Thursday, 30 June 2022

“Erasure” by Percival Everett - review

“Erasure” by Percival Everett:


In this truly brilliant, deeply thought-provoking novel, first published in 2001, Everett created a cutting, excellently executed satire on how books by authors of colour are categorised and defined by race.


Everett’s novels are all distinctive in terms of form and content and most of those I’ve read are very good. Most of them are playing with, satirizing or bending the rules of a different genre. 

Along with WoundedThe TreesSo Much Blue and I Am Not Sidney PoitierErasure is perhaps one of Everett’s best novels. 


Race has always been a central theme in Everett’s work and so here it is again, distilled and concisely brought to focus. In Erasure we follow the story of Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, who, much as Percival Everett himself, is a black writer and academic and who is increasingly frustrated by how his being black alters readers’ expectations of his work.


Novels such as Wounded or So Much Blue acknowledge race and even examine some of its causes and effects, but do not make it the central or pivotal point. This is different in Erasure. Here race is the primary concern and shows how completely the term has been conflated with non-whiteness in the United States and how whiteness is existentially dependant on this conflation. 


To quickly sketch the plot: 

Thelonious “Monk” Ellison is frustrated about the tremendous success of the so-called authentic and raw novel “We's Lives in Da Ghetto” of a young black female author, which he considers below and devoid of all aesthetic and artistic value. 


And so in response, meant as a satirical parody, he writes under the pseudonym Stagg R. Leigh, a searing diatribe, a distilled little pulp novel titled at first My Pafology and finally published as Fuck which appears in full length as a story-within-a-story in Erasure


Monk‘s intention was to expose the publishing industry’s racial pigeonholing, but publishing this book backfires and sets loose a wizard’s apprentice storm of success and fame he cannot control anymore. The book, written in ghettospeak, painfully funny and plain painful, with simplistic characters and soap melodrama, uses racial stereotypes to strengthen the satire and is completely misunderstood and gushed over as the authentic new voice of the black people and praised as a true description of the African-American experience. It brings its author substantial and much-needed monetary compensation, a six-figure movie deal included. 

 

Now Monk is in a dilemma, a moral conundrum and what will he do about it? 

He refuses to let his true identity be known but meanwhile there are serious difficulties and problems which he must cope with. There is his mother's rapid mental decline, the sudden hostility of his gay brother who for a long time lived in the closet and just came out and the shocking shooting of his sister who worked as a doctor in an abortionist clinic. Not to forget the discovery among his dead father's papers that Dad once had a white mistress and Monk now all of a sudden has a half-sister his age. While he struggles to cling to his own identity and trying to maintain what is left of his family, his wicked creation soars higher and higher and Monk is forced to compromise his integrity and redefine himself.


Erasure is a peculiar mix of literary satire and emotional domestic fiction, original, hilarious, sharp, genuinely moving and tender. One of Everett‘s best. 



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Tuesday, 28 June 2022

“Assumption“ by Percival Everett - review


 “Assumption” by Percival Everett:

As the title suggests rather obviously, Assumption is about making assumptions in criminal investigations where things are not as they seem. It is about how we grew accustomed to the inner logic and dramaturgy of narratives and thus form expectations. On another level It might also be the author’s mild personal refusal to be pigeonholed. One only becomes aware of this, though after having read a couple of his other novels which all are playing with, satirizing or bending the rules of a different genre. If this is the first Everett one reads it stays just what it is, a nice entertaining story.


In this trilogy of interwoven murder mysteries the investigator is the enigmatic Ogden Walker, deputy sheriff in Plata, a fictional county in the northern part of the state. Ogden is an ordinary guy, almost to the point of being dull. He likes fly-fishing and gets along well enough with the town folk and with his sheriff and fellow deputy. Ogden is a cop for want of anything better to do. For him it is just a job but he does it well.


In the first case Ogden investigates the strange murder mystery of a young woman’s mother which leads to other strange casualties. In the second Ogden is lead on a trail of the murder of several prostitutes who rebelled against their pimp. And in the third and ultimately strangest case Ogden follows the murder of one of his friends that leads to a bunch of meth addicts. The ending comes as a surprise and everything to say about it would be a spoiler. Still, it somehow felt anticlimactic.


All in all a nice little set of interwoven stories which twist into a surprising end and as such make a good entertaining tale and a mild reminder to be careful with too much confidence and trust in our acquired sense of how stories should go. 


This has been my sixth novel by Everett in a row, now and I honestly have to admit that I much favour his other novels, most of which have my boundless, absolute admiration. This one here, while not quite a disappointment, did not live up to my expectations (and thus makes one in favour of the authors titular argument).



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Friday, 24 June 2022

“Percival Everett by Virgil Russell“ by Percival Everett - review


 “Percival Everett by Virgil Russell” by Percival Everett:

This is my fifth book by Percival Everett and all his other books so far I have immensely enjoyed, they all were great, entertaining stories and were, if not by their topics, then by their style, quite easy to digest. Statistically there had to come the moment where I might stumble upon a book by him a little bit more demanding. Well, this one is it. 


