2018 Giller Prize, Author, Book review, Esi Edugyan, Fiction, historical fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Serpent's Tail

‘Washington Black’ by Esi Edugyan

Washington Black

Fiction – hardcover; Serpent’s Tail; 432 pages; 2018.

If you like your historical fiction with a good dose of adventure and a smidgen of romance then you really must put Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black on your list.

Shortlisted for both this year’s Man Booker Prize and the Giller Prize, this fast-paced story follows the life and times of George Washington Black, a young slave rescued from a Barbados sugar plantation by an unexpected source: the plantation owner’s younger brother.

“Titch” Wilde, who is a secret abolitionist and a mad inventor, needs someone of a certain weight to fly in his “cloud cutter” — one of the world’s first hot-air balloons — which he is building. Step forward 11-year-old “Wash”, who is taken from the care of Big Kit, the woman he doesn’t realise is his mother, and promptly elevated to Titch’s personal servant and confidante, changing the course of his young life forever.

Under Titch’s care, Wash not only discovers he has an extraordinary talent for drawing, he embarks on a wild journey that traverses oceans and continents in a bid to escape the slave catcher who wants him returned to Barbados.

A dizzying page-turner that takes in scientific polar exploration, the windswept beaches of Nova Scotia, the aristocratic manor houses of 19th century London, the canals of Amsterdam and the deserts of Morocco, this is a true adventure story that brims with menace and tension and love.

But it’s not a perfect novel. There are paradigm shifts, which seem to come out of nowhere and are disorienting for the reader. Some of these shifts feel too far-fetched to be believable and this serves to ruin the perceived authenticity of Wash’s tale. And then, when Titch disappears from the narrative at about the half-way point, suddenly the heart of the story — the mysterious and intriguing relationship between him and Wash — is gone: it’s like taking a cake out of the oven too early so that it collapses.

That said, Washington Black is a brilliant example of terrific storytelling. The characters are vivid and well drawn, the dialogue is authentic, the setting and period details pitch perfect. It’s an original and audacious plot-driven novel. And much like Edugyan’s previous novel, Half Blood Blues, it is a truly entertaining read. I enjoyed it immensely — but I had to suspend belief to do so.

This is my 1st book for 2018 Shadow Giller Prize.

André Alexis, Author, Book review, Canada, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Serpent's Tail, Setting

‘Fifteen Dogs’ by André Alexis

Fifteen-dogs

Fiction – paperback; Serpent’s Tail; 159 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

André Alexis’s Fifteen Dogs has been longlisted for this year’s Giller Prize. It’s by far the oddest, and possibly most absurd, book I’ve read in a long while. Indeed, to say I didn’t much like it might be an understatement.

Under normal circumstances, I’m sure I would have abandoned this strange and unusual novella. But as some of you will no doubt know, every year since 2011 I have taken part in the Shadow Giller — chaired by KevinfromCanada — in which a group of us read and review all the books on the Giller Prize longlist for that year. Between the four of us, we then choose a winner in advance of the real Giller.  (You can read more about how the Shadow Giller came about on Kevin’s blog here.) And because I’m taking part in the process once again for 2015, I felt that I had to finish the book — even when every bone (pun not intended) in my body told me to put it aside and read something else instead!

So, what’s so weird about it, I hear you ask? Well, it takes the form of a fable in which the Greek gods Hermes and Apollo give a group of dogs the gift of consciousness. The idea is that intelligence does not make humans any more superior or happier than other animals.

— I’ll wager a year’s servitude, said Apollo, that animals — any animal you choose — would be even more unhappy than humans are, if they had human intelligence.
— An earth year? I’ll take that bet, said Hermes, but on condition that if, at the end of its life, even one of the creatures is happy, I win.

And then 15 dogs, all staying overnight in a veterinary clinic in Toronto, discover that they can suddenly think for themselves, talk in a new language (English) and reason with one another. Yes, I told you it was a weird book.

Go to the dogs

Fifteen Dogs follows the antics of the dogs, some of whom reject their new ability with language and revert back to the “old dog ways”, and through a series of set pieces, rather than a typical story arc, shows how their relationships with one another and humans changes as a result of their newfound intelligence. Sometimes this is quite horrifying — one set of dogs, for instance, leads another set to their deaths — but only goes to show where the idiom it’s a dog-eat-dog world comes from! But at other times it’s quite touching — the deep friendship that develops between Majnouin, a black poodle, and his human owner, Nira, for example.

Of course, I can’t dismiss Fifteen Dogs entirely. While fables aren’t my kind of thing, and I struggle with stories that demand that I suspend belief (even if it’s just for 150 or so pages), this novella does explore some interesting ideas around language (one of the dogs, for instance, composes poetry), cultural codes of conduct, emotion, individuality and morality. And if you’ve ever had a dog or own a dog (or commission training articles about them, like I do) there’s plenty of behaviours to recognise (and occasionally laugh about) in these pages.

