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Julia Armfield – Salt Slow

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Short periods of the paranormal.

Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan)
Pages: 189
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-529-01256-9
First Published: 28th May 2019
Date Reviewed: 10th November 2019
Rating: 5/5

A girl with a skin condition grows more and more different to everyone around her; in a city people start to awaken to Sleeps – their sleeping self – and find they can stay awake all the time, the ghostly beings following them; a stepmother’s adoption and humanisation of a wolf signals her stepdaughter’s decent into animalism.

Salt Slow is a stunning collection of short stories that differ in their subjects but share an eerie quality. All the stories are about women, with men featuring in only a few.

This is a collection that is from start to finish absolutely brilliant. Every one of the stories makes for a good read, studies of ideas and playings with extreme versions of everyday occurrences that are a literary delight – to be sure this isn’t a fun read in the usual sense (it’s far too weird for that) but the literary experience is wonderful.

A lot of this has to do with Armfield’s choice of which angle to take. The stories balance well morals, with a starting point that makes the story easy to understand; this is to say that whilst you’ll want to pay attention anyway, the collection is one that’s very accessible. This in turn adds to the enjoyment of it, the ease at which each story moves to the next; whilst there are few shared specific subjects, you can read the collection as the well-planned series it is.

When we were younger, our mother told us warning stories about the proliferation of ghosts in big cities; ghosts in office chairs and office bathrooms, hot and cold running ghosts on tap (p. 24).

The first story, Mantis, where a girl finds friends and seeming support enough but still a pull of something else more dark and unarguably paranormal, introduces this whole concept. But it’s perhaps in the second story, The Great Awake, which looks at the idea of our twenty-first century attentions pulled in every direction 24 hours a day that the concept is solidified. It’s hard to call any one story better than the others, such is the strength of the book, but of meanings and relatability, The Great Awake is perhaps the best, Armfield’s paranormal expression of something that is widely known and studied bringing with it, for all its fictional aspects, the very real truth behind this particular reality. Another standout, Formally Feral, looks at the anthropomorphism of animals – in its extremes, of course – and offers a look at how animals can be just as aware, juxtaposing where a wolf takes on the parenting for a child who is meant to follow suit with her parent’s strange choices and decisions pertaining to siblings.

Salt Slow‘s offering is long-term; whilst the book may have the most impact the first time around, there is plenty to take from it on subsequent readings where you can pick your favourites and delve into them more. The themes of identity – both the basic sense of self, and in relation to others – the themes of relationships, and the various concepts intrinsic to them (as well of those that are intrinsic in the sense of being away from them), and possible effects of religion, are a joy to discover. Armfield’s collection both sits well alongside others and carves a place all of its own, at once a great new work in the genre and a fantastic voice completely unique. It’s weird and wonderful and utterly worth it.

I received this book for review; the book is on the 2019 Young Writer of the Year shortlist.


Today’s podcast

Tune in with Orlando Ortega-Medina and me as we discuss celebrity fictional reincarnation, writing short stories that don’t have messages, and working with ideas that could – if misinterpreted – look like something else.

If you can’t use the embedded player above or want to access the purchase links, click here to go to the hosting site. The podcast is now also available on Spotify.

 
Sally Rooney – Conversations With Friends

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A little more conversation, a little less action please.

Publisher: Faber & Faber
Pages: 319
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-571-33312-7
First Published: 25th May 2017
Date Reviewed: 25th September 2019
Rating: 4/5

On an evening they had performed Frances’ poetry, Frances and her ex-girlfriend-now-friend Bobbi meet Melissa, a published writer who wants to write an article about them. They go to her house; they meet her husband, Nick; they are in awe of the couple’s wealth. The marriage seems unstable. As the acquaintance deepens, Frances’ interest in the semi-famous Nick increases – he seems someone who ‘gets’ her, likes her, for all her lack of personality.

