Book Review: Belladonna (Daša Drndić)

It is not until seventeen pages from the end of this near four hundred page work that the author chooses to make first reference to the eponymous Belladonna, or deadly nightshade. With its hallucinogenic and, for some, fatal potential effects, it is not a plant to be taken lightly. The same can be said for a book of such ranging content as this is: the historical weaves with the fictional, the horror of past atrocities rubs up against the banality of a main character confronting retirement and disintegration of self (both in terms of intellectual standing and of physical deterioration). There is great effort imbued within the pages, in the fictional coming to terms and in the author’s sheer commitment to a vast sweep of material.

Belladonna (MacLehose Press, 2017; originally published in Croatian with the same title by Fraktura, 2015; translated by Celia Hawkesworth) is not easily placed and is not an easy read. Andreas Ban is a psychologist, a writer, an intellectual with a huge store of referenceable material in his head, which he has collected over his many professional years. Academia, however, no longer requires his services and he is unceremoniously discarded towards his impending age of retirement. Andreas must also contend with his failing body (he is diagnosed with breast cancer, has difficulty with his spine, his stomach, and a whole list of other ailments). He settles on a process of coming to terms with the life he has left.

This is, however, all merely within the cogs of Drndić’s machine: Andreas is born after the second world war but the narrative frequently draws his research and other considerations back to the machinations of the Independent State of Croatia, or the N.D.H. (Nezavisna Država Hrvatska), being the short-lived puppet regime (1941-5) of Nazi Germany following the invasion of Croatia by the Axis powers. Sewn into Drndić’s narrative, and into Andreas Ban’s considerations, seems to be a form of collective Croatian guilt. There are references to the later Balkan Wars of the 1990s and the eventual dissolution of the former Yugoslavia, and knowledge provided by Drndić about the earlier N.D.H. certainly lends new perspective on the latter.

Belladonna is not a straightforward fictive offering: Drndić sprinkles her writing with occasional footnote explanations, historical photographs, and references to other texts and authors within the narrative (even having the audacity to have Andreas Ban have knowledge of one her own previous books, albeit as published with its German title). There are two particularly poignant and disturbing interludes included within the flow: Drndić makes reference to the massacre in Zasavica in 1941, where 2100 ‘Jews and Gypsies’ were murdered in cold blood in reprisal for the killing of 21 German soldiers. Drndić proceeds to list 1055 of these people, over ten and half double-columned pages, because names must not be forgotten. Later, and equally if not more disturbing, Andreas Ban visits Amsterdam and is shown a piece of children’s playground equipment. On closer inspection, he and we discover that this equipment is covered with just some of the names of 2061 Jewish children taken from their parents ‘and from the open space in front of the school, precisely on the site of this playground’ and sent to the concentration camps. Drndić offers us the brief history of Flora Bachrach, born in 1939, who died in Sobibor camp in 1943. She was three years old. ‘People are forgotten only when we forget their names’, writes Drndić, and she lists seventeen and a half double-columned pages filled with the Amsterdam children’s names.

Very late on in the piece, Drndić writes as Andreas Ban’s adult son, Leo: friend to his father, a doctor, and follower of his father’s intellectual aptitude. Drndić references the Hungarian art theorist László Földényi by way of stating that ‘what makes [life] whole is the fact that it is made up of ‘pieces’; parts that can never be fitted together seamlessly’. It would appear to be a reasonable description of Drndić’s Belladonna: this work is a stitchwork, a great amorphous fluidity, a flow from the fictive to the historical and back again. On occasion, the reader is thrown into a deep excursion on the atrocities of the Ustasha, the Croatian fascist movement, murderers of Serbs and Jews; or we are led along lines, with illustrations, highlighting the output of The State Information and Propaganda Office; or we are shown the piles of Andreas Ban’s professional books, their authors and subject matters, extensively arrayed before us. Sometimes the excursions are immersive; sometimes they exhaust.

To sully all of the above with a single word such as shall imminently be presented would be disingenuous, but Drndić is fond of a particular formation (as many authors often are) and it is worth examination. Early on in the text, and before the word appears in any great degree of frequency, it is noted that the fluidity, the fictive-historical flow has a certain hysterical quality. This is not intended to demean. There are long, long sentences, rants and ramblings interspersed with very many italicised emphases, tautological constructs reminiscent of those employed by Ben Okri, although without the attempted poetry. Drndić is acerbic, cynical, sarcastic and seemingly in need of delivering all of her venom towards her intended targets (pulling no punches, for example, in speaking through Andreas Ban in his written address to his academic colleagues: colleagues he considers lacking in intellectual and moral rigour). Drndić explicitly returns again and again to the use of the word ‘hysterical’ or ‘hysterically’. It is evidence of a writing style, in parts, but also of a main character’s struggle to cope with his academic rejection and physical degradation, perhaps a counterpoint to the Croatian national silence regarding acknowledgement of when the N.D.H. was operationally supported by Nazi Germany and Italy.

