Category Archives: Fiction

The Dutch House, by Ann Patchett (Bloomsbury, £8.99)

“Jesus,” Celeste said later when I was trying to tell her the story. “It’s like you’re Hansel and Gretel. You just keep walking through the dark woods holding hands no matter how old you get. Do you ever get tired of reminiscing?”
Celeste, in Ann Patchett’s novel, newly out in paperback, is the wife of Danny,  the narrator and brother of Maeve, the Hansel and Gretel of her remark. She is not happy that her husband is so hung up on his sister and the “Dutch House” about which he talks constantly – the house of their shared childhood. It was the Dutch House because it had been the property of the Van Hoebeeks and the siblings’ parents had bought it, leaving the mansion unchanged – the same Van Hoebeek family paintings on the wall, the same furniture, the same Dutch books on the bookshelves.
The one addition was a portrait painting of Maeve aged ten, which graces the cover of the book. The painting itself has a backstory, something more to reminisce about.
The children were not the only people obsessed with their shared past. The family servants Sandy and Jocelyn, and Fluffy, who had an affair with Danny and Maeve’s father and had to leave hurriedly, all flit in and out of each other’s lives over the fifty years of the story, dreaming of a past when they were all together before the wicked step-mother came into the House.  Andrea – the step-mother – was a cuckoo, evicting everyone once her new husband had died. Nobody really understood their attraction and nobody really knew what had happened to his first wife, the mother of the children, other than vaguely that she had gone to India. Was she even alive? We would find out.
Danny and Maeve were thrown together. She takes a job beneath her talents and stays there, and stays there for decades with just the hint of a possible romance with the firm’s owner.  Danny goes to study medicine at Columbia. They’d been cut off from their inheritance as their father left everything to the step-mother save for a line in his will saying the Estate would support him through his education – and medicine offered the longest and most expensive course so he could get at least some of the inheritance. Having become a doctor he realises that his real interests lay in following his late father into the property business, initially buying broken-down property in broken-down Black slums knowing that eventually gentrification would happen. Not that he was a bad landlord at all. He’d learned how to treat people right from his mother who would let people off their rent and sometimes bring food for her tenants if they were going through a particularly hard time.
So what do we learn over the fifty years? I’m not sure, in the end. Many people look back on their past, the roots of their happiness or unhappiness in childhood, but few park up outside the house they were brought up in just to look at it over and over down the decades. Towards the end, everyone still lving is back in the Dutch House (it would be too much of a giveaway to explain how) and Sandy says “The ghosts are what I come for. I think about Jocelyn when I’m here, the way we were then. We were all so young… We were still our best selves.”  Maybe that, then.
Ann Patchett is a successful American novelist. Finding the town she lived in without a bookshop, she opened one, using her own fame as a magnet to attract customers and visiting writers. She is best known for Bel Canto, after this it is definately on my TBR list.
The Dutch House is available from bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk for £8.99 post free in the UK.
Ross Bradshaw

The Offing, by Benjamin Myers (Bloomsbury, £8.99)

