Book Review: The Pear Field

The Pear Field, by Nana Ekvtimishvili (translated by Elizabeth Heighway), is a powerful but unremittingly bleak depiction of life in a residential school for ‘Intellectually Disabled Children’. Located on the outskirts of Tbilisi,  in a newly independent Georgia, many of the children at the school were abandoned by their parents at a young age. Some have suffered appalling abuse at the hands of their peers, and also a monstrous teacher who preys on the younger girls with impunity. The descriptions of certain acts are deeply disturbing to read. 

Opening with a death, the first chapter names a great many of the characters living in and around the school who will feature in the ongoing tale. I found it challenging to keep track of who was who, flicking back and forth to try to understand relationships.

There are obvious friendships but also a lack of trust among the young people whose lives are scarred by cold and hunger as well as parental rejection. A central figure is eighteen year old Lela – a long time resident, old enough now to leave the school but with nowhere else to go. She has her favourites in the youngsters, chief among these is Irakli whose mother keeps promising she will visit him but never appearing.

Over the course of a stifling summer, the lives the children lead are revealed in bleak detail. The only glimmer of hope appears to be the prospect of one child being adopted by an American couple – a new life in a land of hope. Those who leave the school mostly end up selling themselves – into crime, prostitution or eventual destitution.

Neighbours in the Soviet tower blocks that surround the school are sometimes kindly but also inhumane. A mother brings her errant child to the gates, threatening in front of the inmates to leave him there if he will not behave. Men treat the girls as prey, to be raped as this can be done without consequence. Perhaps to salve their consciences they offer rewards of sweets or, when the girls are older, money. Those running the school make a little extra by selling on goods provided to ease the hardships faced by the children. 

 The writing is visceral and uncompromising with a plot that simmers and sparks with tension. It is clear that anything can happen to the characters, whose wellbeing is undercut by their need to survive deprivation of sustenance and care. Even a lighter scene – a nighttime raid on a neighbours fruit tree – has a distressing conclusion.  

A story that will force the reader to confront the scale of difficulties faced by those whose lives have no backup – be it of education or family. The state provides but advantage is taken of children, leaving them scarred and emotionally damaged. A well written but searing read.  

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

Book Review: Snow, Dog, Foot

Snow, Dog, Foot, by Claudio Morandini (translated by J. Ockenden), is the first book in Peirene Press’s Closed Universe Series. Its protagonist is an old man, Adelmo Farandola, who lives alone in a stone cottage on remote Alpine slopes. The high valley becomes snowed in throughout winter so he stocks up with provisions and firewood ready for the isolation he has chosen. He is aware that his memory is becoming ever more unreliable but rejects overtures of help. He is mistrustful of those in authority with their rules that threaten his way of living.

The story opens with Adelmo making a rare trip to the nearest village to buy long lasting foodstuffs before access is blocked by the imminent snowfall. On his way home Adelmo is followed by an elderly dog, despite the poor creature being verbally and physically abused and then shut out of the cottage. Over time the pair bond as the long winter sets in. A mountain ranger tries to persuade Adelmo to seek shelter amongst other people but the old man has few good experiences of social interaction.

Adelmo has learned how to survive difficult conditions, caring little for how he is perceived so long as he is left alone. He chooses solitude over how others treat him, keeping himself aesthetically repellent and convincing himself this is healthier than the comfort and cleanliness modern society expects.

Adelmo recalls the violence of his boyhood and adolescence. He survived the war years but at a cost. He resents the tourists who sometimes stray onto his land and bother him with requests or attempts at conversation. He surprises himself when he finds he enjoys the talks he has with the dog. With two mouths to feed, however, provisions do not last as long as before.

When the first thaws allow Adelmo to leave his cottage seeking food alongside the other hungry mountain creatures, he discovers a human foot sticking out of the snow. His memory offers up fragments that lead him to act to protect himself from the expected reactions of other people.

The writing is taut and evocative, serving up a memorable character in a setting that is awe inspiring but also merciless. The ranger and the dog provide nuance and colour but it is Adelmo’s history that adds depth and poignancy.

I enjoyed the voice created with its intriguing moodiness, and the changing relationship between man and dog. While unsentimental and at times brutal, this is a tale that packs an emotional punch.

