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Nicolai Houm – The Gradual Disappearance Of Jane Ashland

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Fading away from home.

Publisher: Pushkin Press
Pages: 182
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1–782-27377-6
First Published: 2016 in Norwegian; 26th April 2018 in English
Date Reviewed: 23rd March 2018
Rating: 4.5/5

Original language: Norwegian
Original title: Jane Ashlands gradvise forsvinning (Jane Ashland’s Gradual Disappearance)
Translated by: Anna Paterson

Jane wakes up naked in a tent in a deserted Park in Norway; suffering from immense grief, she’d decided to travel to Norway, reputedly in search of family ties, leaving behind her career as a novelist. When her visit to a distantly-related family ends badly, she decides to phone a stranger, a random man she met on the plane.

The Gradual Disappearance Of Jane Ashland is a super novel that looks at grief as it affects the life of its character. Sporting excellent literary methods and slight, clever, foreshadowing, it stands on many different levels, being both a work of art and a pleasure to read.

The unashamedly individualistic look at grief here works well – Houm only ever looks at Jane and to all intents and purposes the world turns around her yet nonetheless pieces of ideas, poignant ones, leave strong marks. Grief is looked at as something that invades a life without the person’s noticing; whilst Jane may be very sad she does not realise just how much both the grief and her medications affect what she sees and experiences, to the point that whilst some of the narrative is clear, often it’s unreliable and down to you, the reader, to make sense of what Jane is experiencing.

This three-way sense of writing, if you will – the definite, the vague, and the likely unreal – is excellent in itself, but it is then backed up further by Jane’s active choices. Jane makes bad choices – like phoning Ulf, the stranger – and whilst this is commented on via the third-person narrative, it continues to spin out; at the beginnings of this narrative, the book reads as a fantasy novel in what not to do.

No surprise, then, that the writing is good. Houm has struck perfectly the cultural balance that has been noted by critics – he has been called the most American of Norwegian writers. The translation, whilst not perfect, is generally clear and easy to read.

On occasion the text moves seamlessly between the third person and the dialogue, Houm’s descriptions serving as the dialogue for the next line. Houm never inserts himself in the narrative – there is no breaking of fourth walls and the cleverness is strictly limited to the fictional aspects – but it furthers the study he is progressing through and shows a glimpse of the workings of Jane’s mind in such a way as to render the third person almost the first.

It should be noted that the title of the book is phrasing at its best – this is not a thriller and does not compare to novels of similar naming styles that have been released in recent years. The title is an active part of the story and Jane’s fate not at all what you would expect from just that first scene of isolation. However this book does pack a punch, the ending and the chapters before it being incredibly powerful.

Necessarily coming last in this list of points is Jane’s career. Jane lives and breathes writing; a lot of her thought processes go through literary terminology and methods; this book is to a fair extent a book about books, with Houm writing about writing in itself and making whole conversations out of career dreams, Jane’s inability to critique her husband’s work, and the life of an active, travelling author. This is where something special happens – is this book, with its new cover, Jane’s own?

A short novel it may be, but there are enough ideas and studies and literary gems included that no matter how short and how easy it is to read, you come away feeling like you’ve just finished an incredibly impressive tome. The Gradual Disappearance Of Jane Ashland it may be, but make no mistake – this book isn’t going anywhere any time soon.

I received this book for review.

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Dorthe Nors – Karate Chop

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Spooky coincidences and horrific happenings.

Publisher: Pushkin Press
Pages: 82
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-782-27432-2
First Published: 25th September 2008 in Danish; 4th February 2014 in English
Date Reviewed: 16th March 2018
Rating: 4/5

Original language: Danish
Original title: Kantslag (Side Stroke)
Translated by: Martin Aitken

In this collection of very short stories (some have called it flash fiction) a person left alone by a potentially mysterious boyfriend watches and remembers a documentary about a missing person who left their wife; a grown-up remembers the stories about his grandmother told to them by their mother and aunt – two children brought up by an abusive parent; and a psychologist looks at her bruises and wonders about the way she gets into bad relationships when she well knows the warning signs.

Karate Chop is a thin book of vignettes about realisations of the self and aspects of society. Told in simple prose, the author’s style is one of subtlety – with her writing set somewhere between the almost vague and small shock, Nors’ collection delivers some poignant endings, some horrible endings, and others that are ambiguous.

These endings result in a book that can at times confuse you. Because some of the stories are easy enough to see through – well, easy enough once you’ve worked out the right amount of thinking you must do – the ones that are a lot less opaque can seem not so successful. It can be hard to decipher whether the more vague pieces are like that on purpose – leaning ever more towards subtlety – or just objectively miss the mark. It could be due to the length – no matter how literary the endings, the shortness of the stories means it can be a bit too easy to forget what came before. Make no mistake – there is something to take away from all the stories – but some will fade from memory a lot quicker than others.

