I’m reading from the Impac and Folio Prize Longlists and decided that a couple of shorties (i.e novellas) would help the #tbr20 cause along quite nicely.

I’ll start with Jenny Offill’s Dept. Of Speculation, which appears on the 2015 Folio Prize longlist.  I heard so much about this upon release last year.  Reviewers fell in love with it one after the next and I can certainly see some of the charm.  The story, to be truthful, is nothing outstanding – a domestic drama of courtship, marriage, parenthood, adultery. It’s the manner of the telling which lifts this novella beyond ordinariness.   Like the jigsaw on the dustjacket, this story is told in fragmentary pieces that need to be put together to form the bigger picture.  Fortunately the fragments are chronological, so it’s not too difficult to piece them together.  

Told from the wife’s point-of view, I read the collection of small, concise paragraphs like a collection of memories jotted down in a notebook: a memory about the husband, her child, feelings interspersed with philosophical bon-mots. The ebbs and flows of a long-term relationship reflected in all honesty: that time of initial discovery,  fondness,  love, happiness, familiarity, sadness, disillusionment, bitterness, counselling, reconcilation. At the moment of greatest difficulty the narrative switches from first person (I, we) to third (the wife, the husband) to denote estrangement and distance.  The concision of thought lending an at times poetical melody to the text.

Some have described it as postmodern, an adjective shared with Kristina Carlson’s Mr Darwin’s Gardener, which is longlisted for the 2014 IMPAC prize. This is a much more complicated prospect; its ambition to depict the collective mind of an English village during the advent of Darwinism.   Set in Darwin’s home village of Downe, Darwin remains off page, leaving them to his gardener, Thomas Davies;  a grief-stricken widower, with two young children, who eschews religion and adheres to his employer’s theories.  Unsurprisingly he takes his comfort from nature.

He is both distanced from and surrounded by a multitudinous and at times motley cast of characters.  The village drunk doctor, the publican, the grocer, a book group, a would-be author,  the wife-beater, the do-gooders, the gossips.  We see them at home with all their imperfections, we see them grapple with the questions that Darwinism has brought to their faith, we see a microcosm of society and we need to pay attention. I haven’t read a review of this book that hasn’t used the adjective polyphonic because that’s what it is. Ofttimes the villagers act like a chorus, each having their say in a single scene, not always explicitly and individually introduced.

I can’t say I did pay the necessary attention (despite the publisher’s warning that this book needs to be read slowly and savoured). There’s no doubt that I would benefit from a second reading, to pick up on what I missed first time round. This is an incredibly detailed and quiet text, and I’m not the most attentive reader of those.   Still I came away with positive impressions.  It’s clever, thoughtful, sympathetic to the foibles of human nature and open to the restorative power of nature.  Perhaps a little less sympathetic to those not accepting of Darwin’s theories. The criticism implicit in the portrayal of their flaws? I can’t quite make my mind up about this. Hence the need for a second reading of an admirable historical portrait in  fine, nuanced translation from Finnish by Emily and Fleur Jeremiah.  

© Lizzy’s Literary Life (2007-2015)

Runaway – Peter May

I love it when books bulid connections of their own.  Murakami’s Colourless T (for short) charts a young man’s recovery from a grievous hurt after more than a decade.  Peter May’s stand-alone novel, Runaway, proclaims that “Hurt will haunt you”.  Turns out it haunts someone for five decades!

Parts of the novel are based on his own experience of being a runaway at the age of 16, leaving Glasgow behind to hopefully land himself a record contract in London. Exactly what Jack Mackay and his friends try in 1965. It is interesting to speculate how much of this reflects May’s own experience. In view of what is to transpire, I do hope, not too much!

The novel doesn’t start there, but in 2015 in London with a murder, news of which proves to be a catalyst for Maurie, now dying from cancer in Glasgow. He determines to return to London to settle an old injustice and convinces his former travelling companions, Jack and Dave, to take him.  After Jack coralls his lazy and unemployed (unemployable?) grandson as chauffeur, they set off on the same route as that taken 50 years earlier.

The two difficult journeys make up most of the novel and allow May to contrast youthful vigour and the frailties of old age, the fire and the ambitions of the young and the disappointments of lives lived settling for second best.  He also explores the sociological parallels between 1965 and today (e.g drug culture, social deprivation). What can go wrong when a bunch of naive teenagers set off to grasp life by the horns? What can go wrong when a bunch of geriatrics set off to even an old score? (Un)surprisingly past patterns repeat themselves in both dangerous and humorous ways.

