Book Review: Bottled Goods

From the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses 2019 longlist – Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn.

Bottled Goods is described as a novella in flash fiction. It is structured in short chapters with each offering a window into everyday life in Romania under Ceaușescu. The plot moves forward apace.

The protagonist is a young woman named Alina whose wealthy family lost their land to the communist government before she was born. Her mother is an apparent zealot for the regime, although this may be her way of retaining control over her daughter who has a tendency to dream of fulfilling yearnings of her own. Alina’s aunt, Theresa, has influential connections through her marriage and uses these to help her niece when she can.

Alina marries Liviu against her mother’s wishes. For all her communist ideals, Mother continues to regard her new son-in-law as a peasant. Refusing to help the newly weds who have defied her, their early married life is made more difficult than it needed to be. Alina resents that she must take a low paid job as a teacher to enable her husband to finish college, something she was thereby unable to achieve.

What hopes the young couple may have had for decent careers, which would have made life a little easier, are shattered when Liviu’s brother defects. This action brings his wider family under scrutiny from officials tasked with ensuring all comrades adhere to party diktats. Liviu is called in for questioning and then reassigned to work in a remote and difficult location. When Alina overlooks a breach of protocol by one of her students she too suffers the close attention of party officials. The couple now live in fear of more serious punishment, putting their marriage under greater strain.

The portrait of life under such a controlling government is cogently enraging to read. Alina must also live with the fear of betrayal from colleagues and even family who would be rewarded for providing information. Alina understands that her mother is selfish and desires a compliant daughter who puts the mother’s needs and wishes before her own. She struggles to accept that any parent would sacrifice a child as punishment for daring to try for a better way of life that does not include them.

Alina turns to Theresa for help and is offered a solution that requires a step of faith. As with any advantage gleaned in this country it comes at a cost, including the weight of guilt.

This is impressive storytelling with fully three dimensional scenes packed into each short segment. The characters appear rounded and real with their varied traits and behaviours. Communist Romania is as much a character as any of its people. The story has depth and passion whilst retaining flow and an engaging tension.

Despite the frustration and despair I felt at Alina’s treatment this was an historically fascinating tale. The unusual structure was harnessed with skill and then worked superbly to build empathy. There are magical elements which could be taken at face value or accepted as metaphors that offer further details to consider.

Alina is presented as a far from perfect individual with her trials providing a foundation for portraying the realities of life under a closed, communist dictatorship. Written with flair and precision this is an immersive and compelling read.

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

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Book Review: Now Legwarmers

Now Legwarmers, by Pascal O’Loughlin, is set in a housing estate in Ireland that is expanding over rural fields. It is written from the point of view of John who is nearly fourteen and has been living in one of the newly built corporation houses for a few months with his mother, Peggy. John’s father was killed in a road traffic accident and Peggy had not wanted to stay in the flat they shared. Concerned at her son’s lack of friends she bribes him to attend a local youth disco. Here he meets Angela who is a year older than him and lives in a bungalow built on farmland some distance from the estate. She has an older sister, Marion, who goes missing before she and John can meet.

Angela introduces John to kissing and smoking and David Bowie. They discuss books, music, films, and the stories of the people who live or once lived in the places they explore as they hang out together. John has a vivid imagination which helps him to process the grief he feels at the loss of his father, and his concerns for the feelings and changes in his body that he sometimes struggles to understand and deal with.

John is intelligent but attends an all boys’ school where he is expected to conform, especially to the religious tenets of the time and place. His lack of skill or interest in sport adds to his inability to fit in.

“I never knew what a boy was actually supposed to be like and I still don’t. Even now at school I watch them running around, and sometimes I’m running around too, but always it’s a bit like I’m pretending to know the rules to a weird game I don’t actually know how to play.”

John’s father had encouraged him to play football but memories of their visits to the pub are recalled with more pleasure. Peggy disapproved of her husband’s drinking and socialising, wanting him to spend what free time he had after work improving their home.

“she wanted everything to be brand new all the time and spick and span like she didn’t want what she already had at all, as if as soon as you had a thing that you wanted then it was no good. So she always wanted new things or to paint things or to put up wallpaper.”

Peggy is concerned that John is overweight. He hides from her the food he disposes off after pretending it has been eaten.

Angela also hangs out with two of her sister’s ex-boyfriends, Paul and Tony. She tells John of the rows her parents have and how they prefer Marion to her. She talks of the terrible things Paul and Tony have done, although the details sometimes change. Their conversations worm their way into John’s dreams when he is both asleep and awake.

John must also deal with his mother’s burgeoning friendship with a local man, Mr Daly. His feelings ricochet.