The simplicity of Nors’ prose has been translated well; doubtless some changes have been made to aid the reader not familiar with Denmark but if they have they are hard to see. The text flows well and the translation reads as faithful both to the takeaway of the stories and the phrasing.

Highlights of the collection include Mutual Destruction, in which a man watches a neighbour who has previously ‘helped’ him put animals to sleep when they were ill – where is the man’s family? The Winter Garden looks at the moment children start to realise their parents might just be average; Flight looks at a woman who is close to realising what went wrong in her relationship but incapable of seeing it; and the aforementioned story about the tales of the narrator’s grandmother, Grandmother, Mother, And Aunt Ellen, is exceptional.

Karate Chop delivers more than one punch in the reading experience – the title may refer to a particular story but it could equally have been used for a few others. It is a great little collection that takes less time to read than it does to finish thinking about it.

I received this book for review.

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Jessie Greengrass – Sight

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Acknowledgement and the desire to know more.

Publisher: John Murray (Hachette)
Pages: 193
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-473-65237-8
First Published: 22nd February 2018
Date Reviewed: 21st February 2018
Rating: 5/5

Our narrator looks back at the part of her life when she was considering whether to have a child, and then the subsequent pregnancy. She interweaves into this story another, of her grief at her mother’s death, as well as the discomfort she felt staying with her grandmother, and the history surrounding the discovery of X-Rays, Freud, and the work of early doctors.

Sight is a sensational novel about one woman’s journey to parenthood and the worry of being good enough; it’s also about longing and grief, and the self.

Greengrass is a master of subtlety and letting the story unfold at its own pace. Never worrying about speed, the tale is very slow but a wonder to read, the writing calling to mind novels from decades, even hundreds, of years ago, that same sense of the narrator sitting by the window at their desk writing, that is most prominent in film adaptations, here in full bloom. To be sure it is a page turner but it’s of that lovely lazy afternoon kind, the book being the perfect companion for a cup of tea and a chair on the lawn as the sun shines overhead. (The writing is similar in its subtly to the author’s short story collection, An Account Of The Decline Of The Great Auk, According To One Who Saw It, though the length of Sight allows the author to take her way of executing ideas further than she could in the short stories.)

Yes, that sounds rather at odds with the content of the story – the narrator’s anxiety and grief, the constant struggles she has to work through that her writing of them seems to help but not necessarily conquer. (It’s a somewhat open-ended work, very much a character study that nevertheless sports a conclusion.) And with all the chopping and changing of narrative – one moment in the present day, the next in the past, the next describing history – it can take a little while to find your bearings. But when you find your way (not too far into the novel, it must be said) there is a lot of literary enjoyment to be had.

In writing about Freud and Rontgen and other historical people – which is a factual aspect of the novel – Greengrass has used a particular type of showing. The cause of the narrator’s anxieties and doubtless depression is shown in what she teaches the reader about Rontgen and Freud – she knows about Freud because her grandmother was a psychoanalyst and she knows about Rontgen because she read up on him. These in turn, particularly the information about Freud as related to her grandmother and upbringing, help the reader to understand her nervousness about having a child, the way her mother’s passing affected her and so on. It becomes apparent that whilst, in a sense, the information about historical people reads as an info-dump, irrelevant to the narrator herself, those very facts are things that were not only something to become perhaps obsessed by as a way of working out her grandmother and her own life, but also a way of coping; in the narration of Freud and Anna, the narrator lives wildly through others without perhaps realising it.

Whilst there is no direct historical story in relation to the death of the narrator’s mother, the literary result is much the same.

Taking character further in terms of Greengrass’s subtlety, to the concept of characterisation itself, this is another factor worth looking at. The novel is very much about the narrator, in many ways everyone else mentioned is but a device, and Greengrass engages with this every so often. There’s the place wherein the narrator looks at Johannes’ role in the proceedings to good effect. As the narrator acknowledges – more so points out in terms of social roles – the way Johannes is but on the periphery of the pregnancy – not essential, a bit-player who can stay in the waiting room whilst the pregnancy unfurls, makes him irrelevant to what’s going on. This mixes in with the overall feeling that the narrator is the person to listen to – the others are not so important; whilst they may have affected her, it’s now the narrator’s time to shine.

Sight is fascinating. The narrator comes to a greater knowledge of herself but the knowledge the reader gains about her is the most important thing, and that effect makes the novel what it is. It’s both difficult in terms of content and wonderful in terms of its execution, a very self-contained and meticulously planned tale that is very effective and moving without any sort of pointing to itself to tell you so. An average person with a sad story that, when you look at it, shows just how much depth there is to every one of us and how our childhoods have a colossal effect on who we become, no matter how it pans out.

I received this book for review.