That is not to say I don’t like it. I do, I really do. It is just very different from what I expected. 


It is a comedy, it has fantastic elements, it is very confusing at first, it has many narrative strands and one really has a hard time to figure out what’s going on, who exactly the narrator is and where this all will be leading at. It is a story inside a story inside a story. 


The whole thing is offered in a relaxed voice, spiced often with Percival Everett‘s trademark of deadpan comedy and wordplay. It is a very intellectual and philosophical novel, not really plot-driven. Mostly we find us in the mindset of some person, the narrator, who is either Dad or Son. There are natural transitions from one mind state to the next, without it being clear what mind exactly we are in at the moment, there is no reliability, no one to trust, once a statement or a fact is uttered, the next moment it will be renounced. There is an unconventional mixture of different styles that gives the work a distinctive air. It sometimes frightens, sometimes upsets and often baffles the reader. 


At some point it becomes clearer that we are following an old man’s mind, a dying man’s mind, who passes his last days in an old peoples institution called Teufelsdröckh. The little plot that gives the story momentum comes from sketching the every day life at such an institution, fellow senile residents and mean-spirited orderlies and nurses and a mild insurgent of the old people against their oppressors included.


The old man is or was a writer (or photographer?, or horse trainer?, or doctor?) and in his mind entertains conversations with a (perhaps) dead son, or it is vice versa. Or the son lives. Be it as it may, they both seem to wish to reconnect, the father and the son. The old man, having lived quite a life, is a wise man. And so we are giving snippets and snatches of memory, short flashbacks into the past, encounters and historical events known and unknown, we are following someone’s life which could easily be our own. Or not. 


I think, I assume, I imagine this novel to be an attempt at giving a home, a contextual ground for contradiction and irreconcilabilties. Many ideas and concepts, many soft blossoming beginnings of narratives are laid down as rhizomes and the reader allows them to either flourish or wither. So there might also be the intentionally and wanted participation of the reader as another factor in the development of the novel. 


The desire to express oneself artistically, say as, a painter or writer or composer, stems from the attempt to move beyond the base and vulgar, purely animal, and very short existence on this planet. To a certain degree, it varies from individual to individual, the artist reaches a point were he realises to have said all there is to say, all there is to express. This is a tremendous shift in perspective on life itself. As it is for non-artists who reached the same conclusion. Everything after that revelatory moment, everything else must be regarded as gloss, as repetition, embellishment, elucidation or reissue, in other words, it is redundant. 


So, how do we go on living with this knowledge? What do we make of it? The only new thing left to us is cessation, suspension, conclusion, preferably conclusion with a promising enticing solution. We are left to play with and within tenebrous shadows of memories. Some call it redemption. 


A very good book. A wise book. It is about language, about writing, it is an investigation into the nature of narrative, it is a play on self-reference, it is about concepts and ideas, about reliance and truth, it is philosophical. It is about a life, about the absurdity and incongruity of life. It is a strong, compassionate meditation on old age and its humiliations. And about dying. And about living. 


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Tuesday, 21 June 2022

“So Much Blue“ by Percival Everett - review


 “So Much Blue” by Percival Everett:

“A painting has many surfaces.” And so has this novel which is by turns shocking, funny and touching.


Kevin Pace, a 56-years-old abstract painter lives in an artsy, idyllic home in New England, together with his loving wife and his 2 kids and paints, among many others, over a long stretch of time one very personal, very intimate and secret painting he won’t allow anyone to see, not his children, not his best friend Richard, not even his wife, Linda. The painting might or might not be a representation of the quest in a frustrating life, a life that moves without moving, changes but hardly alters. The painting might also be just a symbol for a secret we never allow anyone else to see and how this takes a toll on us.


Is life similar to a painting in which things are really no more than tenebrous representations of tenebrous recollections of reality?


Kevin, in a dispassionate voice, tells of mostly past events. The novel is perfectly structured, there are really three novels in one. The narration shifts between three time lines, easily recognizable by their labels: 1979, Paris and House:

In a very thriller-like narrative, 30 years ago in Salvador in 1979, we follow Kevin on a dangerous and formative quest for the lost brother of his best friend Richard.

In a captivating love-story, some 12 years ago on a business trip in Paris, we watch Kevin, already a successful painter and married with 2 kids, falling in love with a young watercolorist.

In a piece of domestic fiction the present of Kevin unfolds at his home with his family and all the troubles of their own. 


As different in voice and mood these captions are, they all have one thing in common and that is Kevin. The three stages of his live slowly begin to coalesce and show, that the past and what we did, will for ever have an impact on our life and those we live with and that time and experience do have the power to alter us. Change is possible.


