1001 books, Author, Book review, Five fast reviews, Heather O'Neill, Heinrich Böll, Patrick deWitt, Patrick Gale, Sven Lindqvist

Five Fast Reviews: Heinrich Böll, Patrick DeWitt, Patrick Gale, Sven Lindqvist and Heather O’Neill

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‘The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum or How violence develops and where it can lead’ by Heinrich Böll

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 140 pages; 2000. Translated from the German by Leila Vennewitz.

Lost-honourFirst published in Germany in 1974, The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum is widely regarded as a German classic — indeed it’s listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, where it is described as a dark morality tale about the “unscrupulous sensationalism of the mass media”. I think it could also be described as an examination of a misogynistic society hellbent on keeping women in their place and denying them the right to lead independent lives.

This short but powerful novella charts the downfall of Katharina Blum, a strong, independent woman, who meets a man at a party and takes him home, not realising he’s a wanted criminal. When he goes on the run, she is interrogated by the police who insist she’s an accomplice to his crimes even though she had never met him before. The city newspaper drags her name through the mud, portraying her as a whore and a communist. Her reputation in ruins, Katharina is forced to take drastic action, shooting the reporter who has distorted her story out of all proportion.

Written in a dry, somewhat detached style employing an omnipresent narrator, I can’t say that I was immediately grabbed by the story. But the message is a powerful one — and still rather relevant in today’s climate of social media shaming and bullying.

 

‘Undermajordomo Minor’ by Patrick DeWitt

Fiction – Kindle edition; Granta; 304 pages; 2015. 

Under-major-minor-domoLonglisted for this year’s Giller Prize, I read Patrick DeWitt’s Undermajordomo Minor for my Shadow Giller Jury obligations and found it an enjoyable, if somewhat surreal, romp hugely reminiscent of the kind of kooky fables that British writer Magnus Mills pens. The sinister elements of the story reminded me a little of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but it’s not a horror story per se, more a dark, often very funny, Gothic fairy tale set in an unnamed country in an unspecified era.

The tale begins when one young man, Lucien (or “Lucy”), moves out of the family home to begin a new job — and life — working as a helper for the old “majordomo” of a creepy castle in a distant village. Lots of strange and unexplained things happen to Lucy, who befriends some local thieves and falls in love with a pretty girl, whom he woos using every trick in the book.

There’s no real plot line — the story works on character and a series of kooky set pieces — but it’s a fun, if somewhat unsettling (and occasionally violent) read from the author of The Sisters Brothers.

 

‘A Place Called Winter’ by Patrick Gale

Fiction – paperback; Tinder Press; 368 pages; 2015.

A-place-called-winterPatrick Gale’s A Place Called Winter is epic storytelling at its best. Written with warmth and great sensitivity, it charts the formative years of Harry Crane, a shy, stuttering gentleman of independent means, in Edwardian London, before a sex scandal forces him to abandon his wife and young daughter for a new life on the Canadian prairies.

The book opens with a middle-aged Harry undergoing treatment in an experimental sanatorium, but we do not know how he got there or what condition he is being treated for. The story then flashes back to his earlier life, and these two narrative threads — a current story framed by flashbacks — alternate to provide a rich tapestry of Harry’s life and search for self discovery.

Admittedly, this kind of story isn’t normally my cup of tea, but I enjoyed the change of pace and found the writing style reminiscent of Anita Shreve, who is one of my go-to authors. The book has been shortlisted for this year’s Green Carnation Prize and the 2015 Costa Novel Award.

 

‘Terra Nullis: A Journey Through No One’s Land’ by Sven Lindqvist

Non-fiction – paperback; Granta; 248 pages; 2012. Translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death.

Terra-nulliusProving that my reading tastes are wide-ranging, this non-fiction book explores my interest in the issue of racism against Aboriginal Australians. First published in Sweden in 2005, it charts the history of black and white relations in Australia from the first point of contact in the 18th century to the current day.

The author Sven Lindqvist, an accomplished essayist and journalist, seems to have made a name for himself writing about cultural genocide (he has written similar books about black and white relations in Africa), and much of what he covers here makes for uncomfortable reading. Yet sometimes his passion (and fury) gets a little overwrought, and detracts from the important message at the book’s heart.

But on the whole, I found this an eye-opening read. Part entertaining travelogue, part searing polemic, it’s certainly one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve read all year.

‘Daydreams of Angels’ by Heather O’Neill

Fiction – Kindle edition; Quercus; 369 pages; 2015.