But the book doesn’t just concentrate on canine behaviour: it also shines a light on (the absurdity of) human behaviour, as this quote, through the eyes of Benjy the beagle, shows:

And then there was the room where the humans bathed and applied chemicals to themselves. The bathroom was fascinating, it being astonishing to watch the already pale beings applying creams to make themselves paler still. Was there something about white that bought status? If so, what was the point of drawing black circles around their eyes or red ones around their mouths?

I can’t say that I’d like this deeply philosophical book to make the Giller Prize shortlist, which is announced on 5 October, but I can’t fault its originality or its ability to make you see the world in a slightly different way. It’s insightful and inventive, but not one for me…

Please note, Fifteen Dogs is not yet published in the UK. I was fortunate enough to get an advance copy, sent to me unsolicited. It will be published here on 5 November.

UPDATE 11 NOVEMBER 2015:
Congratulations to André Alexis, who was awarded the 2015 Giller Prize last night. You can read more about his win on the official Giller Prize website.

Author, Book review, Esi Edugyan, Fiction, France, Germany, holocaust, literary fiction, Publisher, Serpent's Tail, Setting

‘Half Blood Blues’ by Esi Edugyan

Half-Blood-Blues

Fiction – Kindle edition; Serpent’s Tail; 256 pages; 2011.

A book about jazz musicians living in Berlin during the Second World War isn’t something that would normally pique my interest. But this book has been nominated for every award going this year — the Booker Prize, the Giller Prize, the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction and the Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize — so I figured there must be something special about it. I was right.

The first thing that strikes you about this novel is the voice of its narrator, Sidney Griffiths, a black bass player from Baltimore who spent his formative years in Berlin during the 1930s and 40s. To give you a feel for how he talks, here’s how he describes the jazz band to which he once belonged:

Once upon a time we was the stuff. Played the greatest clubs of Europe, our five recordings as famous as anything. We had fans across the continent, played Austria and Switzerland and Sweden and Hungary and even Poland. Only reason we ain’t never gigged in France was cause Ernst, a proud son of a bitch, he held a war-based grudge. Lost it soon enough, when old Germany started falling apart. But before that our band was downright gold, all six of us: Hieronymus Falk on trumpet; Ernst ‘the Mouth’ von Haselberg on clarinet; Big Fritz Bayer on alto sax; Paul Butterstein on piano; and, finally, us, the rhythm boys – Chip Jones on drums and yours truly thumbing the upright. We was a kind of family, as messed-up and dysfunctional as any you could want.

When the story opens Sid is an old man. It’s 1992 and his fellow band member, Chip, is accompanying him to the German premiere of a film about Hieronymus Falk. Hiero, the youngest member of their band, was largely regarded as a musical protégé, but he died in Mauthausen Concentration Camp. The documentary explores events leading up to his arrest by the Nazis. It also accuses Sid of a great betrayal, something which takes him somewhat by surprise.

But all is not as it seems. Like the legend of Elvis, there are rumours that Hiero is still alive.

‘What really happened to Hieronymus Falk’ become something of a journalist sport. All sorts of nonsense started up.

When Chip reveals that he’s received recent correspondence from Hiero, he and Sid go on a heart-wrenching adventure to find him. During their trip — by bus through a rather grim pre-European Union Poland — Sid slowly comes to accept that his past has finally caught up with him but is struggling to know how to deal with it.

The narrative swings back and forth across time — from Berlin and Paris during the war, and Berlin and Poland 50 years later — but events are always seen from Sid’s point of view. It’s a fascinating account of one man’s experiences — his love affairs, his musical rivalries and fierce jealousies (especially of Hiero), his guilt and much-too-late atonement for one cruel act that he can never take back.

These temporal shifts allow us to see the ways in which Sid has grown and changed as a character. The young Sid is plagued by self-doubt and envy; the older Sid is comfortable in his skin until his conscience and regret get the better of him.

While the book is littered with jazz references, I tended not to view this as a “jazz novel” — I’m not knowledgeable enough to cast comment on its authenticity or otherwise — but I did enjoy the way Edugyan brings the music to life through her prose.

Hiero thrown out note after shimmering note, like sunshine sliding all over the surface of a lake, and [Louis] Armstrong was the water, all depth and thought, not one wasted note. Hiero, he just reaching out, seeking the shore; Armstrong stood there calling across to him. Their horns sound so naked, so blunt, you felt almost guilty listening to it, like you eavesdropping. After some minutes Chip stopped singing, left just the two golden ropes of sound to intertwine.