Conversations With Friends is a book about personality in the sense of identity; feminism; power and control; parental abuse and neglect; and mental illness.

Frances is an interesting choice of narrator; it’s a choice that has made the novel the success it is, whilst at the same time it’s almost baffling. It’s all quite clever. Frances is boring; she says she has no personality but really it’s more that she just doesn’t do much. She has a fair bit going for her, including what is described by those around her as a talent for writing, and overall success academically, but she tends to simply follow the directions and choices of others. And, interestingly here, it’s not that others are actively making choices for her – life just happens to her. The concept of no personality was Bobbi’s, and Frances writes as though she’s taken it to heart as simple fact. Frances is a reliable narrator, just a bit of a non-entity; this allows Rooney to put emphasis on people who have fuller lives, who are more passionate, driven, than the narrator. The lack of a personality is something that is pretty belaboured throughout. It’s more of a ‘true’ character voice rather than anything authorial.

Rooney has chosen to tell her story using subtle means, her choices for Frances only extending that. The book requires a lot of attention, more than is obvious – it’s the sort of novel that likely needs a re-read to fully understand because the ‘aha!’ moments happen so late. Conversations With Friends effectively has a layer of depression covering it, like a layer of thick fog you have to see past, get through, work through, in order to appreciate the content, and that takes time. In terms of literary style it’s incredible, this effective fog that you wouldn’t notice just by reading a page or two; so much has gone into it – the words, the content, the place Rooney is coming from – the best way I can describe it is that it’s like the feeling that there’s something between you and the words on the page, a block that has nothing to do with you and everything to do with the text, and nothing in regards to anything the text lacks. The experience of reading this book felt, to me, a bit like the experience of reading The Bell Jar, only the depression wasn’t from the characters’ minds as such, and in terms of Rooney it’s only to do with stylistic choices. It’s also not as difficult to read as Plath’s book nor similar.

To him my arm was not important. He was only concerned with making his child feel bad, making her feel ashamed (p. 268).

Conversations With Friends is about depression, generally without use of the word, and not being able to make heads nor tails of life; this, especially, is where Nick comes into the story. Frances’ upbringing wasn’t good, and this has resulted in a lack of self. In fact, Frances’ parents have a lot to answer for. Emotional abuse and neglect is all over this book. Frances’ father has his own problems and her mother often criticises her and tells her what to do as though she’s younger than she is. Frances never seems as old as her peers, and the divide makes a lot more sense when her mother is in a scene.

He told me he thought helplessness was often a way of exercising power (p. 246).

As the book moves into its final pages (though this number is fairly large as the chapters are long), Rooney lifts some of the fog to let you better see what’s going on. This is where some ‘telling’ comes in and it’s unfortunate because, as excellently crafted as the fog is, if it wasn’t for the fog, Rooney’s explanations wouldn’t be so glaring. The content of this section brings into focus the idea of power and control – particularly in relationships – the power seemingly passive people can have over others.

To introduce the feminism:

Was I kind to others? It was hard to nail down an answer. I worried that if I did turn out to have a personality, it would be one of the unkind ones. Did I only worry about this question because as a woman I felt required to put the needs of others before my own? Was ‘kindness’ just another term for submission in the face of conflict? These were the kind of things I wrote about in my diary as a teenager: as a feminist I have the right not to love anyone (p. 176).

Conversations With Friends is subtle but far from unenjoyable – in a slightly studious and highly literary way, it has a lot to recommend it.

 
Orlando Ortega-Medina – The Death Of Baseball

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‘Imperfection is beauty, madness is genius and it’s better to be absolutely ridiculous than absolutely boring’ — Marilyn Monroe.