Daydreams-of-angelsI’m familiar with Canadian writer Heather O’Neill having read and reviewed two of her previous novels, Lullabies for Little Criminals and The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, but Daydreams of Angels is a slight departure for her, because it’s a short story collection. I read it because it was shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize.

The book is subtitled “Tall tales and twisted fairy stories” and that’s a pretty good description for the contents:  there are 21 stories about cherubs, talking bears, cats that dye their own fur and children who fend off marriage proposals, amongst others. Most are set in Montreal, others on the battlefields of World War Two. Some are surreal, others more grounded in reality.

The writing is sharp and witty, filled with wonderful descriptions of places and atmospheres, and the author has a particular “thing” for a clever simile — for instance:

“When a car of boys slowed down next to her on the sidewalk, she leaned in the window and wiggled her butt back and forth as she talked to them, like a bumblebee getting nectar out of a flower”

But on the whole I found the voice too similar throughout so that there was nothing to separate one story from another, and now, almost two months on, I find that nothing really stands out in my mind. I rated it pretty low against the other books on the Giller Prize shortlist, though my fellow jurors begged to differ

Author, Biblioasis, Books in translation, Canada, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Samuel Archibald, Setting, short stories

‘Arvida’ by Samuel Archibald

Arvida

Fiction – paperback; Biblioasis; 300 pages; 2015. Translated from the French by Donald Winkler. 

I would not normally describe myself as a short story fan — my preference is usually for novels or novellas — so it came as somewhat of a surprise that I enjoyed Samuel Archibald’s Giller Prize shortlisted Arvida so much. In fact, I championed this one to win the Shadow Giller Prize, when the jury cast their votes on Friday, because there was something about this volume, a glorious mix of ghost stories, road stories, family tales and rural folklore, that really grabbed me.

It may have been the fact that pretty much all of the stories — there are 14 in all — have a distinctly Canadian feel (many are set in the author’s home town of Arvida in Quebec) and that they were written in such an immediate style (by which I mean they transport the reader effortlessly to times and places that feel so real you could touch them). Or perhaps it’s just that having read a string of rather so-so books on the Giller shortlist ( with one exception, that being Martin John, which we have selected as our Shadow Giller winner), I was waiting for one that had the “wow” factor. It just turned out that this was the last one on my reading list, proving that the saying “last but by no means least” is, indeed, true.

Tales that draw you in 

Each story in the collection, expertly translated from the French by the Donald Winkler, is rounded and complete, drawing you into a world which is sometimes fantastical (in A Mirror in the Mirror a woman wastes away in a lonely house waiting for her husband to return from Montreal, where he has gone to “chase his artistic ambitions”); sometimes scarily surreal (Jigai, the only story set outside of Canada, is about ritual mutilation between Japanese women); and sometimes downright tawdry (in América, two losers foolishly agree to smuggle a Costa Rican women across the border into the US just after the 9/11 attacks when border control is on high alert).

It also features two series of interlinked stories — Blood Sisters I, II and III, about one family’s secret history, and Arvida I, II and III, which all begin with the words: “My grandmother, mother of my father, always said”, which have the ring of autobiography about them.

The stand-out story — in what is a collection of exceptionally good and occasionally extraordinary stories — is the penultimate one titled House Bound, a terrifically slow-burning haunted house tale that oozes paranoia and reads like something Stephen King might have written. (I suspect Archibald is a fan, because in the next story, which reads like non-fiction, he claims that as a child he used to type out stories by Stephen King, whom he describes as “the world’s coolest writer at the time”.)

In it the narrator buys a dilapidated house once owned by three generations of a well-to-do family whose fortunes have fallen by the wayside and renovates it to create the dream home he’s always wanted. But his wife and young daughter feel uncomfortable in the house and believe it is haunted. This belief is further cemented when the narrator finds a hidden room up in the loft, which has a pentagram, or “devil’s symbol”, drawn on the floor. When the family dog later disappears and is found floating, mutilated, in water at the bottom of a nearby cliff one can’t help fearing that things are only going to get worse…

The challenge of writing

The final story, Madeleines, draws on the idea that Proust’s entire In Search of Lost Time begins with a man remembering his whole childhood by merely tasting a little cake, but for the author, who wants to be a writer but does not know how — “the only story that comes back to me from taking a bite of something has to do with a mouthful of McNugget” — this seems like an impossible task. And yet in writing this story, of how it is difficult to write stories, he has written one that shows how stories are all around us if we care to look. And in writing this particular tale, he shows in a deceptively clever way, how the entire volume of Arvida came into being. Reading it made all the pennies of the previous 200 or so pages fall into place for me, and I came to the last page only wanting to turn right back to the start to read it all over again. If that’s not the sign of a good book, I’m not sure what is.

