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Samanta Schweblin – Fever Dream

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Be prepared to never be prepared.

Publisher: Oneworld
Pages: 151
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-786-07090-6
First Published: 2014; 10th January 2017 in English
Date Reviewed: 21st March 2017
Rating: 4/5

Original language: Spanish
Original title: Distancia de Rescate (Rescue Distance)
Translated by: Megan McDowell

Amanda’s in hospital. David, the peculiar child of someone she knows, seated somewhere near her, is telling her she’s close to death; she has to keep talking, work out what has happened, why she’s there. It’s difficult; it’s hard to think, she can’t see very well, and David keeps telling her to move on to other things that are more important. She won’t.

Fever Dream is a novella full of circular thinking, warped perceptions, and few concrete answers – they are sometimes there but Schweblin defiantly remains vague. It’s an easy read, a small book without chapters, that asks a lot of your attention but for that it rewards you with the reality of unreality and a fair amount to think about.

The original title is probably a good place to start – a lot of the narrative revolves around Amanda’s concept of ‘rescue distance’, the maximum physical distance between herself and her small daughter at any one time that will result in immediate result in case of accident. Amanda’s ill health makes her even more paranoid and obsessive so that the distance lengths and shortens – most often the latter – over the course of the book. Her time with her daughter is detailed solely as a flashback, the report she gives David as she lays ill in bed, but gets discussed by them in the present every so often. Alongside this constant consideration are other repetitions – Carla’s gold bikini, for example – that further illustrate what Amanda, perhaps erroneously, is focusing on.

Flashbacks. Are they? Aren’t they? Schweblin never tells you the exact times when Amanda is thinking of the past and talking directly to David – it’s generally obvious but not always. This adds to the feeling of confusion for the reader, very much intended, and gives you more of an idea of the situation at hand. It is also difficult to work out the time line of what has happened in Amanda’s story but in this Scheweblin does provide an idea of what you’re meant to be thinking, as a reader, when she presents a definite dream sequence. This dream shows the topsy-turvy construction of our real life dreams, whether feverish or in good health, that confirms for you the feeling that you’re not necessarily meant to be working everything out.

David’s almost changling status is eerie. Supposedly, this child of Amanda’s friend – this child/now adult (who knows?) who is in Amanda’s room – is not the same as he was before. (In years gone by a woman said that in order to save a feverish David’s life, a switch of bodies would have to take place, David’s spirit moving on to another body and David’s body becoming inhabited by a different soul. It’s the different soul/same body that Amanda is supposedly talking to.) David’s actions are seen as strange, haunted, and whereas we can assume that some actions might have been normal in reality, some clearly aren’t. The character of David is very much up to you, the reader, to figure out.

Fever Dream is a short book; you wouldn’t want it to be longer due to the confusion and the relentless and repetitive nature of David’s questions. It’s a book you can enjoy even if you can’t quite explain it, and at times it’s the very idea of not having to understand it that allows you to enjoy it more. And with its relatively small number of pages and a narrative that doesn’t deviate, with its lack of chapters and easy language, it’s the perfect choice if you want to pick up something challenging but very accessible.

I received this book for review.

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Josephine Johnson – Now In November

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Farming during the Depression.

Publisher: Apollo (Head Of Zeus)
Pages: 198
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-784-97075-8
First Published: 1934
Date Reviewed: 31st January 2017
Rating: 4/5

Marget and her family travel to their mortgaged land, becoming farmers. It’s a difficult time and beyond the stress of growing and selling the crops for less than hoped, Marget’s sister Kerrin is becoming more and more difficult to live with. Things start looking up when Grant arrives to help out but the worst is yet to come.

Now In November is a short novel focused on the land and a family’s relationship to it. It’s a gracefully written novel, tragedy detailed in beautiful language, that whilst often painful has a stunning atmosphere not unlike the Brontës and their moors, or Laura Ingalls Wilder.

This is a simple tale, and relatively small in scope – the years both go by and stay still (there’s a sort of time-focused dual narrative going on you’d have to see yourself) but not so many as to cover too long a time, at least it seems so from what happens. It’s also not a happy book but as said above this is where the language has a lovely effect, not glossing over the events by any means but making it so that you can continue reading, so that you want to continue reading. The shortness of the novel aids in this as well.