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

Book Review: You Would Have Missed Me

You Would Have Missed Me, by Birgit Vanderbeke (translated by Jamie Bulloch), is the latest release in Peirene Press’s ‘There Be Monsters’ series. Based on the author’s childhood, it is told from the point of view of a young girl whose parents have fled East Germany for the West with their daughter just before the building of the Berlin Wall. The adults embrace the materialism of imported American culture, buying goods on credit in an attempt to emulate remembered wealth from their pre-war years. The child considers her parents’ conversations proof that their lives were so much better before she was born, and perceives a correlation.

The story opens on the girl’s seventh birthday. She understands that, once again, she will not be receiving the kitten she has longed for since they left the refugee camp for the assigned two bedroom flat where they now live. Her parents do not listen, believing they know best what is good for her. In her view, since moving to the West, they have done what they can to remove every source of her happiness.

Back in the East her grandmother would care for her while her mother was at work. She remembers: the large house and garden, the fun of visiting uncles, delicious food. Now she subsists on the bland offerings her mother cooks, denied even water when thirsty as her mother believes it will give her worms. Any friends the child makes are derided as beneath her family’s social standing. She is banned from visiting adults whose company she enjoyed at the camp after her mother questions their morals.

The mother is determined that her family will climb the ladder of social success. Her much younger husband struggles to contain his anger at the hand life has dealt him. The girl is frightened of her father and with good cause. She longs for someone wise to talk to, someone such as the fun and friendly doctor who arranges treatment for her injuries.

Children have no choice but to accept the decisions made for them by their parents. Remembering her earlier life, the child does not understand why they became refugees and why adults lie about so much when questions are asked. In viewing life through her eyes the reader is shown how ridiculous many aspects of adult behaviours can be and how futile their often hollow aspirations. Children see through the social blather and observe more than they are given credit for.

The ridiculousness of the mother’s desires add much humour. She hankers after possessions and experiences that, when grasped, will always fall short. Likewise she longs for an ideal daughter, one who is quiet and pretty and does not scuff her shoes or cause damage in the home. The child knows that she is a constant source of disappointment and must find a way to live with the hurt this causes.

“You get used to disappointments, but in the long term they make you feel cold and empty inside, and you begin to lose heart.”

Instead of a kitten the child is given a globe along with presents from people who have shown her kindness in the past. From these gifts she concocts a means to get through the moments of strife she faces at school and at home. Despite her parents’ inability to listen, she finds her voice. It gives her hope that she can navigate her way to a better future.

The nuance and wit in the writing raises this astute tale of childhood hurt to a level both haunting and sanguine. The treatment of children, seen through the eyes of a child, is a reminder that parents are fallible and, too often, selfish in their motives. The refugee element adds a layer of poignancy. Subtle and compact, this is a deftly affecting yet entertaining tale.

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

Guest post by independent publisher, Peirene 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 am grateful to those who responded so generously as the articles and Q&As they provided 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 Molly from Peirene Press whose book, Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena (translated by Margita Gailitis), I reviewed here.

The aim of Peirene Press is a simple one – to bring the best of European fiction to the UK market and expose English-speaking readers to unfamiliar authors, ideas and worlds. To do this, we specialise in publishing contemporary European novellas for the first time in English in translation. Once all this hard work is done, 50p of each sale is donated to our chosen charity (currently Basmeh and Zeitooneh, who work in refugee camps in Lebanon and Turkey) – as our publisher Meike Ziervogel says, ‘a good book should change the world for the better beyond the last page.’

I guess you could say that we are a rather niche publisher. But even we did not realise quite how niche we are until we did some digging into the statistics of translated fiction. Surprisingly, only between 3-5% of books published in the UK are works of translation. Of that only 30% are written by women authors – and so, with some quick maths we can see that translated books by women writers actually make up only 1-1.5% of our literary market!

Over the last 10 years we are pleased to say that 60% of our writers and 70% of our translators have been women. That’s already double the amount of women writers that make up the UK’s translated fiction market, and we hope that this number only continues to grow.

So this year our mission is even more focused. In 2019, we are only publishing books written by women.

Soviet Milk, our novel longlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize is an excellent example of the power of women in translation. As Jeremy Davies from Dalkey Archive Press said, Soviet Milk ‘opens up new paths not only for Latvian literature in English translation but for English literature itself.’

