Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller

March 9, 2015 § Leave a comment

There’s something about a power cut, or any other interruption to our otherwise on-tap services like water or heat, that makes us recall the intense fragility of civilisation, makes us contemplate that we are only a switch or two away from needing those emergency preparedness kits the Canadian government is always encouraging us to create.

Obviously when the apocalypse/earthquake/ice storm/financial meltdown comes I will wish I had taken it seriously and prepared like any sensible person, but it seems like too much effort to make this kit, not to mention all the perfectly good food I would let expire. (The government, keen not to be seen to promote food waste, very practically recommends eating the food in your kit before its use-by date and then replacing it with a new batch.) Plus, where would you keep these supplies, and what are the chances both of being at home when disaster strikes and of not having any other food? In any case, wouldn’t creating an emergency kit be tantamount to admitting that we don’t really trust this rickety thing called civilisation, which any fool can see is not even skin deep? I think that’s really behind my aversion to the idea. If I’m going to admit that much, then surely I’m only one step away from becoming a prepper and stockpiling tinfoil and tampons for when the shtf.

Anyway, one evening before Christmas we had a power cut. In the dark I came across this package I’d forgotten to open earlier. I pulled out a bundle of hard, lumpy things wrapped in a scrap of brown material and tied with jute twine. I was amused, then, to find in the bundle some candles, a tin of Spam, a few lists of emergency supplies and a ball of twine. Also, most importantly, a box of very good quality matches.

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Taken with no flash, lit by headlamp and tea light

This package was all part of an excellent marketing strategy for Claire Fuller’s debut novel, Our Endless Numbered Days. Peggy Hillcoat is from a well-off family living in London. In 1976, when Peggy is eight, her father—a man who has long been planning his retreat from civilisation—takes her away to a forest to live. Their shelter is “die Hütte”; beyond the trees and the mountains there is, he tells Peggy, nothing. Peggy believes that her mother and everyone else in the world is now dead.

Peggy and her father live for an astonishing nine years in the forest, hunting and growing their own food, surviving the winters, and never seeing a single other person. This narrative is interleaved with the story of Peggy’s return to civilisation—her mother, a nine-year-old brother she’s never met, some friends who haven’t aged in her mind since she saw them last. It’s not easy, coming home, especially when you’ve had the experiences Peggy has lived through.

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This novel took quite some time to get going. For almost the entire first half, the survival sections were too slow, too full of “I” sentences. The forest scene had to be well set up in order for us to believe in the continued existence of Peggy and her father, but it drags–and I say that as someone interested in how a person might live entirely self-sufficiently. The problem is compounded by a first-person narrative that mediates every sensation with “I heard” or “I felt.” What kept me reading through these slow parts was Peggy’s re-entry into society. She’s surprisingly sullen about the whole thing, and her relationship with her mother is—oddly yet fittingly—marked by a typical teenage “you don’t understand anything about me or my life” attitude, which works well here. Even in these sections, though, I felt I was waiting a little too long for payoff in the first half.

As Peggy gets older, tension in the forest mounts and both writing and structure improve. When Peggy starts to wander further, she meets the elusive Reuben and begins to realise that perhaps her father has been lying to her all this time. There’s no single clear moment when she decides to rebel, but things come to a head when her father, increasingly deranged, decides that it’s all too difficult, and that it’s time for them both to die. She promises to go with him, and for a time believes that it’s a promise she must keep, watching fatalistically from a distance as he hunts for poisonous mushrooms. She changes her mind just in time, but this decision has significant consequences both for her immediate situation and for the rest of her life.

There are some faults with this novel—the characters, even Peggy, are a bit thin and shadowy, and it could have been more forcefully edited to great effect. There’s also a musical theme throughout (Peggy’s mother is a concert pianist but has never taught Peggy to play the piano; she learns from a single sheet of music her father brought with them, and plays for hours on a soundless “piano” that her father constructs) that I found annoying but very typical of contemporary upmarket mainstream novels. These themes are never load-bearing; rather, they could be knocked out without affecting the overall construction, but giving a sense of spaciousness instead of fussiness. Overall, though, Our Endless Numbered Days is an interesting story that deals with a great many aspects of inter-human relationships, and it finishes up with a very well executed slow reveal about the nature of mind and memory under intense stress.

Why you should never read the blurb

February 10, 2015 § 4 Comments

I never read blurbs. I never have, not out of any particular reason, except possibly that summaries of novels rarely interest me. I don’t even open a book to read the first few pages. If I’m not going by reviews or recommendations, I really do judge books by their covers. It seems to work quite well for me.

Last week I read Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves for my book club. Not only had I not read any reviews of it, but I soon realised I’d thought the book we were reading was one by an entirely different Karen. It started off quite well, probably better than I expected. And then a few chapters in, there’s an astonishing revelation that turns everything you thought you understood on its head. It’s really quite an impressive authorial feat.