The novel comes alive when the boys reach London in the middle of the Swinging Sixties. A group of penniless wannabes from Glasgow need a lucky break. One is forthcoming, though not the one they would have chosen. It does, however, pitch them into the thick of things. Their wide-eyed wonderment gradually turns more knowing. Relationships are threatened by emotional inexperience and growing tensions, that will eventually lead to the murder which opens the novel.

May takes his time depicting the journeys south and the colour of the Swinging Sixties. Perhaps a little too much as I did feel that the 1965 climax was rushed and depended on not one, but two plot devices which didn’t quite ring true. (Cf: Footnote) Minor quibbles.  I remember having a few of these with his previous novel, Entry Island.  That went on to win the 2014  Deanston Scottish Crime Novel of the Year.  On that basis I predict another  – er – runaway success.  

© Lizzy’s Literary Life (2007-2015)




(Footnote: Memory aid to self: phone call, fall guy)

2015 began with me mulling over Jonathan Swift’s Battle of the Books, in which modern books battle for supremacy with classical books. Chez moi, humans were battling with books for living space, and so I donned protective headgear and led the charge.  4 weeks later, there are 110 fewer books laying siege to my space.  Not that the library is in a state where I was ready to share during yesterday’s national #shelfieday but I have at least reoccupied my reading seat! 

I will, however, share a picture of the library overflow area (otherwise known as front bedroom), 90% of which is TBR …..

Library overflow area – post January 2015 cull(!)

Consider it the proverbial I-am-so-fat holiday snap moment.  A call to further action!

Option 1) Join Bookbuyers Anonymous.  Rejected.  I’d have to found the organisation first and I don’t have that vocation.  One step or, as you’re feeling slightly ambitious, 20 steps at a time, Lizzy. So ….

Option 2) Join #tbr20, an initiative started by @evastalker with only one objective – to read 20 books in the TBR before purchasing anything new.  This sounds like I can turn it into a SMART objective (specific, measurable, achievable , realistic, time-bound for the self-imposed deadline of the end of March) which will make me feel like my bookaholism is a lifestyle choice.

And I truly thought so until the first act of sabotage.  Kazuo Ishiguro is visiting Edinburgh on 5th March and, of course, I want to have sampled the new one due out on the 3rd. (Or at least purchase it, so I can own a signed copy.)  At 8.5 in #tbr20, I won’t complete by then though.  So Eva has granted me special dispensation for the Ishiguro.  I can have a well-deserved treat for one book only and then I must get back on track. Yes, this is dieting talk.  Like a diet #tbr20 is easy in the first flush of enthusiasm, becoming progressively harder as old habits strive to reassert themselves.  Thank goodness, chocolate isn’t a limited substance on this particular plan ….

© Lizzy’s Literary Life (2007-2015) 

Colourless TI did say Tony was identifying huge holes in my reading with his J-Lit Giant Hall of Fame, didn’t I?  Well there’s no hole greater in contemporary fiction reading terms than Haruki Murakami, and yet, I confess I’ve never really felt the urge to read him.  It’s that reputation for the surreal and magical that dissuades me.  So, when word went round that Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage wasn’t of that ilk, I thought I’d dip my toe in the water. Particularly as I love a quest.

Tsukuri is, you guessed it, in search of colour.   As a teenager, he was  part of a very close knit group of five.  His four peers all had names denoting colour.  This gave him a bit of a hang-up.  He thought he was the boring one. Yet he was the only one to leave his home town to study in Tokyo.  Not that his departure led to the break-up of the group.  But something did happen which caused the rest of the group to suddenly severe all ties, irrevocably.  The shock of this bleached the poor boy of any residual colour he may have had, and rendered him incapable of forming close relationships.

Time passes but the only friend he makes during his college years also disappears from his life without explanation.  Tsukuru is convinced that the same character flaw is to blame and that the pattern will continue to repeat forever.

Years after this – now in his early 30’s – he meets Sara.

Let me say that up to this point I found the novel fascinating and psychologically true.  As would anyone who has experienced profound heartbreak and gone through days, months, years even when waking up is not the favoured option.    Sleepwalking through life, doing something to pass the time, until the pain abates.  Such are Tsukuru’s college years.  Very emotional reading though with too many sexual fantasies.

The story went off-kilter during the process of Tsukuru’s recovery.  Didn’t believe Sara would be so discerning or insist  that Tsukuru come to terms with the past before getting involved with him.  Didn’t believe the setups for Tsukuru’s interviewing his former friends.  Absolutely incredulous that not one of them believed the heinous accusations levelled against him and yet still flung him overboard, so to speak. How did that man not lose his cool?