Publisher: Cloud Lodge Books
Pages: 452
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-999-58735-2
First Published: 21st May 2019 (ebook); 21st June 2019
Date Reviewed: 16th May 2019
Rating: 4.5/5

Japanese American Clyde lives with his caring mother and highly abuse father; when his father causes him to kill his cat, the effect of continued causes Clyde to change. At the same time, Clyde comes to discover the films of Marilyn Monroe, who died the night he was born – this, he believes, is no coincidence. Not far away, Jewish Raphael fights with himself and over the rules of others; he’s a passionate believer in his faith but a problem for his family. He’s been told he’s special, chosen.

The Death Of Baseball is an epic novel about the psyches of two young men in 1970s America, one who believes he is the reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe, and the other, a kleptomaniac with what appears to be an anti-social disorder, both accidentally and on purpose destroying what he holds dear. The story chronicles their early years and eventual meeting, ending in a fast-paced and fitting conclusion.

Ortega-Medina has a particular handle on storytelling that’s a dream to experience; as we saw in his debut, Jerusalem Ablaze – a collection of stunning short stories in which on one the defining stylistic features was that short stories need not end with a moral – his take on writing draws you in and keeps you reading. And, whilst you of course want to be tempted by the story, you don’t actually need to actively like it to enjoy the book. In short, this author could write a story about paint drying and it’d be one of the most engrossing and compelling things you’d ever read.

So this has carried over into his first novel. The story is well executed, and suitably stretched out over a number of years and locations that aid your continued interest when the characters’ ethics go downhill (more on them in a bit). Provided the genre of psychological thriller, the things to get you thinking are varied and clever. The first of these you encounter is Clyde’s reaction to the death of his cat, an accident caused by his terror of his father’s violence; Clyde’s mother suggests a method to put the cat out of his mind and the written ‘version’ of this that Ortega-Medina adopts brings to the fore the devastation of abuse on a child and shows the difficulties present in trying to deal with such a thing at such a young age. If you love animals and/or have recently experienced the death of a pet you may find it hard to read, but the perseverance pays off; read it slowly, you get through it, and the pain you may feel only goes to display further what the author is communicating.

Ortega-Medina includes a lot of abuse – this book shows how abuse can lead to abuse, or to mental issues that often get seen solely as part of the individual rather than also in the context of the cycle. The writer looks at both child and adult; focusing on the effects on the child he nevertheless spends a moment here and there on the abuser, not to explain away problems but to show the beginnings in terms of facts. It affects Clyde’s maturity and sense of person but the writer is careful not to explain away the thriller element of the story, suggesting also places that aren’t impacted by childhood. Raphael’s treatment is a lot more subtle, his own awful deeds blurring the neglect from his family.

The characters are incredibly well written. Clyde is somewhere just left of the middle in terms of ‘goodness’, a person who is either misguided (and delusional) or real (Marilyn gets a word in at the start). Raphael is towards the anti-hero end of the scale, a troublemaker of a particular persuasion who often says he is sorry but isn’t, a person fairly akin to Alex of A Clockwork Orange, who you go back and forth between hoping it’s just a phenomenally bad case of understanding, and a true, intentional, lack of care. A lot of the book deals with the question of redemption, whether Raphael will ask for it and act appropriately, and how many times he might be afforded a chance.

This book has a strong LGBT thread running through it – the characters are gay. The book includes a lot about religion in it – Judaism – however sexuality isn’t discussed in this light; they are two separate themes of equal importance. It’s worth noting, particularly given the label, that the acronym does not extend to transgender issues – Clyde is not trans; his thought as to an operation, which is in place for a short while, is due to his belief that he is Monroe – he wants to look like her rather than become a woman for the gender itself. (I think this important to note in case you’re wanting to read the book due to what may appear to be the inclusion of trans issues – this book isn’t it.)

In looking at Judaism from the perspective of a person who deems themselves devout we read about the faith, and in travelling to Israel learn a bit about the situation there (the perspective is mostly that of Raphael’s family who are heavily involved in the military). Mostly the stay in Israel is about the place itself, the way it is regarded by various peoples (Raphael meets a born-again Christian who seems completely indifferent to the troubles), and the journey to different areas within the country draws out the epic feel of the book.

