Author, Basque Country, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Gabriela Ybarra, Harvill Secker, New York, Publisher, Setting, Spain

‘The Dinner Guest’ by Gabriela Ybarra

Fiction – paperback; Harvill Secker; 140 pages; 2018. Translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer.

The story goes that in my family there is an extra dinner guest at every meal. He’s invisible, but always there. He has a plate, glass, knife and fork. Every so often he appears, casts his shadow over the table and erases one of those present. The first to vanish was my grandfather.

So begins Gabriela Ybarra’s The Dinner Guest, an intriguing story about inter-generational trauma and forgetting, with a particular focus on the long-lasting impact of terrorism on children and families in the Basque Country.

Billed as fiction, it’s really a mix of non-fiction, memoir and reportage as Gabriela attempts to unravel the truth about her grandfather’s violent and untimely death in 1977, some six years before she was born.

But it’s also a deeply personal look at what it is like to care for a terminally ill parent after Gabriela’s mother is diagnosed with colon cancer in 2011 and moves to New York for treatment.

The book works by linking these two deaths — one very public and sudden, the other private and dragged out — as a creative writing exercise in which Gabriela explores art, politics, family and grief.

It feels seamless and hypnotic to read, a bit like a long-form essay, and includes snippets of newspaper articles and letters, along with a handful of black and white photographs.

Kidnapped by terrorists

The book’s starting point is the kidnapping of Javier Ybarra, a prominent politician in Biblao, on Spain’s northern coast, by masked gunmen — members of the Basque separatist group ETA — who broke into his house and bound and gagged his family, including Gabriela’s then 28-year-old father. The intruders took Javier away and warned his children not to call the police until midday. A massive ransom was issued.

Some 20 days later, when that ransom was not paid, the terrorists sent a map showing where the body could be found. It was wrapped in a plastic sheet and dumped in a wooded area. (You can read more about the case via this Wikipedia entry.)

Gabriela did not know that her grandfather had been murdered until children at school told her of the rumours surrounding his death. It was not something her family talked about. She was largely unaware that it was her father who played a key role as the family spokesman during the traumatic days when Javier’s whereabouts were unknown. Such trauma, such personal history remained unspoken.

Then, when Gabriela’s mother died in 2013, she decided she needed to learn about her family’s past, almost as a form of remembrance. It was also a way to connect with her father, who had become a stranger to her.

The private made public

The Dinner Guest is a strange but beguiling book. It makes public so many things which would normally remain private, but the story of Gabriela’s family has always been news, at least for people of the Basque Country.

Perhaps the act of fictionalising elements and putting family history down on paper helped Gabriela to make sense out of what, on the face of it, seems to make no sense at all.

The Dinner Guest was published to critical acclaim in Spain, where it won the Euskadi Literature Prize in 2016. It was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2018.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘The Lone Woman’ by Bernardo Atxaga: This story follows 24 hours in the life of a woman who boards an overnight bus to Bilbao carrying a suitcase full of books and a packet of cigarettes. A former terrorist, she has just been released from prison as part of an amnesty. 
20 books of summer (2019), Author, Book review, Fiction, Harvill Secker, historical fiction, Joseph O'Connor, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Setting

‘Shadowplay’ by Joseph O’Connor

Fiction – hardcover; Harvill Secker; 320 pages; 2019.

Joseph O’Connor’s Shadowplay must be one of the most underrated books of the year. It won the Eason Novel of the Year at the 2019 Irish Book Awards, but it doesn’t seem to have garnered much attention in the UK or elsewhere. And yet this is a truly amazing book, one of my favourite reads of the year, and deserving of a much larger audience.

Set largely in London in 1878, it brims with atmosphere and menace and pure Victorian gothic drama.

It takes real-life characters — Bram Stoker, the Irishman who wrote Dracula; Henry Irving, an English actor and theatre director, who was later knighted; and Ellen Terry, the leading stage actress of the era — and follows their complicated, intertwined lives as they work together at the Lyceum Theatre, building a successful season from pretty much nothing.

As they battle to keep emotions in check (actors are prone to drama, after all), to balance the books and draw in the crowds, it is largely Stoker who holds everything together. A struggling writer (he did not become successful until after his death), he acts as Irving’s personal assistant, dealing with his petty squabbles, grievances and short temper, while also managing the theatre’s finances.

His marriage to renowned English beauty Florence Balcombe brings him into high society circles, but Stoker is never quite accepted by the upper classes. O’Connor paints him as a loyal and conscientious man, often derided by others who look down upon him.

