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.

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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.

 

Book Review: The Cut

The Cut, by Anthony Cartwright, is set in the Black Country, where the skeletons of the industrial past are now regarded by those who have benefited from it the most as a blight. Cairo Jukes has lived in Dudley all his life. He feels indivisible from the land. His ancestors were amongst the men who dug the canals and tunnels, worked the foundries. None of these jobs now exist. Cairo works zero hour contracts cleaning up the old industrial sites ready for redevelopment, a tidying up and sweeping away for those who can afford the new order. He does what is needed to put food on the table for the four generations of family who share his home.

Grace is an award winning documentary film-maker from London. She travels to Dudley looking to interview locals about the upcoming referendum on Brexit, recognising that they are different from those she knows from her life. Most treat her with suspicion, veering away from her approach and the camera:

“She felt like there was some kind of invisible veil between her and these people. These people. And this is how it began, she supposed, prejudice on the scale of a whole country.”

Cairo agrees to be interviewed, speaking in an accent that, when played back on news cycles and Twitter, is given subtitles. What he says is ‘We’ve had enough’. He talks of ‘you people’, those who appear on the telly and believe what is happening is everybody’s fault but their own. Grace is drawn to this rough, unexpectedly cogent man.

The reader is offered snapshots of the Jukes family’s lives. Cairo’s daughter, Stacey-Ann, introduces herself to Grace as Ann. Judgements are made even over names. They are unused to talking to anyone like Grace. Her ways are foreign to them, and theirs to her. Despite their conversations, words cannot be found to bridge the gap.

It is this that the novel offers, a bridge between perception and reality. In packaging Brexit as a protest about immigration or even the EU the depths and complexity are disregarded, what is felt standing on a sun dappled mountaintop reduced to a sterile description of river and rock. Brexit was about how large swathes of the population are routinely admonished, their concerns dismissed.

“People are tired […] tired of other people getting things that you and people like you had made for them, tired of being told you were no good, tired of being told that what you believed to be true was wrong, tired of being told to stop complaining, tired of being told what to eat, what to throw away, what to do and what not to do, what was right and wrong when you were always in the wrong.”

Grace recognises that there is a disconnect but struggles to accept that she may sometimes be the one to be wrong. It is easier to find others wanting.

“‘This place is a hole’, Franco says to her and sits down.

‘I’ve never heard you say that anywhere. Hungary, the border camps, Serbia, when you came back from Syria. Never. But Dudley is the end of the road for you. Look out of the window. It’s a sunny afternoon in the English Midlands.’ […]

‘Those people have got an excuse, a reason for being how they are, but these people,’ Franco says.

‘Ah, these people, she says, these people'”

Cairo feels increasingly impotent. He sees that many in the rest of the country want the likes of him gone, that walls are built with their well meaning ways. When Grace appears to offer him a new hope and then as quickly takes it from him, something in him snaps. The denouement, which was touched on at the beginning, is shocking.

The writing in this work is stunning. It is sparce, poetic in places, and bang on point.

Required reading for anyone who despairs of Brexit, or anyone tempted to glance at the Stacey-Anns of our world and then self-righteously opine. It offers a plot driven window into a clashing of cultures. It deserves the attention of all.

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

Book Review: The Orange Grove

The Orange Grove, by Larry Tremblay (translated by Sheila Fischman), is the second book in the publisher’s 2017 East and West: Looking Both Ways series. The story opens in an Arabic country wracked by war, where nine year old twin boys, Ahmed and Aziz, live with their parents in the shade of the family orange grove. Their grandparent’s house has just been destroyed by a missile fired from nearby mountains, killing the elderly couple. Insurgents appear at their door demanding that the family seek revenge.

The boys’ father, Zahed, is persuaded that he must choose one of his sons to become a martyr for the cause, a suicide bomber who will destroy an arsenal of weapons held by the enemy. His choice and the reasoning he presents will tear the family apart. The surviving son must somehow learn to live with what has been done.

The spare yet poignantly articulate prose conveys a challenging depth of emotion. It is difficult to comprehend how a parent could ever be so convinced of the worth of their country or religion to willingly sacrifice their own child to the cause, and how this would make those considered expendable feel. In presenting this as a story of family rather than a particular conflict, and from the young boys’ point of view, the reader is left to consider the day to day nature of extremism. It is a story of the cost of war but also of belief, and how little difference exists between those who define themselves as enemies.