While still using his inimitable sense of deadpan humor and slapstick, his way of fast-paced entertaining narration, Percival Everett with So Much Blue delivers here one of his more somberly serious novels. It is in spirit closer related to Wounded and different but not less great, than his satires I Am Not Sidney Poitier and The Trees. My personal disposition connects more with the somberness, the lugubriousness and the gravity of it. 


This is an often frank and honest look into marriage, into fatherhood, into love, deception, self-deception and responsibility, into art, the mistakes we made in the past and how honesty and truth can be simultaneously crushing, destructive and hurtful but also redemptive. It is also about keeping secrets and the diabolical power they exert on us and on those close to us. 


So Much Blue is so far my favorite of Percival Everett’s books. 



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Sunday, 19 June 2022

“I am Not Sidney Poitier“ by Percival Everett - review


 “I Am Not Sidney Poitier” by Percival Everett:

Again, a great novel from Percival Everett, as irresistible and hard to put down as The Trees and Wounded.

In I Am Not Sidney Poitier young Not Sidney Poitier sets out on a quest in search for his identity and authenticity in the absurd country of the United States of America. He is surrounded and obstructed by a culture where other people’s perceptions of race, wealth, and so many other issues do not make this an easy task. As he stumbles from one misadventure into the next mishap young Not Sidney slowly gets to know more about himself.


How does a name define a person? Not Sidney Poitier is forced to ask himself this question constantly. The name was given to him by an eccentric mother and the origin and cause of the name stays obscure. He certainly has a great resemblance to the real actor Sidney Poitier but is not him, he is Not Sidney. 


And with this unusual name there are bound to be confusions at every new encounter. Everett never gets tired to vary these inevitable confusing difficult introductions to every new person and delivers them every time slightly altered. It becomes a running gag and a never ending source of word play. But it also raises the question every time anew who Not Sidney really is.


As the classical young American innocent, young Not Sidney goes to school, is bullied, is sexually abused by a white woman teacher, has to leave school because of the incident, goes to college, joins a fraternity, drops out, gets arrested by racist law enforcement in racist southern states for driving alone and being just what he his, a black young man. Not Sidney is smart enough to know what is really going on but also kind enough not to turn away from terminally stupid people the moment he encounters them.


Not Sidney has one great advantage, he has come into the inheritance of a lot of money, he really is very, very rich. That is sometimes helpful, but mostly he tries to conceal the fact and prefers to leave others in the dark about it.


Not Sidney at college finds a girlfriend, is invited to Thanksgiving to her parent’s home only there to learn that he is too dark for their lightly skinned daughter and the family. The mother is a climber, the father a prosperous attorney and they feel they have strived and worked too hard to be set back on their imaginary course to whiteness. But then they find out that he has money and all their bigotry and hypocrisy comes to the fore: They suck up to him. He disdainfully refuses. He has learned more at this Thanksgiving weekend than in all the weeks of "The Philosophy of Nonsense“, a class given by his professor in college, a certain Percival Everett, whom Not Sidney sort of adopts as a father figure but the character Percival Everett plays hard to get. As in real life the writer Percival Everett seems to refuse easy categorization of his work as that of a Black author.


Many many events lead to the end of the book, not all questions are answered, but a lot has been gained on the journey. This is another delightful mix of fury at the world and the hilarity and absurdity which we call life or, in a more localized definition, the funhouse America. This is a brilliant, provocative and very funny book and a greatly entertaining satire.



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Friday, 17 June 2022

“Wounded“ by Percival Everett - review


 “Wounded” by Percival Everett:

John Hunt, the laconic, black protagonist of this novel is a horse trainer and lives on a farm in Wyoming in self-imposed isolation with his old uncle Gus. Six years ago John lost his wife in a horse accident and still grieves. To John his blackness is almost incidental, he is well integrated and respected in the small community and his race is not an issue. He is an outsider in being a black horse trainer and in being a Berkeley-educated, modern art loving individual.


Just after the cruelly murdered body of a local gay man was found, "strung up like an elk with his throat slit“, the gay son of an old university friend, David, and his boyfriend come to visit the town to attend a gay rally in response to the killing and are met by some of the locals, the usual share of rednecks, bigots and bullies, with hostility. The couple soon after leaves, soon after they return back home they break up and David, looking for an escape from his love misery, believing that working on the ranch would do him good, returns to the farm. Slowly David and John become friends, John in a caring, fatherly way, aware that David has a crush on him. He has to face some difficult questions about himself and deal with his own complicated feelings about homosexuality. At the same time he falls in love, proposes and lives together with the neighbor woman Morgan, also a ranch owner.


One day David, sent out on an errant, does not return and the search for him ends up in catastrophe.


As in The Trees, Everett deals with themes of racism and culture clash and crafts this gripping western whodunnit into a dramatic and unsparing inquiry into contemporary prejudice. 

