Book Review: Hotel Silence

Hotel Silence, by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir (translated by Brian FitzGibbon), tells the story of a man who feels that he no longer exists. Once upon a time he was a husband, a father, a son. Now these roles have been eroded, taken from him by forces he struggles to understand. He is unable to find any reason to go on.

Jónas Ebeneser has always tried to do as he is told by the women in his life. His names mean ‘dove’ and ‘the helpful one’ – they suit him well. His mother, a former maths teacher, lives in a home for the elderly where she is gradually losing her mind. His wife has divorced him, his daughter grown and leading her own life. Over the years Jónas taught himself how to fit appliances, mend that which was broken, become a handyman. When his father died he dropped out of university that he may keep the family business going. He considers himself ordinary, lately become unnecessary and thereby unhappy. He has decided to commit suicide.

Jónas plans to borrow his neighbour’s gun although he has never handled a firearm and is concerned that he may inadvertently hurt someone else. He considers hanging himself from a light fitting but worries that his daughter may be the one to discover his body and have to cut him down. He does not wish to be an inconvenience when he has always tried to be helpful.

Eventually Jónas concludes that the easiest place to die would be abroad, his body tidily returned to his family in a box. He clears out his belongings and puts his affairs in order. He buys a one way ticket to a former war zone where the supposed dangers may solve the problem of how to meet his end.

Wars and their aftermath are opportunities for the unscrupulous to make money. The local population has been decimated, traumatised, the survivors forever scarred physically and mentally. As they try to salvage a life for themselves, outsiders arrive eager to hoover up anything of value, to gain lucrative contracts amidst the rebuilding. When Jónas arrives all are suspicious of his motives.

He has booked himself into Hotel Silence, a venue with few guests and suffering neglect in a place now avoided by tourists. Wanting to take a shower, Jónas fixes the plumbing in his room. When a door falls off in his hands he reattaches it. Soon he is being called on to use his skills elsewhere. He has tools and knowledge that are in demand.

Surrounded by the aftermath of allied bombing raids and local infighting, Jónas helps out with practical matters as he has always done when asked. His efforts do not please everyone. There is jealousy from those who are not benefiting, warnings from those who seek to profit from the misery inflicted. They are incredulous that he should work simply to be helpful.

The story is told in two halves. The first is set in Iceland and tells of how Jónas reached a point in his life where he wished to end it. The second is set in the unnamed former war zone and offers a different perspective on survival. Whereas Jónas can no longer find a reason to live, the people he meets abroad have suffered unimaginably but remain determined to continue with their lives.

The writing is spare and humane offering an understanding of individual unhappiness. No trite answers are offered but there is empathy in the cost of loneliness and the damage caused by personal and wider wars. An unusual tale that offers much to consider. Despite the often grim subject matter, a captivating read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

Advertisements

Book Review: Nutcase

Nutcase, by Tony Williams, is a retelling of the Icelandic saga of Grettir the Strong. The protagonist is Aidan Wilson, a hard lad born and raised in one of Sheffield’s roughest housing estates. Surrounded by violence and addiction he goes from young trouble maker to convicted criminal to vigilante. His size, strength and willingness to defend family and friends leads him down a road chequered by brutality.

Those living on the estates Aiden roams have low expectations. They deal drugs to make money, steal whatever else they need to use or sell, and get off their faces on alcohol and other drugs at every opportunity. Many of them take on jobs labouring, transporting goods (many stolen), or in the shops and pubs they frequent. Few stick to anything long term. Sex is recreational with babies a byproduct, accepted but with little responsibility.

Aiden is one of five siblings. As they grow up and leave the family home to set up with partners or friends they look out for one another whenever they are able. At times Aiden has his own place to live but there are regular periods when he stays with others for work or to escape trouble. This is accepted practice in his community. There are fallings out and regular fights. Aiden acquires a reputation that is both a threat and a means of survival.

There are girlfriends along the way but they bring their own dramas. When one young girl calls on Aiden to help an abused child he ends up in a situation that will haunt him. As will happen again, the grapevine carries different versions of his involvement. He will struggle to shake off the rumours some delight in spreading.

Aiden moves around the Sheffield and Leeds areas, spends time in prison, moves to Swansea, and gravitates home. He makes enemies, there are deaths, and he is blamed for his apparently uncaring behaviour. Relations of those he thwarts threaten retaliation. Damage to property is a distraction, bodily harm a regular and accepted risk. The violence of the lifestyle is gut-wrenching, the depiction all too believable.

The denouement comes as no surprise with the portrayal offering insight into the attention span and attitudes of the internet age. Few it appears place value on a life that lacks what the middle classes would describe as prospects, especially when that life has been spent recklessly.

