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‘The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart’ by Mathias Malzieu **

I expected that Mathias Malzieu’s novel of magical realism, The Boy With the Cuckoo-Clock Heart, would be both quirky and charming, and full of whimsy.  It is described as ‘a dark and tender fairytale spiced with devilish humour.’  I have had the novel on my to-read list for years, and was very excited when my slim hardback copy arrived.  However, my overwhelming feeling about the novel is one of disappointment.

9780701183691The Boy With the Cuckoo-Clock Heart has been translated from its original French by Sarah Ardizzone, and opens in Edinburgh in 1874.  A baby named Jack is born to a very young mother, and is found to have a frozen heart.  He is given an operation, in which the unconventional Dr Madeleine ‘surgically implants a cuckoo clock into his chest.’  The novel’s first sentences set the initial tone, although they do give a feeling of fairytale and wonder, which is not carried through the entire book: ‘Firstly: don’t touch the hands of your cuckoo-clock heart.  Secondly: master your anger.  Thirdly: never, ever fall in love.  For if you do, the hour hand will poke through your skin, your bones will shatter, and your heart will break once more.’

The novel is narrated by Jack, and follows his infatuation with an Andalusian girl made of fire: ‘Almost without realising it, I’m falling in love.  Except I do realise it too.  Inside my clock, it’s the hottest day on earth.’  Dr Madeleine, who becomes his guardian after his mother abandons him, worries that love will be a dangerous experience, and that his heart will be quite unable to take the strain.  She tells him: ‘Your cuckoo-clock heart will explode.  I was the one who grafted that clock on to you, and I have a perfect understanding of its limits.  It might survive the intensity of pleasure, and beyond.  But it is not robust enough to endure the torment of love.’  Jack’s narrative voice rarely feels authentic when he is supposed to be a child, and there is little change within it as he reaches adulthood.  There is next to no character development within the novel, which is a real shame.

The initial descriptions which Malzieu gives of Edinburgh are highly sensuous: ‘Edinburgh and its steep streets are being transformed.  Fountains metamorphose, one by one, into bouquets of ice.  The old river, normally so serious, is disguised as an icing sugar lake that stretches all the way to the sea.’  Other descriptions too verge upon the breathtaking: ‘… the hoarfrost stitches sequins on to cats’ bodies.  The trees stretch their arms, like fat fairies in white nightshirts, yawning at the moon…’.  Whilst the descriptions of both place and people are by turns lively and inventive, it did not seem to me as though the rest of Malzieu’s writing quite stood up.  It is when the narrative moves from Scotland to Spain that such descriptions start to suffer; they become relatively few and far between, and feel a little repetitive in what they pinpoint and express.

On initially viewing the dustjacket’s design and reading the blurb, I would have thought that The Boy With the Cuckoo-Clock Heart would be a suitable book for a child to read.  It seems not, however; there are several marked references to sex, and some quite coarse language at times too.  One of the fundamental flaws of the novel for me was that it did not appear to know exactly what it wanted to be, and there was too much going on at some points, and not enough at others.  It felt inconsistent, and did not hold my interest once its initial few chapters had passed.  I had qualms with the modern feel of the dialogue, which did not fit with the chosen time period at all; the historical detail was also rather patchy, and there are a few clumsy mistakes to be found for the eagle-eyed reader.

There are certainly some interesting ideas at play here, and I particularly admired the inclusion of Georges Melies, a real-life figure whose playful short films I love.  It did not quite come together in my opinion, however, and felt markedly peculiar.  It was difficult to immerse myself within the story, and it certainly loses momentum at points due to its inconsistent pacing.  The fairytale elements which are emphasised within the book’s blurb are relatively non-existent.  The translation was fluid, but regardless, I ended up disliking more about the novel than I liked.  The Boy With the Cuckoo-Clock Heart is what I imagine literary steampunk would be like; of marked interest to the right reader, but not really of appeal to this one.

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‘The Weatherhouse’ by Nan Shepherd ***

I had read one of Nan Shepherd’s books before coming to The Weatherhouse The Living Mountain is a glorious meditation upon the natural world, and I very much admired the way in which Shepherd’s descriptions were able to build such a full picture of the Cairngorms, which she so adored.  The Weatherhouse was my first foray into her fiction.

