Missing Fay by Adam Thorpe [book review]

Missing fayOne of the best novels I read in 2017 was Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor. The jumping off point for that book was the disappearance of a 13-year-old girl on New Year’s Eve while on holiday in England’s Peak District.

In similar vein Adam Thorpe’s novel Missing Fay begins with the disappearance of a teenage schoolgirl and examines the way in which her life touches some of the people in her neighbourhood.

Neither novel has a central protagonist. Nor do they end with any resolution about what happened to the girl. This is not crime fiction but an exploration of the ways in which her disappearance affects the community in which she lives.

McGregor’s novel contains a myriad of characters. Thorpe gives us six: a shop manager, a bookshop owner, an eco-warrier dad, a retired steel worker, a Romanian healthcare assistant and a burned out television executive who has joined a silent monastic order as a postulant.

Most of these characters see Fay fleetingly, as a face on a “Have you seen this girl?” poster. Howard, the steelworker, catches a glimpse of her as she runs with her dog through a local park. Cosmina, the Romanian finds a discarded coat in the woodland although only in retrospect does she wonder if this belonged to Fay.  Chris the postulant dreams of her as a flaming angel flying through the air to land in the monastery’s lake.

Only Sheena, who manages a pricey children’s clothing boutique for yummy-mummy customers, spends any quality time with the girl. When Fay arrives on her threshold one morning, Sheena anticipates she’ll be as useless as all the other work experience students that have crossed her path.  Fay comes from a dysfunctional family and lives in the city’s less desirable housing estate. Her mum spends the day in bed nursing her deep depression while Fay’s pot-smoking step dad busks around town when he’s not involved in some shady affairs. Sheena discovers that despite the pressure the girl is under, Fay is intelligent, charming and funny.

The six stories initially seem to have little to link them (beyond the obvious reference to Fay’s disappearance) but Thorpe has cleverly planted connections throughout the novel and drops lots of hints. Fudge and the monastery crop up at several points. Chris, the would-be monk, makes it for the gift shop. Sheena eats it. Eco-Warrior David takes his family to the monastery. Does the blue car that a few people mention seeing around, have any connection to Fay’s disappearance? Who is the creepy looking guy she sees lurking in the bushes – is it Howard who has taken himself to the park in between a pub crawl with his mates?  The significance of these apparently random references only becomes apparent once you’ve read a few stories.

The fact we don’t instantly pick up on some clues adds a further layer to the meaning of the book’s title. We ‘miss’ these signs just as much as the six people in the story let Fay slip out of their consciousness. Missing Fay isn’t about a physical disappearance but how through our lives we fail to connect with each other. Opportunities are missed, signs are misread aplenty in this novel.

That’s not the only message Thorpe conveys through his novel. Attitudes towards immigrants feature largely. But we also get the futility of attempts to ‘save’ the planet. David and his wife vouchsafe consumerism and are determined to raise their children in a way that makes minimal impact on the environment. But when he looks upon a wind farm he reluctantly admits that it is “a hopeless gesture, really, against the infinite kilowattage of nature herself”.

I’ll admit that I wasn’t excited to read this book when my book club selected it for this month purely because I thought it would be too similar to Reservoir 13. But it was a lot more enjoyable than expected. McGregor’s work stands out because its so beautifully crafted and the imagery is wonderful. But Thorpe’s novel certainly deserves attention.

Here’s my review of Reservoir 13

WWWednesday 11 July 2018

WWWednesday is hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words  and requires me to answer just three questions:

 

What are you currently reading?

What did you recently finish reading?

What do you think you’ll read next?

 

Currently reading: The German Girl by Armando Lucas Correa

 

German Girl

This is a debut novel which is based on a true story of a wealthy Jewish family who manage to get papers enabling to leave Berlin in 1949 to make a new home in Cuba. But as they approach Havana, they learn that the government has changed its mind and will deny admittance to all but a few of the passengers. The ship has to return to Europe with its passengers fearing for their lives.  Seventy years later a young girl in New York receives a package of letters from a great aunt in Cuba, a delivery that inspires Seven decades later in New York City, on her twelfth birthday, Anna Rosen receives a strange package from an unknown relative in Cuba, her great-aunt Hannah. Its contents inspire her to to travel to Havana to learn the truth about her family’s history.

Recently FinishedMissing Fay by Adam Thorpe

Missing fayOne of the best books I read last year was Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor which looks at the reactions of a community when a teenage girl goes missing on New Year’s Eve. Adam Thorpe’s novel is also an ensemble narrative that begins with a missing teenager but takes a slightly different path by focusing on six individuals who had a connection —sometime fleeting — with the missing girl. The book proved more enjoyable than I expected because Thorpe peppers it with symmetries of detail whose significance only becomes apparent when you reach the end. It’s the kind of book that you immediately want to re-read once you’ve got to the end, convinced that there were so many details that you missed the first time.