Original structure

Like other novels by O’Connor, the story has a loose and experimental structure. The narrative, told from Stoker’s point of view, is comprised of diary entries, letters, private notes and sections written “in the voice of Ellen Terry”.

It is wildly imaginative, filled with rich historical detail and drips with witty one-liners.

And it’s hard not to keep seeing hints of Dracula in what Stoker conveys, such as this description of Irving, whom he slowly comes to realise is a vain, narcissistic and deeply unpleasant man.

Henry Irving stopped mid scene and stared down at them grimly, his eyes glowing red in the gaslight. Paint dribbling down the contours of his face, like dye splashed on a map, droplets falling on his boots, his doublet and long locks drenched in sweat, his silver painted wooden sword glittering in the gaslight, shimmering with his chainmail in the lightning.

As well as charting the rise and fall of the theatre, and providing insight into the lives and loves of the trio who worked so closely together, it’s a striking and evocative portrait of Victorian London, where long dark nights, fog-shrouded streets and wet cobblestones give rise to ghostly apparitions. This is the time of Jack the Ripper who stalks the East End, and O’Connor plays with this to create heightened tension for the reader.

A truly immersive read, Shadowplay represents storytelling at its wonderful best. It’s largely character-driven, but it is the prose and the structure of the novel that elevates it into something rather extraordinary. I don’t usually re-read books, but I will make an exception for this one: yes, it really is that good.

This is my 14th book for #20BooksOfSummer. Yes, I know I’m about three months late penning this review, but it was one of those books that I wanted to think about before rushing to write about it. Then, unfortunately, life just got in the way. I actually ordered this copy in hardcover from Dubray Books in Dublin because it had red-tinted page edges and was signed by the author. I must say, though, that O’Connor’s covers always look a bit fey. As much as I like the gold and black contrast on this one, the image of the woman makes this book look like romantic fiction of some kind, when it’s actually Victorian gothic with a literary bent.

2018 Giller Prize, Author, Book review, Canada, Fiction, Harvill Secker, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Setting, Sheila Heti

‘Motherhood’ by Sheila Heti

Motherhood UK cover

Fiction – hardcover; Harvill Secker; 284 pages; 2018.

Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, which has been shortlisted for the 2018 Giller Prize, won’t be for everyone. I’d argue that it has a quite specific audience. It seems to be the kind of book that is aimed primarily at women of child-bearing age who haven’t quite made up their minds as to whether they want to have children or not.

It’s fictional, but because it’s written in the first person and doesn’t really have a plot (indeed, it doesn’t really have any characters aside from the narrator and her boyfriend), it feels like non-fiction. As I read through it I had to keep reminding myself it wasn’t reportage; it was an extended piece of creative writing exploring a simple idea: how do you know when it’s the right time to reproduce, and what do you do if you decide that’s not for you?

Motherhood — the Canadian edition
Canadian edition

Written in direct first-person text, almost as if the author is trying to talk herself into — or perhaps out of — making a decision, it’s occasionally humorous and often illuminating, but mostly — and I hate to say this — it’s downright self-indulgent. (Navel-gazing is another term that springs to mind.)

As you’d expect for a book with a philosophical bent, it explores lots of interesting ideas about what it is to be a mother (doing what you, as a woman, were supposedly put on earth to do, for example) as well as what it is to be woman of child-bearing age who chooses not to bear children (helping the planet by not adding to the world’s population, is just one theory posited).

There’s some thought-provoking analysis on what it is to lead a creative life — in this case, as a writer — and whether having children lessens that ability or enriches it. Does raising children take away the energy and stimulus that is required for the imagination to function properly?

But the book’s structure is odd. It over-relies on the device of flipping coins to answer certain questions (inspired by the ancient Chinese “art” of I Ching), which is novel to begin with but soon wears thin.

Should I have a child with Miles?
no
Should I have a child at all?
yes
So then I should leave Miles?
no
Should I have an affair with another man while I’m with Miles, and raise the child as Miles’s own, deceiving him about the provenance of that child?
yes

There’s also a lot of over-reliance on dreams (this is a pet hate of mine in novels) and what I would call “hocus-pocus” (whether in the form of religion, fortune-telling or destiny), but these do serve an important function: to help the narrator determine whether making the decision to have a child is something over which she can take control, or whether it’s up to the gods to decide.

It’s certainly an interesting premise for a novel, but it’s weighed down by too much middle-class angst for my liking.

