as she is one of my favourite authors (this will come as no surprise to anyone who follows my reviews, I’m sure!). 9781782117575

The Finishing School, first published in 2004, comes in at just over 120 pages in its newest Canongate edition, and is easy enough to read in a single afternoon or evening.  It is Spark’s final novel, published 45 years after Memento Mori, and 43 after her most famous work, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.  It certainly marks a departure; whilst there are definitely similarities to be found between The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Finishing School, particularly with regard to its school setting and imparting of an education of sorts from rather a tyrannical teacher, it is neither as searching, nor as acerbic as the former.  The story here is not quite as tense psychologically as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie either.

The Finishing School, named College Sunrise, is located in Ouchy, on the edge of Lake Geneva in Switzerland.  Here, a ‘would-be’ novelist, Rowland Mahler and his wife, Nina Parker, run a finishing school ‘of questionable reputation to keep the funds flowing’.  After having failed to make a profit in Brussels, where the school was opened several years beforehand, Rowland ‘moved the school to Vienna, increased the fees, wrote to the parents that he and Nina were making an exciting experiment: College Sunrise was to be a mobile school which would move somewhere new every year.’

One student named Chris, just seventeen years of age, shows remarkable promise in the field of literature, and is working on his first novel about Mary Queen of Scots, with interest from a host of publishers.  In the school, in consequence, ‘jealousy and tensions run high’.  No one person’s relationship with Chris is as fraught as that between himself and Rowland, whose criticism Chris relies on, but who is markedly jealous that he is getting somewhere with his writing.  Nina, whose opinion is given at points later in the novella, believes that Rowland’s jealousy of Chris is what is prohibiting him from producing a coherent novel of his own.

Spark gives an insight into the workings of Rowland’s mind and frustration within his own writing.  This manifests itself into a seething hatred of Chris’ work, which he can see is very good: ‘Rowland was frightened; he felt again that stab of jealous envy, envious jealousy that he had already experienced, on touching and reading Chris’s typescript.’  Of his writing process, Spark goes on to say: ‘All the students of Sunrise knew that he struggled with a novel.  They often volunteered to give him ideas for it, which he accepted politely enough.  They begged him to read it aloud to them, but the truth was, the book was not yet in any readable condition.  It consisted of paragraphs here and there on his computer, changing from day to day.  He was in a muddle, which was not to say that he would not eventually get out of it, as in fact he as to do by writing a different sort of book.’

The Finishing School uses a structure of rather short chapters, which works well.  Much is included about the craft of writing, the price of education, and relationships between particular characters; there are extramarital affairs, crises of self, and friendships which will not be shaken by anything.  The style here, as ever with Spark’s work, is amusing in places – in fact, the humour here is noticeably biting in places – and peopled with interesting character constructs.  I did find it engaging, and whilst it is not my favourite Spark book, it is fascinating to see how her writing style has evolved since the beginning of her career.  My only qualm with The Finishing School, which made me give it a three- rather than a four-star rating, is that the ending is quite peculiar; I do not feel as though it was quite satisfactory, as it feels rather hasty and cobbled together.  Regardless, this is certainly a novella worth seeking out.

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