Daša Drndić’s work is not a simple narrative, but it is a work that will educate. Where it lacks any conventional coherent structure, perhaps intentionally, it gains traction in the accumulation of its component parts. There are citations included, intermittently, as a form of additional information, but these (and sometimes the footnotes too) can stick as too much ‘info dump’. As with all written works, a reader must come to terms with the writer’s style and manner or the two, author and reader, will suffer an irreparable and premature end of relationship: Drndić must be tolerated and trusted here, and it is a long trust to accept. The end effect of Belladonna may not be an hallucinogenic affair but there is a certain knowledge and wisdom locked up in its pages.
 
 

Book Review: How to Stop Time (Matt Haig)

It should not be considered a spoiler in any shape or form to relate that the answer to inquiry inherent within the title of Matt Haig’s offering transpires to equate to the maxim that is ‘live in the present’. The way that the author reaches this statement is by way of an examination of characters who live with extreme longevity. The device allows for investigation into identity, loss, and the various rationalisations of necessarily keeping others at arm’s length or accepting them and being accepted by them. Haig’s writing is accessible, quick-paced and assured, and it is evident that he has enjoyed the process of writing. A work such as this does, therefore, embrace a grand sweep; however, in such sweep there are the inevitable trade-offs — in this case, a certain deficit of characterisation and scene setting.

How to Stop Time (Canongate, 2017) has one Estienne Thomas Ambroise Christophe Hazard (mostly known as Tom Hazard throughout) as its narrator. Tom was born in France in 1581: a Huguenot Protestant who escaped persecution in his homeland, arriving in rural Suffolk with his mother. He is still alive today, or the near-future today, at 439 years of age. Herein lies the basic set-up. We might, at first, consider this as some repeated Highlander or vampire fantasy; however, Haig sets us straight from the outset by briefly describing a medical condition he calls anageria: that is, a slow-ageing process, roughly equating to one year of Tom’s biological advancement to fifteen of everyone else’s; or, rather, everyone else but those like Tom. As the story progresses, we discover that there are a significant number of those (not so much suffering from, as such) living with the anageria condition. Chief amongst these is Hendrich Pietersen, who is centuries older than Tom himself. For over two hundred years Tom has managed to exist, following the death of his partner, Rose, in 1623. Then, in 1891, Hendrich becomes aware of him and draws him into the Albatross Society. Albatrosses (or, albas) are Hendrich’s term for those with the anageria condition (‘mayflies’ are the usual, mundane humans), and Hendrich feels it necessary to keep secret the fact that those albas exist. He has various conspiracy theories in mind that there are organisations wishing to experiment and otherwise make use of the anageric of the world.

Hendrich’s deal to those recruited to the Albatross Society is that, in exchange for all manner of shady and clandestine support in acquiring new identities, work positions and places to live, every eight years (people start to notice, after a certain short while, that albas aren’t ageing in the same way that normal people do), those recruits are expected to fulfil a mission in recruiting other, newly discovered, anagerics. Via Hendrich’s machinations, Tom lives various lives around the world (in Toronto, Iceland, Boston, and Paris, for example). In the present day, wanting a more ordinary life, Tom seeks to return to London (where he lived with Rose and, for a brief time, their young daughter, Marion). In the present day, Tom becomes a history teacher at a secondary school, a stone’s throw from where he spent his early years with Rose. Thus Haig is able to explore the notion of history being taught by someone who was actually there. The literary ruse also allows for an examination of time, social change, and the lack of societal learning, on the whole, in the cyclical repetitions of mistakes made and history not being properly learnt from.

In the background of all of Tom’s considerations is the not insignificant matter of Marion. She is known to be anageric too and Tom does not know for certain if she still lives but he is ever on the search for her. Hendrich makes full use of this, Tom’s torment, and makes promises to the latter about finding her as another means of maintaining his engagement with the Albatross Society and its purposes. Hendrich’s society is not, however, all that he purports it to be. In the course of Tom’s work at the school, he meets a French teacher, Camille, who (after four hundred years of singledom and still pining for Rose) he eventually discovers himself more and more drawn to. With Camille turns the author’s inquiry towards the present, rather than with his main character’s hitherto all-consuming preoccupation with the past.

Tom Hazard lives a long and adventurous life. In the course of his various travels and identities, he works for William Shakespeare, and he meets Captain Cook, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Charlie Chaplin, amongst others. He is tormented by a witchfinder (William Manning, who is responsible for murdering his mother), he meets a Tahitian islander, Omai, who is also anageric and who he travels to Australia to meet again, in the present, Omai now being an internet-renowned surfer. At this point in review proceedings, however, it must be noted that although Tom Hazard is 439 years old and has experienced such fulsome variety, there is no great feel for someone who might conceivably be 439 years old: that is to say, Tom Hazard is Tom Hazard, albeit sometimes with a different name, wherever and whenever he is. He is Tom in 1599, with Rose, and he is Tom playing piano in Paris in 1928, as he is Tom in the South Pacific in the late 1700s.

