Robyn Reviews: Mordew

mordew

I’ve been a fan of Alex Pheby’s work since I first read ‘Playthings’. His next novel, ‘Lucia’, was also excellent. When I heard he was turning his hand to fantasy I was excited – fantasy is my primary genre, and given the creativity of his literary fiction I was intrigued by what he could do with expanded horizons. The answer, it would appear, is a lot – possibly too much to form a fully coherent novel.

Mordew – a play on the French Mort Dieu, meaning God is Dead – is set in the city of Mordew, a city ruled by the mysterious Master, a man who stays in his locked palace on the top of the hill yet reigns completely unopposed. At the bottom of the hill lie the slums, coated in the filth of the Living Mud – and it is in these slums that Nathaniel Treeves, the protagonist, grows up. Nathan is different to those around him – he has a Spark, an ability which he can use to coax flukes from the Living Mud to sell to obtain medicine for his dying father. However, Nathan’s abilities only go so far, and the day comes when his mother decides she’d be better off selling him to the Master. This sets off a chain of events which shake the very foundations of the city of Mordew.

Nathaniel is a difficult protagonist to like. He’s thirteen – always a bold choice in an adult fantasy novel – and in many ways acts his age. However, his biggest crime is his complete inability to make a decision. He never seems to know what he wants, or why – partially because no-one ever explains what’s going on to him, but partially because he really doesn’t seem to have anything he wants. Characters in any genre need to have a goal – Nathan starts off with a goal, but when that goal becomes impossible, he never creates another one. Instead, he’s led around like a fool for the entire novel – which does well to show the power of those around him, but makes him very hard to root for.

The best character in the book is undoubtedly Dashini, who’s the complete opposite – strong-willed with clear goals and knowledge about what’s going on around her. Dashini lights up the novel when she appears, and in many ways would have made a much stronger protagonist.

As a regular fantasy reader, I’m very confident in my preferences – strong, character-driven fantasy with a clearly delineated and explained magic system and beautiful prose. This clearly plot-and-worldbuilding-driven fantasy was never going to be exactly my cup of tea. However, I do think the world created is fascinating. The idea of the Living Mud and flukes is intriguing, and the corpse of God – something which I don’t think the blurb should mention due to the lateness of its appearance in the novel – as a source of power is bold. I also loved the descriptors – Spark, Itching, and Scratching. There are few answers about how power works, but this is the first book in a trilogy so that isn’t really required at this stage.

The other main issue this book has, besides the apathy of the protagonist, is the pacing. The first 250-odd pages are incredibly slow and do very little to further the plot. Fortunately, the pace picks up from here and remains brisk for the rest of the novel – but, especially given the blurb, the first section is essentially spent waiting for the book to start doing what it advertises.

Overall, this is a solid novel with a very intriguing world, but one that suffers from a lack of character depth. It reads very much like a debut – possibly to be expected given that this is the author’s first foray into fantasy. Recommended for fans of darker, plot-focused fantasy and fantasy of a literary bent.

 

Jackie’s review of Mordew can be found here

 

Published by Galley Beggars
Hardback: 13th August 2020

Book Review: Mordew

“When a wheel turns it rolls across those things beneath it: stones are pushed into the mud, snail shells break, delicate flowers are crushed.”

Mordew, by Alex Pheby, uses the above words in its description of The Master of the titular city. The Master is powerful, using magic to retain control of the place he protected from the encroaching sea and now lives above. He takes unwanted boys from their families and finds uses for them in the running of the place – and in experiments. The Master is curious and ruthless. When he is offered thirteen year old Nathan Treeves, it marks the beginning of a battle for supremacy. There are consequences to unleashing powers that may be better contained.

Nathan is a boy with magical abilities that everyone he encounters wishes to use for their own selfish ends. He is told by adults not to ‘spark’, but does so anyway. Mordew is the story of what happens next.

The reading of the tale should not be rushed. There are a great many aspects to the setting, along with character interrelationships to weave together. These are not difficult but are best given due consideration.

The book is the first in a proposed fantasy fiction trilogy. There is impressive world building along with recognisable greed for wealth and influence. Nathan is a central figure with capacities beyond his comprehension that other, more informed individuals, intend to harness. The power he possesses has not been explained to him.

