As the crow flies.
Publisher: Vintage (Random House)
First Published: 20th June 2013
Date Reviewed: 30th January 2017
Jake (a woman) lives on a sheep farm. It’s a fair life but she’s always on tenterhooks, waiting for what she believes is the inevitable appearance of her abusive ex. In her time she’s journeyed far to get away from him and the life that had become sordid. And most recently she’s had more reason to worry – someone or something is killing her sheep.
This is a difficult book. Not in the literary or harrowing ways but in the way it’s been written and structured. All The Birds, Singing is the story of Jake’s life up to the present point but the events are all jumbled and it’s not a case of a chapter per event; one minute you’re reading about farmer Don and stranger Lloyd, the next Karen, who seems to have been/is a friend, then Greg, who soon falls from the narrative without a trace. And because it’s not just about the people – I’ve used names to make the explanation easier but there are various places involved, too, that often sound the same – it’s a good while into each chapter until you’re blessed with the answer as to what and when you’re reading about. The chapters are not differentiated – there are no dates or times and the writing is the same.
This means you end up spending a lot of time trying to ground yourself, time that should be spent understanding what you’re reading and gleaning answers. The plot itself is incredibly vague to the point that it surpasses all notions of ‘clever’ to become too much. This means there’s a great distance between reader and book. It makes it hard to care about what’s going on. One question is answered but in terms of the book it’s very minor; it may have been important to Wyld but it’s not something that occurs to you to think about until later on because there are other things that have been going on for the entire time that you’d like to know about.
Where the confusion and vagueness works is in the way Wyld doesn’t specify Jake’s present day location, instead leaving clues via references to the flora and fauna in perhaps the most dedicated example of ‘show’ yet. It likely won’t be vague to readers familiar with the place but many will likely admire the way it’s eked out.
There’s a nice atmosphere to the nicer sections of All The Birds, Singing, but it’s hard to recommend.
Pa pa Americano.
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton (Penguin)
First Published: 15th November 2016
Date Reviewed: 21st December 2016
Our nameless narrator has struggled through life, feeling in the shadow of her best friend – someone who often hates her – being uncomfortable living with a mother who, in trying to better herself, has always pressured her daughter to be someone she’s not, and working for a performer who has many demands and idealised projects. She recounts her days in these contexts and in the context of song and dance, two things that have always had their place in her life.
Swing Time is a book with a lot of promise and at times sensational writing that unfortunately doesn’t achieve much.
Smith’s writing is wonderful. She has a lot to say – though, as many have noted, too much at once this time around (the book could have done with being trimmed in the subjects department) – and in general she says it very well. Situations and characters, both good and bad, leap off the page; everything feels very real. She’s opted again for familiar settings and thoughts but she does it so well it really doesn’t matter.
In regards to that ‘in general’, there are some occasions where the writing misses the mark in ways it didn’t in Smith’s previous, NW, that look directly to current trends. Phrases needlessly hyphenated – ‘brand-new’ – and descriptions that are exactly the same as what everyone else is using right now – ‘gunmetal grey sky’ – that suggest editorial input rather than the original words. But Smith’s style is so winsome you can’t help but carry on reading.
Because this book is a page turner. The page count is daunting but Smith knows when enough is enough, using short chapters when it fits, and expanding the sections later on as the book gets to the weightier subjects. It’s a case of if you’ve liked her before you will most certainly enjoy this book no matter the flaws.
Smith hasn’t really covered any new ground with her many subjects but they remain interesting. Race is explored – being black and being mixed-race in the 1980s and beyond, the differences as time goes on. Class is explored – the narrator and her friend Tracey were born and bred on a run-down council estate and the narrator’s mother is working to often extreme lengths to prove that she’s better than that. (As such, childhood emotional and psychological problems and abuse is explored, the lectures hammered into the narrator about her ‘no good’ friend, as well as the emotional and physical abuse meted out to Tracey by her father.) The problem we have wherein famous white people go out to Africa to ‘help’ – this is something that we’re really starting to acknowledge now so whilst Smith’s text is timely she is unfortunately only regurgitating what we already know, and it’s really down to the individual reader as to whether that’s okay or not. (Smith does go a fair way here, first exploring the problem of idealisation, ‘let’s go build a school for girls because that will help… and we’ll completely neglect to look at what the residents actually need right now, including the fact the girls can’t go to school because their parents need help with the crops’. Then she looks at the absurdity of publicity that makes the western celebrity look beloved in that country whereas all the people following her vehicle are doing so because it’s a novelty. And so on – it’s regurgitation but it’s on point, ending with an exploration of money and overseas adoption.) And she looks at jealousy and the effects of childhood on mentality, personality. Of those with power and those without.