Reading next

LineOfBeautyIt has to be The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst. In my recent post about the 50th anniversary of the Booker Prize, I said I was going to mark the event by reading the remaining books from my list.

After that I might make a return visit to Louise Penny whose Chief Inspector Gamache series set in Canada, is my favourite detective crime reading. I feel I’ve neglected her of late.

 

Booker Prize winners – the books that got away

Americanah

Robbed of the Booker Prize?

 

As a run up to the 50th anniversary of the Booker Prize, the team at the Sunday Times’ Culture magazine, asked whether the judges had always made the right decision. The article is available here.

Their conclusion? A resounding no.

Out of the 49 years when the prize has been awarded,  the Culture team agreed with only 12 of the winning titles. In all remaining 37 years, they believe the Booker judges overlooked a far superior novel.

They were in agreement on:

1973: The Siege of Krishnapur by J. G Farrell, describing it as a book that is “brilliantly imagined, surprisingly funny”

1980: Rites of Passage by William Golding “complex dissection of society”

1981: Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie “Rushdie has never written a better novel … it is sumptuous, exuberant and funny.”

1988: Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey ” a wonderful feat of storytelling”

1989: Remains of the Day by Kazou Ishiguro “a subtle classic … moving and perceptive”

1996: Last Orders by Graham Swift ” a quietly authentic triumph”

1997: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy “totally engrossing”

1999: Disgrace by J. M Coetzee – Culture calls this his masterpiece

2004: The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst. The Culture team had little to say other than they thought the Booker judges were ‘spot on’ in their decision

2008: White Tiger by Arvind Adiga, the right choice among a list of strong contenders

2012: Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel. Culture thought this was curiously flat and leaden but they didn’t have an alternative

2017: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders “a worthy winner’ though there were a number of other books that would have been just as deserving.

Some of these are among my favourites from the Booker Prize so I’m not going to disagree with the Culture journalists. Disgrace is uncomfortable reading but it’s a very powerful novel about post apartheid South Africa. The God of Small Things is a book full of glorious characters and Remains of the Day is just perfection.

I’m also in agreement with some of their alternative winners: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie which they say should have won in 2013, is indeed a far superior book to the actual winner Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (I thought it readable but not special). Similarly Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson knocks spots off the 1985 winner The Bone People by Keri Hulme though Winterson never even made it to the shortlist.  How the judges managed to choose The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis over Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a complete mystery to me. I enjoyed the Amis but Atwood’s novel stands out as a truly imaginative venture into a dark dystopian world.

But there are also many years where the Culture team’s preference is for a book I don’t believe did deserve to win the Booker.

Brooklyn

One the Booker judges overlooked?

Colm Toibin’s novel Brooklyn instead of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall seems a very strange choice for example. Ditto David Lodge’s Changing Places is an enjoyable read but doesn’t stand out as remarkable so I wouldn’t rate it higher than the actual winner, Heat and Dust by Ruth Jhabvala.

The choice that really made my eyebrows arch was 2014 which, according to Culture, should have been won by Anthony Doerr’s All the Light we Cannot See instead of Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North.   I couldn’t even finish Doerr’s novel; it was far too heavily laden with adjectives and contained many anachronistic Americans whereas Flanagan’s novel was beautifully written and engrossing from start to finish.

I suspect this is one of those exercises where you could get a different result for every group of people you asked to participate. Each of us will have our favourites as well as titles that we struggled to understand what it was even doing on the short or long list (Ben Okri’s The Famished Road falls into that category for me).

Over at Goodreads, there is a group called The Mookse and the Gripes which whose members do their own rankings and then combine the results. Their league table from this collective effort puts Remains of the Day in top position out of all the Booker winners.  Midnight’s Children comes in at number 2 and then there is a surprise for the third slot – Troubles by J. G Farrell which is a book I thoroughly enjoyed though didn’t think as good as his other Booker winner The Seige of Krishnapur.

If you want to make up your own mind on whether the winners were worthy of the prestige conferred by Booker Prize success, take a look at the reviews published at Shiny New Books as their way of marking the Booker anniversary.  The posts are published by decade – here is the most recent.   By the time you’ll have got through all that reading, the longlist for this year’s award will be announced (actual announcement day is July 24th).

To mark the Booker anniversary this year I’m going to do two things:

  • finish reading the list of winners. It’s taken me far longer than I expected to read all the winners but I’m nearly there.
  • run my own ‘did it deserve the prize?’ series of posts. I’ll do these decade by decade starting next week and asking you all to join in with your own thoughts. I’ll give you a hint as to what some of my choices could be – take a look at a post I wrote last year where I selected my top 3 Booker titles of all time.

