Guest post from independent publisher, Fairlight Books

As part of my coverage of this year’s Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small presses I invited a number of the publishers whose books made it onto the longlist to contribute a guest post. I also offered to review the books should they wish to send me a copy. Throughout February I will be posting these reviews and the articles or Q&As received from the presses that responded. These offer a window into the variety of output and current state of play of the innovative publishers whose books I am always eager to read.

Today I welcome Lindsey from Fairlight whose book, Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn, I will be reviewing tomorrow.

Fairlight Books is an independent publisher based in Oxford. Our aim is to promote literary fiction and quality writing by new and established authors. Literary fiction has been under threat in recent years and with our attractive books and illustration-led covers we are trying to reconnect readers to this strand of literature.

Established in 2017, we publish 7-10 titles per year, including hardback and paperback novels. For us, it’s all about quality, rather than quantity. We also publish novellas, as part of our Fairlight Moderns series.

One of the reasons writers of high-quality and literary fiction find it so hard to get published these days is because the system over the last few years has become very geared towards finding and promoting genre fiction, particularly the hugely popular genres of crime and thriller writing. In fact, The Arts Council recently suggested that literary fiction in the UK was in crisis.

Because of this, we think it’s important for us, as a publisher of literary fiction, to be innovative in how we source and promote literary fiction for readers.

One of the ways we do this is by focusing primarily on receiving our submissions direct from writers – not with windows that open for short periods of time at random moments, but through a constantly open submissions process. We review every single manuscript we receive and although sometimes it can take us a few months, we do get back to every single author with a response one way or the other.

We’re also unusual in that we are happy to publish and promote novella-length literary fiction. Our Fairlight Moderns series is quite unconventional in being made up of novellas of new English-language writing (not translations) from literary writers worldwide. With their gorgeous jewel-like covers, each with a unique illustration by New York-based Sam Kalda, this eclectic collection of stories from around the world is proving popular with readers. They are a great way of introducing new literary authors’ writing to a wider readership.

It’s great to see such prizes as The Republic of Consciousness Prize out there supporting small independent presses, and celebrating literary fiction. It offers a good opportunity to get visibility for our authors and expand our readership. Since one of our Fairlight Moderns, Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn, was longlisted we’ve had a great response from the industry which has really raised awareness among readers as well.

Find out more about Fairlight Books on their website

You may also wish to follow them on Twitter: @FairlightBooks

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Guest post by independent publisher, Peepal Tree Press

As part of my coverage of this year’s Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses I invited a number of the publishers whose books made it onto the longlist to contribute a guest post. I also offered to review the books should they wish to send me a copy. Throughout February I will be posting these reviews and the articles or Q&As received from the presses that responded. These offer a window into the variety of output and current state of play of the innovative publishers whose books I am always eager to read.

Today I welcome Peepal Tree Press who published Kitch by Anthony Joseph. On their website we are told that Peepal Tree

“aims to bring you the very best of international writing from the Caribbean, its diasporas and the UK.”

“We publish fiction, poetry and a range of academic and non-fiction titles. Our goal is to publish books that make a difference”

Do please read on to find out more.

Founded in 1985 by our Managing Editor, Jeremy Poynting, Peepal Tree press had humble beginnings. Our first title, Backdam People by Rooplall Monar, was typeset on a daisywheel printer after hours in college. In the last 34 years, we have brought readers around 350 titles by Caribbean, Asian, and Black British authors, making a name for ourselves as the leading publisher of Caribbean literature.

The inspiration for our name came to Jeremy in the form of a poem by Indo-Guyanese poet Jacob Chinapen. In the poem, workers tell stories under a peepal tree after a day at work. The peepal tree, which originated in India but was brought to the Caribbean, seemed to Jeremy to be a perfect metaphor for something transplanted – symbolic of putting down roots. And so, Peepal Tree Press was born, out of a desire to help Backdam People be published in a time of Guyanese oppression.

