The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses 2019 Winners’ Party – Speech by Neil Griffiths

In yesterday’s Gig Review: The Republic of Consciousness Prize Winners’ Event 2019 I wrote that the founder of the prize, Neil Griffiths, gave a speech that I felt encapsulated the prize’s ethos – celebration rather than competition. He said a great deal more that I had wanted to summarise in my write-up but couldn’t note down quickly enough. So, as he left the podium, I accosted him to request a transcript. He kindly agreed.

I reproduce it below – thank you Neil for allowing me to share your words.

Thank you all for coming to the 3rd Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses. As some of you know, after tonight I will be stepping back from the prize. One of the reasons I’m stepping back is that I find the whole prize … enterprise … so unbelievably … distressing.

If you took a PET scan of my nervous system before, during, or after any of the moments in the judging process, it would look like the nervous system of a small naked boy holding up a broken stick in front of a herd of bison.

He’s not in either fight or flight mode, but the less common ‘freeze’.

Who in their right mind wants to make these choices? – there never can be the right amount of books to fit a prescribed longlist or short list; how can there really be a winner!

One of the reasons I started a prize is that I won one once. And it’s a nice feeling.

After the event, Bridget and I drank the champagne that came with prize straight from the bottle in the taxi home.

Once at home I found a cigar someone had given me, smoked that, and then threw up on the stairs.

What’s interesting about that prize that year is that the one judge, Deborah Moggach, couldn’t choose between two books and so gave the award to me and another. She made an effort to convince us all – she simply couldn’t … or did not want to choose.

The Booker has done this twice. It’s a good thing. Each winner is an award-winning novelist from then on.

But it’s this ‘winning’ thing that is troubling. Games have winners; competitions have winners. Prizes, whilst winning something might be implicit … at least for the arts … should be more about a celebration of great work.

Everyone in the arts knows picking a winner is a nonsense. If the short list is strong enough then there will be strong arguments for each of them to be the winner.

So from next year … which is this calendar year … the judges of the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses will be instructed to select the winning book(s) on the criterion that book x or y cannot not win.

If we raise enough money … we want to be in a place where we don’t … have … to choose between books … that we can’t choose between.

If we can’t raise enough money, giving three writers an award might divide the pecuniary upside by three, but it triples the good feeling.

We approximated something like this in our first year. Because I had no idea what I was doing I had just made things up as I went along. The judging panel came from independent bookshops and just wanted to read the books and tell me which they loved.

It meant there was no one to tell me how long the long list must be. Why stop at 12 or 13, 14 if I still loved another book?

Our first longlist was 18 books long! The short list was only 9 because even I realised double figures was too long. It was great. I didn’t feel like a naked boy with broken stick in front of herd of bison. At that point, I didn’t know it was possible to feel like that. That comes later.

In year 1 we did have a unanimous winner, Counternarratives by John Keene, published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

But there were two other books which the judges loved enough to win had they not loved Counternarratives more.

So I decided we’d have 2 runner-up awards. If the prize wanted to spread the love, it also wanted to spread the money around.

And then there was a novel that polarised the judges … and who doesn’t love a polarising novel … apart from the 50% who don’t love it?

This novel seemed to me to be so multitudinous in conception and execution, not to award it something seemed like an act of bad faith … so I created the Walt Whitman Award for Multitudinousness.

On the understanding that such an award might do more harm than good, we quickly turned it into a Best First Novel Award.

But then we were established, and for some reason we thought we must play by the rules, so what did we do? – we followed the Booker Prize.

A Longlist of 13, shortlist of 6 and only one winner.

It was this more rigorous culling process that nearly did me in.

I will never right the wrong of Mathias Enard’s Compass not making the short list. Sorry, Jacques. It still causes me pain when I think about it.

And it’s no exaggeration when I say … had I insisted on it making the short list – and the judges were split – there would have been a fight. When someone is willing to ‘take it outside’ … you don’t have much choice when you’re in a French restaurant in Charlotte Street.

That said, we managed to raise enough money that year so all the short list presses received £1,500.