As a woman who chose not to have children, I’m afraid there was nothing new in this book for me. I suspect if I had read Motherhood 10 or 15 years ago it would have resonated and perhaps shown me that there is no right answer: your life isn’t better or poorer for having children, it’s just different if you choose not to become a mother.

This is my 2nd book for 2018 Shadow Giller Prize.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2018), Author, Basque Country, Bernardo Atxaga, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Harvill Secker, Publisher, Setting, Spain

‘The Lone Woman’ by Bernardo Atxaga

Fiction – Kindle edition; Harvill Press; 160 pages; 2011. Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa.

Bernardo Atxaga is an award-winning writer from the Basque Country, in the north of Spain.

The Lone Woman, first published in 1996, is his fourth novel (and follows hot on the heels of an earlier novel called The Lone Man, which Stu, at Winstondad’s Blog has reviewed). He has written another four since, but he also writes poetry, short stories and children’s books.

As you might expect from a Basque writer, there is a political slant to The Lone Woman. Set over the course of 24 hours, it tells the tale of Irene, a 37-year-old political prisoner and former nurse, who has just been released from jail as part of an amnesty.

She has no family or friends to meet her at the prison gates because “she knew that many of them despised her for leaving the organization and taking on the role of reformed terrorist, but she found it hard to believe that everyone felt like that, that all her friends from before felt like that, without exception”.

With just a suitcase full of books and a packet of cigarettes with her, she boards the overnight coach to her home town of Bilbao. There are a handful of other passengers on board, including a stuck up hostess, two nuns and a couple of strange men, whom she believes are following her.

[…] she too felt observed, scrutinized, persecuted, and she had the feeling that the eyes watching her were wrapping her in a sticky web that stifled her and trammelled her every movement.

As the double-decker coach wends its way slowly across the country, the narrative follows Irene’s innermost thoughts, including her worries about money and how she’s going to support herself now that she’s truly alone in the world. But the thing that plagues her most is the fear of being arrested when she gets off the bus, not for anything she might have done in the past, but for a violent act she committed the night before.

A meditative page turner

Deeply contemplative, The Lone Woman is written in carefully constrained prose, where every word counts, with a ripple of suspense underpinning the story arc.

While we never find out any level of detail about Irene’s past terrorist activities, nor how she got into the movement, it doesn’t really matter, for this is a book that looks primarily at the psychological impact on imprisonment and what it is like to suddenly rediscover your freedom.

After four years in prison, surrounded always by the same objects and by the same people, subject to the same timetable day after day, everything that she encountered outside seemed sharp and violent and dragged her spirits off on a kind of roller-coaster ride in which, with dizzying speed, white succeeded black, euphoria succeeded depression, joy succeeded sadness. The worst thing was that these ups and downs wore her out, sapped the energy that she was going to need from tomorrow onwards in the real world, not in the world of her dreams or on that bus travelling along an anonymous, almost abstract motorway.

It is also a deft examination of what it is like to be truly alone in the world, to face your past in order to move into the future and to seek comfort in artistic endeavours, such as literature and reading.

She took out a small key from her inside jacket pocket and opened the suitcase, thinking about the books she had packed. She wanted to have them near, to touch them, to open them at random and leaf through them. Now that she was out, they might not perhaps give her as much consolation as in prison, but she was sure that they would help her in what, to quote Margarita, was her “re-entry into the world”, because, like Lazarus, she had been buried and, like him, she had been restored to life.

This is my 7th book for #20booksofsummer. I bought it last year for reasons I cannot remember, and extracted it from my virtual TBR while on a recent week-long trip to the Basque Country as it seemed an appropriate location in which to read it.

Author, AWW2016, Book review, Fiction, Gail Jones, Germany, Harvill Secker, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting

‘A Guide to Berlin’ by Gail Jones

A Guide to Berlin by Gail Jones

Fiction – paperback; Harvill Secker; 272 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Gail Jones latest novel, A Guide to Berlin, pays homage to Vladimir Nabokov, the Russian writer who inspired the title*, as well as the city of Berlin itself.

The book focuses on a group of six Berlin-based Nabokov fans from around the world — two Italians, a Japanese couple, an American and an Australian — who meet regularly to tell a “densely remembered story or detail” about their lives, what they dub “speak-memory** disclosures”.

