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‘I Pose’ by Stella Benson ***

Having loved what I have read of Stella Benson’s thus far, I jumped at the chance of receiving a review copy of her debut novel, I Pose from Michael Walmer.  First published in 1915, Walmer has chosen to republish it due to its ‘significance in literary history and its humane excellence in all other respects’.  The blurb states that ‘Benson’s cheekiness in commenting directly to the reader on the progress of the story, the saltiness of her slightly cynical view of the world and its ways, and the strange newness of the tale she was telling meant that, on first publication in 1915, the literary world’s curiosity was most certainly piqued’.

The novel’s protagonists are known as The Gardener and The Suffragette.  Both, the blurb says, are ‘beautifully mixed, endearingly crazy creations of Benson’s unusual talent’.  We do not learn their names at any point, which is a very interesting stylistic touch.  The structure of the novel, too, is a little deviant from most of the novels which would have served as the contemporaries of I Pose; it is comprised of an initial chapter which runs to over three hundred pages, and a second chapter which is just eight pages long.9780987483522

The novel’s beginning is lovely and witty, and certainly sets the tone for the whole: ‘There was once a gardener…  Nobody would ever try to introduce him into a real book, for he was in no way suitable.  He was not a philosopher.  Not an adventurer.  Not a gay dog.  Not lively: but he lived, and that at least is a great merit’.  As one can see from the aforementioned, Benson’s character descriptions are somewhat refreshingly original: ‘He was not indispensible to any one, but he believed that he was a pillar supporting the world.  It sometimes makes one nervous to reflect what very amateur pillars the world seems to employ’.

The Suffragette whom he meets at the beginning of the novel, and whom he converses with throughout, has this to say for herself: ‘”One is born a woman…  A woman in her sphere – which is the home.  One starts by thinking of one’s dolls, later one thinks about one’s looks, and later still about one’s clothes.  But nobody marries one.  And then one finds that one’s sphere – which is the home – has been a prison all along.  Has it ever struck you that the tragedy of a woman’s life is that she has time to think – she can think and organise her sphere at the same time’.

The whole feels incredibly modern at times; the issues which Benson discusses are wholly relevant to the twenty-first century, particularly with the looming threat of right-leaning governments and such things as women’s rights, and the meaning of freedom.  I Pose is a curiously poignant book, in fact.  Benson’s sense of humour is rather wicked; she makes swipes at both characters at points, as well as addressing, in the most tongue-in-cheek manner, the things which they stand for: ‘(You need not be afraid.  There is not going to be very much about the cause in this book.)’

There are many serious themes at play within I Pose, but there is a comical edge to the whole; nothing becomes too serious that it feels maudlin to the reader.  For instance, ‘The Suffragette gave Holloway Gaol as her permanent address’.  The storyline is rather exciting, and offers something rather different to the majority of its contemporaries.  The Gardener and the Suffragette decide to go along with societal convention in a way, and pose as a married couple.  Their reasoning for such a choice, however, is a little out of the ordinary; they do so in order to be able to board a ship and travel to a secluded island community.

I Pose is a nicely balanced work, and another which does not deserve to go unread by the majority.  It has so much to say about the world – both that which has passed, and that which we are currently living within.  I do think, however, on reflection, that I had been a little spoilt by beginning my foray into Benson’s work with This Is The End and Living Alone.  Both are immediately engaging, and whilst I was continually intrigued and surprised by I Pose, it didn’t quite have the same amount of polish.  One can understand why – this is a debut novel after all – but the lack of magical realism, which I have become so fond of in Benson’s later work, is felt.  I got a little less out of the novel than I thought I would, unfortunately, but it is still one which I would heartily recommend, particularly if you are just starting off with Benson’s work.

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‘So Much for That’ by Lionel Shriver ****

“Shep Knacker has long saved for “the Afterlife,” an idyllic retreat in the Third World where his nest egg can last forever. Exasperated that his wife, Glynis, has concocted endless excuses why it’s never the right time to go, Shep finally announces he’s leaving for a Tanzanian island, with or without her. Yet Glynis has some news of her own: she’s deathly ill. Shep numbly puts his dream aside, while his nest egg is steadily devastated by staggering bills that their health insurance only partially covers. Astonishingly, illness not only strains their marriage but saves it.  From acclaimed New York Times bestselling author Lionel Shriver comes a searing, ruthlessly honest novel. Brimming with unexpected tenderness and dry humor, it presses the question: How much is one life worth?”

