Book Review: The day that didn’t happen

day didn't happen

“deep inside the banality of everyday existence a black orchid was being carefully digested”

The day that didn’t happen, by Gerd Kvanvig (translated by Wendy H. Gabrielsen), is a short novel written in such powerful and evocative prose it could be poetry. The story is narrated by a young woman, Margrete, whose life pivoted on a traumatic event that took place at a funfair near the end of a hot summer when she was twelve years old. She has told no one what happened, burying the memory deep inside herself in an attempt to move on from it.

At the time, Margrete lived with her mother in the small town of Jessheim in Norway. Her mother worked nights as a nurse, leaving Margrete to cope as best she could while her mother was either at work or sleeping. There was little communication between the pair. Margrete was provided with money for essentials but little else. She was often scared when left alone after darkness fell.

“In the empty flat there was nothing, something worse than nothing”

When younger, Margrete would spend holidays with her beloved grandfather who is now dead. He was the only person who paid her attention and showed affection. She has friends but keeps her distance, often pushing them away due to lack of money and Margrete’s need for head space. She cycles around the neighbourhood, the freedom of speed offering her some respite.

The book opens with the first brief snippet of what happened to Margrete during the annual Jessheim Festival. Fuller details are gradually teased out as the story progresses. Her memories are saturated with sensory perceptions – the weight of heat, music, scent. After the event she took to hiding away under a concrete stairway in her block of flats. She is discovered here by a new neighbour, a policeman named Erling. He takes Margrete under his wing, understanding her need for friendship without questions.

The narrative moves back and forward in time, offering glimpses of Margrete’s life before and after. Details are spare yet vivid. Recognising that she has been changed inexorably while all around remained unaware, she harbours a determination not to be defeated.

“What happened doesn’t belong to me. And yet it does. Little Margrete has carried it with her.”

Although shocking, when the extent of incident is revealed, young Margrete’s ability to carry on with so little support demonstrates her strength. Ultimately this is a story that offers hope. Despite the subject matter it is a beautiful, eloquent read.

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

Book Review: Neither Weak Nor Obtuse

Neither Weak Nor Obtuse

I first came across Jake Goldsmith when I was asked to help promote the inaugural Barbellion Prize  – a book prize dedicated to the furtherance of ill and disabled voices in writing – which he founded. I became aware that he lived with chronic illness but had no comprehension of how much this affected his life. Neither Weak Nor Obtuse removed some of the blinkers that exist when casually pondering the difficulties faced by those who struggle with daily tasks most accomplish with unthinking ease. Such lack of consideration may be unintentional, but works such as this are important if only to raise awareness of how society must do better and not turn away when challenging issues are raised.

“Heaven forbid you make the healthies uncomfortable. One better not present a less than heroic image”

The author describes his book as an ‘indulgent memoir’. I came to view it as a philosophical treatise. Although clearly articulated, the thinking is meaty, requiring time to consume and digest. While indirectly personal, thoughts and feelings are often expressed through opinions on others’ written works.

Goldsmith was born with cystic fibrosis, a progressive and life limiting condition for which there is no cure. He makes clear that he is now very ill and has known since childhood he is likely to die before his peers. This prognosis has shaped his attitude and outlook. Nevertheless, he remains a highly intelligent and reactive young man with all the baggage this brings. Within these pages are moving reflections on love, romance and friendship – how some may feel that allowing oneself to care deeply for a person with limited life expectancy could be regarded as an act of ‘self-harm’, and how hurtful and damaging this thought process can be. The author writes of loneliness, of a longing for companionship. It is not a call for sympathy so much as a reminder that the ill and disabled are human beings.

The early sections of the book reflect on how shallow and fickle much thinking is in our current culture of fast media and judgemental reaction.

“With the contemporary world comes mass saturation. Slowing down to reflect goes awry when surrounded by zooming things. And I want something reflective over something so hurried. It is in some ways a primitive wish. A quickened culture, as well as one of mass quantity, neither reflects nor understands itself very well.”

The author spends some time pondering the way society allows itself to be led down pathways without examining cause and effect more deeply – believing the soundbites and shallow virtue blaming – and how this could be changed.