“Can you weigh up the wrong a man might do in doing good and match it against actions that might be taken to prevent that wrong?”

The opening section introduces the boy, a slum dweller who tries to help his family by catching creatures formed in the ‘living mud’ surrounding their decrepit home. Nathan’s father is dying of ‘lung worm’. His mother puts food on the table by selling herself to ‘gentlemen callers’. What is offered is a picture of extreme poverty, the only life young Nathan has known.

In order to buy medicine for his father, Nathan joins a gang of petty criminals. With them he ventures into the gated community of merchants. Here, he encounters a different way of living. By using his magical abilities, the gang can tackle more audacious heists than previously. They enjoy their nefarious rewards, but someone else is pulling their strings.

The second part of the book – which I found more engaging – takes Nathan into the home of The Master. Here, he lives in affluence and receives an education. There is an undercurrent of mistrust – of what The Master knows and wants from the boy. When Nathan agrees to a task The Master sets, the devastation wreaked changes him.

“like the calm rippling of fog across the surface of the sea on a cold and storm-less morning at low tide. Whatever was beneath the surface, whatever violence the underwater creatures acted out upon each other, was hidden. What does a man on the shore know of the activities of fish and crabs and coral and vents deep in the trenches of the ocean?”

It is frustrating when Nathan’s powers are curtailed due to his willingness to trust others. It is then interesting to watch what happens when he uses his spark fully. The author is leading the reader, and he does this so well.

I also enjoyed how the author deals with coincidences necessary for plot progression. When he chooses this direction, or breaks supposed rules of creative writing, it is alluded to in a sort of fourth wall narrative.

Although often dark and cheerless there is a playfulness in how the tale is written. This comes to the fore in the massive glossary provided, which the author advises be read at the end, where it is placed. Certain entries here provide additional background information and hints at what may be to come as the trilogy develops.

The book concludes with a ‘Philosophy of the Weft’ which I found rather dense to read. Even with these extras, not all questions are answered – inevitable perhaps in a three part tale. I am still pondering why Nathan’s parents raised him as they did.

There is a degree of nihilism in the overall arc. Characters act to buy themselves more time, comfort and obeisance, however damaging what they do may be. Ultimately, many actions prove personally futile due to mortality. There are, however, ghosts. And then there is God, dead in the catacombs beneath the city. The realm in which beings exist, their transience and fluidity, may yet prove to be key. I have no doubt the author introduced each creature and trait for a reason.

These layers add interest to what could have been a typical fantasy story of an unpolished child with powers who takes on an established overlord. There is enough that is new in this imaginative epic to make it well worth reading.

Mordew is published by Galley Beggar Press.

Gig Review: The Greenwich Book Festival – Class Matters

From the festival programme:

In 2017, Dead Ink Press published the pioneering anthology Know Your Place in which working class writers addressed the issue of class inequalities head on. Authors from the anthology, and elsewhere, discuss class and writing.

Chaired by Matthew De Abaitua, the panel for this discussion included one writer from the excellent Know Your Place. Due to a no show, festival co-director Alex Pheby stepped in at the last minute to join Yvonne Singh and Shiromi Pinto. The discussion covered much interesting ground. None of the four authors are now working class but, growing up, all experienced class issues. My daughter and I ended up discussing this event more than any of the others attended. I may write my own post on class in due course to process the thoughts provoked.

Yvonne opened the event and read her story, More Than Just a Dreamland, from the anthology. Yvonne is a journalist, writer and editor. Her parents are from the Windrush generation. She applied to Know Your Place because she wished to counter the grim stereotypes of the working class, to write something joyful. Her story is set around a British beach. Such places are derided by some yet they hold happy memories for so many. Yvonne had to work her way through university. She first became aware of class at this time.

Alex was asked what role class played in him becoming a writer. He writes about the mentally ill and told us their weirdness cuts out the bullshit by which we live our lives. Alex grew up on a council estate in Basildon. His family then moved to Worcester where, due to his accent, he was considered posh. He passed the 11+ exam and ended up at a public school. Here he was called a gypo – a derogatory term. He experienced a sense of displacement.