 

New additions to the shelves

After months of admirable self restraint, the flood gates opened in the last few months and all my attempts to whittle down my stack of owned-but-unread books have been thwarted.

Scriveners-BooksOur holiday through the middle of England took us to Buxton in Derbyshire which happens to be the home of Scriveners — one of the 10 best second hand bookshops in the country according to The Guardian newspaper. Five floors of books I was promised. So of course I had to visit. And of course I had to buy.  So keen was I that I was outside the shop waiting for it to open. Long after the announced opening time, I was still waiting. But minor frustration set aside I had a wonderful hour browsing their collection which included a lovely section on literature in translation. I haven’t seen other second hand shops do that but it’s a great idea.

I ended up with the three Virago Modern Classics editions you can see in the photograph because I can’t get those easily anywhere near my home.So when I see a green cover in reasonably good condition peeking at me from a shelf, it’s an opportunity too good to miss.  books aquired summer 2018

The Rising Tide by M. J Farrell (an early pseudonym for Molly Keane) was first published in 1937, her seventh novel. Like many of her other works this is a tale of an Irish family.  Miles Franklin is an author I’ve heard about many times over from bloggers in Australia and since I am trying to read more from that part of the world,

My Brilliant Career seemed the perfect purchase. It’s her first novel, written when she was only sixteen years old. The publisher’s summary on the back cover says it has the faults of immaturity but “it is impossible not to love.”

And finally, we have Willa Cather, an author I came late to via My Antonia which I didn’t expect to enjoy but thought it was glorious. Oh Pioneers is the first of her ‘Great Plains’ trilogy which actually ends with My Antonia. So I’m reading them in the reverse order but it probably doesn’t matter too much.

The copy of A Change of Climate by Hilary Mantel is another second-hand shop purchase, this time from the Oxfam book shop in Stratford upon Avon. This isn’t one of her historical novels but I see that it is partly set in South Africa, a region of the world which fascinates me. Mantel lived for many years in Botswana which is where the idea for this story about a missionary couple originated.

My acquisitions haven’t been all used books.

When I got home from the holiday it was to find several packages awaiting me including a copy of  Wally Funk’s Race for Space by Sue Nelson, courtesy of the lovely team at Westbourne Press. This is an extraordinary true story of a woman who was in the first group of American pilots to pass the Women in Space programme. She went on to become the country’s first aviation safety inspector.

Also on the doormat were the monthly choices from three book subscription services (I’ll tell you all about these in a separate post later this week).  Plus my ordered copy of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, one of the very few Booker prize winners I have yet to read, and Adam Thorpe’s Missing Fay which is a book club choice for this month.

Now I have all of these two questions are causing much furrowing of brows in the BookerTalk household. Where am I going to put all these new books given every bookshelf is full and the floor around them is equally congested. And when am I ever going to read them?

But aren’t these wonderful problems to have????

Wales Book Prize entangled in sales row

This week saw the announcement of the winners of the Wales Book prize. It should have been an occasion to celebrate the finest work by authors from Wales writing in the Welsh or English language, but instead the event has been tainted by a dispute over sales figures for the winning books.

Neilsen – a company specialising in market research and measurement – disclosed that half of the books on the shortlist had sold less than 100 copies. According to Nielsen:

  • The overall winner, Diary of the Last Man by the poet Robert Minhinnick, had sales figures of just over 200
  • All that is Wales (a collection of essays byM Wynn Thomas) which won the English language creative non-fiction award, sold 34 copies up to June this year

The English language fiction award winner, Crystal Jean’s  Switches Are My Kryptonite achieved sales of 49 copies.

Wales-based publishers have been quick to dispute the figures, complaining that Neilsen failed to take account of sales from small independent bookshops and book fairs. They’ve also criticised BBC Wales for placing too much weight on Neilsen’s assessment.

Are the publishers correct and we are reading too much into this data?

Maybe not. Poetry collections tend to see lower sales than fictional works but realistically even when the additional sales are taken into account for the fictional works, there is little evidence that these books are attracting readers in any significant number. The best-selling title on the shortlist reached just 4,000 sales. Still very modest.

It’s hard not to sympathise with the authors and their publishers who are now feeling bruised by this debacle. All the locally based publishers are modest sized businesses with equally modest marketing budgets so they pick their authors carefully and nurture them well, often focusing on a niche. But it’s a struggle for them to get  the attention of mainstream media for these books. As Caroline Oakley, Editor and Publisher at Honno, an independent co-operative press based in Aberystwyth, said in an interview with me last year, the Welsh book scene doesn’t have anywhere near the presence and visibility enjoyed by authors from Scotland or Ireland.  

