BOOK REVIEW: Vahni Capildeo’s “Skin Can Hold”

Vahni Capildeo’s Skin Can Hold bursts with ideas, electric with the joy of words. Capildeo is a writer enamoured with language, and her book offers up sextina, rondeau, motet, dialogue, oulipo game, just about everything you can imagine; her tone shifts in emotion too, from angry, to playful, to puzzled, to scholarly. “Panting, ending, burning, invading, weeping, / burning, caressing, longing! Reworking / thickens the trunk of the text,” she writes. Language becomes the source of everything: rapport, stultification, light-heartedness, violence. Grammar links to the body, and through such extreme love of language we discover new forms of love itself.

Already-existing forms of language can make us feel distanced or separated from intimate connection with others, so part of Capildeo’s task as a poet is “unpicking lexicons”. Her attention to language means she’s fascinated by advertisements and announcements, by the sounds of words, by onomatopoeia (“tapped, tripped, trapped”), by repetitive structures (“I come, I seize, I erase”), by languages other than English as well as the many varieties of English from regions of the United Kingdom, the Indian diaspora, the Caribbean and other ex-colonized territories.

Some of this interest derives from her own Trinidadian-Scottish background — we all start somewhere, before we open ourselves to the vastnesses that exist beyond the accident of immediate context. Some come from the places she’s lived, some from her linguistic training (she has a PhD in Anglo-Saxon Literature from Oxford and has worked as a lexicographer), some from friends, some from a realm of the imagination never before heard or seen on this planet.

Across her many collections, including Simple Complex Shapes, Measures of Expatriation, Seas and Trees and Venus as a Bear, Capildeo’s playfulness with language becomes a kind of resistance to forms of identity that insist on a supposed purity or authenticity. Her literature makes different sources clash, not only inhabiting but also creating new voices and traditions, producing associative-chains between sources that wouldn’t often come into contact in a single person, or in recorded History itself. Building another zone for linguistic play that’s hard to pin down in space and time is a never-ending project, since there’s forever “still more chaos effectively to organize”. But she does it, with wit and humour, as a master of parody, drawing out rhetoric a little farther than it tends to go, to demonstrate its flexibility or absurdity, for instance with bureaucratic directives: “Customers travelling with children must ensure that every child / travelling on the brown bag service is individually brown-bagged.”

There’s a similar movement at work in her performance instructions, which begin as more or less something to follow, and end in abstraction and interior space. Modern theatre often focuses more on evoking emotions than on movements of plot, but here words are distanced to the limit from possible interpretation: “He reads with the abstraction of a bichon frisé abandoned in the Hofgarten. You stoop, stretch, circle, segment, re-attach the relation of your body to the space around him.” The work contains its own critique, and mention of “an alternative version of this performance” occurs in the instructions themselves. Performance itself is less the point, maybe, than possibilities.

This section ends with the beginnings of language, as a girl, alone, sings vowels to herself: “No performance, such as untying ribbons to give to passersby, is involved.” The suggestion here is that engagement with others is itself a kind of performance, an idea that also appears in other poems. There are a few in the first person, notably “Shame”, about humilation of all kinds, sexual, professional, collateral, and so on: “The occurrence of the pretence as play; the occurrence of protest as pretend play; the performance of self-harm as protest: with its roots in the shade of the netted tree, this was shame (…) Shame on behalf of others is tiring. I hold it in the bowl of my pelvis, as empty as a night of timed-out stars. Shame on behalf of others flips into fury.”

But it would be a mistake to think of her as primarily an autobiographical poet. One of the things that fascinates me about Capildeo is precisely that she’s shifty, that her trompe l’oeil surfaces don’t say what you think they will, or at least not in that way. She’s a slippery fish who wriggles away from the reassuring poles of sociological discourse. Multiple times the idea of policing of literature comes up, for instance, as in her reflection on the “online angloamerican feminist group ‘protoform’” which cancelled several of its own, or her comment that “the frauds / claim exotic identities and needs”, an ambiguity that becomes interesting given how Capildeo is often herself positioned as a mouthpiece of this kind in the British poetic firmament.

Given her twin preoccupations with language and performance, it’s natural that when Capildeo finds her way to Shakespeare and other texts from the traditional canon of English literature, she juggles them into something new. Several poems list “sources” at the end of pieces, often combining a more classic work with something contemporary like Wikipedia. This incongruity might feel alienating or academic, and it’s true that many times I felt the texts gave me the slip, in a way they wouldn’t if I understood the original reference, or made the effort to study more. Isn’t that the modernist idea, I berate myself, that the poet makes demands of the reader, that she’s expected to capture the heady allusions?

Yet another part of me rebels against this, and claims my right to enjoy the poems without fully understanding them. I think Capildeo would like this, too. In a video for the University of York, she insists that the readers should pay attention to the pleasure of language for its own sake, and the ways it makes one want to write something of one’s own. And in her work on Martin Carter (which I’ll discuss further on), she writes: “Place ingrained in feeling seems to encourage researched reading. Sparse details can be unfurled into Guyanese realities. We, on the contrary, appreciated without wanting to dwell.”

The stage directions in “her” Shakespeares are, again, fascinating in how they serve to disorient as much as orient. As she says later in the book, “Directions arrive as if / translated from the more helpful souls / in Dante’s hell.” Shakespeare, like Capildeo herself, is agile as a carp and “alive, you type, and inconveniently alive in quick vertical, like on social media once, where a set of honest and original poets said no white actor should presume to play Othello since his is the only part black actors can without ripping the expensive delicate illusion of good theatre. I took by the throat these angels of the house, and clicked unlike”. Again, there’s no space here for saying what one can’t do, for invention will permit no red tape, closed signs, or boards laid in a forbidding “X” over locked doors.

Capildeo defends the idea of honestly and intimately metamorphosing into other bodies, minds, spaces and eras, to make hybrid creatures, greenhouse flowers and alien beings that you recognize in the mirror. The title of this poem, “Radical Shakespeare”, is perhaps a bit too on the nose for my taste, but one appreciates what she’s doing here. Because for her, and so many others — for most people I think — there isn’t any so-called “authentic” single identity to return to at all. We read widely, and wildly, and the thing that marks out a good from a bad reader isn’t how much she knows but how sensitive she is to the project of what the other is doing — which she might then find interesting and take up, or sweep aside.

Capildeo’s shifts in tense between past, present and future destabilize the notion of what was, is and will be, and her activity itself suggests that all classics might be rewritten this way, with other voices such as those of women (for Capildeo, who self-defines as “they” and writes that she “self-presents” as a woman, an ample concept), on the sidetracks and rusty roads untaken left behind by the history of victors, where the trace remains:

There are too many women in this play,

all of an age to bleed; none bore children.

Lunar and silent, they have spread a field

of blood beneath the action. Dirt has skirts,

smooth roads rust, tiled surfaces tainted

with vinegar; nothing wipes nothing out,

nothing can be reached directly; nothing

that does not shed a lining, shudder, rubbish

the chance to make one clean sweet queen bee line.

Behind this bringing together of different registers, ideas and voices, there is an idea exploring such areas of shadow and rust, of going back to unexplored veins of history to discover the violence there but also the untapped joy, instead of resigning ourselves to the grey bureaucratic everyday to which we find ourselves confined.

To imagine other stories in history, and not just those linked to one’s own identity, is a form of resistance and holds liberating potential. After all, the “identity” we currently hold and the words we use are linked to such historical, colonial violence, which affected language. Everything is contingent, all is a counterhistory. What other parallel universes might exist? Capildeo helps us to explore them. As one of her personas writes: “When the British and the Spanish and the French and the Dutch and the Yankees and the Portuguese took away your language, I grew strong eating your tongues.” Such violence behind history comes through in Capildeo’s style, too, with its phrases that smash into each other, refuse a “clean” read, and leave a measure of incomprehension, but are also sown with possibility, “seeded with unfoldings”.

All of this might sound heavy, but it isn’t — thanks in large part to the light tone, the playful formats, and the ambiguity of the speaker herself. One of Capildeo’s preferred characters is the Fool, the one who makes language jokes like “gecko in a wall-zone” the one who through performative clowning can say what others do not, the one who speaks the truth. Thus Capildeo, with ludic skill, erases many givens, erasures necessary to create something new: “put a line through: meaning (…) put a line through: my”. But what’s left after we get rid of the drive toward sense, the established versions of history, the autobiographical first-person? Temporarily we might get closer to tree and plant life: “You’re indecipherable like a tree, and treelike you proliferate your gestures.” I don’t think it’s a mistake that so much writing these days is coming back to ideas of nature, as a source of poetry, as consolation, as another track through the foliage of events: “Nightly she sings on yon pomegranate tree.” Capildeo goes farther with her non-anthropomorphism, becoming not just objects but determinants from biology, sociology, physics:

I was the hurt that hobble the angel foot. I was the rot that spread in the forest’s root. (…) I am the nerves that push the mad president’s hand to push the button. I am the last words that you forget to utter. (…) I am the child bride hymen beneath the fingernails of the lawyer, I am the coat hanger in the cupboard of the priest wife room, I am the terrorist vampire from the Lapeyrouse tomb (…) I am the biological vector that turns the suicidal farmer’s harvest to ash. I am the force that shatters the astronomer of freedom’s telescope to splinter in his eye, I am the widespread lack of education that blind your comrade and make him cry.

These lines come from my favourite piece in the book, “Midnight Robber Monologue”, taken from a supposed play in which “Robbers duel in Tamarind Square, challenging each other with their sweeping actions and speeches that beat back the aeroplane Concorde breaking the sound barrier”. The force of this voice is a whirlwind, otherworldly. “The Robber is older than you can ever understand. He seizes the present. He is Fear itself. He is the eternal shadow underpinning all the five continents’ shifty land.” Time itself is undone:

At the age of minus six hundred and sixty six, I met the seraphim and cut off their pricks. At the age of minus seven, I cast down heaven into the Labasse. At the age of zero I forged my own cutlass. At the age of five I took your life, and your life, and your life. Your lives were sweet, and zombification was complete. At the age of nine, darkness was all mine. From the age of ten I operate as a ageless robber douen.

Faced with such “other” forces, we confront an impossibility of contact. This failure of communication, the silences made by others without our consent, and those we ourselves make for which we are responsible, is another theme. There are always things unknown even between the poet and the reader: “there is always, / even between the lines that speak / of breaks & brakes, / always someone else / who was present in writing – / when you thought you / knew – who you thought you were reading – / no means – in the garden singing”. The silent body outside of the text is a constant in all the mysteries: love, violence, writing. Capildeo notes the connection: “Love’s an enigma like murder.” Her most love-filled poem, “Reading for Compass: Response to Zaffar Kunial, Us”, is filled with a sense of the sacred and the aura of an appointment somewhere beyond, a rendezvous in some mirage of night with a fellow poet:

This isn’t what I’m used to. I grew up
as an inventor of voices for dead
books, impossible, inherited, odd
volumes, middle slices missing, made up;
colonial texts for memorisation
autoexecuted in rolling tones;
‘Indo-European’ languages drunk
like milk alchemised from blood, acquired
history. I know in my bones a desert,
or somesuch suddenly green lush place, where
our ancestors could have met with opposed
weaponry. What has survived of this is
us. And your advice: take heed of the vowels.

