Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Marta Orriols, Publisher, Pushkin Press, Reading Projects, Setting, Spain, TBR 21

‘Learning to Talk to Plants’ by Marta Orriols

Fiction – paperback; Pushkin Press; 251 pages; 2020. Translated from the Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem.

Marta Orriols’ Learning to Talk to Plants is an age-old story about a woman grieving the untimely death of her long-time partner, only there’s a crucial twist — just hours before he dies in a cycling accident, he announces that he is leaving her for someone else.

Paula, the central character, is a neonatologist, a doctor who specialises in the care of newborn babies, particularly those who are ill or born prematurely. She works in a busy hospital in Barcelona and spends more time with her colleagues than her partner, Mauro, who works in book publishing.

She is unaware that Mauro is pursuing an affair, so his admission, at a carefully arranged dinner, is a shock. That shock is only superseded when he is killed cycling home just a few hours later. Her grief is compounded by the fact that she keeps Mauro’s desertion to herself; to tell family that he had left her would only tarnish their well-held opinion of him — and she refuses to do that.

The novel charts the ways in which 40-something Paula tries to make sense of her new reality. She throws herself into work, pursues a love affair with a beguiling stranger she met in Amsterdam, and grows closer to her beloved father who raised her singlehandedly after the untimely death of her mother.

But as she navigates this new existence, she is plagued by thoughts of Mauro. Why did he find it necessary to seek love elsewhere? And who was the woman that captured his heart?

Prize-winning novel

This intelligent and introspective novel won the Omnium Cultural Prize for Best Catalan novel in 2018 and was translated into English last year.

I found it a little uneven in terms of pacing, and the style is similarly patchy, with some elements written in eloquent, deeply thoughtful prose and others reading like a (high-brow) romance novel.

But the story is a good twist on the “grief novel” — one largely focused on a character coming to terms with the death of a loved one — and explores all kinds of issues, including love, trust, betrayal and loyalty. It’s also a story about family and how we are shaped by our childhood experiences.

And it’s full of metaphors — the babies that Paula saves at work, for instance, not only add meaning to her life, they represent all the children she, herself, never got to have with Mauro. Similarly, when all the plants that Mauro grew begin to die, she does her utmost to rescue them, because they are the last living link with the man she never really knew.

Learning to Talk to Plants is an honest portrayal of grief and charts some dark moments. But it’s also blackly humorous in places and never suffocates under its own melancholic sense of sadness. There’s plenty of rage here too — at the injustice of being “widowed” when all you want to do is kill the man who’s left you!

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘Here is the Beehive’ by Sarah Crossan: A fast-paced novel written from the perspective of the other woman whose lover dies after a three-year illicit relationship.

This is my 14th book for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I purchased it from my local independent book shop when it was published last year mainly because I am interested in reading more Catalan fiction.

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, 20 books of summer (2020), Author, Book review, Colm Tóibín, Fiction, Ireland, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, short stories, Spain

‘The Empty Family’ by Colm Tóibín

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 224 pages; 2011.

Colm Tóibín’s The Empty Family is a collection of exquisitely written short stories all framed around the idea of people — alienated and alone — seeking love or solace or a semblance of normality.

Many of them are set in Spain (Tóibín lived there from 1975-1978, as detailed in his travelogue Barcelona), with the rest in his native Ireland. They depict “lost” characters beset by family problems or issues — estrangements, absences, death — which have dominated and shaped their lives.

Each story is as finely crafted as his novels (many of which are reviewed here), written in that same eloquent prose and focusing on many of the themes that often occur in his work — missing mothers, childhood abandonment, unconventional families, hiding your homosexuality and exile abroad, just to name a few.

There are nine stories in total — all bar one (“Silence”) are set in the modern-day — and they vary in length from around 30 pages to 60 pages, but the last story (“The Street”) is 150 pages and has previously been published as a novella by Tuskar Rock Press. A handful feature explicit gay sex — you have been warned.

The New Spain

Rather than outline every story, I am going to focus on one that I really admired.

“The New Spain” examines what happens when Carme Giralt, a Catalan woman who has spent eight years living in London, returns to Spain after the death of her beloved grandmother.

Carme had previously been banished from the family home for being a Communist and was taken in silence to the airport by her father — “his rage against her palpable and elemental as he stood watching to make sure that she made her way through the departure gates” — but her grandmother sent her money every month to help her out.

