It is Year 25 as Atwood’s THE YEAR OF THE FLOOD opens in the immediate aftermath of The Waterless Flood - a plague unleashed through the hubris of one man, which has all but obliterated humanity. It is this very same plague that brought about the post-apocalyptic landscape of ORYX AND CRAKE, a ‘prequel’ in which the male protagonist Snowman wanders as sole survivor. Flashbacks to his life before the disaster, as Jimmy, introduce a frightening but wholly believable world where society is divided between privileged corporation compounds and the rough pleebands, monitored and controlled by the all powerful CorpSeCorps. In this world, science is twisted and abused - ChickieNobs, genetically modified food, and animals with playful, deceiving names like Pigoons and Rakunks abound.
In THE YEAR OF THE FLOOD, we meet two other survivors - the fragile young trapeze/strip dancer Ren, who is untouched by the virus thanks to being quarantined in the Scales & Tails sex club containment room; and hardened Toby, who watches the desolate scene from a rooftop. Atwood builds a striking and affecting portrait of both women. We learn that Toby was saved from her depraved boss at SecretBurgers by the God’s Gardeners - ever since, despite the protection of the edenic, self-sufficient life among the God’s Gardeners, she has lived in fear of this sickeningly violent man catching up with her. Ren was brought up by the God’s Gardeners after her mother left her geneticist husband at Helthwyzer for the Gardener’s hunter-gatherer action hero. Later, Jimmy would be Ren’s first and only love, whose rejection ultimately leads to her locking away her emotions and choosing a life as a dancer at a pleeband sex club.
Atwood creates a highly imaginative, darkly comic and shocking portrait of the extremes of the disintegration of society around the God’s Gardeners. And as Ren and Toby’s pasts merge, an overwhelming sense of doom for Atwood’s world is offset by a powerful hope that these two women are fated to come together again. In this dystopian society where there is little room for humanity, where men fall into violence and their basest instincts, it is the glimmers of primeval female bonds, of the female characters’ unshakeable resolution and emotional depth that brings Atwood’s world to life.
A strong longlist for the fifth Desmond Elliot Prize was announced today with a decidedly refreshing variety of ten debut novels ranging from the more literary and philosophical, several with politically or socially charged themes, to the more commercial reads including a satirical black comedy, a psychological thriller and a nicely plodding exploration of old age.
The biennial prize is awarded to a first novel that displays all the ingredients we love to tick off defining a good read: “compelling narrative, arresting character, and which is both vividly written and confidently realised.” The existence of the prize, while a sign of the ever increasing attention given to debuts, is hugely important for the publicity it brings to first-time novelists.
The longlisted debut novels are:
And so, here is a glance at the great titles on the list:
Patrick Flanery’s ABSOLUTION (Atlantic) is set in South Africa post Apartheid. The protagonist, a journalist, interviews an elderly South African writer for a biography, but she refuses to talk about much of her life, particularly the tragic events linked to the country’s troubled political past. As buried ghosts and her profound guilt come to the surface, the journalist’s own demons are stirred up, revealing how inextricably their stories are bound together. An intelligent, complex and challenging debut that explores the many sides of guilt, and the blurred lines between truth and fiction. With glowing reviews since publication, this is an outstanding start to a promising career. An author to watch.
David Whitehouse’s BED (Canongate) follows a suburban family with a difference - namely a larger than life (literally) sibling who takes to his bed at the youthful age of twenty-five, and never gets out again. The fatter he grows the wider his fame spreads. His younger brother narrates the ever ballooning metamorphosis and the family’s story. At first glance these elements all made me immediately think of Calvino’s THE BARON IN THE TREES, in which the young protagonist Cosimo, having quite enough of his eccentric aristocratic family, jumps up from the grand dinner table, hops out of the window and leaps up into a tree, never to come down again. His younger brother tells the story of Cosimo’s wonderfully eventful arboreal existence – he at one point joins a bizarrely bookish brigand and his story even reaches Voltaire. This all seems rather more energetic than the story of a bed-bound man. I’m a huge fan of bed, but I have a feeling this will be a stomach-turning read that might put me off those extra two hours or six on a weekend. This has also won the To Hell With Prizes Award 2010.
