Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz, published by Charco Press

As part of my feature on The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses I am posting a number of guest reviews written by a couple of my fellow judges. Today I welcome back Paul Fulcher who provides his thoughts on Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz (translated by Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff), published by Charco Press.

 

“People here prepare for winter like animals. Nothing distinguishes us from them. Take me, an educated woman, a university graduate – I’m more of an animal than those half-dead foxes, their faces stained red, sticks propping their mouths wide open.”

My 2017 reading year has focused on the UK’s small independent press scene, source of the most exciting literary fiction. Many were already familiar to me (Fitzcarraldo, Tramp Press, Peirene, Galley Beggar, And Other Stories) but Charco Press is new, not just to me, but to the publishing scene generally. Their name is taken from the colloquial expression ‘cruzar el charco’ meaning ‘crossing the puddle’, a way of referring to when someone is going overseas, or travelling between continents, and their mission is to bring exciting Latin American literature, via translation, to the UK. Their mission statement is worth quoting in full:

“Charco Press was born from a desire to do something a little out of the ordinary. To bring you, the reader, books from a different part of the world. Outstanding books. Books you want to read. Maybe even books you need to read.

Charco Press is ambitious. We aim to change the current literary scene and make room for a kind of literature that has been overlooked. We want to be that bridge between a world of talented contemporary writers and yourself.

We select authors whose works feed the imagination, challenge perspective and spark debate. Authors that are shining lights in the world of contemporary literature. Authors whose works have won awards and received critical acclaim. Bestselling authors. Yet authors you perhaps have never heard of. Because none of them have been published in English.

Until now.”

Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz was one of their two launch books last Summer and tells the story of an unnamed new mother and her – strikingly also unnamed in her narration – husband and first born child, six months old as the novel opens. It is a visceral and haunting story of post-partum depression which begins:

“I lay back in the grass among fallen trees and the sun on my palm felt like a knife I could use to bleed myself dry with one swift cut to the jugular. Behind me, against the backdrop of a house somewhere between dilapidated and homely, I could hear the voices of my son and my husband. Both of them naked. Both of them splashing around in the blue paddling pool, the water thirty-five degrees. It was the Sunday before a bank holiday. I was a few steps away, hidden in the underbrush. Spying on them. How could a weak, perverse woman like me, someone who dreams of a knife in her hand, be the mother and wife of those two individuals?”

This is not a mother who is sentimental for her child or the mystery of birth:

“If I’d closed my legs and grabbed his dick, I wouldn’t have to go to the bakery for cream cake or chocolate cake and candles, half a year already. The moment other women give birth they usually say, I can’t imagine my life without him now, it’s as though he’s always been here. I’m coming, baby! I want to scream, but I sink deeper into the cracked earth.”

University educated and from urban surrounds, the French countryside where she lives also depresses her:

“These people are going to make me lose it. I wish I had Egon Schiele, Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon for neighbours; then my son could grow up and develop intellectually by learning that there’s more to the world I brought him into than opening old skylights you can’t see out of anyway. As soon as all the others had escaped to their rooms to digest their meals, I heard my father-in-law cutting the grass beneath the snow with his new green tractor and thought that if I could lynch my whole family to be alone for one minute with Glenn Gould, I’d do it.”

Harwicz wrote the book listening ‘obsessively’ to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata n. 13 in E flat major, Op. 27 n. 1 and Glenn Gould‘s rendition of part of the Sonata captures the book’s mood.

As the novel progresses, in a stream of fevered thoughts, it is not always clear what actually takes place and what – notably an affair with another parent in the locality – is imagined:

“My baby was practically asleep on his feet but he still went on stumbling through the house, holding onto the curtains and the century-old coffee tables and throwing whatever he found to the floor. Ashtrays, cutlery. Maybe he was staying awake to make sure I didn’t spend the night in another man’s arms. It was a long time before I was finally able to put him in the cot, stop his crying, turn the pages of one of his books about astronauts or sea captains and convince him that the best thing you can do at night is sleep. Mummy’s telling lies.
[…]
As soon I stepped outside, I saw him and forgot about everything that had come before, about the smouldering house, about my little soldier sleeping with his eyes open like a rabbit, about all those days of anguished anticipation. And I devoured him. Because that, my dear son, is what the night is for.”