In her will, her grandmother has left the family holiday home, on the coast in Menorca, to Carme and her sister. Carme has very fond memories of this house, of the sunshine, of the seafood, of endless days swimming at the beach. When she returns to the house after a long absence, she finds her parents holidaying there, along with her sister and her sister’s children. Her welcome is not a warm one. There are unspoken tensions.

Carme is surprised to find that the home, once surrounded by olive trees, is now surrounded by rows of new houses that obstruct views of the ocean. Even the path to the beach has become blocked by development. When she expresses her displeasure at the way in which this holiday spot has become an eyesore she is warned not to complain because her grandmother sold the land to developers so she could afford to send monthly payments to Carme in London. Her father was part of the development scheme and now he’s in financial trouble and wants to sell the bungalows.

Her family bemoan the fact that the area has changed, that it has become beset with tourists and now they prefer to swim in their own pool rather than go to the beach, yet they fail to see the role they have played in facilitating this change.

The story focuses on Carme’s decision to continue to do her own thing, to defy her family’s idea of what she should be and how she should behave. It looks at what happens when she discovers she now has power over her father for she’s inherited a clause that says if he wants to sell any of the new houses that he has built he requires her signature, as part-owner of her grandmother’s house, to do so.

Tóibín writes about complicated family situations so well, and he does a good line in fierce, independent women — this short story exemplifies this. What I also love about Toibin’s writing is that he manages to create entirely believable worlds and backstories, dripping with melancholia but never being too bleak, and often filled with tender moments. There is always a sense of hope, of optimism that things will turn out okay in the long run.

The New Spain highlights how a person’s interior world can barely compete with the change that happens in the exterior world. I liked how Tóibín juxtaposes the politics of Communism with the get-rich-quick-schemes of Capitalism without ever being obvious about it. He does everything in such a nuanced way, never shying from the contradictions and complexities that life and politics throw at us.

In fact, that could be said of all the stories in this collection. Nothing is black and white, cut and dried here, in much the same way as our messy family lives are just that — messy. I loved spending time in these perfectly encapsulated worlds.

The Empty Family was shortlisted for the 2011 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award.

This is my 11th book for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter. I purchased it in paperback circa 2012, but read the Kindle edition, which I purchased in June 2019 having forgotten that I had a copy already. Does anyone else do this?

Author, Book review, Canongate, Fiction, Ireland, Kevin Barry, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Spain, TBR2020

‘Night Boat to Tangier’ by Kevin Barry

Fiction – Kindle edition; Canongate; 224 pages; 2019. Review copy courtesy of NetGalley.

What a darkly fun and intriguing book this turned out to be!

Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry defies description. It’s not strictly a black comedy, though it’s packed with small, comic moments. And it’s not strictly a crime novel, because it doesn’t revolve around a particular crime that needs to be solved, but it does star two bad men out to get what they can through nefarious means. I guess it’s a blend of both, with a ribbon of pathos and melancholy running through it.

It brought to mind all the surrealness of Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot and the mournful Spanish ex-pat bits of Colm Toibin’s novel The South.

Two 50-something Irish gangsters

So what’s it about, I hear you ask? Essentially it’s about two Irish gangsters, Charlie Redmond and Maurice (Moss) Hearne, and the ups and downs they have weathered over the years as drug dealers with operations in Cork and Spain.

When the book opens the pair — “in their low fifties, the years are rolling out like a tide now” — are at the Spanish port of Algeciras waiting for the night boat from Tangier (hence the book’s title). They don’t plan to get on the boat, they are waiting for someone to get off it. That someone happens to be Maurice’s 23-year-old daughter, Dilly, who has been missing for three years.

Oh, and this is as awful a place as you could muster — you’d want the eyes sideways in your head.
The ferry terminal has a haunted air, a sinister feeling. It reeks of tired bodies, and dread.
There are scraps of frayed posters — the missing.
There are customs announcements  — the narcotraficante.

As the pair wait, they interrogate other people coming off the boat, wanting to know if they might have seen Dilly. One of the unsuspecting people they confront is Benny, a young British man with dreadlocks and a dog on a rope, the kind of person they believe Dilly, who also has dreadlocks, would hang out with.

She’s a small girl, Benny. She’s a pretty girl. And you see what it is? Is we’ve been told she’s headed for Tangier.
Or possibly she’s coming back from Tangier.
On the 23rd of the month. Whichever fucken direction? It’s all going off on the 23rd.
Is what we’ve been informed by a young man in Málaga.
On account of the young man found himself in an informational kind of mood.