Jennie Erdal’s THE MISSING SHADE OF BLUE explores the relationship between two academics in Edinburgh. A French translator arrives in Scotland to work on a translation of the philosopher Hume’s essays. He finds himself pulled in by an anarchic, washed-up academic and is quickly embroiled in the man’s disintegrating life. This sounds like an extremely erudite, yet also dark and tender novel.
Rachel Joyce’s THE UNLIKELY PILGRIMAGE OF HAROLD FRY (Doubleday) is a much talked about debut of the moment that seems to have struck a chord with its many readers, who praise it as a moving and relatable story. The recently retired protagonist Harold Fry discovers that an old friend is dying of cancer. As he heads to the postbox to send a letter to her, he somehow finds himself walking five hundred miles from Cornwall to Scotland in his yachting shoes, believing this show of faith will have the power to save her. Diverse characters join him along the way as news of his journey spreads and touches them, but the background to Harold and his wife’s own tragedy-tinged story also unfolds.
Chibundu Onuzo is a very young author at only twenty-one, so THE SPIDER KING’S DAUGHTER (Faber) is a pretty damn good stab at a first novel. While it isn’t particularly sophisticated and lacks a more mature control of the narrative strands, it is also a very compelling coming of age story set in Lagos. It has echoes of Romeo and Juliet in the unlikely and doomed relationship between a wealthy seventeen-year-old girl and an ice-cream hawker. The narrative alternates between the two voices of this precocious and demanding teenage girl (who although loathsome has a great dry sense of humour) and the ambitious, caring hawker. Soon though dark revelations about the girl’s father that have led tragically close to the hawker’s life set him on a path for revenge. This dramatic trajectory lends what at first seems a very YA read a pacier, thriller-like edge with tensions running high. So its a shame that the final climax doesn’t quite deliver, but the ultimate message is a strong one of the unstoppable nature of the corruption leeching Nigerian society – the circle of events will always end with the powerful and rich dominating.
More to come on the remaining five novels on the longlist!
Marie Darrieussecq’s PIG TALES, originally published in French as TRUISMES, depicts a sales woman at a massage parlour, whose favours have extended well beyond the call of duty of a reputable establishment, shall we say. But her story is quite unique - this masseuse-cum-sex worker begins to metamorphose into a pig.
Her matter-of-fact, dim-witted narration depicts this transformation in a no-holds-barred, wholly visceral and grotesque manner. It’s all flesh, piggy tail, trotters and even growing teats (and far more I’ll spare here), with a lot of man chasing ever more voluptuous behind.
This is not only a stark portrayal of humanity’s animal nature, with the protagonist turning more and more into a little miss piggy as she engages with the most depraved, all the while rather enjoying herself. It’s also of course a critique of the sexualisation of women in society. But in the second half the book shifts a gear into the dystopian, and a socio-political critique - we have the most obscene and extreme expressions of a degenerate and corrupt society crashing down. A bizarre vision of Paris, led by Fascists, that falls into nightmarish scenes of orgies and barbarity. Withdrawing from this world, she lands in a fablesque, utopian like life of human pig living with beasts with nature.
So the rather pert-bottomed, awkward looking street-walker in Kirchner’s STREET WITH RED STREETWALKER has more than a hint of the woman-turned-pig masseuse while the men behind are like reptilian caricatures of the worst leaders of the metropolis depicted in PIG TALES.
I probably don’t sell this book well, making it sound too weird, but the writing is brilliant and makes for a perversely compelling read.
The Museo Thyssen’s website goes into further detail about Kirchner’s STREET WTIH RED STREETWALKER that probably makes this all a bit clearer.
Magritte’s LA CLEF DES CHAMPS is one of those rare paintings which make you stop in your tracks and completely catch your breath. It’s the view outside the window that the eye is first drawn to, before registering that there is so much more going on here - behind the purist look of much of the image is an indecipherable complexity. The desire to know what is behind the gaze looking out, back in the room, had me rooted in front of this, inevitably failing to put together its enigmatic story.
Many surreal works, novels of broken lives or divided selves, or about the crisis of representation, come to mind.