This makes being longlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize extra special. Not only are we raising the profile of small presses, but also all those women writers and translators that we have worked with for the past 10 years. We’ve been part of the 1% of the market taken up by women in translation and we couldn’t be prouder. In the future we hope to grow this unique part of the publishing industry and publish authors that would otherwise not have reached UK readers.

If this sounds like something you fancy head to peirenepress.com to get yourself some translated goodness! If you subscribe you’ll be supporting our work in the long term and you’ll also have access to our Subscriber Book Club which includes; discussions, giveaways and author Q&As!

You may keep up with all the news from Peirene Press on Twitter: @PeirenePress 

Book Review: Children of the Cave

Children of the Cave, by Virve Sammalkorpi (translated by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah), is the first book in the latest Peirene series: There Be Monsters. Presented in the form of annotated and incomplete diary entries, it tells the story of an ill fated scientific expedition to a remote forested area in north west Russia.

Setting out from Paris in 1819, the leader of the group is Professor Jean Moltique, a controversial figure within the Académie des Sciences. His assistant, translator and author of the diaries is Iax Agolasky, a Russian born twenty-four year old eager to travel and work alongside a man he naively admires.

A year into the expedition the group comes across signs of life outside a cave. They set up camp and prepare to observe. What they encounter is a group of small creatures – not quite human yet not quite animal. The reactions of the various adventurers to this discovery lead to disagreements due to ethical issues. The arrogant Moltique pounces on the opportunity to present an exciting discovery to the scientific community. Agolasky is learning that sometimes facts will be bent to fit a preformed conclusion.

“I am surprised that an experienced and esteemed scientist like him, albeit one who is sensational and controversial, is not more critical of his own ideas.”

Agolasky succeeds in getting close to what are now referred to as the children. He no longer fully trusts Moltique but recognises that the professor is more likely to protect his research subjects than the other men in the group, who are described as rogues. They have their uses as labourers and hunters but have appetites that repel the young scholar who is more used to academic life.

“It is unfortunate, but the men who have ended up on this journey are better off outside the reach of officialdom.”

While Moltique is mulling over the best way to collate and present his findings, Agolasky is tasked with learning more about the strange creatures they are attempting to study. The children grow to trust him, something that places them in danger. Caught between the needs of these anomalous beings and his own people the young man struggles to stand up against Moltique’s stated plans.

“I fear his ambition blinds him.”

Agolasky notes in his diary that the professor sympathises most with the creatures that look most human, most like him.

The story builds around the attitudes of so called civilised society towards beings that are different from what is regarded as the norm. Given the way members of the expedition behave, the creatures’ looks are given precedence over their actions. Moltique’s theories require that they be animal yet he punishes those in his cohort who treat them as similar to the creatures they must feed on to survive. Agolasky now understands where the children came from but has neither the strength nor influence to fully protect them. He grows disillusioned with Moltique and at times in fear of his own life.

“To tell the truth I was impressed by the certainty with which the scientist I admired pursued the theory he desired. I could not help considering what the truth was about the yeti and his other achievements.”

The difficulties of living in an inhospitable forest take their toll as the years pass with Moltique still struggling to document his findings with any coherence. Meanwhile the other men in the group see a different potential for the children. Agolasky despairs at his ineffectiveness as events approach their inexorable conclusion.

The staccato style of writing serves to move the story forward quickly, offering snapshots of the changes taking place in each of the explorers. Their behaviour highlights the animal traits in all.

Although set two centuries ago this story has contemporary relevance. With fear of the other growing and swathes of society being dehumanised to protect the comfort of the privileged it is worth questioning the rights we grant humans, and how these are so inequitably enforced.

In many ways this is a disturbing read because of the truths it tells about man’s behaviour. Poignant and piercing, it is a story for our times.

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

Book Review: Shadows on the Tundra

Shadows on the Tundra, by Dalia Grinkevičiutė (translated by Delija Valiukenas), is a memoir of the young author’s deportation, along with her mother and seventeen year old brother, from their comfortable home in Kaunas, the then capital of Lithuania, to a Gulag in Siberia. At the time Dalia was fourteen years old but to earn food for her family was required to work sixteen hour days of gruelling manual labour alongside adults. The memoir was written following her escape aged twenty-two, the pages buried in the garden of her Kaunas home before she was arrested and deported again. The papers were discovered quite by chance many years later, after Lithuania had once again attained independence. They were published in 1997, four years after the author’s death. They provide an account of life during Dalia’s terrible journey and her first year in the Gulag. The memoir has an immediacy often lost when writers rely on long held memories. It is a devastating depiction of the dehumanising of a people.