9781782118862The Weatherhouse takes place in a small fictitious town in Scotland named Fetter-Rothnie.  Many of the men have left in pursuit of war, and the women who remain have become accustomed to living in a female-dominated community.  As in The Living Mountain, the sense of place is built vividly from the outset, and Shepherd’s imagery is beautiful.  She writes, for instance: ‘On the willows by the pool the catkins were fluffed, insubstantial, their stamens held so lightly to the tree that they seemed like the golden essence of its life escaping to the liberty of air.’

Shepherd’s portrayal of the women who live in Fetter-Rothnie is fascinating in its shrewdness.  Of one of her protagonists, she writes: ‘She did not know human pain and danger.  She thought she did, but the pain she knew was only her own quivering hurt.  Her world was all her own, she its centre and interpretation; and she had even a faint sweet contempt for those who could not enter it.’

The use of Scotch dialect is effective, but it did feel a touch overdone and impenetrable for the English reader in places.  The fact that some of the language used was rather old-fashioned did not aid me at all in being able to translate it, I must admit.  This unfortunately prohibited me from connecting with, or understanding, the characters, which was a real shame, and it certainly affected my reading of the novel.

I feel a little disappointed by The Weatherhouse; for me, it just did not reach the heights that I was expecting.  Whilst the descriptions were lovely, and often quite original, the general prose verged on lacklustre, saturated as it was with details that did not interest me.  It did feel as though Shepherd lost focus at times, and the whole did not come together in a way which I felt was either creative or satisfactory.  Perhaps this is my own fault; The Weatherhouse is the second part of Shepherd’s Grampian Quartet, which I was not aware of when beginning this particular novel.

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2017’s Yearly Challenge: Round Up

I decided to put together four lists this year – one of authors I wanted to read, another of books which had caught my eye, and projects made up of French and Scottish-set books.  I have not done anywhere near as well with my yearly challenges as I had anticipated.  I overstretched myself rather; although I’ve been doing a lot of reading this year, I have neglected these lists over the last few months, and have been reading at whim instead.  I thought that I would just write a relatively concise post about how I did with my challenges in terms of numbers, and which books were particular highlights for me.  You can see my full list, with all of the titles, here.  On a brighter note, I did manage to complete my Reading the World challenge, where I scheduled a review of a piece of translated literature every Saturday.  My full list can be found here.

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George Sand

With regard to the authors, I actually did rather well.  Out of nineteen pinpointed, there were only four which I did not get to (Amelie Nothomb, Lydia Millet, Leena Krohn, and Gunter Grass).  Wonderful discoveries for me from this list were George Sand, John Wyndham, Ira Levin, and Anita Desai.  It was lovely to revisit some favourite authors too – Rebecca West and Agatha Christie, to name but two.

With regard to my book list, I fared worse.  Out of quite an extensive list of titles (thirty-four in all), I only managed to read seventeen.  There were a few books which I was disappointed with (The Shining by Stephen King, The Folded Clock by Heidi Julavits, Geek Love by Katherine Dunn), but I found some new favourites too.  Amongst those which I rated the most highly are the beautiful, quiet Welsh novel The Life of Rebecca Jones by Angharad Price (review here), the gorgeous and immersive This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell, the perfectly paced The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, the haunting and strange Fell by Jenn Ashworth, the hilariously funny Where Am I Now? 9780143128229by Mara Wilson (review here), the profound and beautifully poetic The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss (review here), and the downright creepy The Dumb House by John Burnside.

My efforts for my French reading project were paltry; I only read nine books out of a list of thirty.  Particular standouts for me were the lovely non-fiction account by Peter Mayle of his move to France, entitled A Year in Provence, Julia Stuart‘s terribly charming The Matchmaker of Perigord, the wonderfully bookish A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse, and the beautiful Strait is the Gate by Andre Gide.  Of my rereads, I very much enjoyed revisiting Irene Nemirovsky, whose books I adore, as well 9781933372822as Elizabeth McCracken‘s searingly touching An Exact Replica of a Figment of my Imagination.