A recent call out on Twitter for cheerful fiction brought a range of suggestions to brighten up what has sometimes been a pretty morbid selection of novels in the bookshop. One of those suggested was The Offing by Benjamin Myers (Bloomsbury, £8.99 postfree from bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk)  and it is a cheering and easy read. But not happy-clappy.
Even better, it is set in Robin Hood’s Bay – which would have been my holiday destination again this year, a two weeks’ reading and walking holiday. This might be the nearest I get to it.
The Robin Hood’s Bay of the book is not the one so many of us are used to, a former fishing village whose picturesque, tiny houses clinging to a disintegrating cliff landscape which is now largely a cottage-to-rent holiday village.
This story is set immediately after WWII. One Robert Appleyard – destined to go down the pit – walks off after leaving school in his pit village to see at least a little of the world to at least put off the inevitable for a while. It’s not quite As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning though. Walking by footpath, aimlessly, rough camping by night, a day labourer when he can get a job, he ends up walking down towards the sea near Robin Hood’s Bay. There he meets Dulcie Piper, a much older, slightly dotty, well-off intellectual drop-out, and her dog, Butter.
He offers his labour but, for reasons never clear to him or to her,  he is taken under her wing and stays for a while. Robert knows only the natural world and how to fix things, he knows nothing of culture or of good food. Dulcie, in this period of rationing, has contacts so Robert gets tanned and becomes less of a skinny rat as he rebuilds a broken-down studio on her land and eats (and drinks) well for the first time in his life. He knows nothing of conversation either, which suits Dulcie who talks with him, or at him, non-stop, dropping all sorts of hints of past lives led, of adventure, but also of sorrow.
She’s also outspoken and quite crude, shocking young Robert with lines like “You’re going to have to loosen up…  Look at you, you’re stiff as a lighthouse keeper’s prick.” She had been a friend of DH Lawrence, knowing “Bert” in Mexico. One of the books she gives the literate but unread Robert is a copy of Women in Love dedicated to her. Yet the more Duclie reveals, the more she holds back. At night in the studio Robert works through the books she loans him, particularly struck by John Clare, not least as Robert, too, knows of the natural world.
At the  little church above Robin Hood’s Bay he finds tombstones for drowned sailors facing out to sea, for those lost at sea, and what he later discovers are “maiden’s garlands”, carried at the funerals of unmarried girls – he had found one in the debris in the studio he is renovating. (This is actually the  real Old St Stephen’s Church, worth visiting for its garlands, box pews and gravestones.)
Also in the studio he finds a manuscript of poetry by one Romy Landau which…
The Offing – the local word for the skyline where the big sea meets the sky – is an effortless read and is one of the shop’s best selling lockdown novels.
Post free from bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk
Ross Bradshaw

A Theatre for Dreamers, by Polly Samson (Bloomsbury, £14.99)

“I wish this summer would last forever.”

The speaker is Marianne, the reporter is Erica, the narrator of this fictional memoir of the summer of 1960 on Hydra island in Greece. Erica is a troubled, naive eighteen year old who flees London and a brutal father after the death of her mother. She and her boyfriend head for Hydra to join a friend of her mother’s, Charmian, the matriarch of an ever-changing international community of writers and artists sojourning on the island.

The Marianne in question is Marianne Ihlen, a real person and sometime muse of Leonard Cohen. Marianne’s disastrous relationship with her husband Axel Jensen and her affair with Leonard Cohen forms a major part of the book. For this book, though fiction, weaves in and out of the real lives of Marianne, Cohen and, more, the lives of the charismatic and beautiful writer Charmian Clift and her ghastly husband George Johnston – chain-smoking, suffering from TB and causing others to suffer from his bitter tongue. Johnston was another writer who had worked in 64 countries, reporting on war. Throughout the book he sucks energy from Charmian whose own writing suffered.

Erica watches all this. She is taken under her wing by Charmian, for reasons only clear at the end of the book, which ends in modern time with Erica one of the few survivors from those days looking back. to 1960 and a subsequent visit ten years later.

And what days those were, and people “… keep coming… all with their pocketbooks of names who might be relied on for a meal or a bed in Ibiza, Paris, Venice, Tangier, Corsica or Casablanca.” To spend their time, and why not, where you can go “… outside to pick vine leaves. Beyond the high courtyard walls the island bells ring: mountain bells from churches and goat bells and the jingling of passing donkeys. [Where the] light falls tender green… [and] an ancient lemon tree is splinted but defiantly beautiful with both blossom and fruit.” There people can “swim late at night and lie naked between the moon and the tide on the still-warm rocks”. Or, like Cohen, write for 24 hours solid on Benzedrine, while seducing Marianne, Charmian and everyone else for that matter.

The island has a port, tavernas, impossibly steep streets up which people have to carry their supplies including water – there were no cars on the island. Indeed there are still no cars on the island though I believe what was once a working island is now overrun by the wealthy from Athens, and those on the Leonard Cohen trail. But this is 1960 and while the tavernas need the trade of the internationals, as does the water seller who charges them more than the locals, there is little interaction between the islanders and their quarrelsome bohemian visitors. It is not the islanders who are insular, but the internationals even though the central couple have lived there a decade.

We are left to guess what the islanders think. There is a passing reference to a traditional religious parade of local women, covered head to toe in peasant costume which contrasts with the young, bronzed women visitors covered in very little. But we are left to guess as local people form little more than a backdrop to the parties, the drinking, the bed-hopping and the petty jealousies of those who leave at the end of summer.