9780061458590There is much divided opinion about Shriver’s So Much for That.  As in her most well-known book, We Need To Talk About Kevin, the book’s prose is highly stylised, and one can spot her distinctive writing from the outset.  Within So Much for That, Shriver demonstrates just how versatile she is as an author; this effort is markedly different to the aforementioned, but it is just as compelling throughout.

Many issues of importance are tackled here, but the one which rises above everything else is the healthcare system in the United States.  It gives a fascinating insight into insurance policies and how much things actually cost, which I in the United Kingdom have been sheltered from with our fantastic NHS.

Intelligently written and realistically characterised, So Much for That is sharp, exquisite, and mindblowingly good.  It held my interest throughout, until I reached the last dozen or so pages.  They served to ruin the whole for me somewhat; I did not feel as though the epilogue which Shriver presents is necessary.  In fact, it was reminiscent of that awful ‘grown-up’ scene at the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which still infuriates me.  Ugh.  I have consequently come away from the whole feeling a touch disappointed, but know that I will definitely have to read all of Shriver’s other books in future; she has such a talent, and I am determined to give one of her books a five-star rating.

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‘Tales of the German Imagination: from the Brothers Grimm to Ingeborg Bachmann’, edited by Peter Wortsman ***

Tales of the German Imagination, from the Brothers Grimm to Ingeborg Bachmann, is a ‘collection of fantastical, strange and compelling stories from 200 years of German literature’. It ‘includes such literary giants as the Brothers Grimm, Kafka, Musil and Rilke, as well as many surprising and unexpected voices’.

9780141198804The introduction has been written by translator Peter Wortsman, who has also edited the collection. In it, he states that ‘fear has indeed proven rich fodder for fantasy in the German storytelling tradition’, and that ‘the darkest German literary confections are such a pleasure to read because they are also spiked with humour – therein lies their enduring appeal’. Wortsman goes on to say that in editing the anthology, he has aimed to include stories and extracts ‘from a span of several centuries and from various literary movements born of crisis and doubt’.

Tales of the German Imagination is split into three separate parts, and includes predominantly male authors. In fact, Ingeborg Bachmann, mentioned in the title, is one of only two females featured in the collection. There are some other famous names amongst the authors – E.T.A. Hoffmann, Heinrich Heine and Rainer Maria Rilke, for example. The anthology begins with three stories by the Brothers Grimm – ‘The Singing Bone’, ‘Hansel and Gretel’ and ‘The Children of Hameln’, which is their telling of a tale more commonly known as ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’. Whilst these stories are relatively well known in the English speaking world, others from the less popular authors feel fresh and add a nice twist to such a collection.

The stories themselves provide a varied mixture of themes and styles. Some are told from the first person perspective and others from the third, and we are immersed into a variety of historical settings where we meet a whole host of diverse protagonists and bystanders. The settings too are diverse, from Germany to Italy and from the Netherlands to the United States. Several of the tales of much longer than others – ‘The Sandman’ by E.T.A. Hoffmann, ‘Rune Mountain’ by Ludwig Tieck and ‘Peter Schlemiel’ by Adelbert von Chamisso, for example, read more like novellas than short stories. The majority are standalone pieces, but several of the tales have been taken from longer works of fiction. Throughout, many different themes and literary elements have been made use of, from magic, the unexplained and the macabre to poverty, war and peace and the concept of madness.

The stories themselves have been nicely varied for the most part, and there is sure to be something to suit the tastes of even the most particular short story connoisseur. All relate to the human psyche in some way, and the most stunning and unsettling are provided by the Brothers Grimm, Georg Heym and Kurt Schwitters. Some of the tales are rather disturbed and the subject matter is not easy to read about at times, but the starkness of their telling and events certainly pack a punch. In Georg Heym’s ‘The Lunatic’, his protagonist ‘pranced about with two skulls stuck to his feet, like eggshells he’d just stepped out of and hadn’t yet shaken off… and then he stamped down, splotch, so the brains splattered nicely like a little golden fountain’. In Kurt Schwitters’ ‘The Onion’, the protagonist tells us: ‘It was a very momentous day, the day on which I was to be slaughtered… I had never yet in all my life been slaughtered’.

In some cases, the year in which the story was published is included below its title, but in others the life span of the author is included. This inconsistency is a little confusing at times, as is the way in which none of the stories have been included in a chronological order. Ordering the stories in such a way would have made it easy for the reader to see how the darker elements of German fiction have progressed as the years have passed. The biographical information pertaining to each of the authors has been tucked away in an appendix at the back of the volume, and it is a shame that these short yet informative paragraphs have not been paired with the stories themselves.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Looking-Glass Sisters’ by Gohril Gabrielsen ****

The first offering in English by acclaimed Norwegian author Gohril Gabrielsen has just been published by the marvellous Peirene Press, making it their eighteenth title, and the final instalment in 2015’s Chance Encounter series.  For those who do not know, Peirene focus upon translating European novella-length works, which would otherwise probably completely pass us by in the United Kingdom.