The ending, whilst quick, is nevertheless a little drawn-out – partly because by this time you have completely given up hope over certain things. The conclusion isn’t rewarding in the ‘usual’ way, perhaps in deference to the fact that by that point, it would be difficult to make it such. The Death Of Baseball, then, is a book in which the reading experience is everything – it’s hard to relate to the characters, the story itself is often difficult. Whilst the ending is a metaphorical race to the finish line, an exhilarating ride to a shocking conclusion, it is the act of reading the book itself that you will miss, Ortega-Medina’s style of storytelling irresistible, compelling. The book is akin to a road trip, where the time spent travelling, the progression of the trip, is what you take away with you, and the easiness of the reading alongside a complexity that is hard to define means you’ll miss this book for quite a while after finishing it.

(On the subject of baseball, if you don’t know about Monroe’s marriages, have a quick read before you start this book. It’s not necessary to know, per se, but it’ll add just that bit more to your reading.)

I received this book for review.

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D H Lawrence – Lady Chatterley’s Lover

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Sex and industry.

Publisher: Penguin
Pages: N/A (there are a few different editions)
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-141-44149-8
First Published: 1928
Date Reviewed: 29th March 2019
Rating: 3.5/5

Connie married a baronet; now back from the war, Clifford is different, his newly-acquired disability changing their marriage. More to the point, however, Connie is becoming bored by him, his clique of quasi-intellectual friends, and the pomp surrounding his titled heritage. After a brief affair with one of the friends, and following a conversation in which Clifford suggested that it wouldn’t be bad if Connie became pregnant by another man so that the baronetcy could continue, Connie meets the her husband’s gamekeeper. Like Clifford, Oliver, too, was at war. His experience situated him somewhere in between the social classes. He is distant and cold, but Connie becomes attracted to him.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover is a novel of many themes. Most well-known as erotic fiction, the book also looks at class, and the progression of industry over traditional English life.

Lawrence has a lot he wants to say and it’s evident early on that his object is to make his opinion clear, and hopefully easy to emphasise with. Most often when detailing his thoughts – through his characters, looked at in a philosophical manner – he repeats words and phrases until the thought reaches an almost ‘post-‘ level of discussion. Perhaps he saw no other way to get his points across, to rail against the new norms of his day; it’s not hard to liken him to others who behoove their point in a literary manner.

What’s perhaps surprising is that industry is Lawrence’s biggest point, the sex taking second place in this regard. By Lawrence’s time the industrial revolution had reached a particular level; in this book we see the slow but sure change in social make-up, where those who were always rich were starting to sell off their inheritance. Lawrence – of a working class background, the child of a coal miner and a teacher – details the breaking up of estates, the land reused for cheap housing for those who do the literal heavy lifting. The author isn’t too worried, here, about the aristocracy – his sadness lies in rural life changing, in coal mines washing away the peace and beauty of the countryside; if more people had thought as he did perhaps we would have more historical estates remaining today.

The author uses his characters’ minds to spread his opinions. In this respect the book is rather like Anna Karenina – where Tolstoy spreads his thoughts on agriculture enough that his farmer, the rich Lenin, is a thinly-veiled metaphor for the author himself, so too does Lawrence use Connie and Oliver to ‘think’ his own thoughts. Had they been around at the same time, the two writers may have had much to debate.

In talking of industry and as a topic in its own right, Lawrence discusses the class system. He shows how class isn’t always easy to delineate – Oliver, a working class man, has two modes of speech, that of a high-ranking member of the British army, and the dialect of his home and background. Interestingly, Lawrence makes Oliver’s regional dialect the one that is secondary, or at least that’s the effect of it – it seems Oliver’s army English, which is similar to his employers, is now his default; Connie moans at him for speaking in regional dialect because she sees it as affected and not him; part of his character is his struggle between his different lived experiences.