“Our opponents are stronger than we think and we need to act tactically and more astutely”

He cautions against those who believe pulling systems of governance down is necessary as this would merely open the doors for new oppressors to enter.

“Razing the ground does not give a pristine opportunity to rebuild, because most are incapable of that”

Goldsmith is also wary of those who believe their country harbours so much that is bad it should be abandoned, and of those who are so convinced by their own intelligence they look down on anyone who doesn’t agree with their opinions.

“Arrogance comes easily if one can set themselves apart from their peers just by knowledge accumulation”

The ideas presented are woven around the writings of many historic thinkers. The author is obviously well read and capable, peeling back the layers of common complaint and complacency to urge a more profound and reflective debate.

This is not, then, a memoir in the more common vein of the genre. Nevertheless, it offers a window into the experience of living within a painfully failing body while retaining a sharp and questioning, if modestly presented, intellect and open heart.

Not a book to be rushed but one with potential to change a reader’s outlook, especially as regards the ill and disabled and the lives we all live in a shared society. A profoundly moving but also thought provoking and rewarding read.

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

Book Review: Here Be Icebergs

here-be-icebergs

“we often fail to recognise the brutality of families when observing them from the outside – or even at times from the inside”

Here Be Icebergs, by Katya Adaui (translated by Rosalind Harvey), is a collection of twelve short stories that lay bare many of the often unacknowledged issues that erupt within a diversity of family units. There is little talk of love in these tales although it clearly exists. What is being explored are the resentments that fester alongside feelings of duty and expectation. The scars that form in childhood continue to affect.

Many of the stories adopt a non-linear, episodic structure. The reader is trusted to fill in the gaps in both timeline and reasoning. There is brutal honesty in the recognition of lasting damage inflicted by words thrown in moments of difficulty. The collection should not be rushed as it delves into challenging themes.

“Adaui examines the way we ceaselessly attempt contact despite all the evidence that each of us is an unknowable island”

A favourite story was We, the Shipwrecked in which the narrator is trying to cope with the death of her father. His demise was expected due to diagnosed illness but still she did not feel ready. The remaining family members provide little comfort, making decisions that grate.

Also particularly enjoyed was The Hamberes Twins with its subject of assisted dying. Structured as an interview with the doctor who agreed to help, this short tale offers much to consider.

The complexity of individual reactions to the same experiences alongside the unreliability of shared memories provide grist for the mill in the everyday subjects mined so skilfully. Families need not be dysfunctional to suffer disagreements. It was satisfying to read of subtle shades of acrimony, unadorned with the more usual personal justifications.

Although set in Latin America, the families featured are more everyman than is often acknowledged in fiction set in a place foreign to the reader. Parents and children, partners and siblings, all harbour feelings at odds with how their relations behave.

A taut and engaging collection that presents a wide variety of concerns faced and regretted across generations. Another excellent release from this high quality small press.

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

Book Review: Of Saints and Miracles

Of-Saints-and-Miracles

“Everything is happening at this moment and it’s all of equal importance, the only difference being who is telling the story and why.”

Of Saints and Miracles, by Manuel Astur (translated by Claire Wadie), is the first book to be published by the newly rebranded Peirene Press. It tells the story of Marcelino, a farmer who lives alone near the village of Cobre in the Asturias, where he was born and raised. He works the land inherited from his late parents, his younger brother having moved to the city. As a child, Marcelino was regularly beaten by his drunken father. He was abused by the local priest. All his life he has been considered an imbecile, loved only by his mother who was rumoured to be a witch.

The tale opens with a confrontation between the brothers that ends with Marcelino’s brother bleeding into the sawdust outside their farmhouse, which the brother planned to sell to clear his debts. When the body subsequently disappears, Marcelino realises he is in danger. He packs some food and a few belongings before heading into the mountains, seeking refuge at the abandoned village where his mother once lived. The residents of Cobre are galvanised by what has happened and set out to hunt the runaway down that justice may be served.

The timeline of the story moves back and forth between key events in Marcelino’s childhood and his current predicament. There are many disturbing incidents, including wanton abuse and bestiality. There are also sections that offer a view of the wider picture – of the village, its residents, and the area. These provide a reminder that stories can develop along unexpected trajectories. Woven in amongst the myriad challenges faced by Marcelino are local myths and legends. His tale will, in time, be added to these.