The narrative largely revolves around Cass, the 20-something Australian who has decamped from Sydney to Berlin in pursuit of a dream: to write and to be near the family home in which Nabokov once lived. Here she meets Marco, the Italian academic/real estate agent, who organises the Nabokov get-togethers in empty apartments he’s trying to sell. And from there she is introduced to the others in the group: Victor from New York, Gino from Rome, and Yukio and Mitsuki from Tokyo.

Short stories woven together

The book is loosely structured around each character’s speak-memory, giving it the feel of a short story collection. It’s not quite as rigid as Jones’ previous novel, Five Bells, which follows the lives of five different characters in clearly delineated sections, but more fluid in the sense that Cass’s new life exploring Berlin is woven throughout the narrative: her adventures are simply punctuated by the Nabovok meetings she attends.

This helps to provide the story with a real sense of atmosphere. Jones does a lot of work telling us about Berlin’s haunted past and how its streets, shrouded in winter snow, almost echo with the footsteps of people long since dead. Indeed, Berlin feels very much like a character in its own right, and it’s beautifully evoked through the eyes of an antipodean experiencing a Northern Hemisphere winter for the first time:

Before the snows truly began, the city was a desolating ash-grey, and bitterly cold. Cass had never seen such a grey city. It felt stiff and dead. There were the fleshless arms of cranes, slowly swinging, there was the rumble slide of ubiquitous trains and trams, there were busy buses, skidding pedestrians, instructive red and green lights blinking their cartoon man, but still Berlin seemed to her collectively frozen. The white sky was menacing. The plates of ice on the Spree, uneven and jagged, resembled a spray of shattered glass after a wartime bombing.

Stylistically superb

But I have to say I found A Guide to Berlin slightly disappointing. I can’t fault the prose, which is beautiful and elegiac and littered with Nabokov references that I’m sure fans will enjoy spotting. And there’s no doubting that Jones’ is a superb stylist, with every single word carefully selected to do a specific job, but that, on its own, isn’t enough to carry this relatively thin story, which occasionally feels fleshed out merely for the sake of it.

But I think my biggest gripe is this: it’s not a plot-driven novel, and yet, just as the reader begins to wonder how the story is going to end, the author relies on plot-driven devices to bring things to a head. The ending, as the blurb will tell you, is violent and shocking. But it also feels rushed — and far from authentic.

Yet, for all that, the story is an easy one to read, and I very much enjoyed spending time in Cass’s company and seeing Berlin through her eyes. I, too, have been a tourist a long way from home and I know of the torpor and melancholy that can arise when you’re suddenly confronted with horrendously oppressive weather day in day out and no support network to see you through.

This is a seemingly gentle and reflective story — about all kinds of things including truth, friendship, loyalty and travel — which slowly builds to a dramatic conclusion. I rather suspect if you’ve read Rachel Cusk’s Outline and liked it, you will like A Guide to Berlin too.

* A Guide to Berlin is a short story by Vladimir Nabokov, which was first published in 1925.
** Nabokov’s memoir, published in 1951, was called Speak, Memory.

This is my fourth book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my third for #AWW2016.

The author is widely published, so UK and US readers should have no trouble getting hold of this one.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Harvill Secker, Norway, Per Petterson, Publisher, Setting

‘Ashes in my Mouth, Sand in my Shoes’ by Per Petterson

Ashes-in-my-mouth

Fiction – paperback; Harvill Secker; 128 pages; 2013. Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Ashes in my Mouth, Sand in my Shoes, first published in 1987, was Norwegian writer Per Petterson’s first book, yet it was only translated in 2013. Like many other successful authors who write in languages that are not English, his books have been translated out of order. This means that for fans like me — I’ve reviewed most of his work here — we have to read things out of chronological order. Not that it really matters: reading a Per Petterson novel is always a treat, regardless of when it was published, and this one is no exception.

The book, which is beautifully presented with French flaps and high-quality paper, comes in a small format paperback measuring 11.9cm x 16.6cm, making it perfect to fit in a handbag or, in my case, a bike bag. I toted it around with me for about a week and read a chapter each morning as I ate my  breakfast having cycled 6.5 miles into work. It was the perfect way to start to the day.

Introducing Arvid Jansen

Ashes in my Mouth, Sand in my Shoes tells the story of Arvid, a character who features strongly in Petterson’s later novels, In the Wake (first published in 2000 and translated into English in 2007) and I Curse the River of Time (first published in 2008 but translated into English in 2010) and is said to be loosely based on Petterson himself.

In this debut novel, Arvid is a six-year-old boy living on the outskirts of Oslo in the 1960s. His world revolves largely around his working class parents — his Danish mother, who is a cleaner, and his father, a factory worker — his older sister Gry and his paternal uncle Rolf, who is a socialist.

