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Max Porter – Grief Is The Thing With Feathers

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Dealing with sadness (crow).

Publisher: Faber & Faber
Pages: 112
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-571-32723-2
First Published: 24th August 2015
Date Reviewed: 9th November 2016
Rating: 4/5

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.

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Helen Oyeyemi – Boy, Snow, Bird

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Racial divide? What’s that?

Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan)
Pages: 306
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-447-23713-6
First Published: 27th February 2014
Date Reviewed: 6th January 2016
Rating: 3/5

Boy, a girl, runs away from home, and the abuse from her father. She gets off the bus at the end of the line, moves through a few menial jobs, makes friends. The boy who loved her, who she loved, is forgotten as life takes her towards businessman Arturo and his reputedly perfect daughter, Snow.

Boy, Snow, Bird is based around three girls/women. There isn’t much plot – what little there is isn’t particularly compelling – this is a book written as a study. It’s not bad but beyond the study there’s little to cling to and the ending comes out of left field.

This study, then, forms the subtle backbone of the story. It’s great, full of the sorts of sentences that beg quotation for the meaning they provide because the handling is really very good. Oyeyemi hasn’t a unique viewpoint, but the way she’s written it is wonderful. To sum it up, the book is about race – divisions and broader social issues in the mid 20th century.

To speak of it in long form, the book is about the way this fictional group of black Americans – whose role in the story is to illustrate this particular angle – try to fit into the mostly white society. Strictly speaking, it’s about colour, for example you aren’t told until 1/3 of the way through that particular characters are black, showing the importance of the question, ‘does colour really matter?’ Now of course you may have viewed these characters as black anyway, the lack of detail at the beginning lets you imagine what you want to imagine – but being shown, suddenly, almost, that they are black is what Oyeyemi seems to have been aiming for, not in order to shock you (in case you’ve seen them as white people) but in a literary fiction shocking way, if that makes sense.

The family of Boy, Snow, Bird accomplish their desire to fit in by never acknowledging their colour. That the book is fictional, verging on magical realism, means that they are able to completely ignore their colour in a dismissive way (without actively being dismissive) that furthers the point without the need for the reader to suspend belief. A prime example of the way the family functions is in the scene wherein Boy is asked, by her black in-laws no less, if she slept with a coloured man to produce her mixed-raced daughter.

On the surface Boy, a white character, finds no shame in differences, and never mentions it beyond her discussions with her in-laws.

“Nice try, but I’m not going to stand here while a coloured woman tries to tell me that maybe I’m the one who’s coloured.”

Oyeyemi’s Boy is open, firm, no nonsense; rather than seeming at all superior, she causes Oyeyemi’s study to be more obvious. There is never any sense that Boy is higher or indeed lower because of her whiteness. Or is there? Why did Boy send away her beautiful step daughter?

The above said, you can likely see where ‘Snow’ comes in. Snow is not white but she’s the apple of her relatives’ eyes, a girl supposedly of lighter skin who everyone adores because of it. She fits into the white society, supposedly tricks white people into thinking she’s like them – of course that she’s like them is Oyeyemi’s whole point so the book is a little meta. As says Boy:

Snow’s beauty is precious because it’s a trick. When whites look at her, they don’t get whatever fleeting, ugly impressions so many of us get when we see a coloured girl – we don’t see a coloured girl. The joke’s on us.

In addition to this basic premise, Oyeyemi takes a glance further back to the days of plantations and the differences between ‘house negros’ and the people who worked in the field, the hierarchy there.

Moving on from this subject, it must be said that Boy, Snow, Bird is no fairytale re-telling. Yes there is a beautiful girl called Snow, and yes her stepmother sends her away, and there are mirrors, but beyond that there is nothing. If you want to read an exceptional dialogue of race relations and fitting in, give this book a try, but if you’re looking for a retelling go elsewhere.

Mirrors in this book suggest beauty, look at beauty and identity. What Boy sees in the mirrors she’s obsessed with point to many issues she has and it is primarily here that the book shows the distinction between fantasy and magical realism. It’s a fair subject and an interesting look at both the outer world and the inner world – what one sees in themselves, what others see, and what can cloud perception.

Where Boy, Snow, Bird fails, then, is in the way it’s written. It’s not the words – Oyeyemi writes beautifully – it’s the execution. The addition of characters that don’t aid the plot. Letters when prose and actually meeting the characters would’ve been better. An ending that seems thrown in for good measure. A lack of detail and a general confusion, different to the planned racial confusion, and distance between reader and characters, make it difficult to lose yourself in the text and work out where the characters are, what time they’re in, what’s going on, and what the book is about. Unfortunately the question ‘what does this book want to be?’ can be applied here.