Repeatedly, in her work, as here, Capildeo defines and challenges what poetry is or does. “Every poem an ouroboros,” she says at one point. At another: “Reading this returns me to my body.” Elsewhere: “Who said which language / the book had to be in, anyway? / Fuck that shit. Now that’s a poem.” We are some ways beyond (or lateral to) Larkin’s “This Be the Verse”. The section of the book with Capildeo’s versions of Muriel Spark, an exploration of Scottishness, further complicate what poetry is through the incorporation of folk songs, wolf tales, and other popular materials.

The heart of the book, in my view, is a section that initially seems a jarringly non-fictional, near scholarly exploration of the life of Guyanese writer Martin Carter (1927-1997). In the context of the book as a whole, it makes sense. Capildeo’s interest in Carter has to do with her interest in performance, and with relivings (not responses or reworkings, she emphasizes). Out of the work of Carter, with “his naturally enigmatic and quasi-modernist intellectual approach to innovation”, she has created new “syntax poems” to be performed by several voices and bodies. For several pages she describes the elaborate performance on the basis of her poems made from Carter’s, “a living, not anatomised, version of practical criticism and close reading” with the goal that the audience will have “participated in a sense of call and response, cry and chorus, intimate camaraderie”. Carter’s original poem “I Am No Soldier” is rousing and soul-stirring: “O come astronomer of freedom / Come comrade stargazer / Look at the sky told you I had seen / The glittering seeds that germinate in darkness”, and Capildeo’s version turns this into a bewildering yet sensuous experience. Martin Carter is a “comrade stargazer”, and all of us are brothers and sisters on this earth together, linking arms and looking toward the heavens.

While the original poem is more or less comprehensible, the vertigo-inducing new form necessitates a return to the page, to elucidate the concept behind the work. These pages in writing, Capildeo says, are both “a record of the ephemeral”, and an instruction kit: “These materials are primarily an encouragement to readers to prepare their own kinetic, immersive, or collaborative responses (should they so wish) to any text of their choice.” The seating instructions for a colonial classroom, chart and student exercises at the end are partly serious, partly a devilish wink at the poetry apparatus that provides exercises meant for students to “understand” poems.

I do wonder about the relationship of this kind of poetry to academia, since it seems to require a restitching after the unpicking. (Capildeo wrote this when she held the Judith E. Wilson Poetry Fellowship from 2014 to 2016, at the University of Cambridge.) An interesting sort of academia might perhaps forge an atmosphere beyond the accelerated news-cycle-driven world to explore some of the avenues of difficult poetry, which Capildeo lays out.

A new criticism would involve not just the page, but the body, and would explore the connection between units of sense and their connection to physical movement: “What is the smallest unit of sense that arises from the joining-up made by the eye-movement (or that catches the inner ear as the eye moves)?” Capildeo, in her notes, pays close attention to breathing, rhythms, invocations, and repetitions, and treasures a constant movement, with a lack of interest in settling. The performance itself ends with a dance: “we had to anchor ourselves in the text and live out its twists and turns, in order to make sure we did not get physically stuck at any random or significant point in the set-that-was-not-a-set.”

The last few poems felt a little miscellaneous, or at least I’d have put them before the climax of the Martin Carter poem. But I appreciated their inclusion, especially “Poems for the Douma 4”, about four people abducted from the Violations Documentation Centre, in Syria: “Nuance has more off switches than lovers. Men stormed. Men do not storm. These are not natural phenomena. Sometimes I hate my trained mind.” Such interrogations of language, which gut it, draw out its viscera, sew it up into new beasts, then dance the unidentifiable forms into life, make any reified notion of identity seem unbearably tedious. There is so much more we can do.




Book Review: Breasts and Eggs by Meiko Kawakami

Although a translation of her short novel Ms Ice Sandwich was brought out by Pushkin Press in 2017, Breasts and Eggs is the full-length fiction by Mieko Kawakami to appear in English.

The initial part, originally published as a novella in 2008, is a first-person narrative about a few days in the life of 30 year old Natsuko. She’s moved to Tokyo from Osaka and dreams of artistic success while living on the breadline. Her big sister Makiko, who brought her up, is visiting. Makiko works in a hostess club and has come to the capital to finalise her cherished plan to get breast implants. Makiko is accompanied by her 12 year old daughter Midoriko, who has retreated into silence, confiding only in her journal. 

Midoriko’s diary, which punctuates the narrative, is the highlight of Part One. She is a female Adrian Mole, a working class kid, struggling to make sense of a dysfunctional adult world. But while Sue Townsend’s take on the world is gently humorous, Kawakami dishes up stronger fare. Adrian’s changing body causes him mild embarrassment, but Midoriko feels horror about impending puberty. She is equally disgusted by her mother’s determination to have surgery. (A girl may face truths that women do their utmost to repress.)

Breast and Eggs is a book of two, unbalanced, halves. In the much longer second part Natsuko is keeping afloat as a freelance writer – albeit one with a bad case of novelist’s block. The baton of angst, previously borne by sister and niece, has been passed to her. Natsuko is consumed by the wish to have a child. Because sexual desire was absent in her one long-ago relationship, she has concluded sperm donation is the answer.

The theme of insemination has the potential for comedy gold. And this is delivered in the scene where Natsuko meets Onda, a potential donor whose prolixity equals that of Austen’s Mr Collins. But while Midoriko’s fears of womanhood, Makiko’s dreams of a perfect bosom, are served with liberal doses of authorial irony, satire is off the menu when it comes to Kawakami’s chief protagonist. 

The narrator’s alternating decision and indecision – her exchanges with equally unhappy friends – would entertain as lifestyle journalism pieces or entries to a blog. But when joined up as chapters in a novel, they have their longueurs.  

At times Breasts and Eggs is reminiscent of a Buy-One-Get-One-Free supermarket offer. Part One is the brilliant debut novel and Part Two the ‘difficult’ successor. This unevenness may arise because Kawakami doesn’t feel bound to fulfil our expectations of what a novelist ‘should’ do. She may be seen as a latter day DH Lawrence. Brilliantly poetic and powerful at some points – at others repetitive and didactic. And, like Lawrence in his time, Kawakami has attracted both censure and adulation.

Happily the first DH is at the helm as the  novel draws towards its close. The chapters in which  Natsuko returns to visit her childhood home., when she has her baby, are extraordinary.

Here Kawakami makes a significant addition to the feminist line of alternative birth narratives begun by Mary Shelley. Natsuko also takes her place in a parade of  heroines – Jane Eyre, Jeanette in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit – who exult in their own happy ending.

The labour of reading Breasts and Eggs becomes wholly worthwhile. 

Breasts and Eggs is published by Europa Editions.




The Art of Black Humour

Can a novel about a stand-up comedian not be funny? Can a novel that devotes pages and pages to a comedian’s onstage act make you cry? This is not a riddle about novelists or comedians. It’s a question you’ll be asking if you pick up a copy of Israeli writer David Grossman’s Man Booker-winning novel, A Horse Walks Into a Bar. The comedy here is dead serious. Grossman uses it with panache to explore a range of themes including the relationship between art and pain, the dynamics of dysfunctional families, and the tragedy of failed states in the modern world.

Humour – black or otherwise – is a powerful tool in a writer’s kit. Use it wisely in your fiction and you are guaranteed to get the reader’s undivided attention. It can make the reader laugh, it can make the reader weep. Love it or hate it, readers will feel compelled to keep turning the pages till they get to the end.

Mohammad Hanif’s crackling first novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes is a perfect example. Hanif mines the potential of black humour and makes the best possible use of it here. Laced with generous and lethal doses of black humour, the plot gallops ahead to expose corrupt, dictatorial politicians and a hopelessly flawed system. This fictional story revolving around the death/assassination of former Pakistani president Zia ul-Haq packs a punch thanks to Hanif’s mastery of the dark art of humour. The dialogue is seeped in acerbic black comedic brine; the situations that crop up as the narrative unravels are so darkly comic that readers are left with no choice but to laugh till they cry.

The venerable Philip Roth decided to take a stab at black humour in his novel, Portnoy’s Complaint. Roth relies on the power of black humour in this book to explore the modern American male’s sexual neurosis. The hero’s monologue about sex, guilt, and other discontents in Portnoy’s Complaint is black humour at its best.

British writer Martin Amis came up with a winner of a black comedy with his novel, Money. The story of a morally bankrupt Hollywood director who tries to make a film with a cast that disagrees on everything – with him, and with each other – is a hilarious read. As one reviewer eloquently put it, “Money has all the hallmarks of what makes a great Amis novel: unlikeable characters, strong attention to everyday speech, and dialogue and humour so bleak you laugh out of fear of crying.”

Amanda Fillipaci’s novels employ black humour – with skill and style – to surprise and shock and raise uncomfortable questions. Her first novel, Nude Men, and her later ones, Vapor and Love Creeps are spiced with black humour. Fillipaci chooses to write about subversive themes and her fictional take on them are funny and incisive. Her trademark black humour is more than equipped to amuse and draw readers into the heart of her stories.

All of Roald Dahl’s children’s fiction can be safely labelled black comedies. Dahl also wrote fiction for adults, which shares the same darkly comic streak. Nasty children, mean adults, an impossibly difficult world – Dahl threw them all into the mix and went on to whip up an addictive cocktail for millions of readers.

Many a critic has called Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 the best American novel of the 20th century. The story of a WWII pilot who tries to get out of bombing missions by pleading insanity is a brilliant study in black humour. Catch-22 is a clause that stipulates that a mad pilot can be grounded, but if he sees the danger in bombing missions and requests to be grounded then he cannot be crazy after all. Heller uses black humour as a vehicle to showcase the horror of war and its insanity in this modern classic.

American writer Kurt Vonnegut is synonymous with black humour. A WWII veteran, Vonnegut used social satire to paint a picture of a post-war world for readers. His razor- sharp prose questions accepted beliefs about war, absolute truth, guilt and innocence, and the existence of a divine power.

Black humour is a many splendored thing. Writers have put it to good use over time and the tradition is alive and kicking in a world that is starting to make less and less sense to many of us. It seems a fitting time to declare that there is nothing out there as potent as black comedy to capture the absurdity of life in our time.




Book Review: El Llano in flames, by Juan Rulfo

Set in the years following the Mexican Revolution, El Llano in Flames is a collection of stark and violent short stories translated by Stephen Beechinor.