“He explained the past, on hearing which she began to miss what never was. He explained the future, at which she began to desire what could never be. And lastly, he explained the present, which made her feel trapped in a tiny space”

Although a well paced and engaging story, what raises the bar of this short novel is the beauty of the language used to construct the narrative. There is an ethereal feel to the sense of place evoked, despite the horror of many of the character’s behaviour. Marcelino seeks an Old World but cannot prevent the New World encroaching on the idyll he has tried to retain, if it ever existed.

The tangential threads add colour and, at times, humour. Marcelino, though, cuts quite a tragic figure. Even when his situation becomes known more widely, with supporters gathering to offer their hero solidarity, it is the cultish figure they revere rather than the reality of a man who has always struggled in the company of his cruel peers.

A beguiling and beautifully written story of a place that is ever changing yet, in many ways, retains its spirit. A reminder that life goes on, even after death.

“Men learn as egoists learn. When they suffer, it’s because they think they could have avoided it.
But there are always women, resisting, holding on, slowly chewing over their grief … Because a woman watches over a dying man knowing, like all women, that the real miracle is the giving of life, and so understands that it should end simply, without any fuss.
Death is never heroic. Life can be, but not death.”

(My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Peirene.)

Book Review: Seek the Singing Fish

singing fish

“People could slash and seethe over who owned what chunk of land all they wanted but I understood it wasn’t theirs to begin with”

Seek the Singing Fish, by Roma Wells, tells the story of Artemila De Zilwa, a young Sri Lankan woman who grew up during the years of her country’s civil war. Told from her perspective, the experiences recounted are not for the faint-hearted. She addresses herself to Shi, ‘breath of life’, and describes the traumas she suffered as her ‘twisted voyage’. What we have here is an odyssey shadowed by the appalling cruelties man inflicts, even on his own kind – the commodification and destruction of lives by those seeking control.

Mila has a deep appreciation for and curiosity about the natural world. It is this that sustains through the many and varied aspects of situations inflicted on her. She compartmentalises memories, closing doors on some and opening others for comfort. The knowledge of creatures abilities and habits shared are fascinating – a highlight amidst the disturbing accounts of abuse and tragedy.

A prologue sets the scene for what is to come. Shi is told that Mila has a mangled face, disfigured by shrapnel – ‘I am beauty spoiled; Lanka corrupted.’ The first of the three parts into which the story is divided then covers her childhood.

Mila came from an intelligent and caring family. Her parents married for love, a choice that estranged them from their wider clans. She was closer to her father, an English professor who instilled in his young daughter a love of books and learning. He listened carefully to her and encouraged her interest in wildlife. Her mother favoured Mila’s little brother, Ravi. Both children appreciated the delicious food their mother could conjure from whatever ingredients were available.

The early pages explain the reasons why war raged all around. None were spared from the violence – the tit for tat torture and destruction. Mila’s father would talk to her in metaphors, trying to offer explanations for the madness of the conflict. Both he and his daughter understood that, despite the propaganda, more connected those fighting each other than divided.

“we look for differences in the Vedas, the Quram, the Bible and the Sutras when their ink runs with the same intent. After all, the very word religion means to bind in its Latin origin.”

As with so many in this time and place, grief soon fractures the family, each survivor dealing with the aftermath without support. They are then challenged by the devastation wreaked by a tsunami. The coming together of warring sides to cope and rebuild is short lived. Mila’s eyes are opened to the dark side of nature as well as its beauty.

Mila finds solace with an older friend made at a local market, and in caring for a stray dog. She meets Kai, a young fisherman orphaned and placed in the care of an alcoholic uncle.

“He reminded me of the elephants who’d undergone phajan, the training regimen used to beat and starve them into submission for the tourist industries.”

Their burgeoning love story is schismed by the war.

The second part of the book is set in London and offers yet another seriously disturbing aspect of human behaviour. Mila knows to keep her head down if she is to survive this life but is once again scarred by what she sees happening around her. For a time she works as a cleaner in a wealthy family’s home – invisible to them amidst their sterile surrounds.

“it was all for show; lifeless items to be admired but not touched. A gallery disguised as a house masquerading as a home.”