Since then we have survived on various shoestrings, prioritizing great literature that says something new to the world, and editing those books with the utmost care. We have evolved through the development of different printing technologies and are now in a place where we are publishing 20 or so books a year, members of the Arts Council’s National Portfolio, and home to Inscribe, which delivers writer development and support. Peepal Tree is based in Leeds, part of a growing independent publishing sector outside of London and the South East, and a proud founder member of the Northern Fiction Alliance. It has been an honour to have the brilliant Anthony Joseph’s innovative fusion of novel and biography, Kitch, longlisted for the 2019 Republic of Consciousness Prize. Discovering the books on the longlist has been a delight, and prizes like ROFC are hugely valuable in helping readers discover amazing books from indies that they might not otherwise have come across. Similarly, ROFC’s nomination of Marcia Douglas for the 2016 longlist was hugely beneficial to us, attracting new readers.

We hope to continue developing and contributing to conversations about Caribbean literature and culture, publishing wonderful books, and opening up this world to readers and writers. Our new anthology, for example, The Peepal Tree Book of Contemporary Caribbean Short Stories, featured on BBC Radio 4 Open Book, shines a light on a wide range of authors across the Caribbean and its diasporas, with a strong focus on women and LGBT writers. You can see a list of the books we have planned for 2019 here, and look out too for the New Caribbean Voices podcast, launching soon on Soundcloud. We’d love it if you followed us on instagram, twitter, or facebook – or you can even subscribe to our newsletter.

We wish luck to all of the authors longlisted for the 2019 Republic of Consciousness Prize.

 

Guest post by independent publisher, Splice

As part of my coverage of this year’s Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small presses I invited a number of the publishers whose books made it onto the longlist to contribute a guest post. I also offered to review the books should they wish to send me a copy. Throughout February I will be posting these reviews and the articles or Q&As received from the presses that responded. These offer a window into the variety of output and current state of play of the innovative publishers whose books I am always eager to read.

Today I welcome Daniel from Splice whose book, Hang Him When He Is Not There by Nicholas John Turner, I will be reviewing tomorrow.

The first thing to know about Splice, for readers who have found it recently, is that the small press is only one part of its activities. The second thing to know is that it’s not a commercial enterprise; it’s a not-for-profit organisation. This means that its remit is a lot broader than simply publishing books and making some money off sales and prizes. There’s more to it than that, but naturally you’ll need to take a step back to see the bigger picture.

I set up Splice in 2017 with just one idea in mind: I wanted to create a system for supporting the production of formally unconventional literature. Let me define some of those terms. By “formally unconventional literature” I mean books of any type (short stories, novels, essays, memoirs, etc.) that somehow push the boundaries of style and structure, whether subtly or in revolutionary ways, adopting and defending their own terms of formal “success”. I didn’t grow up in an especially literary household, and in fact literature didn’t begin to speak to me until I was in my twenties and out of university, so the notion of literature as some sort of refined pleasure, or something with cultural cachet, is absolutely anathema to me; it doesn’t jibe with my gut feeling. I like value irreverence, iconoclasm, edginess, messiness, stylistic abandon, wilful disregard and even disparagement of literary politesse. If a work of literature plays by the rules stylistically and structurally, I’m flat-out not interested. I don’t care how provocative its subject matter might be; a book’s “success”, for me, is entirely a question of its aesthetics and their deviation from the centre of the literary landscape.

Two more key terms and then I’ll get to the heart of Splice. By “system” I mean a series of interlocking mechanisms that could offer support to these sorts of books at different stages on their journey from the mind of a writer to the hands of readers. And by “supporting the production” of these books, I mean supporting the authors who write them — but this is a very complex, multifaceted activity, and it’s worth looking at some of the nuances.

