The Iron Age by Arja Kajermo, published by Tramp 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 Graham Fulcher who provides his thoughts on The Iron Age by Arja Kajermo (illustrated by Susanna Kajermo Törner), which is published by Tramp Press.

 

Tramp Press is a small Irish publisher which aims

to find, nuture and publish exceptional literary talent and … is committed to finding only the best and most deserving books, by new and established writers

Its greatest success to date has been Mike McCormack’s 2016 Goldsmith Prize winning Solar Bones (which was Booker longlisted on its subsequent publication by a UK publisher). More recently Sara Baume’s A Line Made Walking has been shortlisted for the 2017 Goldsmith Prize, following on from her wonderful debut novel.

Arja Kajermo is a cartoonist – born in Finland, raised in Sweden, and living in Ireland. The Iron Age, her debut novel was based on notes for a graphic novel, and was then written as a short story which was a finalist for the 2014 Davy Byrnes Short Story Award (won by Sara Baume) before being developed into this short novel/novella.

The book is narrated by a girl, growing up in the first half of the book in rural poverty in Finland in the 1950s, the youngest in a family of four – her father, injured in the defeat in the Continuation War of 1941-1944 and seemingly suffering from PTSD.

“It’s the war” [her mother] said father’s nerves are shot. It was from all the bad things he had seen and been through

He struggles to find employment to feed and clothe his family and ends up returning repeatedly to the family farm where he struggles with his widowed mother who owns it

Grandmother was an angry woman. She was angry with father most days ….. But most of all she was angry with Grandfather because he was dead

and in an increasingly bitter marriage.

Father was always telling mother to shut up. He had married her for her good looks and plucky attitude. Then he set to trying his damnedest to destroy both the looks and the attitude

Eventually he decides that his family should move to Sweden (minus his oldest son, who he unsuccessfully plans to inherit the family farm on the death of his other relatives).

But we bought our war with us. The shrapnel that had gone into Father’s legs, in 1944 in the painful retreat when the war was lost, had somehow worked its way into his children. Each of us carried a shard of that iron in our hearts. We would never be at peace. Not in Sweden. Not anywhere.

The second half of the book chronicles the start of the family’s life in Sweden – which in many ways takes an even darker turn. The family struggle between Father’s insistence that they assimilate and yet that they also keep their proud martial Finnish identity amongst the peace loving socialist Swedes. Further, it is often their Father who draws the most attention to their foreignness (for example his Finnish dress making him look like a Nazi).

I felt that the family’s struggles to maintain this dual identity while also not drawing attention to themselves could serve as a metaphor for the difficult path of neutrality that Finland navigated after the World War.

They struggle even more with language

We were now what mother called ummikko. We were people who could only speak our own language and we could not understand the language around us. And the people around us could not understand us. It was a terrible fate to be ummikko. It was like being deaf and dumb mother said. Outside our own home we were like cows that could only stand and stare.

The narrator’s reaction both to her father’s continuing anger and the ummikko issue is a two fold withdrawal. She stops speaking altogether and draws into herself

There was a strange safety net in not saying anything. It was like being very small inside a big bomb shelter and looking out through narrow slits that were my own eyes.

and further escapes into the world of books.

I did not just read books. I lived the stories in the books

In particular she escapes into the world of the Little Mermaid – identifying with the sacrifices that the Mermaid made to live with her prince

If you leave your true home you have to give something up. I had traded in my tongue too but I had got nothing for it

but ultimately rejecting the Mermaid’s choice and instead fantasising that she stays underwater in a mer-Kingdom where the bitterness of her father, the choices and sacrifices her family have made, the long lasting effects of war, all play no part, and are replaced by calmness, peace and togetherness.

Under the water everyone can stay together and nobody has to go away

In a devastating ending to the book she opens her eyes during one such fantasy and realises

I had no tail

The book is atmospherically illustrated by the author’s niece – Susanna Kajermo – in a series of black and white pencil drawings.

The illustrator Susanna has commented that

I had heard several of the anecdotes in it, told in various ways, by my Dad when I grew up. I have always been interested in the way people tell or remember things …… … my art often relates to childhood and storytelling ….. Arja gave me some old photographs for inspiration, and I also had my Dad’s, rather thin photo album to look at … I tried to make illustrations that would work with the text but also as separate pictures that could somehow tell a story of their own … I appreciate pictures that have both seriousness or a sort of darkness, combined with humour or absurdity in them. That is something I strive for in my art. Arja’s novel has all of those components and so I had a really good time working with it

And this quote picks up many of the themes of the book: its concentration on storytelling and remembrance – family stories and legends, the war stories that the narrator’s Father uses to draw on his lessons for life, the interpretation of dreams, constant reminiscing on those that fell in the Wars, Finnish folklore particularly around a witch like figure, the stories in which the narrator increasingly takes refuge; the illustrations which while clearly relating to the story often have a deeper dark fairy tale element (for example – a dinosaur skull buried under the roots of a tree, a ghost figure on a sled); the juxtaposition of the darkness of much of the life of the narrator with the absurd incidents that occur and the dry humour with which she relates them.