The narrative style is almost blasé yet remains jaw droppingly intense. There are occasional asides about the lives minor characters will go on to lead which provide lighter relief. Nevertheless, the majority of what is being depicted remains horrific, especially that it has been normalised throughout the estates. I cannot say if it is realistic but that is certainly how it reads.

I haven’t been as perturbed by a storyline since I read the incredible We Go Around In The Night And Are Consumed By Fire yet even it has characters who desire a better way of living. Aiden Wilson and his family never seem to consider this a possibility. Given their repeated actions I am guessing this could be a depressingly pragmatic point of view. I am left pondering what it would take to instigate change, if the Aiden Wilsons of our world would even welcome such intervention.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.

The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses Shortlist Announcement

Yesterday evening, at the Centre for New Writing at the University of Manchester, an event was held which culminated in the announcement of the shortlist for the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses. Prior to the announcement there were panel discussions and presentations from publishers and authors.

When I saw this lineup last week I knew that I wanted to attend and am grateful to my husband for making it possible. As this post goes out we are still in Manchester enjoying an impromptu City Break.

Having been on the judging panel I was aware of which presses would be on the shortlist – you may remember that I attended a dinner in London where the longlist was hotly debated. For four hours the judges argued and presented their cases for including each book. They all had their advocates and, when it became clear that certain titles were not to go forward, passions were in evidence. The chair did a fine job of keeping the discussion steady and moving things along. Votes were taken and taken again, often with only one or two dividing the books to be included and those to be set aside. We knew that we had an impressively strong longlist and the difficulty of whittling it down to five or six titles was evidence of its literary quality.

Our task though was to produce a shortlist. These are the books that were eventually chosen, as announced last night:

 

Attrib. by Eley Williams (Influx)

Blue Self-Portrait by Noemi Lefevbre (Les Fugitives)

Darker with the Lights On by David Haydn (Little Island Press)

Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz (Charco Press)

Gaudy Bauble by Isabel Waidner (Dostoevsky Wannabe)

We That Are Young by Preti Taneja (Galley Beggar Press)

The winner has yet to be chosen. There will be a further event in London on 20th March when that announcement will be made. Whichever book is selected, this entire shortlist is well worth reading.

 

 

 

 

Book Review: Admissions

Admissions, by Henry Marsh, is a searingly honest memoir by the retired brain surgeon who brought us Do No Harm (I have yet to read this earlier book). It is a somewhat regretful looking back on cases the author has worked on, mistakes made, and the balance neurosurgeons must acquire between confidence in their abilities and concern for the patients whose lives can be so drastically altered by their interventions.

Marsh resigned from his position as a senior consultant at a large London hospital when he felt the respect that doctors once enjoyed had been undermined by the target culture and petty rules imposed by bureaucrats granted the power to allocate funds and decide who gets treated in the modern NHS. Marsh continued to travel to Nepal and the Ukraine, where he assisted colleagues who ran private teaching hospitals, although he was questioning the usefulness of his roles here as well. This is a tale of facing up to a life approaching its end, for the author as well as his patients.

Although enjoying many successes, brain surgery carries the risk of patients surviving but with a questionable quality of life. Decisions on whether to operate must take into account the probability of such outcomes. Saving a life may leave relatives burdened with round the clock care of a loved one who has little awareness or, perhaps even worse, aware but catastrophically damaged. Modern sensibilities have made honest discussions about the benefits of death difficult. There is a reluctance to accept that medical intervention merely postpones the inevitable.

Having watched his parents die, from cancer and dementia related illness, Marsh has a pragmatic view of his own mortality. He also struggles with what certain colleagues may regard as professional arrogance and ponders what he will become when he is no longer a renowned surgeon. He recognises that he has, at times, made poor decisions and behaved badly. Even the satisfaction found in his work has been lessened by what he has learned of the reality of patient outcomes over his long career.

Marsh’s musings on the way the brain works and the effect on the body are fascinating. His views on psychosomatic illnesses, whilst in line with well researched medical opinion, are likely controversial amongst patients who demand a physical explanation for their very real suffering. In the chapter, Lawyers, he discusses whiplash injuries.

“An English woman had been involved in a minor car accident in the USA while on holiday, and had subsequently seen me as a patient about her ‘whiplash’ symptoms. I had confirmed with an MRI scan that there were no significant injuries to her neck […] Patients develop an array of aches and pains and altered sensations in their necks and arms which do not correspond to any known pathological processes […] It is well known that these syndromes do not occur in countries which do not have any legal recognition of whiplash injury as a consequence of minor car crashes.