Structured around 10 self-contained chapters, it reads a bit like a short story collection, but the unifying thread is Arvid’s unique take on the world coupled with his inability to comprehend the adult situations around him. His childhood naivety is utterly endearing, but there are also moments when you realise his honesty may work against him.

For example, in the opening chapter A Man Without Shoes, Arvid’s father loses his job as foreman in a shoe factory. He goes to Denmark to work in an office but returns six months later because he wasn’t “much of a paper pusher”. His brother Rolf gets him a job in a brush factory making toothbrushes, which he accepts begrudgingly, but even young Arvid knows there is no future in this line of work:

Shoes, on the other hand, there was a lot to say about them. Gym shoes, smart shoes, ladies’ shoes, children’s shoes, ski boots, riding boots. Dad talked a lot about shoes, and he knew what he was talking about. But now it was over. Now you couldn’t even say the word ‘sole’ aloud. If you did Dad would lose his temper.
‘In this house we wear shoes, we don’t talk about them, is that clear!’ he said, and then there was silence, although Arvid could easily see that his mother was annoyed by all the detours they had to take.

Later, his father throws out all the shoe samples and rolls of leather he had been given in his previous job in order to clear space in the cellar. He needs the space to store the toothbrush samples, which he now brings home from work.

‘That’s it, Arvid,’ Dad said with an ugly laugh and his face looked just like a rock. ‘Now I’m a man without shoes!’
‘I know,’ Arvid said. ‘Now you’re a man with toothbrushes!’
And even though he was only one metre fifteen tall and pretty slight, his voice was so heavy with scorn that at first his dad stared at him and then went into the kitchen, and he slammed the door after him.

Poignant snapshots of childhood

There are many scenes like this throughout the book in which Arvid says what everyone is thinking. This brings a rare poignancy to the tale, especially when you begin to “read between the lines” and come to understand that Arvid’s father is a difficult, slightly bitter character — he seems to have a fraught relationship with most adults in his life, including his wife, but especially with his brother, with whom he fights, sometimes physically — and even young Arvid, who adores him, is often afraid of him. Whether this explains Arvid’s bedwetting or his nightmares isn’t clear.

As the quotes above should show, it’s written in simple, unadorned prose, and yet the narrative brims with nostalgia and tenderness, and a painful kind of honesty shines through. It shows the world through a six-year-old’s eyes so evocatively and eloquently, it’s hard not to be “wowed” by Petterson’s skill as an author. Although the narrative is disjointed — it reads like a snapshot of Arvid’s childhood at various points in time rather than as one seamless flow working towards a climax — it’s a rather delightful, bittersweet read.

I really enjoyed Ashes in my Mouth, Sand in my Shoes if only to appreciate the book that brought Petterson to Norway’s attention all those years ago.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Harvill Secker, Karin Fossum, Norway, Publisher, Setting

‘The Drowned Boy’ by Karin Fossum

The-drowned-boy

Fiction – paperback; Harvill Secker; 256 pages; 2015. Translated from the Norwegian by Kari Dickson. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Reading a Karin Fossum novel is always a wonderful, almost meditative, experience. Even though she writes about horrible crimes, her compassion and intelligence shine through, and by the time you reach the final page you’re left feeling irrevocably changed — for the better.

Her latest, The Drowned Boy, is right up there among her best. It’s a police procedural, the 11th in her Inspector Sejer series, but don’t worry, it’s not necessary to read any of the others to “get” it — indeed, it’s strong enough to simply stand on its own.

Death of a toddler

The Drowned Boy follows Inspector Sejer’s investigation into the death of a toddler who drowned in a pond at the bottom of his parent’s property.

On the face of it, Tommy’s death appears to be a tragic accident — one minute he was playing quietly inside, the next he was found floating in the water — but something doesn’t quite add up. Or at least that’s what the police feel, including Sejer’s colleague Jacob Skarre.

‘We’ve got a drowning,’ Jacob Skarre told him. ‘In Damtjern, the pond up by Granfoss, you remember? About twenty minutes from Moller Church. A little boy, sixteen months old. His mother found him by the small jetty, but it was too late. The ambulance crew tried to resuscitate him for about three-quarters of an hour, to no avail. Some uncertainty as to how he ended up in the water. Also, he was naked, but we’re not quite sure what that means. […]
‘Right,’ he said. ‘I’m on my way. There in half an hour.’
And then, after a short pause: ‘Is there something that doesn’t feel right? Is that why you called?’
‘Yes,’ Skarre replied, ‘it’s the mother. I can’t explain it, but I think we should look a bit closer. Let’s just leave it at that, you know what I mean.’