This is a highly entertaining, albeit sad and shocking story that addresses the toughest issues with humor and grace. The novel is as much about the withholding of emotion and the struggle to identify one's deepest needs as it is a political novel, asking the question of responsibility for those around us. 


Another beautiful novel by Percival Everett. 


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Thursday, 16 June 2022

“The Trees“ by Percival Everett - review


“The Trees” by Percival Everett:


First things first: This is a very funny novel. And it’s driving theme is American racism.


The Trees is the genre satirization of a detective story involving a series of grisly murders related to America’s long, horrifying history of lynching people of color. It makes a great story and fast-paced page-turner. Everett aimes at racism and police violence and his style ensures suspenseful and entertaining reading.


The story opens in the backwater small town of Money, Mississippi, a “shithole semi-town“. For those in knowledge of American history, a historical location. The matriarch of the Bryant family, Carolyn, called Granny C, now an invalid, dottering octogenerian, is the woman whose false accusation led to the horrific lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Money, in 1955. Till, Black boy, visiting relatives from Chicago, was kidnapped, tortured, lynched and dumped in the Tallahatchie River. In the novel the fictional Carolyn regrets her accusations, of the real Carolyn Bryant exists the disputed version, that she recanted her accusation in the 2000s. 


Now her close male descendants are found cruelly, beastly murdered and mutilated in a manner similar to that of the lynching victim. Their testicles have been cut off and placed in the hands of a disfigured, bloated, ghastly beaten dead, unidentified Black body, dressed in a suspicious Depression-era outfit. This body soon after mysteriously disappears from the scene only to reappear at another ghastly crime scene with another White victim’s balls in his hand. There seems to be no other explanation to the who-dunnit than otherworldy powers. Nevertheless, the narrative stays generally grounded in realism.


Soon all over the States more castrated bodies turn up, and not only dead Blacks but Asians, too are involved and we begin to believe that something takes its revenge on the crimes of America, that some moral reckoning is unfolding. 


The MBI, the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, much to the chagrin of the very white and very racist local police force, sends two Black detectives, Jim Davis and Ed Morgan, to aid the investigation. They are later joined by a Special Agent of the FBI, a Black woman named Herberta Hind. In most other stories of the South the Black characters are often one-dimensional and have to rely on the grandiosity of their white counterparts. Here it is the Black characters who have to deal with the not-so-suprising simplicity of White folks. 


In detective fiction, in general it is good guys vs. bad. There is the hero who chases and catches the bad guy. Justice is clear and obvious, it is neatly black and white. In The Trees the direction towards where the moral compass points is not so clear anymore.


The real satire takes place in the sketching of the locals, the law enforcement and people in “power“ (even Trump has a cameo appearance) as white trash laughingstock. There is often dialogue in the local vernacular, uneducated pidgin English, that renders them even more as slapstick figures sadly based on reality. The naming of most of the characters, too is done in slapstick manner, there is a Junior Junior, there is a Pick. L. Dill, there is even Triple J, the son of Junior Junior. His mother is called by her family Hot Mama Yeller, her CB handle.


Enter Mama Z, the Black local root doctor with a big knowledge of everything and about everyone. She is over a hundred years old and has been accumulating over the years a huge collection of every recorded lynching that took place since 1913, chronicling “the work of the devil”. “If you want to know a place, you talk to its history”. At one point the lyrics to the old song “Strange Fruit” appear in their entirety and remind us that this narrative about America’s race problem has been told already for decades and not much since has changed. 


Everett has a great talent for wordplay and it is a joy to follow his characters in their verbal interactions. He also has a great sense of satire which is hilarious but also often quite hurtfully gut-punching. He puts a finger on the sins of the Nation and accuses all white Americans who have benefited from the terror and systematic repression. In choosing the masquerade of a detective novel and satirizing it he is able to perform the difficult task of approaching a very sensitive topic, the shameful conduct, the inhumanity and cruelty of America towards Blacks, and makes it easier to digest. 


The story unfolds in ever and ever more slapstick manner but in the end catharsis does not come, there is no offering of solutions and we are left to our own conclusions. This is not necessarily a bad thing. The Trees manages to evoke a dream of retribution that pays justice to all the sadly lost lives in the file cabinet of Mama Z.


A great book!


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Friday, 10 June 2022

“Excellent Women“ by Barbara Pym - review


 “Excellent Women” by Barbara Pym:

Barbara Pym was an English writer who died in 1980 and was best known for her social comedies Excellent Women and A Glass Of Blessings. Her career suffered a long stretch of oblivion after her publisher dropped her quite brutally after her sixth novel. It was revived, though by the praises of the historian and biographer Lord David Cecil and the celebrated poet Philip Larkin who both claimed her to be the most under-rated writer of the century. Her novel Quartet in Autumn was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1977.