The pair don’t have much luck finding anyone who knows Dilly, but that doesn’t stop them waiting — and intimidating anyone they think might have some information that could help them locate her.

History in flashback

But that’s not all there is to the story.

Barry does something rather clever with Night Boat to Tangier because he fleshes out the backstories of both men in alternate chapters. This allows us to find out how the pair developed their “business” and all the shenanigans they have carried out since the late 1990s, the women they have had relationships with and the deals they have done both home and abroad.

It also allows us to come to know these men, so they become less caricature — the hard men with attitude and dry wit — and more “real”. Barry does this so well that even against our better judgment we empathise with them instead of condemning them because they appear to be all-too-human, with flaws and foibles we can understand.

Interesting structure

What I liked about this novel was its structure switching between the current day at the port of Algeciras and the flashbacks that fill in the gaps between now and the 1990s.

I also liked the linguistic changes between these chapters, so that the sections at the port are written staccato style, mainly in dialogue, with many funny one-liners and a hint of menace, while the flashback chapters are written in a more “traditional” third-person style to give a more rounded overview of the men and their lives.

It’s a well-crafted audacious novel, written in cracking prose, one that marries black comedy with an almost mournful undertone. Night Boat to Tangier was longlisted for last year’s Booker Prize and was shortlisted for the Irish Book Awards Novel of the Year 2019. And it may just well make my Top 10 at the end of this year.

This is my 14th book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. This is another book I requested from NetGalley when it first came out. I read about 3% and then abandoned it because I wasn’t in the mood for it at the time. Fast forward more than a year later and I was more than ready for some Irish gangster capers. LOL.

Author, Book review, Colm Tóibín, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting, Spain

‘The South’ by Colm Tóibín

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 256 pages; 2015.

Colm Tóibín’s debut novel, The South, is a luminous tale of art and love and sacrifice set in Spain and Ireland in the 1950s and 60s. It’s also a beautifully structured story about history and memory, violence and trauma.

It was first published in 1990 but was reissued by Picador a few years ago as part of its new Picador Classics range (which boasts books by John Banville, Alice Sebold and Tim Winton, among others — if you are interested, the range is here.)

In the introduction to this edition, Roy Foster says it “announced the arrival of a new novelist with a new style — economical, lapidary, incantatory — and a new kind of Irish novel”. It seems strange to think of it like that now, because this is the kind of style I associate with most of the Irish novels I read, but as Foster points out, 25 years ago, this was radically different to Irish fiction of the time, which was largely associated with “short stories in the Chekhovian mode”.

In search of a new life

The protagonist in The South is Katherine Proctor, an upperclass Protestant woman, who flees her County Wexford home, abandoning her (controlling) husband and 10-year-old son, in pursuit of a new life in Spain. (In that sense, the South of the title refers to both the Irish Republic and Catalonia.)

A talented painter, Katherine hankers for a different way of life, free from the constraints of marriage, motherhood and the shadows of her Irish past, and moves to Spain — first to the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona, then to the mountains of Catalonia — to begin afresh and to focus on her first love: art.

When the book begins, it is 24 October 1950, and Katherine is in Barcelona living in a hotel run by a “fat woman” and “her little mouse of a husband”. She doesn’t understand the language and is feeling isolated, scared and paranoid.

It is difficult for me being on my own and it has been since I left. In the street sometimes I think I am being followed. I try not to move too far away from the hotel. The journey, here, however has been the worst so far. There are men everywhere watching you. I came in from France to San Sebastian and stayed there in a small hotel looking over the beach and the calm sea. I was lonely there. I felt bad. In he greyness of the city everything was closed. The streets were deserted every afternoon. […] I took the night train to Barcelona. […] The moment I awoke I knew someone was in the compartment. The train was moving fast. It was still dark so I could see nothing. I stayed still and tried to keep breathing as though I were asleep.

Though Katherine manages to escape the man who tried to rape her on the train, she’s scarred by the experience. She’s uneasy in the company of men, but when she meets Miguel, an art teacher, she falls in love and the pair move to a small village in the mountains to paint and live a stripped-back (read squalid) but happy existence.