For a story primarily focused and titled with time, Haig also commits the cardinal sin of making temporal errors, not just once but several times. For example, he states variously that, in the present day, Tom is 439 years of age, and then, early on this number is miscalculated; later, he presents the beginning of the lead character’s meeting with Omai, with the former setting sail from Plymouth in 1768, but a little over a dozen pages later, Tom is in Tahiti, being asked to set light to Omai’s house, one year earlier than he apparently set sail; we are told, directly and early on, when Tom goes to see Rose again on her death-bed in 1623 that he hasn’t seen her since 1603, yet their daughter Marion is born some years later and the family are in Canterbury in the years around 1616/7. If these temporal errors are evident to this reader, then better editing prior to publishing would surely have rectified such details. In similar fashion, Haig’s enjoyment of writing this tale has clearly escaped the editorial eye in other details: in the aforementioned scene in Plymouth, 1768, the author writes that: ‘The story of how I met Omai began on a rainy Tuesday in March on the cobbles of Plymouth harbour’; one page later, and still within the same scene, Haig writes about how two men ‘now stopped still amid the busy harbour, near crates of speckled grey freshly killed fish, shining in the June sunlight’.

Scene-setting would not appear to be the prime concern in Haig’s writing in this offering. A few locations notwithstanding (the description of Hendrich’s apartment at the Dakota, New York, in 1891, outside which, almost a century later, John Lennon was shot; the slim sense of the Australian coast where Omai lives, for example), the laying down of visual imagery is fairly sparse throughout. The reader is left to construct a personal idea of, say, late sixteenth and early seventeenth century London (even with due regard to the accepted notion that an author cannot do everything for the reader, simply stating that there are various market traders and that, on the whole, the olfactory conditions are somewhat less than desirable, is unsatisfactory).

Ultimately, however, what How to Stop Time amounts to, despite its shortcomings in some attention to detail in time, scene setting and character shift, is a readable affair, well-paced, and not without an ability to provoke thought after the last page has been finished. In and of itself, extreme longevity is not so novel a concept, but Haig leaves us with considerations on what such fantastically long-lived experience might cause to manifest in someone either afflicted, enduring or blessed by what he terms as anageria.
 
 

Book Review: Stardust (Neil Gaiman)

A cursory review of Neil Gaiman’s body of work would readily highlight the author’s penchant for all things fantastical, for oddity and for fairy tale, or Faerie. There can be no doubting his connoisseurship and undoubted prior reading in such matters. It can, therefore, come as no surprise in anticipating what might transpire in the reading of a novel entitled Stardust, accompanied by cover notes to the tune of ‘Gaiman describes the indescribable: the eerie colours, ravishing scents and dangerous laughter of Faerie.’ We should expect a tale of some such fantastical unravelling. Unfortunately, this tale is a light affair.

Stardust (Headline Review, 2005) follows the adventures of Tristan Thorn, a young man who lives in the fictional town of Wall, somewhere in England, in the early Victorian period. Tristan is out one evening, having walked home his love interest, Victoria Forester, and the incidence of a falling star causes our hero to set off on a quest: that is to say, the recovery of the fallen star to give to Victoria in exchange for his ‘heart’s desire’. This being a Gaiman story, however, the town of Wall just so happens to exist on the boundary to the Faerie realm, and it is to and within the latter that Tristan must journey. There is a gap in the wall (from which the town owes its name), guarded at all times, on the other side of which, once every nine years, various creatures of the other realm gather in a meadow for a grand fair. There they offer all manner of weird and wonderful and magical wares.

There is much to pack into a synopsis of what follows: Tristan’s search for the fallen star is aided by his ability to locate things easily on the other side of Wall. He is, it transpires early on, born to one of the Faerie folk (the result of his mortal father having attended the fair some years before and, having been a lovelorn young man himself, falling for a violet-eyed young woman enslaved to an elderly saleswoman). We can assume that Tristan’s orienteering skills are evidence of his magical parentage, but we must also assume much else. Just as in magical realist terms, where the reader and characters are asked to accept their surroundings and its occurrences without question, in Gaiman’s fantasy we and Tristan must accept that what happens in Faerie is just what happens in Faerie.

Tristan encounters all manner of strange characters (or, who might pass as strange in the usuality of our own worlds): a hobbit-type creature, fairies who steal his clothing, obligatory witches or ‘witch-queens’, half-seen ghosts, black-clad sinister lords, a unicorn, the captain of a ship that sails in the sky. None of this surprises Tristan, of course. Nor does it surprise him that he can travel great distances ‘by candlelight’, or that the star he seeks turns out, in fact, to be a young woman (or, in the language of the fairy tale, a girl). The star (who Gaiman later names as Yvaine, ‘For I was an evening star’) breaks her leg on landing. The author adds a little extra humour to his writing, here and there, and (to highlight that this book is not, in fact, a children’s fairy tale) he writes that the star exclaims ‘Ow . . . Fuck . . . Ow’, quietly, when she lands. It raises a wry and equally quiet smile.