And yet, Murakami says that Tsukuru’s experience is based on an experience of his own. Well, it’s a steep learning curve, and with friends like that, who needs enemies?  Turns out the Tsukuru’s quest for personality is a actually a search to discover he already had it in spades. Which should give him the confidence to get his girl, shouldn’t it?


Eyrie – Tim Winton

EyrieTom Keely, once a renowned environmental activist, has lost his job, his reputation and his self-esteem.  He has retreated to his eyrie, a flat 10 floors up, with self-pity, booze and pills for company.

There’s only one direction in which to travel, and Winton’s plot is designed to bring the man back down to earth.

A chance encounter with his neighbour, a woman from his past and her grandson, is the catalyst for this process.  There’s something about them that appeals to Keely’s better nature and he begins to reengage.  BUT, given that he is a shambling wreck of a man with seriously diminished brain power,  this may not be the best decision.  Gemma was always bad news, even when they were kids, when she and her elder sister sought refuge in Tom’s home while her father was battering her mother. Things haven’t improved for her since those days.  She finds herself caring for her grandson because her daughter is in jail for drug offences.  The child’s father plays no active role in his son’s upbringing and besides, he’s lean, mean and it’s best he remains unaware of your existence.

In those far off days, Gemma was protected by Tom’s father, a preacher with a heart as big as his physique and  a reputation of mythical proportions. Tom suddenly finds himself in competition with that reputation, wanting to prove himself worthy of the big man. The irony is that the man who has walked away, rejected and alienated those who are actually on his side, does not turn away from the person who presents the greatest threat.

The character study of Tom Keely, and his impaired judgment is fascinating and perturbing in equal measure; that of Gemma is laced with ambiguity.  She, too, is damaged goods.  The protection afforded in the past, temporary, and when the Keelys moved away, the chickens came home to roost. She has survived through developing a thick skin and strategies, not always beneficial to those around her.  So, while she is in some instances a victim, in others she is a malign presence.  It’s not always clear whether she is a vulnerable adult, genuinely needing Tom’s help, or a predator, capitalising on Tom’s vulnerabiliites to drag him into the vortex of her own maelstrom.

Eyrie is an intense story, vibrantly told. Winton is an author I’ve been meaning to read for years and I’m now annoyed that I’ve waited so long. (I started here because the novel is longlisted for both the 2014 IMPAC and the 2015 Folio Prize). Purists may not like the fact that his prose is choppy, not always using full sentences. I did. It reflects the way people think, and there’s a plethora of history contained in the 1st sentence. “So.”  Descriptive passages are finely tuned, whether that to the sleazy after-effects of Tom’s binges or the beauty of the natural habitat of Western Australia.The ambiguities that pervade the text are masterful. Motifs of falling men recur throughout. Is Winton foreshadowing or teasing? At the start Tom has already fallen, even though he lives on high.  The novel ends with him literally flat out on the pavement. Does this mean that the downward spiral continued until physical circumstances matched the metaphysical and nothing else remains? Or is the lowest physical point the moment of his greatest triumph and the start of better things to come? That is for each reader to decide.



imageSnow Country (Penguin Modern Classics)Translated by Edward G Seidensticker,

As Tony, the host of January in Japan, builds up his pantheon of J-Lit Giants, he is also identifying whacking great holes in my reading experience.  That pantheon now consists of 15 and, before this year’s January in Japan began, I had only read a short story by Mishima and one by Tanazaki. Time to put that to rights (or at least double the numbers) by the end of this year’s event.

Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country entered my radar as a result of reading David J Simon’s wonderful An Exquisite Sense of What is Beautiful this time last year, part of which takes place in hot spa in the same mountainous region of Japan. Kawabata’s novel was cited when he won the Noble Prize for Literature in 1968.

Good job I wasn’t on the jury then!

Where shall I begin? Let’s start with Culture and my anathema to Shimamura, a rich married man who leaves his wife and children at home In Tokyo to holiday at the spa and cavort with the local geisha for weeks on end before returning to wife. (The plot in a nutshell.) I use the word cavort, but it’s not as blatant as that particularly as this is not a graphically sexual novel.   While he’s behaving this way, Shimamura spends his time obsessing about a third female, one he saw on the train journeying to the spa, tending to an obviously terminally-patient.  This behaviour earns him no approbation and seems acceptedw as normal.

