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One From the Archive: ‘Flesh of the Peach’ by Helen McClory ***

First published in August 2017.

Scottish author Helen McClory won both the Saltire Award and the Scottish First Book of the Year Award for her initial publication, a short story collection entitled On the Edges of Vision.  Her debut novel, Flesh of the Peach, is described in its blurb as a ‘stunning, intense and deeply moving investigation into the effects of toxic grief’.  Kirsty Logan, whom I believe to be one of the most exciting voices in contemporary fiction, deems it ‘bold and unflinching’, comparing it to ‘A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing meets Inside Llewyn Davis: A brutal, clear-eyed study of a failing artist that shatters our expectations of what a woman should be.’

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Flesh of the Peach follows a twenty seven-year-old artist named Sarah Browne.  In New York, the tumultuous end of her relationship with a married woman coincides with the death of her ‘estranged, aristocratic’ mother.  She is left with rather a lot of money, and swathes of grief, which she feels quite unable to deal with.  The book essentially depicts Sarah’s existential crisis, as she takes off across the United States on a Greyhound bus, from her home in New York to a cabin of her mother’s in secluded New Mexico.

When she sets off, the following reasoning with herself occurs:

‘Are we doing this then, she asked herself.

The question was vague because she herself was vague.  It becomes a lyric in a city like this one.  Sarah’s lover Kennedy had just severed ties.  Kennedy had been everything for a while there.

… Her mother was dead back home in England, that was the other thing.  Finally, after a slow dance with cancer.  And long after their relationship had died.’

She goes on to think about the family pile back in Cornwall, where she grew up, and clearly never felt as though she belonged: ‘But you remain on the threshold, the door never opens, never shuts behind.  You are outside and you can go no further.  And this outsideness, the jags of memory, fit into your skill to be lodged there, for however long.’  Sarah strives to move as far away from her old life as she can, searching for the ‘best possible version’ of herself, and trying her utmost to be at peace with both her body and her place in the world.

Some of the prose within Flesh of the Peach is immeasurably beautiful, but an odd balance has been struck with its many choppy, sometimes unfinished sentences.  The often very short chapters serve to exacerbate this; they oscillate between present and past, and thus Sarah’s story does tend to feel a little jumbled at times.  These sections are interspersed with short intervals detailing what she plans to do with her money; the suggestions thrown up are sometimes sensible, and sometimes utterly wild and strange.  The really interesting thing about the construction of Flesh of the Peach, however, is the way in which it is told using a mixture of traditional and experimental narrative.  This playing around with form is certainly one of McClory’s strengths here.

The depiction of Sarah’s unravelling, and her struggles to stay afloat is believable for the most part, but I felt rather removed from our protagonist whilst reading about her.  The third person omniscient voice is effective in terms of relaying the roadtrip which she takes, and the memories which flood into her mind at intervals, but despite the crisis of knowing herself which takes place, I did not feel as though she was as fully fleshed out as she perhaps could have been.  There was an insurmountable barrier between Sarah and I; yes, I could watch her and her actions, and could understand the situation in which she found herself, but it still did not make some of the actions which she took that plausible, or in character.

Flesh of the Peach is a story which both champions and degrades love, and all of its many forms.  Whilst the characters are largely interesting, we do not learn enough about the majority of them, and despite the third person narration, we see them only through Sarah’s eyes; we are thus given rather a skewed interpretation of other people.  With regard to Sarah, we as readers are always aware of her; her life, her behaviour, her thoughts, and her feelings are continually woven together.  Despite its strengths, Flesh of the Peach did not quite live up to its premise.  Regardless, I look forward to reading more of McClory’s work in future, as I have a feeling that she is definitely an author to watch.

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Women in Translation Month: ‘The Housekeeper and the Professor’ by Yoko Ogawa (One From the Archive)

Japanese author Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor was a book club pick for February.  Ogawa is an author whom I have only sampled through her interconnected short story collection, Revenge, which is vivid even two and a half years later.  I plumped for The Housekeeper and the Professor as my book club choice because it sounded utterly charming, and looked like it would present a wonderful – and slightly unusual – slice of Japanese life.  First published in Japan in 2003, and translated into English by Stephen Snyder, the novel both met and exceeded my expectations.