Matthew asked about class mobility, what is left behind, identity. Shiromi grew up in Canada and finds class issues baffling. When invited to join the panel she was asked what class she would be and didn’t know. She has the experience of an immigrant coming from an aspirational working class family who moved to improve their chances. Her parents left Britain for Canada as they wanted to leave behind the racism and difficulty of class mobility. They desired greater opportunities for their children.

Matthew asked what working class means now. Yvonne talked of a survey that suggested there were seven classes, the lowest being precarious due to the gig economy. Like the others on the panel she accepts that she is not working class but that is her background.

Matthew quoted Orwell: “he does not act, he is acted upon”. Working class people have no agency.

Yvonne agreed. Many people now feel they cannot shape their future. Housing is out of reach and the older generation do not understand the younger’s lived experiences today.

Alex talked of the post-Thatcher attempt to undermine the infrastructure of support – unions, libraries, society. We now live in a strange form of individualism.

Yvonne mentioned that when she goes back to visit her working class acquaintances she feels a type of imposter syndrome.

Alex told us that his family were very left wing, Marxist. He doesn’t feel that he belongs to that. Whatever he is, his kids are middle class.

Matthew then read from his book, Self & I, about a period when he was working as a security guard on the Liverpool docks while a student. His mentor was an older guard who expressed annoyance when talking about students, asking what is the point of English Literature? The man bought himself a can of coke each day as a treat. Money was tight and coke was not a necessity, it was a rare luxury item that he allowed himself. When Matthew worked for Will Self it was at times almost a Pygmalian type relationship.

Matthew asked the panel about Grenfill and austerity.

Yvonne could only attend university as she received a full grant. She still had to work.

Alex, a university lecturer, told us that the obligation to work impacts on students’ ability to write. With the abolition of grants, more students have to work. Some also need to juggle childcare. They leave with huge debts. When that generation gains power in the future they may cancel these debts. What impact will that have on capitalism? Vice Chancellors wish to improve their institutions’ standings in league tables so raise entrance criteria. This cuts down on the diversity of students affecting all of their experiences.

Shiromi mentioned that Canada has always had university fees. Students graduate and go on to wait on tables in an attempt to clear their debts.

Matthew asked if the panel feel antagonistic towards literary fiction.

Alex talked of the English literary world being one of privilege, centred around Oxbridge and white, English males. Agents look for mirrors of their experiences and this affects who they choose to represent. There is a supposition that if a writer is incapable of gaining entry to Oxbridge then they don’t deserve representation. This attitude is complicit in its continuation.

Yvonne pointed out that fiction exists to tell other people’s stories. It is therefore a shame to limit it to one type, to close doors.

Shiromi moved back to the UK as a student. She was considering becoming a writer but couldn’t see anyone who looked like her being selected. They were all Oxbridge, an incredibly narrow field. Independent publishers offer a lifeline but the industry as a whole is exclusively a certain type. It is dispiriting.

Matthew suggested commercial fiction acts as a censor.

Questions were invited from the audience, the first being if inspiration were drawn from working class music.

Yvonne said yes. Pulp’s Common People tells a great story. Punk poetry can inspire. It is now harder though in all the arts. She suggested that the sciences were more egalitarian than the arts (not my daughter’s experience as a medical student – unlike her, her peers are mostly private school educated).

A teacher at a comprehensive school mentioned Gove’s Baccalaureate and how it has cut the focus from arts subjects, that they are no longer encouraged. This will lead to the gap getting wider. There is no immersion for students in the arts, no encouragement.

Alex talked of an entire group of people looking around for people who fit within their personal taste boundaries. This structural prejudice may not be deliberate. In going with gut feeling people can end up racist, sexist. Literature is chosen for what is expected to sell. We should be looking for something we don’t know, for new voices.

A question was asked, how much does reader demographic affect what is written?

Shiromi told us that agents do this, not thinking about broadening readership.

Yvonne talked of the limitations of market forces and perceived safety.

An audience member suggested that in the 70s and 80s when women weren’t being published they set up their own presses. It was suggested that writers consider alternatives, ways around the problem of Oxbridge.

Alex told them they were preaching to the converted and need to go out and evangelise.

Matthew suggested that the working class may have internalised passivity, telling themselves that, ‘they need to sort it out’, never seeing themselves as the they. He repeated that the working class have things done to them. They lack agency. Their experience of opportunity differs. A new model needs to emerge.