Tristan’s adventure includes his return to Wall, with the star, to give her to his beloved, Victoria Forester. He binds the star to him with a silver chain (magically enhanced, of course) but she will not come willingly. Tristan chances upon a unicorn, who he saves from a bloody fight with a lion, and so our hero and his captive have their means of speedier travel. It is another point of puncturing the guise of the children’s fairy tale that takes place, later, when Gaiman has his unicorn murdered, bloodily.

Despite this, all the tropes of traditional fairy tales are here: the little cottage in the woods, the triumvirate of witches seeking youth and vigour, the dark overlords, woods that are alive, poisons and spells and enchantments broken, and so on. Gaiman works all that he appears to have read and to know into his text, albeit in his own idiosyncratic style. He knows too of legend, of course, and a reference to Wayland’s Smithy does not go unnoticed. There is, however, no immediately significant reasoning for using such literary forms of fairy tales, other than they are the staple diet of previous writers (and, if deeper levels are intended and known to the author, then the whole supersedes the minutiae: it is a whole predominately of lightness and humour, with a sprinkling of darkness, rather than a more nuanced directing towards examination of detail).

There are some moments of descriptive significance (Gaiman is fond of repeating the gold-green palette of the woods, for example, and a shrinking spell on Tristan is particularly well written), but there are, equally, moments where characters seem to be lost to themselves: that is to say, there is no gentle shift between incarnations of individuals (Tristan’s true mother, early on, and her later self, for example; his father’s early naivety and his later blandness). It cannot be expected that a work such as Stardust (as fair written as it is) go any significant way towards character depth, yet even a fairy tale, perhaps, ought really to have some of it because, as the author knows well enough, it is a story after all, and stories breathe.

Stardust is, ultimately, a quick and accessible read, but it lacks any great aftertaste: that is to say, there is a lingering curiosity about ‘otherness’, about fairy tales and Faerie, about what such tales and their stock imagery and interplays really meant, but the inquiry dissipates there. Gaiman’s writing here is perfectly readable, enjoyable and engrossing in some sweeps, but somehow lacking in something more (something that might, for example, set the imagination of an early Victorian inhabitant of the fictional town of Wall tumbling, over and over: just what might be, and how, through the gap, into and beyond the meadow, in the land of Faerie, where a star can fall and land, where it can transform?).
 
 

Book Review: The Last Children of Tokyo (Yoko Tawada)

Much of Yoko Tawada’s short fictional offering reads, unfortunately, as if it were an essay or a thesis on researched findings: the author persists in her attempts at creating a strange world to slightly unsettle but the work doesn’t ever fully rise to the level of fictive fantasy. The problems arise early on with hints that what will follow may not altogether shine with any great authenticity (in the author’s connection of word choices to characters, in a fair forcing of her desire to stamp small strangeness into the pages) and they fail to resolve themselves throughout. It is almost as if Tawada has had an idea but that she forgot to tell a story.

The Last Children of Tokyo (Portobello Books, 2018; originally published as Kentoshi by Kodansha; translated from the Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani) transports us to a Japan of what can be assumed to be a near-future where the environment has been contaminated, many children are sickly, and the elderly live well past a hundred years of age. The country has adopted a self-imposed isolation from the outside world. The names of foreign cities are banned, as are foreign words. The plot, as thin and as sporadic in its appearance as it is, drifts on the premise that some research could be undertaken in conjunction with others in the world outside Japan and this might bear fruit in alleviating the sickliness of the children. The plot, however, appears to be somewhat of an afterthought in its execution.

Mumei is the great-grandson of Yoshiro. The former is, for the most part of the book, a boy of indeterminate age, such is the author’s inability or unwillingness to pinpoint this facet in her descriptions and dialogue. Yoshiro, we’re told, is over a hundred years old, and later we can deduce that for the larger part of the text he is around one hundred and eight. He is a writer but, in similar fashion to not being fully able to describe Mumei as child, Tawada does not seem to be able to fully imbue Yoshiro’s character with the essence of writer. Yoshiro takes care of the boy who, enfeebled by an unspecified disability, finds even the simplest of daily tasks exhausting. Tawada makes some diversions into fleshing out other members of the absent family (Yoshiro’s estranged wife, Marika; his daughter, Amana; his grandson, Tomo) but the overall affect is merely one of reading more about a world that she wishes to create, rather than a premise to build on or a plot to resolve.

Tawada plays with language, and it appears to be a drive for her to do so; however, the application of such drive is, at best, almost poetic in rare places, and at worst it is clumsy. There is an attempt, for example, to conflate ‘octopi’ and ‘optical’, but the outcome is awkward. Where Tawada does bring a rare gem to the offering is in a simile like ‘[as] yellow as melted dandelions’ in the very first paragraph (notwithstanding the translated omission of the first ‘as’, which is a constant reading bane). Language is a central concern in Tawada’s writing: she highlights English words and literal translations of Chinese characters, thinking how old words might transform into new phrases. It is, therefore, all the more disconcerting that (given the isolationist approach of the Japanese government of her fiction), the translator has produced an American English vernacular, especially in the internalised thoughts of Mumei, later on in the work.