The third and final part of Mila’s story offers closure of sorts. There are elements of luck – timely coincidence – to achieve this. Nothing is sugar coated but this is, perhaps, the least satisfying of what is a desperately hard hitting account of man’s inhumanity.

Woven throughout the horrific descriptions of abuse are stunningly beautiful evocations of the natural world. Sitting alongside such challenges as living with PTSD, the Sri Lankan lagoons, even the parks of London, become oasis.

The language used to tell this tale is impressively rich but never cloying. Mila never asks for sympathy but rather seeks understanding.  While not always easy to consider man’s behaviour, there is much beauty to be found elsewhere when looked for. This story offers a metaphor for the lives we all must live – a way of coping.

A thought-provoking but always engaging tale interlaced with stunning imagery. For those able and willing to consider the myriad traumas of conflict, this is a recommended read.

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

Book Review: Multiple Joyce

Multiple Joyce

“Will you hold your peace and listen well to what I am going to say now?”

This month marks the centenary of the publication of Ulysses by James Joyce, an author who David Collard describes as ‘the greatest prose writer of the century’. Multiple Joyce provides an exploration of the cultural legacy of the celebrated Irishman who wrote about the Irish but escaped the island as soon as he was able. The 100 short essays herein are written with impressive intellectual rigour but also a strong undercurrent of wit amidst the wisdom imparted. After careful and considered reading I now know a great deal more about Joyce and his work than previously – and am no more inclined than before to actually read his books.

Perhaps that is a tad disingenuous. After the fun of the first few essays, Collard waxes lyrical about Joyce’s Dubliners – ‘surely the greatest of all short story collections’. I have this on my bookshelves so paused to reread it, enjoying it no more this time than previously. In admitting to such an opinion I place myself amidst those Collard disparages within these pages as philistine readers. Given his descriptions of aspects he admires in Joyce’s writing, what he draws attention to suggests I would not enjoy any of these works.

I am not put off reading Joyce by the supposed difficulty of his prose – I have been impressed by many works condemned by certain critics with that descriptor. Rather, it is the reports of repeated mentions of sexual acts and musings, by the bodily fluids and objectification of women, of the playing fast and loose with language such as to render text so cryptic as to require patient and repeated study to uncover meaning. I am not suggesting that Joyce is a bad writer – what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ anyway? I simply doubt I would enjoy his work enough to make it worth my time and effort. There are always other books to read, such as this one.

Collard describes Joyce’s writing as ‘subtle, sophisticated and stratospherically accomplished’. George Bernard Shaw, on the other hand, described the fragments of Ulysses he read as ‘foul mouthed, foul minded derision and obscenity.’ Collard muses that those who do not appreciate Joyce’s genius are of inferior intelligence. Bear this in mind when deciding if my thoughts here are worth your consideration.

“Of course there are no objective measures when it comes to literary judgements”

Have no doubt that the essays in Multiple Joyce are well worth reading. They provide interesting contextual background to Joyce and the times he lived in. There are also engaging personal anecdotes from Collard – from literary events attended and those he met there, to his own upbringing among the cultish Jehovah’s Witnesses. Although coming across as confident in his intellectual opinions, the author can also be highly amusing and self-deprecating.

The cultural legacies referenced are wide ranging and entertainingly eclectic. There are hat tips to many other works – classic and contemporary. We share a strong appreciation of the value to literature of the ground breaking, small, independent presses.

As the essays progress it becomes ever more understandable why Collard rates Joyce’s writing so highly, although I did find it interesting that he has not yet managed to read Finnegan’s Wake in its entirety. It seems he can still gain satisfaction from dipping in occasionally.

“Here is something I can study all my life and never understand.”

Alongside the commentary on Joyce’s writing are nuggets on the man and his family. He spent the war years in neutral Switzerland where other writers and artists lived to avoid having to take part in the conflict. Collard muses on what this may say about Joyce’s relation to society.

“Hs apparent indifference to the Great War … may be down to heartlessness, or self-absorption, or high minded dedication to a greater cause.”