Overall this is a simple book but one with surprising depth.

GF

 

You may read my review of The Iron Age here.

Coming tomorrow, an interview with the publisher of this book.

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

In the Absence of Absalon by Simon Okotie, published by Salt

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 Graham Fulcher who provides his thoughts on In the Absence of Absalon by Simon Okotie, which is published by Salt.

 

This book is published by Salt Publishing “an independent publisher committed to the discovery and publication of contemporary British literature …. advocates for writers at all stages of their careers … [ensuring] that diverse voices can be heard in an abundant, global marketplace.” They have twice been Booker longlisted, most recently in 2016 for The Many by Wyl Menmuir and recently received a Costa First Novel shortlisting for The Clock In This House All Tell Different Times by Xan Brooks.

In the Absence of Absalon is a sequel to the brilliantly original Whatever Happened To Harold Absalon?, a lengthy book but one whose plot could be reproduced in its entirety in a brief paragraph:

Marguerite is investigating the disappearance of Harold Absalon, the mayor’s transport advisor. He starts in a hotel where he has seen Harold’s wife Isobel entering a lift, he climbs the stairs to the floor where she alights and observes her eating in a restaurant with her baby and a friend. Ejected from the hotel, he then follows them and seeing her hail a taxi, and realising she has spotted him, he boards a bus and goes to the top deck. Concerned that Isobel may be on the deck below and that some of her associates may be following him in another bus he decides to leave the bus. He lets the passenger beside him stand up and walk down the aisle, and then follows him down the aisle, pausing to allow another passenger (a businesswoman) enter the aisle between them. That lady appears to pay his bus fare. At the next stop he rings the bell twice in the manner of the conductress so as to cause the bus to set off again – and while the bus is still accelerating away goes down the stairs and leaves the bus. As he is exiting he sees Harold through a window of a showroom the bus had just passed.

Clearly the author has decided that the pace of that book was inappropriate and has slowed it down for this book. The sequel features an unnamed detective carrying out “his investigation into the disappearance of his colleague, Marguerite, last seen on the trail of Harold Absalon, the Mayor’s transport advisor, who had been missing”. At the start of the book the investigator is approaching a townhouse, owned by Richard Knox, who Harold was known to have fallen out with before his disappearance. He believes he is being closely followed by Harold and that the house holds the key to resolving the mystery of his disappearance. By the book’s end he has walked up to the gate of the townhouse, looked for and found in his trousers the keys to the house, found that the apparently padlocked gate is not secured, walked up to the door which is opened by Harold’s wife Isobel, walked towards the stairs resisting the distraction of a ringing phone by then changing his plan when he hears a baby crying.

The narrator has been trained and mentored by Marguerite and is similarly meticulous in his thoughts – unlike Marguerite his thoughts are typically more focused on the actual case in hand though and (with the exception of rare Marguerite digressions into areas only very tangentially related to his investigation (one particularly entertaining one starting with a reference to whether Isobel is free to leave, quickly departing by route of the ease of leaving a non-dinner party into a four page discussion of what the concept of cooking and preparing means in the context of the three types of pizza (take-away, shop bought and home-made))) are often related to his physical progress and the motions of his body.

Overall a hugely enjoyable and at the same time thought provoking book and one very much in the unique style of its predecessor. Comparing it to that there are negatives and positives.

On the negative side, at times the physical descriptions shaded at times into a level of tedium I did not experience in “Whatever Happened …”. The book also makes, like the paragraph above extensive use of brackets, but, unlike the paragraph above does not seem capable of correctly un-nesting them, by omitting the use of double (or triple) closing right brackets. Only a mathematical pedant would notice this – but of course this is exactly the type of book a mathematical pedant enjoys!

On the positive side, the much stronger aspect of this book compared to the first, is the greater sense of meta-narrative in a number of senses: the unnamed narrator refers at times to what the investigator may be doing during chapter breaks; the investigator himself is aware (without understanding the mechanisms) that his thoughts and actions are somehow being monitored; the footnotes relate even more closely to the case than before; the narrator himself starts to get involved in the book, in particular as it ends following the investigator into the room where they baby seems to be crying “determined, once again, to understand the circumstances of his disappearance”. As a result the real conceit at the heart of this series – examining the very idea of sheer complexities of life and how they can be rendered in fiction, comes out more strongly.