I used to see many of these patients every year in my outpatient clinic and it was clear to me that most of them were not consciously malingering […] With ‘whiplash injury’, the possibility of financial compensation for the victims, combined with the powerful suggestion that they have suffered a significant injury, can result in real and severe disability, even though it is, in a sense, purely imaginary. […] It is the modern equivalent of the well-attested phenomenon of a witch doctor in tribal socity casting a spell on somebody, causing the victim to fall ill, merely through the power of suggestion and belief.”

In his work in Nepal the author encounters many women suffering debilitating headaches which, when scans show no physical problems in the brain, he suggests may be down to some unhappiness they harbour in their personal lives. He explains that pain occurs in the brain but can manifest anywhere in the body, and can have a psychological rather than physical cause. Patients are unhappy if they are not offered a cure involving surgical intervention or costly medication. The suggestion that psychiatric treatment may be more effective does not go down well.

Most of the cases discussed, though, involve the removal of brain tumours. Marsh intersperses the detail of these with anecdotes from his personal life, at the time and throughout his past. What emerges is a picture of a flawed but determined individual who wishes to honestly portray how he got to where he is now.

An interesting medical memoir from an author who is not afraid to state his views, however terse or contentious. It offers a window into the world of brain surgery, and the difficulty of ageing after a brilliant career.

Book Review: Yuki Means Happiness

This review was written for and first published by Structo Magazine.

Having enjoyed Alison Jean Lester’s debut, Lillian on Life, I was eager to see where the author would take her readers in this, her second novel. Lillian was a woman of a certain age looking back over decades lived. This latest work is again told as a recollection, this time of a much younger woman looking back to a pivotal few months when she was in her early twenties. From the first sentence of Yuki Means Happiness the reader is aware that the adventure will not end well.

The story opens in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1996. Diana, a trained nurse, is meeting Naoki Yoshimura, the father of two year Yuki. Naoki had employed Diana as a maternity nurse when his wife, Emi, travelled to Boston to give birth. Now he informs her that Emi has left him. He offers Diana a generous salary to work in Tokyo as Yuki’s nanny. Diana is in a relationship but unsure of the commitment she is willing to offer. She regards this job as a chance for adventure and also escape. Key events in her life to date have made her wary of men and their intentions. Her boyfriend is ignorant of this personal history and declares his willingness to wait.

Diana travels to Tokyo unable to speak any Japanese. Naoki’s home is next door to that of his wealthy parents – it was built in their garden. Naoki’s mother is polite but distant. She helps with Yuki when requested and keeps a watchful eye on her son’s interests.

The sense of place evoked as Diana settles into her new role is beautifully rendered. As a young and inexperienced woman Diana finds herself irritated but compliant with the demands made on her time by her employer. She grows to adore Yuki and relishes the insights she is gaining into the culture and expectations of the Japanese.

Life within the Yoshimura household begins to shift when Naoki brings home a new girlfriend. Meanwhile, Diana has started meeting up with Naoki’s ex-wife, discovering that their marital breakup was not everything Diana had been led to believe. When she is accused of leaving Yuki in the care of a man, Naoki displays an anger that frightens the young nanny. His subsequent actions suggest Yuki could also be in danger.

The unfolding tale is nuanced and layered, presented with a subtlety that belies its depth. The emotional threads of the novel may be complex, but the writing remains accessible and engaging. Japan is portrayed with warmth and honesty, while its customs, however alluring, are shown to provide a means to exert dominance.

The understated intricacy of the story development is impressive, and the setting, plot and structure are deftly painted. There is much to reflect on after turning the final page.

Yuki Means Happiness / Alison Jean Lester / John Murray / 27 July 2017

Jackie Law runs the book blog Never Imitate and is a regular contributor to Bookmunch. She lives in rural Wiltshire with her family and back garden hens. You can find her on Twitter @followthehens.

Book Review: Inner London Buddha

Inner London Buddha, by Mick Guffan, is a collection of more than eighty poems, including some previously unpublished, from the builder/poet who died in 2006. In the preface, written by Alan Dent, the question is posed:

“why focus on those who can’t find a easy, comfortable place in society when so many can?”

What is offered here is a rare and raw authenticity, an absence of too readily accepted hypocrisies:

“Don’t the rich spend heavily on booze and drugs? Isn’t there a culture of sexual abuse at the heart of our most seemingly respectable institutions?”

The collection reminds us that:

“what we are supposed to believe about our culture is far from a truthful picture”

The truth may feel uncomfortable, and there is a great deal of unpleasant imagery conjured out of these pages, but the poems offer a window into the inner thoughts and uninhibited actions that are recognisably more prevalent in society than is typically acknowledged.