As the police dig into the circumstances surrounding Tommy’s death, the relationship between the young parents, Carmen and Nicolai, begins to crumble under the focus of so much attention from the authorities and the weight of their grief.

Each deals with their pain in a different way: Carmen behaves as though everything is okay and is keen to have another child almost immediately, while Nicolai clams up and becomes insolent and withdrawn. This has wider repercussions on their relationships with friends and work colleagues, but it is when Carmen’s own family begin to turn against her that the alarm bells start ringing.

Did she or didn’t she kill her own son isn’t the real question here, because it’s pretty obvious from the start that the 19-year-old mother is guilty. The intrigue — and the narrative tension — is created by trying to figure out how she did it, why she did it, and will Sejer ever figure it out?

Fossum ratchets up the tension even further by having Sejer grapple with his own mortality: he’s been experiencing spells of dizziness and is frightened he might have cancer but refuses to seek medical advice.  As his investigation into the drowning unfolds, his own health worsens — will he be able to hold out long enough to see it to its rightful conclusion?

Typical Fossum fare

The Drowned Boy is typical Fossum fare. In writing about the terrible things that ordinary people are capable of doing, she is always careful never to sensationalise the crimes or cast judgement on her characters. Everything is carefully, quietly held in check — the police are compassionate, kind and patient; the people under investigation are all-too human — and this new novel is no exception. And yet I read it with a creeping feeling of unease. It’s a deeply unsettling story, one that feels so true it could have been lifted direct from the pages of a newspaper. Perhaps that’s why it’s such a riveting read.

The Drowned Boy will be published in the UK on 4 June.

Please note that Karin Fossum’s Inspector Sejer’s series has been translated out of order, so I haven’t been able to follow the series chronologically. The ones reviewed here are:  In the Darkness (first published in 1995, but only translated in 2013), Don’t Look Back (1996, trans 2003), Bad Intentions (2008, trans 2011) and The Caller (2009, trans 2012). All of them are excellent.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Harvill Secker, Joseph O'Connor, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, UK

‘The Thrill of it All’ by Joseph O’Connor

The-thrill-of-it-all

Fiction – hardcover; Harvill Secker; 416 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

If anything is ripe for satire it is rock journalism and rock biographies. They’re so filled with clichés and stereotypes, how could you not want to send them up?

Film-makers have already done so with the 1984 cult classic “mockumentary” This is Spinal Tap, which satirises the so-called wild antics of a fictionalised heavy metal band, and the more recent BBC4 TV series, Brian Pern: A Life in Rock, which lampoons Peter Gabriel’s career (with Peter Gabriel’s endorsement).

Now Irish writer Joseph O’Connor has entered the fray with his latest novel, The Thrill of it All, which is the fictionalised memoir of a guitarist from a rock band that made it big in the 1980s.

My name is Robbie Goulding. I was once a musician. For five years in the 1980s I played guitar with the Ships. This memoir has been long in the making.

Now this is where I offer a caveat. I’m a huge music fan. I spent my teenage years and all of my twenties amassing the greatest collection of rock cassettes (remember them?) and CDs known to man, I went to countless gigs and had subscriptions to all the leading music magazines of the time, including Rolling Stone and Q. I viewed this as a kind of “male” hobby because none of my female friends were really into music — certainly not to the same extent I was. I would pour over sleeve notes and CD covers, learning all the connections between producers and session musicians, and explore new genres and discover new bands in much the same way I now do with books.

But when I read novels about music they never quite work for me. I think that’s because music is so special and ephemeral and subjective, how can you possibly translate that into the written word? How can you capture the way it makes you feel? And it probably doesn’t help that over the years I’ve read way too many non-fiction books about musicians and bands (here’s just a handful reviewed on this site), so it always feels a bit superfluous: why invent something when you could just read the real thing?

So, with that in mind, I picked up this book not really expecting to get along with it. But I needn’t have worried. O’Connor, who is a music fan himself (I actually saw him play guitar and sing at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre when he did a special gig with lots of Irish musicians called The Music of Ghost Light in 2011), doesn’t try to write so much about the music but the people who make it. He covers all the clichés — the lousy gigs with just two people in the audience, the struggle to get a record deal, the infighting, the sex, the drugs and so on — but he does it with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek but without ever turning it into farce or mockery. It actually feels like a book with a heart: you care about the people in it.