In this isolated but beautiful place Katherine discovers personal freedom with a man who respects her, but she begins to realise that she cannot truly escape her own roots. For in hearing about Miguel’s tortured past in the Spanish Civil War, she comes to understand her own traumas — abandoned by her mother, the family home burnt out by Irish Republicans — from an earlier life.

And while she would like nothing better than to ignore memories of her homeland she cannot because one of Miguel’s friends, Michael Graves, is an ex-patriate Irishman, who serves as a constant reminder of what she left behind.

Written in economical but elegant prose, The South is an effortless read, so effortless it almost feels weightless. And yet this book deals with big themes — themes which often recur in Tóibín’s later work. These include childhood abandonment, the sometimes troubled relationships between mothers and their sons, and the sense of dislocation that travel or immigration can bring when you are cut off from your place of birth.

A circular story

In this novel, Katherine does, eventually, return to the family home at Enniscorthy to try to re-establish a connection with her now grown son. It is a bittersweet experience.

It is a revelation to see how Tóibín manages to encapsulate all the little hurts and the interior struggles of both characters without resorting to over-the-top dramatics. It is that restraint which lends the book its power to move the reader, because we know — or can at least imagine — all the horrible things, all the pain and hurt, that each person is keeping hidden from the other.

The cool detachment of the prose is anything but.

Similarly, while the writing style is sparse, Tóibín describes things with a painterly eye — it is a very visual novel, one that describes landscapes, whether of the Spanish mountains, the Wexford countryside or inner-city Dublin, and the feelings they evoke, through the eyes of an artist:

Fog seeped everywhere in January. In the little warren of houses around Oxmanstown Road where she moved when she returned to Ireland, the smoke from the chimneys didn’t lift, it hung heavy in the air all day. There was ice on the footpaths in the morning; there was a damp and bitter cold. 

If you haven’t guess already, I adored The South. Reading it was an exquisite experience. It’s such a beautiful, heart-felt story and reading it back-to-back with Tóibín’s non-fiction book Homage to Barcelona, written at about the same time, made the experience even richer.

It also helped that it tapped into my (emerging) interest in the Spanish Civil War and allowed me to draw parallels with it and the fight for Irish independence. I also loved the references to art and the “creative struggle” — and I’ve come to realise there’s no other (living) male writer that can write women as well as Tóibín, he really knows what makes us tick.

Five stars.

This is my 20th book for #TBR40. I bought this copy only recently but when I was sorting through a bunch of Irish novels stored in my wardrobe (who needs clothes?) I discovered an older edition, published in 2001, which had been sitting there unread for at least a decade! That means it qualifies for my TBR project, which includes anything in my possession prior to 31 December 2018.

Author, Book review, Colm Tóibín, Non-fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting, Spain, travel

‘Homage to Barcelona’ by Colm Tóibín

Non-fiction – paperback; Picador; 240 pages; 2010.

Perhaps it’s because I grew up in Australia, right at the bottom of the world, so removed from everywhere else, that I quickly developed a desire to travel and to explore and to discover new places and cultures. As a child and teenager I could only do it through books.

Later, as an undergrad, my interest in travel was piqued even further by classes I took in the history of human civilisation and the great gardens and landscapes of the world. When I was about 21 I distinctly remember aching to visit Italy and Spain and Rome and New York and England to see all the amazing places I had studied and learned about.

Of course, as a cash-strapped student, and later as a new graduate struggling to find a job because Australia was in the grip of an economic recession, I had to satisfy my wanderlust through books. That’s when I went through a phase of reading travelogues — Eric Newby’s Round Ireland in Low Gear and Robin Hanbury-Tenison’s Worlds Apart: An Explorer’s Life are the two that stick in the mind the most.

But those kinds of books never really did it for me. If I’m honest, they bored me. It was a genre I quickly abandoned.

It wasn’t until I  left Australia for the first time, aged 29, that I got to explore the Northern Hemisphere. During my 30s and 40s I learned a valuable lesson: those travelogues don’t really resonate with me unless I’ve already visited the places that are mentioned in the book, or, better still, if I’m in-situ at the time of reading.

Which is a long-winded way of getting around to saying what I really wanted to say: that reading Colm Tóibín’s travelogue-cum-memoir Barcelona while I was actually in Barcelona was an immeasurably pleasurable experience.