(Interesting statistic: the Booker Prize gives money to their shortlisted authors but it represents 0.96 of their budget; our shortlist receives a third of our budget.)

This year … the judging wasn’t as potentially violent as last year, and we’re sticking to the ‘established’ format.

Before we move onto the short listed books and publishers, I would like to thank a number of people. Quite a lot of people.

First, this year’s judges: David Collard, who has supported this prize from the off and has guided the judging process with great integrity and gentleness; Catherine Taylor for her enthusiasm and all round commitment to the detail; and Niven Govinden for his generosity and openheartedness. We were also joined by three creative writing students from UEA, Ayanna Gillian Lloyd , Vijay Khurana, Maya Lubinsky. Thank you to Nicci Praca for spreading the word from year one; Rebecca Irvin for creating and running our Instagram account – whatever that is. The Pigeonhole for running extracts of the Long List for two months. Laura Hopkins for design and manufacture of our trophy.

A big thank you to two people who I hope won’t mind being name-checked: Graham Fulcher and Anil Malhotra – without their support, the prize pot would be significantly smaller. Your generosity and support in general has been essential to this year’s prize. Thank you to our media sponsors the Times Literary Supplement, our academic partners the UEA Writing Program and the UEA Publishing Project, especially Philip Langeskov, Nathan Hamilton and Steven Benson. I look forward to our ‘strategic partnership’ ‘going forward’, which in normal language is ‘I hope the relationship over the next few years flourishes’. Sarah Crown and James Trevelyan at the Arts Council. Without the support of the Arts Council of England we wouldn’t exist – they are existentially important.

Talking about existentially important, as I said last year, and it remains more true this year, and will be truer still next year, when it comes to the success of this prize, I’m irrelevant. As everyone who has been involved over the last two years knows, this prize continued existence is the work of one man, our Lord Je … – sorry, I mean … James Tookey. His years may be few, but his gifts are many – it’s quite sickening, really. Thank you, James.

I will be back in 15 minutes …

Will Eaves, Murmur, published by CB Editions

Murmur takes two points in the life of Alan Turing, falling in love at school and the ‘chemical castration’ he was subjected to later in life after being convicted of ‘gross
indecency’.

I’m not one for talking about what novels are about, or even what they mean. But much has been made about this novel being about ‘consciousness’ and ‘artificial intelligence’. All fiction is about consciousness, it seems to me. Which is one of the reasons I named this prize the “republic of consciousness”. So what is Murmur? It’s a novel that has at its heart … a broken heart … and it reminds us that we are irrevocably changed by a broken heart. No anti-virus can rid us of it. But of course it’s more than that … it’s about a man with whom the world is not yet finished with … whatever his brilliance … his service … there is still more pain to come. As is the case for all of us. Which is why this novel, despite its formal difficulty, its mind-blowing intelligence, is so easy to love.

Doppelgänger by Dasa Drndic, published by Istros Books. Translated by Celia Hawkesworth and SD Curtis

Doppelgänger contains a short story ‘Arthur and Isabella’ and novella ‘Pupi’. Only one judge was familiar with Drndic’s work; the rest of us were stunned by what we read. It was like discovering Kafka for the first time – dark, playful, uncanny, absurd, funny, haunting. The first story had us reeling. Not only does it include … gerronto sexuality … in all its wrinkliness … but before we get there we have full-on incontinence.

And yet, even in this short story, the history of central Europe in the 20th century … is present. This is what Drndic does – she brings you characters who have managed their lives through Nazism, then Communism, and then just in case you’re too involved in these particulars, just in case you forget what’s happen around them … she strides in and provides documentation, language use, registers of names, the facts. It makes for a reading experience of real emotional depth … and at same time this pulling of focus upwards reminds us … what horrifies you here … is everywhere.

The translations are extraordinary.