Our nameless narrator seems to have been used in order to shine a light on every other character, because the woman herself is unremarkable. She rarely has anything positive to say but then again she has had a lot of pushback – being in her head all the time it can be difficult to see when her personal problems are due to her negativity and when they are due to people putting her down, though there is a lot to be said for her childhood. But, yes, the light this allows Smith to shine on everyone else is excellent. We get to explore the impact of Tracey’s early life and choices on her growing up in a way that often provides a commentary – much more subtle than the comments about celebrity and ‘Africa’ (that’s another point, that which country is chosen is irrelevant, it’s just got to be ‘African’). Smith shows well, in the way that your thoughts of Tracey will move back and forth between pity, like, and dislike, these effects. The plight of the narrator’s mother too – her lecturing her daughter on politics, on how Tracey is below her because she, the mother, is trying to be a politician, is working on a degree when everyone else is ‘happy’ to remain where they are; her tireless work to be somebody – shows both the effects of selfishness on children and also the difficulties of social mobility. Through the mixed-race and ‘African’ characters – Smith doesn’t often repeat the name of the place celebrity Aimee makes her school, which may be a point in itself – Smith shows disparities, issues of identity, the differences in perspective, and again, that celebrity focus comes back in the form of appropriation of both culture and individual people.
‘And the dance and music?’ you may ask, ‘the swing time of the title?’ There is commentary on it, in particularly the difficulties of black Americans to gain stage and screen space, and included in this is a whole heap of information and references that have been largely skipped over by western history – this book is a resource. However, the inference of the title that this will be a book about dance is, as you will have noted by the fact I’m only just writing about it now after reams of other subjects, wrong. This book minors in dance.
On these topics it must be said the book is not at all linear. It’s not quite experimental but the narrative does dart all over the place and it can take a few lines to get your bearings each chapter because both time and location are mixed up. Why Smith chose to structure the book in this way is not clear – it does allow the subjects to be dealt with in blocks but by their very nature they are not completely confined by these blocks.
So a problem with this particular output from Smith is that she’s chosen a character who may have experienced a lot but never looks at things in a different way, never really attempts to change things, instead going along with what others tell her to do, and whilst that’s not an issue per se, it is an issue when you’ve 453 pages to spend on it with no real conclusion. The story never goes anywhere, meaning that the ending, if it can be called so, is incredibly unsatisfying. You may have enjoyed the book on the whole immensely, but the end is so incredibly disappointing that when it arrives you may feel that your previously fairly fun reading experience was for nought.
It is difficult to recommend Swing Time outright but it is equally difficult to say that this book isn’t worth reading. If the experience of reading it is of merit – as a prime example let’s use the release date of mid November, assume you got it around that time and then read it beside the Christmas tree (it’s perfect for that) – then it passes with full colours. (‘Passing’ is another subject looked at, and I know I’m going all over the place with my paragraphs; it should give you an idea of how it is to read this book!) If writing, then it’s pretty great, you will most likely be swept up by this book and find it hard to put down. If story, look elsewhere. Characters are somewhere in between.
It’s best to look at what is important to you and then combine that with the overall atmosphere, which is pretty awesome. For here I will say it’s worth a read and to really enjoy it whilst you’re deep into it because the ending is disappointing but isn’t quite bad enough to warrant it not being read.
And if that’s confusing, well, welcome to Swing Time.
Be a bit nicer.
Publisher: Apollo (Head Of Zeus)
First Published: 1964
Date Reviewed: 15th January 2017
Hagar Shipley is in her nineties and her time is coming to an end. Living with her son and daughter-in-law she has had time to reflect on life and has been able to live with a modicum of independence, but Marvin is not her favourite son, his wife Doris is too religious, and both now want her to live in a home. Hagar has other plans.
