Category Archives: Fiction

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrente (Europa, £11.95)

Having sold so many copies of My Brilliant Friend I thought that – in the spirit of self sacrifice – I should read the book, knowing it would be hard going, as so many people were talking about it. By now most people will have heard of this four-volume set of novels set in post-war Naples which follow the lives of two girls, later women, one of whom leaves the claustrophobic network of poor families through being educated whilst the other, though actually the brighter candle, stays behind. The background is poverty, tradition, rules and male violence and the expectation of little change. Early in the book the narrator’s friend Lila, aged ten, is simply thrown through a window by her father Fernando. “Fernando looked out, still screaming horrible threats at his daughter. He had thrown her like a thing. … ‘I haven’t hurt myself.’ But she was bleeding; she had broken her arm.”
As the girls filled out they became interested in men and men became interested in them. But dangers lay everywhere. Being given a lift in a car was akin to rape, which would need to be revenged by brothers. And in the background was the Mafia to whom any implied slight could be fatal. This caused one man to publicly apologise outside church for something that had not happened so that people could hear him being respectful.

The girls of the story had a loving friendship, they would copy each other and were rarely away from each other’s thoughts. And it is within these, I’ll reuse the word claustrophobic, thoughts that the novel grips you. It will be hard to avoid reading the rest of the series.
My only criticism would be that the original Italian – which I don’t read – must have had the families slipping into Neapolitan as some things are best expressed in the language of the street rather than standard Italian. The otherwise excellent translator Ann Goldstein has to tell us whenever people use dialect which, in making the point, loses the point.

Ross Bradshaw

List of the Lost by Morrissey (Penguin, £7.99)

Why read List of the Lost? For me, it was the same reason that I watched Cannibal Holocaust: a morbid curiosity about its nefarious reputation. A need to know that became an aesthetic endurance course. Morrissey’s debut novel clocks in at a mere 118 pages but feels longer. By the halfway mark, I was seriously thinking about pitching the book out of the window and re-watching Cannibal Holocaust just to feel better about life.

Let’s cut to the chase: List of the Lost hasn’t received a single positive (or even cautiously moderate) review – and with good reason. The writing is horrible. The worst of Morrissey’s adjectival excesses have been well documented already. Every noun comes with an adjective pot-riveted to it. Dialogue attribution is adverb-heavy, with characters speaking in page-length monologues. The dialogue is rendered entirely in italics, an annoying stylistic device. Syntax resembles a motorway pile-up, words smashing into each other. One frequently reaches the end of a sentence in complete bafflement.

Worse is Morrissey’s lack of facility as a storyteller suggests otherwise. Assessed as a work of genre fiction (it’s a sort-of a horror story), List of the Lost fails on every level. Twenty pages pass before any hint of narrative emerges from the verbiage, and what little follows would barely fuel a twenty-page short story. Characterisation is non-existent, dialogue non-naturalistic and the Brooklyn setting unconvincing. Pace, drama and tension? Go look for them elsewhere.

So what fills up List of the Lost’s 118 pages in lieu of these essentials? Well, there’s the political backdrop of the late 1970s, which inspires some epic rants about Thatcher and the monarchy (Morrissey occasionally remembers his tale is set in America and throws in the odd reference to Watergate), but mainly he soapboxes on the theme of vegetarianism. The book is so redolent in the imagery of the abattoir and the battery farm that a better title might have been So Help Me God, You’ll Eat Quorn or I’ll Write a Sequel.

There’s nothing to recommend here. Even the occasional – very occasional – succinct or mordantly witty turn of phrase offer little hope of Morrissey’s development as a writer of fiction. In fact, coming after his self-indulgent but considerably more readable autobiography, this is retrogression on a massive scale. List of the Lost is simply a vanity project, and just as Faber made themselves look very silly in publishing actor James Franco’s pompous musings, Penguin have scored a reputational own-goal in pandering to Morrissey’s ego.

 Neil Fulwood

 

The Girl Who Wasn’t There by Ferdinand von Schirach

Ferdinand von Schirach’s succinct and deceptively easily readable novel blends crime genre tropes with arthouse experimentalism; if Scott Turow had rewritten Last Year at Marienbad to include some courtroom shenanigans, this would be it. Although structured in four parts, each featuring a colour as a leitmotif, it’s essentially a narrative of two halves. The first documents the troubled life of artist Sebastian von Eschburg in a dark, occasionally absurd, and thoroughly unreliable manner. There are so many lacunae that sometimes it seems like you’re potholing instead of reading. The waters are further muddied by Eschburg’s emotional detachment and synaesthesia – the novel uses the condition to a narrative purpose unequalled since Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination.