All of this is told in a stream of thoughts over several weeks in a dreary winter. John’s life is in many ways ordinary but by viewing it from inside his head the issues and concerns are shown to be idiosyncratic and a challenge for him. The author captures the angst and vernacular of a boy in his situation. The adults around him are well meaning but exist at a distance, unable to reach or empathise with someone his age.

“‘She misses Daddy’, I said.
‘You’re the man of the house now so you have to look after her’
I said nothing. I knew what the man of the house was and I wasn’t that. I was the son.
‘You’re a good lad,’ he said, but I didn’t believe him and the look on his face said something else, it said he didn’t know who I was at all”

The story is quietly devastating in its portrayal of small town life and the invisible lacerations caused by the expectations of family. It is an impressively told reminder that young people think for themselves. A poignant, arresting and satisfyingly original read.

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

Book Review: Hang Him When He Is Not There

From the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses 2019 longlist – Hang Him When He Is Not There by Nicholas John Turner.

This book is disorientating. It reads as a series of short stories that the reader expects will eventually interlink – it is, after all, described as a novel. Some chapters are more straightforward than others. Some are distinctly weird. A threatening undercurrent weaves itself through the pages, shadows not quite glimpsed in passing. There is a viciousness to certain thoughts and interactions. Few of the characters are likable, not that this is necessary.

Settings vary but include: a care home, a vineyard, an apartment crowded by books, a decaying family home, rooms let to tourists by an elderly lady. A proof reader travels to meet a reclusive author; in later stories we learn more about their lives. A chapter tells of two brothers on holiday; they reappear in the background of another tale. Books and how they are read are a recurring feature – meta considering the challenge of pinning down what this book is saying.

One theme I plucked from the many permutations of characters’ narrative and observations was the disturbance felt on registering that a person one is close to is not as thought and treated as, perhaps for many years. It is impossible to fully understand all that goes on inside another’s head and one is rarely the centre of another’s universe however much they appear attentive and to revere.

I pondered if the author is offering a work that demands readers change and change again their interpretations as they progress through its pages.

The Mystics chapter was particularly challenging to read due to the brutality. Sexual or bodily explicit scenes throughout offer nothing pleasant. People within these stories are not conventionally good looking – flaws are described vividly. There is the suggestion of personal darkness that few acknowledge, an innate coarseness veneered by observers as much as self.

So, what was the author trying to convey in writing this way?

“I’ll do better than to tell you about a dream I had. I’ll tell you how it was to have this dream. But not before telling you how it was to recall having had it. Everything is everything.”

There are obvious plays with language and form. More was gleaned on a second reading. Ultimately though this was a book that left me perplexed and somewhat frustrated, despite best efforts. The intricacies offered were tantalisingly elusive, viewed through a glass darkly. I wonder if this was intended.

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

Book Review: Dedalus

From the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses 2019 longlist – Dedalus by Chris McCabe, a sequel to Ulysses by James Joyce.

In the Republic of Consciousness podcast episode that discussed the prize’s 2019 longlist, Neil Griffiths mentioned that some readers consider Ulysses by James Joyce to be the best book ever written in the English language. I have heard it talked about as one of the most important works of modernist literature. Declan Kiberd (Irish writer and scholar) described Ulysses as

“a demonstration and summation of the entire movement”
“Before Joyce, no writer of fiction had so foregrounded the process of thinking”

The book is vast (730 pages) and, when I have flicked through a copy considering a purchase, written in heavy language. I have not read it.

Ulysses is set in one day, 16 June 1904 – the day James Joyce first went out with Nora Barnacle who he would subsequently marry. Dedalus is mostly set the next day. It is a sequel of sorts although considerably easier to read. Such an audacious concept may be regarded as brave, or perhaps bonkers. It succeeds in being a lot of fun.

The writing plays with and mimics many great and classic works of literature in language and style, referencing and (mis)quoting revered writers with abandon. Interspersed are modern elements such as computer links that suggest you may click to choose your own adventure. Between each ‘Part’ are coded maps that can be slotted together. These summarise the action to date. Certain maps offer suggestions to “>GO TO” earlier or later pages. The book works when read sequentially or as a series of loops.

The story of Hamlet, with its study of a father-son relationship, is a key reference. In a wonderfully meta section the author is interviewed about his own father and his literary inheritance. I have neither read Hamlet nor watched it on stage. I know enough from summary and heresay to appreciate what is being done in Dedalus. Those with more detailed knowledge will likely enjoy the author’s play on particular features.