Translated by John Irons, The Looking-Glass Sisters – first published in Norway in 2008 – is a stunning and intense portrayal of the relationship between two sisters.  Bergens Tidende, Norway’s fifth largest newspaper, believes that The Looking-Glass Sisters is ‘innovative and sensuous’, and Meike Ziervogel, the founder of Peirene, calls it ‘a story about loneliness – both geographical and psychological’.  Here, Gabrielsen presents to us ‘a tragic love story about two sisters who cannot live with or without each other’.

Ragna is the elder sister, and has been tasked with caring for her partially paralysed, and thus totally dependent, sister since the deaths of their parents.  Our narrator, who remains unnamed, says, ‘I’m dependent on her help and goodwill…  But she ignores my cries, does not come, punishes me severely.  And repeatedly…  I have to realise that we’ve come to a watershed in our relationship as sisters.  After our last agonising quarrel, it looks as if she’s forgotten me.  I’ve been stowed away like an object among all the other objects up here – discarded and outside time’.

The prose style which Gabrielsen has made use of is gripping from the very start.  The story opens in the following way: ‘My sister and her husband are outside, digging a deep hole next to the dwarf birch by my attic window…  Soon I am dozing dreamlessly, just as hidden as the thing down there in the dark earth’.  She uses the simple yet effective technique of going back in time in order to build the contextual information, and to give us further insights into the tumultuous and often cruel relationship between the sisters.  The entire novella is deftly shaped, and Gabrielsen’s care and attention to detail mean that one is immediately submerged within the dark, stifling world of our narrator.  The very notion of everyday life, and those tasks which we perhaps take for granted, are examined, as are the ways in and means with which our narrator brings herself to cope.

The reader is soon called upon to be a participant within the story, rather than merely an overseer: ‘Imagine an attic.  Not just any attic, but one in a remote spot in a northern, godforsaken part of the world…  You go up there only reluctantly, and preferably not alone – it’s got something to do with the creaking of the staircase…  It’s not easy to make it to the room at the top.  And it’s even more difficult to come down’.   The power of the first person perspective grows: ‘You place your ear to the door.  After a moment, you sense some sound of life, not breathing and movement, but a vibration of existence, an unrest that only life can produce…  Deep inside, among the dancing white spots, you can make out the contours of a body resting on a bed.  And this body, this only just perceptible unrest – it is me’.

The Looking-Glass Sisters contains such interesting and original aspects of personality, and builds a cast of characters who feel – often horribly – realistic, particularly in their cruelties.  Ragna, for example, ‘is a person you instinctively talk loudly to, long and hard, so as to be heard through the thick layer of resistance’.  Gabrielsen’s prose, and those elements which she depicts, are startling in places: ‘Her little heart shrivelled, like the animal hearts in the larder that her sister cooks with cream’.

Gabrielsen shrewdly demonstrates that one can be with somebody every day, and not really know them at all.  In The Looking-Glass Sisters, she masterfully builds intensity, and weaves in elements of sensuality and control.  She shows the hidden strength of our narrator, and sculpts the overriding feeling that people are not always as they may appear.  The fact that the narrator herself is never given a name gives a whole new depth to proceedings; despite her lack of identification in this manner, she is still the most human depiction in the entire novella.  The stark darkness within the plot, too, unfolds marvellously against the framework of the northern Norway setting.

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‘Life After Life’ by Kate Atkinson ****

Life After Life is one of the most recent novels from one of Britain’s finest contemporary authors, Kate Atkinson. Here, Atkinson has used ‘the most turbulent events of the 20th century’ as her backdrop, and has proffered the question: ‘what if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?’ Interesting foundations abound, and the story which she has crafted certainly builds upon this creativity.

9780552779685The beginning of the book takes November 1930 as its setting, but that is by no means the beginning of the story. The structure is such that it flits between one time period and the next, bobbing into the past and hurtling into the future from one chapter to another. In the first vignette, Ursula Todd, the heroine of the novel, finds herself in a café with Adolf Hitler: ‘He loved his cakes’, our omniscient narrator muses. ‘No wonder he looked so pasty, she was surprised he wasn’t diabetic. The softly repellent body (she imagined pastry) beneath the clothes, never exposed to public view’. Armed with an old pistol, Ursula shoots him. Here the vignette ends.