But her relationship with her, even in her account, remarkably patient husband is characterised by an extreme form of love-hate:

“We’re one of those couples who mechanise the word ‘love’, who use it even when they despise each other. I never want to see you again, my love.”

(and some years later at her son’s birthday party)

“Something made me rush inside and shut myself in my bedroom, slamming the door behind me. I hope you all die, every last one of you. As usual, he came knocking on my door. Darling, honey, sugar, sweetheart, my bunny rabbit, my love, I can’t remember all the names he called me. And I said nothing. Are you okay? And I still said nothing. Come out, all the guests are leaving, don’t ruin this. Where are the party bags? And I said, Why don’t you leave me the hell alone and die. Just die, my love.”

The contemporary translation by Sarah Moses (Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Argentina) and Carolina Orioff (Editor and Co-Director of Charco Press) adds to the power of the work.

It has, as other reviewers have noted, a flavour of Fever Dream meets Sorry to Disrupt the Peace. A striking novel, and I was immediately prompted to subscribe to Charco Press’s forthcoming releases.

PF

 

You may read my review of Die, My Love here.

Coming later this week, a guest post from the publisher and an interview with the author of this book.

Keep up with all the news on The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses by following on Twitter: @PrizeRofc

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Book Review: The Shore

The Shore, by Sara Taylor, is a set of stories about a place and the people who live there. The location is ‘a collection of islands sticking out from the coast of Virginia into the Atlantic Ocean’. The residents who populate the tales have lived on these islands for generations, with many struggling against poverty and addiction. Each of the thirteen interconnected chapters tells of a significant moment in the characters’ lives, between 1885 and 2143. These snapshots enable the reader to better understand the consequences of actions and decisions on those who were there, and on their descendants. Inheritance is shown to be more than genes and material possessions.

The story opens in 1995. Two little girls, Chloe and Renee, are finding ways to survive the neglect of their drug addicted, violent father. His is not the only abuse they have suffered. They have witnessed a murder and will have their futures forever changed by another. Their travels and travails offer cultural and geographic insight into the land that forms the backbone of the subsequent stories.

The second chapter is set in 1933. Mark is rolling in the hay with Letty, his true love, who married another. Their liaisons will lead to public recriminations and estrangements. Their love child will not love the life they give her. Parenting styles may have an impact but are no guarantee of an offspring’s behaviour.

As each set of characters was introduced I referred back to the useful family tree provided at the beginning of the book. This is a necessary addition as background is touched on lightly. The reader is trusted to remember what has already been revealed.

In 1992 Sally is remembering the first storm she conjured and how her grandfather warned her of the dangers of controlling weather. Now Grandpa Tom lives in a Rest Home, paid for by the remaining cousins in their sprawling family. Sally recalls the wider family history. It is filled with runaways, broken marriages, unwanted pregnancies and unhappy children. Grandpa Tom’s grandmother, Medora, provided the inheritance that bought the land and built the still enduring family home. Medora’s story is further explored in the following chapter.

As well as the ties of family and place there is an inherent sadness linking the characters introduced. Despite this and the recurring violence – psychological as well as physical – the writing is evocative and lyrical. The Shore is presented as a challenging place but one that exerts a hold on those raised in its environs.

A later chapter jumps into the future when the human race is threatened by a sexually transmitted virus. A survivor, Tamara, has hidden herself from society in the house where Chloe and Renee once lived. Tamara is desperate for a baby but is a carrier for the disease, something she refuses to believe. She seeks out a mate, an apocalypse disciple who can’t believe his good fortune at her willingness to have sex. The consequences for all are devastating.

The final chapter is set further into the future when the diminished population has stabilised and a new societal structure developed. Some of the babies born have grown into ‘halfmen’ who get by on subsistence living. One of these narrates the story of how he won himself a woman. The circle of life turns.