Even more worrying, the book sellers in Wales don’t seem to be throwing anywhere near enough weight behind local authors. Last week I was in a Waterstones book store in Cardiff (the capital city of Wales). This is the only dedicated book shop in the centre of the city. Did they have any display promoting the Wales Book of the Year? None that I could see (unless maybe it was buried in the deepest recesses of the shop somewhere between the sections on how to care for your pet dragon and macrame for idiots). If a store like this doesn’t promote indigenous writing, why should we expect sellers in England or Scotland to do so?

The owner of Octavo’s bookshop, an independent seller in Cardiff, said in response to Neilsen’s figures that more needed to be done to bring books like these to the attention of the reading public. She suggested reading groups, extracts in magazines etc. All good ideas but, I don’t see that it’s nearly enough. Unless the big boys get behind these publishers and authors and give them shelf space, they’ll face many years on the fringe.

 

 

 

The Chilli Bean Paste Clan by Yan Ge [book review]

 

Moon Cakes

Traditional Chinese Moon Cakes

Bean paste is a stable of Asian cuisine but I suspect for Westerners it’s an acquired taste. I tried the sweet variety a few times when I happened to be in China during the Moon Cake festival when the tradition is to present friends, colleagues and families with baked pastries  filled with a paste made from red bean paste. (international brands like Haagen Daz have muscled in with an ice-cream version).

But my colleagues wanted me to experience the traditional version.  The texture was fine but I would have liked a little extra sweetness. Nothing to really dislike but would I swap them for the British tradition of Hot Cross Buns? Sorry but no.

However, I never got to try the hot, spicy version of bean paste, a concoction relished by the inhabitants of Yan Ge’s fictional town of Pringle in The Chilli Bean Paste Clan. The spicier and the more the paste makes them sweat, the better they like it.

 The thing is, the townsfolk grew up with a hole in their tongues. In fact, they were almost born eating Sichuan pepper powder. Even rice porridge needed mala: the numbing, tingling ma of Sichuan pepper and the hot, spicy la of the chilli. They could not imagine life without that numbing-hot duo.

The paste is made in huge fermentation vats which contain “a bubbling mixture of broad beans which had been left to go mouldy  to which were added crushed chilli pepper and seasonings like star anise, bay leaves and great handfuls of salt. As the days went by in the hot sunshine, the chilli peppers fermented, releasing their oil and a smell which was at first fragrant, then sour.”

It’s upon this product that the fortune of the Duan-Xue family is based. Youngest son  Shengqiang was destined from an early age to run the Mayflower Chilli Bean Paste Factory. His clever, handsome older brother, Duan Zhiming, got to leave the town and become a university professor and his sister Coral Xue built a career as a TV news presenter.

The matriarch of the family, the formidable “Gran”, is approaching  her eightieth birthday so the siblings re-unite to organise a celebration that must be grand and classy, as befitting the family’s status, but absolutely not tacky. Skeletons come out of the closet and old rivalries are re-awakened as the big day gets nearer.

The Chilli Bean Paste Clan is essentially a tale of a family with secrets. It’s told through the eyes of  Xingxing, the daughter of Shengqiang and his glamorous wife Anqin. It’s clear she looks upon her father with affection yet the tone is irreverent for Xingxing holds no illusions about his propensity to drink and smoke heavily nor his serial womanising. Sex, nights out with his friends and plenty of food are what keep him sane as he tries to juggle the demands of his wife and mother (and keep his mistress hidden). The result is a series of humorous incidents which culminate in a personal crisis for Shengqiang and a threat to his mother’s reputation.

chilli bean clanI found my sympathies going towards Shengqiang despite his attitude towards women. As a young man his bossy mother pushed into a lowly job at the chilli bean factory , insisting he had to earn his spurs the hard way, stirring the giant fermentation vessels  Little wonder that Shengqiang has always felt he was second fiddle to his brother whose achievements his mother never lets him forget. His mother even chose his wife for him, deciding that Anqin’s family associations with the Party could help further her own family’s fortunes.

Shengqiang longs for a time when life was so much simpler. When he could hang out with his gang, play poker, get drunk and end up in a fight. But he, like the town in which he grew up has changed.  Gone are the stalls and pushcarts where he could get noodles or cold dressed rabbit and chilli turnips spring rolls, Sichuan eggy pancakes and griddled buns. Gone too are the scissor menders and knife-grinders. Even the familiar faces from his boyhood have gone in the name of ‘progress.’