My Scottish reading project was a little better.  Out of twenty-nine books, I read eight, and gave up on four.  I was particularly charmed by Anne Donovan‘s Buddha Da, my reread of Maggie O’Farrell‘s wonderful The VanishingAct of Esme Lennox, and Jenni Fagan‘s engrossing, and awfully human, The Sunlight Pilgrims.

I have set my sights a little lower for my 2018 reading challenge, choosing only to participate in the Around the World in 80 Books group on Goodreads.  I will be reading books from, or set within, eighty different countries around the world, and could not be more excited about what I will discover.

How did you get on with your 2018 challenges?  Do you always set reading challenges, or do you prefer to read without any restrictions?

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Reading Glasgow

I am currently living in Glasgow for my postgraduate studies, and have been trying to read as many books set here as I possibly can.  Glancing at ‘top ten books set in…’ lists, however, has made me feel as though I’m not actually doing too well with this particular quest.  With that in mind, I have made a list of eight Glaswegian books, both fiction and non-fiction, which will be on my radar for the remainder of my time here.

1. Lanark by Alasdair Gray 973598
This work, originally published in 1981, has been hailed as the most influential Scottish novel of the second half of the 20th century. Its playful narrative techniques convey a profound message, personal and political, about humankind’s inability to love and yet our compulsion to go on trying.

 

2. No Mean City by Alexander MacArthur
First published in 1935, it is the story of Johnnie Stark, son of a violent father and a downtrodden mother, the ‘Razor King’ of Glasgow’s pre-war slum underworld, the Gorbals. The savage, near-truth descriptions, the raw character portrayals, bring to life a story that is fascinating, authentic and convincing.

 

17608013. Night Song of the Last Tram by Robert Douglas
A wonderfully colourful and deeply poignant memoir of growing up in a ‘single end’ – one room in a Glasgow tenement – during and immediately after the Second World War. Although young Robert Douglas’s life was blighted by the cruel if sporadic presence of his father, it was equally blessed by the love of his mother, Janet. While the story of their life together is in some ways very sad, it is also filled with humorous and happy memories.

 

4. Garnethill by Denise Mina
Maureen O’Donnell wakes up one morning to find her therapist boyfriend murdered in the middle of her living room and herself a prime suspect in a murder case. Determined to clear her name, Maureen undertakes her own investigation and learns of a similar murder at a local psychiatric hospital.  She soon uncovers a trail of deception and repressed scandal that could clear her name – or make her the next victim.

 

5. The Crow Road by Iain Banks 12021
Prentice McHoan has returned to the bosom of his complex but enduring Scottish family. Full of questions about the McHoan past, present and future, he is also deeply preoccupied: mainly with death, sex, drink, God and illegal substances…

 

6. Head for the Edge, Keep Walking by Kate Tough
Head for the Edge, Keep Walking absorbs you into the eccentric world of Jill Beech, whose friends are finally getting their lives together while hers is falling apart. Adrift at thirty-four, no-one does ‘lost’ quite like Jill. Wry, witty, resilient but bewildered, she’s left asking, ‘What does it take to stay sane in this life? And why does it look easier for everyone else?’  Her nine-year relationship is over. She swaps one so-so job for another. She gets drunk with off-beat friends and internet dates with mixed results… Then life is flipped on its head by some shocking news. But average ‘chic fiction’ this ain’t!   There’s nothing average about Jill and her distinctive, savagely honest voice; with sentences you’ll want to read and re-read for their lyrical, original language and ringing clarity. An exploration of modern friendships and relationships, Jill’s voice will penetrate and have you analysing your own life choices through her lens!  When events take Jill to the edge – will tip herself over or turn things around and keep walking?

 

110761987. Waterline by Ross Raisin
Mick Little used to be a shipbuilder in the Glasgow docks. He returned from Australia 30 years ago with his beloved wife Cathy, who longed to be back home. But now Cathy’s dead and it’s probably his fault. Soon Mick will have to find a new way to live – get a new job, get away, start again, forget everything.

 

8. The Busconductor Hines by James Kelman
Living in a no-bedroomed tenement flat, coping with the cold and boredom of busconducting and the bloody-mindedness of Head Office, knowing that emigrating to Australia is only an impossible dream, Robert Hines finds life to be ‘a very perplexing kettle of coconuts’. The compensations are a wife and child, and a gloriously anarchic imagination. The Busconductor Hines is a brilliantly executed, uncompromising slice of the Glasgow scene, a portrait of working-class life which is unheroic but humane.