To my mind, support for an author isn’t worth much if it doesn’t help the author take a step towards writing something new in future, beyond whatever work that has captured your attention here and now. At the same time, chances of future work greatly diminish if the current work isn’t accorded some value and future possibilities aren’t invested in from the get-go. So, in setting up Splice, I knew I had to create a system that would do at least five things in order to realise my one overriding goal:

  • It had to pay writers up-front, offering a fee as a reward for the labour that has already produced the work. No royalties-only arrangements, where all income is contingent on sales, but something to recognise that the work already has value.
  • It had to pay writers on an ongoing basis, in a way that recognised them as co- creators. That means fifty per cent royalties, higher than an industry standard of ten per cent, from the sale of the very first copy, with no advance to earn out.
  • It had to commission future work from writers at the same time as arranging the publication of their early work, guaranteeing no-strings-attached publication and an additional fee. As a result, Splice’s standard contract for its small press authors involves purchasing publication rights for an existing manuscript and pre-arranging the purchase of two new, as-yet-unwritten works of prose — one for the website and one for the Splice anthology — with extra cash attached.

These three planks of Splice form the basis of all its activities in print, i.e. the small press publications and the anthology. That’s because they do the lion’s share of the tasks I mentioned above, according value to an author’s current work and investing in future work sight unseen. But still, in sketching out the various components of Splice, I realised it couldn’t fulfil its purpose if it didn’t do at least two other things:

  • It had to go to bat for authors of formally unconventional literature even if it wasn’t publishing them, and even if something that would benefit an author published by Splice would work to the detriment of Splice itself. This is a large part of why Splice is a not-for-profit enterprise; there’s just a huge amount of advisory work and advocacy work going on behind the scenes, pro bono. This includes providing detailed editorial advice to authors whose manuscripts have merit but won’t be purchased by Splice; alerting writers to opportunities for grants, bursaries, and workshop opportunities, which can help them to access further remuneration for their work, and assisting with their applications; liaising with publishers overseas who may be interested in acquiring territorial rights to titles, in cases where Splice doesn’t stand to profit because the rights still reside with the author; and so on. There are many more people involved with Splice than can be seen on the surface, and much of the pro bono work entails striking connections, soliciting feedback, helping people get together to help one another — again, with an eye on the future. And ultimately, on Splice’s terms, it would be a success, not a disappointment, if our authors ended up jumping ship and publishing their next books with bigger presses, just as long as they’re not compromising on their unconventional aesthetic visions.
  • It had to reward writers of formally unconventional literature published by other publishers, especially other small presses that take chances on adventurous work, by offering them a degree of serious attention they don’t typically receive. This is the rationale behind Splice’s online activities: we publish at least one long review of a recent book each week, at least 2,000 words in length, and we often supplement the review with an author or translator interview. On one level, it’s a real morale booster for these writers to have their work read in depth and written about at length in an intelligent way, rather than as a superficial publicity exercise. On another level, this can also yield further financial rewards for writers, and thereby help them to snag an investment in future work, because grants and bursaries often require applications to be supplemented with serious, insightful reviews. And on yet another level — which takes up probably one-third of my time — it allows literary critics of great skill to exercise their talents and get paid for it as well. It is excruciatingly difficult to be a critic with a knack for writing these sorts of reviews; it’s even more difficult when you don’t get paid for your work, and when you don’t get the editorial support and encouragement you need to keep going. The Splice website exists as a platform to reward these critics, to commission future work from them as well, to honour their abilities as creative readers and writers — and to acknowledge the indispensable role they play in sourcing, appraising, and adding to the value of exciting new books.

I suppose you could read back over all the things I’ve just said about Splice and think it’s all hokum, overly technical, or too industry-centric, or whatever. But the bottom line is that I believe passionately and absolutely in the value of formally unconventional literature — I’m driven by an evangelising zeal for it — and I’m anxious to do whatever I can to see more of it come into being, to not let authors become dispirited because their work isn’t taken seriously, to not let them fall silent just because their books don’t sell enough to allow them to quit their day jobs. Splice was conceived as a means to that end.