Life as a rock star

The Thrill of it All spans 25 years and tells the story of Irish-born teenager Robbie Goulding’s climb to fame and subsequent slide into obscurity. It’s largely set in Luton, England, a light industrial town 30 miles north of London, where he forms a band with Vietnamese-born Francis Mulvey, a Marc Bolan-type figure, who is charismatic and troubled but has a great singing voice.

When I first encountered Francis, in college in the eighties, he would pitch up for lectures sporting more lip frost and blusher than Bianca Jagger at Studio 54. Apart from on television, he was the first male I ever saw in eye shadow, a weird shade of magenta he sourced by trawling theatrical-supply shops. ‘They use it for murderers and whores,’ he’d explain, with the insouciance of one on terms with both.

Joining them is cellist (and love interest) Sarah-Thérèse Sherlock and her twin brother Sean on drums.

When the book opens we know that Robbie and Fran have had a falling out and that Fran is elusive but still famous in a kind of David Bowie-type of way — there are countless “unauthorised biographies, a feature-length documentary, profiles and fanzines and blog sites and newsgroups” about him. But we don’t really know how they got to this point: that is all slowly revealed over the course of the narrative which is made up of Robbie’s own thoughts, interviews — conducted on radio and TV chat shows in the past and by Robbie’s daughter (and editor) Mollie Goulding specifically for the memoir — lyrics and diaries.

It charts the Ship’s steady rise in the UK and then its big success in America, where the band is courted by the rich and famous and where they make so much money they don’t know what to do with it. The excesses reveal themselves in typically predictable ways — um, drugs, anybody? — and before long it all goes to hell in a hand basket.

But even though O’Connor is deliberately working with stereotypes, his characters are richly drawn and always believable. They have hearts and souls, worries and troubles, dreams and ambitions. Indeed, it’s entirely possible that you could take any successful band from the 1980s and simply change the names, and this story would more or less match the one in this novel, that’s how realistic and spot-on it feels.

The narrative, which fast-forwards and rewinds (see what I did there) over time, is filled with vivid detail — of the era, of the music, the fashions and the politics of the day. It’s also peppered with great one-liners and playful, comic scenes that had me tittering in joyful recognition. It’s never cheesy, but often honest and raw.

I’ve seen some reviews bill The Thrill of it All as being a book for anyone who’s dreamt of being a rock star, but I’d say it’s appeal is far wider than that: it’s for anyone who loves music — blues, ska, New Wave, punk and rock especially.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Harvill Secker, Karin Fossum, Norway, Publisher, Setting

‘I Can See in the Dark’ by Karin Fossum

I-can-see-in-the-dark

Fiction – paperback; Harvill Secker; 250 pages; 2013. Translated from the Norweigan by James Anderson.

Norweigan writer Karin Fossum is best known for her Inspector Sejer series, but I Can See in the Dark, published last year, is a stand-alone novel.

A story about a troubled loner

The story is told entirely through the eyes of 40-something Riktor, who has no family of his own and lives by himself in a small house on the outskirts of town.

He holds down a good job as a nurse in an elderly person’s care home, gets on well with his colleagues and finds ways to fill in his time between shifts. In other words, he leads a rather dull, uneventful, but otherwise productive life.

But all is not as it seems. Riktor is terribly lonely and desperately craves love and attention.

I don’t really understand my own situation, I don’t understand this sense of always being an outsider, of not belonging, of not feeling at home in the day’s routines. Forces I can’t control have torn me away from other people. I like being on my own, but I want a woman. If only I had a woman!

But as his narrative gently unfolds over a succession of short, crisply written chapters, we begin to learn that Riktor is not the quiet, gentle soul one might expect. He’s actually a rather troubled man, who doesn’t know how to properly interact with other people. He also claims he can see in the dark (hence the title):

I can see bushes and trees, buildings, posts and fences, I can see them all vividly glowing and quivering, long after dark. I can see the heat they emit, a sort of orange-coloured energy, as if they’re on fire. I once mentioned this to the school nurse when I was about ten. That I could see in the dark. She simply patted me on the cheek and then smiled sadly, the way you smile at an inquisitive child with a lively imagination. But once bitten twice shy: I never mentioned it again.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of all is the way in which he is deliberately negligent in his job: he fails to give his patients the medicine they have been prescribed and he likes to torture them when he thinks no-one is looking.