Then there’s the female lead – Komako – one of many local geishas, paid to entertain the male guests at parties with music, song and possibly/probably more. (It’s not explicit.)  She’s capricious and spends most of her time drunk, perilously close to a state of emotional collapse and manically worried about her reputation, particularly if she’s found in Shimamura’s room come morning time. …

Must be a geisha-taboo – a convention not explained in the text (why would it be – Kawabata’s Japanese audience would get it).  Neither is there an introductory essay in this edition, not even the one originally written by the translator.  I found it odd that Penquin chose not to reprint it here.

I could have used it because there was so much flying over my head. Conversations between Shimamura and Komako full of non-sequiturs, zero character development, events that I knew were symbolic and significant, though I couldn’t tell you how. ( Not even the climactic burning house scene.) It felt very much like an episodic patchwork, which in many ways it is.  An understanding of the novel’s etymology tells me all I need to know.

Any redeeming qualities? The descriptions of the snow country itself and its progression through the seasons. It was a great book to read as the belated Scottish winter arrived.  Kawabata’s descriptive prowess was much in evidence and I admired many visual and psychologically astute sentences. A couple of chapters in, I was thinking of The Great Gatsby in the sense of a lean, spare analogous novel with not one word wasted, packed with hidden meaning.  I’m sure the same is true of Snow Country. It’s just that I don’t have the context to decipher it.

imageThis Is Where I Am – Karen Campbell (Amazon Affiliate Link)

Well done, book group.  I could not have have started the 2015 reading year in better fashion.  This is Where I Am is a rivetting novel that I urge everyone to read – especially if you are from Glasgow.

It is the story of two people starting from a personal ground zero.  Deborah is a recently bereaved widow who volunteers at the Scottish Refugee Council in an effort to fill her time. Abdi is an asylum seeker from Somalia who has arrived in Glasgow with his 4 year-old daughter, Rebecca.  We do not know what has happened to bring him here, but we do know his daughter stopped speaking following the loss of her mother.

Deborah is assigned to Abdi as a mentor.  Her role isn’t just to guide him through the process of applying for refugee status.  She is to show him the city that may become his home and help him adjust to his new existence. It’s not plain sailing.  First there is the physical reality. “There are not that many tall, black men in Glasgow”.  Abdi is conspicuous. Glasgow has its fair share of rascists and Abdi is targeted.  Secondly, the mental trauma of the past. A series of flashbacks reveal the reasons for Abdi asylum seeking status and his daughter’s silence.  Thirdly, the trials of a bureaucratic system, designed, at times, to prevent asylum seekers and refugees from making progress.

Deborah too has much to learn.  She is financially comfortable but the long years of caring for her husband have left her isolated. So the volunteer work is a first step into reconnecting with society.  Perhaps for this reason, she invests more in the relationship with Abdi and his daughter than I would have expected, though it’s fortunate for them that she becomes a friend who cares, despite the emotional scars and cultural minefields that must be negotiated.

You could say that this is a political novel and, in these days when – shall we say – foreigner-bashing is becoming increasingly prevalent, it will make some question their preconceptions. However, in no way is this a didactic read.  It is a humane story of reentry into society.

It is also a portrait of a city. Each chapter begins with the description and history of a place, whether that be one of Glasgow’s iconic sites, such as the Kelvingrove museum, or one of the less touristy spots, such as Leverndale mental hospital. They are all places where Deborah and Abdi meet and the descriptions serve to show the contrast and colour of Scotland’s largest city.  The same is true of the demography.  The supporting cast is just as varied.  For every obnoxious rascist (and one is particularly beyond the pale), there is a warm, generous-hearted Glaswegian.   For every hypocritical professional cum politician, there is a sincere man of the streets.  For every asylum seeker who succeeds, three fail with differing fates awaiting them.

Campbell is not just showing where Abdi is, but how it is, and it’s not always pretty. It is an emotionally honest novel, uncomfortable in places. Campbell does give us an ambiguously happy ending (you have to read it) but at the cost of an unfeasible plot twist.  (My only criticism.)

That said, this doesn’t detract from the pleasure of the novel at all.  Primarily due to the language.  Whether it be Glaswegian banter in a supermarket fishmongery, impenetrable bureaucratic jargon, or the bemused misunderstanding of someone coming to terms with English idiom, the pitch is flawless and frequently hilarious.

Her Sunday School teacher told her she was a ‘mucky pup’ after craft-time, when she had glue on her hair and chin  I looked up “pup’ in my dictionary afterwards – it means young dog.  She called my little girl an animal!

Fortunately Abdi realises this is not an insult and adopts it as his daughter’s nickname. Lovely, isn’t it? Just another of this novel’s many endearing features.


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