One last note on this point: if you want proof of all this, you’ll find it in the system of Splice itself. If you’ve heard me on the Republic of Consciousness Podcast, or you follow Splice on Twitter, you’ll know that I handle all the editorial stuff while the logistics (slush pile sifting, royalty payments, postage, contracts, etc.) are dealt with by Alec Dewar. I came to know Alec in the months before Splice started publishing online. He’s a young academic based in Scotland, specialising in Scandinavian literature, and I approached him in the dying days of 2017 to ask him if he’d be interested in reviewing a bevy of Icelandic titles that were due to be published throughout 2018. He agreed, in principle, but on two conditions. He hadn’t written for a non-academic audience before, so he needed some hands-on guidance, and he also wanted an opportunity to try out other things as he planned to leave academia. Long story short, in exchange for being able to delegate a lot of the day-to-day stuff to Alec, I arranged to mentor him in his reviewing activities for Splice. In other words, the advisory and advocacy responsibilities of Splice are baked into the structure of it, even at the level of the people who run it with me. And I’ve learned a great deal from Alec, too, such that I’ve now built in a mentoring “scheme” for young critics as part of my editorial activities, helping newcomers to build a portfolio of high-quality work as reviewers and essayists.

Again, there’s nothing to be gained from this financially — it costs Splice money to pay for something like MacKenzie Warren’s recent long essay on Nocilla Lab — but the benefit, in terms of Splice’s mission, is  immense. I get to hone my Socratic skills by pushing MacKenzie to look closer, dig deeper, keep writing, find another way of saying this or that. MacKenzie ends up with a piece of high-quality criticism, plus some cash for her efforts, and hopefully Fitzcarraldo Editions and Agustín Fernández Mallo and the translator Thomas Bunstead get a financial kickback, and some extra prestige, as part of the same exercise. Ultimately, the winners are readers who appreciate formally unconventional literature, either because they become aware of Nocilla Lab or because they have a new perspective on it, a little bit of added value for their £12.99, and so Splice functions exactly as it was intended to do.

It’s hard to say how things have changed in publishing since I started, because Splice is only eighteen months old and its small press activities are even younger than that, but I’ve certainly been surprised by some of the things I’ve seen since I started looking under the bonnet. There are a few questionable practices, to be sure, but most of all I’ve been surprised — and humbled — by the staggering generosity of small press publishers who share the spirit of Splice, even if not in a codified way. There are plenty of publishers who’ve offered me advice and support when they have no financial incentive to do so, purely because they love the art of literature and want to help kindle the flames no matter where they may be burning. I reckon that at least half of the small press economy is powered by charity, goodwill, and quid pro quos, with publishers copping a hit (sometimes financially, certainly in terms of energy) so they can raise the standards of the entire small press scene, with no expectation of material rewards. There are a lot of unsung heroes out there — a great many more than I imagined when I was watching this scene develop from the outside.

Prize listings are beautiful things, especially the Republic of Consciousness Prize and the Goldsmiths Prize, because, much as Splice is intended to do, they raise the profiles of formally unconventional books and bring them to the attention of new readers. My experience with them is limited, of course, since Hang Him When He Is Not There is only the first title from Splice to be longlisted for a prize, but across the board I have to say that the entry costs and conditions are reasonable except for major awards like the Costa and the Booker Prize. Splice has also entered books into the Edge Hill Prize, the Desmond Elliot Prize, the James Tait Black Prize, and other competitions, and none of these have ever threatened to break the bank. Moreover, the potential rewards are wonderful. The longlisting for Hang Him has certainly garnered the book some new readers, and I hope it will also act as a springboard for it to reach other parts of the world.