… the whole of Pringle Town had changed. The cypresses and camphor trees of his childhood had been chopped down, the squeezed-in streets had been wrenched wider (but only a tad) and bright blue railings kept motorized and non motorized vehicles apart. … The result was that neither ars nor bicycles could get through.  And as if that were not bad enough, the edges of the streets were ostentatiously ‘greened’ with saplings brought in from god knows where. … Worst of all the passers-by changed. It dawned on Dad that, without him being aware of it happening, the people walking up and down the street were strangers.

I suspect many of us who lived in small towns have seen similar declines as family-owned shops have been edged out by the big brands clustered on the fringes in souless precincts.

If only Dad had been allowed to tell his own story.  Having his daughter as the narraor proved an issue for me. I know omniscient narrators can’t be everywhere and we make some allowances when they still relay conversations that they couldn’t possibly have heard. Xingxing tries to get around this by occasionally slipping in a remark about how she got her information from her parents, her gran and her father  It’s believable up to a point but the further I got into the book, the more this issue niggled. No matter how close a relationship she had with Shengqiang I can’t believe he would have shared that amount of detail about his visits to a prostitute when he was younger or how he sated his sexual appetite with his mistress.

Words Without Borders described The Chilli Bean Paste Clan as China’s “best untranslated book” when it was published in 2014. It’s taken four years for the English translation by Nicky Harman to appear via Balestier Press. Asymptote Book Club members like myself got to read it when the club chose it for their May selection. It’s not a book I would have chosen personally although I would like to read more works by Chinese authors. I enjoyed it overall – it fitted my mood at the time – though its not a book I am likely to recall in a few year’s time.

Footnotes

Yan Ge has twelve young adult books to her name. She has been called one of the most exciting writers to emerge from contemporary China. She is the winner of an English PEN award. The Chilli Bean Paste Clan is intended as the first part of a trilogy of adult fiction

 

Library of Wales celebrates the country’s authors

It’s taken more than a decade but a government-backed initiative to celebrate the English-language literary heritage of Wales is on the cusp of a significant milestone.  Since the Library of Wales project got underway in 2006, 49 titles have been published, many of them books that had been forgotten or were out of print. The 50th is due to hit the bookshops in a few months.

The Library of Wales series is a selection of English-language classics from Wales, ranging from novels to short stories, biographies and poetry. It’s funded by the Welsh Assembly Government through the Welsh Books Council as a way of sustaining the country’s heritage. When the project was announced in 2006 the intention was to o “…include the best of Welsh writing in English, as well as to showcase what has been unjustly neglected. ” 

Have they succeeded?

Raymond Williams

Professor Raymond Williams

It would be hard to challenge the inclusion of Raymond Williams in the list of books selected by the series editor Professor Dai Smith.  Williams, who came from Monmouthshire, was one of the leading literary academics in the UK in the 1970s and 80s. His writings on politics, culture, the mass media and literature were influential in the developing field of Marxist criticism of literature. He has two titles in the Library of Wales series: his novel Border Country was actually the first book to be published in the  Library of Wales series. Published in the 1960s it had been out of print for several years. I was expecting The Country and The City,  in which he used alternating chapters on literature and social history to consider perceptions of rural and urban life, to be included. But instead we another novel, The Volunteers. Personally I would have opted for another of his academic works instead of the latter.

No surprises either to find the Rhondda author and broadcaster Gwyn Thomas included, also with three titles. I’ve read only one of these The Alone to the Alone and though I enjoyed it, I wonder if it’s too much a novel of its time and will not resonate as well in modern-day Wales.

Equally unsurprising to see the big guns Alun Lewis, Glyn Jones, Emyr Humphreys and Jack Jones amongst the selected authors.

A few choices did cause some raised eyebrows in the Booker household however.  Carwyn by Alun Richards is a biography of one of the big names from the golden era of Welsh Rugby. I can’t help wondering if this is on the list because of the popularity of the subject rather than because it’s the best biography written by a Welsh author. I’m also lukewarm about the choice of autobiographical novel, Ash on a Young Man’s Sleeve by Dannie Abse. I would have expected his inclusion to be more for his poetry than his prose. 

The question of how decisions were made what to include came up in a discussion panel at the Hay Festival about the Library of Wales initiative. Unfortunately Dai Smith was ill so couldn’t attend to answer a challenge from an audience member so it was left to Phil George, Chairman of the Arts Council, to defend the selection. He didn’t convince the questioner that this wasn’t “The Dai Smith Library of Wales” rather than a generally acceptable selection of the best from Welsh writers.

But the Library of Wales is to continue. The series publishers, Parthian Books, will be issuing the 5oth title in September, with a new book from Stevie Davies who was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2001 with The Element of Water.  It’s likely to find favour with one of the other Hay panelists, lecturer Tomos Owen, who wants to see more contemporary authors selected.