But for me, the heart of this novel is the way in which Edugyan shines a spotlight on a subject not much explored in modern fiction — that of black people living in Aryan Germany. Here’s how one character explains it:

‘Life for black people under the Third Reich,’ he said through his nose, ‘was extremely contradictory. This is because there were so many different types of black people, and their treatment depended on what group they belonged to. For instance, you had the children of the African diplomats who’d come to the country during its colonial period. You had African–American performers, the opera singer Marian Anderson and jazzmen like Charles Jones and Sidney Griffiths, who, like their counterparts in Paris – Josephine Baker, Arthur Briggs, Bill Coleman and the like – all came to Europe to get away from the overwhelming racism prevalent in the southern United States in that era. The Jim Crow laws, in effect from the late 1800s right into the 1950s, barred blacks from active participation in society. In the twenties Europe was still a place black entertainers could come to earn a good living. Especially in Germany, whose borders were kept open to foreigners due to the Versailles Treaty. Also, the loss of the First World War had brought about a whole new artistic movement. The market for jazz had grown tremendously, and there was a decent following.’

While Half Blood Blues is not a perfect novel, I can’t help but respect Edugyan’s accomplishment. She’s attempted a risky endeavour by giving herself some high aims. Not only does she write the entire book in a Creolized voice, she focuses on jazz musicians against the backdrop of the Third Reich. She then fleshes out a very strong cast of characters, throws in a page-turning plot — Is Hiero alive or not? Did Sid really betray him? — and uses a complex structure to tell her story.

Half Blood Blues has been shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize — and I’d like to think she might just win it. For other takes on this novel please see KevinfromCanada’s review and The Mookse and the Gripes’ review.

Africa, Author, Book review, Denis Kehoe, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Portugal, Publisher, Serpent's Tail, Setting

‘Walking on Dry Land’ by Denis Kehoe

Walking-on-dry-land

Fiction – paperback; Serpent’s Tail; 248 pages; 2011. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Denis Kehoe is a young Irish writer, based in Dublin. Walking on Dry Land is his second novel. But the story is not your typical Irish fare: this one is set in Portugal and Angola, and has a distinct West African feel about it.

Admittedly, this is not what I expected when I requested the title from the publisher and for the first 50 or so pages I had trouble orientating myself. But once I got my head around the location — and the storyline — I found myself thoroughly enjoying it, particularly as it has the pace of a thriller without sacrificing the meatiness of the content. And there’s something about the prose style, and the shortness of the chapters, that lulled me into a dream-like state, so that whenever I put the book down I felt as if I was still caught up in its pages.

The story is an age old one, about a woman’s search for the mother she never knew, but it’s told in a refreshing way.

Ana is in her early 30s and was raised by her Portuguese parents in Lisbon. She’s now a professor of film studies and is doing her PhD at Trinity College Dublin, where she resides. (That, you see, is the Irish connection.)

Ana’s mother has recently died (of breast cancer), prompting her to investigate the secret she’s always kept hidden to herself: that her birth mother was not a white Portuguese woman, but a black woman from Angola, with whom her father had an affair. This knowledge has been something she has kept to herself her entire life.

Her first memory of not truly belonging to her family happened when she was four, as she was walking down a Lisbon street with her elder brother, Tiago, and two gossiping neighbours stared at her.

But it took Ana a few more moments to figure out that the two sets of dry, hungry eyes were trained directly on her, that they had been following her. And to understand the words they were swapping were careless scissors set to snip her apart, two dogs barking at her heels. Yes, all of a sudden she was coldly certain these two women were busy trading versions of where she came from. Of who she really belonged to, for as sure as they were guardians of order and respectability in Carcavelos, this child, almost white but not quite, was not the offspring of José and Helena de Castro. There was a story here, a scandal here, and they were so busy inventing their own versions of it, they didn’t expect the voice shouting at them from the other side of the street. “Senhoras, Close your mouths! Close your mouths or the flies will get in! The flies will get in!”

Armed with a photograph and a vague idea that her biological mother might have been a cabaret singer, Ana heads to Luanda, the capital of Angola, to begin her search. Her brother, Tiaga, also happens to live in Luanda, so her trip is disguised as a visit to catch up with him and his young family.

Ana’s story is undercut, in alternate chapters, with the story of her parent’s — Helena and José. Beginning in Lisbon in October 1965, it traces their romance, marriage and new life in Luanda, where they settle and have children in the early 1970s. These chapters, short and sweet, provide the narrative tension that makes you want to keep reading on, because how could these two idealistic, young adults move from romantic love to one in which José screws around with the native women?

What I liked most about this book, aside from the great characters (Ana’s mother, Solange, is particularly well drawn), was the little insights into Angola’s troubled history, particularly its relationship with Portugal, which ruled it as an overseas territory until 1975. These snippets, including Helena and José having to flee the war that erupted during independence, gives the narrative a distinct flavour.