Of course things catch up with him, and one day the police accuse him of killing a patient in his care. He is arrested and held on remand for an extended period of time.

But as ever with a Karin Fossum novel, there’s an unusual twist, because Riktor is caught in a dilemma: he definitely has blood on his hands, but the crime he has committed isn’t the one for which he’s been charged.

Inside the head of a disturbed man

The most intriguing aspect of the novel is the way in which Fossum puts you squarely in the head of Riktor, who is clearly simple-minded and a little bit odd. His morals are dubious and he lacks empathy, but he knows how to operate in society without drawing too much attention to himself. He is also clever enough to figure out what people are thinking and has learned how to manipulate them to get what he wants.

But at no point do you want to cheer him on: this is not a Patricia Highsmith character who is so bad he’s good; this is the type of person you know lives and breathes among us. Indeed, he quite often turns up on the news bulletins having murdered a friend or loved one because he didn’t get what he wanted.

I Can See in the Dark is not your average crime thriller. It’s not so much about the what happened, but the why it happened. By digging around in the mind of someone who hasn’t followed the conventions of socially acceptable human behaviour, Fossum tries to show us what makes him tick.

It might not be terribly fast-paced but it’s a low-key novel that shimmers with suspense throughout. It’s a brutally honest account of a man caught up in a world that he doesn’t understand and is a superb portrait of a psychologically damaged killer, one that is unflinching, thought-provoking and deeply unsettling.

Arnaldur Indriðason, Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Harvill Secker, Iceland, Publisher, Setting

‘Strange Shores’ by Arnaldur Indriðason

Strange-shores

Fiction – hardcover; Harvill Secker; 304 pages; 2013. Translated from the Icelandic. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Strange Shores is billed as the last in Arnuldur Indridason’s long-running Reykjavik series, a series which I’ve loved following ever since I discovered it in 2006 (you can read all my reviews here).

I had mixed feelings about reading this book: I couldn’t wait to see what happened to Detective Erlunder (he’s been “on leave” in the last two books in the series), but at the same time I didn’t want to read it because that would mean I had no more left to enjoy. In the end, I couldn’t resist…


Two missing person cases

As with many of Indriðason’s novels, this one has two narrative threads, each one looking at a missing person case from the past.

The first focuses on Matthildur, a fisherman’s wife, who disappeared in a notorious blizzard in 1942, never to be seen again, and the second looks at Detective Erlunder’s own brother, Beggi, who was lost in a similar blizzard when he was eight years old, a tragedy which has left deep emotional scars on the policeman. (While you could easily read Strange Shores without having read any of the previous titles in the series, those who have followed Erlunder’s journey from the start will find this aspect especially fascinating.)

The book feels like a police procedural as Erlunder painstakingly examines what happened to Matthildur under the guise of doing historical research; it is not an official police investigation. This is just as well, because what he discovers threatens to destroy an elderly man’s life and much of it is hard to prove. As he goes about piecing together the jigsaw of Matthildur’s case, Erlunder looks for clues related to his own missing brother, which results in two deftly woven storylines.

Slightly clunky structure

But the structure of the book poses a dilemma for the writer: how to explain incidents from the past when Erlunder is looking for evidence in the present? Indriðason solves this by having Matthildur’s story recalled by a character who remembers her well, but his account is not written in conversational dialogue, as per a police interview, as one might expect, but by an omnipresent narrator — I’m not sure I liked this approach, which felt slightly clunky and at odds with the rest of the book’s third-person style.

That said, once the book gets going it is a fascinating story and the resolution of Mattildur’s disappearance feels authentic and believable. Readers who like retribution in their crime novels may find Erlunder’s balanced, free-from-judgemental approach difficult to comprehend, but to me this was one of the most appealing aspects of the novel.

Of course, when you come to the final book in a long-running series, you want to know what happens to the central character. Erlunder has never been a happy man. He has investigated some pretty horrible crimes, experienced distressing fallout from his failed marriage, seen his adult daughter succumb to drug addiction and watched his son struggle to find his place in the world. And all the while he has been obsessed (and psychologically damaged) by the death of his younger brother when he was a youngster. Would he find happiness at last in this final novel?

I’m not going to give that away, but let me say that the ending is beautifully ambiguous, because it’s not clear if the event in which “he takes Bergur’s hand in his and together they walk along the river into the bright morning” is meant to be a dream or not. I couldn’t think of a more perfect way to say goodbye to one of my favourite fictional characters…