Unsurprisingly, Arvida has already won a literary prize — the Prix Coup de Coeur Renaud-Bray in 2012 — and on Tuesday we will find out whether it takes the 2015 Giller Prize as well. If it does, it will be the first translated work to win the award.

For another take on this collection please see Roughghosts’ excellent review. 

Anakana Schofield, Author, Biblioasis, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Setting

‘Martin John’ by Anakana Schofield

Martin-John

Fiction – paperback; Biblioasis; 322 pages; 2015.

If budding writers wanted to learn how to best use refrains in their work they should read Anakana Schofield’s Martin John, which has been shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize.

This new novel, Schofield’s second, is dotted with refrains — “harm has been done”, “it is never defined”and  “rain will fall” are just a handful of examples — that form a kind of hypnotic litany that works a spell over the reader. It’s hard to pinpoint how the author has achieved this without detracting from the storyline, but somehow the refrains add to the musicality of the prose, which is stripped back and very simple, the kind of style that particularly appeals to me.

It’s no secret that dark subjects in fiction appeal to me, too, and Martin John is about as dark as they get.

A man with a problem

The story is about a man — the Martin John of the title — who is, to be perfectly frank, a pervert or sexual molester.  He likes women and girls. He specifically likes “flashing” his you-know-what at them. He also likes rubbing up against women, touching their feet and sometimes putting a hand on their leg, in order to get even closer to them. He does this in public, usually in parks, alley ways or on public transport. He once did it in a dentist’s waiting room — to a 12-year-old girl.

He’s been caught, of course, and spent time behind bars. He’s been in a mental facility at a hospital on more than one occasion. He’s also received many, many warnings from police. But this has never deterred him from what he likes to do. It’s almost as if he can’t stop himself:

Because she was a woman in that room there’s bound to be a problem. Whenever he is alone in a room with a woman a problem follows. He waits for the problem to come and follow him. He waits for the knock.

Whose perspective?

The narrative is told in the third person, but it’s done so cleverly, you’re not quite sure if it’s been told from the perspective of Martin John himself or his hapless Irish mother, who hasn’t so much as disowned him but given up trying to help him. Although she’s always on the end of the telephone and will happily give him advice, she did make him leave Ireland for London, presumably to start afresh in a city where no one knew of his wicked ways — or maybe it was simply to rescue her own reputation? No one wants to be the mother of a sexual pervert, after all.

Occasionally, the narrative even appears to be told from the perspective of the victim. This quote from a 32-year-old mother of two children shows how she’s still grappling with the impact of the crime committed against her 20 years after the fact:

She never lets her children sleep the night at any house, apartment, bunk bed but hers. This is how she remembers. It is within those decisions she remembers. Every person she comes into contact with she must assess for danger. This is how she remembers it. Within the cracks of possibility she remembers.

If I’m making the book sound a bit oppressive, I don’t mean to. The serious nature of the crimes committed here (none of which, by the way, are ever trivialised) are lightened by humour. The prose is ripe with witty remarks and ridiculously funny, if absurd, situations, so much so that you can’t help but feel a little empathy for Martin John. Yes, he’s manipulative, yes, he’s a liar, yes, he harms others, but somewhere along the line you realise it could all be stopped if he received the right treatment, for Martin John is not normal.

At the risk of diagnosing a fictional character, I’d say he’s got some learning difficulties and is perhaps sociopathic. He doesn’t appear to learn from any bad situations he’s in — and while he can hold down a job (as a security guard) and look after himself, he doesn’t appear to be able to make friends or get along with others. He’s the perfect example of a social misfit.

He also has paranoid tendencies, which worsen as the story develops, and he firmly believes that his flatmate, whom he dubs “Baldy Conscience” is out to get him. Martin John’s solution to this “problem” is to try to oust his flatmate in a series of ludicrous of ways, none of which have a remote chance of success. (At times I was reminded of Matt, the completely delusional character in Henry Sutton’s Get Me Out of Here, who justifies all manner of crimes, including murder, and of the nasty unnamed narrator in Michael Dibden’s Dirty Trickswho carries out an affair right under his wife’s nose. Both books, I must point out, are black comedies.)