Chris MaCabe, Dedalus, Henningham Family Press

Dedalus is a creative response to the greatest novel in the English language. It is a momentous act of hubris. Chris McCabe has the cojones of Achilles. How many writers in the last 97 years have thought to themselves ‘I wonder what happened to Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom when they woke up on the 17 of June 1904? And think: sequel?’ Whatever the number … they’ve either thought better of it or tried and failed. Of course they have: it’s a mad idea. But not for Chris McCabe … he wondered and then thought: “fuck it. I can do this.” Let me just quickly say what Dedalus is not … and that’s a good try or honourable failure.

Dedalus is work of art … answering to a deep need of response … by a writer-poet possessed of the imaginative gifts to deliver that response in the 21 st century …

On a personal note: I’ve started and not finished Ulysses many times. Reading (and finishing) Dedalus somehow provided the energy to start and finish Ulysses. I got the keys to Ulysses from Dedalus. That is quite some gift.

Also, I must mention the publisher, Henningham Family Press – this is the most beautifully published book on our shortlist, and without a doubt the most beautifully published work of fiction this year …

Wendy Erskine, Sweet Home, Stinging Fly

If everything is right and good with the world, the playing field is flat and true, and the goalpost cannot be moved, there is a story in Wendy Erskine’s first collection that should be in every short story anthology for evermore and taught on every creative writing course across the world. “Inakeen” has stayed with me as no other short story ever has.

Wendy Erskine has that rare talent – she can write short stories. Because so few people can. Most people just start and finish them, and it’s really not the same thing.

It’s an odd form: it’s not as naked as poetry or as forgiving as the novel. It also allows for clever-dickery … which the poem or the novel does not. But at its best … there is a kind of guilelessness in its acceptance of ordinary human affairs … an understanding that we are fragile in a world of hard objects …. and as we try and make it through, there are going to be moments, even without an explicit crisis, when it feels touch and go.

Wendy Erskine has this guilelessness … and she renders it in a prose that has wisdom, edge, pathos and natural humour. There is no doubt Sweet Home is one of the great debut collections in recent times.

Kitch, Anthony Joseph, Peepal Tree Press

Maximalist, polyvocal, polyphonic – Kitch is a bravura work. It’s all left on the page. As David Collard said: “The writing creates a saturated technicolour … when, let’s face it, all other books are different degrees of bleak”.

It’s prose for the senses. It’s a prose that intoxicates. A work of voices, worlds, music, politics, society. Oh, and the life of one man called Lord Kitchener who could sing calypso. A boy who takes his talent from a village to the city and out into the wider world. What is held in beautiful tension in this work … is the purity of the talent: some people are just born to sing; and all the other … tougher attributes one must possess to be survive and be heard in an unwelcoming world …

This is a timely book of course. After the Windrush scandal, here is a story to make it real in ways we cannot know from the new stories, the archive footage, even the anecdotes of grandparents of friends.

It should be noted after the saturated technicolour of Trinidad, when the Windrush enters Tilbury Docks, we might not have despair (there was much hope) … but all the colour drains away and Anthony Joseph gives us a wonderfully sustained piece of onomatopoeic prose, including Lord Kitchener singing on board ‘London is the place for me’. There is no greater compliment to a writer than when we say: you made me feel that. It’s near perfect. No, it’s better than that – it’s perfect.

Lucia, Alex Pheby, Galley Beggar

On the RofC GB podcast, I said that in the narrative arts ‘empathy’ had become shorthand for ‘liking’, ‘understanding’, ‘feeling for …’ a character. And that that has become a problem in literature. It’s has become a requirement.

Alex Pheby had this to say: “I think empathy … is a much more rigorous and exhausting task … where you are obliged to put yourself into position where you wouldn’t normally otherwise put yourself in, with no hope of recouping anything, and taking that into the self.”

What if I were to say reading Lucia is a rigorous and exhausting task … where the writer obliges you to put yourself into position where you … wouldn’t … normally … otherwise put yourself in, with no hope of recouping anything, and taking that into the self.”

Which writers these days set out to write such a novel? To make such demands? Only a writer of deep psychological insight … and writerly courage would do that. Would ask that of us. Try and think of another novel that mutes and extracts the central character from the beginning and yet somehow has us weeping for her at the end.

Only art created from real empathy can do this.