And yet, as the main story ends with Charmian and George themselves leaving for Britain at the end of that summer Polly Sampson’s description of the various birds of passage moving on I was left with regret that I was leaving too. Erica stays on for a few months, leaving the day the almond trees come into blossom.

The lives of a number of the Hydra characters has been picked over, especially that of Leonard Cohen and Marianne. Some ended tragically, not least the Johnston family, and not only Charmian and George but their children – young in this book. Some of this is prefigured in a slow moving, sometimes annoying – because so many of the people were annoying – but ultimately successful novel which blends fiction with truth. A Theatre for Dreamers makes me wish I was there in 1960 but also to thank the stars that was neither my time nor my life.

A Theatre for Dreamers is available for £14.99 post free from bookshop@fiveleaves.co.uk

Ross Bradshaw

The Ministry of Truth, by Dorian Lynskey (Picador, £16.99)

George Orwell left London for Catalonia on December 22nd 1936. He fled Barcelona in fear for his and his wife Eileen’s life six months later, hastily across the French border at Perpignan, through France by train, “away from the mountain and the vine, back to the meadow and the elm”, and was back in the family home in Wallington by the first week of July 1937.

He returned a changed man. Not just, as Fenner Brockway, general secretary of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) observed, “far more mature as a socialist”. Nor simply having seen first hand the brutal early military realisation of the “wave of revolutionary feeling” that, recalling in 1944, he felt sweeping over every detail of life in Europe at the time.  The abject bitterness of Orwell’s experiences in and immediately after leaving Spain – the fatal betrayal of his militia by Stalinist Communist forces; the helpless witnessing of comrades imprisoned, tortured and murdered; the capitulation to Soviet propaganda, and subsequent personal defamations, by elements of the British left – affected him in the most profound way possible.

He returned a man shocked into truth and steeled as a writer facing those truths. And though it would be many years before he would put them to paper, many of the sinister realities forced upon Orwell in Spain would resurface in Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Bernard Crick wonders whether one bitter incident in particular – the apparent ‘confession’ by Orwell’s comrade in arms F. A. Frankfort (Frank Frankford), that the P.O.U.M. had been fighting for not against the Spanish fascists – was a grain destined to grow. “Could this specifically,” Crick writes in George Orwell: A Life, “as well as the Moscow trials generally, have given Orwell the idea for the bizarre and pathetic confessions of the animals in Animal Farm?”

If by the time he returned from Spain, as Crick believes, “most of Orwell’s formative experiences were over” and the seeds of the two great dystopian novels were indeed sown, it is fitting that 1936 is the year in which Dorian Lynskey begins his new ‘biography’ of Nineteen Eighty-Four. It was the year in which Orwell himself said that “history stopped”; in The Ministry of Truth Lynskey adds that “history stopped, and Nineteen Eighty-Four began”.

Speaking at a recent event at renowned radical bookshop Five Leaves, in Nottingham, Lynskey agreed that Spain was a “turning point” for Orwell. As far as it can ever be truly surmised, by starting at this point of the novel’s conception, he explained, his new book offers a different angle for the reader. “I wanted to do it the other way around,” he told the audience. “I like to focus on the part of their life when they do their great writing. It’s easy to get lost in research. I wanted to bring Ninety Eighty-Four home to the reader.”

The Ministry of Truth doesn’t claim to be a complete biography of Orwell. But it does attempt to chart the life of his most famous novel, from conception to the modern day, decades past the point Orwell had succumbed to the illness that so blighted and dragged out the writing of it. In the years in between Catalonia and Jura [where he wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four], Orwell grew steadily in stature as a public literary figure. With that profile came renown, much praise and – perhaps inevitably, given his tendency for truculence and “intellectual brutality” – many opponents.

Of the high-profile clashes Orwell became involved with in his career, Lynskey is particularly interested in a bitter literary tête-à-tête with War of the Worlds author H. G. Wells, setting aside a whole fascinating chapter to it. He recounts a fierce exchange between the two writers, on one of the few occasions when they met in person, at Orwell’s Abbey Road flat in August 1941. “Two days before dinner,” Lynskey writes, “Wells learned that Orwell had published an essay about him in Cyril Connolly’s magazine Horizon and procured a copy. ‘Wells, Hitler and the World State’ did not fill him with delight”.