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A J Waines – Girl On A Train

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Sometimes there’s a lot more going on than meets the eye.

Publisher: (self-published)
Pages: 426
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-508-64794-2
First Published: 20th June 2013
Date Reviewed: 29th November 2017
Rating: 4/5

Anna gets on the train and finds a seat. The girl next to her won’t stop fidgeting and as Anna considers whether to confront her about it, the girl gets up, gives her a beseeching look, and leaves the train a stop before the one printed on her ticket; minutes later the train slams into something on the track. As all the passengers are told to leave the carriages, Anna’s bag is stolen and then found. She finds a locket inside that she reckons is the girls’.

Girl On A Train is a fantastic thriller; published a few years before Paula Hawkins’ novel, it has been mistaken for it many times, however it is entirely different -a book about a troubled outsider trying to make the most of what’s good in their lives – and very much worth a read in its own right.

Waines uses a dual narrative to tell her story; beginning with Anna, switching to Elly for the middle, and returning to Anna at the end, you get a fully-fledged story without any need to question; it also allows for you to get to know Elly in her own right which is a wonderful element as you can empathise with her even more.

Anything that might seem unlikely or implausible is dealt with well, Waines knowing that may be how it appears and working to overcome it, which she does. The ending may divide opinion as it’s likely not the outcome you were expecting, but in terms of red herrings it’s super; because of the different parts of it and the subtleties, you will quite likely not guess what happened.

The characterisation is very good, with Anna and Elly sharing enough traits to make the narrative work – their thought patterns, for example; otherwise they’re two very different people. The writing is good, too – there are some editing errors, but the use of language is solid and the book flows well.

A few topics bond the stories together – the question of suicide and death in general that is asked two-fold as Waines explores the possibilities of Elly’s last days as well as Anna’s marriage. (You learn about the marriage early – this isn’t a spoiler.) Sexuality has a place. And religion is explored in terms of the possibilities to take money. Anna is well placed to look at topics in detail; as a journalist she’s initially thinking of Elly’s death as one that may make her name.

Girl On A Train is a good blend of page-turning fiction and details that will make you want to take your time; it manages to explore a lot whilst not losing track of its genre and whilst it’s down to each reader as to whether or not the subjects themselves will be memorable, the book itself will stay with you for a while. A very well crafted novel.

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Julianne Pachico – The Lucky Ones

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Please note: as well as today’s post – which is in lieu of yesterday – and Wednesday’s usual post, I’ll also be posting this Thursday. As I haven’t been able to blog much recently I’ve a small backlog of posts that I’d like to share with you before Christmas. Next week will be back on schedule.

Or are they?

Publisher: Faber & Faber
Pages: 259
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-571-32974-8
First Published: 31st January 2017
Date Reviewed: 5th December 2017
Rating: 3/5

In 2003, a girl decides to stay home instead of go to the party at an equally rich family’s house on the top of a hill, agreeing with her mother to tell the maid not to open the door to strange men. A few years later, a professor who may be a prisoner teaches a class made up of ferns, and leaves and twigs of other plants. And as the professor teaches the plants he mistakes as children, elsewhere the girl who lived at the top of the hill listens as her words are delivered as a lecture to the militia.

The Lucky Ones is somewhere between a short story collection and a novel, the stories focusing on different characters who are all fundamentally linked by their school years. Set in Columbia (with a brief sojourn in New York), it looks at the drug war conflict in the country in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Starting with the topic, it’s a difficult one to make out – you can by all means research but you may have to read a fair portion of the book first to work out what you’re looking for, instead of spending your time appreciating what the author’s saying, because so much crucial information has been left out. The identity of each story/chapter’s character is left out until a good way into it, and you have to piece together clues further on. This lack of identity is combined with a non-linear narrative. If you happen to know a lot about the topic already you’ll likely ‘get’ it but the approach may still prove a problem.

In view of the writing, there are some outstanding turns of phrase throughout, most often those that expose the things you should be considering. But there are also many clunky sentences, an abundance of hyphens, and a very noticeable reliance on ‘abruptly’.

Looking at the content, what Pachico is saying is very good. Thankfully there are some moments when proceedings are looked at openly, where times in the characters’ lives are referred to in a manner that clearly shows the shocking reality of the situation. There is also a story written entirely in metaphor – or is it? In this case, at least, you are meant to wonder about what you’re reading.

To speak of another positive, the title of the work is irony at its best, referring to all the characters. Some of them are in good shape but others have been altered forever whether mentally, physically, emotionally – if these damaged people are the lucky ones, what of the rest? It’s an excellent title which, when combined with the use of its singular version as the title of the first story, asks a few more questions.

So, in sum, notes of importance, but it could have used a different approach.

I received this book for review. The book has been shortlisted for the Young Writer of the Year Award.

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