The reveals in the denouement are shocking yet the last line brings hope. An understanding is reached on how little those who have not directly experienced war can understand its lasting effects, and how those who have suffered yet survived must seek their own absolution. All of this is told in writing that oozes lyricism and an engrossing sense of place. Despite the distressing subject matter this remains a beautiful read.

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

Book Review: The Last Summer

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The Last Summer, by Ricarda Huch (translated by Jamie Bulloch), is an epistolary thriller set in early twentieth century Russia. It is Peirene Title No 22 and the first offering in the publisher’s new East and West Series.

A challenge to the status quo by students has resulted in the governor of St Petersburg, Yegor von Rasimkara, closing the university. This controversial action has been countered by a threat to the governor’s life.

Yegor has withdrawn to his summer residence with his wife, the always anxious Lusinya, and their three children – Velya, their son, who is described as a handsome and droll young chap studying law in the hope of one day pursuing a diplomatic career; their two daughters, Jessika and Katya, are ‘sweet, blonde creatures’, although Katya retains a mind of her own.

“There is something childishly harmless about the family overall […] deep down they feel themselves to be alone in a world that belongs to them.”

The loyal servents are described as old-school Russians who still feel like serfs. They are joined by a new addition, Lyu, who is taken on as a bodyguard and secretary to Yegor in an attempt to mitigate Lusinya’s worries following the death threat. Unbeknown to them, Lyu is the rebel student’s chosen assassin.

Lyu is welcomed by the family adding depth and diversion to their daily discussions. The letters each writes to friends and wider family tell of first impressions, love interests and then growing disquiet at the developing situation. It is a fascinating study of how people react and their opinions change as experience colours perceptions.

Lyu gets to know the family and considers several means by which he may carry out his quest. Where his reconnaissance risks raising suspicion he finds the trusting family jump to conclusions he could not have predicted.

The novelty of a new mind to probe soon wanes and the family resume their own pursuits which Lyu seeks to influence. The audacious plan he settles on is not without risk. The family become caught up in the younger members’ attempt to further their education despite the university’s closure. They talk of aiding other students who do not enjoy their privileges which vexes their father.

The writing is taut and insightful laying bare how selfish individual outlooks tend to be. Other than Lyu, whose actions some may consider a necessary means to an end, the cast at first appears benign. Their actions, however, will have repercussions on the less fortunate. They think of helping only when it was of little trouble to them.

Despite the historical setting this story remains pertinent. It is also beautifully written, its points raised more powerful for their subtlety. The polite interactions tremble with undercurrents of suppressed emotion. In reading I became a part of the time and place.

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

Book Review: The Empress and the Cake

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The Empress and the Cake, by Linda Stift (translated by Jamie Bolloch), is the third and final book in the 2016 Peirene series, Fairy Tale: End of Innocence. Earlier this year I read the second in this series, Her Father’s Daughter (you may read my review  here). These exquisite short works of fiction are the treasure discerning readers seek.

Set in Vienna, this latest tale centres around Frau Hohenembs, an elderly countess now living in a city apartment cluttered with objects from her past. She is cared for by a rotund housekeeper, Ida, who puts up with her mistress’s temper and quirks due to an oft repeated promise of a house in Corfu. The story is told from the point of view of a young women Frau Hohenembs meets at a local bakery. The countess offers a share of the cake she is buying and persuades the young woman to accompany her home, taking advantage of perceived weakness and a compliant nature.

Eating the cake triggers the young woman’s food addiction and she descends into a dangerous spiral of binge followed by purge. Meanwhile, Frau Hohenembs plans raids on city museums to reclaim items once owned by her icon, the Empress Elizabeth of Austria, referred to as Sissi.

Throughout the narrative are scattered anecdotes written by an unknown source who was close to the assassinated Empress, detailing episodes in her life. Sissi was obsessed with her looks, particularly her hair and weight. She observed a rigorous exercise regime and strictly controlled her diet. She would be sewn into her clothes and spend up to three hours a day having her exceptionally long hair styled and dressed.

Frau Hehenembs emulates this way of living, regularly berating Ida for lack of control in her consumption. When she notes that the young women, whose life she is now manipulating, has lost weight, she congratulates her even though the means by which this has occurred is evident.