The second sketch takes us back to rather a domestic scene in February 1910, where a baby girl, our very own Ursula Todd, is born blue, ‘strangled’ by her umbilical cord, ‘the poor wee thing’. In the third vignette which follows, the very same baby is ‘bonny’ and ‘bouncing’, and full of life. Ursula is the third daughter of a young married couple, Hugh and Sylvie Todd, who already have two children. When meeting his baby sister for the first time, the eldest son, Maurice, ‘gloomily’ utters ‘Another girl’, showing the start of his childish distaste for everything around him. The story whirls through Ursula’s childhood, allowing us to see the best and worst consequences of the First and Second World Wars, and the impact which such events had on one family, the endearing and wholly likeable Todds.

A rather playful structure has been used throughout Life After Life. There are eleven sections entitled ‘Snow’, five called ‘Armistice’, and three which fall under the optimistic heading of ‘A Lovely Day Tomorrow’. The novel is set on rather a repetitive cycle, wherein the same days and events are played over and over again. Somehow, rather than making this monotonous, such repetitions never seem stolid or overly similar. The author brings new details to light in each chapter, building up her characters all the while. Others are introduced merely in order to avert crises – a fellow painting on the beach who heroically wades into the Cornwall sea to rescue Ursula and her elder sister Pamela when they are washed out of their depth whilst on holiday, for example. Strands of the story are woven through each section and are picked up like dropped stitches every once in a while.

Throughout Life After Life, Atkinson’s wit shines. When Sylvie Todd is musing about the death of her father, the following statement is uttered by the third person narrator: ‘He had just begun a portrait of the Earl of Balfour. Never finished. Obviously’. When talking about her neighbours, too, Sylvie’s naivety is rather touching in the most amusing way: ‘“Jewish,” Sylvie said in the same voice as she would use for “Catholic” – intrigued yet unsettled by such exoticism’.

Life After Life is an historical novel of the most contemporary kind, and its rather unique structure has clearly been deftly plotted. The entire novel is crammed with the wit, humour and compassion for her characters which is evident in every single one of her books to date. Atkinson captures each period which she writes about wonderfully, and she also weaves in the seemingly distant pasts of Hugh and Sylvie. Life After Life is certainly a strong and absorbing novel, and it is one which will surely not disappoint even the most reluctant reader of historical fiction.

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‘Heat Lightning’ by Helen Hull **

Helen Hull’s sixth novel, Heat Lightning, was first published in 1932, and was (relatively) recently reissued by Persephone. According to the publishing house’s magazine, The Persephone Biannually, the idea for Heat Lightning came to the author when she read the following sentence in a magazine article: ‘Here in America we stem from many races, we have no homogenous roots, no common traditions’. The preface to the volume has been provided by Patricia McClelland Miller, who states that Heat Lightning is ‘at its core, a novel of ideas’. Miller’s informative writing shows the psychology of the characters, particularly of the novel’s protagonist, Amy. She states the way in which Amy is presented with ‘a dilemma common to many of Helen Hull’s characters: how can women flourish when they are expected to make most of the adjustments in situations which really require the efforts of both men and women?’

9781903155912The novel, set in 1930, begins with Amy Westover, a thirty five-year-old woman, who is returning to her Michigan hometown with ‘a small pyramid of luggage at her feet’. She spent her childhood in a fictional town named Flemington, which she has fled to once more to escape her unhappy marriage in New York. ‘They would all wonder why she had come,’ Hull writes, ‘where her husband Geoffrey was, – and the joke was that she didn’t know the answer’. Despite returning under the guise of resting after a tonsil operation, she admits to her grandmother in an early conversation, ‘Yes, I ran away, alone’. Amy is ‘too thin, too tense, head with dark fluff of hair strained forward… and the dark eyes gave back an anxious stare’. Throughout, memories of her past is woven in, and these come to light when particular senses are affected by what she sees and feels around her – for example, the smell of ‘hot vinegar and spices’ remind her of making pickles on hot summer mornings.

A list of principal characters has been provided at the outset, ranging from our protagonist and her immediate family members to Charley Johnson, Amy’s grandmother’s former chauffeur. This list provides a useful reference point, as a lot of individuals are introduced in a kind of barrage in just a few pages. Whilst we learn rather a lot about Amy as the novel progresses, she still feels like a somewhat distant protagonist. We as readers are her overseers, and we are distinctly not part of her story. We watch her and her actions with mild interest, but there is a kind of barrier which Hull has erected which stops us from becoming too involved or too compassionate towards Amy. The other characters, too, are either not developed enough, or come across as superficial or cruel. Amy’s grandmother, for example, is incredibly judgemental of those around her, and is never scared of giving her often crude and bigoted opinions: ‘Curly doesn’t approve of immigration… No more do I. Too many foreigners. Too many right in our own family’.