On June 14, 1941 at three o’clock in the morning, following orders from Moscow, mass arrests and deportations began simultaneously in all of the Baltic states—Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Juozas Grinkevičius, the head of the Lithuanian Bank’s currency commission and a mathematics teacher at the gymnasium, was taken to a concentration camp in the northern Urals where he died from starvation in October 1943. The extermination of his family had also been planned.

This book, his daughter Dalia’s account of her experiences, opens in June 1941 after she has been placed in one of sixty-three covered wagons being pulled by a train leaving Kaunas. Fifteen hundred Lithuanians are heading into an uncertain future.

“Secondary school, childhood, fun, games, theatre, girlfriends – everything is in the past. You’re a grown-up now. You’re fourteen. You have a mother to look after, a father to replace. You have just taken your first step in the battle for life.”

The train journey lasts for weeks. At stops along the way carriages are uncoupled as some of the deportees are bound for collective farms. Dalia’s worth is assessed as one would an animal. She is housed in a barracks and put to work in the fields alongside deported Ukrainians. Their supervisors treat them as criminals.

The next stage of Dahlia’s journey again starts by train but this time they are packed in so tightly they can only stand. Illness and lice now plague them. When finally unloaded they sleep in a stable, or perhaps it is a club hall – five thousand filthy, unwashed people, grateful to be able to stretch out and relax exhausted legs. They are near a river and a rumour circulates that they are to be transported to America. Dalia wants to believe this, it offers hope, but in her heart she cannot.

Housed in wooden sheds and selling their few possessions for food they sing songs from their homeland and gather wood from nearby forests to burn for heat. Soon they are moved onto barges and taken down the Angara River before being unloaded onto a beach. From there lorries transport them the three hundred kilometres to the Lena River. By now leaders have emerged within the group and they are learning of each other’s histories.

After a two week wait, the Lithuanians are once again loaded unto barges. They are being fed but there are still regular deaths. Those who had felt superior in their former lives try to give themselves airs and graces. Dalia understands that any influence they may have had, any ability to offer favours, has been stripped away.

Forests and lesser vegetation are replaced by tundra. Dalia is disembarked where the riverbank is steep and a cold wind blows down from the mouth of the Lena. The people find just a few tents and wooden structures alongside piles of bricks. It is now August 1942 and they have reached their destination – Trofimovsk Island in the Arctic. They must build their own accommodation on this previously uninhabited outpost if they are to survive. They wear only the clothes they brought from Kaunas.

The Soviets have decreed that a fish processing plant will be built and worked by these exiled people. The Lithuanians and then Finnish prisoners are racing against time before the onset of a frozen, blizzard filled winter. In Trofimovsk the sun sets in November and does not rise again until February.

Inadequate brick and timber shelters are built, each housing too many people. Those who can work, including Dalia, are sent each day to walk for miles into the tundra and search for logs carried down from the upper reaches of the Lena river. These must be chopped out of the ice, tied into rope harnesses and dragged to Trofimovsk to be used to heat the apartments and offices of the supervisors. The prisoners do not have the right to take any of this wood. It is the only source of fuel. Dalia sneaks out and steals it, at great risk.

Dalia describes the terrible pain – from illness and wounds caused by the rope harnesses – as she helps drag the logs up the steep and frozen shores of Trofimovsk Island. The workers have no strength or energy. Their feet are wrapped in frozen sacks tied together with ropes. They suffer from exhaustion, scurvy, frostbite, gangrene and starvation. Hundreds die.

The Trofimovsk superiors live in warm houses built from logs. They dress in furs, eat bread, butter, sugar and canned goods sent to the Soviet Union by the allies from America. They regard the Finns and Lithuanians as sub species, observing their: lice ridden, rag covered bodies; the damp and filth of their shelters; the pails overflowing with shit from diarrhea. The dead are piled up and left for the wild animals – around three hundred that first winter. Food is withheld from the living to force them to work until they drop. Any possessions the prisoners have managed to retain are taken by the supervisors for a pittance – gold watches for a bag of flour or tinned food that may then be stolen by the other starving people.