At the heart of these tales is a desire for autonomy in a world where race, gender, age, ability and wealth dictate accepted freedoms. Although each character has struck out to gain what they desire the cost has been great, the reverberations unanticipated. Ever after is shown to be a delusion with the inevitable clouds intercepting any sunbeams of hard won happiness.

A beautifully written if somewhat doleful saga populated by the flawed, wicked and foolish as well as those whose motives are more supportive. I could happily have read more about any of the varied characters featured. By keeping it concise the author never for a moment lost this reader’s engagement.

Book Review: Hollow Shores

Hollow Shores, by Gary Budden, is a collection of twenty-one short stories interlinked by people who, for a time at least, inhabit a stretch of the Kent coastline known as the Hollow Shore. The characters weave in and out of each other’s lives creating ripples whose effects are rarely understood by those involved. The place is walked through, escaped from and returned to. The stories are works of fiction but, as several of the offerings explore, although based on fact so are an individual’s memories.

The collection opens with Breakdown. On a cold, dark night a long distance lorry driver has a frightening encounter in the Black Forest of Germany. The reality of the experience is the effect it has more than the actuality of what is seen. The memory survives through the telling, the passing on to others who then appropriate the tale for themselves. Family history comes alive when it is retold, each version reflecting what is needed at that time by the narrator.

Saltmarsh presents the coastline through the eyes of a returner from London, who is walking the shoreline to meet an old friend. He is seeing the place afresh as he reflects on the direction his life has taken. His journey is not the seven mile hike but rather his ruminations along the way.

Further stories tell of a beached whale; of largely disregarded people who have become landmarks; of the spaces most will pass by without seeing. There are histories being made in the peripheries of each life lived.

Up and Coming expands on this theme. The protagonist is in a bar with friends waiting to attend a gig, observing those around him, realising that this moment will soon be a part of his past. He mourns the loss of a much loved venue, envies the young people who still have such memories to make. The author captures the judgements being silently made when others act in ways that differ from an individuals valued ideals. Impressions are often flawed, people’s intentions misunderstood. Despite time spent together few truly listen to what is being said, or seek out meaning behind silences. Later in life, when what was happening back then is discussed, there is surprise at what was missed despite being there.

The protagonists in these stories are mainly middle-aged so have awareness of time passing by. There is an undercurrent of regret, a longing for what can now feel out of reach. Relationships flounder as needs are neglected or missed.

Key characters recur in many of the stories set in different times and places. Told from varying points of view the reader gets to know these people, although in snapshots rather than fully developed, much like meeting old friends.

The writing is perceptive and pithy. From the title story:

“Julie left on Christmas Day. Married for three years, together for five. Upped and left with the gravy and roast potatoes still steaming on our clean new flooring, uneaten evidence of the final argument. What a waste of food.”

In this story the protagonist chats to a local drunk who comments about passersby, ‘They didn’t listen’ – who does? Eventually he must move back to his childhood bedroom, live with his Telegraph reading parents, listen to his mother update him on people he has no interest in. Yet he discovers that the town he was so desperate to escape from as a teenager now has a certain appeal.

The idea that people are rarely known even by loved ones is taken a step further in Mission Drift which features a man infiltrating a group of suspected activists by living amongst them undercover. Despite being a married father, he lives with one of the group and has a child with her. He wonders how many others are living like him, if he knows them without knowing.

I loved the language and mood of this book, the essence of life captured alongside the sense of place. From The Wrecking Days:

“The name came later, as we retrofitted chunks of our lives and tied them up with clever titles. We were underachievers with verbal flair, lyrical flourishes and a sharp wit, packaging our time into neat parcels. The wrecking days are, for most of us at least, safely compartmentalised, sitting in a past as unrecoverable as the eroding waterline of a home I haven’t visited in years.”

People inevitably change over time and so do places, but what is remembered is as fictional as perceptions of the present day. These stories succinctly capture the importance of life’s mundanities. They are incisive, intriguing and impressively affecting.