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The Professor of the novel, a former maths teacher whose name we never learn, only has eighty minutes of short-term memory function, following a traumatic head injury seventeen years before the narrative begins.  His memory effectively stops in 1975.  Each morning, his housekeeper has to meet him anew: ‘… as the Professor and the Housekeeper are reintroduced to one another, a strange, beautiful relationship blossoms between them.  The Professor may not remember what he had for breakfast, but his mind is still alive with elegant equations from the past’.  It is she who narrates the story.  The third character in the novel is the Housekeeper’s ten-year-old son.  He is at first rather reluctant to spend so much time with the elderly Professor, but the two soon form an unshakeable bond.

The novel’s opening sentence really sets the tone for the whole: ‘We called him the Professor.  And he called my son Root, because, he said, the flat top of his head reminded him of the square root sign’.  Ogawa’s writing is lovely, and she sets scenes simply yet beautifully: ‘It was a rainy evening in early April.  My son’s schoolbag lay abandoned on the rug.  The light in the Professor’s study was dim.  Outside the window, the blossoms on the apricot tree were heavy with rain’.

Maths is the force which serves to really unite the trio; as the Housekeeper describes to us, ‘… I realized that he talked about numbers whenever he was unsure of what to say or do.  Numbers were his way of reaching out to the world.  They were safe, a source of comfort’.  There are many mathematical problems, diagrams, and equations which have been included, but they seem a natural addition to the whole.

The Housekeeper and the Professor is rather a peaceful novel about understanding, trust, and family; protection, selflessness, and kindness.  Ogawa’s prose is unfailingly lovely, and the whole has been sensitively wrought.  The Housekeeper and the Professor is an understanding and deep tome, which transports the reader entirely.  All in all, it is a satisfying novel, which restores one’s faith in humankind, particularly within these turbulent times in which we live.

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One From the Archive – The Book Trail: From North to East

First published in 2019.

I am beginning this particular edition of The Book Trail with a travel book I read at the end of last year, and very much enjoyed.  As ever, I have used the Goodreads ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool to collate this list.

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1. Sixty Degrees North: Around the World in Search of Home by Malachy Tallack
‘The sixtieth parallel marks a borderland between the northern and southern worlds. Wrapping itself around the lower reaches of Finland, Sweden and Norway, it crosses the tip of Greenland and the southern coast of Alaska, and slices the great expanses of Russia and Canada in half. The parallel also passes through Shetland, where Malachy Tallack has spent most of his life.  In Sixty Degrees North, Tallack travels westward, exploring the landscapes of the parallel and the ways that people have interacted with those landscapes, highlighting themes of wildness and community, isolation and engagement, exile and memory.  Sixty Degrees North is an intimate book, one that begins with the author’s loss of his father and his own troubled relationship with Shetland, and concludes with an acceptance of loss and an embrace — ultimately a love — of the place he calls home.’

2. Sea Room: An Island Life in the Hebrides by Adam Nicolson
‘In 1937, Adam Nicolson’s father answered a newspaper ad—“Uninhabited islands for sale. Outer Hebrides, 600 acres . . . Puffins and seals. Apply . . . ”.In this radiant and powerful book, Adam describes, and relives, his love affair with this enchantingly beautiful property, which he inherited when he was twenty-one. As the islands grew to become the most important thing in his life, they began to offer him more than escape, giving him “sea room”—a sailing term Nicolson uses to mean “the sense of enlargement that island life can give you.”  The Shiants—the name means holy or enchanted islands—lie east of the Isle of Lewis in a treacherous sea once known as the “stream of blue men,” after the legendary water spirits who menaced sailors there. Crowned with five-hundred-foot cliffs of black basalt and surrounded by tidal rips, teeming in the summer with thousands of sea birds, they are wild, dangerous, and dramatic—with a long, haunting past. For millennia the Shiants were a haven for those seeking solitude—an eighth-century hermit, the twentieth-century novelist Compton Mackenzie—but their rich, sometimes violent history of human habitation includes much more. Since the Stone Age, families have dwelled on the islands and sailors have perished on their shores. The landscape is soaked in centuries-old tales of restless ghosts and ancient treasure, cradling the heritage of a once productive world of farmers and fishermen.  In passionate, keenly precise prose, Nicolson evokes the paradoxes of island life: cut off from the mainland yet intricately bound to it, austere yet fertile, unforgiving yet bewitchingly beautiful.  Sea Room does more than celebrate and praise this extraordinary place. It shares with us the greatest gift an island can bestow: a deep, revelatory engagement with the natural world.’

