2016 YWOYA, Andrew McMillan, Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Jonathan Cape, Poetry, Publisher, Setting, UK

‘Physical’ by Andrew McMillan

Physical

Poetry – paperback; Jonathan Cape; 65 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the The Sunday Times/Peters Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award organisers.

Andrew McMillan’s debut poetry collection, Physical, has already won two prestigious literary prizes — the 2015 Guardian First Book Award and the 2015 Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize — and been shortlisted for several more. I came to it thanks to its inclusion on the 2016 The Sunday Times/Peters Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award, otherwise it would have passed me by: I don’t read much poetry, which would explain the shocking lack of poetry reviews on this blog (I’ve only ever reviewed one collection — the sublime Salad Anniversary by Machi Tawara). This means I feel slightly out of my depth writing about it here.

So, bearing in mind that I’m no poetry expert, I can really only share my honest opinion of how I felt, and what I thought, when I read Physical.

I think it helped that I heard McMillan read one of his poems at a recent event (which Annabel wrote about on her blog last week). Reading poetry out loud helps bring it alive: you hear the rhythm, you understand where the pauses fall and how they lend weight to the words. So, as I worked my way slowly through this collection, I had McMillan’s lovely Yorkshire accent in my head, helping to bring the lines to life in a way that might not have been the case had I not heard his recital.

Of course, reading poems in the “right” way is helped by punctuation: the commas let you know when to pause, the full stops when to stop. But there’s no punctuation in any of these poems. Many articles and reviews in the mainstream press have made a bit of a thing about this, but I don’t think it matters (and I say that as someone who until quite recently made her living from being a sub-editor). White space and the way the poems are laid out, line by line, on the page do exactly the same job: they assist the reader in knowing where the pauses lie, if not exactly how long to pause.

It’s all about the language anyway. And what language McMillan uses. In just a few short words he can paint a vivid picture or capture a particular emotion that really brings his work to life. A woman “coughs and sighs like a slowpunctured football”, the smell of ageing is “really the smell of unclean teeth” and a “room is exhausted as an empty city”. My favourite lines come from the poem If it Wasn’t for the Nights:

        a precious bird doesn’t comprehend
the language of its wings

As a collection, McMillan draws everything together by concentrating on three key themes: men, masculinity and gay love. One entire section (part ii protest of the physical) is about his home town of Barnsley, a Yorkshire mining town on its knees following the closure of its pits:

town that sunk from its centre
like a man winded by a punch
town that bent double     carried

young men    and women   and younger men and women
as long as it could but    spinebroken
had to let them go

And everything is written with a refreshing candour and raw emotion. It’s almost as though McMillan ripped his heart out and pinned it dripping to the pages of this short book. Yet it’s not without a sense of humour, as the title alone of The Fact we Almost Killed a Badger is Incidental may suggest.

All up, I very much enjoyed this collection of poems — it took me right out of my comfort zone but I was in good hands. Yes, some of it is confronting and occasionally shocking, but the honesty here — about passion, obsession, sex and relationships, of what it is to navigate the human heart — lends an exquisite beauty to McMillan’s work. It will be interesting to see what he comes up with next.

This is my 2nd book for the #ShadowYoungWriterAward.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Japan, Machi Tawara, Poetry, Publisher, Pushkin Press, Setting

‘Salad Anniversary’ by Machi Tawara

Salad Days

Poetry – paperback; Pushkin Press; 141 pages; 2014. Translated from the Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I don’t normally review poetry — and that’s for a very good reason: I very rarely read it. But when this delightful-looking collection popped through my letterbox unannounced late last year I couldn’t resist putting it on my bedside table to read when the mood struck me. Now seemed a good a time as any, especially as it tied in nicely with Tony Malone’s “January in Japan” J-Lit month.

Tanka poetry

Salad Anniversary was first published in 1987 and within the first six months it had sold 2.5 million copies in Japan alone. According to the press release that came with this newly reprinted edition, it has now sold 9 million copies worldwide. How’s that for an impressive figure?

And I can see why it’s so popular: these poems (there’s 15 in total) slip down like hot chocolate. They’re all rather sweet and easy to read, brimming with life, energy and wit, yet there’s something rather soothing about them, too. That’s probably because of the way they are structured, for these poems are technically called “Tanka”, an ancient Japanese form of poetry in which each poem traditionally comprises 31 syllables arranged over five lines in a 5-7-5-7-7 pattern. (You can read more about this genre of poetry on Wikipedia and see an easy example here.)

However, in the Afterword, the translator explains that not all of the poems follow the strict 5-7-5-7-7 format and that they are almost always written in a single line in Japanese. In this English translation most of the poems are structured over three lines and read more like Haiku (17 syllables over three lines following a 5-7-5 pattern). But this is all by the by: you don’t read this collection to quibble over syllable counts and the number of lines; you read it to be transported into another world.