A great deal of the book is focused on nature. In the context of its entirety, Johnson spends paragraphs upon paragraphs detailing the weather, the colours, the flora and fauna. This boosts the book a little, sometimes, above its general sad atmosphere, and helps to ground you in the scene, though some may find it too much depending on mood – this is a book for which it pays to choose your reading time wisely. A story for a hectic day this is not; a lazy afternoon, as much as it may seem at odds with the text, is your best bet. There is action in the events but the language flows along softly, an interesting effect and choice which means the book transcends its subjects.

The family is a good one to read about because they are so mixed in temperament. Marget, her mother, and younger sister Merle, do a lot of the household work. The father does all the manual labour, most often with a single helper. Oldest sister, Kerrin, brings to the book a different subject – seeming first to be very obnoxious then, in turn, dangerous and finally mentally ill (Johnson writes the progression of Kerrin’s mental capability very well), the use of such a character shines a particularly almost-modern light on mental illness which when mixed with the lesser medical knowledge of the time becomes quite something. Whilst Now In November may well have won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction due to the the story of the Depression, and perhaps its author’s young age, it’s the characterisation and development of Kerrin that is perhaps its strongest element for us today, something that speaks very much to our present values and discussion.

Minor points are unrequited romance, the effects of industry on farming (in the event this is a major point, it’s just that it’s confined), the integration of black people. These round the story off, adding to the atmosphere and general demonstration of the time.

Now In November can be difficult to get into and the story itself is rough going, but the whole is an excellent creation with a lot to recommend it. Its themes are relevant today and it’s an interesting source for historical study and information.

I received this book for review.

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Benjamin Wood – The Ecliptic

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Do not disturb.

Publisher: Scribner (Simon & Schuster)
Pages: 463
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-471-12672-7
First Published: 2nd July 2015
Date Reviewed: 28th November 2016
Rating: 4/5

It’s some time in the 1960s or 70s and Elspeth is living at Portmantle, a mansion and grounds on an island near Turkey, a place for the most talented artistically-minded people who are finding creating impossible. Elspeth has been there a number of years – how many exactly she’s not sure, watching, together with similar residents, others come and go whilst her own project evades her. One day a new resident turns up and won’t fall in line with the status quo. And Elspeth starts looking back at what led her to escape the world.

The Ecliptic is a great novel that is at once very different and rather familiar, a book in which the themes are those not often studied in fiction but the overall presentation resonates in a literarily-relatable fashion.

Wood has a lot to say about artists and the creative process; he uses the book as a base, the story as the means by which he dissects various thoughts, conversation, and points of debate, to a highly effective degree.

The mansion and grounds of Portmantle are, of course, a well-placed – literally! – device by which Wood can look at the way art of all types is often created in isolation at the behest of its creator. The solitude and freedom from distractions, from criticism and review, from opinions whether positive or not so. And no one need do their laundry at Portmantle, either. The only chore is, potentially, that of creating. It’s a haven, an artistic utopia.

But like all fictional utopias, things aren’t as perfect as they are first presented to both reader and residents. Wood’s Portmantle is full of rules – meal times, the ability to stay or leave – that replace all the distractions of sociability at home with things that are perhaps even more stifling to those creative minds. Even the rules regarding the journey to the mansion – don’t bring your possessions, disregard your name, take this many moves before a phone call (I’m simplifying it but that’s the basic idea) – are far more controlling than any professor’s university assignment. And no names, thank you. Pick up a new one because no one’s work should be referenced to or put in the context of another’s.

I walked up to the board as though it were a boy I had decided to kiss and streaked a layer of phthalo blue across the surface with a palette knife, the floppy baking kind my mother owned, making an impulsive shape upon the wood. There was no history standing on my shoulders then, no classical references hanging in my head like dismal weather. I was alone, uninfluenced, free to work layers of chalky stolen paint with a big lolloping knife, to smudge with my fingers, pad flat with my fist, thumb, scrape, and scratch. No judgements of technique arose in my mind, because I did not invite them, did not think to. I simply acted, expressed, behaved, made gestures of the knife that seemed unprompted and divined.

It is the way formal education can have an impact on one’s inspiration, raw talent and subsequent work, that is seen as bad. Wood doesn’t say as much directly about the positive impacts of lessons but then he doesn’t need to, it’s shown in the subtext and in references to other ideas.