Dedalus: Act 1, Scene 1, is set in the Martello Tower at 8am. Stephen awakens hungover with memories of the previous day’s activities. He must somehow get to his teaching job so dons the trousers hanging on the back of a chair. They are not his. Outside he encounters Mulligan and then a dead body from the sea over which he vomits. He teaches a lesson at the school, visits a prostitute, goes for a drink in a pub, encounters Leopold Bloom who he calls Leonard. A man in black passes by on several occasions.

Leopold needs to talk to Stephen about Molly, his wife. He picks up the lotion she requested from the pharmacy, a task he should have done yesterday. He returns to the cemetery where they buried Dignam before seeking out Stephen. He is observed and lusted after by a priest.

The story flows and engages yet this is not a book that feels the need to follow any standard ‘rules’ of writing. There are pages that seemingly exist to play with the sounds made by word and letter combinations. A chapter titled ‘Cyclops’ has all the text on each page printed in a single circle, an eye looking out at the reader. There are stylised observations and commentary. Poems explore: urinating, sex, drunken high spirits. Any recoil felt reading descriptions of bodily functions serves to highlight how sanitised life is now expected to be.

“Something is rotten in the state of Dublin”

The paragraphs covering a pub scene are written in the vein of works such as: Gone With The Wind, 1984, Lolita, The Bell Jar, The Handmaid’s Tale, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, and more.

A section of ‘Notes’ at the end of the book explores the story as a history of computers and suggests that the machine’s key developments were foreshadowed in Ulysses.

And all of this somehow works. The plot is almost incidental to the pleasure of reading the inventive prose and recognising where the author took each idea from, how he compiles and builds his tribute to Joyce’s work. It is clever but not irritatingly so. This is a writer playing with ideas and granting them the freedom to fly. It is glorious to read.

Max Porter is quoted on the cover saying:

“Parts of this book will remain with me, and pollute my reading of Hamlet and Ulysses, forever.”

I will not be adding these two great works to my reading pile, but I am very glad to have read Dedalus.

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

Book Review: Godsend

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Killing our fellow human beings in the name of some religious teaching has been going on for as long as man has believed in one of the many gods available. Holy books may talk of compassion but they also endorse punishment for those who break their rules. It suits the arbiters when followers live their lives in fear of how they will be treated after death. Religion is about power in the here and now.

Godsend explores the skewed thinking of believers who are willing to kill and die for their god. It opens in California where we are introduced to eighteen year old Aden Grace Sawyer. Aden is angry with the small world she knows, especially how it has been treating her. Recently divorced, her parents view her subsequent conversion to Islam as a petty rebellion against their indecorous behaviour. They do not understand that Aden is using her faith to fill a void and give life purpose.

Aden’s father is a professor of Islamic studies and introduced his daughter to the religion, teaching her Arabic and how to read the Qur’an. He often talked of his time abroad as a young man learning in a madrassa. Aden has informed him that she plans to travel to the Emirates to do the same. Online she met a boy, Decker, and has arranged the trip with him. Unbeknown to her parents, their destination is a school in Pakistan near the border with Afghanistan. As a female, Aden would not be permitted to study in this place so she has cut off her hair and will present herself as a boy. She will become Suleyman Al-Na’ama.

Aden leaves America with no plans to return as she wishes to live in a country ruled by fellow believers. On arrival she shocks Decker by telling him they will no longer have sex. She strives to follow doctrine yet must hide behind the falsehood of her disguise. Keeping this secret grants Decker power.

Both Aden and Decker are naive but determined. They claim not to wish to become involved in the fighting over the border but under new influences this will change. Aden seeks an acceptance from others that has, in her short life thus far, eluded her. She doesn’t yet understand that as an American she will never truly be trusted in Afghanistan. If uncovered as a girl here she will, at the very least, be treated as a chattel.

The layers of the story explore the hypocrisy of believers as they cherry-pick which rules to adhere to. There are rivalries and jealousies as they seek personal glory or revenge. The jihadists regard America as depraved and impious. They are willing to die for a cause that they continue to sin against.

In a searing coming-of-age Aden learns that, despite her willingness to comply, she is as alone and derided in Afghanistan as she was in America. Her dreams of escaping the influences of her home country are violently shattered.

“- This war has nothing to do with America, she managed to stammer.
– There is no such war anywhere on earth, Suleyman, the captain said quietly. – America itself has seen to that.”

The calm and beauty to be found in religious observance is shown to be a veneer for intolerance. The pared down prose avoids the rhetoric and hysteria often associated with radicalisation and terrorism. The rhythm and pacing of the story take the reader on a deftly written adventure with a heart in mouth denouement.