Those who somehow survive that first, terrible winter are offered small respite when a doctor arrives at the Gulag and demands that the supervisors allow the workers to eat the fish and other provisions that were always available – the supervisors would have preferred the barrelled fish to rot. Baths are constructed and clothing disinfected.

As the river starts to thaw the workers are sent to other islands to catch and process fresh fish – the working factory envisaged. Dalia lives in a basic yurt but after the horrors of the winter even the pain caused by dipping damaged hands into frozen water and then salting fish is tolerable because she can now steal enough to eat. Unlike the theft of the wood to burn at Trofimovsk, pilfering of fish is tolerated. The work they are doing is pointless anyway. In a country where payment is made per unit and corruption a way of life, the barrels leak and fresh fish mixed with putrid meaning produce rots and will eventually be dumped in the sea.

Dalia describes the main camp supervisor as a  psychopath. It is hard to understand how such treatment of other human beings could be allowed to occur, although at a lesser level brings to mind the actions of our current government towards refugees and the homeless.

This is a striking and searing depiction of survival in horrific circumstances. A disturbingly evocative yet vital read.

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

Book Review: And the Wind Sees All

In a fishing community in the north of Iceland a young woman cycles to the village hall where she is to conduct the local choir in a much anticipated concert. As she passes by the reader is introduced to the characters who briefly observe her, many of whom have lived in the village for most of their lives. The narrative covers just a few minutes in time, like a wind blowing through the streets in which these people are going about their day. Whatever they are doing, minds are wandering. Lifetime memories can be triggered by a moment, before that moment drifts away.

And the Wind Sees All, by Guðmundur Andri Thorsson (translated by Bjørg Arnadottir and Andrew Cauthery) is a study of the never ending train of thoughts that individuals live with yet rarely share. Snapshots from the past are cherished – their significance is personal, sometimes hurtful to others. A young woman may have sparked feelings in a man that his wife has never generated – feelings he will linger on as he ruminates over what might have been. A wife may despise her husband for his habits but put up with them for the sake of family harmony. It can be wise to avoid drawing attention to that which is better lived with silently.

One group of long time friends is sitting outside enjoying a pre-concert drink and listening to an anecdote, each remembering events from their pasts involving others known to all but significant in differing ways. These personal perspectives interlink but with unacknowledged importance and consequence. There are: loves, betrayals, resentments, regrets.

The reader learns of the lonely and the guilty. Fortunes have been made and lost. Secrets devastatingly shared. Children have been raised and loved before dying or moving away. Events that felt like endings were survived, marking change.

A poet waits patiently for words that continually flutter away. A priest drinks and gambles in privacy. An old man drowns memories of childhood abuse in alcohol before collecting himself and resuming his quiet existence. A sister grows exasperated with her brother and they cease speaking.

The writing is lyrical and poetic, the sharing of hopes and dreams that sparkled and then faded. Life continues beyond disappointments, marking time with occasional small happinesses. The village knows many of these secrets but chooses to accept and look away.

Lives are complex. Words for intimate feelings prove elusive, the feelings themselves fleeting. The metaphor of the wind passing through and observing just a few minutes of individual lives brings to the fore how little people are aware of what is happening to others, even those close by.

This is an affecting approach to portraying the ordinary as personally extraordinary. A poignant yet hopeful read.

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

Book Review: Shatila Stories

“Spare us your good intentions,
your quiet pity,
Instead, look up and raise your
fist at the sky.”

Shatila Stories is a  work of collaborative fiction commissioned by Peirene Press. In 2017 nine Syrian and Palestinian refugees took part in a 3 day creative writing workshop held inside the Shatila camp in Beirut. Run by Meike Ziervogel from Peirene and London based Syrian editor Suhir Helal, quite a few of the writers pre-selected for the workshop had never before read a novel.

Shatila camp was founded in 1949 for 3,000 Palestinians. It now houses up to 40,000 refugees. It is chaotic and dangerous with inadequate infrastructure and overcrowding. It is governed by various opposing Palestinian groups.

Following the workshop participants were asked to deliver a 4000-word typed draft within six weeks, works of fiction that could be brought together into one cohesive story to bring Shatila alive on the page. A few months later Meike and Suhir returned to the camp to work with each writer to draw out their strengths.