Another thing that mills in the background, less studied presumably because Portmantle is fiction, is the way that taking time out of life in such a context would impact the eventual reception of the work created. If Elspeth joined Portmantle in the 1960s and has been there a long time without access to the rest of the world – years, decades even – then won’t much of what she creates be irrelevant? The world would have moved on. As much as we like older works we need, crave, new ones. The world is in fact the antithesis of what pianist James Rhodes recently said on the subject of classical music; Rhodes said that people should not write new classical music, that anything new will never match the work of the masters.

But new is surely inspired by a love of the old, is the natural result of that love, and to discourage it would be to lessen the popularity of the old.

It’s interesting that it’s the ‘short-termers’ at Portmantle, those disliked by Elspeth – who actually get work done, that Elspeth and crowd are those no nearer to finishing.

Does Portmantle keep culture away from humanity? One of the possible answers to the mystery of the place is a prison for the highly talented.

The creativity in general, in this book, is exquisite. Yes, there is a lot about the process of painting to the extent you’d think Wood an artist rather than a writer, but there’s a lot for readers of any artistic persuasion. Reams of paragraphs that beg quotation. We should dissect art somewhat but, as Wood’s use of psychiatry shows, dissections should be limited. Some things really aren’t related, they are the result of pure in-the-moment inspiration. Not everything has a meaning behind it and nor should it have to.

There are a couple of aspects that skim the top from this book. The ending – the reveal – which may be considered a bit too been-there-done-that. And the text – Elspeth is in her 20s in the 1960s yet she uses a lot of present day language, colloquialisms from the 21st century – ‘towel off’, ‘unseeable’, for example – rather recent terms and ways of speaking.

So The Ecliptic is imaginative, awesome in its studies and more than worth a read if you’re a creative type, but it does have some draw backs.

One to explore, this book will make you think, want to debate, and quite possibly make you want to create. Get your paintbrush/pen/instrument; you’ll be here for a long time but unlike Elspeth and co you’ll make use of every moment.

This book is shortlisted for the 2016 Young Writer Of The Year Award. I’m on the Shadow Judging Panel.

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S J Watson – Before I Go To Sleep

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If I should forget before I wake…

Publisher: Black Swan (Random House)
Pages: 356
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-552-16413-9
First Published: 28th April 2011
Date Reviewed: 10th November 2016
Rating: 4.5/5

She wakes up in a bed next to a man she does not recognise. The mirror shows a woman much older than she is. It’s been years; Christine discovers she’s had an accident that means every night her memory is erased. She must trust her husband, the man in the bed.

Before I Go To Sleep is a fast-paced psychological thriller that repeats itself intentionally and remains a page turner from start to finish.

Christine is an unreliable narrator of a particular kind – if she could be, she’d be trustworthy. She’s as factually accurate as possible; you have to keep your wits about you. Due to Christine’s role as narrator, and the first-person viewpoint that entails, as the reader you are as in the dark as she is about everything. The only advantage you have is that Watson wants and needs to clue you in more than than he does Christine. The character takes things at face value so whilst it’s fair to say there’s an element of growing together – you and her – your journey is particularly engrossing.

The clue is in the genre; Watson doesn’t provide too many red herrings because he doesn’t need to. The success of this book lies in its ability to make you doubt and dissect everything and indeed you come to form most every possible conclusion out there. There’s a section towards the end where the narrative crawls, almost to a halt, and if you didn’t know otherwise you’d say Watson wrote too much; in actual fact what happens is that, having now exhausted all the possibilities, you’re just waiting to find out which it is.

If you worked it out early, you may be less enthused, though it’s likely you’ll appreciate what Watson has done and the work that went into it. This is perhaps where timing comes in – if you’ve read lots of books that sport the same/similar conclusion you likely won’t feel as compelled. This is the sort of book it pays to mull over after finishing, to look again at what Watson has done, at the editing that must have happened, at the timing, the structure, of it all.

The writing is good. There’s no time for descriptive passages and you wouldn’t remember them anyway. There are plenty of questions posed in the book and all are answered. Only one or two plot points may inspire frowns – situations at the end it would spoil the story to write about – the morality of relatives to patients, that sort of thing, if that makes sense. Are parts convenient? Yes. Does it matter? Not really.

Before I Go To Sleep forces you, at some undisclosed point, to look at a tough subject. Its mainstay is, as Renée Knight said recently, something that works because it’s real and could happen to anyone. It’s scary, it’s shocking, and it’s one heck of a ride.

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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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