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3. A Writer’s House in Wales by Jan Morris 
‘Through an exploration of her country home in Wales, acclaimed travel writer Jan Morris discovers the heart of her fascinating country and what it means to be Welsh. Trefan Morys, Morris’s home between the sea and mountains of the remote northwest corner of Wales, is the 18th-century stable block of her former family house nearby. Surrounding it are the fields and outbuildings, the mud, sheep, and cattle of a working Welsh farm.  She regards this modest building not only as a reflection of herself and her life, but also as epitomizing the small and complex country of Wales, which has defied the world for centuries to preserve its own identity. Morris brilliantly meditates on the beams and stone walls of the house, its jumbled contents, its sounds and smells, its memories and inhabitants, and finally discovers the profoundest meanings of Welshes.’

4. Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland by Sarah Moss (review here)
‘Novelist Sarah Moss had a childhood dream of moving to Iceland, sustained by a wild summer there when she was nineteen. In 2009, she saw an advertisement for a job at the University of Iceland and applied on a whim, despite having two young children and a comfortable life in an English cathedral city. The resulting adventure was shaped by Iceland’s economic collapse, which halved the value of her salary, by the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull and by a collection of new friends, including a poet who saw the only bombs fall on Iceland in 1943, a woman who speaks to elves and a chef who guided Sarah’s family around the intricacies of Icelandic cuisine.  Sarah was drawn to the strangeness of Icelandic landscape, and explored hillsides of boiling mud, volcanic craters and fissures, and the unsurfaced roads that link remote farms and fishing villages in the far north. She walked the coast path every night after her children were in bed, watching the northern lights and the comings and goings of migratory birds. As the weeks and months went by, the children settled in local schools and Sarah got to know her students and colleagues, she and her family learned new ways to live.’

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5. This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland by Gretel Erlich
‘For the last decade, Gretel Ehrlich has been obsessed by an island, a terrain, a culture, and the treacherous beauty of a world that is defined by ice. In This Cold Heaven she combines the story of her travels with history and cultural anthropology to reveal a Greenland that few of us could otherwise imagine.  Ehrlich unlocks the secrets of this severe land and those who live there; a hardy people who still travel by dogsled and kayak and prefer the mystical four months a year of endless darkness to the gentler summers without night. She discovers the twenty-three words the Inuit have for ice, befriends a polar bear hunter, and comes to agree with the great Danish-Inuit explorer Knud Rasmussen that “all true wisdom is only to be found far from the dwellings of man, in great solitudes.”  This Cold Heaven is at once a thrilling adventure story and a meditation on the clarity of life at the extreme edge of the world.’

6. Hearing Birds Fly by Louisa Waugh
Hearing Birds Fly is Louisa Waugh’s passionately written account of her time in a remote Mongolian village. Frustrated by the increasingly bland character of the capital city of Ulan Bator, she yearned for the real Mongolia and got the chance when she was summoned by the village head to go to Tsengel far away in the west, near the Kazakh border. Her story completely transports the reader to feel the glacial cold and to see the wonders of the Seven Kings as they steadily emerge from the horizon.  Through her we sense their trials as well as their joys, rivalries and even hostilities, many of which the author shared or knew about. Her time in the village was marked by coming to terms with the harshness of climate and also by how she faced up to new feelings towards the treatment of animals, death, solitude and real loneliness, and the constant struggle to censor her reactions as an outsider. Above all, Louisa Waugh involves us with the locals’ lives in such a way that we come to know them and care for their fates.’

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7. Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin 
‘Over the years the American writer Emma Larkin has spent traveling in Burma, also known as Myanmar, she’s come to know all too well the many ways this brutal police state can be described as “Orwellian.” The life of the mind exists in a state of siege in Burma, and it long has. But Burma’s connection to George Orwell is not merely metaphorical; it is much deeper and more real. Orwell’s mother was born in Burma, at the height of the British raj, and Orwell was fundamentally shaped by his experiences in Burma as a young man working for the British Imperial Police. When Orwell died, the novel-in-progress on his desk was set in Burma. It is the place George Orwell’s work holds in Burma today, however, that most struck Emma Larkin. She was frequently told by Burmese acquaintances that Orwell did not write one book about their country – his first novel, Burmese Days – but in fact he wrote three, the “trilogy” that included Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. When Larkin quietly asked one Burmese intellectual if he knew the work of George Orwell, he stared blankly for a moment and then said, “Ah, you mean the prophet!”  In one of the most intrepid political travelogues in recent memory, Emma Larkin tells of the year she spent traveling through Burma using the life and work of George Orwell as her compass. Going from Mandalay and Rangoon to poor delta backwaters and up to the old hill-station towns in the mountains of Burma’s far north, Larkin visits the places where Orwell worked and lived, and the places his books live still. She brings to vivid life a country and a people cut off from the rest of the world, and from one another, by the ruling military junta and its vast network of spies and informers. Using Orwell enables her to show, effortlessly, the weight of the colonial experience on Burma today, the ghosts of which are invisible and everywhere. More important, she finds that the path she charts leads her to the people who have found ways to somehow resist the soul-crushing effects of life in this most cruel police state. And George Orwell’s moral clarity, hatred of injustice, and keen powers of observation serve as the author’s compass in another sense too: they are qualities she shares and they suffuse her book – the keenest and finest reckoning with life in this police state that has yet been written.’