The novel deals with Amy’s struggle of how to behave in two entirely different places – one as a responsible wife and mother to the oddly named Buff and Bobs, and the other as a child herself to her parents, who are ‘so familiar, so foreign’. Amy says, when speaking about her tonsils, ‘They leave you melancholy when they go’, which could equally be a comment upon her children leaving for camp, or even metaphorically, with their growing up. She does seem to relax slightly when in her Michigan life, and one touching sentence describes the way in which ‘She took their good-night kisses, still their child’.

Hull’s descriptions of place and weather are the definite strength of the novel. The summer is ‘tucked in at the horizon inescapably’, and the heat of the day was ‘wavering, full of unsteady motes’. Later on, the sun lays ‘metallic fingers at the roots of her [Amy’s] hair’. The writing style is very rich, but the conversations often feel a little stolid. Rather than providing a comment upon life in small-town America, Heat Lightning focuses upon family dynamics, and the family unit as a whole. It also presents a small insight into a relatively early twentieth century marriage, saying of Amy and Geoffrey, ”This past year their attitude toward each other had been a tight-rope on which she struggled, with painful, awkward contortions, to keep her balance. And Geoffrey – he had jiggled the tight-rope’.

Heat Lightning is an important addition to the Persephone list in that it does deal with some growing issues which women faced in the early 1930s – for example, Amy’s disillusionment with her new life and her relationship with her husband, and her cousin Harriet’s lesbianism: ‘My cousin Harriet is awfully modern, isn’t she?’ The novel itself is well written, but the meandering storyline is difficult to engross oneself into, and the characters, even those we know the most about, are difficult to feel compassion for. A sense of momentum is never really gained, and the novel feels a little flat in consequence. It is worth reading for the writing style alone, but the characters are neither strong nor realistic enough to warrant as much love for this particular Persephone title as they are in almost all of the other books the firm publishes.

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Mini Reviews: ‘Little Deaths’ and ‘The Memory Book’

Little Deaths by Emma Flint ***
9781509826575‘It’s the summer of 1965, and the streets of Queens, New York shimmer in a heatwave. One July morning, Ruth Malone wakes to find a bedroom window wide open and her two young children missing. After a desperate search, the police make a horrifying discovery. Noting Ruth’s perfectly made-up face and provocative clothing, the empty liquor bottles and love letters that litter her apartment, the detectives leap to convenient conclusions, fuelled by neighbourhood gossip and speculation. Sent to cover the case on his first major assignment, tabloid reporter Pete Wonicke at first can’t help but do the same. But the longer he spends watching Ruth, the more he learns about the darker workings of the police and the press. Soon, Pete begins to doubt everything he thought he knew. Ruth Malone is enthralling, challenging and secretive – is she really capable of murder? Haunting, intoxicating and heart-poundingly suspenseful, Little Deaths is a gripping novel about love, morality and obsession, exploring the capacity for good and evil within us all.’

The premise of Emma Flint’s Little Deaths intrigued me.  At first, her prose, with its element of mixed chronology, felt clever, and really helped to set the scene.  After a while however, the prose began to repeat itself at points, and there was an entire middle section which I found frankly rather dull and drawn out.  The period in which it was set – the mid-1960s in New York – was not very well evoked on the whole.  The background itself faded into the background at times, and the story was not well-grounded in Flint’s chosen period.  The novel did not feel quite consistent, but as is often the case with a murder mystery or thriller, one really has to get to the end to see who the crime was committed by.  In this instance, I guessed the perpetrator incredibly early on, so the whole held no real surprises for me.  Little Deaths is a book which I feel had far more potential than was utilised.

 

The Memory Book by Lara Avery **** 9781784299248
‘Samantha McCoy has it all mapped out. First she’s going to win the national debating championship, then she’s going to move to New York and become a human rights lawyer. But when Sam discovers that a rare disease is going to take away her memory, the future she’d planned so perfectly is derailed before its started. Realising that her life won’t wait to be lived, Sam sets out on a summer of firsts. The first party. The first rebellion. The first friendship. The last love.’

I don’t tend to read YA fiction, but as I am eternally fascinated by memory, the plot of The Memory Book certainly intrigued me.  The narrator, Sammie, is intelligent, which definitely helped to keep my interest as I was reading.  Neither she, nor her condition, are predictable in the least.  Avery’s novel is well structured and effective in its use of multiple voices; it tackles some important issues, and I will be highly recommending it.

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