 

Neil Griffiths is the author of Costa Best Novel shortlisted Saving Caravaggio. His most recent novel, As A God Might Be, is published by Dodo Ink. You may follow him on Twitter: @neilgriffiths

 

The joint winners of the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses in 2019 were:

Murmur by Will Eaves, published by CB Editions
Lucia by Alex Pheby, published by Galley Beggar Press

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Gig Review: The Republic of Consciousness Prize Winners’ Event 2019

On Thursday of last week I travelled to London to attend a party at Foyles bookshop on the Charing Cross Road. The event was to culminate in the announcement of the winner of this year’s Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses. Long time readers will know that I am a particular fan of this prize and its ethos. I was honoured to serve as a judge last year.

This year I observed from a distance, as reader and advocate. My coverage of the longlist and shortlist is best summarised here. My thanks again to the publishers who provided me with books or a guest post. I urge you to read any or all of these fine literary works.

For the Winners’ Event I travelled to London by bus which takes twice as long as by train but costs £13 return as opposed to £56. As well as loss of comfort and time, bus travel also precludes reading as this makes me ill. I therefore downloaded podcasts to keep me entertained and these proved excellent preparation for the event.

  • Republic of Consciousness Podcast: the judges discuss the shortlist here
  • London Review Bookshop Podcast: the shortlisted authors read from their books here

The weather was glorious for the two days I was in the capital (I stayed over in my daughter’s student house) so on arrival I was able to walk from Victoria to the venue. I then enjoyed time in a bookshop which is always a pleasure.

The party was just getting started as I moved to the top floor space. There was a fine turnout of authors, publishers, writers and readers. I had some lovely conversations – thank you to those who came to say hello and to those who welcomed me when I joined their circles.

The founder and one of the organisers of the prize, Neil Griffiths, then gave a speech that I felt encapsulated its ethos – celebration rather than competition. He stated that he will be stepping back from the organisation next year which a few people commented on with concern. The RofC is a valued and increasingly respected voice in the world of literary fiction.

Neil introduced each of the books on the shortlist before announcing the winner.

Actually, there were two winners because two of the books shortlisted could not be denied the title: Murmur by Will Eaves, published by CB Editions; and Lucia by Alex Pheby, published by Galley Beggar Press.

Each of these winners gave a short speech of appreciation.

 

I keep coming back to this guest post provided by Charles Boyle last year in which he wrote:

“Does there have to be a winner? Boringly, yes. It’s how the world tick-tocks. But that doesn’t matter, because the real point of the Republic of Consciousness Prize is to celebrate a movement and a community.”

It was a pleasure and a privilege to once again spend an evening in the company of this esteemed – if not widely enough recognised and generously rewarded – literary community.


If purchasing their books on line do please consider buying direct from small publishers as this is the best way to support their ongoing work.

Related posts:

Gig Review: The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses – Winner 2017 (write-up of the 2018 event)

Gig Review: The Republic of Consciousness Prize Winner(s) Event (write-up of the 2017 event – the prize’s inaugural year)

 

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: Sweet Home

From the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses 2019 longlist – Sweet Home by Wendy Erskine.

Sweet Home is a collection of ten short stories that prove what powerful tales can be told in this condensed format. All are set in and around contemporary East Belfast. They feature ordinary people as their quiet disappointments and resentments bubble to the surface of their everyday lives. The author captures the quotidian with insight and poignancy along with each character’s yearning for what they perceive to be passing them by. There is a depth of understanding, a recognition that most hurts go unnoticed as individuals deal with their own demons and desires.

The collection opens with To All Their Dues which is told from three points of view. A young woman is trying to establish her new small business; a thug is demanding protection money but fears for the future of his nefarious income; his wife is trying to find a way to cope with her familial past. The way these three flawed lives are presented, with understanding but also clear sighted portrayal of limitations and worst behaviours, demonstrates the wit and skill with which the author writes.