Certainly, Joyce appears to have had great confidence in the worth of his writing – that, as Collard has done, ‘his readers would contentedly spend a lifetime deciphering his work’. It is clear our author here believes only those who appreciate Joyce’s work may present themselves as an intellectual. I find it curious that we share many mutually respected acquaintances in the bookish world (in real life and online), that I have read and enjoyed a good number of the more recently published titles he writes about here, yet nevertheless, for my opinions on Joyce, he would still consider me an ‘idiot’ (although to be fair, I doubt he considers me at all).

As well as writing of Joyce, these essays cast their focus on certain works by the man’s contemporaries and other classic texts. There are also mentions of the development of cinema and influential films. Once again, there is an artistic snobbery to note.

“a tendency for film producers to seek a degree of social and cultural respectability through prestigious association and to attract profitable ‘high hat’ audiences – metropolitan, sophisticated and with more ‘advanced’ tastes.”

Collard is a fine writer and I was regularly amused by the turns of phrase he dropped in to many of these essays. On Melville and the reception of Moby-Dick: ‘Melville at the age of 32 now had a promising future behind him’. There may be a degree of condescension in some of the opinions stated but, that aside, there is much of value, interest and gratification to be gleaned.

The collection provides a most enjoyable way to learn more about Joyce – his work, life, times, influences and legacy – without having to read any of his books (sorry, David). To quote Molly Bloom, ‘O, rocks! she said. Tell us in plain words.’ Unlike his subject, Collard avoids the cryptic yet writes with aplomb. I recommend this collection to all readers with an interest in the art of literature, whatever their opinion on Joyce.

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

Book Review: Fool’s Paradise

Fools Paradise

Fool’s Paradise, by Zoe Brooks, is a poem for voices that was first performed in 1992 and published by White Fox Books. This reissue has recently been released by Black Eyes Publishing. The monoprint used on the cover of the book was created by Hannah Kodicek, a late friend of the author who she accompanied to Prague immediately after the Velvet Revolution, a visit that proved a major inspiration for this work.

There are four key voices in the poem – three travellers and a fool they meet at a crossroads on their journey. The fool is accompanied by his dog and becomes the travellers’ guide.

“Perhaps your country
was never mapped
for target practice,
your timetables never structured
for the movement of troops”

The journey is divided into four parts followed by an epilogue. The story being told is opaque and dreamlike, yet it provides a vivid account of the confusion and loss to be borne in the aftermath of conflict. Between the lines, questions are being asked about how it all happened, why the people acquiesced to their leader’s demands.

“The madman leads the blind”

The travellers make their way to a city, fearful of meeting militia, remembering their lives before they became exiles. On reaching the city they observe not just the shadows so many people have become but also the damage wreaked on infrastructure – and continuing danger. They lament their personal losses, including small talismans that are all that remain of their before.

“I have forgotten the taste of bread,
I am forgetting that I ever lived.”

Interactions between characters are riddle-like which brings to the fore how traumatic enforced exile can be – the internal scars caused. The travellers are tired to the bone yet sleep brings no relief. When separated from the fool they dream of him – the boundaries with reality quiver and blur. They observe people held in a cage, remaining there despite the padlock on the gate being open. Perhaps they have forgotten how to take the initiative after their willingness to follow.

The final section, titled Hell and Back, portrays an aftermath in which the fool returns and grey souls are observed, one of whom is ‘that man who held the world in chains’.

“At the brush of his pen, millions died.
At the sweep of his arm
babies burned”

Traveller 1   Why does he weep?

Traveller 2   For conquest lost perhaps or lust unserved.

Fool             No, he weeps for paintings he did not paint.”

The epilogue is a looking back. All has changed and yet the experience remains seared within.

It is clear that this poem would provide the basis for a powerful performance. Reading it demands pauses and rereads to peel back layers and consider what is implied within each conversation. The dreamlike structure and language add a dark beauty to what is an horrific ordeal that too many are forced to endure due to power hungry leaders. It is a reminder of the lasting cost of oppression and exile, and that supposed victory is not lasting.

“You say that you have gone back to the city and all is changed, that the angels are gone, the candles extinguished, that the bridge is lined with trinket vendors and all is turned into pettiness.”

A disturbing yet deeply thought-provoking read, written with succinct perspicacity. The voices in this poem deserve to be heard.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.