The second half is from the perspective of Konrad Biegler, a defence lawyer so grumpy, so portly and so henpecked that he makes Rumpole of the Bailey look like Dirty Harry. Biegler races (or rather waddles) against time to make sense of the case – which involves a shedload of circumstantial evidence but no actual body – with the assistance of Eschburg’s glamorous partner Sofia. As the trial date approaches, Schirach first tinkers with then outright subverts his readers’ expectations.

The artworks and installations that make Eschburg famous are based on Goya’s The Clothed Maja and The Naked Maja, Sir Francis Galton’s multiple photographic exposure of the faces of criminals, and Wolfgang von Kempelen’s “mechanical Turk”. Not mentioned in the novel, but a tempting correlation, is the poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s Poetry Machine installation, a sort of random poetry generator that became a bete noire of the German literature scene a decade and a half ago. Similarly, Schirach’s novel reads in places like a randomly generated thriller, as he gleefully throws everything from hidden family secrets to the sudden reappearance of long lost siblings into the pot, seasons with east European hookers, and simmers over the hyperbole of torture porn imagery.

All of which, done purely for its own sake, would pretty much guarantee a cynically entertaining read. However, Schirach assembles all his pieces (including several rugs that don’t remain under the reader for very long) in the service of two thorny questions: what the relationship is between reality and truth; and, as Eschburg asks outright at a crucial moment, “what is guilt?” Omitted from Schirach’s author’s back cover biographical note is the fact that his grandfather was Hitler Youth leader Baldur von Schirach, an awkward bit of family history which nonetheless offers perspective from which to ponder that question.

Neil Fulwood

The Spice Box Letters by Eve Makis (Sandstone, £8.99)

Spice Box LettersThe Nottingham writer Eve Makis’ first book, Eat, Drink and Be Married, drew on her family background as a Greek Cypriot living above her parents’ fish and chip shop in West Bridgford. This, and her next two books were aimed at a mass market – light fiction, with some humour, published by a mass-market publisher. In The Spice Box Letters Eve challenged herself to write a more complicated novel for the first time set in a world she knew nothing about. Several years on, several false starts and rewrites later we have her novel set in Armenia in 1915 and in more recent times among the Armenian diaspora in Cyprus, a community she barely knew existed before embarking on this novel.

Why 1915? This was the year of the massacre and expulsion of Armenians from Turkey in which perhaps a million people died, some from murder and others on long death marches into the Syrian desert. The Cypriot community stemmed from some of those who survived. Eve’s story starts in 1915, just as the massacres begin before moving quickly to England in 1985 where the daughter and grandchild of a recently deceased Armenian immigrant come across some of her letters, written in a script in her first language, in a script her family cannot read. You know immediately that the two incidents are related – the rest of the novel weaves together the back stories of one family, including that of Gabriel Arakelian, a curmudgeon who tries to hang on to the Armenian world he lost. Yet how do you hang on in the face of “the evil of assimilation, the curse of intermarriage, the biggest threat to our traditions, our language, our nation.” Others say “Let the young do as they please. Why should they be tied down, become victims of our past.? The answer is “Because we as a people nearly ceased to exist.”

This issue – one faced by any migrant community, including Eve’s own, is at the heart of the novel. But it is a novel, not a history book. Having said that, we learn a lot about Armenian cookery. Eve remarked at the book launch that she visited villages in Eastern Turkey that had barely changed in a hundred years and researched what herbs and spices were in use at the time to ensure authenticity.

Ross Bradshaw

To Kill a Mocking-Bird by Harper Lee (various editions, £6.99 upwards)

downloadWith the fuss about the sequel of Harper Lee’s other book scheduled for this summer, I thought it time to reread Mocking-Bird (and then rewatch the Gregory Peck movie)…

My copy of To Kill a Mocking-Bird is dated 1983 and in big indiscreet letters the cover announces “Over 11,000,000 sold”. I believe that figure is now about forty million. That probably means that just about everybody pitching up here will know the story, but for the few who don’t… The book, written in 1960, is set in Alabama in 1935 and is set among white people who all have Black maids, except they did not call them Black in 1935, and some of the everyday cruder versions are hard to stomach – but that was the time, those were the words. The narrator is Scout, tomboy sister of Jem, both the son of the single parent lawyer Atticus Finch but mostly looked after by the Black woman Calpurna. We learn a lot of the town – hot, slow, Southern, long-established, with people being identified as a “Ewell” or a “Cunningham” as if the family name alone is a guide to character though Harper Lee makes it clear that everyone white was really related whether they were professionals or “trash”. There’s the “Radley Place” where the mysterious Boo Radley lives, a dangerous recluse and somewhere out of town live the Black people. White men go to work while white women raise money for missionaries to the uncivilised. Harper Lee makes them look so foolish. Most people are pretty foolish to Scout.