Inakeen is an searingly honest depiction of a mother and son whose lives and aspirations are of little real interest to the other. The son visits his mother out of duty, not understanding how dull she finds his conversation. He does not notice her growing interest in her new neighbours, and how she feels let down by his inability to maintain relationships. While he is bitterly resentful that his former partner left him, his mother misses the younger woman’s company and that of her grandchild. She imagines the enjoyment her new neighbours – three women, one dressed in a burqa – have living together. Without knowing them, she longs to join in.

Observation looks at two families whose teenage daughters are best friends. Lauren is drawn to her mother’s new boyfriend. Cath is intrigued by a family setup so different from her own. Cath’s parents talk of Lauren’s mother in less than flattering terms. There is an undercurrent of denial in how much each character knows about what is going on, and in what is being said.

Locksmiths introduces a young woman raised by her grandmother after her mother was sent to prison. The grandmother is now dead and the mother due for release. The reader is offered views of each of these women through the others’ eyes. Little is flattering.

The titular story is a tale of two couples: a man who returns to Belfast with his English wife, both having established successful careers; the other couple younger and more ordinary, who are employed as gardener and cleaner. The latter pair have a child who becomes the focus of the returned man’s interest. None of these adults are content with their current situation and, to a degree, blame their partners.

Last Supper is set in a coffee shop run on a charitable basis. This skews the terms under which staff and customers operate. Daily tasks are carried out but the success of the enterprise is compromised by limitations imposed by the benefactors. The manager does his best to deal fairly with unrealistic expectations built on crumbling foundations.

Arab States: Mind and Narrative features a middle aged woman who allows her lingering regret at a choice made while at university to distort her current reasoning. She imagines that an old acquaintance, who has written a book, will still be interested in her. She wishes to bask in his reflected success. She tries to remake herself as the intelligent conversationalist she thinks he regarded her as back in the day. She is blind to her current self, which is all others see.

Lady and Dog tells the story of a teacher whose life changed when, as a teenager, her lover was killed. As she approaches retirement she becomes obsessed by a young man who teaches sport to her pupils. The denouement is horrific in ways that made me question why certain deaths shock more than others.

77 Pop Facts You Didn’t Know About Gil Courtney is a list, as described in the title, telling the life story of an almost famous musician. The structure is fun, clever but with a depth of sadness. Growing up on the Cregagh estate, Gil’s father would have preferred his son to take the expected factory job at Mackies. Gil’s exceptional musical abilities as a child were nurtured but these did not lead to long term happiness. The rock and roll lifestyle requires financial resources, the accumulation of which requires business acumen. It is interesting to reflect on the cost of fame and benefits of accepting a more ordinary life.

The Soul has no skin is a shattering tale of a young boy whose life is irreparably denuded by an act of kindness. Barry lives an austere and often lonely life, choosing to eschew ambition and exist below society’s radar. He has experience of being noticed and the scars this created run deep.

No mere summary of these plots can do justice to what is special about the writing. The author gets under the skin of what it means to live in a world striving to offer something better than that which an individual already has. This desire for better, rather than taking pleasure in the here and now, leads to restlessness and a blaming of others. Yet the tales are poignant rather than depressing, understanding more than recriminating. The use of language and fragile intensity make them alluring and satisfying to read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, The Stinging Fly Press.

Republic of Consciousness Prize 2019: from longlist to shortlist

The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses announced its shortlist on Saturday afternoon at an event held at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. Sadly I couldn’t attend. As in previous years, I had followed the judges’ selections with interest.


The complete longlist – 13 books
Photo credit: Graham Fulcher on Twitter @GrahamFulcher1 

Thus far I have managed to read nine of the thirteen books longlisted and posted an interview with, or guest post from, eight of the publishers. If any longlisted publisher would still like to send me their book to review, or a guest post about their press and thoughts on literary prizes, I will happily continue with my RofC feature this month (my review of Sweet Home will be posted on Wednesday).


The nine books from the longlist that I have received

As a recap, click on the book title below to read my review or on the publisher name to read their interview or guest post. Some of these are older posts. Others were provided in response to a request I made in preparation for my 2019 coverage of the prize when the longlist was announced.