Since Splice has such particular and idiosyncratic foundations, it probably won’t surprise you to learn that it also has an unusual future — at least insofar as I can picture it. Perhaps this is  a silly thing to admit, but I’ll admit it anyway: when I was putting together a cadre of writers for Splice, approaching critics and authors to see who was interested in signing up, my model was Nick Fury bringing together the Avengers. And that’s still the case because, like Fury, my ultimate aim is to step away from Splice and let all parties involved in it continue to run it collectively. I founded it as a five-year initiative for myself, creating it in a way that would allow me to disseminate some institutional knowledge to various other people and open up windows for yet more people to own a stake in it, and at the end of those five years I want to shepherd it from a two-person not-for-profit into a co-operative enterprise. I’m hoping to do this by liaising with editorial programmes at universities and creating a mechanism for editorial transparency, so that students of publishing (that is, editors-in-waiting) will be able to watch me running Splice, alongside Alec, as if through a one-way mirror. I also want to step up fundraising activities so that we have a subscription model for our books, as well as a Patreon-style system in which financial contributions at different tiers will give people shares in the Splice co-operative, including voting rights and a say on editorial matters. And I want to continuously increase the rates of payment for everyone who writes for Splice. It remains to be seen whether all of this is achievable by, say, 2022, but I’m hopeful, I’m encouraged by the raw passion I see from those who appreciate small press titles, and I’m not the kind of person who likes to say “no”. My door is always open to anyone who wants to be involved in any way, and if Splice is to have a long-term future, I’ll keep it open as long as I can to ensure that everything ends up in safe hands.

Find out more about Splice on their website

You may also wish to follow them on Twitter: @thisissplice 

Guest post by independent publisher, Henningham Family Press

The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses rewards brilliant and brave literary fiction published in the UK and Ireland by publishers with fewer than 5 full-time employees. Now in its third year, the 2019 longlist was announced last month. I felt privileged to be invited to join the panel of judges for the previous year’s prize as this enabled me to discover some of the best literary fiction published in 2017. Having experienced the process I was eager to read the books this year’s judges were putting forward for further consideration.

When the longlist was announced I invited a number of the small presses who made the cut to contribute a guest post as part of my coverage of the prize this year. I also offered to review the books should they wish to send me a copy. Throughout February I will be posting these reviews and the articles or Q&As received from the presses that responded. These offer a window into the variety of output and current state of play of the innovative publishers whose books I am always eager to read.

The first press to feature is Henningham Family Press whose longlisted book, Dedalus by Chris McCabe, I will be reviewing tomorrow. On the back of this book we are told:

“Henningham Family Press is a microbrewery for books.

Our ingenioous handmade editions can be found in the V&A, Tate and National Poetry Library.

Our Performance Publishing shows compress the creation of printed matter into hectic live events.

Now our Fiction brings to you authors who are reinventing the conventions of Modern writing.”

Thank you to David at HFP for providing me with this fascinating guest post about the press, and his thoughts on literary prizes.

We gave the name Performance Publishing to what we do at Henningham Family Press. We’ve even managed to get newspapers to use the term as if it is a thing.

What Performance Publishing means is that we have been, for more than 12 years now, combining Visual Art, Performance Art and Literature in ways that hope to redefine the act of publication.

For example, in 2016 the British Council commissioned A Line of Five Feet, inviting us to join a delegation of artists and writers representing the UK in Moscow. We taught Art and Art History to Moscow students who went on to help us create, screenprint and bind a monumental concertina book in a bespoke bindery provided within the British pavilion.

That year we also led nine other London Artists in staging The Maximum Wage. An ACE funded show about income inequality. This show gathered, produced and distributed publications with its audience. Teams of volunteers manned our gameshow style print production line producing our own Orwell themed currency, valid in the immediate vicinity. An incredibly diverse crowd of 300 took part in our hectic cycle of production and consumption, going home with the publications they had helped make and contributing their ideas to a later glossy magazine.