There is a basic jarring in operation between the content and the presentation. A perennial issue with translated works is the concern of authorial lapse or translator’s paucity of skill with regard to word and phrase choices. Vulgar representation of one culture as another (Japanese into American, for example, with the use of ‘real’ instead of ‘really’, or ‘sure feels good’) can be placed in the hands of the translator; oddities such as ‘[Mumei] moved his head as if searching the air, trying to catch on his tympanic membrane the scraping of footsteps on gravel’ are entirely the fault of the author. This disconnect between child-character and the author’s inability to satisfactorily represent what that means prevails, mostly, throughout. Tawada has Mumei throw his hands in the air on more than one occasion, in pleasure (which is the language of child) but shouting ‘Paradise!’ (which isn’t the language of child at all).

The standard of editing must also come under scrutiny for this publication too. The keen eye, keen to read each and every word because the author has made it clear from an early stage that she wishes the reader to consider the affect of words, finds that there are several mistakes even in the first ten pages. The occasional spelling error, or a missing or repeated word, might not be so evident to many whose reading processes naturally account for and fix such oversights; however, other readers might rightly wonder how any errors at all manage to get through the various stages of the professional publishing process.

Tawada’s writing floats along in this offering without gaining enough traction to solidify into anything really tangible. She discusses the effects of the Japanese isolation policy, immigration, growing and selling fruit, but it all feels like a treatise, a world-building exercise, with no great heart. There are late forays into ‘plot’ with the telling of the Emissary Association, who wish to send Mumei abroad, but there is no heart in this either. The bulk of Tawada’s writing is under the auspices of the writerly sin that is ‘tell’ rather than ‘show’, and she continues in similar vein with a degree of ‘head hopping’. A brief passage describing how a teacher observes Mumei at play, rough and tumbling, or children’s ability to groupthink without prior discussion, as accurately observed as they are, fail to lift the whole, despite their brief moments of intrigue.

The Last Children of Tokyo is, ultimately, disappointingly devoid of story, though it occasionally swells with its ideas. The writing floats, without any real base, and then it floats away without any true rise of an arc or resolution. One character speaks of ‘dead lines’, and an author might be amused with the thinking: it is apposite, in conclusion. There is creation but not enough craft.
 
 

Book Review: Territory of Light (Yuko Tsushima)

The meaning of light is far from clear in Yuko Tsushima’s slim though year-long telling of the unfolding of a young mother. The narrowness of a book’s spine can sometimes belie its depths (this offering certainly aims towards the literary entanglements of being and becoming), but every author ought also to bear in mind the potential of a reader’s state of mind: that is to say, a few faults of character written into a narrative may be excused but a continuance risks alienating the reader for the duration. Tsushima’s unnamed lead character is, for the most part, selfish and unsympathetic. Her situation is made difficult by being suddenly left by her husband of just a few years; she is obliged to rent somewhere to live and chooses a fourth floor flat in a narrow office block for her and her almost three year old daughter; her husband is without regret or concern. One might well expect to encounter such a character who, under these circumstances, may struggle to adapt; however, save for a few fleeting moments of kindness displayed, the young mother is, to an alienated reader, regarded without any great sympathy.

Originally published in 1978/9, in twelve monthly instalments in Gunzō, the Japanese literary magazine, Tsushima’s Territory of Light (Penguin Classics, 2017; translated from the original Japanese by Geraldine Harcourt) is a read whose possible weight is clouded by its disagreeable characters. Both lead character and her daughter are unnamed, though the child’s father is referred to as Fujino throughout. Names add dimensions. That the author can engender an emotion in a reader is commendable; however, that emotion being a steadily developing vexation is perhaps lamentable. The young mother is initially meek, but then also self-centred, unable to fully appreciate her daughter, frustrated at her husband but also, in parts, wanting to be back together with him, and then at other times drunkard, slovenly and irresponsible. She wants to just stand and look at the trees in the park, to her daughter’s irritation, and when the latter runs off, the former is in no great pains to go running after her. The child is not yet three years old. The author has the mother wandering, sitting in the park, ruminating on matters not appropriate when faced with a missing young daughter. She finds her, by chance, and nothing sits easily in the reading in this whole episode.