8. The River’s Tale: A Year on the Mekong by Edward Gargan
‘Along the Mekong, from northern Tibet to Lijiang, from Luang Prabang to Phnom Penh to Can Lo, I moved from one world to another, among cultural islands often ignorant of each other’s presence. Yet each island, as if built on shifting sands and eroded and reshaped by a universal sea, was re-forming itself, or was being remolded, was expanding its horizons or sinking under the rising waters of a cultural global warming. It was a journey between worlds, worlds fragiley conjoined by a river both ominous and luminescent, muscular and bosomy, harsh and sensuous. From windswept plateaus to the South China Sea, the Mekong flows for three thousand miles, snaking its way through Southeast Asia. Long fascinated with this part of the world, former New York Times correspondent Edward Gargan embarked on an ambitious exploration of the Mekong and those living within its watershed. The River’s Tale is a rare and profound book that delivers more than a correspondent’s account of a place. It is a seminal examination of the Mekong and its people, a testament to the their struggles, their defeats and their victories.’

Have you read any of these books?  Which are you planning to add to your TBR list?

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One From the Archive: ‘The Tusk That Did The Damage’ by Tania James ****

First published in April 2016.

I hadn’t heard of Tania James’ The Tusk That Did the Damage before I saw it featured on a couple of Instagram accounts which I follow, with the announcement that it had been shortlisted for the 2016 Dylan Thomas Prize.  Whilst this is not a prize which I necessarily read my way around (I am more of a fan of the used-to-be-Orange-and-is-now-Baileys Prize), my interest in the book was piqued enough for me to look further into the novel.  When I had read the blurb and discovered that my library had a brand new copy, I requested it immediately.

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The Tusk That Did the Damage is set in southern India, a location in which James has interestingly merged East and West.  In it, she demonstrates how necessary conservation is, and the horrors which we are doing to our world, as well as the horrors of financial exploitation of creatures and natural habitats.  We follow three stories; that of The Gravedigger, an angry elephant who wreaks havoc, a young man named Manu whose brother Jayan is in the elephant poaching ‘trade’, and an American graduate named Emma, who has travelled to the region in order to make a film in a wildlife reserve with her friend Teddy.  These stories are separate from one another on the whole, but all take the elephant as their central focus, and sit wonderfully together in consequence.  I knew, from the book’s very beginning, that I hadn’t read a novel like this in a long time, and was immediately captivated by its originality.

The Tusk That Did the Damage opens with a particularly brutal scene, in which the mother of a young elephant is shot before his eyes.  This portion is told from the elephant’s perspective; whilst not an ‘I’ narrative, he is the sole focus, which makes it all the harder to read.   For James, no holds are barred in her evocation of the situation:

‘A blast split the silence.  The Gravedigger staggered, caught in a carousel of legs and screaming.  The man in the tree was pointing a long-snouted gun.  Another blast…  The Gravedigger whirled in search of his mother, and when at last he caught her scent, he found her roaring in the face of the gunman who aimed into her mouth and shot.’

The use of different narrative styles and perspectives was put to good use here.  I was immediately invested in the story, in which backdrops have been realistically evoked, and characters come to life.  The real stars of the novel though, are the elephants; they are described in the most human manner:

‘During the moment of mother-calf reunion, Teddy hadn’t fiddled with the zoom, had let the action unfold, giving wide berth to these twining trunks, whose ministrations seemed to suggest comfort and tenderness and yet seemed somehow private, primal, on a plane of communication we could glimpse only directly.’