The museum raids offer Frau Hehenembs a hold over her acolytes which she abuses dispassionately. When the young woman realises how she is being used she determines to escape.

There is a sinister undercurrent. The vagueness of the timeframe and the similarities between characters’ habits and foibles add shadows but also depth. The denouement is perfect.

The story is told with an elegant succinctness. The author understands that her readers will possess sufficient intelligence to read between the lines. The quality of the prose is a joy in itself, the spine tingling unfolding of the tale a pleasure to satisfy any literary palate.

There has been a trend recently for publishing big books. This offering proves that size is no indicator of value. I finished the story in a day but the pleasure lingers. You will feel no regrets indulging in this tale.

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

Book Review: breach

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breach, by Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes, is the first title in the Peirene Now! series, commissioned works of new fiction which engage with the political issues of the day. Set in the Calais refugee camp known as The Jungle, the eight short stories in this collection explore the current refugee crisis in Europe. As Popoola says:

“These are stories of complex characters with dreams and fears, lives that started long before they found themselves in Calais.”

The stories offer insight into the lives of the residents of The Jungle and their relationships with family back home. They look at the feared people smugglers so essential to the refugees’ journey, and at the people in France and the UK who fear the refugees impact on their neatly ordered world.

The collection opens with ‘Counting Down’, a story of waiting, of strangers who become friends yet are never really close. The residents of The Jungle are not one homogenous mass. They come from many countries, bound only by their desperation to reach the UK. At any moment their loyalty can turn.

‘The Terrier’ looks at the refugees through the eyes of a French local who offers to accommodate two young Syrians in exchange for payment from the City Council. Although she sympathises with the youngsters plight there is a lack of trust, on both sides. The refugees are lonely in this house so return to the camp for friendship despite the squalor. The landlady hides her involvement from friends who complain of the refugees proximity and the trouble they bring.

‘Extending a Hand’ tells the story of two young Ethiopian women. They are grateful for the dry clothes handed out by volunteers yet resent that they are a position that requires such help.

“No one makes trousers for your shape. The pair you picked yesterday aren’t the loose-fitting ones volunteers think are suitable […] Why people think they know what’s best for you when they are not you, you don’t understand […] Dignity involves choosing your own outfits, at least”

The women have not told their families back home about conditions in the camp, pretending that all is well and they have jobs. Now demands are being made to send their earnings home, and there is only one way that a women in this camp can earn.

‘Paradise’ offers the camp from the perspective of the volunteers who hand out tents, sleeping bags and donated clothes. They feel good about helping, perhaps not recognising how they are often despised by the refugees. What they do not want though is to become too involved, as happens when Marjorie brings her teenage niece along to help. Marjorie is forced to recognise the hypocracy of her situation and this makes her angry. The refugees also do not wish for too close an involvement. When the volunteers leave to go home and the refugees cannot, this causes pain.

‘Ghosts’ looks at the precarious and often violent world of the people smugglers. It helps explain why there is so little trust in the camp, why people are reluctant to engage and tell their stories.

‘Lineage’ simmers with the resentments felt by those forced to stay calm when their lives have been blown apart. The Jungle is not one big happy family. It is populated by mud and desperation.

‘Oranges in the River’ tells of the constant battle to escape, to find a way to get to the UK by whatever means. However risky the endeavour, this is why The Jungle exists.

‘Expect Me’ is set in the UK. Alghali has made it across the channel and is studying hard to learn English and accounting. He visits Mr Dishman, an elderly local, to improve his ability to converse in this new language that, when his papers come through, he may find work. Mr Dishman talks of Europe being overrun. Alghali believes there is no other way for him to move forward with his life. He is mourning the death of a young friend who died trying to make it to England. He is blamed for a terrorist attack.

Even after reading these stories I pondered why the refugees chose the UK as their destination. It is understandable why they flee but not why other supposedly safe countries are rejected. Perhaps it is the language, the fact that some had learned English before. Perhaps it is because when they ring home they do not admit how bad things are. They make it sound as though they have jobs and safety, thereby encouraging the next set of refugees to follow in their wake.

The authors have produced poignant, challenging stories that facilitate an empathy that is often missing when these issues are discussed. If the human tide is to be slowed then the causes need to be addressed.

Through fiction, tales like these can help to bridge the gap in understanding between cultures. This is an important but also a satisfying read.

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