Having been a judge for the prize last year I am well aware of how hard it will have been to whittle down submitted books to create the longlist, and the near impossibility of then removing some of these from contention to create a shortlist. Much as I enjoyed my previous involvement, standing in a room full of hopeful authors and publishers at the shortlist announcement last year knowing that some of them would not be happy with the result proved excruciating.

This year I am looking on as a reader, not party to discussions. Bearing in mind that I have not read four of the thirteen books from the longlist (Kitch, Now Now Louison, Follow Me to Ground, The Cemetery in Barnes) I was disappointed not to see Resistance and Bottled Goods on the shortlist.

However, the five books on this list that I have read are all strong contenders. Well done to these six authors and publishers for making the cut.


The five books from the shortlist that I have received

On 20th March an evening of readings will be held at the London Review Bookshop (details here). I have no doubt that this will be a fascinating event for those who can attend.

The 2019 winner of the Republic of Consciousness Prize is due to be announced on March 28th. Good luck to all on the shortlist, and to the judges as they make their difficult choice.

Monthly Roundup – February 2019

February was a good month as I had my three children home from university for varying lengths of time. They were all here together for less than a day but we still managed a family meal out – good fun. I also kept up my local walks and gym visits which slows down my reading but keeps my mind in a more settled place.

I posted reviews for 13 books. These included 11 fiction (3 translated) and 2 nonfiction. I had no poetry to review, something I hope to rectify soon.

Of note this month was a feature I ran on the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses. It included a number of fascinating guest posts provided by publishers on the prize longlist alongside reviews of the books that made the cut and which I had not yet read. As with last year, the titles considered for the RofC prize are amongst the best literary fiction published in the past year. It has been a pleasure to discover books that too often fly beneath the radar of most readers. I will be watching with interest to see which of these titles make the shortlist, the announcement of which, unfortunately, I am unable to attend. The logistics of travelling to Norwich proved too much of a challenge for me at this time.

You may click on the link below to read my post and on the book cover to find out more about each title.


Guest post by independent publisher, Henningham Family Press
Dedalus by Chris McCabe


Q&A with Istros Books
Doppelgänger
by Daša Drndić (translated by S.D. Curtis and Celia Hawkesworth)


Guest post by independent publisher, Splice
Hang Him When He Is Not There
by Nicholas John Turner


Guest post from independent publisher, Fairlight Books
Bottled Goods
by Sophie van Llewyn

As I had a guest post from Charco Press from last year but they still kindly sent me their longlisted book I wrote my own update on them before posting my review.


Spotlight on independent publisher, Charco Press
Resistance 
by Julián Fuks (translated by Daniel Hahn)


Guest post by independent publisher, Peepal Tree Press

The Republic of Consciousness Prize organisers have created a podcast, not a medium I was previously interested in. I wrote about this here – Random Musings: Literary Podcasts

Not all longlisted publishers that I approached got back to me, and some who responded have yet to provide me with their book or other content. There may therefore be more of these posts to come next month.

I have now read 8 of the 13 books – those I already had on my shelves and those kindly provided by publishers. I am currently reading my ninth from the list which I received this week.

 

Alongside my RofC feature I posted book reviews for other titles read, with an even greater than usual emphasis on small press output.


Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li, published by Pushkin Press
Children of the Cave by Virve Sammalkorpi (translated by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah), published by Peirene Press


Now Legwarmers by Pascal O’Loughlin, published by Henningham Family Press
A Place of Safety by Martin Nathan, published by Salt

   
My Oxford by Catherine Haines, published by New Welsh Rarebytes
The Narrow Land by Christine Dwyer Hickey, published by Atlantic Books

I also posted two reviews that were originally written for Bookmunch.


Godsend by John Wray, published by Canongate
Cure by Jo Marchant, published by Canongate

 

Next month includes my husband’s birthday so there may be a short hiatus on the blog as we plan to travel to Brighton to celebrate. My determination to seek balance in my pursuits this year rather than become a slave to schedules is going well.

As ever I wish to thank the publishers who send me their titles to review – the arrival of a book parcel makes my day.

My thanks also to those who share my words across their social media platforms. Your support is always appreciated.

Book Review: Bottled Goods

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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