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

The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers, published by Bluemoose Books

As part of my feature on The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses I am posting a number of guest reviews written by a couple of my fellow judges. Today I welcome Paul Fulcher who provides his thoughts on The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers, published by Bluemoose Books.

Paul is a father of 3 girls, lives in Wimbledon, works in the City, and has a particular interest in the culture and literature of his wife’s homeland of Korea. He is also my other guest reviewer for this feature, Graham Fulcher’s, identical twin.

 

“So name your Gods lads. Honour them. Live amongst them. And always remember your place. Because England is changing. The wheels of industry turn ever onwards and the trees are falling still. Last week I did chance to meet a man down there in Cragg Vale who told me that soon this valley is to be invaded. He spoke of chimneys and waterways and told of work for those that wanted it, but work that pays a pittance and keeps you enslaved to those that make the money. This man – he told me that this land around us was soon no longer to be our land but that of those who want to reap and rape and bind those of us whose blood is in the sod.”

The independent publisher Bluemoose Books aims to deliver ‘brilliant stories that have travelled from Hebden Bridge, across the border into Lancashire, down to London across to Moscow, Sofia and Budapest and into the United States, Australia, India, Colombia and Greenland, Iceland and Bosnia Herzevogina.

Ben Myers’ The Gallows Pole certainly fits that bill, a story firmly rooted in the Yorkshire moors. Myers’s debut novel Pig Iron was winner of the inaugural Gordon Burn Prize – a prize awarded to ‘novels which dare to enter history and interrogate the past…literature which challenges perceived notions of genre and makes us think again about just what it is that we are reading’, but has chosen to remain with an independent publisher rather than adapt his work to more conventional tastes:

“I feel like as a writer, I’m from the margins, or the underground – a lot of my heroes and influences are people who are on the edge … so I think ‘why bother to chase [the big] publishers?’” (The Guardian)

The Gallows Pole tells the real-life story of “King” David Hartley, leader of the Cragg Vale Coiners in the 18th Century, who clipped gold coins and then produced forged coins with the clippings. Their activities were of sufficient economic import to come to the attention of Parliament and the London authorities, and Hartley’s life (and the novel) ended on the gallows.

Their approach, which, while considerably enriching themselves, enlisted the support of many (but not all) of the local populace is explained on the website Yorkshire Coiners maintained by a present-day direct descendent of David Hartley:

“The Cragg Vale Coiners would pay 22 Shillings for a full size coin (worth 21 shillings) and would then clip and shave up to forty Pence worth of gold from it before returning it to circulation for its face value of 21 Shillings. The lender themselves therefore gained a shilling as a result of the transaction whilst not actually being involved in the clipping. This helped to gain support locally and to conceal the activities of the Coiners, since nobody (except the excise collectors and the Government) suffered a loss and generally all involved made a small gain.”

“The Coiners would use the gold collected from about 7 or 8 genuine coins to create an imitation Portuguese Moidore, with a higher face value of 27 Shillings and feed this fake coin into circulation for its face value. They would only use about 22 Shillings worth of gold to create the fake, so making a substantial profit on each new coin they forged.”

An 18th century Portuguese Moidore:
description

One of the coiners tools from the Heptonstall Museum:
description

Reviewers saw present-day political references, to Margaret Thatcher’s antagonism to the North, in Myers debut novel that the author himself had not consciously placed there but agreed could be present as a sub-conscious metaphor (A Fiction Habit).

And with The Gallows Pole there are again obvious parallels (implicit and perhaps sub-conscious) to Brexit and the 2017 general election and the rebellion against globalisation. The Coiners saw themselves as fighting – what even David Hartley realises is a losing battle – against the economic forces of the industrial revolution: see the quote that opens my review.

Whereas the authorities – represented by the solicitor Robert Parker (believed by some to be the real-life model for Bronte’s Heathcliff) and the exciseman William Deighton – see them as a regressive resistance to positive change. Deighton wants to:

“Send a message. A message to the hill folk. That times were changing. The empire expanding. That men earned money not made it; that a country ran on rules. Rules for everyone. Call it society. Call it civilisation. From the crown all the way down. Rules. Laws. Restrictions. The dark days were over. New ways were coming. Big ideas. Ideas that would change the world. Call it economy. Call it industry. Call it England.”