Afterwards Naswa Gowanlock translated everything into English. Meike and Suhir worked alongside to combine the material into a coherant narrative. The result, this book, is a novel written in an authentic refugee voice.

“Don’t talk about the camp unless you know it.”

The story opens with an arrival. A family has been promised accommodation at Shatila Camp by a family member. They pass through a border where thousands are waiting ‘with desperate eyes’, travelling from Damascus to Beirut.

The reader is introduced to key characters, individual tales told from each of their points of view.

Reham is a new bride eager to make a good life with the husband her parents have chosen for her. The couple hope for a child but find a wedge driven between them when their attitudes differ following the birth.

Youssef is the drug lord of the camp, powerful and feared.

Jafra plays with her doll while longing for a new dress, unaware of the steps her parents will be forced to take in an attempt to keep her safe.

Adam stays in his room to avoid the camp bullies until he meets a fellow musician and finds an escape in music. His new friend will rekindle his ambition until tragedy strikes.

Shatha dreams of escape through her studies but is torn between this and her love for her ill father. He believes those who leave the camp are cowards, traitors to the Palestinian cause.

Within these narratives are the limits of culture, particularly affecting the women, and the effects of camp dangers, including a dearth of hope.

Despite the wider reasons for the refugee situation these stories mostly avoid politics. The tales are of family and everyday life. The occasional lack of fluidity in the writing is more than made up for in the power of the voices. What the reader comes away with is better understanding.

An ambitious project that provides a raw and uncompromising portrayal of a radically displaced and closed community. This is a captivating and timely read.

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

Book Review: Dance by the Canal

Dance by the Canal, by Kerstin Hensel (translated by Jen Calleja), tells the story of Gabriela von Haßlau, the only child of the Chief Medical Officer at the surgical clinic in Leibnitz, and his wife, Christiane. Gabriela’s father, Ernst, is proud to descend from noble Anhaltinian stock. Christiane’s family he prefers to forget. In communist East Germany drawing attention to bourgeois standing could be regarded as dangerous.

When the tale opens Gabriela is living under a bridge by the canal, writing the story of her life on pilfered scraps of paper. She remembers back to when she was five years old and expected to learn to play the violin. Although unable to master the instrument her teacher had a lasting impact, one her father would prefer she forget. Ernst has high hopes for his daughter which she struggles to comply with let alone attain.

Gabriela’s schooling in particular proves a disappointment to Ernst. The girl’s chosen friend, Katka, is quickly banned as undesirable company for his daughter leading to undercover assignations lasting many years. The school encourages pupils to revere the state. When Ernst insists that his child should not join the sanctioned youth organisatons he ensures she is set further apart from her peers.

The timeline moves between Gabriela’s homeless experiences and those of her childhood, eventually explaining how the daughter of a once respected doctor ends up living under a bridge. The prose is dreamlike in places as Gabriela navigates her memories whilst trying to survive the increasing harshness of the streets.

The story is told in jigsaw pieces which the reader must fit together, the picture emerging being more impressionist than linearly complete. Gabriela’s pain and confusion as she tries to find a place in the life assigned her shine through the cracks, despite her emotional distance in the telling.

This is a laconic yet vivid account of societal failure in a communist state. Gabriela, like her story, resists further classification

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

Where to begin – Guest Post by Anthony Cartwright

Today I am delighted to welcome Anthony Cartwright, author of The Cut, to my blog. In this guest post he talks of the Black Country where he grew up and where The Cut is set (you may read my review of the book here).

“I have lived half my life here, half in London, felt the chasm between the places widen further and further.”

The Cut was commissioned by Peirene Press 

“to build a fictional bridge between the Britains that opposed each other on referendum day.”

It is a fabulous read.

 

The EU funded some of the work you look out on now, just by the house where my uncle used to live, here on a terrace elevated above the Birmingham Road traffic. You used to be able to look into the old football ground from the upstairs bedrooms. Beyond that was the County Ground, where in summers gone my great-grandad would sit in his deckchair behind the bowler’s arm, out of the wind, with a pint of mild. He could look at the castle on the hill, listen to the clang of metal being bashed. The people loved Tom Graveney, Basil D’Oliveira, the Headleys; sons of England and Cape Town and Jamaica and Dudley. The town is an enclave of Worcestershire within Staffordshire; hence the cricket. The earth opened one morning in the eighties and the sports grounds fell into a hole. With a shift in the old limestone workings below, the place was swallowed, went the same way as the jobs. When the hole was filled years later they built a cinema, hotel, gym, bars, called the place Castle Gate. It looks like the rest of England. Or England looks like Dudley.