It’s the first book to be published by Structo Press and was recently longlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize. You might at first think it’s an unusual choice for a first. It’s not an easy read, but it is worthwhile.

It’s not by a famous or living author, although it turns out Juan Rulfo came highly recommended by Gabriel García Márquez, who compared the timelessness of his writing to that of Sophocles. And these stories have, I’ve been told, earned their place as classics in Latin American literature.

I’m not surprised.

In the collection, originally published in 1953 in Mexico City, Juan Rulfo tells the stories of the rural poor – those who didn’t benefit from the Revolution which took place between 1910 and 1920.

It’s the story equivalent to a dusty old gummed-up photo album, where nameless dead people stare out from moody sepia, eyes flecked with panic.

The book begins with “They gave us land”, which follows a group of people making their way through the desert…

“…out walking since dawn. By now it must be about four in the afternoon. Someone cranes up at the sky, strains his eyes towards where the sun hangs…”

We’re not sure where they’re going or why. But we’re dragged with them, with each laboured step, as the prose pulsates like blood pressure rising in the hot sun.

This is one of the recurring features of these stories: vivid scene setting and atmosphere, told in a simple sparing style that reminded me of early Ernest Hemingway short stories, except these had more colour.

There were many moments while I was reading that I felt compelled to pause, go back and reread and relive. Many pictures from this book that I can still see and believe will stay with me.

This is Juan Rulfo’s only collection of short stories, and while they are unified by time and place, they differ hugely in style and structure.

“Paso de Norte” is written mostly as a script. A kind of bookended symmetry wraps around “At first light”, where the beauty of nature and simple rural life is tainted by incest and violence.

The title story, “El Llano in flames” sits at the centre of the book depicting a battle in a rhythm that pushes you forward and echoes the sharp shooting of war. “Remember” lulls you in, confides in you with small town gossip. While “Macario” is a matter-of-fact account of being “jammed full of demons” told by a psychopathic child.

Many of the stories border on torturous, and this collection is never an easy read. Apparently The Guardian said you could read it in two days. I wouldn’t advise that – especially not in lockdown. It might give you nightmares. And anyway, why rush a good book?

Take your time and savour it. Let it drag you along with its sepia characters, and jam you full of demons as you follow their laboured steps.

El Llano in flames is published in the UK by Structo Press.




Book Review: Corregidora, by Gayl Jones

A classic of Black
literature, Corregidora was originally published in 1975 and reissued in
2019. It follows the story of Ursa Corregidora, a Kentucky blues singer. The
novel opens with Ursa recounting a violent attack at the hands of her husband,
Mutt, which leaves her with life-changing injuries. After a shift singing at
Happy’s Café Mutt, who is drunk both on alcohol and jealousy, pushes his wife
down some stairs as she is leaving the club. She is seriously injured and loses
both the baby she is carrying and her womb.

This loss is pivotal to
the rest of the novel because, for her entire life, Ursa has been charged with
making future generations in order to keep alive the stories of rape,
prostitution and brutalization that her great grandmother and her grandmother
suffered at the hands of Portuguese slave owner, Corregidora. As well as having
Corrgeidora’s patronymic, Ursa also has his blood because he fathered both her
grandmother and her mother, and she in turn is driven by the inherited, inescapable
hatred of the man who abused her relatives.

Ursa has heard these
stories from a very young age, told over and over in stark detail by the older
women, and they have been drilled into her until they become her own story too.
It is vital for these women to bear witness to the past as there are no paper
records left; when slavery was abolished all the paper records were destroyed so
there was no evidence of what had happened. But the women have refused to let
their experiences be taken from them, telling and retelling them, making each
generation of Corregidora women pass it onto the next so that they are never
forgotten.

But now, unable to have a
child and make that crucial next generation, Ursa has to find a new way of
passing them on. Music is her world so she uses her voice as her weapon and
sings the blues, writing her inherited history, as well as her lived
experiences, into her songs.

Although Ursa and her
mother never encountered Corregidora in person, they have still been traumatised
by his actions. They have also been objectified and violated by the men in
their own lives. Ursa doesn’t know much about her father until later, when she
visits her mother to find out what has always been left unsaid between them.
What she hears is another story of coercion, ownership and violence,
culminating in a beating that leaves her mother bruised and bloodied in the
street. Ursa fares no better at the hands of her husbands. As the novel goes on,
we learn that prior to Mutt’s vicious assault on her he has mentally abused her
for months, trying to force her to stop singing at the café because he is
jealous of the way other men look at her, and withholding sex from her as a
powerplay. Her second husband also tries to stamp his ownership on her,
eventually cheating on her with a fifteen-year-old girl.

Psychologically scarred
by the stories she is forced to carry Ursa struggles with her own sexuality,
and another rich seam running through the book is her journey to come to terms
with her sexual identity and find fulfilment. She is detached from the men she
sleeps with, which only adds to their frustration and the futile, dangerous need
for them to try to fully possess her, and there are hints of an unspoken desire
towards some of the women in her life.

Structurally the novel
skips backwards and forwards in time, mixing up Ursa’s recollections with those
of her mother, grandmother and great grandmother. Written as an interior
monologue, with stream of consciousness recollections of the stories she was
told, the language is visceral and raw, unflinching in its descriptions of sex
and violence. Corregidora isn’t always an easy read, but it’s an
important one.

Corregidora is published in the UK by Virago.




Book Review: The Heartsick Diaspora, by Elaine Chiew

Elaine Chiew is ethnic Chinese from Malaysia; she was educated in the USA and then moved to the UK. She is currently living in Singapore. Her debut collection of short stories reflects this background. The stories examine the lives of the Malaysian and Singaporean Chinese diaspora across the USA, Britain, and internationally. These are doubly hyphenated identities: the immigrant children of a Chinese community that established itself in the Straits Settlements in the early twentieth century. At one point a character’s mother visiting from Singapore is impressed by London’s Chinatown. “It’s just like China!” Her daughter wryly remarks, “Although she’d never been to China.”

The diversity of voices across the collection reflects not only Chiew’s talent, but perhaps also the long span of years over which they were written. The earliest published piece won the Bridport International Prize in 2008, a feat nicely bookended by the title story winning Second Prize a full decade later in 2018. Her work has appeared in several anthologies and in Unthology 10. She edited the anthology Cooked Up: Food Fiction from Around the World, and this familiarity with food culture makes more than a cameo appearance in this collection.

Chiew
writes with equal facility and insight from the perspective of the older
generation of immigrants who never became proficient in English, and the younger,
college graduates and professionals, whose comprehension of the Chinese vernacular
is increasingly sketchy. In the drama-filled “Run of the Molars”, a mother arrives from Singapore to visit her
three daughters in London. It’s a recipe for much concealing of secrets,
putting up with whining, and unsolicited moral judgements. The reader need know
nothing of Chinese culture to appreciate the sheer passive-aggressive contrariness
of a mother who, when served platters of (London) Chinese food by her daughters,
narrows her mouth and asks for two slices of white bread. All the repressed
family dynamics seethe to the surface in this story of great heart and sardonic
observation of cultural differences.

Lily
is portrayed as the most progressive of the three daughters. Her sister,
despite at one point referring to the mother as a “hillbilly”, launches a
caustic attack on Lily for becoming too westernised: “Why do we have to talk
about everything? You’re so fierce westernised, just because you’ve married an ang moh. Put you on a couch, Freudy-dreudy,
this solves everything, eh?”

In
this piece as with several others, food is metonymic for fidelity to one’s
heritage.

In
the mythology-warping satire “Confessions of an Irresolute Ethnic Writer”, the
writer-narrator gazes in the mirror examining his zits and trying to descry his
true face: Model-Minority face, Fresh-Off-The-Boat face, Charlie Chan face. A
little later he ponders over whether it is ever permissible to use the description
“nice sloe eyes”, even in jest. The farcical tribulations of our Ethnic Writer
should serve as a caution not to read these stories too reductively as
explorations of ethnic identity. They are stories of family bonds and
friendships and struggles to establish one’s place in the world. Often a wry
distance is maintained from the characters, allowing space for the reader to
revise their opinion and see the larger picture.

This
authorial skill of allowing room for differing perspectives comes to the fore
in “Friends of the Kookaburra”.
Sansan receives a surprise call from an old college friend, the Madonna-idolising
Irene, seeking to renew contact. Twelve years before they had been “thick as
thieves”, done voluntary work together, camped out cramming for exams. But they
grew apart: Irene began to hang out with the more popular students. “Irene’s
wild talk, throwing around buzzwords like ‘sectarian politics’, ‘cultural
hegemony’, ‘power dialectic’.” Fast-forward the years, and this friend comes
across as effusive and presumptuous. Given the nature (and title) of the book,
the reader may be disposed to sympathise with the Malaysian-Chinese Sansan.
It’s a finely balanced portrayal, but we begin to warm to Irene’s brash
frankness. “Her eyes scan Sansan’s face for residual historic friendship.” The vexing
and elusive question intrudes nevertheless: is the tension between these old friends
a clash of Western individualism with Confucian values, or is it a personality
clash?

Irene
turns the tables in a dramatic fashion – no spoilers here. If the modern short
story is frequently charged with a lack of narrative and contrived subtle
endings, Chiew is never guilty of this.

“Chronicles of a Culinary Poseur” is a comedy,
verging on tragicomedy, about the Chinese owner/chef of La Lumière – a French restaurant
in Manhattan. Due to a sequence of events involving a lethally bilious food
blogger and the local loan-shark goons, Kara finds herself pretending the vacuous,
Grecian-god-looking Bernard is the executive chef. It’s a role Bernard takes on
with panache and a splash of cologne (in the kitchen!). This might not be the outstanding
story of the collection, but it shows the range of Chiew’s voices. Another
story gives us a would-be “tiger mother” trying to integrate with the other fearsome
moms hot-housing their kids through an intimidating prep school. In a nod to
Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger
Mother
, this mother composes extempore rap, not hymns, to express what she
dare not speak aloud.

The
title story is meticulously structured and a deserving winner of the Bridport
Prize, but it’s in “Chinese Almanac”
that Chiew pulls out all the stops. The writing here buzzes with just the right
amount of confusion. Fragmented syntax, untranslated Chinese characters, and
unexpected bawdiness depict, and replicate in the reader, the feeling of joining
the festive table of the extended family of one’s new girlfriend/boyfriend. The
necessity for slapstick should rightfully trump any writer’s notions of keeping
the writing restrained. Manboobs, dildoes, death, and Jesus all find their way
into the dinner-table conversation. When the egg foo young lands on the floor
and the meal comes to an abrupt end, the daughter hesitantly asks her bashful
beau if he would like to visit again. “He gives an emphatic nod.”