Here are all the 50 books in the series. Click on the title to read the description and order the book direct from Parthian.

  1. A Kingdom, James Hanley
  2. A Rope of Vines, Brenda Chamberlain
  3. A Time to Laugh, Rhys Davies
  4. All Things Betray Thee, Gwyn Thomas
  5. The Alone to the Alone, Gwyn Thomas
  6. Ash on a Young Man’s Sleeve, Dannie Abse
  7. The Battle to the Weak, Hilda Vaughan
  8. Black Parade, Jack Jones
  9. Border CountryRaymond Williams
  10. Carwyn, Alun Richards
  11. The Caves of AlienationStuart Evans
  12. Congratulate the Devil, Howell Davies
  13. Country Dance, Margiad Evans
  14. Cwmardy, Lewis Jones
  15. Dai Country, Alun Richards
  16. Dat’s Love and Other StoriesLeonora Brito
  17. The Dark Philosophers, Gwyn Thomas
  18. Farewell Innocence, William Glynne-Jones
  19. Flame and Slag, Ron Berry
  20. Goodbye, Twentieth Century, Dannie Abse
  21. The Great God Pan, Arthur Machen
  22. The Heyday in the BloodGeraint Goodwin
  23. The Hill of DreamsArthur Machen
  24. Home to an Empty House, Alun Richards
  25. I Sent a Letter to My Love, Bernice Rubens
  26. In the Green Tree, Alun Lewis
  27. Jampot Smith, Jeremy Brooks
  28. Make Room for the Jester, Stead Jones
  29. Old Soldier Sahib, Frank Richards
  30. Old Soldiers Never Die, Frank Richards
  31. Poetry 1900–2000, Meic Stephens (ed.)
  32. Rhapsody, Dorothy Edwards
  33. Ride the White Stallion, William Glynne-Jones
  34. So Long, Hector Bebb, Ron Berry
  35. Anthology of Sport, Gareth Williams (ed.)
  36. The Library of Wales Short Story Anthology Volume I, Dai Smith
  37. The Library of Wales Short Story Anthology Volume II, Dai Smith
  38. Turf or Stone, Margiad Evans
  39. The Valley, The City, The Village, Glyn Jones
  40. Voices of the Children, George Ewart Evans
  41. The Volunteers, Raymond Williams
  42. The Water-castle, Brenda Chamberlain
  43. We LiveLewis Jones
  44. The Withered Root, Rhys Davies
  45. A Man’s Estate, Emyr Humphreys
  46. The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp W. H. Davies
  47. Young Emma, W.H. Davies
  48. In and Out of the Goldfish Bowl by Rachel Tresize
  49. Selected Stories, Rhys Davies

 

An Update: July 3, 2018

After I published this post, Richard Davies, the mastermind at Parthian, graciously pointed out that I had miscounted. I thought there were already 50 books published and the 51st would come out in September. But I inadvertently added a Raymond Williams text that isn’t really part of the Library of Wales series. I’ve now corrected my post.

 

The Sugar Mother by Elizabeth Jolley [book review]

Beware of the book’s seductive charm. Once you’ve been lured in, the door slams shut behind you and its not easy to emerge with your perceptions entirely unchanged …

Sugar motherThis quote from the New York Times Book Review, on the back cover of my copy of The Sugar Mother, perfectly reflects my reaction to Elizabeth Jolley’s novel.

It’s one of those novels that grabs you from the start, not because of any shock-inducing event or dramatic moment, but because it’s clear this is a writer who understands how to make odd characters spring to life. As you read further you get so swept along by the humour of this tale of a pathetically fussy professor and his relationship with the newcomers next door that you almost miss the undercurrents. The humour never completely goes away but it’s countered by some elements that left me with an uneasy sensation.

There’s no feeling of apprehension at the start of the book however as we meet the Pages : Edwin, a middle-aged professor whose obsessed about his health, and his much younger wife Cecilia. She’s a successful obstetrician who is embarking on a fellowship year abroad. She has taken care to leave Edwin in good hands, arranging for their set of friends to host him at regular dinners so that he doesn’t get lonely.

What she couldn’t have predicted was that their new neighbours, Mrs Botts and her twenty-something-year old buxom daughter Leila, would make a move on Edwin almost the minute she leaves. It start’s innocently enough. They’re locked out of their new home and since they have no-where else to go, Edwin offers them refuge in his home.

Mrs Botts is a wily old bird for whom the naive Edwin, for all his intelligence is no match.  His future at the university seems unstable but at home with the Botts’ women he feels like a lord of the manor. The fool becomes obsessed with Leila, jumping readily at the idea planted by Mrs B that the girl could become a “sugar” mother (a lovely Malapropism) for Edwin and his childless wife. Edwin’s growing  infatuation with Leila sees him become more distant with Cecelia, avoiding her phone calls and pulling out of a trip to visit her in Europe. There is no way this can turn out well….