And on a second read in December 2017, I could also see echoes of the current fad of cryptocurrencies, threatening to debase fiat money, and cryptoanarchy:

“He had been warned: the authoritarian grip was weakening and this way outright anarchy beckoned.”

Myers has also worked as a freelance music journalist and for each of his novels constructs a playlist ‘of songs and sounds that might shape the narrative. … compiled as one would an imaginary soundtrack to a film adaptation of the work.’

His playlist for this novel can be found at The Quietus, including Leadbelly’s version of The Gallows Pole (itself an adaption of the traditional song ‘The Maid Freed From the Gallows’), from which the novel takes both its name and its epigraph, and, my favourite, Winterfylleth’s The Divination Of Antiquity, from a band that produces ‘passionate, anthemic black metal inspired by the history, heritage and landscapes of England’.

Although the list excludes Chumbawumba’s ‘Snip, Snip, Snip’, directly inspired by the Coiners’ story.

“Pick a coin, any coin, and with a snip snip snip you turn a portuguese guinea to a threepenny bit; and every last watermark just curled up and died and now the king and the queen got a bit on the side. Don’t be bloody silly keep away from bloody Billy cause he’s shopping all the chopping going down along the valley, and supergrassing catches like a plague, to be sure, but it’s nothing that a bullet in the belly couldn’t cure.”

There is also a related musicality to the novel itself, a deliberately dull repetitiveness, strongly reminiscent of David Peace. Myers himself explains it perfectly:

“I was aiming to achieve in the novel – a sort of haunted and ethereal earthiness, which draws on a limited vocabulary and heavy use of repetition. The Gallows Pole features the names of people and places repeated over and over again almost to absurd and annoying levels, in an attempt to induce a trance or evoke a rural reverie within the reader.”

Yet at the same time, when it comes to descriptions of natural surroundings – the weather, flora and fauna and people of the vale – the prose is beautifully lyrical:

“The rain fell like the filings of a milled guinea bit onto a folded piece of paper.”

And describing the ‘supergrasses’ who eventually brought down the Coiners:

“All his life Joseph ‘Belch’ Broadbent had been shrouded in smoke. Years tending the charcoal clamp meant it flavoured not just his clothes and hair with the slow dampened burn of oak and willow and alder, nor merely tanned his skin with soot and blackened dirt, but was within him; it had smoked him from the inside out and left Belch Broadbent with rheumy lidded eyes and a hacking cough that rattled most violently in the early hours.

James Broadbent walked towards the distant rising plume that marked his father’s position as if it were a swarm of wasps leaving its fissure of an arid woodland floor or curl of a crawling tree root.
[…]

The earth was in his father’s scalp and his stubble. It had become him. His body hosted smoke. It was stirred into his essence to dilute that which made him human so that he was now part of the landscape and part of the fire; he was made of the smoke that billowed and rolled and tumbled during the slow process that took felled timber through combustion to become the shards and clots of carbon that fuelled fires and furnaces the length and breadth of Calderdale. He was wood-smoke manifest; man as a settled miasma. A nebulous fellow, burnt brume in stout boots, with a clay pipe clicking between what remained of his teeth.”

The Guardian has already made the comparison that The Gallows Pole might be 2017’s His Bloody Project, but in my view it is much much better than that. A notable point of comparison is that both feature excerpts of a condemned-cell confession but whereas HBP’s version was unrealistically literate, King David Hartley’s thoughts are written in a sort of pidgin English that reads oddly but works if read aloud (rather reminiscent of Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, another Gordon Burn Prize winner), and give insight into his motivations, both his self-importance but also his doubts, and his rather delusional visions of the stag-men

“I saw them. Stag-headed men dancing at on the moor at midnight, nostrils flared and steam rising.”