The
writing is exquisitely precise. The narrator’s father, a mathematics graduate who
came to America and always worked at menial jobs, is now going through a process
of estrangement from his wife. In a sentence to make any writer envious, the
son describes the attempt at flirting with the middle-aged Korean woman who
runs the drycleaners: “I watch this interaction with a portion of incredulity,
a portion of amusement, a portion of ineffable catch-in-my-throat.”

A
recurring theme is the dual nature of family bonds, on the one hand supportive
and on the other hand they can be stifling. On the whole such bonds come out
positively, even in the case where a young man hides his sexuality from his
parents. “There’s a hierarchy of sins: being gay is not as heinous as being
unfilial,” he says.

A
calmly optimistic humanist view of human nature informs the fictions. An
immigrant in dire straits steals twenty dollars from the cash register only to
replace it the next day. The revelation that an uncle sought to have sex with a
transsexual is regarded as a perplexing disorder of the libido. A mother whips
her piteous, ghost-haunted son and the ensuing scandal forces her to publicly
apologise to him. A Confucian worldview, perhaps, but Chiew has already
cautioned us against seeing characters as determined by their ethnicities.

Chiew
also works as a visual arts researcher. She has written elsewhere of being
attentive in her fiction to the potential and meanings of objects, events, and
dialogue, and to their linkages and echoes off each other. As well as food, a
chamber pot or dialect phrase can become a recurring motif and resonate with
meaning.

Three
of the stories are historical fiction, written in a more classic style of
prose. These stories, for this reader, seem to show that the generational
divide rivals that of the east-west cultural divide, though this may not have
been the writer’s intention.

Geopolitical
realities are changing rapidly. Singaporeans are now the sixth richest people
in the world. The world of Amy Tan’s novels is gone. Chiew’s characters are university
students (fees for international students are notoriously high), accounts
managers, restaurant owners, insurance underwriters – global nomads as one
character says. In two stories they are low-wage workers. “The Chinese Nanny” is perhaps the
sole story where ethnicity feels like a limitation to be overcome. It’s a good
story, though without that feeling of entanglement the others induce, where the
reader is unsure where to commit their sympathies.

In
a collection with such a range of themes and styles, there’s going to be
something that’s not to the reader’s taste. For me it was the mythological
parody “Confessions of an Irresolute
Ethnic Writer”, which hardly deserved so many pages, clocking in at the
second longest.

These stories do what short fiction does best: point a light at lives rarely given voice, and depict dramatic situations which involve and vex the reader.

The Heartsick Diaspora is published by Myriad and Penguin SEA.




Book Review: Winter in Sokcho, by Elisa Shua Dusapin

Located in South Korea, Sokcho is a small city that bustles in the summertime with tourists. It’s the gateway to many areas of natural beauty, including Seoraksan National Park – a small city that is a-thrum and a-hum with the motion of tourists throughout summer. But when the summer disappears, Sokcho empties of the commercial buzz; it loses the boost of transitory, touristy cash. In the winter the city battens down, the cold sweep of ice a constant from the nearby East Sea. And the shadow of North Korea falls pretty close.

It is in this bitterness of cold we meet the
receptionist, half French and half Korean, in her twenties, working in a guest
house, a guest house which still has guests, despite the lack of summer season.
A French guest – Yan Kerrand – arrives,
a graphic novelist, his work in motion. He seeks new ideas as he seeks new
places to travel to. She is drawn to him, and he seems fairly intrigued by her
too. A quiet friendship occurs, and she takes him to see many of the local
tourist sights together. A relationship between the two always feels imminent;
at one point their bedrooms are separated by a thin wall within the guesthouse,
its narrow width separating these two worlds, paper-thin and yet impenetrable.
Two worlds which can’t quite mesh.

Weaved
throughout the story is the heroine’s relationship with her mother, a local
fish woman. Fish feature throughout, literally, the food which feeds the frozen
town through the blast of winter, cooked into various stocks and sauces, fish
like the women, pummelled and pushed into shape, how they should look, how they
should be – indeed, there is a woman recovering in the guest house from plastic
surgery, quite literally pummelled and pushed into how she thinks she should
look. There are octopuses, fish scales, gut and blood, slippery and surreal.

Winter
in Sokcho
reads like
a muted fairy tale. We never quite get under the skin of the main characters,
this girl in her guesthouse who is never named. It’s interesting that Yan Kerrand
is a creator of other worlds – not quite from this one, not quite from another.
But a creator and a recorder of stories nevertheless. The sex in the book is
cold and clinical, the food constant, sustenance through the cold winter. The
fish. There is no sunshine at any time in the narrative. It’s a cold and lonely
place. And the fact that Sokcho borders the two Koreas – it feels like we’re on
the edge of the world itself, the border of the world.

Winter in Sokcho is a dream novel, a brief glimpse into a young woman not quite coming of age, frozen in the ice of both her home city and her family situation. Her mother kills, chops and cooks fish. The French guest tries to capture the world he sees around with ink on paper. The receptionist is in stasis, trapped in the ice of this winter. Her French father abandoned her at a young age, his existence still a cause of gossip to the local women. A brief dream of a novel, which opens up our worlds.

Winter in Sokcho is published by Daunt Books.




Book Review: Shelf Life, by Livia Franchini

Livia Franchini’s Shelf Life is bookended by
shopping lists. Both written by Ruth, a thirty-year-old nurse working in a care
home. The first comes shortly after Neil, her partner of ten years, abruptly
terminates the relationship, to “share his love with more than one person”. In
the midst of the break-up, Ruth is charged with organising a hen party for her
frenemy Alana, who within hours of Ruth’s split, announces her wedding.

Starting with Eggs, each item on the list provides
a clue as to what went wrong with the relationship, from its inception in Rome
to its demise in a dimly lit west-facing kitchen in England. In Tampons, we
learn Ruth was regarded as an outsider by teenage schoolfriends. In Sugar, we
follow Ruth and Neil’s first meeting. Whole Chicken turns to Ruth’s
relationship with her mother, played out over a truly bizarre chicken supper, where
not a morsel is consumed. Spanning ten years of the relationship, the list
jumps between the distant and close past, switching perspectives from Ruth to
Neil to Alana, interspersed by random email exchanges, sent by the predatory Cumulonimbus to women on his sexual
radar.

Franchini is a poet and translator, with the
originality and skills to whip up lives from the unremarkable and commonplace. Eggs
begins with a lovely contemplation on the nature of weight: “Here are some
things I know about weight. A pound of feathers weighs as much as a pound of
bricks, but a pound of bricks is easier to carry.” She has a keen ear for the vernacular.
And, at her best, is inventive, observant and lyrical: “These days, sleeping
feels like a kind of drunkenness, like travelling at sea.” However, while there’s
lots to admire in Shelf Life, its main character, Ruth, is frustratingly
unsatisfying: who she is, what she loves and hates, her reasons for starting a
relationship with Neil, let alone remaining in it, remain obscure. This may be
a deliberate Deleuzian ploy – a take on identity which suggests personality is
formed through experiences and differences; thus, the reader is never intended
to “know” Ruth, as none of us can truly be “known”. But literature is not life.
And what this means on the page is that we simply don’t know enough about Ruth
to care. Paradoxically, Neil, for all his toxic, sexually aggressive behaviour,
likely to have the #MeToo Gen shuddering in their sleep, offers a clearer semblance
of motive and character. And we are left in no doubt as to why he has too much
love for one person.

The final shopping list in the book is by far the
most interesting. The devil is always in the detail, and it’s the detail that arouses
our curiosity. This list is proof of Ruth’s recovered self, her identity, now sharply
etched in: Yellow Tail Pinot Grigio, Aussie
Miracle Cure
and Heinz Tomato Soup. Reading this list, it’s impossible
not to think of the late, great sociologist, Erving Goffman, who said: Show me
what newspaper a man reads and I’ll tell you where he lives, how he decorates his
front room and how he makes love to his wife.

A character who’s forged from the neutral labels of
wine or pudding is always going to be a harder challenge than one who can
easily be known through her choice of flavours, brands, and market positioning.
Or, as Goffman might say: Show me a woman with a bottle of Yellow Tail and 2 Gu
Chocolate Puddings
and I’ll tell you whyher relationship started, endured and finally faltered.

Shelf Life is out now in paperback from Penguin.




From Stubborn Archivist

Read Litro’s review of Stubborn Archivist, and Cindy Withjack’s conversation with Yara Rodrigues Fowler.

*

The IBS got her in the morning. She was stuck on the toilet like she often was before work. She brushed her teeth sitting down. It was probably the caffeine, or the dairy. Maybe it wasn’t even IBS. She’d heard a radio programme about bowel cancer the other day, but you had to have blood in your shit for that and she didn’t have blood in her shit. Just water.

She stood up. Her parents had already left the house
for work. She touched her belly over
her blouse and felt
its bubbling. She put on the blazer
with the wide
sleeves. She went down the stairs
and put her shoes on to leave. The thing about dressing like this
and having a face like
this is that
no one thinks you are
the source of the gas on the tube.

Twenty-five minutes later, at the end of the West End street
she walked through big glass doors
and swiped her swipe
card. Standing in the lift she would remember
to feel grateful.

It was unusual
to get a good job like this straight out of uni.

In the lift, she
thought to herself
– It is unusual, and I am very lucky.

Or, as her dad had insisted – But they are very lucky to
have a young kid like you with your languages and your cultural know-how.

Sometimes she got gas in work meetings but so far it had been manageable. She was a researcher for a new documentary about plastic surgery in Brazil. All the women in Rio were getting plastic surgery – in their butts and tits and noses and out of their stomachs.
Her job was to find
potential participants, to make
sure they were the best
ones and then get them to agree to appear on the show. They had given her her own thick plastic landline telephone with the curly wire that called Rio directly and a desk and an email address
and a chair she could swing
her feet under. We want ordinary women, the producer
Fiona had said in the kick-off
meeting. Women who have been saving for months and months,
who are going into debt, you know?

Mmhm.

Her first task had been to use online directories to make a spreadsheet
of all the beauty
salons and surgeons
and pageants and modelling
agencies in Rio. Today she would
begin calling the salons.
She scrolled up and down the spreadsheet. She dialled the number of the first
salon. Typed it in, typed it wrong,
typed it in again. Beep

She waited. She heard a click and an older woman’s
olá bom dia voice on the other end. She took a breath –

Bom dia. Eu sou uma jornalista
inglesa –

She looked around the office. Her feet under the chair. She could
have been saying anything.

Bom dia. Eu sou uma jornalista
inglesa –

The woman on the other end was the owner of the beauty salon. She did not hang up the phone.

So, that afternoon, having spent twenty years spelling
out her foreign name to
English people, she spelt out her foreign name over the phone to the woman
in the beauty salon.

She said – I’m sorry it’s quite long and it’s got an English bit in
it. Sorry –

Her email address was a nightmare. She braced
herself before announcing its
interminable phonemes, steeling herself for the relief of the @.