 

Have you read any of these books?  Which tomes set in Glasgow would you recommend?

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One From the Archive: ‘The Outrun’ by Amy Liptrot ****

Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun was my choice for the June edition of the Chai and Sheep Book Club.  I first found out about it after seeing a wonderful review, complete with sublime photographs of Orkney, on dovegreyreader’s blog.  Olivia Laing, whose own work I am incidentally desperate to get to, calls it ‘astonishingly beautiful… a luminous, life-affirming book’.

The Outrun is a memoir of Amy Liptrot’s struggles with alcohol when she moves, first to Edinburgh as a student, and then to London: ‘At eighteen I couldn’t wait to leave…  I wanted comfort, glamour and to be at the centre of things’.  In The Outrun, Liptrot writes that essentially, relocating back to her home island rescues her.  She ‘is drawn back to the Outrun on the sheep farm where she grew up.  Approaching the land that was once home, memories of her childhood merge with the recent events that have set her on this journey’.  She groups herself together with others she grew up with: ‘It’s a push and pull factor to many young people from the islands.  We ended up back here again and again, washed back, like the inevitable tide’.
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Geographically, Orkney is the collective name for a group of seventy islands, many of them uninhabited, to the north of Scotland.  The whole area is ‘sea-scarred and wind-battered’.  As one would expect, The Outrun is filled with fascinating details regarding the history of the islands; these have been wonderfully interspersed with Liptrot’s own memories.  She details how paramount the weather is on such an exposed island group: ‘Sometimes the light picks out in fine detail the hills of Hoy, another island to the south beyond the headland, and on other days they disappear completely in the haar’.  The Outrun itself is wonderfully evoked: ‘The Outrun is tucked away behind a low hill and beside the coast, and in the right spot you can’t see any houses or be seen from the road.  Dad told me that when he was high, in a manic phase, he had slept out here.’

The prologue details Liptrot’s birth, and her father’s simultaneous relapse: ‘As I arrive into this island world, my father is taken outside of it.  My birth, three weeks early, has brought on a manic episode’.  As well as speaking about her present, Liptrot is, understandably, focused upon the past: ‘The rumblings of mental illness under my life were amplified by the presence of my mother’s extreme religion and by the landscape I was born into, the continual, perceptible crashing of the sea at the edges’.  This memoir is an incredibly honest one; I felt as though Liptrot had a no-holds-barred approach to her past.  She writes with such clarity, which really shows the hopelessness of her previous situation: ‘The alcohol I’d been pouring into myself for years was like the repeated action of the waves on the cliffs and it was beginning to cause physical damage.  Something was crumbling deep within my nervous system and shook my body in powerful pulses to the extent that I was frozen and drooling, until they eased off enough for me to pour another drink or rejoin the party’.

The disparities between city and island life have been so well evoked: ‘Another Sunday muffled and hungover in bed, makeup oily in my eyes, doors slamming somewhere, while up north the waves still curled dark and endless, and the aurora lit up the sky’.  Liptrot weaves this in with the panic mode which her drinking sends her into.  Alcohol becomes a constant in her life rather quickly, and she begins to suffer from memory lapses and mood swings.  She wakes with mysterious bruises all over her body; she is the victim of a crime.  In London, she describes some rather scary episodes: ‘I was dumbfounded and unable to make decisions about where to go, whom to see or what opinion to hold, filling the void with alcohol and anxiety’.  The London period is a gritty one for Liptrot, fraught with drugs, dependency and danger.

Aesthetically, this book is stunning, from its beautiful cover to its lovely illustrated maps.  A glossary has been included too, which is incredibly beneficial for non-Orcadian speakers such as myself; it details spellbinding words and terms, such as ‘clapshot’ (mixed neeps and tatties), ‘haar’ (sea fog), and ‘grimlins’ (a midsummer night’s sky).  Liptrot’s story has been so wonderfully – and often harrowingly – evoked that it will linger with the reader long after the final page has been read.  The Outrun is a very honest and very well written memoir, which has made me want to travel to Orkney as soon as I possibly can – perhaps an inevitable consequence of reading it.

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