Early on in the piece, Tsushima explains that the new flat that the young mother has rented is bathed in light. It is a prime reason for taking the rental (though the author does not satisfactorily play with this motif, as one might expect, given the title of the book). The flat is also four storeys up, but the mother leaves all the windows open in the summer and the child drops things out of them when the mother goes off to sleep. She seems none too concerned that the child might fall from the open windows. That is to say, there is a vague notion that this might happen, and then there are unsettling dreams, and a horrible accident elsewhere in the city, but even these are not enough to cause any great depth of reality to spread through this irresponsible character. She goes to a bar when the child is asleep, alone in the flat, and she drinks herself into a stupor with a female stranger. The lead character becomes more and more unlikeable. When she finally shows a little semblance of kindness towards others, it is already too late to bring her back to the realms of sympathy (she and her daughter, for example, encounter a drunk on the street and, carefully and gingerly, awkwardly they rub his back to try to soothe him).

Her husband does not appear a great deal, but when he does he is, by turns, misogynistic, also irresponsible (with regard to his financial obligations), and preferring to devote his attentions more to his vague creative projects than to his family. We can have no sympathy for him either. The young mother proceeds to practically cut her own mother out of her life, and she unsuccessfully tries to illicit more attention from a former student of her husband’s, now twenty three, but he — Sugiyama — wants nothing more of this. There is a slow spiralling of the lead character’s ways of being, downwards, as she tries to retain whatever it is of herself that she needs to retain, to look after her daughter but also to keep the child’s father away from her (though this is no noble aim), and to hold on to her job at the library archives. Tsushima succeeds in a slow unspinning, but she forgets to instil enough compassion into her young mother character. The only person who lifts from the page in any bright way is the child. She is rendered as real in her wonder and in her tantrums, in her urgency and in the affect on her that her parents’ actions have caused.

As with perhaps all translated works, it is difficult to ascertain where criticism should lie with regards to selections of words and syntax: the author or the translator? Spelling choices, however, are more of an editorial consideration when, as with this publication, no clear distinction between British and American English has been made. That is to say, spellings specific to both versions of the language are mixed here throughout. Where constructive criticism might be conferred upon the translator, matters of word choice and syntax are apposite fare. Harcourt has, for the most part, delivered a text that flows but occasionally it jolts and jars: ‘She nodded laughingly’; ‘I was afraid, and would have liked to bolt’. The coarseness of the words here only compound the reader’s agitation at the characters.

Where there is light there must be beauty. This is the case in fleeting moments in Tsushima’s writing (for example, the description of reflected red light in the child’s tears up on the roof terrace, from what at first could be fireworks but are actually from the explosions of a chemical factory; the subtle delicacy of almost love for a stranger who lets the lead character sleep on his shoulder on a train and who then, without a word, alights at his stop; the equally gentle weight of the young mother as a child herself, in dream, as she presses herself to the back of her unseen and long deceased father). These moments of light and beauty, however, are few and far between. In the final reckoning, eventually, and after the unspinning and attempted spinning back together of her main character, Tsushima abruptly has her up-sticks and leave the flat that is the territory of her transitional year from married woman to almost divorcee. The young mother finds a new flat for her and her daughter: one that is almost devoid of light altogether. The story ends without colour, fanfare or fireworks.
 
 

Book Review: Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro)

There is a suspicion that all is not as it seems in Kazuo Ishiguro’s tale, which is set just the slightest plausibility removed from our present reality. That is to say, as we are carefully nurtured through the unfolding narrative by the author’s first person and very occasional second person exposition, and as we — like the characters themselves — begin to form our ideas, discarding them here and there, adding new theories, piecing together the greater puzzle, something ‘other’ in the writing may be seen to linger. It is, of course, dependent on our worldview and, in the reading a conspiracy of thinking ensues: what lies beneath this author’s words? On a more accessible level, Ishiguro presents us with a weave of ethical consideration, borne out via the interactions of a group of close friends: firstly charting their insular and protected days at Hailsham (what appears to be a secluded boarding school), then into adolescent student days, in the transition into adulthood, at another site (The Cottages), and finally in what are described as ‘carer’ roles, and beyond.

The difficulty in reviewing Never Let Me Go (Faber and Faber, 2006), for those not yet having read the work, primarily lies in not describing too closely, lest the spoiled construct become worthless. Ishiguro has woven a naivety into the art of telling: his characters, as we first meet them in any great depth, are children not fully aware of what is transpiring around them in their sheltered existences at Hailsham. As we read, Ishiguro drops in enough clues for us to suspect what might be happening, but he doesn’t fully declare this at such an early stage. The child characters, likewise, seem to have an inkling of ‘something’ beyond the bounds of what they have been told and learned to trust, but they are not entirely sure. As with children’s culture everywhere, they form bonds, test out their ideas, invent stories, engage with long-standing mythologies, circulate rumours. We feel drawn into the web, suspicious and looking for a reveal.