It’s hard to say why the ending was written. In the last few pages Oyeyemi starts up on a completely new issue that is interesting in itself but has no baring on the rest of the book – or at least it shouldn’t; Oyeyemi sort of jams it in. If it is an attempt to provide a reasoning for abuse it fails miserably because it’s not a very nice thing to use in comparisons, at least not in the way it’s been written. If it’s to try and show that the author hasn’t forgotten the set up, it really wasn’t needed here. And if it’s some sort of girls in it together idea it just falls flat. (This issue warrants the use of an extra genre tag but I’m not going to use it because the book does not do that tag and its readership any favours.)

If Boy, Snow, Bird had been a novella or short story, more focused, it would’ve been excellent. As it is although there’s much to like about it on a historical and intellectual level there’s just as much that isn’t so good and as such it’s difficult to fully recommend it. If there was ever a chapter book to dip into, this one is it.

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Sara Taylor – The Shore

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Broad horizons. Land’s end.

Publisher: William Heinemann (Penguin Random House)
Pages: 304
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-434-02309-7
First Published: 19th March 2015
Date Reviewed: 17th October 2014
Rating: 5/5

Chloe’s glad to hear Cabel’s dead. He tried to hurt her sister. The girls live with their Dad in a small house; they aren’t as well off as their ancestors. But the ancestors didn’t have great lives either.

It’s easier to carry on the summary in this way: The book sports a ‘fractured narrative’ (a term Taylor uses herself), a style in which the author looks at one person’s life as a short story, then looks at one of their relatives, and so on so that you end up zipping from the twentieth century back to the nineteenth and into the future, learning about the various branches of the same family tree. It sounds a lot more complicated than it is.

The Shore is a fantastic book. From the first chapter – the first story – it pulls you in and whilst there are dips every now and then it soon draws you back, yes, not unlike the tide.

Taylor’s writing is lovely. She uses a variety of persons and tenses, ensuring each story is different, and whilst every chapter boasts its inevitable literary style, the characters are varied. The world building is naturally limited in space – most of the book is set in the same place – but unlimited in scope. Taylor aptly describes her settings but there’s space to put your own mark on it; much of the beauty of this book is in its potential for numerous visuals. (And for the most part it doesn’t matter how you see the setting as although there is history in the book, other genres are more important, for example, fantasy.) What’s not so varied are the themes; this is part of the book’s concept. Underlying almost every one are a few particular ideas: to have or not to have children, to do what is right or not, to drink or not to drink, to stay or not to stay – the same basic themes run throughout.

Most poignant of these is surely the question of children. It’s a question that isn’t in every single story – some of the chapters are about children themselves so it wouldn’t be appropriate – but individual agency and the right to choose, most particularly in the sense that throughout history women have had that mother, home-maker role to play, are very important to the text. A lot of the women in this book are happy to have children, but many of them are not so keen. The second group are most often victims of abuse. You also have a few members of the family tree who know how to use herbs to prevent pregnancies and the stories surrounding them are full of neighbours coming to their door for help. It’s a study of choice, the ability or not to choose, the extremes of either choice, and history.

Always in the background, or in the foreground, abuse. It’s often the same characters who happen to feature, whether in person or in reference, and one in particular who has an affect on a number of people. The Shore can be hard to read on occasion; Taylor doesn’t shy away from telling the details. And the cycle continues; Taylor shows the classic concept of traits, decisions, in this case abuse, passing down the family tree however in this case it’s not quite the stereotype – it misses generations, it comes in from another branch, and so forth.

The book presents itself as your average nostalgic read, one of those books that is quite comfortable in its telling if not its content, the sort of book about American life that can draw non-Americans to it due to the setting being so different. There’s a hint of magic in this book, there are paranormal elements, and there’s some science fiction. It’s these three elements that stop the book from dipping too far (in the way I suggested earlier) because there comes a point where everything starts to come together, when things you didn’t know you needed to know about, things you didn’t know anything about, all get twisted up into that very satisfying literary notion, that feeling that causes the recently coined phrase ‘you guys, this book!’ Taylor doesn’t just deliver a gratifying literary experience, she delivers a gratifying literary experience with bonus points. And she plays with the concept of religion in an interesting way.

There are a few houses in this book, but two are more important than the others. These houses are as much characters in their own right as Manderley and are a further factor that unites the already tangled family members. The houses keep the family grounded in their history; they couldn’t leave forever even if they wanted to.