Originally published in 1964 the reprinting of The Stone Angel by Apollo now is timely as it fits the current trend of books about older people. But it has a twist – the woman here grew up in the 1800s, a bit earlier than our contemporaries.
This book is a difficult read and it takes a while to work out what’s really going on, where fault really lies and so on. (This will be aided if you’ve read more recent novels in a similar vein.) Hagar is not completely forgetful, but she forgets enough that you learn to read between the lines and base your opinion of the other characters on the dialogue they speak. (There’s a chance, of course, that Hagar reports conversations wrongly but one can only go so far as the reader.)
So you go through a brief period at the start where you’re questioning who might be the ‘bad guy’ if such a person exists, and then you start to see what’s been in the background all along. Hagar is not a pleasant character by any means. Through the pages that pass by you can see her open favouritism – her favourite son is not the one who looks after her and through the reactions of Marvin and Doris you can see plainly that they’ve had that beaten into them. Hagar nags, belittles, and is critical 90% of the time; she may well have a personality disorder. She has seen herself as above so many people that she’s had few friends; very snobbish. She’s made bad choices but remained rigid in her views. Toxicity is a big feature of this book as while you feel for Hagar’s plight, her not wanting to be put in a home, you can also see how much emotional pain she has caused those who have looked after her for years. And Marvin and Doris aren’t young themselves – whilst Doris’ relentless devotion to converting Hagar to her own religion is a bit much, it’s impossible not to feel for this couple who have looked after a woman so ungrateful.
A difficult book at times, then, but not a bad one. There are a few drawn-out sections, which means it’s a good book to read in terms of its cultural status – it’s considered a Canadian classic – as well as all the things Laurence says, but it may not ‘wow’ you. Despite its character it is an easy, comfortable read, that has a lot of value nowadays for its social context and historical content. It also demonstrates how a strict upbringing can affect a person as well as showing what is important, even if what’s important may seem obvious – Hagar doesn’t get it.
You know from the start where this story is headed but its not a sad book. Hagar’s views and personality mean that she’s very open and confident so whilst she’s not particularly nice she does break through some of the social barriers in place during her younger years. The father who sees himself highly. The husband who was different but that different proved too much. The children much too like their awful father. The people one should not associate with. And Laurence’s 1960s take on it all can be fascinating.
One to read and love in places, perhaps fiercely dislike in others, The Stone Angel is one for contemplation. Where Hagar is loud, you’ll find yourself seeking quiet. It may not be fun – the lady is not for changing – but it’s memorable, interesting, and rather important.
I received this book for review.
Not being admitted, or keeping one’s distance?
Publisher: Sceptre (Hodder)
First Published: 11th August 2016
Date Reviewed: 6th December 2016
Following his father’s death, Jay flies to Berlin to find his mother to hand over the keys to the family home; Yuki has been absent as long as Jay can remember yet his father still wanted her to have the house. Yuki’s teenage years and early adulthood were troubling times; as an artist and Japanese American growing up in the 1960s she always felt uncomfortable, distanced, and the few relationships she does have are not enough to change that, particularly as they aren’t all healthy.
Harmless Like You is a rather well-written dual narrative novel that looks at discomfort, identity, isolation, and social-racial issues in mid twentieth century America, in turn examining the effect of an absent parent on their child as well as the effects of artistic frustration on a person. Both subtle and to the point it uses interesting turns of phrase to create something rather new and full of interest but doesn’t quite make the most of the setting and characters.
The writing in this book is really something. Hisayo Buchanan favours a poetry in prose sort of style that fits somewhere between the experimental and the more usual, a narrative that could have easily swung towards the self-indulgent but doesn’t. Rarely does the author fall back on common metaphors, preferring to look at things in a different manner that fits well with the idea of an artist, a very creative style wherein you can see how much time has been spent on every sentence:
The small, female oblong stood in the shadows beyond the doorway. Sun buttered the sidewalk where I stood, but she was dressed for a colder season.
In the playground, bodies swirled to the door like so much dish soap draining away.