Focus is given to tiny details which would be so easy to miss; the ‘powdery smell’ of a parakeet, a mouth as a ‘hollow of astonishment’, and a range of mountains sitting ‘gaunt and blue’.  The relationships which James presents, both between humans and animals, as well as the links between the two, have been examined with a fine tooth comb.  There is a strength in the conversations too:

‘Ravi leaned against the door.  “An elephant killed someone,” he said.  In Sitamala, near to my mother’s place.”
“What?  That’s terrible.”
He nodded, absorbed in thought.  There was the distant, drifting silence again, the indecipherable knit of his brow.
“Did you know the person?”
He was speechless so long I thought he hadn’t heard me.  “I know the elephant,” he said finally. “Everyone does.”

The Tusk That Did the Damage is a serious book, but boy, is it compelling.  The cultural details and local language used help to build a stronger sense of place, and show how informed James is about the place and issues she is writing about.  It is not simply a good read; it is an important novel, which demonstrates just how fragile the world really is.  Perhaps Jonathan Safran Foer sums it up the best, when he calls it ‘a compulsively readable, devastating novel’.  I heartily look forward to what she will come up with next.

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One From the Archive: ‘A Fifty-Year Silence: Love, War and a Ruined House in France’ by Miranda Richmond Mouillot ****

First published in February 2015.

A Fifty-Year Silence: Love, War and a Ruined House in France has been hailed both ‘a rich and evocative portrait of Mouillot’s family spanning three generations’, and ‘a heartbreaking, uplifting love story spanning two continents’.  In her debut work, Mouillot ‘seeks to confront and illuminate a shadow that haunts every family: the past, which is at once sharply present and maddeningly vague’.

9780804140669A Fifty-Year Silence presents an ‘honest account’ of her grandparents’ separation, and the consequent problems which their offspring and only grandchild, Miranda, were caused.  Anna and Armand purchased an old stone house in the south of France after surviving the Nazi occupation during the Second World War.  Five years after they had moved, Anna left, ‘taking the typewriter and their children.  They never met again’.

In her author’s note, Mouillot tells us that this ‘is a true story, but it is a work of memory, not a work of history’.  The whole has been based, for the most part, upon letters, diaries, and conversations had with her grandparents, as well as her own memories of them.  Mouillot is descended from a family of Holocaust survivors, ‘with a lot of bad memories to cope with’.  These feelings were passed down to her; she tells us: ‘I kept my shoes near the front door, so I could grab them quickly if we had to escape in a hurry, but then I’d lie awake and worry we’d have to use the back door instead’, and ‘the unspoken question that nettled me was not whether such a thing [as losing a house] could happen but how many houses you could lose in a lifetime’.

A Fifty-Year Silence begins in a manner which immediately gives us a feel for Mouillot’s grandparents: ‘When I was born, my grandmother tied a red ribbon around my left wrist to ward off the evil eye.  She knew what was ahead of me and what was behind me, and though she was a great believer in luck and the hazards of fortune, she wasn’t about to take any chances on me’.  She then goes on to say: ‘My grandmother practiced a peculiar and intensive form of self-sufficiency.  She wasn’t a wilderness type; she just knew that in the end, the only person she could truly rely upon was herself’.  Her seeming incompatibility with her stubborn, set-in-his-ways grandfather, is discussed at length. Mouillot believed that her grandparents were ‘more than opposites, or perhaps less; they were like the north poles of two magnets, impossible to push close enough together in my mind to make any kind of comparison, let alone a connection’.

From the first, Mouillot’s narrative is engaging, and she presents her voyage of self- and familial-discovery marvellously.  The flashbacks of her grandparents’ comments, and musings about their early lives have been woven along with her own youth.  She weaves in the tale of how she herself fell in love with La Roche, the decrepit, crumbling house two miles away from the nearest village, and an hour north of Avignon, whilst visiting as a teenager, and how she has now made the region her home.  A Fifty-Year Silence is incredibly interesting, and it has been so lovingly written that it truly is a treat to settle down with.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Woman Upstairs’ by Claire Messud *****

First published in August 2018.

I read Claire Messud’s The Burning Girl whilst on holiday in Florida last year, and thoroughly enjoyed it.  I have been keen to read the rest of her oeuvre ever since, and picked up her fourth novel, The Woman Upstairs, which was first published in 2013.