In a series of snapshots of human life Excellent Women is narrated by one of these typical English women Barbary Pym seems to be so much in favour of: spinsterly, smart, supportive, repressed, lonely, almost contented and resigned in their realization that their life has come to a still point with no perspective of future drastic change. The only exciting things happen outside of their own lives, in the parish they belong to, with the people they know there and with the dreary “good work“ they do to keep such a congregation and community going. 


Mildred Lathbury is one such woman, a clergyman’s daughter, a left-over spinster in the England of 1950. Through her we are drawn into the small habitat of a typical English parish and all the little excitement that comes with it. There are old neighbours and new neighbours, there is Rocky, a dashing young husband with a not-so-well-doing marriage, there is Julian Malory, the respectable and presentable vicar who almost gets lured into marriage by a clergyman’s widow but narrowly escapes. There are other spinster women friends and one or two might-be admirers which Mildred hardly considers as suitable or doesn’t even realize the true intentions with which they approach her.


All is written in low-key irony and as usual, a dark undercurrent of social mirroring of morality and class. And quite a dash of good English black humour, as exemplary in following passage:


Two office workers have a conversation on the topic of change:

“It’s rather pleasant to be unlike oneself occasionally.“

“I don’t agree. They moved me to a new office and I don’t like it at all. Different pigeons come to the windows”.


It is this thing about English humour, it delights in tiny little things, in the transforming of something ordinary into the extraordinary. As in A Glass Of BlessingExcellent Women is a most endearingly amusing very English novel, much in the spirit of Jane Austen’s society reflections. There is again a lot of interesting, sharp observation about the self-centred pomposity of men and all the details of smallish, distinctly English lives are laid out and form a parade of beautifully sketched minor egotists and misfits. A very good book. 


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Sunday, 5 June 2022

“A Glass of Blessings” by Barbara Pym - review


“A Glass of Blessings” by Barbara Pym:

Barbara Pym was an English writer who died in 1980 and was best known for her social comedies Excellent Women and A Glass Of Blessings. Her career suffered a long stretch of oblivion after her publisher dropped her quite brutally after her sixth novel. It was revived, though by the praises of the historian and biographer Lord David Cecil and the celebrated poet Philip Larkin who both claimed her to be the most under-rated writer of the century. Her novel Quartet in Autumn was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1977.


In A Glass of Blessingsfirst published in 1958, the central character and narrative voice is Wilmet Forsyth, the often self-absorbed, attractive thirty-three-year-old wife of a civil servant who lives a well-to-do, comfortable life and slowly becomes bored with the leisure of it. As befits her class and status, she simply does nothing and when not out lunching  or shopping with a woman friend she occasionally, at the instigation of her mother-in-law Sybil, an eccentric agnostic, dry-humored person in whose house she and her husband reside, does “good works“ at her parish of St. Luke.


One day she secures the vacant job of the housekeeper for the clergy house for a former colleague of her husband, a Mr. Bason, who had to resign his former job in the ministry, and thus  becomes drawn into the social life, the secrets and foibles of the congregation of the parish. Mr. Bason is a kleptomaniac who is drawn to all things beautiful and steals, albeit only for a couple of days, the precious Fabergé egg of one of the pastors. In the end, he leaves the clergy house to run an antiques shop in Devon that serves teas in the season which proves to be Heaven for him.


She also supports her mousy friend Mary, who, after the death of her mother, goes to live for a trial period in a convent but in the end decides against the life of a nun and marries the attractive Father Ransome.


Wilmet herself is attracted to Piers, the not-so-well-doing brother of her close friend Rowena but must discover in the end that his romantic attractions lie more with a beautiful, black-haired  lower-class-man with whom he shares an apartment. She receives a painful lesson when Piers mentiones that Wilmet might be too circumscribed by her own ‘narrow select little circle’ and might be one of those who are ‘less capable of loving their fellow human beings.’ 


Her mother-in-law late in life, decides to marry again and Wilmet and her husband Rodney are forced to look for a new home where Keith, the lover of Piers, is very helpful in choosing furniture and interior design. The move brings Rodney and Wilmet closer together while at the same time troubles are resolved for some of the other characters.


Despite the surface triviality this is a book with a darkly serious undercurrent about class and morality, often spiced with bracingly bitter remarks. The characters, a parade of minor egotists and misfits, are beautifully sketched and despite all the deficiencies of Wilmet’s personality one cannot help but like her. There is a lot of interesting, sharp observation about the self-centred pomposity of men and for that time (1958), a fresh outlook on gay relationships.


This is a restrained, delicate, low-key novel, not very plot-driven but vivid and engaging for its characters and their inner monologues. Rules are a main theme. Wilmet, stuck in her class and as that a perfect mirror of distinct English society, is always wondering about whether she can do this or that, or what people might think. Her life seems to be constructed of rules that ought better not be broken. Another recurring theme is the home which people try to find and build for themselves. She for Rodney and herself, Piers for him and his boyfriend, Mary for her and her future husband, Mr. Bason for a little while as the manager of the clergy household and also the retiring pastor who secures a villa in Italy for himself after he quits the service of the church.