Told in both the first and third person – one for each of the two narratives – the use of the two ‘persons’ boosts the overall atmosphere of distance and closeness; Jay, very much a part of society and in a loving relationship, even if it’s been strained recently by the birth of his daughter, speaks to the reader directly; Yuki, always feeling at arms-length to everyone around her and only at peace in an abusive relationship in which equates outbursts to love, is chronicled by the author. Yuki would probably be happy to narrate herself… sometimes. This use of third person means that although you spend a great deal of time with Yuki, far more than with Jay, and thus know a lot about her, the lack of the character’s own voice means you are distanced from her yourself. In any other book this would be a problem, and indeed some might say that even here it’s a problem, but it does reflect the author’s character and point well.
Yuki was a chīzubāgā [cheeseburger] – enough to make a Japanese person sick and still inauthentically American.
Of points, Hisayo Buchanan uses a fine mix of the frank and the subtle. Yuki struggles with knowing where she fits in the world due to her heritage, ethnicity, and nationality – she looks Japanese and speaks it but does not want to live in Tokyo because it would not be a good fit, would not offer her what America can, which are things that match who she is. What and who she is are questions she asks herself often if not in so many words. In the same vein, this is a book in which Asian Americans – Japanese here – are both accepted and not, where many people have got past colour and many haven’t and the author shows both sides, where colour is irrelevant and unremarkable upon as well as that simple prejudice where it may or may not be discussed but certainly has an impact. It’s the latter that informs the text most, particularly because, like her usage of distance in her writing, the author shows unvocalised prejudice, the only vocalised questions and statements made by those who like Yuki and those who may or may not. It makes for an interesting reading experience because it allows Hisayo Buchanan to really look into Yuki’s anxieties, to show how many different elements make them up – she shows how the underlying feeling can have a big impact. Sometimes – we could even suggest it’s often – the girls who seem to dislike Yuki (because we see things from Yuki’s perspective ever time) have different reasons for disliking her, particularly as Yuki is what we’d now call flaky, other times you have to piece things together along with Yuki’s perception of what’s going on. And where there is room for debate, where it’s not definite whether Yuki’s thought is correct, there is Hisayo Buchanan’s frankness to show how Yuki has reached her opinion. (There is also a look at female friendship where distance and possible misunderstanding has eroded the connect, but this is distinct from the rest.)
Then there is the author’s own feeling, scattered throughout the text in a way that means you see it and the point of it but toes the line between the author being directly involved and not, about race and how we discuss it, of identity. It’s best to use an example:
‘So,’ Yuki’s boy asked. ‘Where’re you from?’
‘Six blocks away. Oh. My family,’ she replied. ‘Japan.’ When she moved back would she say she was from America?
There is also Yuki’s later exhibition, based on eating only white coloured food for a month, which is titled Shit’s Still Brown. It’s not commented on directly, but one can read subtext in it.
So this book is about being apart from people because of physical differences, perceived differences, and that stereotypical creative isolation – Yuki isn’t Cassandra sitting bin the sink, she’s Mr Mortmain in his room at the top of the house, staying away from relatives. Through its theme of artistry it also looks at the Vietnam war, Yuki using the Napalm girl photograph as a base for a photography series, contrasting the situation depicted with the childhoods she sees in action on the streets of America. It looks at artistic frustration and misunderstanding when Yuki photographs food for a series and people write to ask her about the restaurants instead of discussing the work itself.
And it looks at a life without a parent, parental neglect as well as purposeful separation, and the effects both have. Would Yuki have been happier if she’d not stayed with her friend and had followed her parents back to Japan? Would she have been a different person, capable of being a mother? Would she have left her abusive boyfriend earlier instead of finding comfort in the relationship? (That is something else the book looks at – why people stay, the reasons the have.)
This book does a very good job portraying characters – the main ones, at least; others aren’t so well drawn but that appears to be the point – and it does an excellent job in evoking the setting. It’s easy to imagine place and time. However the plot is minimal and this is only emphasised by the fact you know how Yuki’s life ends out because the author brings Yuki and Jay together as the introduction. The substance of this novel lies entirely in its themes and the ending isn’t particularly engrossing, Yuki remains roughly the same person as she begins. And as the theme work can be very subtle at times you do need to be happy with the idea of a gentle flow rather than something that you’re going to want to sit up and pay attention to. At times the writing becomes the best part. You may well very much enjoy the book but is it one you’d recommend to a friend?