The one who isn’t is Atticus, who treats people as he finds them, but finds good in most people or at least he has an understanding of their position. But the simmering issue is that he is due to defend a Black man charged with rape of a white woman, and this is the Deep South. He is not popular. The most moving part of the story for me is when he sets up camp outside the town jail before the trial knowing some people are coming to lynch the man, Tom Robinson. Scout – always with a nose for trouble – turns up and in her innocence shames the men into leaving. In the trial Atticus has to shred the story of the poor woman who called rape. A woman who lived in squalor, was mistreated, possibly sexually, by her father. A woman who was asked if she had any friends but who did not understand the question. One person only had been kind to her – the man now charged with, but obviously innocent, of rape. Tom is found guilty, as the whole town knew he would be. Despite the verdict Atticus’ family is deluged with gifts of food, firewood and crops by the Black people of the town who had seen, at last, that someone would stand by them.

I liked the book, admired the writing and took pleasure in the small things – such as how and when children did nor did not wear shoes, about the visit by the Finch children to Calpurna’s church where she faces down what could be described as a Black separatist, where, towards the end Scout stands on Boo Radley’s porch and sees what he must have seen of the town in his years of isolation. And I liked Scout, even when she was a vicious little brat. Gradually it becomes clear that Atticus does not stand alone. There’s the wealthy white man who  chose to live among Black people and the employer who gets himself thrown out of court trying to defend Tom. Towards the end a law officer shows great kindness to Boo Radley.

It would be easy to argue that, in the book, Black people are people who have things done to them and have no agency, or that this is a book about white liberals. The latter is true and the former is also true. This is the Deep South, in a red-neck area, in 1935. Yet there are strong women like Calpurna – Cal – who Scout loves and the whole was stratified not just by colour but by class and the grinding poverty that created victims like Tom and the woman Mayella who he did not rape. Harper Lee knew all this and used her language carefully, like when the seemingly decent Mr Gilmer prosecuting the rape case starts calling Tom “boy” as he questions him.  The effect is ice.

Tomorrow night, I’ll watch the film.

Ross Bradshaw

 

 

The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain, translated by Emily Boyce and Jane Aitken (Gallic, £8.99)

9781908313867Ah Paris, where booksellers go out for espressos and glasses of wine during the day at their nearby cafe instead of a trot round the block and a baked potato with cheese and beans… Bookseller Laurent comes across an upmarket handbag dumped by a bin which about to be emptied. He rescues the bag, guessing it had been thrown there by a thief. Having failed to give it in to the police he goes through it at his leisure. There are plenty clues as to the owner, but no address, no phone, nothing of monetary value but things of sentimental value. What is the story? An intriguing clue is  a novel dedicated to “Laure” by the elusive Patrick Modiano (see reviews of his work elsewhere on this site). Neat because Modiano’s novels are mostly about tracing someone unknown on the basis of clues. Among the possessions is the red notebook which includes the owner’s scattered thoughts, her fears and hopes

Gradually Laurent tracks down the woman who we know from the first is in hospital in a coma following a mugging. He knows her well by now, he’s read her journal, has picked up her strappy dress from a laundry and, unaccountably when he turns up at her door to return the bag he allows Laure’s gay friend, William, also visiting her flat to think he is her latest boyfriend. Laurent finds himself looking after the flat and moves in, to explore room by room, bookshelf by bookshop, painting by painting the surroundings of the woman he has not yet met but knows so well. Meanwhile his relationship falls apart as the women he is seeing thinks he has found someone else, as he has.

Literary references abound; Sophie Calle is there of course, but this is not a book with pretensions, just an easy Friday night read with the odd bit of clunky translation.