But it’s Kazuo Ishiguro’s THE REMAINS OF THE DAY that sticks, probably because of the lonely countryside view, or the feeling of melancholy this provokes. Ishiguro portrays a man whose reality is gradually shattered as complete illusion. A former butler looking back on his years in service at a grand estate, Stevens recalls fragments of memories, while reflecting on his somewhat blinkered views of service and loyalty, etiquette and social position. But the reader knows better than to believe the subjective portrait that he presents. In the same way the broken window invites the viewer to step inside and question reality and its expression, we question what lies beneath. In Stevens Ishiguro has created the unreliable narrator at its best: a fraud deceiving the reader, but also deceiving himself, who at the same time provokes a growing understanding and lingering sadness.
For more on Magritte’s La Clef des Champs, the Museo Thyssen website.
The picaresque working-class hero Hans Schmetterling of Alfred Kern’s THE CLOWN leaves Switzerland to join a travelling circus as a skivvy, filled with dreams of seeing the world. He soon attracts the attention of the proprietress of the circus, the fiery, dominating Martha. Hans becomes Martha’s lover, and so begins his rise in the circus from casual hand, to popular ring performer and finally her reluctant homme d’affaires. Hans is not a business man, but a satirist, drawing on the confusing events in a rapid changing Europe and the quirks and absurdities of the characters he meets. Han’s own existence is shattered as discovering a loneliness in himself, he knowingly destroys his circus life, while Europe is torn apart by war in the background.
A philosophical voyage through the magical world of a travelling circus, portraying the existential crisis of a man in the early twentieth century.
First published in French in 1957, THE CLOWN by Alfred Kern is Sartre-Camus-Pirandello meets with THE TIN DRUM and NIGHTS AT THE CIRCUS.
Émile Zola’s AU BONHEUR DES DAMES (THE LADIES’ DELIGHT) is the eleventh in his epic Rougon-Macquart series of twenty books charting two lines of a family in mid to late 19th century France. Each novel delves into a different side of French life at the time to show the effects of environment and heredity on each family member. AU BONHEUR DES DAMES is set in a bustling Parisian department store at a time of social change and shifts in consumer culture - here we have a portrait of bourgeois life and the rise of capitalism.
A naturalist writer, Zola is a master of vivid description, backed by intense research. The opening scenes of AU BONHEUR DES DAMES bring alive the noise and bustle of a Paris department store, detailing the floor to ceiling walls of textiles, gloves, hats and other wares that evoke a magical emporium akin to a toyshop.
So Degas’ colours and brushstrokes, the hats, the feathers, ruffles, leathers, silks and hint of pearl, and the young woman earnestly trying on a hat, watched over by an escort or mother, seem to leap from the pages of AU BONHEUR DES DAMES.
Five authors from Picador’s 2012 list gathered together for what proved to be a pretty darn pleasant evening thrown for booksellers, bloggers and whoever falls in between.
This evening of “unreliable narrators”, as coined by marketing, stemmed from the lovely idea of bringing Picador's latest authors straight to the trades folk, with readings from each author's new novel followed by an informal meet and greet session. Expecting an overly literary evening (see event title), there was zero pretension, just some very well chosen, enjoyable extracts that were spot on giving the audience the right amount of character and atmosphere to draw us in, while maintaining that edge of suspense that makes you eager to read more - and all of these novels have something of a thriller element.
Liza Klaussmann’s TIGERS IN RED WEATHER was the big debut that suddenly hit the publishing world in the dead of summer last year, drawing publishers from their torpor to fight in an 8-strong battle to win the title. This is clearly their lead book of 2012 - Picador has produced a limited early proof run of 500 copies on beautiful quality paper. You won’t find the quotes, press contacts and usual cramming of information all over the back of a proof or the block colour, uniform text cover. Picador is quite rightly showing off the languorous, sexy and unabashedly retro chic cover. It completely evokes summer, or at least how I’d like to imagine my summers being - that is the awesome swimsuit-hat set, red lipstick and sunglasses. The bubbling family tensions and dark secrets hiding behind a facade of glamour and perfection don’t appeal quite so much.
And therein lies the ambitious comparison to Fitzgerald - revolving around an East Coast family and their sprawling home Tiger House, it is the portrait of high society rocked, and a mask gradually shattered as each of the five characters’ narratives lend a different angle on what the reality beneath might really be.