Lionel Shriver, an author whose work I very much admire, writes that ‘Messud’s prose is a delight…  addictive, memorable, intense.’  Of this novel, the Sunday Times reflects that protagonist Nora is ‘a clear-eyed and fiercely self-critical narrator…  It’s beautiful, and it’s moving, and it feels true.’  The Economist declares that ‘Rage and sorrow burn so fiercely off the pages of this novel…  this is Nora’s conversation with herself, as she spins on a “mental gerbil wheel”, trying to comprehend a betrayal so foul it continues to unsettle long after the last page is turned.’  The Guardian writes ‘Rarely has the mundane been so dazzling’.9780307743763

Nora Eldridge is the protagonist and narrator of The Woman Upstairs.  She is a forty-two-year-old woman who says of herself: ‘I’m a good girl, I’m a nice girl, I’m a straight-A, strait-laced, good daughter, good career girl, and I never stole anybody’s boyfriend…’.  She is a former third grade teacher living in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  In the reflections which she makes upon a pivotal meeting and subsequent friendship in her life, this is the position which she holds.  Of her career, which she moves away from in the present day part of the story, she muses: ‘… and maybe I’ll go back and do it again, I just don’t know.  Maybe, instead, I’ll set the world on fire.  I just might.’

It is when a young boy named Reza Shahid joins her class, whilst his academic father is undertaking a year at Harvard from his post at a Paris University, that things begin to change for Nora.  ‘It all started with the boy,’ begins chapter two.  ‘With Reza.  Even when I saw him last – for the last time ever – this summer, when he was and had been for years no longer the same, almost a young man, with the illogical proportions, the long nose, the pimples and cracking voice of incipient adulthood, I still saw in him the perfection that was.  He glows in my mind’s eye, eight years old and a canonical boy, a child from a fairy tale.’  She goes on, in quite striking prose, to describe the spell which he soon casts over children and staff alike: ‘Exceptional.  Adaptable.  Compassionate.  Generous.  So intelligent.  So quick.  So sweet.  With such a sense of humor.  What did any of our praise mean, but that we’d all fallen in love with him, a bit, and were dazzled?’  Nora soon has the opportunity to meet Reza’s parents, Skandar and Sirena, and soon becomes obsessed with the whole family.

I was immediately pulled in.  Nora’s narrative voice feels authentic from the first page, and she is a highly engaging narrator throughout, unusual in her viewpoints and outlooks.  Messud uses language in markedly interesting ways, and she creates such depth in Nora.  The Woman Upstairs is candid and darkly funny, with a realistic cast of flawed characters.  Messud presents a brooding and memorable reflection upon friendship and family, and the things which we really need in life.  By the end of this unpredictable and surprising novel, I felt that I knew Nora intimately.  In every respect, The Woman Upstairs is a wonderful and powerful novel, and I cannot recommend it enough.

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One From the Archive: ‘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.

Purchase from The Book Depository

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One From the Archive: ‘One Writer’s Beginnings’ by Eudora Welty ****

First published in July 2018.

I very much enjoy Eudora Welty’s fiction, but know comparatively little about her childhood.  I read the wonderful What There Is To Say We Have Said a couple of years ago, which features much of the correspondence between Welty and another favourite author of mine, William Maxwell.  This autobiographical work, which is composed of a wealth of memories largely from Welty’s Mississippi childhood, works as a wonderful companion volume.

Of One Writer’s Beginnings, William Maxwell writes, ‘It is all wonderful…  The parts of the book that are about her family… are by turns hilarious and affecting.  They are a kind of present… from Miss Welty to her audience.’  Penelope Lively believes it to be a piece of ‘entrancing reading’, and Paul Binding writes in the New Statesman: ‘A writer for whom “genius” is for once a not inappropriate word…  A book of great sensitivity – as controlled and yet aspiring as a lyric poem.’

9780674639270In One Writer’s Beginnings, which was first published in 1984, Welty decided to tell her story in one ‘continuous thread of revelation’.  The book provides, says its blurb, ‘… an exploration of memory by one of America’s finest writers, whose many honours include the Pulitzer Prize, the American Book Award for Fiction, and the Gold Medal for the novel.’  This book consists of three essays – ‘Listening’, ‘Learning to See’, and ‘Finding a Voice’ – which have been transcribed from a set of three lectures which Welty gave at Harvard University in April 1983.

When ‘Listening’ begins, Welty’s words set the scene immediately: ‘In our house on North Congress Street in Jackson, Mississippi, where I was born, the oldest of three children, in 1909, we grew up to the striking of clocks.’  Throughout, Welty’s voice is lyrical, candid, and often quite moving.  She reveals her deep love of books, which was present even when she was a tiny child.  ‘I learned,’ she writes, ‘from the age of two or three that any room in our house, at any time of day, was there to read in, or be read to.’  Welty’s writing is particularly beautiful when she discusses her love of stories: ‘It had been startling and disappointing to me to find out that story books had been written by people, that books were not natural wonders, coming up of themselves like grass.  Yet regardless of where they came from, I cannot remember a time when I was not in love with them – with the books themselves, cover and binding and the paper they were printed on, with their smell and their weight and with their possession in my arms, captured and carried off to myself.  Still illiterate, I was ready for them, committed to all the reading I could give them.’