She was always careful to reassure the participants that they would come off well.

That morning she had come in late (there’s no point you being
in before people are up in Brazil, the producer had said) and so that evening she left the office
late when it was fully dark.

On these
days, when she came home late after calling
Brazil on the plastic landline
telephone, she always got a seat on the tube. She played
tetris. Sometimes she played candy
crush. She had one audiobook
on her phone which she listened to on repeat.

Elephant and
Kennington
This station is Oval (no it’s not)
Clapham
Clapham
Clapham

Clapham

At home at the house,
she found the
bowl of spaghetti with
toma- toes and cheese covered in clingfilm that her parents had left out on the stove
for her. She unwrapped it and touched it with
her finger. She held
it under her nose. It smelt
wholesome with the taste of bay leaves from the garden.

She put the bowl of spaghetti in the microwave. Her
parents had not heard her arrive.
They were still watching
the news on the sofa. She leant on the kitchen
counter with her eyes closed. She heard the ping. She went up the stairs
quietly.

In her room, she took off her skirt and her tights. She ate the warmed up dinner under the covers in her childhood bed. She opened her laptop and turned on a TV series that she had seen before. She closed the curtains. When she finished eating, she left the bowl on her bedside table and opened tetris on a second window on her computer. She closed the curtains. When she couldn’t focus her eyes anymore she turned the volume  low so that the TV voices became speaking sounds with no words or phrases.

And in the night images of the pink and yellow shapes slotted and reslotted in her mind and when she went to sleep they covered the faces of all the people in her dreams.

*

The above is an extract from Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler, which was nominated for the 2019 Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award.

For more on Stubborn Archivist, visit Little, Brown.

Read Litro’s review of Stubborn Archivist, and Cindy Withjack’s conversation with Yara Rodrigues Fowler.




Book Review: Pharricide, by Vincent de Swarte; translated by Nicholas Royle

Pharricide has taken me ages to review, partly because I couldn’t stop reading to make notes. That’s how good it is. I didn’t want to stop and question or think about the story as I read. I wanted to linger in the protagonist’s lighthouse, watching him, being him and seeing the world through his eyes. I read it once and had to reread it, but I didn’t read the blurb.

(I never read book blurbs until I’ve finished reading a book. They give
too much away. I have to make sure I don’t leave a book upside down anywhere. I
don’t want catch a few words of blurb inadvertently as I’m getting into bed.)

So here’s my recommendation: don’t read the blurb and stop reading this
review now. Take it on trust. If you love cleverly constructed mind-bending
literature, you’ll appreciate Pharricide. Buy it. Or pick it up at the
library.

Or you can carry on reading the review. Up to you. But don’t say I didn’t
warn you.

Geoffroy Lafayen is a lighthouse keeper. At first, he seems sympathetic,
even warm. We learn he was bullied as a child, a bit of an outcast. There are
hints of a tragic past. While he says he’s “not particularly sociable,” he
confesses to being kind – “I feel it warming me from inside, this kindness” –
and describes himself as “a big soft doggie”.

You’d have to be a monster not to feel some affection for a big soft
doggie, wouldn’t you?

His past emerges in his random thoughts and memories throughout this
first-person narrative, and with it his tormented and complex character. Details
are drip-fed in throwaway phrases, bracketed in explanatory asides: “(who
looked after me after my mother was sectioned)”. This understatement and lack
of drama make the narrative all the more haunting.

But even Geoffroy’s fondest memories, like eating crayfish with his
mother as a child, are tainted. And slowly the threads of the story are woven
together and the terrible truth is unlayered, so that the reader faces a
reckoning.

Pharricide is Geoffroy Lafayen’s diary, so as he shares his story,
he assumes the reader sees the world the way he sees it. I’d like to call him
an “unreliable narrator”, but then again, he’s far more honest than many
fictional narrators. He’d pass any lie-detector test. This story is his truth
and while you might not want to find yourself alone in a lighthouse with him,
he is strangely likeable.

His steady uncluttered description of what happens means that when
Geoffroy behaves badly, it’s all the more shocking.

(I won’t go into detail here on how badly Geoffroy behaves, let’s just
call it “badly”. I feel uneasy about giving that much away, but then again, I
did warn you not to read the review.)

Geoffroy is not responsible for what he does. He has no control. “It was
as if I had been taken over by my actions,” he tells us. And later, “The great
mass of the lighthouse wrapped me in its blackness.”

There’s a deliberate blurring of the lines between creativity and
destruction, the artist and the psychopath, life and death, that makes Pharricide
much more than a crime novel.

Nicholas Royle’s translation is vivid and raw, and it’s wonderful that
he’s brought this exquisite novel to an English-speaking audience.

When it was first published in France in 1998, it was awarded the Prix
Charles Brisset by the Association Francaise de Psychiatrie – testament to the
authenticity of Geoffroy’s state of mind.

There are layers of significance to explore, not least the symbolism of
the “lighthouse”. This edition includes an interesting afterward by Alison
Moore, which examines that. And there are many questions to ask about recurring
themes in the book: Egypt, for example, or eyes, or two Geoffroys, two Rogers.
What’s that about? But I don’t want to give away too much. I’ve already said
enough.

Pharricide is out now from Cōnfingō Publishing.




Book Review: Map of Another Town, by M.F.K. Fisher

Best known for her food writing, in Map of Another Town the American writer M.F.K. Fisher takes us on a virtual tour of the French town of Aix-en-Provence. She first moved there not long after the Second World War, taking her two young daughters with her, and this book covers two periods of the family living in Aix.

Fisher
covers many aspects of living in Aix and paints a vivid portrait of the town
and its inhabitants. We meet various people, from her inimitable landlady
Madame Lanes and her head servant Fernande, to the stately waiter Ange, who
works at The Glacier where Fisher and her children often eat. Mary and Anne,
her daughters, are ever present in the book and we see them growing up through
the two periods of residence, which took place some years apart. When the
Fisher family first moved to Aix the effects of the Second World War were still
being keenly felt, and nowhere was this more apparent than in the townspeople.

Describing
Madame Lanes, she writes: “She was on guard when I first knew her, wary but
conscious of the fact that she had survived the Occupation (which was really
three: German, then Italian, then American) and had escaped trouble in sprite
of being such a staunch worker on the Underground for all of its duration. She
was remote and hard … When I saw her next, in 1959, she was younger. A year
later she was younger still.”

The
book is structured into twenty chapters, each of which concentrates on a
particular theme, such as the lively main street in the town, or the two cafés
that Fisher and her daughters frequent. Most chapters are subsequently split
into three or four shorter essays, all loosely linked by the chapter’s theme. I
really like the way the book is structured. The reader is taken back and forth
through time, and is able to wander around the town with certain characters
crossing our paths time and again, like old friends. One minute you are
wandering down the Cours Mirabeau listening to the great fountains, the next
you might be stepping down carefully down the narrow, slightly eerie Passage
Agard, where the daughters think they are being haunted by a gypsy woman.

Regular
readers of Fisher’s work will be used to her delectable food writing and there
are some delightful flashes of it in Map
of Another Town
– she can make even the simplest ham baguette sound
absolutely delicious. Describing one of the great pastry shops in the town, she
writes: “the shop always smelled right, not confused and stuffy but delicately
layered: fresh eggs, fresh sweet butter, grated nutmeg, vanilla beans, old kirsch,
newly ground almonds…” If I close my eyes, I am transported into that bakery
and I can smell it.

What really works for me in this book isn’t just Fisher’s writing (full disclosure: I was already a big fan of hers) but the way she takes us off the beaten track and away from the tourist attractions, really introducing us to the life and the heartbeat of the place. We meet doctors, tramps, priests, neighbours, students, shop owners and more, all of whom are described with intimacy and in Fisher’s trademark style. I have never been to Aix but after reading Fisher’s descriptions and after tracing her own personal map around the city, I would love to visit there myself and seek out some of these places – and ultimately create my own map of this town.

Map of Another Town is out now from Daunt Books.




Book Review: Trans Like Me, by CN Lester

Ever wondered what life is like for trans people? Trans Like Me will give you an insight into the trans experience, not by rummaging in the voyeuristic detail that delights the tabloids, but because CN Lester gives a frank account of their own life.

As well as being an LGBT and transgender rights activist, Lester is an
academic, and a classical and alternative singer-songwriter. They share their
everyday experiences of living and working to illustrate what everyday life is
like living as a trans person, having to navigate between the prejudices and
abuse, and being part of a supportive trans community.

Who knew that if you want to transition, there’s this
jumping-through-hoops process called the Real Life Test? Who’s heard of the
Orwellian sounding governmental Gender Recognition Committee?

Trans people, that’s who! Perhaps largely because – as Lester points out –
there’s a lot of misinformation out there. Trans people and their lives are
“far more likely to be written about [their italics] as an ‘issue’ than
we are to be recording our experiences and insights as equal participants”.

The book goes a long way to changing that and setting the record straight,
debunking pop science – “flawed methodology of all kinds, tiny sample sizes,
incorrect forms of analysis, guesswork and unexamined bias” – to show how
skewed and distorted our everyday assumptions about sex and gender really are.

Maybe it’s because, as a woman, I’ve been getting upset about these
“studies” for decades. But how delighted was I to read what I’ve always
suspected about male and female brains!

“Not only is there generally great overlap in ‘male’ and ‘female’
patterns, but also … Neuroscientists can’t even tell them apart at the
individual level.”

Lester challenges the dull and limiting gender stereotypes that blight
all our lives.

“We need to wake up to the fact that treating sex as a fixed and
oppositional binary is not only a distortion of reality, but is doing active,
extreme harm to a significant percentage of our population.”

Trans people – like so many other groups in the story of humankind – have
been largely written out of history. Lester goes some way to rectify this (while
also being irrepressibly hacked off about the film The Danish Girl, which I haven’t seen).

They detail
stories and writings from the 1900s, and “other” genders featuring in the
Byzantine Empire, as well as Ancient Greek and Roman culture, and the role of
Castrati in European music.

“There have
always been people and categories of people that have troubled and challenged a
strict binary of male and female,” they write. And they ask, “What would it
mean, to trans people now, if our history were common knowledge?”

All of this is interesting and informative, and alone makes Trans Like
Me
worth reading. But even better, the book is very readable even though
the author’s an academic!

There were a few points at which I found the extent to which the word “which”
was overused, very irritating! But Lester more than made up for that with their
conversational tone, friendly, intimate voice, and moments of beautiful writing
like their description of what body dysphoria feels like: “like missing a step
in the dark … It’s not wanting a different body: it’s knowing how your body
should be, and living with the continual pain of discord, as wrong as a broken
bone”.