A Glass of Blessings is written in a gentle and affectionate tone and moreover, is blessed with a small cast of gay male characters, quite a rare thing from this time period. 


A mild, warming and delightful little novel.


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Tuesday, 31 May 2022

“Burntcoat” by Sarah Hall - review


“Burntcoat” by Sarah Hall:

This is not your run-of-the-mill dystopian pandemic novel although there is a virus and all and everything is breaking apart. The narrator in this minimalistic epic is Edith, a sculptor of monumental, award-winning wooden sculptures and her story is by far not easy to digest but revelatory in its cruelty. Themes of art, sex, violence and difficult relationships play against a background of disaster in the form of a deadly pandemic. 


Edith lives and works in Burntcoat, a former vast warehouse which she transformed into a combination of home and studio space. Her narrative moves between the north of England and Japan where she once learnt the traditional woodwork burning techniques she employs in her art. But the narrative also travels back and forth in time, from her childhood (she was raised by a single mother who was disabled by a brain haemorrhage) to her art-school years and present artistic fame. 


In Burntcoat she begins a love affair with Halit, an immigrant chef. Lockdown comes, society collapses and Halit moves in with her. One day he goes out to get food from his former restaurant and comes home bleeding. In relentless prose we are forced to watch as a few days later he develops lesions and his illness and rapid decline begins. From this moment on we see the dissolution of the self by disease, we feel the dehumanizing, transformative power of the virus, so much more vicious than the one we had to endure during the last two years, and it affects everything dear to us: security, love, sexuality and creativity. We suddenly realize that we, that the whole world, had been spared a much more cruel fate and we suddenly see Life for what it always was: ephemeral. 


This is as much a tale of love as of death, of anguish and hurt, of loss and hope. As the wood which Edith burnishes in her art she became burnt, damaged but also more resilient.


 “A life is a bead of water on the  black surface, so frail, so strong.“



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Sunday, 29 May 2022

“Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell“ by Susanna Clarke - review

“Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” by Susanna Clarke:


I have been lured into reading this book by the author’s latest one, Piranesi, which I liked for its scope, its phantastical metaphors and, not least, for its concise, precise brevity.


This book now, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, is all but brief. It is a hefty monster of over 1000 pages. And I struggled through every one of them. It has not always been a pleasure. While at first amusing, it soon, over wide stretches, lost its charmes, grew tedious and boring until only towards the end it recovered its drive. 


It was and is not a bad book. I would even go as far as saying that it is a brilliant tale. The language is superb, witty, full of dark humour and glee, the descriptions of situations, landscapes and people sparkling and full of insight, the evoked images and phantasies plentiful and often truly surprising. The prose is classical sophisticated, nostalgic and yet timeless. I personally found it a tiny bit too long. Nevertheless, the book had me, true to its nature, under its spell. I could never, as often as I wished, put it away. So, in the end the satisfaction to have, together with the protagonists, gone through the labour, to have, despite all agonies, endured, prevailed and succeeded, now stays with me. I am not so sure that the novel itself will.


I shall not go through the plot. Suffice it to say that it is a truly ingenious tale, set in an Old England in a very British society, roughly 18th century Victorian, complete with obedient servants and conceited, callous, snobbish masters. The book is plot-driven, the story itself is not all light and bright, there is dark magic and cruelty, too. The two main protagonists, carefully crafted like most of the other characters, are two magicians, who are, one easily guesses it, the titular Mr. Norrell and Mr. Strange. Very different in character they at first work together, then oppose each other only to come back together in the end in a quest and fight against some evil which has befallen them personally and the country in general. Much happens and they, their loved ones and England, prevail. 


All in all a nice, sometimes surprsingly entertaining and ingeniously crafted book. I could have done with a shorter version but I am sure that for the phantasy inclined reader it will be a brilliant and rewarding indulgence.




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Tuesday, 17 May 2022

“Piranesi“ by Susanna Clarke - review


 “Piranesi“ by Susanna Clarke:

A delightful genre bending novel, a surprising dreamlike world full of suspense, mystery, murder and bookish thinking. 


it is a study of solitude and isolation, of someone living in in a mysterious world of vast interconnected halls, precisely 7,678 of them, that go on for miles in all directions, with stairs leading up to more and more levels, forming an infinite labyrinth of halls and vestibules in which countless marble statues have their home. The halls in the basement of the palace are regularly flooded by the tides of oceans that lead to crashing sweeps of water covering everything.


“The beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite”: this is the reverential proclamation of Piranesi, a man about 30 years old, who believes he lived in this place “since the world began”. He seems curiously content with his fate, even though he seems to be utterly alone. He wanders about this enormous, bewildering palace, exploring and cataloguing it meticulously. He believes himself to be one of the two inhabitants of the house, the other being “The Other“, a man, different from him, twice his age with whom he meets occassionally.