In a series of vignettes, Welty talks about stargazing, singing, childhood illness, learning the alphabet, religion, schooling, and the quirks of her in some ways unconventional parents, amongst other things.  The imagery which she conjures up is often lovely; for instance: ‘All children in those small-town, unhurried days had a vast inner life going on in the movies.  Whole families attended together in the evenings, at least once a week, and children were allowed to go without chaperone in the long summer afternoons – schoolmates with their best friends, pairs of little girls trotting on foot the short distance through the park to town under their Japanese parasols.’  When she discusses the travels which she went on with her family each summer, she writes of their positive effect upon her later writing: ‘I think now, in looking back on these summer trips – this one and a number later, made in the car and on the train – that another element in them must have been influencing my mind.  The trips were wholes unto themselves.  They were stories.  Not only in form, but their taking on direction, movement, development, change.  They changed something in my life: each trip made its particular revelation, though I could not have found words for it.  But with the passage of time, I could look back on them and see them bringing me news, discoveries, premonitions, promises – I still can; they still do.’

One Writer’s Beginnings spans Welty’s childhood, and includes comparatively brief reflections about her time at college, and the early days of her writing career.  She is insightful about the creation of her characters, and the knowledge which one must have as an author to create enough depth.  ‘Characters take on a life sometimes by luck,’ writes Welty, ‘but I suspect it is when you can write most entirely out of yourself, inside the skin, heart, mind, and soul of a person who is not yourself, that a character becomes in his own right another human being on the page.’

One Writer’s Beginnings is a beautifully written celebration of stories, of Welty’s own, and of those which filled her girlhood.  I was pulled in immediately, transported to the Deep South in the early twentieth century.  This is a joyous account, filled with depth and insight.  Welty’s voice is utterly charming, and sometimes quite profound.  I shall close this review with one of the most wonderful quotes from the book: ‘The memory is a living thing – it too is in transit.  But during the moment, all that is remembered joins and lives – the old and the young, the past and the present, the living and the dead.’

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One From the Archive: ‘A Creative Conversation with Kirsty Logan’

First published in 2016.

I have something a little different, but still eminently literary, for you today! At the University of Glasgow, we are lucky enough to have some excellent extracurricular talks organised for us by the English and Creative Writing departments. These are arranged under the umbrella heading of ‘Creative Conversations’, and take place every Monday lunchtime. Yesterday marked the first of these, and what better guest could the University have selected but Creative Writing alumna Kirsty Logan?

3744I am quite a fan of Logan’s work, and have been for rather a long time now (you can read my gushing review of The Gracekeepers here).  Although yesterday’s crowd sadly didn’t quite fill the chapel in which the Conversations take place, the audience felt warm and receptive, and I can only hope that Logan felt the same about this.

Suitably Hallowe’en themed down to Logan’s skeleton-themed outfit, the hour-long talk began with a spellbinding reading of ‘The Keep’, and included a new and incredibly chilling story entitled ‘My Body Cannot Forget Your Body’.  The tales were interspersed with questions from the chair Rob Maslin, and members of the audience.  I came unprepared, I am sad to admit, and therefore didn’t volunteer myself to ask anything, but I very much enjoyed the breadth of the questions which were asked, and doubt I could have done much better myself.  They ranged from the inspiration which Logan found on her recent month-long trip to an Icelandic writers’ retreat, to the influence of her family members upon her writing; the short of it is that she does not tend to write about those she knows, as ‘everyone needs a secret which they can keep just to themselves’.

Logan discussed many things about her writing: perspective, and the use of the first and second person narrative voices (‘I quite like the reader to inhabit the story… so each has a different interpretation.  Anything’s right…  You should always give the reader space…  I quite like to speak to the reader… [and] use a direct address’); her preference of writing short stories with the use of a frame narrative; her hope to always be able to alternate between writing novels and short stories; her upcoming project (which will be set in a pseudo-Icelandic landscape); and her insistence that she doesn’t count herself as a novelist.  Rather, she inferred, she prefers to write a lot of short stories and link them together.  She is interested – as anyone who has read any of her work will know – in experimenting with the traditional form, and takes much inspiration from fairytales.  As an impatient reader herself, wanting the author to get straight into the action, she has always been inspired by the directness of fairytales and their power.  She also spoke at length about the timelessness of the fairytale form, and how we in the modern world can still relate to the tales; indeed, ‘The Keep’ is a retelling of ‘Bluebeard’.