Although much of the subject matter is unsavoury, at times disturbing, there is also wry humour, such as in The Man Next Door:

“He never did
a favour for
anyone.

Except me.

He did me a
favour once.

He fucked off
out of
my
life
when he moved to
Penrith.”

Several poems mention the importance men grant their private parts, aptly portrayed in the titular poem:

“despite the cold, I loosen the cloth belt
look down the old line of sour pink and familiar flesh.
My eyes naturally head towards my cock.
Where else would they go?
Ah, we’ve seen some times together.
This is what you made me.”

The cruelty of passers by towards a homeless man is starkly presented in Rough Sleeper, while first person cruelty is described in Buttercup Must Die. The reader is reminded that man has many sides whatever his perceived status.

Crumbling is one of the shorter offerings that succinctly captures the pathos of life:

“Closed sign
and
a man
sobbing.

A grown man.

He was inconsolable.

It’s the little things.”

There are poems that are stomach-churning, others that are heart-rending.

The Building Game offers up life as a labourer, the filthy conditions and contempt in which they are held by their employers.

Stopping Over provides humour, describing an unexpected nighttime encounter when an amorous couple try to use the cramped sofa the narrator is attempting to sleep on. It concludes:

“The front door slammed shut.
I do not know about him but
that was the closest I have got to
sex in four years.”

There are poems portraying the boredom and lethargy of poverty; of drug use; and sexual abuse. There is an undercurrent of bitterness but also sorrow, the difficulties of changing anything when prospects are limited and apathy eventually prevails.

Sunday Meal presents a relationship breakdown.

100 Suns is a eulogy to love:

“She was the
smell of a
flower
I was not expecting.

The light of
one hundred suns
over
endless fields.

She is away
from me now
but it is the
sadness
that remains.

The sadness
in between
I mean.

[…]

love’s deep shadow
keeps calling
her name

and I cannot be free.”

If art is required to disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed then this collection succeeds beyond expectation. From out of desolation rises an unadorned humanity. The words leave an echo that resonates deeply.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Tangerine Press.

Book Review: Craving

Craving, by Esther Gerritsen (translated by Michele Hutchison), is a story of family, and social disconnection. Its protagonists are Elisabeth and Coco, a mother and daughter with an uneasy relationship. The book opens with a chance encounter in the street where Elisabeth tells her child that she is dying of cancer. Coco is quietly angry with her mother, a regular reaction when they are together. She looks forward to being comforted when she shares the news with others who will expect her to be upset in a different way.

Coco has an older boyfriend, Hans, who she regularly provokes to create a reaction. She recognises that he is growing tired of her behaviour, but she is not willing to allow their relationship to end. She hopes that having a sick mother will help to occupy his thoughts, buying her more time with him. She is angered when he will not channel his feelings of indignation or irritation into rough sex. She seeks extreme behaviour in order to feel, to escape what she considers the blandness of everyday experiences.

Elisabeth has never known how to cope with Coco’s behaviour. From an early age her daughter was a malcontented child and they shared little affection. Now she finds that she cannot speak openly for fear that her true thoughts will be revealed. Elisabeth can talk to her hairdresser, to her work colleague, Martin, but not to her truculent daughter.

Coco lived with her father and his second wife, Miriam, after her parents’ separated. Miriam encouraged Coco and Elisabeth to maintain contact but neither enjoyed their time together. Elisabeth resented that her husband left, not having realised he was unhappy in their marriage. She believes the catalyst for the breakdown was Coco’s birth.

Coco’s landlord has given her notice so she decides to move in with Elisabeth, to be seen to be there for her mother now that she is dying. She hopes for answers to questions about why her mother behaved as she did when she was a child, details of stories her father has told her that, although not remembered first hand, have created resentment. Elisabeth wants to behave like a good mother so reluctantly agrees to Coco’s plan. They circle each other trying to work out how to be together. Elisabeth does not wish to lie to her child but neither can she bring herself to share her true thoughts when questioned. Coco becomes ever more agitated. Elisabeth observes, accepting yet wishing Coco would leave.

There is a sense of foreboding in the language, a question of cause and effect in Coco’s destructive behaviour. As Elisabeth’s health deteriorates she has offers of help from Martin, her ex-husband, Hans, even her hairdresser. She seeks a tidy ending that her daughter, once again, threatens to blemish.

Although disturbing and somewhat brutal in places this is a tale of longing, a search for an elusive conformity that will not sit easily with either of the protagonists. Societal expectations create a culture of blame when roles are not adhered to. The tale provides a reminder that unconditional love is not a right, even within families.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, World Editions.

Craving has just been adapted for the screen and was premiered last month at the Rotterdam International Film Festival.