The Shore is exceptional. It’s written well, it’s planned well, it’s executed well – it’s everything well. It’s a subtle thrill that bowls you over mentally, intellectually, without requiring you jump up and down about it, though you surely will.

I received this book at the Young Writer of the Year award blogger event.

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Jo Walton – Among Others

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A book about books and fairies.

Publisher: Corsair (Tor)
Pages: 398
Type: Fiction
Age: Young Adult
ISBN: 978-1-472-10653-7
First Published: 18th January 2011
Date Reviewed: 25th August 2015
Rating: 3.5/5

Mori can see and talk to fairies. With her twin gone and her mother out to get her, too, she runs away and ends up living with her absent father and his sisters. Sent off to a prestigious boarding school, she’s out of place but finds solace in the library. She’ll try to stop her mother gaining power if she can and will read the entirety of the library’s science fiction section in the interim.

Among Others falls somewhere between fantasy and magical realism. A book about books, it’s mostly the thoughts of a reader with a bit of spell-casting thrown in.

Something that’s intriguing to discuss is the way Walton deals with magic in this book – it could be argued there is no magic. What exactly is magic, after all? The reader does not see much of Mori’s mother and there are no incantations or blood bindings – such things are spoken of but never really shown. This is not to say there is no magic as such, more that it could be argued the magic is the magic of nature – Mori finding comfort in nature and in her imagination. This is what makes the book fall between fantasy and magical realism. Whether it’s magic in the typical sense of the word is down to the reader’s own interpretation.

And that is a wonderful thing. That Among Others can be interpreted in various ways makes it special. When Mori speaks of adults having power over her are they really casting spells or is it her fear of the unknown, of these relatives who are strangers to her? Her mother is unsafe to be around – the authorities wouldn’t have sent her to her father if Mori were dreaming it – but is this mother actually a witch or is it more of a metaphor? Is Mori using the idea of magic to cope with abuse? In the time span of the book, a year or so (barring a glimpse of the past), Mori gains knowledge of sexual desire and has her first boyfriend. She also grows as a person, very much so, and another section that could be viewed as a metaphor concerns the last time Mori deals with her sister, and her grief.

I’d like to talk about the scene concerning Mori’s father – the person Mori has obviously taken her ‘reading genes’ from. The potential abuse is never mentioned again – Mori wipes over it but not in a way that suggests she needs to in order to cope with it, more that she does not, or did not, understand what was happening. Mori seems not to see the issue with it and never speaks of it again. As a reader you can see the issue with it, the potential for the book to take on a different tone; it leaves a bad taste in your mouth. But then Walton makes you question what you’ve read, whether accidentally (and, if so, this should have been rectified) or on purpose – Mori’s not phased by it and comes to enjoy her father’s company, as a meeting of equals if not as father and daughter, and whilst you are only ever in Mori’s head, nothing further happens or is asked. I don’t think one could say that the suggestion that Daniel is interested in his daughter is wrong, but certainly you’re challenged by it.

Another thing to love is the way Walton deals with Mori’s acquired disability. It’s always there but never takes over the plot; a good depiction of disability that states the pain and then lets Mori’s personality shine through.

So this is a book about books. It’s the diary of a reader, a list of what she’s reading with commentary. Sounds blissful, doesn’t it? And in a way it is; particularly for those who read science fiction and fantasy, Among Others is like coming home. References to classic science fiction abound (the book is set between 1979-1980). (This means that those who don’t read science fiction are less likely to understand the references, however it’s the sheer passion and the intellectual literary conversation that Walton emphasises, so it doesn’t really matter if you don’t catch every nuance.) In a way, however, it’s an issue – you are essentially reading the naval-gazing diary of a teenager who thinks she knows it all. A very ‘today I did this… and this…’ diary.

Now this isn’t so bad by itself, even if it is a bit boring sometimes to read about someone reading and doing little else – the problem is the name-dropping. This book reads as an attempt to gain love, it’s the written version of Walton putting her hand up and saying ‘author I love, notice me!’ Mori, or, as could be asserted given Walton’s age and preferences, Walton herself, gushes profusely about Ursula Le Guin (who incidentally blurbed the book, making this a nice cushy circle) and various other authors, most of whom are still around today and thus liable to read Walton’s love letter. It’s very much as though Walton has written this book to get noticed so she can get in with her idols and it’s all very cliquey and doesn’t feel very welcoming – because it’s not really. This book is for authors.