There is a sense of isolation but also the feeling that this could be paradise. Piranesi clearly is devoted to his home and draws all of his life’s purpose from it. Piranesi is not his real name but a name given to him by the Other in reference to an Italian 16th century architect, archaeologist and artist, famous for his drawings of intricate etchings of Rome and atmospheric prisons.


We learn more and more of this universe and slowly understand it as a metaphor for the alternative universe that we all inhabit in our heads. It is a world which was created by ideas flowing out of another, our real, world and is a representation of ideas and concepts and a link to “ancient knowledge long forgotten“.


Clarke manages a vivd tale full of suspense and apprehension, while at the same time keeping the prose simple and concise. At first confusing and mysterious, the tale slowly shifts in shocking twists and revelations and comes to a satisfying end. 



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Tuesday, 10 May 2022

“Companion Piece“ by Ali Smith - review


 “Companion Piece” by Ali Smith:

Two years after her famous Seasonal Quartet’s concluding volume Summer, recently published Companion Piece feels as a fifth installment of the Quartet, beautiful, light and playful as ever.


In all of the books I’ve read by Ali Smith one thing became soon very clear: She loves wordplay, puns, homonyms and any weird multi-faceted, multi-interpretable story. She revels in etymology. All her books are an intellectual treat. All her books show a remarkable capability for inventive, surprising connections. 


And so, again in this book. It springs from the same source as its predecessor, the Seasonal Quartet. The idea is to write about contemporary events as close as possible and show what effect these events have on the writer. It is an experiment in creating real-time fiction, driven by the News, yet managing to be profoundly thoughtful. In quite a masterly manner Smith captures the horrors of our time and simultaneously mirrors their absurdities. But writing text that is so dependent on contemporary events also means to ensure that the gap between experienced life, writing and publishing would not become too great. Whereas the Seasonal Quartet called for a self-imposed strict structural approach now, that the Quartet is finished, the pressure to satisfyingly conclude it and to make ends meet, is off and a new freedom in storytelling is gained instead. The spirit in this new novel somehow soars even higher, lighter, freer. 


The story itself is typical Smith, too. Again there is a focus on present-day anxieties which the recent lockdown, the isolation and restrictions, brought on and finally led to an uprise of oddball thinking in society. The novel comes in two parts, its structure closely related to Smith’s How to be both. First comes a contemporary section followed by a meandering story-within-a-story, set in medieval times of pestilence, poverty, injustice and famine. In juxtaposing the two times, in creating points of contact between two female artists and two plagues five centuries apart, the two stories always reflect or mirror, always contemplate, counterbalance or enhance each other and so make us aware that the problems we think of as being distinctly contemporary, like gender identity, work equality, isolationist restrictions towards aliens, are rooted deeply in our history. Like in most of her novels plot is often secondary to perspective and the accumulation of emotional, social and cultural layers. 


And this layering is exactly what the first-person narrator, Sandy Gray, a single queer painter in her mid-50s, does. In her art she layers words, poems, meaning, emotions and colours on canvas. In the Seasonal Quartet Smith used several actual women artists as means to highlight a tune or serve as a mood indicator. Here in Companion Piece, the heroine/ narrator herself is creating art which is her life’s companion and provides what other human companionship couldn’t give. 


Sandy lives alone in her rented home and temporarily takes care of her father’s dog. Her father had to be hospitalized after a heart-attack and she is barred from seeing him because of the pandemic. Sandy’s mother left them when Sandy was a girl and he and Sandy only have each other as family and are, despite many great differences, devoted to each other. O-tone father: “All that learning, and all you’ve done with it is make a life’s work of for Christ sake painting words on top of one another so nobody can even read them.”  


One day she receives a phone-call from a person, Martina, she once not-really-knew and not-really-liked at college, in fact they only shared one conversation about a poem by e. e. cummings. Then the story unfolds and meanders in typical Smith ways. Martina tells a strange story that happened to her. While working in curatorial function for the National Museum she was detained at border control on her return from abroad with the Boothby Lock, a finely wrought, intricate piece of 16th century English lock and key in her baggage. Assuming it was a weapon, they kept her in isolation for seven and a half hours where Martina then began to hear a voice stating: “Curlew or curfew,” then: “You choose.”


The story proves to be transformative, not only for Martina and Sandy, but also for the children of Martina, young adult twins, super woke, non-binary, awfully narcissistic and neurotically egotistical. Their research leads them to the house of Sandy whom they accuse for being the sole culprit for their mother's sudden and inexplicable transformation. Miscommunications and delightful funny verbal sparring escalate and they enter and take over Sandy’s home, forcing her to seek refuge in her father’s presently empty house to avoid their constant jabbering, presumptuous, annoying, acronymic text-speak. All these disruptions from routine, typical Smith again, bring on transformation and Sandy is forced to open up.