And I liked the constant references to films — one chapter’s opening is even written like a movie poster — which are dotted throughout, giving weight to Ana’s character as a film obsessive.

I can’t say this is a happy book, although there’s a resolution here which makes it a rewarding one. Walking on Dry Land is a compassionate, complex tale, ripe with politics, passion and family secrets.

Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Neil Bartlett, Publisher, Serpent's Tail, Setting

‘Skin Lane’ by Neil Bartlett

SkinLane

Fiction – paperback; Serpent’s Tail; 320 pages; 2008.

Sometimes you pick up a book that takes you on such a wonderfully atmospheric journey that when you get to the end, the feeling stays with you like a dream. Everything else you read in its wake suffers by comparison. This is how I felt when I finished Neil Bartlett’s Skin Lane.

I have not read anything quite as haunting as this strangely beautiful book. It’s a novel that is full of contradictions: it brims with sexual tension, and yet contains no sex; it is filled with death, and yet no one is murdered; it’s repetitious to the point of being dull, and yet features some of the most exciting and heart-hammering scenes you will ever read.

It has a kind of fairy tale quality to it, both in the way in which it is told (by an omnipresent narrator in quiet, stripped back prose) and the subject matter (an older man falling for a younger colleague that he cannot have, with parallels to Beauty and the Beast).

It is also a wonderful portrait of London, in particular the area sandwiched between Cannon Street and the Thames, which is written so lovingly it feels like a tribute to the city. You can hear your feet echoing on the cobbled streets, feel the crush of bodies streaming over London Bridge every morning, see the spires of churches huddled together in the Square Mile.

And it’s a fascinating account of the fur trade, in all its grim glory.

The story itself is set in 1967, about the time when two key legislative acts were being passed by British Parliament: the Sexual Offences Act (which decriminalised homosexual acts for those over the age of 21) and the Abortion Act (which legalised abortion on a number of grounds, including to save the woman’s life or to avoid mental and physical damage to the woman). While Bartlett only mentions these Acts in passing it helps to have a kind of overview, because it explains how the times were a-changing and why this story particularly resonates.

The protagonist, Mr F, is 46 years old and lives alone. He has no friends or living relatives. His life is dominated by his work at a furriers, where he is the head cutter, crafting very fine fur coats from all kinds of animals skins. Everything he does, whether at work or at home, is regimented with military-like precision. There is nothing spontaneous or exciting about him.

Then, out of the blue, Mr F begins to have weird dreams in which a young naked man, his face obscured by his hair, is found hanging upside in his bathroom. These dreams become so disturbing that Mr F begins to lose his focus at work. Indeed, he becomes rather obsessed with determining who the man in his dream might be, and spends an awful amount of time behaving in what can only be described as a rather stalkerish manner — checking out men on the train and in the street, eyeing up the skin of their hands and the hair on their head. It all feels rather creepy.

The creepiness factor goes up a few notches when he is given a new apprentice at work. The apprentice is the boss’s 16-year-old nephew, whom the girls in the office have dubbed Beauty, because of his good looks. This takes Mr F, who is used to working alone and in a regimented fashion, out of his comfort zone, even more so when he begins to wonder whether Beauty might, in fact, be the boy of his dreams…

I’d be lying if I said this was a light and fluffy read. It’s not. It’s very dark, very disturbing and, at times, shocking. But Bartlett writes with a considerable amount of restraint, and just when you think the book’s going to become too violent to read, he pulls things back and reminds you that he’s telling a story and there’s no real need to be afraid. While the narrative is taut and will, occasionally, have your heart beating in your throat, there’s no gratuitous sex or violence. It’s almost what Bartlett doesn’t say, rather than what he does say, that makes this book such a heightened melodrama.

And just when you come to terms with the terror and anger of it all, you will find yourself deeply moved and close to tears. Is it any wonder that this is one of the most profound pieces of fiction I’ve read in recent times. More please.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, France, literary fiction, Michel Houellebecq, Publisher, Serpent's Tail, Setting

‘Whatever’ by Michel Houellebecq

Whatever

Fiction – paperback; Serpent’s Tail; 155 pages; 1999. Translated from the French by Paul Hammond.

I bought Whatever on the strength of Michel Hoeullebecq‘s (pronounced Wellbeck) very brilliant Atomised. Unfortunately, it did not live up to expectations.

I’m not even sure what this book was about. The narrator, a sad, depressed 30-year-old computer nerd, spent most of his time in an agitated state of boredom. I had no sympathy for him at all. If Houellebecq was trying to make some kind of statement about modern day life, it was either too subtle for me to grasp or too profound for me to identify.

His dejected cast of characters, drifting through life with no sense of purpose, were so emotionally detached from everything around them that I found myself just as emotionally detached reading about their exploits.

Despite this, the book does offer small glimmers of Houellebecq’s genius which comes to the fore in his following novel, Atomised.