Edwin is a delightful character. An annoying individual who painstakingly documents all his ailments in a book which has separate pages for each part of the body, he is just as pernickety about finding the perfect quotes for his lectures. But he’s also a rather pathetic character who doesn’t fit in with the hip lifestyle embraced by his wife and her friends. The first flush of love between him and Cecilia has vanished:

The feeling of being special and chosen and cared for was gradually absorbed, he realised now, in the more important matter of appearances. How they were seen by other people began to mean more to them and they must, all the time, have been meaning less to each other and thinking only of the next thing they were going to do. Things which would be evaluated by other people and measured against standards which were not necessarily their own.

The ‘swinging’ parties with their friends, which presumably were meant to bring an added spark to their relationship, have lost all meaning for Edwin.

The evening, in the pattern of doing things, was endless, hours of jokes and anecdotes, mostly with double meanings. They would eat and drink and talk too much in loud voices and play foolish games … and would end with the ritual of keys in the ring since that was the way of broad-minded couples …

His growing disenchantment with life makes him ripe for emotional and financial exploitation at the hands of Mrs Bott.

But perhaps we shouldn’t expend too much sympathy on Edwin. I know Leila is older than Lolita but there is still something unsettling about the way this 54-year-old lusts after the body of the much younger girl. He treats her as a child one moment, making her hot drinks  to help her sleep, and then caressing and fondling her at every possible opportunity.  So caught up is he in his desire and – the boost to his ego – that he is blind to reality even when  a close friend raises an alarm bell about the cost of having these women in his house. I wanted to throttle him at times, and shake him out of his blind faith in the domestic bliss he imagines he has with the Botts, but right at the end I did feel my sympathies return.

The Sugar Mother is a novel which is full of unexpected delights. It’s the first time I’ve read anything by Elizabeth Jolley – I hadn’t even heard of her until Lisa at ANZLitLovers decided to host an Elizabeth Jolley reading week. But now I’m hungry to read more…..Luckily I had already bought an earlier work; Miss Peabody’s Inheritance.

 

 

 

WWWednesday 13 June 2018

I’ve tried various ways to provide a snapshot of what I’m reading from Sunday Salon to my ‘Snapshot’ posts. They all fell by the wayside I think because I made them too complicated. WWWednesday is a much simpler approach. It’s hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words  and requires me to answer just three questions

What are you currently reading?

What did you recently finish reading?

What do you think you’ll read next?

So here goes….

 

Currently reading: The Chilli Bean Paste Clan (我们家)  by Yan Ge

This was the May selection by the Asymptote Book Club. I took out a subscription at the beginning of the year but I’ve yet to read any of them (until now). Apparently in 2014 it was described by Words Without Borders  as a “delightfully irreverent” novel and China’s “best untranslated book.” It’s taken a few years but thanks to translator Nicky Harman we now have it in English.

In a small Sichuan town, preparations are underway for a party to mark the 80th birthday of the matriarch ‘Gran’. The celebrations will bring to a head sibling rivalry and unveil secrets from the past. I’m about 80 pages in and enjoying the portrait of ‘Dad’ who is boss of the family’s famous Sichuan chilli bean paste. He’s a heavy smoker and a womaniser who can’t live up to the success of his elder brother and has to contend with the competing demands of three women: wife, mistress and mother.

 

 

Recently Finished: The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies

This is a novel I’ve been intending to read for some time. With that title how could any self respecting Welsh reader ignore it? It’s the debut novel by Ho Davies and is set just as the second world war is staggering to a close. Despite their remote location, the people who live in rural Wales find their lives impacted by the war when soldiers arrive to build a new camp for German prisoners of war.  Ho Davies uses this as a mechanism to consider issues of identity and belonging. Well worth reading

 

 

 

Reading next

One of the book clubs I belong to has just chosen Missing Fay by Adam Thorpe for our July meeting. This has a similar plot to Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor – the disappearance of a teenage girl though McGregor’s novel has a rural setting where Thorpe goes for an urban location. Reservoir 13 was one of favourite reads from 2017 so it’s going to be interesting to see whether Thorpe can top it.

And I know you must be tired of hearing me say this now but I will anyway. I do need to get back into reading my Booker prize winners. I’ve given up on G by John Berger – such a dull book. I might tackle A History of Seven Killings next – it has to have more life in it than G…

 

 

 

The Whale Caller by Zakes Mda [bookreview]

The Whale CallerThe world of literature abounds with tales of love triangles but I’ve never before come across one involving rivalry for the affection of a whale. Yes I do mean whale as in marine mammal.