Perhaps the weakest point in the novel is the ending, but on the whole Martin John is a darkly comic story about a deeply troubled man, and Schofield’s dissection of his motivations and preoccupations helps to show us that we can’t fix things by simply labelling such characters as “monsters” and then forgetting about them. In posing the question, is it the mother’s job to stop such perverted behaviour, she also gets us to think about who should take responsibility for those people who can’t (or won’t) take responsibility for themselves.

This is an intelligent, deeply thought-provoking — and brave — novel. For what it’s worth, I think it would be a worthy winner of the Giller Prize, which will be announced next week (10 November).
UPDATE Sunday 8 November: The Shadow Giller Jury has named “Martin John” as our winner for 2015. You can read more about our decision on KevinfromCanada’s blog. The real Giller Prize winner will be named on Tuesday. 

Author, Book review, Fiction, Greece, literary fiction, Publisher, Rachel Cusk, Setting, Vintage

‘Outline’ by Rachel Cusk

Outline

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage; 256 pages; 2015.

“A story might merely be a series of events we believe ourselves to be involved in, but on which we have absolutely no influence at all.” So says one of the characters in Rachel Cusk’s Outline. I quote it here because it’s an almost perfect description of this novel, which revolves around a passive narrator who listens to an endless string of tales told to her by various people over the course of a working trip to Greece.

There’s the man she meets on the aeroplane, who later takes her on a boat trip, and whom she refers to throughout as “my neighbour”. There is the Irishman, who is also in Greece to teach creative writing. There are her students, some more extroverted than others, who tell her stories based on her prompts. There are her friends, whom she’s met on previous trips. And finally there is the new teacher, who will take over her position when she leaves.

All these varied characters tell our narrator stories about themselves — some more memorable than others, it has to be said — which gives Outline the feel of a short story collection rather than as one, cohesive novel.

Disjointed tales about life

Admittedly, I found myself drawn into these individual tales even though I can’t recall the details of them just a week or two after having read the book. Perhaps it’s enough to recall that they were often about big life events, such as marriage, having a family and building a career.

Perhaps the most interesting element is the way in which Cusk litters these stories with references to the art of writing, so that, for instance, mixed messages between people are seen “as a cruel plot device that did sometimes have their counterpart in life” and that the love between a man and a woman “is what you perhaps would call the storyline”. The man she meets on the plane goes so far as to tell her that “a life with no story was not, in the end, a life that I could live”.

But one also has to wonder if Cusk isn’t actually playing a joke on her reader, for in using a narrator who is deliberately passive, you realise that she’s subverted the normal mechanics of the novel and you’re left to take the writing completely on its own terms. Or, as the narrator puts it herself:

I had come to believe more and more in the virtues of passivity, and of living a life as unmarked by self-will as possible. One could make almost anything happen, if one tried hard enough, but the trying – it seemed to me – was almost always a sign that one was crossing the currents, was forcing events in a direction they did not naturally want to go, and though you might argue that nothing could ever be accomplished without going against nature to some extent, the artificiality of that vision and its consequences had become – to put it bluntly – anathema to me. There was a great difference, I said, between the things I wanted and the things that I could apparently have, and until I had finally and forever made my peace with that fact, I had decided to want nothing at all.

Cusk’s writing style is occasionally showy, but mostly it has a weightless kind of quality, so that it slips down rather effortlessly. While the dialogue  — of which there is a lot — is rather forced and unrealistic, the scene setting is excellent, so that Athens in the summer comes very much alive in her hands, as the following quote will attest:

At evening, with the sun no longer overhead, the air developed a kind of viscosity in which time seemed to stand very still and the labyrinth of the city, no longer bisected by light and shade and unstirred by the afternoon breezes, appeared suspended in a kind of dream, paused in an atmosphere of extraordinary pallor and thickness. At some point darkness fell, but otherwise the evenings were strangely without the sense of progression: it didn’t get cooler, or quieter, or emptier of people; the roar of talk and laughter came unstaunched from the glaring terraces of restaurants, the traffic was a swarming, honking river of lights, small children rode their bicycles along the pavements under the bile-coloured streetlamps.

But despite the “experimental” nature of the book and the intelligence (and wit) that resonates off the page, overall Outline, for me, fell somewhat flat. I came away from it knowing I’d enjoyed the experience of reading it, but mostly I felt ambivalent about its strange, yet rather ordinary, contents.

Outline was shortlisted for this year’s Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, and this year’s Giller Prize, the winner of which will be announced next week.

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.