This is where the magic – be it stereotypical or not – gets let down. Pages about books and then, oh yes, I forgot, this is meant to be about magic, must add it in… and now I can get back to talking about myself and my love of science fiction. The book is very low on plot, the characters are fairly well developed but evidently not important (a great pity considering some of the content), and really all there is to take away – all you are given to take away – is a long list of books you should be reading. The ending, whilst powerful in its way, showing strength, doesn’t solve the puzzles Mori unwittingly sets for the reader.

Among Others will remind you why you seek out book clubs, festivals, and literary conversation. If you know the work of those referenced well, you’ll likely get more from it but on the whole a proper memoir about someone’s reading life and a straight out fantasy book would be better choices.

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Téa Obreht – The Tiger’s Wife

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Lions and tigers and bears… and war and legends.

Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson (Orion)
Pages: 336
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-297-85901-7
First Published: 1st January 2010
Date Reviewed: 19th June 2015
Rating: 3.5/5

Natalia is off to vaccinate children at risk. In a country torn literally apart by war, help is needed. As she and her friend get to grips with their location, she muses on her grandfather, his life, and the tales he told her.

The Tiger’s Wife is a many-layered book. Good but with vague purpose, it is enjoyable but decidedly average.

The main problem where lack of success is concerned is the way Obreht chooses to write her story. The natural choice of main character was the grandfather but instead Obreht opts to tell the story through his granddaughter. It shows – Natalia is severely underdeveloped. There is no reason to care about her, nor anyone else. Everyone is forgettable.

This way of telling a story, through someone else, may work at times – Lockwood and Nelly in Wuthering Heights are fine, as is Wells’ time traveller speaking of the past – but in those cases there is a basic disconnect, a sub-textual acknowledgement that the narrator is just a device. In The Tiger’s Wife, whilst Obreht may see Natalia as a storyteller, she also includes enough about the woman herself to suggest she wants us to relate to her, to warrant detailing her life. Granted, Natalia is a device through which Obreht also teaches us about the Yugoslav wars and life at the time, likely chosen to bring about a similar affect as a memoir might have, but it doesn’t quite work.

The other problem is more opinion – some readers may find the book too vague. You are left to work out Obreht’s point by yourself; Obreht actually says near the end that she isn’t going to tell you what it was about. The problem is, it can feel like you’re grasping at straws. Suffice to say it could be argued the book was written to fill gaps, to provide a taste, to be beautiful.

And it is beautiful. Obreht’s writing is stunning. There are too many details but the style, structure, words, linger in your mind. It’s typical to describe a good début as not being like a début – this is an apt description of The Tiger’s Wife.

The social and political information is telling. Obreht leaves no stone unturned – she wants to inform readers about the division of Yugoslavia and that’s what she does. She weaves in diversity, showing the different cultures and how to some people the difference mattered, how to others it did not. She is incredibly candid about the way children can be, adults can be, when they are on the cusp of something big but not quite there – the way war can be appropriated to satisfy selfish and bad behaviour.

Those first sixteen months of wartime held almost no reality, and this made them incredible, irresistible, because the fact that something terrible was happening elsewhere, and at the same time to us, gave us room to get away with anarchy. Never mind that, three hundred miles away, girls sitting in bomb shelters were getting their periods at the age of seven. In the City, we weren’t just affected by the war, we were entitled to our affection. When your parents said get your ass to school, it was all right to say, there’s a war on, and go down to the riverbank instead. When they caught you sneaking into the house at three in the morning, your hair reeking of smoke, the fact that there was a war on prevented them from staving your head in. When they heard from neighbors that your friends had been spotted doing a hundred and twenty on the Boulevard with you hanging none too elegantly out the sunroof, they couldn’t argue with there’s a war on, we might all die anyway They felt responsible, and we all took advantage of their guilt because we didn’t know any better.

Obreht explains without trying to apologise, she explains to show what division, what war, can do, how it can change people.

The book is heavily influenced by folklore and The Jungle Book – Kipling’s original rather than Disney’s adaptation. Through these she explores social and cultural problems, domestic violence, the way people will see what they want to see, take from a situation only what aligns with their thoughts. This folklore is where the magical realism comes into play, the story of a man who cannot die and the titular story of a woman who befriends a tiger, scandalising a village that cannot understand it.

This is a book best read away from food. Natalia is a doctor and Obreht describes training in detail. She also has a fascination with the physical affects of sinus problems which are relayed without notice and may put you off your lunch.

The Tiger’s Wife is far from bad but there is an air of ‘written for acclaim’ about it, which was of course realised when it won the Orange Prize. It can teach you a lot but it’s not particularly well-paced and keeps its secrets beyond the last page.

Read it if you will but don’t put it above others on your list.

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