Both the narrative tension and the perspective of the novel are at the micro-level in the enclosed world of the moors and particularly in the thoughts and actions of Hartley. We hear allusions to the impact of the debasement of the coin of the realm on the wider economy, but this largely happens off-page. And both the title of the novel and the fatalistic attitude of the Hartleys leave us in little doubt where the story will end: even the identity of their ultimate betrayer is pretty clear from the opening pages (hence lack of any spoiler alerts in my review).

Perhaps one small weakness of the work was the lack of development of Hartley’s wife.

Unbeknownst to her husband she salts away some of the Coiners output to protect her family from the likely hard times ahead, and, in reality, she bought a new home (for a considerable sum in hard cash) after her husband’s execution and outlived him for 30 or more years. It would have been interesting to have seen into her thoughts, as she acts mostly in the novel as a rather passive observer.

But that is a small flaw – and indeed perhaps no flaw at all, since no novel is entirely comprehensive – in a fascinating work. A book deserving of wider attention and one I hope to see – as His Bloody Project did – featuring in awards.

Highly recommended.

PF

 

You may read my review of The Gallows Pole here.

Next week on my blog look out for an interview with Benjamin Myers, the author of this book.

Keep up with all the news on The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses by following on Twitter: @PrizeRofc

Gaudy Bauble by Isabel Waidner, published by Dostoyevsky Wannabe.

Throughout January I will be running a feature on the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses. This will include interviews and guest posts from some of the publishers and authors whose books were selected for the longlist. The first title to be featured is Gaudy Bauble by Isabel Waidner, published by Dostoyevsky Wannabe. To kick things off, today I have a guest review of the book from my fellow judge, Graham Fulcher. Graham is a father of 3 girls and a new puppy, lives in Reigate, Surrey and works in London (with monthly trips to New York which gives plenty of reading time). You may follow him on Twitter: @GrahamFulcher

 

Gaudy Bauble is published by a small UK publisher, Dostoyevsky Wannabe, who “publish and exhibit independent/experimental/underground things”

Given this aim it is far from a coincidence that Isabel Waidner is the ex-bassist of the indie, experimental group “Klang” – who struggled at times with matching their underground philosophy with the attention they gained from their lead singer being Donna Matthews of Elastica. Their main single was “L.O.V.E.” from their early post punk period. The author is now a research fellow in the Department of English and Creative Writing at the University of Roehampton, London, where she invites inquiries from prospective research students in “areas of innovative fiction, avant-garde writing, and creative writing at the intersections with cultural studies, gender studies, queer studies, body studies, subjectivity and independent publishing.” These research themes are key to the motivation behind this novel – even more so on the realisation that this novel was in fact an integral part of Waidner’s PhD Thesis. The reading of this was crucial to cementing and amplifying my (admittedly still limited) understanding of this hugely experimental book.

Attempting to put that understanding in my own words, I believe that Waidner’s key idea is to link two areas: conceptual art (something which she feels has only had limited cross over into literature) and post-identity gender fluidity – this leads to her concept of trans-literature.

Further, a key element of the book is its rejection of the traditional novelistic structure featuring a main character, other key characters, minor characters and then passive objects with which they interact. I believe that Waidner implicitly equates this rigid and hierarchical structure with a traditional patriarchal, gender-rigid society.

In this book by contrast the dominant character is a fluid concept – and just as an hierarchy starts to form (often to the relief of the reader, who finally starts to be able to identify the book with conventional concepts of plot and character and feels they are returning to something they know), Waidner very deliberately overturns this hierarchy and introduces a new main character, including in many cases what initially seemed inanimate objects – often based around patterns or illustrations on clothing (clothing often described in detail, and all it seems based on items that Waidner or her friends have worn).

Another way of saying this is that just as we start to find some solid ground Waidner pulls the rug from under our feet – a cliché but one I have chosen deliberately as a key example of this idea (and one Waidner explains at length in her thesis) is when a pattern on a carpet suddenly emerges as the main protagonist of the book, only for, just when the reader is starting to accept this, the polyester-style material of the carpet to take over from the pattern as the protagonist.