Liza Klaussmann read from a passage narrated by thirteen-year-old Daisy - a good choice for her distinct and youthful voice and the cliffhanger we were left with that could only be the crucial turning point of the novel. Daisy has been covering for her older cousin Ed all summer - he’s been doing god know’s what while they are supposed to take tennis lessons together. When he procures two ciggies, the pair head into the woods to have a cheeky smoke. Getting fed up pretty fast, he shows her an abandoned cabin he had discovered, only the atmosphere quickly shifts when they see a rug that is hiding something…
Stuart Evers then read from his first novel IF THIS IS HOME, which draws on some of the same themes, such as loss and loneliness, as his collection TEN STORIES ABOUT SMOKING. The male thirty-year-old protagonist of IF THIS IS HOME has been running away, from his home town in England to New York and a bizarre hotel, the stuff of dreams, in Vegas. But black outs and involuntary flashbacks force him to stop running and finally head back to his home to face his past, and the haunting memories of his girlfriend, head on.
Evers read a scene that captures male friendship, or at least pinpoints that moment when two people have a connection. The protagonist, newly arrived in New York, stumbles into a bar and ends up spending a long night drinking with old-timer O’Neill, bonding until dawn over whisky, two lonely souls thrown together. O’Neill knows that the boy has a story, that there’s something he’s running away from.
That something is linked to the second first personal narrative of the novel - carnival queen Bethany, the protagonist’s girlfriend, a decade earlier. This is where the novel falls down - Evers isn’t so strong on the young female voice. And after a very promising, highly charged start with a great mysterious Vegas complex setting, grey market-town England just doesn’t have the same wow factor. This combined with the unexpected shift into semi detective thriller territory lost me - it’s being too many things at once, without ever giving a strong emotional punch.
Howard Cunnell’s THE SEA ON FIRE, his second novel but the first to be published by a big publishing house, centres around a diving trip in the Red Sea. Narrator Kim is an avid diver, drawn away from his stable and loving family life in Brixton by a job as a dive instructor on a private trip to remote islands in the Red Sea - a trip where spectacular dives mix with drug-fuelled parties. Back on terra firm, and this takes a change of direction towards literary thriller. Kim is a man divided, and this is about the conflict between living out dreams and facing responsibilities, the senseless actions taken to resist being anchored and their repercussions, and the far-reaching effect of traumas in the past. The protagonist Kim has a meditative outlook and his philosophy of the world is taken through the prism of life under the sea.
What Howard Cunnell is strongest on is his lyrical, vivid writing describing the underwater world - the sublime, luminous scenery and the transcendental, liberating nature of drifting deep in the open water. So it seems appropriate that Howard read out a diving scene, as the group are surrounded by phosphurus that scatters light around them with each movement, and suddenly illuminates a shark that drifts by. This is where I wanted to be the most in the novel - not with Kim’s fellow man, but the breathtaking, striking ocean.
After an interval we were introduced to Richard House, who had a couple of cult ish novels, BRUISER and UNINVITED, published years back by Serpent’s Tail . Now he’s produced a huge project - a four book series called THE KILLS. The first, set in Iraq, follows the protagonist, again with several names and identities, on the run.
Finally we had Anna Raverat, one of the Waterstones’ debut 11 authors for 2012, read from SIGNS OF LIFE. The narrator is in her thirties, looking back a decade to a life-changing passionate affair she had with a colleague as a selfish twenty-four year old. This no doubt goes down that well-trodden route of memory-autobiography at its most fallible, but the extract Anna Raverat read out was a sensitive, striking but light depiction of young early love. It’s a moment we all know well, so this was a strong passage most of the audience probably found themselves relating to in one way or another. The scene of the protagonist and her lover jokingly arguing during a road trip about the perfect mouthful of pistachios - shelling and savouring them one by one, or preparing a few and enjoying them in one go - gets across the playful, blissful happiness at the beginning of a relationship. And the few sentences reflecting on the stable, nice but boring boyfriend she was cheating on sums up that sudden change when the passion runs out and gives way to an awkward comfort that can’t last long. Judging by the Waterstones copy, this also dives into a darker zone as the reader pieces the reality behind the narrator’s story together.