I hope to read more from CN Lester in the future – perhaps about trans history. And in the meantime very much recommend this book if you enjoy well researched non-fiction that marries facts and data with lived experience.

Trans Like Me is published by Virago.




Book Review: The DNA of You and Me, by Andrea Rothman

The DNA of You and Me is the story of scientist Emily
Aspell as she looks back on her life and beginnings in the world of science
just before she is about to receive an important award for her work in olfactory
research. An award that summarises what her life has been all about, the points
of no return and the choices made along the way.

Smell is an illusion,
my father used to tell me: invisible molecules in the air converted by my brain
into cinnamon, cut grass, burning wood.” And so, it starts. Recently graduated,
Emily moves from Chicago to New York to work in Justin McKinnion’s lab only to
find out she is joining Aeden Doherty and Allegra Meltzer, a team conducting
very similar research on the sense of smell. Aeden almost immediately tells
Emily that she’ll need to find a new topic to research. Let the war begin!

It is here where Rothman, a scientist herself who studied
neurobiology and olfaction, completely submerges the reader in the fascinating
world of microscopes, test tubes, petri dishes and testing mice. She makes the
world of scientific research exciting and accessible to the everyday reader. We
witness tensions among colleagues, the fascinating lab politics, the pressure
of conducting experiments and the need to get results ahead of rival labs. The
novel brilliantly depicts the speed of the race for knowledge that has the
improvement of human health at stake. I have no scientific background at all
but the atmosphere in The DNA of You and
Me
felt real and I think that is a huge achievement.

It is no surprise that Emily and Aeden will move from
colleagues to lovers. Their relationship is far from standard, and it is sometimes
rather uncomfortable to witness. Emily has fallen for him but Aeden keeps the
relationship secret, cold and detached. On their sexual encounters, Aeden
performs some very questionable behaviour, leaving Emily constantly sad, hurt, confused,
and feeling lonely. She is in love, but he is reluctant to take the relationship
outside the lab’s walls. Is this your conventional love story? No. And the
reason it’s not is Emily Aspell and what she represents as a female character.
As the story progresses, Aeden is finally ready to take the relationship to the
next level and settle down. But it comes at a cost. He finds a new job in a new
lab away from New York and wants Emily to come along, to “Choose us”, as he
puts it. In convincing Emily to go with him, there is a serious ethical breach
involved that I will leave to the reader to discover. Emily chooses her work,
her lab and to stay true to herself.

In recent years, we have been flooded with discourses stating
the importance of empowering young women to take roles that are traditionally
male dominated. Science is just the perfect example. In creating Emily Apell,
Rothman is a step ahead introducing a character that truly reflects the life
choices that women are making in today’s world. Emily is passionate about
science and will eventually face the ultimate question of choosing career vs
family life. I hope women reading The DNA
of You and Me
will be inspired by Emily’s character to take absolute
control of their lives, to think big and find their place in the world. It’s ok
to be unconventional and to not follow the path that society expects women to
follow. It may be a road of tough choices, but it is ultimately a rewarding
one.

A highly entertaining read with the bonus that you will learn a thing or two about research on the all-important sense of smell.

The DNA of You and Me is out now.




Treading the path of loss: Thoughts on A Small Dark Quiet, by Miranda Gold

Psychoanalyst Adams Phillips writes, “Our lives are defined by loss”. For when we lose things they disappear, yet we remember, recall, and, in turn, we become inhabited by that which is no longer there. Lost things live on in us, vacillating between absence and presence.

Set in a crumbling post-WW2 London, A Small Dark Quiet by Miranda Gold is a book about loss, a delicate, haunting meditation on a generation both engulfed and shattered by war. The Allies have been victorious, and everyone should be celebrating, but inside the tiny house in Llanvanor Road, Sylvie has lost one of her twin sons at birth; she seems to be losing her mind. Two years later, Sylvie and her husband Gerald adopt little Arthur, a concentration-camp survivor, as a replacement for their dead baby. The child has been dispossessed of his own identity, is given the name of the deceased twin. He is “someone else’s little someone”. The father, Gerald, has also lost, or is trying to lose, his family’s Jewish identity. The book translates intelligently the unshakable fear Gerald still feels of being Jewish in Europe. His hands shake relentlessly and he is suffering from what we would now diagnose as PTSD. The war is over, yet things for the family will never be the same again. It is, Gerald believes, “tabulae rasae … records had been scattered, blanks left pending…”

A Small Dark Quiet is also the story of how we fill these blanks, how we live with the real and metaphysical horrifying gaps, described by Edna St Vincent Millay as the “hole in the world, which I find myself constantly walking around in the daytime, and falling in at night.” “Let’s find her smile. Let’s find her smile,” Gerald repeats cruelly to Sylvie in their kitchen, trying to recover, resuscitate, the Sylvie he once knew. “My Sylvie had a nice smile,” he says.

Interweaving scenes from 1950s and 1960s, darting between Freud’s mourning and melancholia, as the book advances, author Miranda Gold reveals the stories the characters have told themselves to make sense of their trauma. Each of them tries to deal with their past selves, those which they have relentlessly tried to get rid of, as Roxanne Gay describes, “I buried the girl I had been because she ran into all kinds of trouble. I tried to erase every memory of her, but she is still there, somewhere.” We follow Arthur through his own attempt to build an adult life, to understand where he belongs. We meet other characters living with “small dark quiets”: a Polish caretaker with a number tattooed on his arm. Lydia, Arthur’s lover, who is repairing her own past by playacting the role of her previous employer, Mrs Simons. Lydia was the Simons’ nanny, and has stolen the family’s two dolls, and now, grotesquely, pretends they are her children.

In the novel, the strongest, most haunting image of loss and its replacement is the infant Sylvie fabricates from twigs and minuscule buds of white flowers to replace (or make living) her dead baby. This “twig baby” encapsulates “the story of the other little Arthur that Arthur never was…” In the novel, Sylvie believes her baby is buried in the park and visits the grave every Thursday, trying to find “a grave that would keep him.” In one exquisitely painful scene, she takes Arthur to the park; they dig in the soil and grass, hands muddy, trying to find the baby. Gold’s visceral image is macabre and tender, frightening and soft. Sylvie clutches a bundle of twigs, placing her hope, her longing in withered ivory petals.

In A Small Dark Quiet, Miranda Gold’s force is her concentration on ordinary darkness, the banal, yet ruthless effects of war and trauma on the everyday. In keeping with this focus on the intimate life of a family, the book takes place in restricted locations: Llanvanor Road, the park, Arthur’s workplace, the squalid room he rents when he seeks independence and meets the unstable Sylvie. Yet, while the cast and places of the book are clearly identified, the writing darts endlessly back and forth in time. Whilst this is in keeping with the effects of trauma, which exists outside of time, the latter part of the book can be confusing to follow.

Overall, however, A Small Dark Quiet is a highly perceptive, beautifully crafted, lyrical book, highlighting aspects of the trauma of WW2 often ignored. Books like this must be written and read, for as the Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel warned years ago, “to forget a holocaust is to kill twice.” This is a loss we cannot neglect.

A Small Dark Quiet is published by Unbound.




Book Review: Punch, by Kate North

Cars, restaurants and foreign
travel feature heavily in Kate North’s new collection of short stories. A mask
on a wall of a rented villa speaks out, a car and van collide on a roundabout,
a couple sit in a Venetian trattoria discussing Pope Pius’s penis. Characters
are routinely displaced and forced to negotiate unfamiliar situations. Over one
third of the stories are set abroad, while those closer to home focus on the
unfamiliar, the sudden losses or discoveries which unsettle and expose the hotchpotch
of emotions simmering below the everyday calm. A few push beyond the
commonplace into the realms of the surreal. In “Fifteen Arthur Crescent”,a couple move into their “bargain” new
house to discover disappearing ladders, walls which stencil themselves and
underwear mysteriously relocated. “Lick”follows
a male protagonist who wakes after his thirtieth birthday to find a lump on his
hand. Embarrassed rather than concerned it may be a symptom of something sinister,
he worries about how he can disguise it as he embarks on an important first
date: “…because the growth was flatish, it lay along his palm like one of those
fortune telling fish you get from Christmas crackers. It didn’t stick out an at
angle or anything.”

The majority of stories in this
collection involve couples, often unnamed and of indeterminate age and gender –
which may be intended as a reflection of our anxieties about gender identity
and politics – but which often gets in the way of the story. Who are these
people? I found myself asking, flicking back over pages to check I hadn’t
missed something. Many of the stories employ the second-person epistolary narrative:
“‘Front, middle or back,’ I asked and you pointed to the front row where there
was room at the edge of the bench. We took our places and you munched on the
almonds.” This device often works in fiction to create a sense of voyeurism or
proximity, yet in these stories it has the curious effect of creating a glassy
distance between text and reader, and this is the problem. Even when characters
are named or appear in third person, they are etched lightly. In “Beaujolais
Day”, we learn that Nick has been with Debbie for a year, has bought an old
chapel, earns enough money to eat at a good French restaurant, and knows his
Bordeaux from his Beaujolais, but when he’s confronted by a waiter who once
bullied him at school, and takes his revenge, instead of rooting for him we
feel so little that we barely care.

North is an excellent social
observer. She ably chronicles a country full of curiosities, ambiguities and
hypocrisies, from our preoccupation with house ownership, cut-price travel and
road rage, to a land of CCTV, polytunnels, and department stores closing down.
She has a keen ear for dialogue, as the opening lines of Punch brutally
demonstrate: “Fat fucking cow. Fat fucking dyke. Your brother’s a spaz,” and is
gifted with a poet’s eye when it comes to detail: “The rain sounds like someone
drumming their fingers softly against a coffee table.”

There are many flashes of
original, incisive writing (“Black & White Buttons”, “The Largest Bull in
Europe”) in this collection, yet too many of these stories left me with a
feeling of: “So what?” It may be fair to say that slice-of-life stories do not
turn on a plot, conflict or exposition, but then they must elevate or
illuminate the everyday to something startling and revelatory; to haunt and
unsettle. In this collection North has created incisively told anecdotes filled
with a sense of anticipation, of something struggling to rise to the surface –
yet it rarely does, leaving the reader instead with a sense of frustration, of
a blow one’s been waiting for which lands wide of the mark.

Punch is published by Cinnamon Press.




Book Review: This Paradise, by Ruby Cowling

This Paradise by Ruby Cowling offers the most original short stories I’ve read in a long time. It’s one of the titles from the newly launched Boiler House Press, based at the University of East Anglia.

The collection opens with
“Edith Aleksander, b. 1929”. It’s one
of the shortest stories but one that will stay with you for a long time. The
narrator, Edith Aleksander, is presented with pair of tiny white doll wings
from her granddaughter. She feels them moving. This gesture triggers a touching
recollection of her life, as she stares at the children playing outside. There
is an element of peace as Edith witness the joy and innocence of childhood that
serves as a mirror of a life that is coming to an end. This story is about the small
things that really matter in life and it’s beautifully wrapped around the
powerful image of those tiny wings. A stunning story, under five pages long,
that deserves to be read and reread.