The event had run over time and had to be drawn to a close. It was a lively and thought provoking discussion, and a fine way to round off my attendance at Greenwich. After a quick thank you to Alex for his part in organising such an excellent festival my daughter and I headed back to our digs to mull over all that had been said.

  

 

Gig Review: The Greenwich Book Festival – Keeping it real?

From the festival programme:

The world is full of fascinating and important stories but setting real personalities on the page also presents challenges and responsibilities.

This event featured readings, discussion and Q&A with writers Alex Pheby, Shiromi Pinto and Matthew De Abaitua. It was chaired by Sam Jordison.

There are many ways of approaching the stories of people who existed. When choosing to write about them an author must decide how to present their interpretation. If interest is piqued, readers are likely to check for themselves what are regarded as known facts. In straying from these, or creating a story from what goes unsaid but may be suggested between the lines, an author is asking that the reader accept their version of events for what it is – a story. The blurring of fact and fiction happens everywhere a tale is told to an audience.

In 2019 Influx Press will publish Plastic Emotions by Shiromi Pinto. This book tells the story of Sri Lanka’s first female architect, Minnette de Silva, and her relationship with fellow architect Le Corbusier. It is a tale of lost love, ego and affairs, charting the erosion of post-independence ideals as seen by two architects at different points in their careers.

Shiromi talked about her protagonist, de Silva, who came from a politically active family. They were wealthy, progressive, left leaning liberals and the girl grew up amongst a certain class of people including Gandhi and Nehru. On moving to London she mixed with the likes of the Gielguds and Picasso. de Silva met Le Corbusier after she returned to Sri Lanka, the first Asian woman to have become an Associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects. She was a pioneer of modernism in Sri Lanka yet when men adopted this style a decade later her contributions were eclipsed. Despite being successful and ahead of the curve she is remembered more for her relationship with a successful man rather than for her own significant achievements in her field.

Shiromi read to us from the prologue of Plastic Emotions, pointing out that the book is still undergoing editorial rewrites.

In the mid 1990s, 22 year old Matthew De Abaitua was hired by the newly divorced and in-demand enfant terrible of the British literary scene, Will Self, as his ‘amanuensis’, translated as slave at hand. Matthew lived with the writer in a remote cottage in Suffolk and helped with research and anything else needed. This was regarded as an exciting opportunity by the eager young man, fresh out of Malcolm Bradbury’s Creative Writing course at the University of East Anglia. He had worked as a security guard on the Liverpool docks to help fund his education and came to the role with a degree of naivity.

Will was ambitious. He realised that the media performance of himself affected how readers would accept his work. The book that Matthew has written about this time, Self & I, captures the 90s, the triangulations people make, and the compromises to progress their work.

The reading brought to life what sounds like a fascinating book.

Galley Beggar Press have recently published Alex Pheby’s second novel, Lucia, to critical acclaim. Lucia was the only daughter of James Joyce and her family subsequently tried to erase her from the public record. In doing so they have created a fascination with Lucia’s story. Lengthy biographies have been written as well as plays and histories. Alex wished to write into the spaces, to explore who gets to say what about who. In his story he explores the silencing of a silenced woman. He does not always go down the route current commentators on Joyce demand.

As if to prove his point on the sometimes controversial nature of his work, Alex read from the animal torture scene.

Sam asked the panel if they felt any anxiety about their depictions, if they felt any duty towards their subjects.

Matthew talked of the ethics of writing about a living person. He chose never to attribute anything to what may be going on inside Will’s head. When the manuscript of his book was complete he sent it to Will and it was returned within 48 hours! Had he said no to publication then Matthew wouldn’t have proceeded. Matthew told us that he was periphery to Will’s life, although Will had been key to him.

Shiromi granted herself a lot of freedom in interpreting de Silva’s life but tried not to do this with her architecture. This required much fact checking. She felt the struggle between writing as she imagined events to have played out and fitting this alongside known facts. In the end she wrote as she wanted.

Sam asked Alex where Lucia was in Lucia.

Alex didn’t know. If she exists in retrievable form then she exists in this book. Any evidence in literary form is questionable, including his. He took risks and was not always respectful. He mentions problems that others won’t acknowledge, as they pretend the rumours cannot be true.