Other thematic elements of the book which stood out to me on my initial read (and before reading the thesis) were: the clear use of Google as a tool to take an idea and extend in a kind of free-association exploration of an initial concept and a search for links or word plays that can be incorporated to alter the course of the novel or to facilitate the introduction of new protagonists; the slightly odd narrative which at times can read like a rather literal translation from German (an idea crystallised by the occassional insertion of German sentences). To my interest, both of these elements (which I may have regarded as criticisms) are dwelt on and examined in the thesis.

The actual style and plot (to the extent such reactionary concepts even have any validity in this ultra-progressive, post-everything novel) is best captured by simply giving links to a number of websites that have published excerpts from the novel (others are embedded and conceptualised in the author’s PhD thesis).

And this perhaps gets to the heart of my only criticism of the book – accessibility. I suspect for many (if not most) readers, these excerpts are not going to encourage further engagement with this book. Another Goodreads reviewer who ended up giving this book a 4* rating, originally could not get past the first page for several days.

One of the very few mainstream authors that Waidner admires is Ali Smith, and in fact Smith’s partner, Sarah Wood, provides the photography for this book. However Smith has made a breakthrough into the literary mainstream. I was critical of elements of her latest book “Autumn”, which I felt owed more to the absurdity of Harry Hill than cutting edge literature, but it’s clear from Goodreads reviews that it’s exactly those passages that have drawn many others into the book, giving them an entry point with which to engage with the more radical and experimental themes.

I suspect if (and this may be a significant if) Waidner wishes to really challenge the mainstream with her ideas, then she may need to think about this concept of allowing an entry point into her work.

However, once engaged I found this a fascinating novel.

GF

  

You may read my review of Gaudy Bauble here.

I will be posting interviews with the publisher and author later this week.

Keep up with all the news on The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses by following on Twitter: @PrizeRofc

Book Review: Six Tudor Queens – Jane Seymour

Six Tudor Queens: Jane Seymour – The Haunted Queen, by Alison Weir, is the third in a series of specially commissioned books which together tell the story of Henry VIII’s wives, from their point of view. Each instalment is a highly detailed, fictionalised account based on known and researched facts, with literary licence taken to aid storytelling. The author is a well regarded historian and explains at the end of each book why she presented key moments in her subjects’ lives the way she did. Jane Seymour served both Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn as a maid-of-honour during the turbulent years when the latter replaced the former as queen so there is a degree of overlap in the first three books in the series. Jane left little written evidence of her life and thoughts so the author has constructed a tale based on interpretation and informed invention.

The story opens when Jane is ten years old and attending a lavish dinner at her family home, Wulf Hall in Wiltshire, to celebrate the marriage of her elder brother, Edward, to Catherine Fillol. The match is regarded as a good one by both families and within a year they have had a child. By then their initial happiness has soured for disturbing reasons. Jane’s mother gave birth to ten children but not all survived into adulthood. The precariousness of life, at a time when doctors could offer little more than herbal infusions as remedies, plays a key role in the ongoing narrative. The coming years bring outbreaks of devastating plague to England as well as the tragedies of royal babies not carried to term. The fecundity of the Seymours may well have been part of Jane’s appeal to the king when he grew disillusioned with Anne Boleyn.

The timeline jumps forward to when Jane is eighteen years old. She wishes to be a nun but does not cope well with the hardships required by this life so returns home. Her siblings are making their way in the world and she starts to look beyond Wulf Hall which is no longer the happy, family home of her childhood. She is pleased to be granted the opportunity to serve at the royal court in London.

Jane soon discovers that court life is a hotbed of intrigue and gossip, the factional rivalry an unwelcome contrast to the peaceful existence she associates with Wulf Hall. Anne is approaching her zenith and Jane accompanies Katherine when she is required to leave Henry and his palaces as the royal marriage is annulled. Jane is a staunch supporter of the church so is appalled by the ecclesiastical reforms being proposed and managed by an increasingly influential Cromwell. When Katherine is stripped of her household in an attempt to force her to comply with the king’s wishes, the Seymours insist that Jane not waste the costly court place they provided. She is required to return to London and serve Anne.