The veiled woman evokes the handmaid’s uniform; the figure on the left (a man?) - the commander to whom the protagonist Offred belongs as concubine, or perhaps the commander’s driver Nick, a possible ally; the short-haired lady in the foreground recalls the handmaids risking their lives in the resistance, or equally one of the women caught by Gilead and forced into prostitution. The overall chaotic feel of the painting in the futurist angles creates that very same claustrophobic, mechanical atmosphere of Gilead. The towers and smoke like all those prisons Offred passes through and finally the tree of the wood where Offred’s life fell down.
As I will be heading to Madrid for the first time this weekend, I began looking into authors hailing from the city, with a literary tour for my first blog post in mind. Authors, poets and playwrights of Madrid’s past stand out, from Vega and Lorca to Cervantes and his DON QUIXOTE, and finally the wonderful picaresque novella LAZARILLO DE TORMES, which rolls out the misadventures of a young anti-hero drifting from one master to another, who faces his grievances with a naïve and almost foolish, but equally charming optimism.
While the colloquial, comically deadpan writing and the jaunt-like narrative shine, it’s the story behind LAZARILLO DE TORMES that fascinates. The novella was published anonymously because of it’s subversive nature in 1554 in Alcalá de Henares just outside of Madrid, and was swiftly banned by the Inquisition for its open critique of the Catholic Church, the aristocracy, the injustices of Imperial Spain and human hypocrisy, making this a daring attack for its time. It’s often considered the first modern novel, a clear precursor to Diderot’s JACQUES LE FATALISTE, Voltaire – particularly CANDIDE – Rousseau, and generations of other authors. LAZARILLO DE TORMES is one of those important works of fiction that you kick yourself for not having discovered earlier – I came across it during a university holiday and it’s been randomly coming back to me ever since.
Reaching far back into Spain’s literary story however ignores an important part of its recent history, as a country ravaged by civil war and oppressed under Fascist rule. Two works of fiction and non fiction directly engage with this period – recent reviews of Paul Preston’s THE SPANISH HOLOCAUST, which has just been published here, led me to link the two here. As for the novel, I first came across Almudena Grandes at the Hay Festival in 2010, where she read from her latest novel THE FROZEN HEART, about the reverberations of the civil war on one family.
A new history of this dark period, THE SPANISH HOLOCAUST by Paul Preston explores the terrifying extent of the atrocities that gave birth to Franco’s regime – the military rebels’ “cleansing” of dissident civilians, from the politically active to the culturally and socially engaged, that began with July 1936 and is said to have taken 200,000 lives. This book reveals how Franco’s dictatorship has never been delegitimized, and Preston examines Spain’s collective amnesia. At the centre of this is an angry, powerful accusation, going as far as suggesting that this mass slaughter amounts to a “holocaust”. This book couldn’t be more timely.
In a Guardian piece Almudena Grandes has suggested that the Spanish people have finally broken this collective silence, moving on in a strong democracy.
Her latest novel THE FROZEN HEART/EL CORAZON HELADO is a striking and moving examination of memory, national identity, and the secrets that have torn apart a family, observed through two narratives that shift back and forth in time from the present in 2005 to the Civil War. The event that sparks the narrative arc of the novel is the arrival of a beautiful stranger at the funeral of a wealthy and influential paterfamilias, a presence that will eventually break the shroud of mystery surrounding the family’s past. The woman has finally returned to Spain after years growing up in the US, where her family fled during the Spanish Civil War. Struggling with her identity, only one scene from her past stays with her – of the day she saw her grandfather shed one tear for the first and only time, the day he announced “that dog is dead” and Spain finally celebrated being freed from Franco’s rule. It is this passage that the author read out during her Hay talk and I’ve read over several times - it’s an emotional, poetic and compelling scene that seems to encompass a whole nation’s experience of that day.
Almudena Grandes’s THE FROZEN HEART was originally published in Spain, where it won several awards, by Tusquets in 2007, and was published in the UK by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in 2010.
Paul Preston’s THE SPANISH HOLOCAUST: INQUISITION AND EXTERMINATION IN TWENTIETH-CENTURY SPAIN is just published here by HarperPress.