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The morning after I read that part, I idly glanced down at the back of the book while I was doing something else. The amazing twist was entirely given away right there! What a waste–at least that was my first impression. I am sure the book would not have had nearly such an impact if I had already known what was coming. It’s psychologically important in a meta sense too. This thing we now know would have changed how we read the story, and Fowler points this out. If you’ve read the blurb, you literally will not have the experience the novel thinks you have had or needs you to have had. There’s an interesting discussion of the spoiler situation here, though, and the different ways of enjoying the reading experience.

I wonder how the conversation between author and publisher went. Did Fowler try to object, on the basis that she had carefully crafted the novel to lead up to this crucial point? Did the marketing people roll their eyes and say, yes, but this is your USP? How can we not mention it? Fascinating to ponder. Safe to say I won’t be reading blurbs any time soon.

 

Etta and Otto and Russell and James

January 26, 2015 § Leave a comment

My review of Emma Hooper’s Etta and Otto and Russell and James appeared in the National Post last week. Read it here.

Childhood by Jona Oberski, translated by Ralph Manheim

January 23, 2015 § Leave a comment

Born in Amsterdam to Jewish parents, Oberski was just a year old when World War Two broke out. He published this slim autobiographical novel in 1978, almost forty years after the events in it, and it is a truly astonishing accomplishment.

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The novel opens in Bergen-Belsen, with the four-year-old narrator being reassured by his mother:

There’s been a mistake, but everything will be all right. We’ve gone away for a few days with a lot of other people, but we’ll be going home soon and Daddy will be there too. They’ve made a mistake, so we’ll have to stay here for a few days, visiting the way we visited with Trude a while ago.

The mother’s words seem to be setting up the most terrible kind of dramatic irony. We are sure we know how this ends, and it certainly isn’t with them going home. But somehow, mysteriously, a week later they do go home. “A few other people went,” writes the boy, “but most stayed.” This matter-of-fact reporting of the situation is one of the most astounding features of Childhood. Somehow Oberski has managed to capture a wonderful and realistic child’s voice, rooted firmly in the moment and barely concerned, even at such a time, with events that will have an enormous impact on his life. Or perhaps he didn’t have to try; perhaps what happened was seared into Oberski’s memory so deeply that these memories were unable to be later tainted by adult knowledge, hindsight and the desire to ponder what-ifs. Either way, this technique is used here flawlessly and successfully.

After the mistaken trip to the camp, short chapters describe how the narrator celebrates a birthday, experiences an instance of bullying because he is Jewish, is taken by his parents on a trip on the ferry, during which he is allowed to drive for a brief moment, and goes to work one day with his father, where the boss helps him use the typewriter. These give us a rapid, blinkered view of the narrator’s world, and furnish details about the time period and the family’s life. The birthday celebration excepted, each of these instances shows the reader how hyper-aware Jews had to constantly be of their position in society. First there’s the grocer’s son who stamps on the boy’s mud pies and taunts him, and when his father goes to complain, the grocer tells him in a telling non-sequitur that “it couldn’t have been his son; he said he’d always sold us everything we wanted, which had got him into plenty of trouble.” Then there’s the ferryman, who merely compliments the boy’s grasp of Dutch without rudeness or hostility. The recognition of difference is there, creating suspense, but nothing happens. And finally, the day the narrator goes to the office with his father, he mentions that “My mother had sewn a yellow star on my coat. She said, ‘Look, now you’ve got a pretty star, just like Daddy.’ I thought the star was pretty, but I’d rather have gone without.” He then moves seamlessly onto something of more pressing concern: “We had a long way to go. Luckily my father lifted me up on his shoulders now and then.”

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I give all these examples to try to show all the different currents moving around the boy, who remains largely unaware and seemingly uninterested. His parents, devoted to him, are trying to protect him from the worst, trying to build up his self-esteem (for example with the star) in situations where other people are intending to destroy it (even when the grocer’s son stamps on his pies, the worry that lingers is the loss of the mould to build them).

Throughout the novel he’s resolutely just a boy growing up. His perspective is narrow, short-sighted and short-term; he does not try to think things through or come to terms with his situation or with other people’s inhuman cruelty. Things happen, but he does not become precociously wise or develop feelings of inferiority. There is no need to reflect on his own self because he is still too immature to understand that the world doesn’t revolve around him, even while he seems resigned to the fact that in his world he is in control of nothing. Others take advantage of his innocence, even in the camp, when he and his parents are permanently interned after their brief reprieve: a group of older children egg him on to thumb his nose at a guard, and later encourage him to sneak into the morgue. When children take it in turns to clean the cooking pots, he doesn’t understand that this is a way of sneaking them extra food. It’s potato peelings, not dinner, and in any case, he doesn’t have a spoon.

Despite the lack of analysis, or inserted reflection on what his parents must have been feeling and enduring, this is a stark yet deeply profound book. The reader is drawn in by the skilful contrast of what’s important to the boy and what we know—from history and from the context of the novel—he should be worried about. And that should is an interesting word. Should he be worried about anything? Is it better that he is cocooned from the true understanding that so many people wish him deliberate and dreadful harm? Or is this refusal to understand, almost but never quite disingenuous, a mechanism to protect himself? The narrator certainly does not flinch at reporting how his own selfishness at times puts his family in grave danger.

Childhood provokes a great many interesting questions. It’s a book about the Second World War, something familiar to us from so many films, novels, first-hand accounts and so on. But this child’s perspective, at once determinedly unself-conscious, detached, and heartbreaking, is worth reading.

Other reviews of Childhood:

John Self at The Asylum

Dorian Stuber at Open Letters Monthly

Reading around the world

January 15, 2015 § 2 Comments

There’s been an idea percolating in my brain for a while. Why not read a contemporary book from every country round the world? Give it a deadline of a year, say, or maybe two. This totally unoriginal idea has evolved into something marginally less gimmicky: read a handful of books from each country (countries in strict alphabetical order, of course), with the timescale to be … as long as it takes. I still want to read plenty of everything else while I’m doing it. And other things might get involved too: non-fiction, films, restaurant visits: why not?

I haven’t quite decided what definition of “country” to use; most likely it will be the 193 member states of the UN. But whatever list I go with, Afghanistan is first. I’ve got four candidates so far, but none of them have always lived in Afghanistan, as far as I can tell. They are:

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I definitely don’t want to read Khaled Hosseini, and in truth I’m a little concerned about the Hashimi. The cover alarms me. But it’s in my local library, so no harm done if I don’t like it.

It seems that only Atiq Rahimi originally wrote in Dari (and later in French); the others in English. Words Without Borders had a great Afghan literature issue back in 2011, but it’s hard to track down books by the featured authors.

Any other recommendations?

Multilingual

January 12, 2015 § Leave a comment

I’ve always been fascinated by languages. One of my favourite series of children’s books (The Chalet School) was set in a boarding school in Austria and the pupils, who were from all over Europe, had to speak English one day, French the next, and German the next. I wished that it was a real school.

 

 

When I was 17 or 18 and thinking about university applications, I knew I wanted to study languages. I’d done seven years of French, five of German, four of Latin and one of Spanish. I was keen on doing something a little more out of the way. Icelandic was my top choice, followed by Dutch. Unfortunately for me, my class tutor advised me not to go for something so obscure because it wouldn’t be useful. Having no idea about the world, I didn’t realise that he meant this in a very narrow sense that bore no resemblance to anything I wanted to do with my life. I now understand that careers advisors saw languages as an added extra to offer in your career as a business person or in the civil service; I already knew I never wanted to work in an office, an opinion that later temp experiences confirmed.

 

So I stuck with French. During my degree I lived in France for a year. The expat community I ended up with was mostly Swedish (the other anglophones were housed on campus) with a sprinkling of Dutch. I soon realised I preferred Swedish to Dutch, and was quickly able to understand quite a lot of it (to my surprise, German + English helped a lot more with spoken Swedish than with spoken Dutch). Apparently, after a few glasses of vin rouge, I was even pretty good at speaking it, although in cold hard daylight I was always too embarrassed to be my friends’ performing seal (they thought it was hilarious because I sounded like the Swedish queen).

 

That was a long time ago now, but ever since then I have been telling myself that I would learn Swedish properly. And now, finally, I am. 2015 is my year of Swedish. I’m doing a combination of DuoLingo, Language Trainer and podcasts at the moment. Why bother? Well, for no reason other than I love learning languages.

 

One of the most fascinating things is when words for the same object are far apart. I was thinking recently about the word “toy.” In French it’s jouet, in Spanish juguete. The link in the Latin languages is clear (although intriguingly, the actual Latin word for toy seems to be the rather ungainly crepundia). German is Spielzeug (literally, plaything), and Swedish is leksak (leka and spela both mean “to play”). So I assumed “toy” must come from the second half of Spielzeug, but the OED tells me that the word is Middle English and of uncertain origin. There is a Middle Dutch word toy, and the later speeltuig. Wiktionary traces the word back through Old Dutch and Proto-Germanic to Proto-Indo-European: dewk, which means to pull or lead (like the Latin–and Italian–ducere).

 

Isn’t language brilliant? Icelandic next year.

 

[And there might be no photos on this blog until WordPress cooperates with my Mac…]

Bertrand Laverdure in the TLS

January 6, 2015 § Leave a comment

My short review of Universal Bureau of Copyrights by Bertrand Laverdure was published in the TLS towards the end of last year. You can read it here as long as you have a subscription….

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