A display of
extraordinary narrative talent, is found in “The Ground is Considerably
Distorted”. This is the story of a
political scandal, of politically incorrect comments, overheard by a journalist,
that make it into the headlines. I believe this is an astonishing example of a
polyphonic story, a term coined by the Russian literary theorist M. Bahktin. In
“The Ground is Considerably Distorted” we hear the narrator’s voice, a Japanese
journalist; at the same time, and cleverly displayed on the side of the page,
we hear the voice of a newsreader giving the developments in the story. On top
of that, a series of tweets and a chat on a mobile phone are brilliantly intertwined
in the narration. And it works, those dialogues give the story a fresh and
current perspective on the way we communicate with one another, presenting a
very recognisable portrait of our relationship with the news, social media
platforms and overall, human interaction.

The story that gives name
to the collection, “This Paradise”, is one of the most conventional in terms of
structure but touches several topics of how we see one another in moments of
despair. The story starts with an au pair, Cara, looking after two small
children as they are informed of the imminent arrival of a hurricane. Nothing
more unpredictable than the course of nature’s most terrifying and destructive
forces. As everyone prepares for it, the boys grow concerned for the wellbeing
of their Haitian gardener and his family. Suddenly, they are nowhere to be
seen. Once again, Ruby Cowling builds the tension in the story in an incredibly
skilled way: the torrential rain, the missing children, and the very unexpected
ending. Brilliant.

Human relations are a
topic that prevails across this collection of short stories. For me, the talent
of Ruby Cowling shines even more in the shorter stories. In “[SUPERFAR]”the atmosphere feels dangerously
current but also completely futuristic. With dashes of sci-fi the reader
becomes a witness to an odd and slightly uncomfortable exchange of cyber
messages as the two characters try to explain to one another the worlds they
live in. Is this virtual reality? Are these parallel worlds? Don’t be surprised
if this short story ends up being made into an episode of Black Mirror, it’s that good.

This Paradise offers an incredibly diverse range of topics, from luna moths, to everyday family life, odd encounters at massage parlours and more. There is something very refreshing about these short stories; they are original, current, entertaining, and relevant. Highly recommended.

This Paradise is published by Boiler House Press.




Book Review: Constellations, by Sinéad Gleeson

At the age of thirteen, Sinéad Gleeson found herself in pain: ‘The
synovial fluid in my left hip began to evaporate like rain. The bones ground
together, literally turning to dust’. She was diagnosed with monoarticular
arthritis and missed months of school, her teenage years marred by long stays
in hospital and numerous operations, including a major one to fuse her hip
joint together with metal plates. Then, at twenty-eight, six months after she
got married, she found out she had leukaemia. Although the outlook was bleak,
Gleeson promised her mother: ‘I’m not going to die. I’m going to write a book’.

Constellations is that book,
a collection of raw, beautifully charged, wide-ranging essays about living in
an imperfect body, specifically a female body in Ireland, where historically
women have been denied their right of corporeal self-governance. Gleeson knows
that ‘the patient is never in charge’, and one feels this is particularly the
case for women in an overwhelming male medical establishment.

When, as a ‘self-conscious girl’, Gleeson was made to wear a swimsuit
while being checked for scoliosis and cried from the shame, her doctor threw
her a towel and asked: ‘“There, is that better?”’ In one harrowing scene, she recalls
how a doctor took a saw to the cast running from her chest bone to her toe tips.
As ‘blade meets skin’ she feels ‘a scald of heat spreading’ but he tells her
she’s ‘overacting’. Her mother, unable to withstand her screams, is forced to
leave the room as ‘this man urges it on, like a horse in a race’. Years later,
after the difficult birth of her second baby, a male surgeon responds to her
complaint of terrible pain in her hips with the suggestion of ‘baby blues’.

Gleeson’s lens is close, intensely intimate, but devoid of self-pity. Her book – entitled Constellations for all the metal in her body, which she sees as artificial stars – is not a lament for her misfortune. Nor is it a triumphant account of recovery against all odds. It’s deeper and more interesting, a memoir of a body that radiates out to discuss politics, literature, art, science and history. Comparisons to fellow Irish writer Emilie Pine’s Notes to Self are inevitable: both books take in birth, death and grief, both writers are brave, wise and true. But Gleeson also sits alongside Maggie Nelson, Siri Hustvedt and Olivia Laing for the rigour of her debate and interrogation of ideas.  

In ‘A Wound Gives Off Its Own Light’, one of the most dazzling essays
in the collection, Gleeson explores the work of three women who transformed
their damaged bodies into art: Frida Kahlo, Lucy Grealy and Jo Spence. She
recalls finding Kahlo – who broke her pelvis, collarbone, ribs and leg in a bus
accident when she was eighteen – while she was in hospital, similarly confined in
a cast as a teen. Although reluctant to equate their suffering, she holds up
Kahlo, alongside Grealy and Spence, as ‘lights in the dark’. Whereas she viewed
her plaster cast as a ‘tomb’, Kahlo decorated hers, creating a language of
beauty in place of sickness and death. Similarly, Grealy’s searing account of
her deformity Autobiography of a Face
and Spence’s unflinching pre- and post-surgery photographs are shown to be powerful
acts of self-assertion and reclamation. By bringing the private world of sickness
into a public space, these women refused to succumb and disappear, showing Gleeson
that ‘it’s possible to have an illness and not to be the illness’.

The quest to find a language to express pain recurs throughout the
book. In ‘Where Does It Hurt?’ Gleeson responds to the McGill pain index, a
vocabulary-based scale developed by practitioners, with twenty poems exposing
her unique, personal experience. One poem on scars depicts ‘a mouth sewn up
with metal’. Another conveys the terrible heartburn she suffered while
pregnant, her throat ‘hotter than coals’. In ‘Our Mutual Friend’ Gleeson
intersperses prose with poetry to describe how her former boyfriend introduced
her to her husband and then, at the age of twenty-four, died after a tragic
fall. One gets the feeling that pain cannot be contained within neat, orderly
sentences. Gleeson quotes from Virginia Woolf’s ‘On Being Ill’, showing how the
sufferer must coin new words, ‘his pain in one hand, and a lump of pure sound
in the other’.

Formal experiment is also evident in ‘60,000 Miles of Blood’, as
Gleeson interweaves the history of blood-group identification with tales from
art and religion, her own transfusions and her treatment for leukaemia. During
chemotherapy, she takes a drug to stop her periods, ‘a moratorium on one aspect
of being female.’

A woman’s right to govern her own body is addressed most powerfully in ‘Twelve
Stories of Bodily Autonomy’, a fiercely argued essay about the 2018 referendum
on abortion. Gleeson reminds us that ‘Ireland’s history – for women – is the
history of their bodies’. From reproduction to sexuality to motherhood, women
have been reduced to their physical form, their choices taken away, their
freedom legislated against. By sharing the stories of women who have suffered
and died, Gleeson shows that change has been hard won, that it has been paid
for in blood. Taking her daughter with her to the polling booth, she reflects
on how the change in law will affect the next generation and ends with a note
of hope: ‘She takes my hand and we walk into the cool air of the hall, to
change the future.’

Constellations contains a political spark, but it is a collection fuelled by acceptance and solidarity. Early in the book, Gleeson recounts a school trip to Lourdes where ‘in the shadow of the grotto’ she receives not a healing miracle but a kind of peace: ‘I know that I will go home, and that I will live with my imperfection; that my surgically altered bones will carry me through the years’. Despite her pain and suffering, the repeated betrayals and frequent operations, she is not at war with the body that has borne her two children. While Gleeson is right that ‘pain – unlike passion – has no commonality with another being’, there is unity in the way she links the fragments of life, the loose ends and tangents, the cycles of birth, blood, motherhood, death and ghosts. For pain is a human experience, one shared and endured by generations of women in their mortal bodies.

Constellations is out now from Picador.




Book Review: Common People, edited by Kit de Waal

Common People is a collection of original essays, poems and memoir written in celebration, not apology.” So it says on the back cover.

There is no doubt that
the publishing world does not reflect the demographics of the world we live in.
And I think as readers we suffer as a result.

But there you go! This
is 2019. The UK is still run by the public-school Oxbridge elite (and happens
to be up a famous creek without a paddle – not that I’m drawing a conclusion
about that – just saying).

But back to the book,
there are some angry polemics here – so far, so predictable but not – to be
fair – unjustified. And a lot of the stories and essays were written by writers
writing about being writers and the writing experience as a (working-class)
writer. That’s great and everything, but I didn’t feel these writers were
saying anything new.

I was also confused by
the notion that if you’re not working class – that is, growing up on a council
estate – you have a land rover in the drive, stables in the garden and are
probably “setting foot in the Bullingdon club”. This rags-to-riches contrast
cropped up in a few of the pieces and I found it irksome.

Aren’t most of us
somewhere between the council estate and the country manor? Isn’t Britain full
of streets with semi-detached and terraced houses that go on for miles? And
what about all those redbrick estates full of houses – like the one where Harry
Potter lived before he went to Hogwarts? Most of us live in places like that,
so how come when some of the writers who contributed to Common People left
their council estates, they only seemed to meet people privileged Tories?

But aside from all
this, Common People has some real
gems – too many to list here, but definitely Chris McCrudden’s “Shy Bairns Get
Nowt”,which drew on his own
experience and family history to explore perceptions of class. “For some
people, class is a vector… For others it’s a fixed point.”

And I loved Katy
Massey’s clever and entertaining account of her mother’s business and life in a
brothel, which showed the intersection of class prejudice and misogyny. And Jodie
Russian-Red’s “The Wedding and the Funeral” was a great piece of storytelling.

However, too many of
the pieces focused on childhood memories and it would have been nice to have
more variation, like Dalgit Nagra’s beautiful profile of a contemporary, “Steve”,
and Paul Allen’s wonderful memoir of life as a bricky, “No lay, no pay”.

I also loved “Little
Boxes”by Stuart Maconie, which is
full of history about housing, Nye Bevan and facts about architecture,
interwoven with his experience of growing up on an estate where streets were
named after literary figures. An utterly informative and captivating piece of
writing.

With over thirty
contributions from as many writers, Common
People
shines a light on the huge diversity of people in the United Kingdom
and celebrates this richness loudly. I loved the variety of dialect, racial
heritage and regional culture.

Considering the UK is
quite a small collection of islands and nations, it is incredibly rich in
language and culture and the publishing / literary world is missing a trick not
exploring that.

Kit de Waal and Common People have done a great job of highlighting that.

Common People is published by Unbound.