Ishiguro duly obliges, to a small degree, some one third way through the book. However, we know and we suspect there must be more to it all. Our narrator is Kathy H., who leads us through the pages as her early thirties adult self, at first reminiscing on, and giving due consideration to, events that took place at Hailsham. Her closest friends are Ruth, a somewhat difficult character who struggles with her relationships with others, who is forthright and often demanding, and Tommy, uncreative, not so sharp on the uptake, quick to anger, but who inspires varying degrees of care from both Kathy and Ruth. It is this creativity, this need to be creative, so strongly encouraged by the staff at Hailsham, that provides a thread from which Ishiguro hangs one of his ethical hooks. Suffice is to say that the author wishes us to consider, in the fullness of time, and by way of this thread, what makes us who we are.

In three distinct sections, we are offered the progression of a close-knit group of friends who, from the earliest times, have been subtly told (or ‘told but not told’, as one character — Miss Lucy — has it) how their lots have been marked out for them. The children accept this, diligently, throughout. They may later come as close as they can get to questioning it, but they still accept it. In the first section, the lives of the children are variously portrayed, jumping around in time: they are thirteen, then there are scenes with them as much younger, then as eight or nine, and finally the early teenage years. In the second section, certain members of the close group (Kathy, Tommy, Ruth and a few others) are moved on from their closeted existence, all they have ever known at Hailsham, to some farm buildings where slightly older students, the ‘veterans’, are already living. It is a transitional arrangement. The main characters know they must, at some point in the not-too-distant future, move on again: they must become ‘carers’. By now we know what this means. We are enmeshed in the still unfolding puzzle.

At Hailsham, Ishiguro introduces the occasional presence of the somewhat sinister Madame. She arrives for unspoken business, something to do with the children’s artworks, and the children’s world is rife with rumour. Madame seems repulsed at the sight and proximity of the children. It is a further drip in the narrative on our quest to unravel all the minutiae of the mystery. The institution is staffed by a variety of mostly thinly sketched adults (Miss Emily, who we might assume to be the head; Miss Geraldine, a favourite; Miss Lucy, and others, both male and female). Miss Lucy is the spanner in the works, as far as Miss Emily and Madame are concerned. The children, now young teenagers, sense an uneasiness in her, and in time she obliges by telling them what she feels they need to hear, what has been eating away at her. Still, some of them don’t fully acknowledge this, such is the level of their indoctrination.

It is this background concern, this low-level back-lighting, that permeates throughout: the children have been ‘told but not told’ the important matters of their existences. The indoctrination feels a little disconcerting, but in a shift (which, relayed here, would not create a disturbance too far, a spoilage), Ishiguro later creates a virtuous perspective regarding Miss Emily and Madame’s ethical slant or stance on the treatment of the children. It is throughout this particular thread of thinking, woven into the whole as it is, that the reader might find their own worldview parallels of particular aspects of the reality of society which he or she calls their own.

Never Let Me Go is written, for the most part, cleanly and carefully. Kathy’s character is gentle, caring, considerate but sometimes conflicted too. Her concerns are often minor, at face value, but Ishiguro digs deeper into the moments she relays: such is the layered delicacy of many of the interactions of her and her friends. There are some minor quibbles with the writing, however, not least of which being Ishiguro’s opening. In context, in the beginning of a mysterious affair, we are rightly struck a little confused by his opening passages, but we must read through these with faith. The author does also have the predilection for the occasional distressing of syntax (for example, ‘I was all the time afraid she’d turn and look at us . . .’) and this does have the potential for temporary dislodgement of the fictive flow. Also, on this note, his several-times-too-often use of the possessive gerund (‘Now I know my being a carer so long isn’t necessarily because they think I’m fantastic at what I do.’) becomes a little distracting. Finally, in criticism, although we are treated to reveals throughout (reveals that don’t altogether feel like reveals because, like the characters discovering things for themselves, deep down we kind of knew things all along), the author’s last reveal does feel a little clumsy: like the villain telling all to the hero of a stereotypical film we’ve seen the likes of many times before. It is, however, perhaps inevitable that he would eventually have to tell us, and his main characters, everything, somehow and in some more concrete way.

Minor quibbles aside, Ishiguro’s writing in this offering is at once and for the most part clean, disarming, quietly portentous, delicately prodding something beneath the surface, potentially poking at something hidden in plain sight. Never Let Me Go is an ethical thinkpiece, a love story, or love stories, a reverie, a tale of friendships and losing them but of trying to keep them close. We might read at a variety of levels. What lies beneath the author’s words? Allegory springs to mind, though we never can be sure. Ishiguro writes: ‘. . . the odd rumour will go round sometimes about what Hailsham’s become these days — a hotel, a school, a ruin.’

This work is, ultimately though, a story of something other, but it is also a story of something much too close for comfort.
 
 

Book Review: Pétronille (Amélie Nothomb)

Every so often there comes a slim book of sublime grace. This is quite definitely not one of those books. That accolade must go to another recent read (of which more detail in due course) and, with that connection in mind, a reader might reasonably find themselves then in search of something similarly beautiful in such scarcity of pages. Sometimes, the largely arbitrary choice of reading matter results in pleasant good luck; sometimes, however, the opposite is true. Pétronille (Europa Editions, 2015, translated from the original French by Alison Anderson) is, unfortunately, a shallow, vacuous, ego-driven and poorly executed work of little grace.

Amélie Nothomb sees it fit to name one of her two main characters as Amélie Nothomb, setting the reader on edge from early on. The eponymous Pétronille Fanto is, ostensibly, a younger fan of the former’s writing (Nothomb, the character, is also an author in the book). The character-author begins to develop a reversal of the fandom trope, following Pétronille’s attendance at one of Nothomb’s book signings. This, however, is merely a device to initiate the telling of the development of a friendship: a champagne-drinking partnership, which the author suggests she needs.

Thus begins the vacuity of sundry meet-ups over a period of almost twenty years, always swilling champagne: sometimes the focus is on the disparity of Nothomb, the acclaimed and socially accepted author, and Pétronille, the up and coming, edgy and socially unaccepted, young author; sometimes the emphasis is on apparent living life in the moment, risk-taking. Always, there is a growing sense of inauthenticity in the reader. Nothomb sprays around references to her own actual books within the text and, when read along with the links to the supposed books that Pétronille begins to churn out, and the works of other writers (along with clumsy quotations), this becomes a litany of amateurish execution.

Nothomb’s ham-fisted approach to referencing other writers, and publishers, mirrors her listings of various champagne names. She attempts, and fails dismally, to draw cogent regard towards matters of class difference. Pétronille’s parents are clumsily portrayed as communists (‘Fortunately, we still have Cuba!’ said Pierre) and Nothomb’s comments on social friction are tone-deaf and witless:

‘I was staring at her with the dumb admiration common to people of my sort when they meet a genuine proletarian.’

On description of trying to hawk one of Pétronille’s novels around publishing houses for her whilst she’s ‘travelling in the Sahara’, Nothomb writes of an editor character saying:

‘Why are you going to all this trouble for this Fanto woman? You know very well that in the literary world, people with a proletarian background don’t stand a chance.’

The suspicion then lurks that Nothomb is attempting another clumsy assault: this time on the business of being a writer. In other parts of the book, she makes use of Pétronille as foil to describe how most writers don’t get paid a great deal, or she details an uncomfortable (for her) scene in being asked to interview Vivienne Westwood for an article commissioned by a magazine. The thin ruse has no great depth within it.

Whilst in London for the interview, her first ever trip across the Channel, Nothomb adds plenty of casual xenophobia and tiresome stereotyping of the English to her growing list of writerly misdemeanours. She attempts to counter all of this with tales of eating fish and chips, disingenuously aligned, we can suspect, with an ‘eating like the common people’ thinking process. There is, in addition, the rather more suspicious claim to the idea that ‘the Nothomb family is of distant English extraction. They left Northumberland in the eleventh century and crossed the Channel . . .’ This, in short turn, leads Nothomb to the ridiculous and, one can only hope, attempted self-deprecation that is:

‘When the train pulled into Waterloo Station, I almost wept for joy. As I stepped out onto British soil at last, I felt like the queen of the ball. I was sure the earth trembled as it recognised the footstep of its distant progeny.’

Any semblance of potential character depth withers away very early on in the piece (Pétronille could have been somebody interesting) and the one-dimensionality of this aspect of Nothomb’s writing is matched only by the utterly pretentious stream of thinking on which it’s all fixed (‘And what an original way to celebrate your thirty-ninth birthday! Is it an allusion to Hitchcock’s 39 Steps?’). The only plot, in loose definition, might be seen in the shallow arc taken by Pétronille from feisty fan-girl turned writer herself to a falling apart into risk-taker (she takes experimental medicines to supplement her income and indulges in Russian Roulette). Nothomb info-dumps with flagrant disregard for the reader’s sensibilities (‘I’m looking out at Paris through the window: did you know that the Eiffel Tower is hollow?’ . . . ‘You’re confusing it with Kourou in French Guiana.’).

Before the mercifully short arrival of the denouement, a note must be made on the translation. It cannot be said often enough that there is no way of knowing whether poor word choice or syntax is the fault of the original author or the translator, but suffice is to say that examples such as the following renditions of grammar are entirely ill-conceived:

‘I would have liked to be similarly good company for someone.’

‘I would have liked to bury my face in the frozen treasure.’

Finally, then, to the denouement. Nothomb attempts a fantastic twist in the last few paragraphs. It only serves to add insult to injury, being entirely unsatisfactory, utterly flawed insofar as an integrity of internal logic is concerned, and executed with the by-now usual clumsiness expected of the author. On brief reflection, in attempting to bestow upon her work some degree of depth with her clever twist, Nothomb only succeeds in suggesting that, with such haste, she’s bored of her subject matter now, already thinking of what else she might churn out in the great litany that is her growing body of work (‘over twenty-three best-selling novels’ the sleeve notes inform, ‘a novel a year, every year’ since her debut).

Pétronille, the book, and Nothomb, as character and as author, on this evidence at least, are corked offerings best shelved or sluiced.