Sam asked about lost moments and memory, of their time and our time.

Matthew pointed out that his story, although set not that long ago, was before the internet, Harry Potter, the abolition of the net book agreement. At author events back then a reading could last 45 minutes and the audience were expected to sit in respectful silence before each buying hardbacks and having them signed. Will wanted to disrupt the social order. With the advent of social media authors are expected to be nice, to ask readers to buy their books.

Shiromi talked about colonial idealism and the erosion of this, how the ideals of the new nation of Sri Lanka deteriorated.

The audience were invited to ask questions. The authors were asked if they felt less responsibility when writing fiction.

Alex commented that certain people are unwilling to understand that it is foolish for a critic to complain about the truth of an account. He suggested that readers are no longer equipped to deal critically with fiction (I disagree but that is for another conversation).

The authors were asked if these fictions are required to have a relationship with fact, otherwise why use real names.

Shiromi told us that she is more comfortable writing a novel rather than a memoir. She wanted to write about a great story, perhaps to prompt others to look deeper. She also finds writing fiction more fun.

Matthew mentioned that this type of writing has been described as a thinly veiled portrait which he finds anachronistic. He prefers to name names, to offer a frisson between real and fiction. He used his own experiences to provide narrative but avoids imposing his thoughts on others.

The authors were asked if they agonised over the points of view used.

Alex talked of the many shifts of voice and grammar in addressing the reader. He asked himself: what do they want to find out and why; what does this mean about the reader. All writing is fictive. What differs is the edges, the bleeding in and leeching out of realities.

Shiromi explained that point of view shifts throughout her tale. She did what she felt was necessary to tell the story of an intriguing character.

Matthew wrote in the present tense as he chose to exclude hindsight. He experienced this period as a younger version of himself, one who didn’t understand much of what was going on at the time. He wished to avoid a reinterpretation.

And with that the event was out of time. The authors moved towards the shop to sign any books purchased. My daughter and I were provided with much to discuss, especially around how certain authors can appear to regard their readers!

 

Click on the covers to find out more about the books, and do please consider buying them.

Book Review: Lucia

The AI sheet that accompanied my proof copy of Lucia informed me that

“Lucia is intellectually uncompromising. Lucia is emotionally devastating. Lucia is unlike anything anyone else has ever written.”

I concur. This, his second work of creative fiction based on the life of a real person, establishes Alex Pheby as a literary talent deserving close attention.

The eponymous Lucia was the second child of James Joyce and Nora Barnacle. The bare bones of her story are easily verifiable but little else is known. She was born in Trieste, Italy and lived across Europe, her peripatetic parents moving the family from hotels to shabby apartments depending on their financial status. Lucia was a talented dancer. She was Samuel Beckett’s lover. She spent the last thirty years of her life in an asylum. Following her death her remaining family strove to erase her from the public record. They destroyed her letters, removed references to her from the archives. Even her medical records were taken.

In this novel the author does not attempt to create a detailed biography. Rather he presents Lucia’s story in fragments and told from a variety of points of view. Between each chapter is a motif detailing the discovery of an ancient Egyptian tomb that is developed to serve as explanation.

The story created is shocking and affecting, presented in a manner that makes it all too believable. The voice throughout remains detached, the needs of the narrators evident even when they presume they are acting in Lucia’s best interests. The reader will feel outraged at her treatment.

The tale starts at Lucia’s end, in 1982, when undertakers arrive to collect the body of the deceased. Six years later a student is employed to burn the contents of a chest filled with letters, photographs and other effects. The thoughts of these characters offer a first glimpse of Lucia. Mostly though they focus on their subject as they go about the tasks assigned. Lucia is subsidiary, often something of a nuisance. This sets the tone for how she was treated in life.

Lucia is depicted as an object that others must deal with. If she will not comply she must be tamed. Children are expected to behave, denied agency ‘for their own good’ with resulting complaints dismissed. Troublesome little girls can be threatened to silence them.

Lucia’s relationships with various family members, especially her brother, are vividly dealt with. Whatever other’s behaviour, it is she who will stand accused of spoiling things for everyone if she protests.