How can anyone be jealous of a whale you might wonder? Well this one is special. She’s a large Southern Right who swims each year close to the coast of South Africa on her migration from waters close to Antartica to warmer climes further north. The path takes her near to Hermanus on the southern cape, home to a man who’s become rather attracted to her: The Whale Caller.

This is a man so enchanted with these creatures that he’s perfected the arm of using a kelp horn to communicate with them. One in particular, that he names Sharisha, seems to respond to his calls, showing off by loptailing and rolling and blowing in time with the horn. He becomes rather obsessed with her, sinking into despondency when she swims away, not to return for months.

On the morning of her departure, the Whale Caller is at the rocks to bid her an emotionally charged farewell.

Sharisha responded with her own love calls. She rocked in the water in a mating dance. The Whale Caller stood up and rocked on the rocks. He raised his left leg, turned and twisted on one spot, then sampled the foot down. He did the same with the right leg. he repeated the dance in rapid success for a long time, whilst blowing the sounds of the whining winds.  ….Sharisha did not seem to tire either. She was creating a whirlwind on there water by making a complicated  combination of rocking, breaching  and lobtailing.

As the Whale Caller progresses he becomes the object of affection of a woman from Hermanus. Saluni is the village drunk, a wild-looking woman with missing teeth and laddered stockings, who seems to be everywhere he goes. Despite her disapproval of the Whale Caller’s obsession with Sharisha, the pair end up as an item sharing a tiny dwelling he calls the Wendy House.

It’s rather one sided relationship.  Throughout the novel the Whale Caller experiences conflicting emotions — he tries to love Saluni but every time the lure of Sharisa proves too strong. Saluni tries every trick in her book to win over this man —  seducing him, tantalising his taste buds with window shopping in grocery stores —  but it’s to no avail. His mind is filled with Sharisa. Saluni decides to change tack, she will not be beaten by a creature she sees as nothing more than “a big fish”.  As she executes her revenge the becomes significantly darker: blindness, a catastrophic storm; desperate attempts to save a beached whale and a murder all ensue.

Southern backed whale

A southern right whale. Photo courtesy of Pixabay

It’s this  vengeful element which occupies the second half that won me over to the novel. Until then The Whale Caller felt somewhat unbelievable as well as repetitive. But Zakes Mda turns up the emotional dial, showing how love can so easily become malice. The Whale Caller irritated me early on. How could he not see that the love of a living, breathing real woman was infinitely better than a few tricks by a whale whom he sees for just a few months a year?  But then we begin to feel his genuine  pain and sorrow at what happens to his beloved Sharisha and his sense of a personal responsibility.

The Whale Caller isn’t simply a love story albeit a rather unusual one. It’s also a reflection on man’s relationship with nature. The Whale Caller has a genuine love for these creatures and despises the tourists who flock to Hermanus to watch them for a short time before heading to their next destination.  It’s good news for the local businesses but the visitor’s desire for thrills threatens the very thing they have come to watch. Whale watching trips become so popular the government has to introduce regulations to ensure boats don’t get too close to the whales. The Whale Caller feels a sense of foreboding at what this portends dismay.

There is no doubt that this boat-based whale watching will be abused. And no-one will be out there at sea to enforce the regulations. Soon the ultimate prize for a boat trip will be the touching of a whale. … As far as he is concerned these boat-based whale watchers are no different from the whalers of old. They might as well carry harpoons and tryputs in those boats. 

it’s a prescient warning and one which can apply just as much to other situations in which man and nature come together. African safaris are now unfortunately spoiled in many cases by enthusiastic mini bus drivers who crowd around a lion and her cubs, hemming them in and edging ever closer so the tourists on board can get their Instagram shot.

I’m not pretending to be holier-than-thou. I’m just as fascinated by seeing these magnificent creatures but have no desire to get so close that it frightens them nor do I have any interest in petting baby cheetahs and ‘tamed’ leopards. Nature deserves respect, not to be treated like some interactive display in a theme park. A sentiment with which I suspect Zakes Mda would heartily agree…. 

Footnotes

The Whale Caller was published by Penguin Random House South Africa in 2005 and was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize. It’s the fifth novel by Zakes Mda, who was born in the Eastern Cape of South Africa but spent his early childhood in Soweto.  He is a prolific writer whose work has been translated into twenty languages. he is based on Ohio, USA, where he is a professor. The Whale Caller was released as a film in 2017 . I read this book because it was recommended by an assistant in a bookstore in Stellenbosch, South Africa when I walked into the shop in December 2017 and asked for recommendations of local authors. It proved a good decision…

 

%d bloggers like this: