Four books, four countries

June 4, 2013 § Leave a comment

I’ve been so busy recently that it’s no longer the to-be-read pile staring balefully at me from the shelves, but also the to-be-reviewed pile. Shoving the read books in a cupboard solved the problem only temporarily, so I promised myself I’d post an omnibus edition of mini-reviews before I started the next big novel.

Viviane Elisabeth Fauville, by Julia Deck, was published last year in France and is currently being translated for an American publisher. It’s the kind of book that will do well in English-speaking markets—it’s a dark novel that combines the terrifying insanity of new motherhood with an intriguing crime mystery; the sort of intellectual European export, like The Killing or The Dinner, that we seem to eat up. The novel opens with the protagonist, Viviane, waking up the day after a visit to her psychiatrist—a man whose dead body is discovered in his office shortly afterwards. Viviane Elisabeth Fauville is an interesting exploration of mental health and human relationships, as the stories Viviane tells herself and the police are proved false over and over again. Viviane convinces the police of her alibi to begin with, but she can’t keep away from the crime scene or the other suspects, and her lies start to catch up with her. An intriguing novel.

Simon Okotie’s Whatever Happened to Harold Absalon? is like no book I have ever read before. We all know people who talk in exhaustive detail about the minutiae of their lives; we have ways of distracting them or cutting them off. But there’s no distracting the private detective and former colleague of the titular Harold Absalon. Everything is analysed at extreme length. This takes some getting used to, but then starts to become poetic. It’s like Proust going through a teenage existential crisis, stating the obvious, but then interrogating the literal meaning of every single word and phrase until it loses all meaning. The narrator is supposed to be tracking down Harold Absalon, his former colleague and transport advisor to the mayor, but appears rather to be trailing Harold’s wife, the beautiful Isobel. Harold never does turn up, but through the seemingly random footnotes we start to work out why this might be the case. Several weeks after finishing the book, I can actually no longer recall the precise details of how it all works out, but the tortuous (and sometimes torturous) meanderings of the narrator’s brain are fixed in my mind. It’s experimental in the sense of literally trying to apply a theory to practice: how far can you go—how far do you have to go—before you can be truly sure that the words you say are genuinely communicating the message you want them to?

The lead title from House of Anansi this season is Saleema Nawaz’s Bone & Bread. This novel takes Beena and Sadhana, sisters from a short story in Nawaz’s collection Mother Superior, and makes them the subject of her debut novel. The novel is far from happy and upbeat all the time—the sisters lose first their father, then their beloved mother, and Sadhana suffers from anorexia from her teens until her premature death—but something about it feels fresh and spring-like. The writing is alive, lyrical without being cluttered. For a first novel it’s very well done: it’s well structured and fully rounded out, and it neither skips over the tricky bits or skimps on essentials such as character or plot.

A recent One Story offering was an extract from Amity Gaige’s new novel, Schroder. The extract was pretty much perfect in terms of pacing, structure and depth, and it stood on its own as a short story. In the novel, which charts the marriage and separation of Eric Kennedy (the protagonist) and Laura, his ex-wife and the mother of his daughter, Meadow, Eric is driven close to despair by the thought of losing his child. The two of them disappear for several days, but are ultimately forced to return, and Eric has to face the very serious consequences of abducting his own daughter. While they are on the road Gaige ruminates on the meaning of loss, the grief of the non-cohabiting parent after a separation, and how to have a relationship. Gaige also introduces a secondary plot–the fact that Eric has been concealing his identity for many years. He thought his past was over, but it’s about to catch up with him. Unfortunately for me, the One Story extract was so good (and so successfully encapsulated a much larger story) that the novel itself was a little disappointing, feeling sometimes like a longer version—diluted, even though it contained a great deal of new information—of things I already knew. It’s quite an achievement to make a novel extract work well as a shorter piece (as some of the less successful extracts in the Granta Best of Young British Novelists make clear), but it’s made it surprisingly difficult to comment on how well Schroder works as a novel.

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