To Work or Not to Work? A Review : Not Working, by Josh Cohen and The Joy of Work, by Bruce Daisley

A few weeks ago, I missed the
christening of my friend’s first baby. ‘I’d love to be there,’ I texted by way
of apology, ‘but I have to work.’ She – and (if I’m honest) I – knew that I
didn’t have to work. It was Sunday morning.
I am not a doctor. No lives were in my hands. But my to-do list felt like a
matter of life and death. I had an edit to finish and a book to review. My
washing basket was full, while the fridge stood empty. I’d told myself I’d go
for a run. How could I rest until I’d ticked off every last thing?

Realising I needed to find a way to subdue the musts and shoulds ruling my schedule, I turned to two books published in January: Not Working by Josh Cohen, and The Joy of Work by Bruce Daisley. Although these books sound antithetical – one advocating an end to work, the other celebrating its pleasures and rewards – both contest the value of our current workaholic culture.

In Not Working, psychoanalyst Josh Cohen argues that relentless
activity is making us ill. We have become ‘creatures of action and purpose’, driven
by a need to achieve, accumulate and compete. Work is no longer confined to
office hours. Our smart phones bombard us with information from the moment we
wake up to the moment we go to sleep. We are constantly connected, always on,
primed to fill every interval of rest or silence, on the train or at the dinner
table, with a stream of emails, social media, videos and games. Is it any
wonder we are exhausted and burnt out?

In Japan in the early 1990s,
psychiatrist Saito Tamaki came across so many young people who had become
withdrawn, retreating to their homes in a bid to isolate themselves from
society, that he came up with a name for them, the hikikomori. Swamped by choice and possibility, and irritated by
their own reluctance to participate, they could find no place for themselves in
the world. For Cohen, the hikikomori are
the collateral damage of our culture of ‘permanent distraction and activity’ –
and the only way for us to avoid a similar fate is to stop. 

Drawing on Freud’s idea of our ‘desire
for non-desire’, Cohen rejects work as its own justification. He urges us to be rather than simply do and looks to art to provide a model for
personal fulfilment. Of his four archetypes – the burnout (Andy Warhol), the
slob (Orson Welles), the daydreamer (Emily Dickinson) and the slacker (David
Foster Wallace) – I identify most closely with the burnout, compelled to do too
much, yet secretly wanting to do nothing at all.

Cohen belongs with the dreamers and
slackers. He grew up with his head in the clouds, struggling to pay attention
to anything that didn’t interest or excite him. His heroes were fictional
dissidents and shirkers: Homer Simpson, Jeff Lebowski, Garfield and Snoopy.
During his PhD, he began to feel anxious and ashamed of his tendency to idle
until he realised the rhythms of his curiosity did not adhere to the standard
working day. He could spend an enjoyable week doing not very much at all and
then respond to a burst of creativity by pulling several all-nighters. Rather
than discipline, he links his productivity to indiscipline.

It’s a persuasive and compassionate
view. In a culture that values work and demonises idleness, how comforting to
be told it’s all right to stop and not lose meaning or creativity in our lives.
Emily Dickinson’s withdrawal into solitude is shown not to stem from failure or
disappointment but a bid for ‘personal and literary independence and
imaginative freedom.’ Tracey Emin’s 1998 installation My Bed is beautiful and essential. By preserving the tangled towels
and sheets, empty vodka bottles, cigarettes, tampons, condoms and tissues of
her breakdown, she honours the role inertia played in helping her to recover
from heartbreak.

But Cohen’s examples from the world of art and literature are rather extreme. While he touches on universal basic income and increasing automation and looks ahead to a time without the necessity of work when we might be able to discover what we truly want to do and who we want to be, he doesn’t provide a code for stopping now. I also can’t help but wonder about the work of parenthood, and how those with small children could hope to achieve ‘pure selfhood’ given the daily demands on their time and energy.

By contrast, Bruce Daisley, European Vice-President for Twitter, promises a more practical approach in his book The Joy of Work. Like Cohen, he views our culture of work as broken, citing one study that found over half the UK workforce were feeling burnt out. He refuses to celebrate overwork at Twitter and wants to eliminate ‘hurry sickness’ (the fear that no matter how hard we try we won’t be able to get everything done). But rather than opting out, he believes we can fall back in love with our jobs by adhering to his thirty hints and tips to make what we do more fulfilling, productive and enjoyable.

Several of his strategies involve
stopping or at least pausing. To combat distraction, he advocates ‘Monk Mode’,
where employees engage in several hours of creative deep work away from the office
and the constant interruption of emails. He recommends headphones to combat background
noise, working fewer hours to preserve focus, reclaiming one’s lunch hour, keeping
meetings small and turning off notifications. So far, so good – but not especially
radical.

More interesting is Daisley’s
discussion of loneliness, which he lists alongside distraction and busyness as
a key failing of the modern workplace. Open plan was designed to bring people
closer but in a vast sea of seats individuals can feel isolated and anonymous,
unable to reach out or connect on a personal level with colleagues. While collective
tea breaks, social meetings and taking time to say hello when someone starts
might seem trivial, Daisley argues that these add up to an environment where
workers feel supported, energised, able to ask questions, challenge and
innovate.

In short, Daisley wants us to be while we do. He acknowledges the role that work plays in our lives, that it provides meaning and purpose, and believes we can improve our lot within the system. Cohen’s edict to stop is more revolutionary but no less sympathetic. His assertion that we are not machines, set to perpetual motion until we break, is utterly convincing. Neither author sees work simply as means to an end, nor is it the end. If we are to thrive rather than merely survive, we must value non-work alongside work, and make a space for simply being. While I suspect that cutting back is quite hard in practice, both books have encouraged me to re-evaluate my priorities and how I spend my time. Note to self: the washing can wait.

Not Working by Josh Cohen (Granta) and The Joy of Work by Bruce Daisley (Cornerstone) are out now




Book Review: London Undercurrents, by Joolz Sparkes and Hilaire

To give London Undercurrents its full title is to understand both the process and the product of Joolz Sparkes and Hilaire’s collaboration: The hidden histories of London’s unsung heroines north and south of the river. Sparkes and Hilaire have divided in two the work of unearthing and voicing by location, with Sparkes taking North and Hilaire the South of London, demarcated by the river that bisects the city. The Thames itself provides a thread which weaves this collection together, its shape bobbing across the page of each new section, with words from Sparkes hovering in the North-East of Islington, Hilaire’s in the South-West of Battersea, each their respective homes and the place from which they reflect on their own feel of London. Within each section, themes such as work, family, protest and war, through every age of London, are explored from either side of the river, with an (N) or (S) in the top right-hand corner of each page denoting both the location and author of each poem.

The collection begins
with the theme of the characteristic pull of London for outsiders: “Paved with
Gold”. Opportunity and the struggle that precedes success is experienced and
explored in “First Crop” by a Huguenot asparagus farmer tending to the soil and
the spears “as rude / and round / and succulent / as fantasy allows”. A quick
flick to the Background Notes section of the South poems reveals that an
investigation into the unusual name of the poet’s local pub (The Asparagus)
lead to the discovery that Battersea is thought to be the first place in Britain
where asparagus was grown, the poem’s subtitle offering the date 1685. In “Livestock”
three experiences of the dairy business are brought together in a three-part
poem. The cry of an Islington cheese and cream street seller from 1575 combines
with Mrs Nicholls’ aching despair at the slaughter of her cattle to prevent the
further spread of plague: “Each bolt to the head / shatters our bones. / City
air thickens / deep with lowing, / as London turns Heifer, / mourns her lost
calves” (again the North Notes section clarifies the scale of an 1895 outbreak
which decimated most of London’s cows); and a Cardiff cattle herder’s wife
coming to Holloway in 1811 remarking “Such a sight – great grey teats full of
gold coin / aching to spill on the floor. Quick! Get our pails / underneath and
open our mouths.”

Gathering and grouping
the poetic products of Sparkes and Hilaire’s combined research in this way,
that is to say thematically as opposed to chronologically or separated into two
authored halves of the North and South of the city, allows each piece and each
voice to converse in a way that builds connections; by-lines that travel
between the experiences of women through the landscape of the city and into the
past. In this way London becomes an industrial place populated by industrious
and tenacious people, such as a thirteen-year-old coin forger detailing her and
her family’s endeavours in a thirteen-point to-do list. Or an 1892 White Lead
Works factory worker “Dodging the Doctor” in order to avoid a diagnosis that
would prevent her from making wages by clambering “barefoot / up the drying
scaffold, / hide at the top on rough planks. / Hup I go.” “Hup” really
sings as an example of the ways the voices of these women are written:
carefully, thoughtfully and often playfully. “Thames Crossing, Second Attempt:
19th August 1861” illustrates Selina Young’s successful tightrope
walk from Battersea to Cremorne Gardens as if viewed from above. Her rope
becomes a taut line across two pages, her balance pole perpendicular to this,
cries from the crowd populate two stanza banks (“look at her go! man alive – / those skirts must weigh / a tonne!”),
and the boats on the river lurk between. As expected from a collection that
brings together such a variety of voices, the challenges encountered by women
range from feats of physical endurance to acts of acknowledgement as in “Dido
Belle Sits For Her Portrait” where Belle, a woman born into slavery then
brought by her grandfather 1st Earl of Mansfield to Hampstead, is given the
complexity she deserves and not afforded when the portrait, up until the 1990s,
was simply known as The Lady Elizabeth Murray: “No corn-fed, / cotton-raised
statue am I / nor decoration / picked for porcelain shine… I am a gift”. It is
in this way that voices are given a chance to respond, making these poems feel
full of possibility even in desperate situations, and in other moments, gleeful
and utterly joyous. In “Battersea Women’s Pub Outing” a June 1947 daytrip has
the women of the Mason’s Arms “let loose in Margate” with “voices in rollicking
singalong / kicking our legs high” in such infectious humour it seems possible
to feel as if we might have been there ourselves when on “every ride / Little
Lottie roars so much / she heaves her dinner up / soon as she’s off the Big
Dipper”.

At the end of Joolz Sparkes and Hilaire’s collection both poets take a moment in their respective biographies to reflect on the experience of unearthing the stories and voices of the women that combine to create London Undercurrents. “It should not be so hard to find them”, remarks Sparkes; Hilaire writes that “I’ll keep on digging,” suggesting there is much work still to be done. And that’s possibly what’s so remarkable about this collection: the appetite it engenders for more. I can imagine the voices of yet unheard women in every village, town and city of the UK emerging to create sequels and chapters of the Undercurrents project. It’s disheartening to realise what an endeavour this might be, to seek and find the histories of women, but the rewards that occur through this work are so striking. The richness and variety, intrigue and emotion, together provides an illustration of London as a tumultuous and exhilarating place, occupied by women throughout its history who have built and shaped its terrain from the bottom up and from the top down.

London Undercurrents is out now from Holland Park Press.