One of the sharpest ironies of Orwell’s life is that after the punishing process of writing Nineteen Eighty-Four, a fearsome vision of a potential future, he scarcely had a future himself. And he was acutely aware that this was probably the case. Leaving Barnhill [the farmhouse in Jura] for the last time, he wrote to his close friend, Observer editor David Astor that “Everything is flourishing here except me”.

Even so, Lynskey notes in The Ministry of Truth, Orwell maintained a fierce schedule of work while he was on the island: “He typed it himself at the punishing rate of around four thousand words a day, seven days a week, propped up in bed for as long as he could bear in between bouts of fever and bloody coughing fits.”

He would only see another 227 days after Nineteen Eighty-Four was published, almost all in miserable health. “He never lived in the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four,” Lynskey said at Five Leaves. But Nineteen Eighty-Four has lived on in the world – well into the 21st century, yet another generation is hearing the warning bells from this great dystopian novel.

The second half of The Ministry of Truth explores how this has happened, tracing Nineteen Eighty-Four’s passage through the collective cultural consciousness. Orwell coined the phrase “Cold War”, and this is where Lynskey begins, taking the reader through the 1950s when the novel was first received and began to pervade the wider culture. (In December 1954 seven million people in Briton watched the first two-hour adaptation of the book, on the BBC).

Later the music journalist in Lynskey loves to tell the story of David Bowie’s traumatic visit to Soviet Russia in 1973. During the return leg Bowie told Roy Hollingsworth from Melody Maker “I’ve seen life and I think I know who’s controlling this damned world. And after what I’ve seen of the state of this world, I’ve never been so damned scared in my life”. Soon after this Bowie began work on a musical adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four, which would form the basis of the album Diamond Dog, released in 1974.

Having traced Nineteen Eighty-Four’s life right through to the modern day, The Ministry of Truth ends, perhaps fittingly, with one of the novel’s first reviews – written while Orwell was still alive. The 1949 review, in Life, Lynskey says, “correctly identified the essence of Orwell’s message”, that to guard objective truth against self-serving mendacious minds who try to pervert it, is the highest calling of a writer. The Ministry of Truth goes a long way to showing how, and why, that is still so essential today.

Benedict Cooper

This review first appeared on the website of the George Orwell Society

It’s Gone Dark Over Bill’s Mother’s by Lisa Blower (Myriad Editions, £8.99)

UNFLINCHING descriptions of sex, violence and addiction are less controversial than in the past, but writers and publishers remain reluctant to tackle important aspects of human experience. Their refusal to talk about class led the writer James Kelman to accuse the literary establishment of treating people without money as if they ‘should be swept under the carpet.’

Lisa Blower lifts that carpet to explore lives deemed superfluous by business, media and government. Her well-rounded and convincing characters have limited choices as they face deprivation, disappointment and a relentless struggle for survival. Blower has been compared to Alan Bennett: the monologue is her preferred form and she shares Bennett’s knack for revelation through detailed observation and telling omission. The similarity ends there. Blower’s purpose is to find a voice for people often dismissed as inarticulate. Her narratives are direct and accessible, but there’s variety of both situation and style. Some are traditional monologues, others more dialogue driven; some are related from the first-person point of view, others use second-person; some are related by people struggling to survive, others by observers who have escaped the circumstances of those less fortunate.

Handled badly, a second-person narrative reads like a ‘choose your own adventure’ game, but Blower’s deft writing creates deeper engagement with the dilemmas of her characters.

There’s a nod to Great Expectations in ‘The Land of Make Believe’. It concerns the struggles of talented, working-class Dee, who tries to fit in at Cambridge University and wants to understand her mother, Ruthie, who works as a prostitute. It’s a touching and powerful tale, freighted with wit and subtle complexities. Blower’s stories are be grittily realistic, but she relishes ambiguity and enjoys injecting humour into the darkest of situations. Her readers are treated with as much respect as her characters.

In another standout story, ‘The Trees in the Wood’, Mia experiences sleep deprivation as a result of grief, while Laura’s sleeplessness is caused by panic and anxiety. It’s a many-layered story. It assesses the power of character-driven fiction in increasing our understanding of science; it highlights the risks modern life poses to sleep and health; and it’s an affecting tale of women’s resilience in the face of tragedy.

In ‘Dirty Laundry’ Alma’s life spirals out of control when she loses her job due to the Icelandic Banking collapse. Gradually, we learn of Alma’s other source of anguish and the story ends with a sense that all may not be lost.