Lawrence discusses the upper class, those with inherited wealth; he dislikes Clifford’s place in the world but is very lenient towards Connie. Connie’s background is somewhere between middle and upper class; in marrying Clifford she’s risen a level, enough that she’s far from Oliver in terms of society but not too high that Lawrence can’t use her for his ‘isn’t the countryside beautiful and industry is ruining it’ monologues. It is unfortunate that Lawrence uses disability – Clifford – as an easy way to justify Connie’s move away from him (though she does care about Clifford), but it is a reflection of the attitudes of the time.

Connie’s desire for sex, that which accompanies love but isn’t necessarily ‘making love’, is fulfilled by Oliver’s arrival in the story. The book is absolutely littered with sex scenes and other references to the act; there’s a reason the title is synonymous with sex and it’s difficult not to argue that despite the theme of industry, the sex shouldn’t be first and foremost in any discussion of the book. (I’ve included it last to subvert this.) Lawrence was not able to publish the book openly in Britain; the publication date of 1928 is the initial, private publication, and the date when it was seen in France and Australia. There was a court dispute in the 1960s; finally Penguin won the right to publish the work in its entirety, years after Lawrence’s death. The sex was still shocking in the ’60s, and it’s still somewhat shocking today. When it comes to these scenes, Lawrence’s phrasing is more poetry than anything else – at least that seems to be what he was going for, with his leaning towards purple prose; there’s a layer of dissociation to it as well. The scenes can verge on being philosophical, like the industrial musings. And it does verge on being too much, unnecessary; it’s both erotic fiction and surprisingly not sexy.

Part of this is down to that dissociation, the gap that exists between Lawrence and his characters. Whilst he writes from Oliver and Connie’s perspective, most often Connie’s, the text reads as though it’s the narration of someone watching and describing what he sees. And a lot of that is down to Lawrence’s writing of Connie herself. The general portrayal isn’t bad, in fact often Lawrence captures her well, but there are unfortunately occasions when he applies the male gaze to her thinking. That Connie thinks about sex in detail works. The way and the how, however, is sometimes at odds, so to speak. This in turn extends to her development as a character – she develops a trait that does not quite fit with who she is; it’s more about Lawrence moving the plot to where he wants it to be.

Lastly on this subject, there is a very minor LGBT element to the story, included in memories of the past. It’s not detailed – understandably, given the era – but it’s there, just enough that Lawrence could probably include it without question.

I haven’t mentioned plot – that’s because it’s very thin, a minor element. The story also doesn’t end in an expected way, instead Lawrence leaves you to decide exactly what happens, and whether or not that’s satisfactory depends on your thoughts thus far.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover is both of its time and eternal, with its thoughts of changing times. The stereotype of the book is there for a reason and it’s not a book you can get lost in. It’s best in the context of its fame and publication, and as an eyewitness account and opinion of the era. As a historical document and example of various attitudes, it has a lot to recommend it.

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Sofie Laguna – The Choke

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You don’t know what you don’t know.

Publisher: Gallic Books (Belgravia)
Pages: 255
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-910-70957-3
First Published: 2017
Date Reviewed: 18th March 2019
Rating: 5/5

It’s the 1970s, and Justine Lee lives with her grandfather, ‘Pop’, by the Murray river in Australia. Pop was in the war and as a result doesn’t say much and rarely leaves home – most of what Justine knows of her family history has been learned through listening to Pops talk to his chickens. Justine’s mother left her and her father because, Pop told her, Justine was born breech. Dad rarely comes to visit, and when he does Pops tends to be angry; Dad, it seems, is not a nice person. Justine’s half-brothers don’t like her; her mother’s presence means their mother is no longer with Dad. The Lee and Worlley families are no longer friendly with each other. And Justine’s friends tell her she smells and should wash her clothes.