As a young woman Lucia was considered beautiful. She clashed with her mother which led to her being incarcerated. The cutting edge treatments for mental illnesses at the time were experimental and horrifying.

Lucia was moved around as a cure for her behaviour was sought. After the war she was transferred to an asylum in Northampton where she spent her remaining decades. She was buried here, away from her family. Even in death they sought to silence her.

The fragmentary style of writing and the distractions of the narrators are effectively harnessed to portray the instability that was a signature in Lucia’s life. The reader is offered glimpses but always at the periphery. There is a sense of detachment, a tacit acceptance that those who will not behave as society requires are a nuisance to be subdued and hidden away.

Yet this is a story that pulses with emotion. Lucia rises inexorably from the page. The author has filled out the gaps in her history with a story that whilst unsettling resonates. That he does so with such flair and aplomb makes this a recommended read.

 

Book Review: Playthings

Alex-Pheby--Playthings

“Not at all, Herr Schreber. You do not seem cured at all. But I don’t imagine there is anything much I can do to cure you. I can bring you here and you can see how it is that everything is quite sensible and ordinary. I can help you see that your anxieties are exaggerations of very simple and commonplace problems that a man might have. […] But I cannot make you see what is in front of you.”

Playthings, by Alex Pheby, is written from the point of view of a retired German judge, Daniel Paul Schreber, who, upon finding his wife collapsed on the floor of their parlour, becomes psychotically agitated. Paul suffered from what was then diagnosed as dementia praecox, which today is known as paranoid schizophrenia. Being taken inside the head of a man with this illness is disturbing, but the author does so with aplomb.

Paul Schreber was born in 1842, in Leipzig, Saxony. He was the son of a successful physician who founded and ran the Orthopaedic Institute in which Paul and his four siblings were raised. His father was a pedagogue, demanding that all in his home adhere to a strict routine. He raised his son to believe that boys should be manly and energetic, and that the poor or deformed, including those he treated at his institute, were lesser beings.

Paul Schreber suffered three major psychotic episodes in his life, describing the second in a memoir which became an influential book in the history of psychiatry and psychoanalysis thanks to its interpretation by Freud (the memoir has become a key text for students of psychology and modern and social and cultural history). Alex Pheby has taken the known facts and woven them into a compelling and compassionate account of how it would be to live with this illness.

Early on in the book, when Schreber is wandering the streets, he encounters members of the public whom he talks to from the confusion his reality has become. He frightens and appalls them, pushing them aside as insubstantial, inconsequential objects. He is intent on pursuing what to him seems a valid response to a skewed world.

At times this world becomes two dimensional; familiar people and places appear flimsy, ripples in space.

“His house was not there. Neither were the trees. No railings. No streetlamps. In their place were representations of these things. The objects […] they were changed […] they were all wrong. […] all these things were there, but when Schreber came close and put his cold fingertips to them they were smooth as pieces of letter paper and just as thin […] all utterly false.”

Schreber’s reality will often digress from that which those around him can see. People appear, who talk to him of his past, who know things that they should not. They remind him of incidents which he finds embarrassing or upsetting. They force him to acknowledge facts he has difficulty facing.

Much of what Schreber does and says during his time in hospital is wiped from his memory. He loses days, weeks, sometimes months at a time. During his more lucid moments he looks back on his life and the reader learns of his childhood, snapshots of significant moments. There are fleeting references to incidents which disturb his equilibrium, memories which he has buried in the basement of his mind.

Schreber’s family struggle to cope with what he has become. His daughter wishes to bring him home but his wife fears she would be unable to cope. She worries that he will write another memoir and embarrass them further. His first contained wild imaginings from his extreme delusional state, although he did not accept that they were delusions. He now denies that he ever had such thoughts.

This book allows the reader to see not only the patient’s struggles and fears but also the impotence of those around, however worthy their aims. Solutions acceptable to society involve locking the patient away, physically or pharmaceutically. With no cure available it is possible to empathise with all involved.

An incredible work of fiction, all the more fascinating for being based on an actual case. The writing is taut, intense, the everyday world a phantom which Schreber tries so desperately to attain. His disturbance of mind is not so much explained as experienced. This story is powerful and moving; I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in the humanity behind mental illness.

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