In this book, the mere mention of the quiet, dark alleyways of the Gothic Quarter, which I had explored thoroughly for an entire afternoon, or the descriptions of Plaça Reial, where I’d treated myself to a glass of white Rioja and a plate of deep-fried anchovies while watching passersby, felt all the more special because I had experienced them first hand.

Plaça Reial is a large, exotic-looking square, that is lined with restaurants and cafes, the perfect place to people watch

 

Bishops Bridge, in the Gothic Quarter, looks medieval but was built in 1928 to match the style of the two Gothic buildings it links together

 

The chapter on Antoni Gaudí — A Dream of Gaudí — gave me a greater understanding and appreciation for the man’s amazing architectural achievements, the Sagrada Família (his great unfinished Catholic cathedral) and Casa Milà (aka La Pedrera or the “stone quarry”), both of which I’d visited and marvelled over, my jaw hanging open with the sheer wonder and beauty of them.

The Sagrada Família, which has been under construction since 1882 and isn’t expected to be completed until 2032!

 

Casa Milà, built in the early part of the 20th century, was the last private residence designed by Gaudi

 

But the book is much more than a tourist guide to the city. It’s a comprehensive look at Barcelona’s history, its food and culture, its nightlife, its artistic achievements and its political ups and downs. Tóibín’s lyrical writing, which I know so well from his novels (you can see reviews of them here), is only equalled by the subject matter he covers such as the artists (Picasso, Miró, Dali) and the urban designers and architects that shaped the city.

It’s written with all the insight of someone who has lived and breathed the city (Tóibín lived there from 1975 — “two months before the death of Franco” — until 1978, and has been a frequent visitor ever since.)

Reading it now, almost 30 years later after it was first published in 1990 (just as Barcelona was gearing up to host the Olympic Games), some of it appears to be a little out of date. For instance, Plaça Reial, he writes, is best avoided because it was “reputed to be the source of all the crime in the city centre, the place where the handbag-snatchers and the dope dealers hang out” and he shares similar advice about the rest of the Barri Gòtic, which has clearly been much cleaned up crime-wise since then.

But this hardly seems to matter, for Barcelona is a wonderful book that celebrates a wonderful European city. It’s a beguiling portrait of a sometimes troubled place, one that continues to forge — and fight for — its own Catalan identity. And it’s rich with personal insights and anecdotes, almost as if Tóibín is your own private tour guide. What more could you want from a travelogue?

The photographs in this post were taken during my solo trip to Barcelona on 19-22 March 2019. There are a lot more on my Instagram account if you fancy scrolling back through my timeline.

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.

2016 Giller Prize, Author, Book review, Fiction, Gary Barwin, literary fiction, Publisher, Random House Canada, Setting, South America, Spain

‘Yiddish for Pirates’ by Gary Barwin

Yiddish for pirates

Fiction – hardcover; Random House Canada; 333 pages; 2016.

If there is one thing I can say about Gary Barwin’s Giller Prize-shortlisted Yiddish for Pirates it is this: I’ve never read a book so jam-packed with word play and creative use of language as this one. I would describe it as a kind of literary vaudeville; a mesmirising act of vocabulary, idioms, metaphors, puns and similes. And, if that’s not enough, it’s narrated by a 500-year-old parrot with a penchant for jokes and scathing one-liners. Yes, really.

The story is essentially a boy’s own adventure set during the Spanish Inquisition involving the aforementioned parrot — an African Grey called Aaron — and a Jewish man called Moishe, whose shoulder he perches on.

Fleeing persecution, this “odd couple” is helped in part by an underground network of Jewish sympathisers as  they endeavour to save a rare library of important Jewish texts. Along the way they fall in with Christopher Columbus and set sail for the New World. Their journey is ripe with adventure, piracy, danger, violence and revenge.

Overdosing on word play

Sounds exciting, right? But this is where I put up my hand and confess that Yiddish for Pirates was really not for me. Maybe I have a prejudice against animal narrators (for instance, I hated last year’s Giller winner, Fifteen Dogs, which was, of course, narrated by a succession of canines), but I just couldn’t engage with the story. It was too clever, too knowing. I was always aware that I was reading a book; I was always aware of the word play and the creative writing “stunts”.

The thing is, I like word play and jokes —

Oh, and by the way, the Caribs are people who eat people.
You can pick your friends.
And you can pick your teeth.
And you can pick your friends from your teeth. Sometimes little bits of them get stuck there after a nosh.