Smith often invites us to follow her alongside a stream of consciousness, meandering, yet consistent and philosophically tinted. She playfully leaps from investigations of words or ideas to cultural references in poems or songs. Jumping from etymology to history to literature and then turning back to daily life and thus showing that all this is material of and for the big painting of life, that is Smith’s great achievement. 


Alongside the tale and in between we are given a short history lesson in blacksmiths or the bubonic plague, a digression in the manifold meanings of the word “hello”, we hear about the curlew bird, we are made aware of the resemblance of its beak in medieval masks, worn as a shield against the Black Death, we learn how the ancient Egyptian symbol for a bird over time transformed into the mathematical sign for greater than and we follow the story of a gifted 14th century blacksmith who was branded and expelled by the community for attempting to work in the trade as a girl. This girl, together with its curlew bird companion, not only makes an appearance in her own time but, miraculously, pops up in Sandy's home who takes her for a homeless, slightly deranged person. 


By exploring binaries and their often blurred boundaries in chapters titled imagination versus reality, surface versus depth, real versus fake and stories versus lies, Smith makes us aware that indetermination could possibly be experienced as a joyful embrace of opposites. She also makes us aware that every person, creature or thing has the capability to become a companion. Smith’s concerns with grief, cruelty, language and art weave through this novel again with wit, warmth and feeling and she has created yet another book, as enigmatic, complex  and intellectually rewarding as her former ones. It shares the best qualities found in the Quartet and is a suitable companion piece to it.



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Thursday, 5 May 2022

“There but for the“ by Ali Smith - review


 “There but for the” by Ali Smith:

Another book by Ali Smith, the sixth book of her I’ve read so far. And again such a very fine one. 


One evening, at the home of the Lees, a quite posh, preposterous middle/upperclass family, at the invitation of the maddeningly, awfully conceited Genevieve Lee, people come for one of her annual “alternative“ gatherings in her elegant “certificated“ 16th century house in Greenwich. The dinner party does not go at all well in the way Mrs. Lee has had pictured it would. In between the main course and dessert one of the guests, Miles Garth, a pleasant, thoughtful and charming young man, until this evening unknown to the host, goes upstairs and locks himself in the spare bedroom and refuses to come out again. For months. 


Mrs. Lee, because she believes herself to be a liberal-minded, understanding person, refuses to call in the police, but still wants it to be known how generous a person she is and how terribly, terribly she suffers from this interruption of her daily routine and therefore decides to talk to the News of her predicament. Soon after word gets out a camp of occupiers forms around the house and under the window where Miles lives, complete with oddballs and religious fanatics who only wait for “Milo“, their new involuntary saint, to show himself at the window. Which he does not do. This is the basic story and the start of a truly imaginary, clever tale.


The novel then splits into four sections: THERE, BUT, FOR and THE. Each section is dominated by one of four people who have been touched by Miles in some way before in their lives. There are connections that don't quite connect and apparent non-connections that do. The key characters are all of above average intelligence and have found out, in one way or other, that it can be quite hard to find a place in the world, especially if one doesn’t blend in with the mass.


There is the woman Anna who met Miles on a trip round Europe as a teenager 30 years before. 


There is the man Mark who brought Miles to the dinner party in the first place, a 59-year-old gay picture researcher.


There is the woman May, old and dying, left alone by everything and everyone to pass away in a hospital. Miles, since the untimely death of her daughter, has visited her once a year to mark this anniversary. Her part to me was especially heartbreaking in its touchingly true understanding of how regret can define one's last days.


But the life and soul of the book is Brooke, a precocious child, the 10-year-old daughter of another couple who went to the same dinner party, significantly black, clever and, for her penchant and love for puns, often rather irritating to her environment. Brooke is the only one who sees the stranger in the spare room as a real human being rather than a nuisance, and who gets him to respond where others have failed simply by telling jokes. She is a true artist and the moral voice of the book.


The writing in this book makes reading an active experience. The text is stuffed with puns and punning, with wordplays, clues and riddles. The book plays with form, with structure and most of all with language. This is a book about storytelling, about how we communicate and how we connect or not connect with others. It is a novel that explores themes of identity as much as race, religion, class, and sexuality, and how the use and role of language shapes our definition of people or our perception of the world. The mirroring, unveiling power of language is all over and very present, for example, at the dinner party, an amazing, witty, chamber play that descends brilliantly into a comedy of drunkenness, sexual tension, pretentiousness, bigotry and envy.


A recurring motif is the increasing shabbiness, staleness and falseness of modern life with its dependency on the internet that "promises everything but everything isn't there" and that only offers "a whole new way of feeling lonely".


This is a beautifully clever tale, full of human life, from childhood to death. A clever novel that, for all its cleverness, is not boastful but touchingly warm.



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“Erasure” by Percival Everett - review

“Erasure”  by Percival Everett: In this truly brilliant, deeply thought-provoking novel, first published in 2001, Everett created a cutting,...