An ordinary world told in an extraordinary way

And what a world Tawara creates. There are many recurring themes, often revolving around romantic love, cooking, travel and the weather, but the main overriding theme is the ordinariness in our day-to-day lives. The irony is that she writes about it in a far from ordinary way.

Ordinary conversations, ordinary smiles—
the ordinariness of home
is what I like best
[From the poem “My Bisymmetrical Self”]

And

“Be an ordinary girl”
Listening, I munch
on spicy-hot snacks
[From the poem “So, Good Luck”]

The language throughout feels fresh and contemporary, despite the fact the poems are almost 30 years old now. Perhaps it helps that the poet was just 26 when she wrote them — she has a young mindset and her thoughts continually turn to what it must be like to be in love and to find someone to share your life with. (At the time of writing, the translator tell us, Tawara was single.)

There’s also an all-pervasisve feeling of a young woman torn between discovering the world, leading her own life and yet not wanting to leave her comfortable upbringing. She captures the bittersweet nature of this in the poem “My Bisymmetrical Self” oh-so perfectly:

The day I left home, Dad muttering
not “So you’re off”
but “So you’re leaving us”
The day I left for Tokyo
Mother looked older by all the years
of separation ahead

Fukui Station, where I left Mother
with a light “See you, then”—
as if going shopping

But my favourite poem in the collection is “Summertime Ship” which evokes all the joy and other-worldliness of travelling by ship to China, where she wanders the “lively, glittering Shanghai streets / crammed with bicycles and men at work”.  On her journey she drinks Tsing Tao beer, cruises the “milk caramel” Yangtze River, buys souvenirs in Luoyang and goes to Xi’an to see:

Hundred upon hundreds of figures
in the terracotta army—
their thoughts sleep standing

Hypnotic sequences

If you haven’t already guessed, I really enjoyed my exploration of an unfamiliar art form. Even if you are not a poetry fan — and I certainly wouldn’t describe myself as one — it’s hard not to fall a little bit in love with Tawara’s way of seeing and depicting the world. I loved reading these tanka poems over the space of a fortnight — one a night before turning out the light — and felt the cares of the day being washed away by their hypnotic rhythm and gorgeous language.

Salad Anniversary won the Association of Modern Poets’ top prize in 1987, and the book’s opening poem, “August Morning”, won the coveted Kadokawa Tanka Prize.

Finally, the book would make a gorgeous gift. It’s smaller than your normal-sized novel (it measures 12cm x 16.5cm), has French flaps and the cover paper stock has a textural feel to it and is printed with ink that captures the light so it sparkles. The artwork is by Mio Matsumoto, a graduate from the Royal College of Art in London, who is an illustrator based in Tokyo. Her official website is here.

Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Niall Williams, Publisher, Setting

‘History of the Rain’ by Niall Williams

History-of-the-rain

Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury; 368 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I first discovered Irish author Niall Williams when I read his extraordinarily moving debut novel, Four Letters of Love, when it was released in paperback long before I started this blog. Today, it remains in my affections as one of the best novels I have ever read.

Since then I’ve read a handful of his other books — As it is in Heaven (1999), The Fall of Light (2001) and Only Say the Word (2004) — so I was very much looking forward to his new one, History of the Rain, which hit the bookshops last week.

I wasn’t disappointed. While it’s quite unlike any of Williams’ previous work — in both theme and style — it is a lovely, literary-inspired read that explores the importance of stories and story telling to our sense of self and our family histories. It will especially appeal to booklovers and anyone who just loves a good yarn, for indeed, that’s what this is: a good yarn — and a gripping, often witty, one at that.

A remarkable voice

History of the Rain has a truly distinctive and original voice in 19-year-old first-person narrator “Plain” Ruth Swain, who is bed-bound in her attic bedroom because of an unexplained illness that has cut short her university career. She spends all her time reading the 3,958 books that once belonged to her late father because, in doing so, “that is where I will find him”.

In what Ruth fittingly dubs a “river narrative”, the story meanders all over the place, but its purpose is clear: to bring her father, a failed farmer and struggling poet, back to life. As part of her “research”, Ruth must also unearth the stories of her father’s paternal, and essentially English, lineage: her great grandfather Reverend Swain, who had impossible standards no one could live up to, and his son Abraham, who fought in France while his contemporaries were at home fighting in the Civil War.

Somewhere in this heady mix of family history she also tells the story of her twin brother, Aeney, her father’s adored “golden child”, who tragically dies before his time, leaving everyone heartbroken.

What emerges is a rather eccentric tale about rather eccentric (but good-hearted) people — and it’s all told in Ruth’s old-before-her-years but sharply funny voice as she explores the myths that have shrouded her family for three generations.