This is a fine collection of twenty tough but tender tales by a writer who celebrates the lives of uncelebrated people with compassion and caustic wit.  It’s a tough but by no means depressing read with moments of hope as well as hardship.

Andy Hedgecock

This review first appeared in the Morning Star

 

Ursula Le Guin, a tribute by Andy Hedgecock

THE DEATH of Ursula K Le Guin on January 22 prompted elegiac tributes from critics, fellow authors and an assortment of activists — feminists, anarchists, socialists and environmental campaigners.

The diversity of Le Guin’s appeal is extraordinary, but so too is the paradox at the heart of her reputation.

She was a writer celebrated for highlighting the iniquities, horrors and dangers of the way we live now and for exploring alternative forms of social and political organisation.

When the US National Book Foundation honoured her contribution to literature in 2014, her award acceptance speech celebrated the positive potential of creative writing. “Hard times are coming when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being,” she said.

But Le Guin had firm views about the separateness of the creative process. In an interview a decade earlier, she declared: “[People] can read Kant and Schopenhauer if they want speculation. I am an artist, I write stories not treatises. I am not fully in control of, and do not seek control of, my stories.”

The loosely connected books of Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle have done most to establish her reputation as a writer of thoughtful and provocative science fiction and fantasy. The Left Hand of Darkness, 1969, one of the earliest novels to be recognised as feminist science fiction, centres on a diplomatic mission to bring the Gethen planet system to join a coalition of humanoid worlds.

The envoy Genly Ai struggles to understand Gethenian culture, not least because its people are ambisexual. Some feminist commentators disliked the casting of ambisexual characters in traditional male roles and others were disappointed by the assumption of heterosexual norms.

But the book offers a sharp critique of masculinity and explores the theory that gender divisions cause sexual aggression and foster a hunger for war. Le Guin’s assertion that she “eliminated gender to find out what was left” is at odds with the idea that she relinquished control of her narratives because it implies she worked in a self-consciously political way.

Another Hainish book, The Dispossessed of 1974, offers a searing critique of capitalism and proposes a form of anarchist-communism as a potential alternative.

The story is set on two worlds, Urras and Anarres. Urras is rich in resources but its wealth is concentrated into the hands of the few. It is dominated by competing states, one based on patriarchal capitalism, the other on authoritarian parties that claim to rule in the name of the proletariat.

Anarres, on the other hand, is a harsher and economically poorer world with a social structure based on Russian anarchist Pyotr Kropotkin’s book Mutual Aid.

Le Guin, who expressed her enthusiasm for Kropotkin in her non-fiction writing, was too subtle a writer to present a one-sided argument in The Dispossessed. The governmental systems of Urras are not portrayed as one-dimensionally malevolent while the limitations of life on Anarres are presented warts and all.

The key character, Shevek, is a physicist whose career is limited because his beliefs are out of step with his society’s prevailing orthodoxies. His work is further affected by an obligation to perform manual labour when Anarres faces a natural disaster.

None of the political options Le Guin sets out is perfect, hence the book’s subtitle An Ambiguous Utopia, but it is clear that she sees egalitarian and stateless societies, based on mutual aid and collective responsibility, as preferable to capitalist systems based on systems of command and control.

Le Guin’s writing is crammed with speculation about utopianism, sex, sexual politics, anthropology, religion and the misuse of power. Interesting obsessions for a writer who suggested readers should not look to her writing for speculation.

The Word for World is Forest (1976) is an allegorical take on the US involvement in Vietnam and its critique of colonialism, militarism and environmental destruction is more relevant than ever in the context of Donald Trump’s presidency.

In The Telling (2000), Le Guin rejected a purely materialist analysis of human relations in favour of striking a balance between traditional spiritual wisdom and the benefits of technological development.

The Earthsea cycle, a classic of children’s literature, has much to say on the responsible use of power and, as far as I can remember, 1972’s The Wizard of Earthsea was the first book I read with a non-white lead character.

In her later years, perhaps inspired by creeping fascism in US politics and her fears for the environment, Le Guin reaffirmed the social responsibility of artists. “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings,” she declared.

“Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art and, very often in our art, the art of words.

Andy Hedgecock

This article first appeared in the Morning Star

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