Jane is witness to the distress caused by the new queen’s miscarriages. Despite Anne’s suffering, Jane despises her for what she has done to Katherine. When Henry starts to take notice of Jane she chooses not to reject his advances as she does not consider him lawfully married. In this she is encouraged by her ambitious brothers and a growing band of supporters eager to do away with Anne and reinstate Katherine’s daughter, Mary, in the succession.

The bare bones of the story are, of course, well known. In many ways the plot is slow moving as Jane’s participation and influence on key events are minor until close to the end of her life. What this enables is a detailed portrayal of life in Tudor England from the point of view of a noble but peripheral family rising through the echelons of the royal court. Clothes, food, and the day to day preoccupations of sixteenth century, privileged women are vividly presented.

Jane is depicted as somewhat gauche but aware of the risks she is taking in becoming involved with Henry. Her loyalty to her family is key in the decisions she makes. Having witnessed how ruthless Henry could be to his wives she is aware of the precariousness of her position. Although wishing to promote the causes her supporters espouse she is mostly circumspect in her dealings with the king who has little patience with any who will not bend as he wills.

The author has chosen not to ascribe Jane’s death to the traditionally accepted puerperal fever. Her reasoning for this is compelling. By this time Henry was approaching fifty, suffering from leg ulcers and putting on weight. The couple’s supposed love for each other is shown to have serious caveats. It seems unlikely that the life Jane dreamed of would have been possible even had she lived.

Although the truly historic events are the same in all three of the books so far released in this series, the changing points of view provide new perspective and depth. This is an accessible and well structured account of a queen who, despite providing Henry’s longed for prince, is rarely granted as much attention as her predecessor. It provides an intimate window into the rarefied yet ruthless Tudor world.

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

Book Review: Come And Find Me

Come And Find Me, by Sarah Hilary, is the fifth book in the author’s Marnie Rome series of crime thrillers. It opens with a prison riot during which several inmates are viciously attacked, a fire is started and, in the ensuing mayhem, one escapes. Mickey Vokey was incarcerated after he assaulted a young mother in her home. He has been receiving impassioned fan-mail from women since his conviction, who have provided him with their addresses that he may write back to them. In attempting to locate the felon, the police are spread thin. Cutbacks and the interest of the press add to the pressures the force comes under, that and the consensus from those who knew Vokey that none of the photographs being circulated of the missing person look anything like him.

DI Marnie Rome must once again detach her professional life from her personal demons. Her foster-brother, Stephen Keele, has sustained life-threatening injuries in the riot. Marnie approaches her contacts within the prison but is unsure of the veracity of their testimony. Prisoners know that they must not upset those within the system for fear of direct retaliation. They are also aware that those on the outside maintain control by threatening family members.

Marnie and her team quickly uncover a number of valuable leads, including access to the Vokey family home. Mickey Vokey is a talented artist with a particular interest in capturing the emotions of his subjects. He collected photographs including some of his known victim. The police officers fear that there could be others unaccounted for within his collection, and that now he could strike again.

Interspersed with the details of the ongoing search and investigation are chapters narrating the thoughts of Vokey’s cellmate who is on life-support due to injuries sustained in the riot. Ted Elms was convicted of benefit fraud and is regarded as a model prisoner. He knows what happened during the riot but is now unable to speak. He is, however, more aware of what is going on around him than his carers and visitors realise.

The reader is offered glimpses of past lives that enable empathy with the varied cast of characters despite their obvious flaws. Where there is evil it has been exacerbated by the prison system. Prisons also exist on the outside due to loneliness and societal dislocation. Initial, easy judgements rarely stand up to scrutiny.

The author is a master of suspense – it is almost frightening how good she is at injecting dark, twisted suspicions and changes of direction. Although gruesome in places the prose remains emotive and sensuous. Smells and tastes permeate each tightly constructed scene.

A crime thriller that dives straight into the action and maintains a roller coaster tension through to the unanticipated denouement. It will appeal to fans of the genre but contains sufficient depth and consideration to satisfy any reader. A fiercely assured addition to an unflinching series. This is a recommended read.

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