—  but the unrelenting nature of them (every single line, in fact) became wearing. I longed for Barwin to relax, to just tell the story, to let the words breathe.

Every now and then I’d come across a killer line:

The sails were pale papers waiting to be written on by the wind.

But for every great zinger of a description, there’d be another that perplexed me completely.

At least when I wasn’t feather-puffed geshvollen and stultiloquent blather and narishkayt.

I think it’s fair to say that by the last page I felt wrung out by this curious, convoluted novel. If I didn’t have to read it for my Shadow Giller jury obligations, I’m pretty sure I would have cast it aside — set it adrift, so to speak. That doesn’t mean it’s not a good book — as a feat of imagination, as a literary exercise and as a truly unique story it’s pretty hard to beat.

For a more positive take on this novel, please see fellow Shadow jury member Naomi’s review.

This is my 5th book for the #ShadowGiller2016

Author, AWW2016, Book review, crime/thriller, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Helen FitzGerald, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Scotland, Setting, Spain

‘Viral’ by Helen FitzGerald

Viral by Helen Fitzgerald

Fiction – Kindle edition; Faber & Faber; 272 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Through some strange act of happenstance, I read Helen FitzGerald‘s latest novel, Viral, immediately after I finished Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things. It proved an interesting companion read, for in FitzGerald’s revenge thriller the main character does something that would have put her behind bars in Wood’s dystopian tale: 18-year-old virgin Su-Jin Oliphant-Brotheridge indulges in a sexual act — well, 12 of them to be precise — in a Magaluf nightclub while drunk.

The debauched behaviour is filmed without her knowledge or consent and then shared on the internet.

So far, twenty-three thousand and ninety-six people have seen me online. They include my mother, my father, my little sister, my grandmother, my other grandmother, my grandfather, my boss, my sixth year biology teacher and my boyfriend James.

The story traces the fallout on Su and her (adopted) family after the film goes viral, as well as fleshing out Su’s back story. And not everyone behaves as one might expect.

Sexual shaming

As a story of sexual shaming online, Viral has mixed messages. Like most of FitzGerald’s earlier novels — she’s got 12 to her name; I’ve read Dead Lovely (2007), My Last Confession (2009) and The Cry (2013) — it’s a very dark, noirish tale best described as “edgy” and “ballsy”.

Even though most of her novels, or at least the ones I have read, deal with big issues — such as criminality, drug taking and media exploitation — there’s often a moral ambiguity at their core. FitzGerald is definitely not a writer who sees things in black and white; she’s there in the margins, looking in the grey areas, teasing out the bits that don’t quite fit in the boxes.

And that’s exactly what she does with Viral, which explores sexual shaming and, in particular, the misogynistic behaviour of young men on holiday:

The notion that Xano could be every boy and every man had crossed her mind more than once. Would a nice boy like Su’s James have filmed the scene in the Coconut Lounge? Would a good boy like Frieda’s son Eric have said ‘You fucking cow. Suck it, whore’? Would the boy next door, literally, Barry, have uploaded it? It was too sickening to dwell on, but perhaps Xano’s behaviour did not set him apart from his peers.

She also explores ways in which the criminal justice system deals with, or fails to deal with, these incidents. I’m not sure FitzGerald’s novels should be taken too seriously, because in this tale Su’s mother, who is a sheriff in Scotland, discovers that the only justice she can get for her daughter is to take the law into her own hands. And, in becoming slightly crazed over this idea, her sense of fairness and balance is overshot by her deep abiding need for revenge. What results is a kind of black comedy in a thoroughly contemporary setting.

Fast paced, but preposterous plot

The story eventually becomes a kind of fast-paced, over-the-top, psychological thriller, the kind that makes you keep turning the pages into the wee small hours even though you realise the entire plot is completely preposterous.  Su, who is Korean by birth, goes on the run in Spain, but finds it difficult to hide because of her appearance, while her sister Leah, her lifelong sibling rival, is sent to find her. Meanwhile, her mother, Ruth, who is filled with anger, uses her professional connections to try to track down the men who gang “raped” her daughter, all the while plotting how to avenge them. The poor father figure in the story simply gets shunted aside, only to fall victim in another bizarre plot twist.

Did I enjoy this novel? I’m not sure. I had such mixed feelings as I read it. It felt distasteful and dirty (although, to be fair, that’s how I usually react to FitzGerald’s work), but I kept reading it purely to find out what would happen next, a sign of a good thriller.