Book Review: Dubliners

dubliners

In his upcoming essay collection, Multiple Joyce, David Collard describes Dubliners as ‘surely the greatest of all short story collections’. It is the only book by James Joyce that I have read. This was many years ago and I seemed to remember I was not impressed, finding too many of the characters irritatingly vulgar and vexing. However, with such a recommendation from a writer whose opinion I rate, I decided to give the book a reread. Perhaps, I hoped, with my added life experience and wider literary knowledge I could be more appreciative.

The collection contains fifteen short stories of varying length. Each has a plot of sorts but this is secondary to the portrayal of characters and the lives they lead in their particular time and place. There are boys and men seeking an escape from the repetitive boredom of their everyday existences. Where women feature, many are depicted as downtrodden, having used their wiles to ensnare and now having to deal with the aftermath. Marriages are rarely happy affairs. Drunkenness is common. Resentments fester.

Even the better behaved men are portrayed as selfish, often foolishly jealous. They come across as stunted emotionally, lacking empathy due to ego. Their struggle to control desires and concerns is well developed but did not prompt sympathy.

I was disturbed by the violence against children, although understand this was commonly accepted at the time in which the stories are set. Those suffering poverty, who spend what money they have drinking with friends while their families go hungry, may be realistic but such behaviour is still frustrating. Descriptions were unpleasant – not so much the grime and odours but the images offered of moist mouths and propensity for spitting.

Of course, I can recognise the quality of the writing, although the shorter stories worked better for me, some of the longer ones dragging on with their repetition. I do not question that the characters could be representative of Dublin residents when Joyce lived there – although this does offer some explanation as to why ‘the Irish’ were so widely disdained elsewhere.

My reaction to this work had me questioning what makes literature impressive. Readers’ opinions will always be subjective but I remain perplexed by the esteem in which Joyce is held. However clever a piece of writing, there must be more to engage the reader. Sadly, once again, the stories in Dubliners did not impress me.

I will be reviewing David Collard’s essay collection in which he shares his views on Joyce’s writing and legacy. While this amused and often resonated, making me rethink my views on Joyce and his enthusiasts, it appears I remain a ‘philistine’ when it comes to the supposedly great man’s work.

My copy of this book was published in 1973 by Penguin Modern Classics.

Revisiting: The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas

Ezra Maas

In late 2018 I reviewed the original edition of The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas, summing it up as ‘An astonishing, mind-bending creation that defies the limitations of cliched description‘. It was a remarkable literary achievement and went on to be shortlisted for a national book prize. Then it disappeared from my radar. This happens. I did not, at the time, suspect any involvement from the Maas Foundation. Now I’m not so sure.

When reading any biography there is always an element of doubt over what is truth and what is fiction. Whoever writes a history controls the narrative. The telling of any ‘true’ story will say as much about author as subject – it can never include everything and will rarely be balanced.

This book blurs boundaries. It tells a convoluted yet compelling tale that overlaps events and characters across multiple locations and decades. There are numerous cross references and hidden messages. Key pieces of information have been redacted, although may still be inferred. It offers a reminder that the artistic world is defensive and ego driven, and that the powerful controllers in any sphere can prove dangerous.

“This book is dangerous. You need to know that before you begin.”

Daniel James is named as the author. He writes of being commissioned by a secretive source to write the biography of the reclusive artist, Ezra Maas, who has been missing for many years. In that time, any memory of him has been carefully erased.

What we have here is a fragmentary pulling together of what James managed to complete, with explanation and elucidation by a friend who, for their own safety, wishes to remain Anonymous. It is left to the reader to decide what they choose to believe.

“every reader who purchases the book will have his or her own interpretations, along with other narrative layers that I can never hope to identify and catalogue. In this way, the voices will continue to multiply, and the manuscript will be endlessly reborn”

This new edition presents much the same text as the original but reformatted to include some disturbing but also impressive additions. There are new artworks, diagrams and facsimiles – some blood stained. Official documents referenced are reproduced clearly. An appendix has been added that explores the years since the original was published. The End is not the end.

The book is stunning aesthetically, a worthy if apocryphal addition to what may be remembered of the Maas canon – now sadly held by private collectors and not made available to the public. It tells a story that may be hard to believe except we know how the rich and powerful hold the puppet strings of the law makers and media.