This and its predecessor are highly recommended.

GF

 

You may read my review of In the Absence of Absalon here.

Tomorrow on my blog, an interview with Simon Okotie, 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

An Overcoat by Jack Robinson, published by CB editions

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 Graham Fulcher who provides his thoughts on An Overcoat by Jack Robinson.

 

“Here’s another tip: if you’re planning to write about someone who existed in history, be wary. Once you’ve put an actual person into a book, they become larger than life, because larger than death.”

CB editions is a very small UK publisher, which publishes short fiction, poetry, translations and other work which, as the Guardian noted, ‘might otherwise fall through the cracks between the big publishers’.

One notable success was The Absent Therapist by Will Eaves which made the incredibly strong shortlist for the 2014 Goldsmith award.

Jack Robinson is one of the pseudonyms of Charles Boyle the founder of CB Editions, which is largely a one person operation.

And this book is an imagined afterlife of Marie-Henri Beyle – the 19th century author who operated under a number of pseudonyms, most famously Stendhal.

The book imagines Beyle in a modern day city, reflecting on what he sees around him, just as he did in life of other cities, together with a seemingly similarly reincarnated ex-lover M (Mathilde Dembowski) and a cast of contemporary characters such as a waitress Anna and a hotel manager/tour guide Franco. However this is vastly simplifying the complexity of this short book.

As a far from exhaustive list of examples of what it contains: two chapters create an imaginary dialogue of which alternate lines are taken first from a Spanish primer and secondly a Colloquial Persian phrase book; copious footnotes (some of which give rise to further sub-footnotes) pick up on themes in the text and relate them to Stendhal’s life or writing – often in fact pointing out that Stendhal’s writing (even his supposedly non-fictional writing) had a best a troubled relationship to his actual life and experiences; characters move into and out of the book – including the author who at one point joins Beyle for dinner; references are made in the text and footnotes to the works of other artists and authors – typically but not exclusively those who mention of implicitly reference Stendhal or his works in their own works – such as Sophie Calle, Ford Madox Ford, Elizabeth Bowen, Gogol Nikolai; there are frequent meditations on the afterlife and comparisons to worldly sensations.

Stendhal syndrome is a psychosomatic disorder arising from physical reactions (from rapid heartbeat to fainting) that are linked to the emotional impact of art – or as the book puts it “being overwhelmed by art”

For me the reading equivalent is to read images or phrases in a book which simply stop my reading in its tracks, making me pause and reflect on them and note them down. I experienced this often during this book:

“He discovers that in a town frequented by tourists it is hard to walk in a straight line. Tourists walk slowly and stop for no reason at all in the middle of the pavement, like children before the dawning of spatial awareness.”

“The light is silent now. It’s like bottled light. As you might bring back from holiday a bottle of some local liquor that on a winter night at home will taste sickly sweet, nothing like it tasted on the terrace by the sea. This light does what it is expected to do – there are shadows behind where it gets blocked – but it is a little clotted, heavy tired, which is understandable, given that it’s been travelling from so far away and at such a ridiculous speed and with no notion of where it is headed or why”

“People don’t die in novels … you flick back to chapter 2 and they are still there, in the bloom of youth. You look up to your shelves and they are still there. Even when you don’t look up to your shelves, they are still there. And when you tell what happens in novels, you speak in the present tense – everything still in play, all options open.”

“He likes watching people who are doing repetitive work – cashiers at supermarket checkouts, scaffolders, soldiers, street-sweepers, married couples, writers.”

“To reduce congestion, a plan for a bypass from conception to the afterlife is being considered”

(Of films) “For those who are hard of hearing or for whom the plot is just too silly to bother keeping track of, there remains simply “the bits where”.”

(Of a detective who suddenly is inserted in the text) “He suspects that he has caught a but from something rotten in the genre itself , something long past it’s use-by date, a plate of left over subplots at the back of the fridge that are growing mould.”

In style I was at times, in the lightness and playfulness of the style set alongside deeply embedded cross-references, reminded of the early and strongest novels of Milan Kundera or those of Alain de Botton (who more typically references philosophy rather than literature). But there is a uniqueness to the style of the author which makes me both interested to read his other works, and very keen to return again to this one.

GF

 

You may read my review of An Overcoat here.

Next week on my blog look out for a guest post from the publisher/author of this book.

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