A love of books

For anyone who loves books (let’s face it, if you’re reading this blog that will be you), it’s a complete joy from beginning to end, because the entire text is littered with literary references — there’s Dickens (“the greatest novelist that ever was or will be”), Jane Austen, Patrick Kavanagh, Robert Louis Stevenson (“I like writers who were sick”) and so on — which Ruth uses as a form of commentary, in parenthesis, on her own life and her beloved father’s life. Here’s an example:

This, Dear Reader, is a river narrative. My chosen style is The Meander. I know that in The Brothers Karamazov (Book 1,777, Penguin Classics, London) Ippolit Kirillovich chose the historical form of narration because Dostoevsky says it checked his own exuberant rhetoric. Beginnings, middles and ends force you into that place where you have to Stick to the Story as Maeve Mulvey said the night the Junior Certs were supposed to be going to the cinema in Ennis but were buying cans in Dunnes and drinking them in the Parnell Street carpark and Mrs Pender saw Grainne Hayes hanging off the salt-and-vinegar lips of some pimpled beanpole at The Height, wearing enough eyeliner and mascara to maker her look like a badger in Disney and that micro-mini that wasn’t more than two inches of black-plastic silage wrap, all of which required they chose the historical form of narration and Stick To Their Story since she’d left Hayes’s house earlier that evening in jeans and hoodie.

The story is heartbreaking in places, underpinned by a sense of hopelessness as Ruth’s father tries to farm “fourteen acres of the worst farming land in Ireland” without realising he’s doing it all wrong — regardless of how much it rains. But at the heart of the novel there beats a fierce optimism and a love of nature — especially leaping salmon — that imbues the story with a rosy, hopeful, aren’t-we-lucky-to-be-alive type of glow.

History of the Rain is, by turns, witty, charming and moving. It has the feel of an old-fashioned tale told well, the kind of book you can curl up with and get lost in for hours at a time, one that transports you to another time and place and does it effortlessly.

Williams’ tone of voice is pitch-perfect, but it’s the characters — so real, human and riddled with foibles — that makes the story really come alive. I loved being in their company.

Allen & Unwin, Ashley Hay, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, Setting

‘The Railwayman’s Wife’ by Ashley Hay

Railwaymans-wife

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin UK; 307 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Australian author Ashley Hay’s second novel, The Railwayman’s Wife, is a gentle, elegiac read about universal themes — love and loss, marriage and grief, memory and forgetting — in the aftermath of the Second World War.

Damaged people

Set on the NSW coast at Thirroul in 1948, the book focuses on three main characters, all of them damaged in some way: Annika Lachlan, the railwayman’s wife of the title, who is widowed early on in the novel and now faces the prospect of raising her 10-year-old daughter alone; Roy McKinnon, a poet who is shell-shocked by the war and no longer able to find solace in words; and Frank Draper, a doctor, who was present at the liberation of one of the Nazi concentration camps and is plagued by guilt because he could not save those he found.

The story spans a year in the life of these characters as they set about adjusting to changed circumstances. But the novel’s main focus is on Annika, who must face two new challenges: coming to terms with the loss of her husband, Mac, and going to work for the first time. Her job, however, is one from which dreams are made: she becomes the sole librarian at the Railway Institute.

She thumbs at the ledgers then, the card files, the neat stacks of paper ranged in the neat wooden trays — a strange topography for her to learn; where things are recorded, how things are traced. She glances at the names of the library’s borrowers, names from church, from Isabel’s school, from conversations in the street. The lady who owns the dress shop has been borrowing Penguin classics. Mrs Padman, Mrs Bower, Mrs Floyd — their husbands all crossed out of the register; probably Mac has been crossed out like that now too. The two owners of the rival shoe shops had both requested a manual of railway signs — how peculiar is that? Her fingers flick towards L for Lachlan: Ani, Isabel — and Mac. And there it is, the list of every book he’s ever borrowed, the line now through his name, the terrible sense of a thing reckoned complete and unalterable.

Dreamy and languid

The Railwayman’s Wife is one of those dreamy, languid books that slips down as easy as hot chocolate. Nothing remarkable happens in it — there’s no real plot other than following Ani’s life for a year — and yet I found myself completely caught up in the story.

There’s an aching sense of loss and melancholia throughout, helped in part by Hay’s limpid prose, but also by the way in which Ani’s memories of her courtship and marriage are interleaved (in alternate chapters) with her present day experiences,  filling the story with poignant reference points. This is also helped by the men’s reactions — of trying to learn to live again in the shadow of a war they wish to forget — which are pitch perfect.

I loved the setting, too — the beauty of the coast, the noise of the railyards — which becomes almost a character in its own right. And the constant literary references — the library Ani works in, the importance of reading to her (and to Mac), the poet struggling to find his voice again — are a treat. There are, in fact, many references to D. H. Lawrence — he actually wrote Kangaroo in Thirroul when living there in 1922 — and W. B. Yeats.

Finally, can I just say something about the cover, which is totally ruined by the horrid woman’s head at the top? It makes this book look like genre fiction, which it is not, and I’m sure many people will simply overlook it in a book shop because “it doesn’t look like my sort of thing”. And yet this is a truly lovely, heartfelt book about what it is to be alive in a world that offers hope — if you choose to find it.