Any Cop?: It is a tale to challenge perceptions of morality and its imposition.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Leonard and Hungry Paul

“We are never entirely outside of life’s choices; everything leads somewhere.”

Leonard and Hungry Paul, by Rónán Hession, is a novel of wry intelligence wrapped around the quiet rhythms of ordinary lives as they are being lived. The apparent simplicity of the narrative carries the reader through moments of insight as characters speak from their hearts on everyday dilemmas. The rarity of such truthfulness in conversation and the skill with which thoughts and feelings are conveyed make this a singular read.

The eponymous protagonists are men in their early thirties still living in their childhood homes. Leonard’s mother has recently died leaving him alone in trying to work out how to cope with his quiet grief. His work – writing text for boilerplate encyclopedias marketed for children, which will be published under a better known author’s name – fills his day but offers limited satisfaction. He recognises his social awkwardness, especially when he becomes attracted to the office fire marshal, Shelley. He has little idea how he is expected to interact in potentially romantic situations.

Hungry Paul lives with his recently retired parents. His busy and successful sister, Grace, is planning her wedding and urges her parents to make the most of their upcoming freedom while they still have their health. Grace would like to see Hungry Paul take more personal responsibility. His occasional work as a postman leaves him financially dependent and his acceptance of this frustrates Grace. Their mother is more phlegmatic but also wonders how her unadventurous son would cope if left to look after himself.

“The kids lives are their own. From day one you are handing it back to them bit by bit, until they move on”

Leonard and Hungry Paul are best friends. They get together on regular evenings during the week to play board games and discuss topics of mutual interest. They share the minutiae of their lives in the knowledge that the other will accept whatever has happened and move forward without assigning blame. They observe the world around them and ponder how best to integrate when this is necessary.

Other people’s crises provide moments of clarity. Leonard’s burgeoning relationship with Shelley plays out with unusual honesty. He voices the risks and fears encountered when two strangers tentatively open up to each other – their expectations and the likelihood of misinterpretations. Grace’s wish for her brother to be more independent provides a gently poignant yet masterfully rendered understanding of family dynamics. The asides on marriage cut to the heart of why the institution can sometimes succeed.

This is a gentle yet penetrating tale of the many guises of love and friendship that pierces the too often impenetrable veneer most will apply to protect themselves from others perceived judgement. Leonard and Hungry Paul may appear socially awkward but they offer a deeper understanding of relationships than many who remain unaware that their confidence in a crowd is shallow and blinkered.

A sterling read, a rare achievement, recommended without reservation.

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

Book Review: Mothlight

Parasitic wasps lay their eggs inside other creatures, such as a pupating caterpillar, where they will hatch and feast on the host from the inside out. These body snatchers are referenced in Mothlight – a darkly atmospheric tale of a young academic, Thomas, who becomes obsessed with the past life of an older acquaintance from his childhood.

Thomas first meets Dr Phyllis Ewans when, as a young boy, he accompanies his grandfather to the home she shares with her much older sister, Billie. Thomas notices the dust and disorder in their terraced house along with the many mounted moths hung on the walls. At first he is more taken with the faded glamour and financial generosity of Billie. Phyllis shows little interest in the child until she decides to share with him the details of one of her moth specimens. Thomas is transfixed.

Over time Billie dies and Phyllis moves from The Wirral to London where she continues her research in Lepidoptera. Thomas loses touch until Dr Ewan’s name is mentioned in connection with a paper being prepared at the London university where he is now working. Despite not seeing her for many years, Phyllis’s influence has been pervasive. Thomas lives alone spending what free time he has walking, collecting moths and studying them. He often visits the Welsh hills that Miss Ewan talked of so fondly. At times when he contemplates the vista he feels strangely detached from reality.

On renewing their acquaintance Thomas seeks to uncover more of Miss Ewan’s personal history, in particular why she appeared to hate Billie. He draws on photographs from her past and snippets of their conversation – clues to a story she avoids telling. He recognises that, in many ways, he has followed in her footsteps. He retains an underlying impression that he has experienced the tales she shares with him. There is an echo of the uncanny in their mutual recollection of events when only one of them was there.

The first person narrative offers the reader access to an increasingly disturbed mind. Scattered amongst the pages are the photographs Thomas pores over in what becomes a puzzle he feels a desperate need to solve. He recognises that he is allowing this compulsion to derail his career. He is haunted by a past he has appropriated, or so it seems.

Thomas tells his story looking back after what he describes as an illness. Who is the host and who the parasite in the house holding close the lepidopterist’s secrets? The uncanny elements float through the tale like motes from the slowly disintegrating specimens. The reader cannot help but breath them in.

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