In the pipeline for Logan are more books (both a short story collection and a novel), a visual arts project, and a couple of films.  She also expressed her longing to work on written video games.  She is currently attempting to write about things which scare her, prompted in part by the isolated writers’ retreat, in which she was left alone for great parts of the day away from her friends and family.  This led her to speak about her craft: ‘I can’t write when I’m happy.  When I write I need to be sad, or lonely, or grieving in some way’.  The writing side of her life is viewed by her almost as an alter ego; a ‘separate persona’ that she ‘vaguely’ knows.  This distinction is important for her: ‘Everything I write is so personal, but then as soon as it’s on the page, it isn’t you anymore’.

Eloquent and warm, Kirsty Logan is a marvellous speaker, with a wonderful reading voice, and full and thoughtful responses to everything asked of her.  The inaugural Creative Conversation of this season was wonderful, and hopefully paves the way for many more interesting and inspiring talks.  I shall leave the last word to Logan herself: ‘We can still find truth in stories’.

(Just FYI, Kirsty’s blog is a wonderful place to go to if you’re looking for something a little different to read.)

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One From the Archive: ‘The Brothers’ by Asko Sahlberg ****

First published in 2016.

The Brothers is an early Peirene publication, and one I had not been able to find a copy of.  It really took my fancy, particularly since I will happily read anything set within the bounds of Scandinavia.  This particular novella takes the Finland of 1809 as its setting, and has been translated from its original Finnish by Emily and Fleur Jeremiah.  The blurb hails it ‘a Shakespearean drama from icy Finland’, and it has been written by an author who is quite the celebrity in his native land. 9780956284068

The brothers of the book’s title are Henrik and Erik, who fought on opposing sides in the war between Sweden and Russia.  To borrow a portion of the blurb, ‘with peace declared, they both return to their snowed-in farm.  But who is the master?  Sexual tensions, old grudges, family secrets: all come to a head in this dark and gripping saga’.  Its attention-grabbing beginning immediately sets the scene, and demonstrates the chasm of difference between our protagonists: ‘I have barely caught the crunch of snow and I know who is coming.  Henrik treads heavily and unhurriedly, as is his wont, grinding his feet into the earth.  The brothers are so different.  Erik walks fast, with light steps; he is always in a hurry, here then gone’.  Later, of Henrik, Erik tells Anna: ‘… he said that we came into this world in the wrong order.  That he’s not comfortable here and doesn’t want to remain here, that he wants to see the world’.

Multiple narrators lead us through the whole.  We are treated to the distinctive voices of the farmhand, Anna, Henrik, Erik, and their mother, the Old Mistress.  This technique makes The Brothers feel like a multi-layered work from the very beginning.  Their voices are distinctive, and the farmhand especially – contrary perhaps to expectations – is sometimes rather profound: ‘A human being never sheds his past.  He drags it around like an old overcoat and you know him by this coat, by the way it looks and smells.  Henrik’s coat is heavy and gloomy, exuding the dark stench of blood’.

As one might expect, the landscape plays a big part in this novella, as does darkness, both literally and metaphorically.  Characters are often compared to things like trees and woodpiles.  Sahlberg captures things magnificently; he is perceptive of the smallest of details.  Of the Old Mistress, he writes: ‘Her eyes change again.  A moment ago, they were shaded.  Now they darken, open out in the middle, become tiny black abysses which suck in the gaze’.  His prose is thoughtful too, and he continually views things through the lens of others, thinking to great effect how a particular scene will make an individual feel.  For instance, the Old Mistress says, ‘But boys are fated to grow into men, and a mother has to follow this tragedy as a silent bystander.  And now it seems they will kill each other, and then this, too, can be added to my neverending list of losses’.  Sahlberg is that rare breed of writer who can get inside his characters’ heads, no matter how disparate they are, and regardless of their gender and age.  Each voice here feels authentic, peppered with concerns and thoughts which are utterly believable, and which are specifically tailored to the individual.

The politics of the period have been woven in to good effect, but Sahlberg makes it obvious that it is the characters which are his focus.  Their backstories are thorough and believable; they are never overdone.  The Brothers is an absorbing novella and, as with all of Peirene’s publications, a great addition and perfect fit to their growing list of important translated novellas.