“It is impossible to discount the possibility that some of what you are about to read may contain fiction. As a biographer, Daniel’s style was uniquely creative”

Does this all sound too vague or are you intrigued? For those who enjoy labyrinthian mysteries that weave in a plethora of cultural references to shadow fact and fiction, this could be for you. Whatever your interpretation remember it will also be a reflection. We are all constructs, never fully understood or believed, even by ourselves.

My original review may be read here.

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

Book Review: This World Does Not Belong to Us

this world does not

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“The mind of a child doesn’t solve problems, doesn’t contemplate overcoming obstacles; it simply thinks what it would be like to win.”

This World Does Not Belong to Us tells the story of Lucas Torrente de Valses, the son of a wealthy landowner who ends up being sold into slavery. Told from his perspective, much must be inferred. Lucas was too young when certain pivotal events occurred to fully comprehend cause and effect. He observed but could not change what was happening, any attempt being regarded as unruly behaviour. By the time he returns to the family mansion as a man, having escaped the master he was forced to serve, it has been taken over by two men who befriended his father. Lucas seeks revenge but has learned to act with patience and deference when required.

From a young age Lucas developed a fascination with the world of insects – of botany and biology – encouraged by his mother and then tutor. Lucas’s father was angered by this interest, demanding that his son focus on something more useful.

“I understand now that all fathers have a god inside them and look down upon their sons like clay figurines, always incomplete, wanting to create them over and over in their own image and likeness.”

Lucas was raised by nursemaids while his mother tended her garden. All of their lives started to unravel when the father allowed two strangers to move in with them – a supposedly temporary arrangement to assist in the running of his various enterprises. Lucas instantly despised these interlopers – their dirty beards and unsavoury habits of which they never appeared ashamed.

A chain of events are set in motion when cows the men have recently milked stray into the beautifully kept manor house garden. Lucas’s mother’s reaction to the destruction thereby wreaked draws the attention of a local priest and townswomen. She is given medication to calm her down and openly prayed for. Her subsequent treatment is sadly typical of well to do husbands of the time whose wives behaviour embarrassed them.

“This is what was said in the market lanes by respectable-looking ladies – which is to say, ladies who were horrid but well dressed.”

The timeline jumps between when Lucas was a boy and his return to the home from which he was ejected. We are aware from the start that both his parents are now dead and the great house where they all lived is falling into disrepair. The invasion by nature and its creatures feels apt to Lucas given what precipitated the family downfall. He addresses himself to his late father as the catalyst and facilitator.

“There’s nothing left of us, Father, except for these tiny animals attracted by the warmth surrounding death. More alive than the living who walk and talk.”

To gain his revenge Lucas must once again join the household. He offers himself as a labourer and is housed by the animals kept. His only friend is a poisonous spider but this suits his purpose. The nursemaids, who remained in the house as servants, fear for his safety but Lucas’s plans matter more to him.

As the story unfolds it becomes clear that Lucas sees through a glass darkly, his childish senses unable to comprehend his father’s intentions. The reader must decide on the reliability of Lucas’s narration. Are dubious actions caused by the two strangers or had Lucas some hand in what later occurred? He grew to hate his father alongside the men allowed to infiltrate their lives. They and the church were complicit in how his mother was treated, her eventual death regarded as a release.

The writing is vividly sensuous, feasting on the rot at the heart of man’s selfish behaviour. The state of Lucas’s mind may be pondered, but it remains understandable why he regards the order and useful industry of insects as more worthy of respect.

“The resurrection of our flesh is a miracle. There is no spirit that ascends, only a body that breaks down and descends in spirals through the earth, forming a more perfect and symmetrical existence.”

This is a tale to challenge assumptions of what may be recoiled from as dirty or creepy. Is it the hard working crawling and flying insects or the men who abuse for their own ends? Nature may be temporarily tamed but, given opportunity, will return with a vengeance. We have here an unflinching yet somehow lyrical account of one man harnessing such knowledge to overcome pests.

Any Cop?: Some readers may quail at the imagery. Here it is convincingly depicted as more beneficial and admirable than human behaviour.

Jackie Law