But the fantasy has to end. Laurent leaves a brief note for Laure is getting better and will return. She knows that this man knows her life better than others who have simply known her body and sets out to find a bookseller called Laurent…

Ross Bradshaw

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (Chatto, £16.99)

NarrowRoadtotheNorthA couple of years before my mother died she sent me a photograph of herself, arm in arm with a man I’d never seen before. It was not a good photo – an old Box Brownie I imagine – which made the contrast between her own normally pale face and the near-black, but Caucasian-looking, man startling. I asked her about it but she said she did not want to say, but would I keep the photograph for her sake? In fact I knew the story. The man was someone she’d gone out with during the war who’d become a POW in Burma. He arrived back burnt black by the sun. His experience haunted him which led, eventually, to the relationship foundering. There’s more of course, but there’s no place for it here, other than to say the last part of Booker-prize winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North covers the lives of a group of Australians who survived working “on the Line” in Burma and there were similar stories. Of men who were broken by the experience, men who never mentioned it again and some, like the surgeon Doriggo Evans who achieved fame because of his heroism and leadership. He kept at least some of his men alive when not one of them was fit enough to work and hundreds were dying of hunger, dysentery, cholera, beri beri and overwork imposed on them by their captors.

It was the last part of the book which worked best for this reader, not just for personal reasons, but in reading the stories of survivors after the narrative. This included the experiences of three of the worst Japanese and Korean soldiers. Was it a surprise that the most senior officer segued into a cushy government job after the war, the second most senior went on the run and was not caught and the junior (the Korean) was executed? Not really. But all the stories of the survivors were interesting, and in one case hilarious when two ex-POWs smashed the window of a fish and chip shop to rescue live fish in a tank waiting their turn, yet went back the next day to pay for the damage. They found that the Greek owner of the shop had lost his son in the war so they sat all night eating and drinking with him, and he refused any payment for the damage they had done to his shop.

It took a long time to get to these stories but the earlier descriptions of the lives and deaths of the other prisoners will stay with me for years. Please don’t read this book before going to bed – you will not sleep well. The author’s father was a survivor of the Burma railway and one assumes accuracy in the fiction. Nor will it be easy to read haiku again – the cruellest of the Japanese recited haiku. The title is taken from the best known work of the Japanese poet Basho.

Other parts of the book were less convincing. Doriggo Evans was indeed a hero and was seen as such by his charges even when he had to pick 100 of them to go on a march that he knew few would survive yet before the war and afterwards, despite his marriage, he slept with every woman he could, without feeling. Or possibly in search of feeling, which he was only able to achieve in his illicit affair with his uncle’s much younger wife. These parts of the book did not work for me, not for any moralistic reason, simply because they did not work – and the sex scenes were just about bad enough for the Bad Sex Award.

Ross Bradshaw

 

Missing Person by Patrick Modiano, translated by Daniel Weissbort (Godine, £14.99) and Catherine Certitude by Patrick Modiano, translated by William Rodarmor, illustrated by Jean-Jaque Sempe (Anderson, £9.99)

ModianoIf you scroll down, you’ll see that the last book I reviewed was by Modanio, and I liked it. I regret that I can’t give such a positive review to the first book here, though it is perhaps his best known, having won the Prix Goncourt in France, some years before his winning the Nobel in 2014.

Godine – a great American independent publisher – must be so thrilled (they were the first English language publisher of the second book here) having stuck with Modiano despite sales that could only be described as modest until the Nobel. But  Missing Person did not do a lot for me. The story is of Guy Roland, who decides to find out who he really is. That name and his identity were given him by his employer, a private detective, when the narrator becomes a private detective. Roland is a man without a past – the survivor of a fugue state (though the words are never used). When his employer retires Roland starts following clues to discover he could be one of several people. The clues lead him to assorted odd characters who invite him up, give him copies of photos and documents that lead him on to his next possible persona. He becomes a collector of other people’s memories and starts to imagine the lives of those he might or might not have been. Modiano deliberately confuses real life with imagined life so the reader is not sure if Roland has found anything real or is living in his imagination. Now that I am more familiar with Modiano, it is no suprise that a turning point is on the Swiss border in 1940 when a woman disappears without trace. The bones of a great story are here, but though this is only a novella of 168 pages I had to push myself to get to the end.