Harmless Like You is a good début full of fine writing, well-written characters, but it wouldn’t be wrong to say that Yuki won’t be for everyone. And perhaps that’s also part of the point, falling very much in line with the thinking in the book. If you’re looking for something in particular, a literary element, you may find it middling; this is a book that uses broad strokes of the calligraphy brush liberally so there are patches where the ink inevitably misses.
Dealing with sadness (crow).
Publisher: Faber & Faber
First Published: 24th August 2015
Date Reviewed: 9th November 2016
A family in mourning is visited by a crow. Crow brings some havoc with him but he’s also there as Dad gets through the days without his wife – struggling to finish writing his book on Ted Hughes – and as the boys come to terms with life without their mother.
Grief Is The Thing With Feathers is a rather experimental book steeped in literary history. Looking at grief both as a process and in the various guises it takes, it blends prose and poetry together with semi-autobiographical elements – Porter lost his father as a child – to become something very unusual indeed.
There is a lot to this book; it’s difficult to know where to begin. Let’s start with the style: Porter opts to eschew convention, deciding not to choose between poetry, prose, fiction, non-fiction, commentary, study, fully-fledged plot, vignette. His book is the result of a vast mixing pot that is both confusing and compelling. Mind-blowing concepts within the whole compete alongside aspects that are difficult to define. It’s safe to say this book requires a lot of attention.
And a fair bit of knowledge. Whilst the book can just about be read without knowledge of its background subjects, your reading of it will be immensely improved by your having at least a basic idea of the lives and work of those who have influenced Porter. Chief amongst these is the poet Ted Hughes, whose book Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow is, not surprisingly, a major factor. Porter’s general interest in Hughes means that any knowledge is useful – and it pays to know about the poet’s relationship with Sylvia Plath.
Porter takes his inspiration for his Crow from Hughes but also from the bird itself. It is the sections written from Crow’s point of view that invite the most bafflement – the sentences are often a mess of words, onomatopoeia-like creations, and a general strangeness pervades. There is the idea of a metaphor – who or what Crow is, and how much he/she/it is related to Hughes’ Crow is a question that spans the entire book. Is this Death? Is this grief itself? Is it, even, Sylvia Plath? And why does Dad see Crow – because it suits Porter or because he’s working on a Hughes commentary?
On the stylistic note, the book uses three narratives – Crow, Dad, and ‘Boys’, the latter of which concerns the two sons but is written from one point of view, potentially to infer that at their young age the boys’ grief could be considered interchangeable, or maybe that their experiences are the same. Sections by the Boys are written in verse and meanings are split over a couple of lines. Much whitespace between narratives as well as lines and sometimes words mean that the book is even shorter than it appears, physically. And in many ways this is a good thing because of the amount of detail and commentary Porter has packed in.
To the stated grief, then; Porter has spared nothing. The book is at its most powerful when it’s examining the forms grief takes and how different people deal with it. Again metaphors and explorations take centre stage, with stereotypes and the idea that one must get over it always lingering nearby.
Take this, the Boys’ reaction to their father calmly coming into their room to tell them their mother has gone:
Where are the fire engines? Where is the
noise and clamour of an event like this?
Where are the strangers going out of their
way to help, screaming, flinging bits of
emergency, glow-in-the-dark equipment
at us to try and settle us and save us?
And this, wherein Dad works through both the metaphorical and literal detritus left in her wake:
She won’t ever use (make-up, turmeric, hairbrush, thesaurus).
She will never finish (Patricia Highsmith novel, peanut butter, lip balm).
And I will never shop for green Virago Classics for her birthday.
I will stop finding her hairs.
I will stop hearing her breathing.
As said, this book requires all your attention. It’s incredibly easy, even with context behind you, to lose your way and it can take work to find yourself again. This is where Porter’s leaving of titbits comes in handy, most noticeably around the middle where comprehension questions, of the English Literature lesson type, are added as part of the narrative.
So Grief Is The Thing With Feathers is hard work but can be very rewarding. But it is also a very unusual beast and fits a specific, niche, category. You have to be happy with the very experimental style.
A difficult book to recommend outright, Porter’s début will intrigue most, delight many, and confuse just as many too and your experience of it won’t necessarily lie in how much you do or don’t know of Porter’s literary interests.
Keep a look out for it, go after it even, and see what you think. It’s quite an experience.
This book is shortlisted for the 2016 Young Writer Of The Year Award. I’m on the Shadow Judging Panel.