The newspaper says that Brexit threatens the new light railway set to run up the hill from the mainline, says the new Aldi will bring over thirty jobs. The town, like every place you look out on from this view, voted for Brexit, two to one for Leave across the West Midlands. Map the regions that made the difference and it follows the pattern of the death of industry, of coal, iron and steel.

The ground is always unsteady here. Take a step and an abyss can open up, a foot in one half of the country, a foot in the other half, the chasm widening below you. The cut, the canals, more relics of an old industrial order, were the things that linked the land-locked midlands to the sea, to far-flung London. There used to be a pub called The Sailor’s Return on the crest of the wave of Kates Hill, as if a ship might sail from the distant Indies right into Dudley Port, and the sailor swagger homeward up Bunn’s Lane.

That we lived on an old sea-bed in the middle of England was one of the many wonders of growing up here. At the Wren’s Nest there are trilobites buried in the rocks, creatures from that prehistoric ocean, a symbol of Dudley, hard and strange. The trilobite is there on the coat of arms, just above the salamander, who basks in flames below. We are a country of symbols, with our new Black Country flag – red, white and black – a link of chain emblazoned across it. Black Country Day is 14 July, the day the Cobb’s engine house started pumping water from the mines at Windmill End. The industrial revolution will be permanent.

Except just not here, any more. I remember the day I first thought I might become a novelist. Sitting on the 120 bus somewhere between the Langley Maltings and the Albright & Wilson chemical works, waiting to climb the hill, I thought I might write about this postage stamp of land, like Faulkner said, about defeat, about what it’s like to come down on the far side of something, about the past never really being past.

There is a whole shadow country beneath our feet. The canal tunnels pierce the hill and there are great caverns under the castle. There was a plan, early in the Second World War, to move the whole of the BSA munitions works here, to make an underground city of twelve thousand people and a few hundred thousand guns. It didn’t happen, but this is a country of outlandish plans. Lubetkin built the zoo in the thirties, white modernist pavilions set in old quarries. See the flamingos now from the top deck of the bus to West Bromwich. There is a hole in the hill where they used to dump the dead animals, a well of strange bones. The Richardson brothers, local Thatcherite property men, once planned the world’s tallest building at Merry Hill, the shopping centre they built by the old Round Oak steelworks, unstable ground indeed, where thousands of jobs fell into a hole and disappeared.

Wind down the lanes through Gornal, where the trees bend to each other above the road, to The Crooked House, another pub, a place made crazy with subsidence, where you can watch a marble roll uphill. This is a country of signs and wonders. And it is perhaps so unlike the country that is portrayed – if it is portrayed at all – in newspapers and on television screens and on radio stations that speak with an accent you do not hear on these hills, that you might struggle to picture it at all.

Which is where I should begin. This novel will be a story about magical thinking, a story about loss. The vote was a piece of magical thinking, a vote about loss. And it was many other things as well. Cast the zoo bones, read the runes on tunnel walls. If I must fall into this void then you will come too. There are countries where you have never been, though you have lived in them all your life.

‘It doesn’t matter what the question was, the answer was no,’ a friend says to me when we talk about the vote. And he goes on to tell me about someone he knows who killed himself not long ago, a couple of kids and no one saw it coming, and we talk about the people we know who have done similar. But try not to draw conclusions. There are people doing just fine. And it’s not like the place has a monopoly on the sense that the future lies somewhere in the past.

Watch the traffic flow along Birmingham Road past European roadside flowers. It was my uncle’s funeral a few weeks ago. Our family, living and dead, form a web across these hills. My brother, though he usually drinks Guinness, likes a cocktail at Frankie and Benny’s on Castle Gate, not far from where our great-grandad sat. They raise their glasses across the gulf of years. I have lived half my life here, half in London, felt the chasm between the places widen further and further. Out of the tunnel and into the light, down the hill and into the stream, along the river and into the sea.

And back again. We are all connected.

This is where to begin.

Anthony Cartwright is a novelist from Dudley. He is the author of four previous novels, most recently Iron Towns (2016). The Cut is the second novel in the Peirene Now! series, and was published on 23 June 2017.