Catherine_certitudeModiano’s book for children, though quite suitable for adults, is, however, charming, and beautifully illustrated. The Catherine Certitude of the title looks back from New York to her childhood in Paris where she lived with her father before they rejoined her dancer mother in America. Her Papa owned a small firm which bought and sold, well, anything. It was obvious that the provenance of some at least of what he sold was dodgy. Was this the black market (which is how Modiano’s father made his living) or just scraping a living? Either way, her father was not a success and when Catherine is invited to a fellow ballet student’s party he pretends to own a posh car parked in the street, something nobody believes. When someone drives it away he pretends it is being stolen. But nobody is quite what they seem – he often speaks to people in “mysterious languages” while Catherine’s Russian ballet teacher is no more Russian than this writer.  Despite, or perhaps because of his failure, Catherine loves him and the whole book is a a fond look back on Paris and childhood memories.

Ross Bradshaw

Missing Person is available for £14.99  and Catherine Certitude for £9.99 at Five Leaves Bookshop , by phone  (0115 8373097) or by email (bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk) with free p&p for UK orders.
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The Search Warrant by Patrick Modiano, translated by Joanna Kilmartin (Harvill, £8.99)

the-search-warranEvery time I visit Paris I’m always stopped short in the street by the sight of the small plaques commemorating those who died fighting the Nazi occupation. Ici est tombé pour la libération…Sometimes just one name, sometimes a few.  They appear on walls as if at random but with a map and a history book it would be easy enough, I imagine, to chart the ebbs and flows of partisan warfare in the city.

It is easier, though, to work out the old working class Jewish areas around Belleville. There some blocks of flats have lists of those taken by the Nazis and, more dramatically, school buildings listing the names of the Jewish children deported and murdered.

I was reminded of all this when reading The Search Warrant, the first of the books released in English following the French author’s winning of the Nobel Prize for Literature. This is a short, sombre,  novel of 137 pages which can be read in one sitting, and probably benefits for so doing as it  has no continuous narrative. The narrator comes across an old notice in Paris Soir in a December 1941 issue, advertising for information on a missing girl, Dora Bruder, who had ran away from her convent school where she had been placed to avoid the impending trouble. She was Jewish and would have been a “hidden child”. The narrator tries to find what happened to her and what happened to her family. Along the way he drops in details of his own family background, a broken family where – just as in his hunt for information on the Bruder family – he tries and fails to find his own estranged father who’d escaped from a round-up in Paris. He wonders if his father, who survived the war, had met Dora Bruder who was caught and did not survive.

The Search Warrant is a brooding novel with a narrator who turns out not to be so nice. Hanging over him all the time is a sense of loss. Something only too easy to feel in the boulevards of what was once an occupied city.

The book is ably translated and I look forward to reading more Modiano as his work appears in English.

Ross Bradshaw

Sworn Virgin, by Elvira Dones, translated by Clarissa Botsford (And Other Stories, £10)

swornvirginYears ago, a book group in Mansfield introduced me to the work of the Albanian writer Ismail Kadare, still the best known Albanian writer, who writes a foreword to this novel by what must be one of the few female Albanian writers published in English. Dones covers some of the same ground as Kadare, the rigid behaviour codes in the north of the country – the Kanun. In this book the code means that the female Hana Dona takes over her late uncle’s farm but she has to dress as a man, drink and smoke like a man, act in every way as a man – but must remain a virgin, a sworn virgin, to uphold the honour of the family as she is the only person left to run the place. To do this she gives up her sophisicated life in Tirana to become Mark. Her becoming a man is celebrated in her village of 208 souls, and she is honoured for so doing, no longer treated as second class, the usual female role.

Fourteen years later – after the downfall of Enver Hoxha (in a nice touch her uncle’s goat was secretly called Enver) she joins her cousin in America, one of the million Albanians who left the country in search of a better life and, after some hesitation, Hana gives up her life as a man. The book switches between the two eras. In due course she settles, becomes independent and grapples with the issue of sex.

Having had recent discussions with some people about our “binary” culture, this novel was timely. People like Hana/Mark did exist in Albania and a film is planned. The author interviewed many of these (wo)men including one who did migrate to America.

The book itself is strongest in its Albanian chapters. Life in America was not so believable, not least when Hana became a bookseller and took a prospective boyfriend out for a posh meal. Booksellers taking someone out for a posh meal? No chance. But while Hana’s wrestling with sexuality is not an issue, she was always a woman in man’s clothes and adopted behaviour, her attempts to deal with sex itself did not ring true. The translation could have done with a polish at times, occasionally being a little cliched in its language. Nevertheless the novel is an interesting read. But you will have to wait – the book is not published until 4 May.

Ross Bradshaw