Perhaps I was most uncomfortable with the idea that the central character was Korean, because it played into the stereotype of Asian girls either being slutty or studious. I didn’t much like the revenge element either, though I appreciate without it the book would be an entirely different one. On the positive side, it does make an important point: that these “crimes” aren’t treated as such and are often blamed on the victim, whose reputation lies in ruins while the perpetrators get away scot-free.

So, while Viral didn’t tick all my boxes for a high-quality high-brow read, as a piece of juicy genre fiction with bite and a healthy dose of black wit, it’s very good indeed. And as a exploration of social media and misogyny, cultural identity and sibling rivalry, it’s got plenty of issues to discuss, making it perfect for book groups.

This is my 19th book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 15th for #AWW2016.

Author, Book review, Canada, Dennis Bock, Fiction, Knopf, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Spain

‘Going Home Again’ by Dennis Bock

Going-home

Fiction – hardcover; Knopf; 258 pages; 2013.

I’ll admit that I was in two minds about reading Dennis Bock’s Going Home Again, which has been shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize. I wanted to read it, because I generally like stories about repatriation; but I also didn’t want to read it, because I know Trevor, from The Mookse and The Gripes, didn’t like it.

Yet, when I opened this book on Saturday afternoon, thinking I’d just read a couple of chapters, I found myself completely absorbed by this tale of two divorced men and their fragile relationships with those around them, and before I knew it I had almost finished the entire novel.

Moving back home

The story is narrated by Charlie Bellerose, a Canadian who has spent the best part of 20 years living in Madrid, where he is married with a 12-year-old daughter. But things are not as cosy as they first seem. Charlie and his Spanish wife are estranged, and Charlie has made the decision to return home to Toronto, where he plans to open his fifth foreign language school and start his life afresh.

And it is here in Toronto that he re-establishes contact with his older brother, Nate, with whom he has a troubled relationship. The last time he saw Nate was a decade ago — and the two have not been on speaking terms since. But things are different now — Nate seems older and wiser, even if he is going through a rather messy divorce with his wife, Monica, and he is sharing responsibility for bringing up their two sons, Titus and Quinn.

Over the course of a year, we follow Charlie’s ups and downs: his struggle to adjust to life without his daughter, whom he adores; the joy of taking on a fatherly role to Titus and Quinn, often looking after them while Nate is away on business; his reconnection with Holly, an old girlfriend, who is now happily married; and the happiness of finding a new girlfriend. As these events unfold, Bock uses flashbacks to tell Charlie’s back story: his upbringing by a kindly uncle after his parents were killed in a car crash; his life at university in which his best friend — Holly’s boyfriend — jumped off a bridge and died; his subsequent meanderings through Spain and how he met his wife; the tense, stressful — and wary — relationship he has with Nate.

The effect of this is to build up a well-rounded, and often touching, portrait of a relatively simple man leading a somewhat complicated, messy life and wondering how he ever got himself into the messes he now finds himself in — living an ocean away from his beloved daughter and finding himself caught up, once again, in his brother’s irresponsible shenanigans.

Unresolved issues

Of course, this novel isn’t perfect and there were some issues that felt unresolved to me. As a book about a man returning to his homeland after 20 years, I felt the absence of any personal dislocation very telling. But perhaps he had bigger issues with which to contend, not least the fact that his brother is still as self-absorbed as he ever was and, as we later find out in a rather dramatic “twist” near the end, quite an appalling sort of character, indeed.

And while the narrative zips along at a rather frenetic pace and effortlessly moves backwards and forwards in time, I sometimes felt as if Bock under-delivered what some of his set pieces had promised. Perhaps it was intentional, but I’m still mulling over a scene very early in the book in which Titus is accused of an abhorrent act that is never properly resolved. What was the point? Was it to foreshadow events, to suggest Titus was his father’s son?

And the ending, which involves a murder, seemed slightly dramatic in what, up until that point, had been a nicely underplayed narrative.

Domestic tale

But what I really liked about Going Home Again was this: it is a wholly domestic tale — about men and women, about marriage, about family, about the fallout of divorce — and it is told from an entirely male perspective. I cannot recall having read a book like this before, and for that reason, it felt new and interesting to me.

I’m not sure Going Home Again is likely to win the Giller Prize, but it’s an enjoyable story that will resonate with those who know that life is what happens when you are busy making other plans.