The Choke is a stunning look at the life of a neglected child who is trying to live whilst only semi-aware of the odds stacked against her. Looking at four years of Justine’s life – the formative time just before the teens and two years into them – it shows how devastating a lack of nurture can be, particularly in the context of the decade Laguna has chosen.

The author sets her story in an area a fair journey – at least on foot – away from the rest of society. This amplifies Justine’s familial issues, creating a physical gap that serves well to introduce the fact of the emotional and educational gap between Justine and her peers. Told from Justine’s perspective, you are required to read through the lines constantly, but this itself is no hardship – as soon as you’ve a few pages behind you and have a fair grounding in the situation, there is no need for Laguna to convince you further – Justine’s story is such that you’re rooting for her very early on. Laguna’s focus is on Justine’s development, the young girl’s slow collation of the bits and pieces of information she receives.

A lot of what Justine doesn’t know is down to the simple fact of her age – adults won’t explain to her what she’s too young to understand; inevitably she hears parts of conversations. But much of Justine’s complete innocence is due to her grandfather. Laguna doesn’t diagnose with labels, instead she provides everything you need as an adult to work it out – Pops has PTSD from the war – he speaks of the ‘Japs’ – and as the book continues, the affect his experiences have had on him are shown in increasing detail. Pops seems to have been saved by a friend, the only person he willing goes out to visit. He drinks, smokes, and watches John Wayne films which are such a big part of his day-to-day life that John Wayne’s characters become teachers to Justine. He speaks openly only to his chickens. As much as he loves Justine, he is ill-equipped to care for her, neglecting to teach her basic life skills and not watchful enough in terms of her health.

Laguna gives Justine a learning disability that no one in the book recognises. It is easily recognisable here, just as the PTSD is, and its introduction leads into the book’s biggest example of the difference between our society today and back in the 1970s: Justine struggles with school work but not one person notices. Well, not one adult person – the sole person who understands Justine’s problem and helps her is her friend, Michael, another person Laguna does not label.

In Michael, Laguna has written an incredibly good example of physical disability, in this case Cerebral Palsy, and it is in Michael that Laguna’s refusal to label shows itself for the excellent choice it is. By describing characteristics of disability, and dyslexia, and PTSD, without going into diagnoses, Laguna is able to develop her characters as real personalities without any of the stigma or easy stereotyping that another might have fallen into. Laguna shows the diversity of disability and mental illness, putting the person first. Inevitably she also provides information on how to go about treating others – as regular people. Whilst The Choke is not primarily about difference – with what Justine’s life consists of, it wouldn’t be right if it was – it is an active, excellent, commentary. And that’s true both in the context of its period – we get to see the issues people had back then, which is how Justine’s inability to read falls through the cracks – as well as examples of life that are of course just as relevant today. It is incredibly, hugely, refreshing.

(I am aware of the irony in my own use of labels.)

So the novel isn’t primarily about difference and can’t be: Justine’s life with her Pop is down to the situation of her parents which pervades the entirety of the 250-odd pages. Justine’s mother did not leave the home due to her daughter’s breech birth – of course. And her father isn’t away at work – as it’s important to know, he’s a violent criminal. Justine doesn’t know much about her father except that Pops dislikes him, and her brothers’ mother refuses to speak or look at her because of her mother’s involvement; she has seen her aunt only once because her aunt does not put up with the abuse she receives for living a happy life away from everyone and because she has a girlfriend. And due to the choices and lives of those older than Justine, Justine is herself a target, though she does not always know it. When she does know, she doesn’t know exactly why. This violence and hatred, together with the neglect, culminate to form the ending of the book.

The Choke is an excellent look at abuse, and the cycle through the generations, an example of why things continue and how important it is to look for signs in children beyond the obvious. It’s a super look at neuro and physical difference. And it’s written in a lovely, easy, language that is quick to read through. Laguna’s work has been described as highly original and emphatic. I can’t but repeat this.

I received this book for review. It’s out in the UK on 28th March, published by Gallic Books.

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