When we are not on stage you will find us doing fine printing and master binding in our studio. We often represent the same text in different forms, as we did with An Unknown Soldier; a project based on a poem I wrote about the effect of the World Wars on my family. The National Poetry Library commissioned an exhibition of all the books, artists’ books and screenprints that made up An Unknown Soldier for the centenary year. The exhibition was praised highly in The TLS. We went on to make Letters Home with the librarians; a book teaching children about Modernist Poetry that was praised highly in The TES. (We aim to appear in all the T-something-Ss). Another commission from the time was the Active Service Gospel replica. SGM Lifewords have now distributed about a million copies.

I suppose you could call this an art career, in the sense of a car careering wildly from one side of the road to the other at top speed. The mixture of Art and Literature is hardly surprising, though, given that Ping and myself met at St Martins School of Art. Later, when I was graduating from the Slade MA and Ping was studying MA Modernist Literature at Queen Mary UoL, we started Henningham Family Press together.

Last year (a natural development, or a stab at coherence) we joined Inpress Books so that we could bring our collaborations to the shelves of high street bookshops as paperbacks, as well as to the shelves of Special Collections. 2018 got off to a flying start with us publishing split editions, paperback and artists’ books of Now Legwarmers by Pascal O’Loughlin and the first Ulysses sequel: Dedalus by Chris McCabe. These gained rave reviews (Literary Review, LRB Bookshop, The Idler), effusive endorsements as diverse as Max Porter and Marian Keyes, and our longlisting for the Republic of Consciousness Prize 2019.

We specialise in producing novels by writers coming from other disciplines. Poets, artists and performers who bring to their writing inflections from their training. Especially those who pick up the Modernist canon and kick it further down the road. We like working with people who will take their draft as the starting point for a textual and visual editing process. We think of ourselves as book producers, in the same way that Tony Visconti, Steve Albini and Danger Mouse are record producers.

This is the first year we have entered prizes. Before that our work was mainly given the thumbs up by being collected for the nation by institutions like the V&A, UCL, Tate, National Galleries Scotland and the National Poetry Library. Or they began as commissions for touring shows from places like the British Library, Christie’s, Dundee Contemporary Arts. But for novels there is this whole system that we are dipping our toes into.

We got passed over by the Goldsmiths, which packed no emotional punch for us, but on the day of the longlisting for the Republic of Consciousness Prize I found myself utterly useless and completely pre-occupied.

This is easily explained: The Republic.. became (unconsciously) the biggest prize for me personally. It is so well thought through as a premise that it will make a big difference to our survival. Most big prizes present a financial burden. They are locked gates.

The Prize has also formed the backbone of my reading since it started. It feels like a tangible benchmark for ingenuity in art and practice. I went to the launch a couple of years ago as a consumer of canapés. We had no plans to do novels. But when plans began to coalesce they were shaped and encouraged by the existence of the prize and its culture. It would have been harder to focus our wide ranging technical and literary expertise (the unexpectedly prodigious offspring of our dilettantism and a decade-long global recession) into the form of the novel without the reading and solidarity the prize has provided.

Coming from an Art background, though, the big literary prizes (the ones we can’t afford to enter) seem a little over-understated. The ‘party’ finishes and we’re thinking “what, there’s no dancing?” I’ve never seen a fluorescent cocktail at a book event. If book events were an item in the kitchen drawer they would be the wine stopper that keeps wine from going off. We don’t own one, but I saw one once.

What next? 2018 concluded with the first in our series of non-fiction books for children, Colour Experiments for Future Artists, and in 2019 we publish Pattern Power for Future Artists.

Spring sees a second novel from Chris McCabe, Mud, which is a version of Orpheus set in the present day. Borak and Karissa must locate a bubble of air trapped in mud somewhere to end their caustic relationship. The book is “illustrated” with sculptures and concrete poetry.

We are also scouring museums and libraries with Sophie Herxheimer. Looking at Wisdom literature as we embed her sequence of poems 60 Lovers To Make And Do within collages and cutouts.

A version of An Unknown Soldier set to music for the stage with composer John Ringhofer also waits in the wings.

Find out more about Henningham Family Press on their website

You may also wish to follow them on Twitter: @HenninghamPress

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