Category Archives: Jerwood Fiction Uncovered
A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar has to be the most unusual book I’ve read all year. If it wasn’t for the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize I probably wouldn’t have come across it let alone read it, and would therefore have missed a bold, energetic and innovative work of fiction.
Tidar delivers a blend of a pulp-noir tale of seamy city streets, gumshoes and lowlifes with Holocaust fiction and an alternative history of 1930’s Europe. It’s a risky mixture; one that shouldn’t work but, oddly, does.
The scenario imagines that Hitler’s rise to power has been halted and Germany has become a communist state. Most of the leading members of the Nazi party have fled overseas; many of them are now living in London. “Wolf” (the meaning of the name “Adolf”) is among them; living in straightened circumstances as a private detective. Hired by a beautiful Jewish woman to track down her sister, he sets about his task; bending the ears of anyone who will listen to his rabid antisemitic and extreme views. During his investigation he visits brothels and sado-masochistic clubs; gets beaten up several times; discovers a CIA plot to overthrow the German government and becomes a suspect in a Jack the Ripper style series of prostitute murders. Though he bumps into a few of his former chums and rubs shoulders with the Mitford sisters and Oswald Mosley, “Wolf” is a shadow of his former self.
It was pitiful, watching him hobble along, this once-great man, this leader of men, now like a decommissioned solider, blinded by gas, a beggar man, a sleepwalker almost.
This is however only part of the novel. Woven among the London section is the story of Shomer Aleichem, the dreaming man of the title. Before the war he was a writer of lurid pulp fiction. Now he is a prisoner at Auschwitz, using his dreams to put a barrier between him and the nightmare of his situation. His dreams are of Hitler as a detective …
These sections in which Shomer lies on his bed dreaming, give the book a thoughtful, moral aspect which nicely counteracts the fast, page turning delivery of the pulp mystery. Just as the narrative threatens to become ludicrous, Tidhar cleverly pulls away and reminds readers that there is real suffering in the world.
In many ways this is a playful novel. There are some ‘in jokes’ dotted around the text including one scene in which “Wolf” looks upon the London skyline and sees the future…..
Wolf saw the city as he had never seen it, rising before him like a metropolis dreamed of by Fritz lang: huge shining buildings rose amid the squalor of old London. By London Bridge, a shard of glass taller than the pyramids pieced the sky. From the city of London there rose a phoenix egg of metal and glass, and a giant wheel spun and spun on the south bank of the Thames like a mandala.
But Tidhar is also making a more serious point. By using real-world references (for those not familiar with London, the giant wheel is of course the London Eye) and actual figures like Primo Levi and Oswald Mosely’s blackshirted supporters) we’re left with the impression this fictional world isn’t totally out of the realms of possibility.
Lavie Tidhar was born in Israel but has lived in many parts of the world including Laos and South Africa. He currently lives in London. His previous novels have been in the science fiction, fantasy genres. A Man Lies Dreaming was published in 2015 by Hodder and Stoughton
It’s a tale of a troubled past told by Madelaine who’s been a patient at a mental infirmary for the past 20 years. It’s clear that she has recently committed some terrible act of violence, though Madelaine apparently doesn’t know what she has done or why she is in the infirmary. All of this comes to light through hypnotherapy sessions with Dr Lucas, a newly-arrived specialist who diagnoses that Madelaine has “dissociative amnesia”. He wants her to reconstruct the events leading to her committal to the institution on her 14th birthday.
In the journal Madelaine is encouraged to keep we get a sense of her feelings after these sessions and her discomfort as the hypnotherapy takes her down uncomfortable paths. Her past is revealed as the child of poverty-stricken evangelists who move to a derelict farmhouse in a remote location on an island. The girl roams the fields, searching for God in a Garden of Eden like the one that illustrates the family bible. Faced with a domineering father and a mother suffering from depression, Madeline turns to the Old Testament for a solution.
There are some passages of beautiful lyrical writing as the girl takes her rites of passage adventures amongst nature, leading her into the occasional out of body experience. But overall, this was a disappointing novel. There was much that wasn’t really explained such as why people on the island were so hostile to Madelaine’s father, pretending no work was available for him and then sacking him without reason, or the source of her mother’s illness.
But mainly I think I didnt enjoy this book was because I couldn’t relate to Madelaine in the same way I did with the narrators in Emma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing (reviewed here) or Nathan Filer’s Shock of the Fall. Madelaine didn’t ring true to me. Though she says she sleeps most of the time, and is on a high dosage of medication, she has somehow developed a knowledge of medieval mystics. She seems oblivious to her own situation in the infirmary and yet demonstrates great insight when she observes other patients and a clear-sighted, if cynical, view on life and the true purpose of Dr Lucas interest in her case is to boost his career.
Dr Lucas has an agenda and I am part of it: he stands to win or lose depending on the result of my treatment… In any case I have an agenda too, entitled “release’. Everyone has an agenda, its just a question of who reads whose first. If, however, I am to be a pawn deployed to prove or disprove his theory….. then it is crucial to let the mover believe the pawn is a pawn, and oblivious to his intent.
The more the book progressed the less convinced I became by her as a character and consequently not that interested in discovering what happened on the day of her birthday.
The Offering was the third of the 2015 Jerwood Fiction Uncovered prize winners I’ve read recently and the one that left me underwhelmed.
Grace McCleen is well qualified to write about the effect of religious fanaticism having been raised by parents who subscribed to a fundamentalist religion. She applied to university in secret because education was considered by member’s of that faith to be dangerous. Having gained a first class honours degree and a distinction in her M.A she turned to writing fiction. The Offering is her third novel.
Earl Grey tea is brewing; the birds are having a jolly time in the pond and I can hear the faint sound of a lawn mower. It’s a glorious Sunday morning here. Perfect timing to catch up on the week just ending (or last week for those of you who consider Sunday the beginning of a new week).
It was a quiet week on the blog for me. Deadly silent in fact. I managed just one post in eight days. In part this was because my niece came to stay while she did a week’s work experience with me to help her make some decisions about career options post university. So one can hardly have a house guest and then bury one’s head every night in a computer can one??
When I did have some spare time, it was entirely focused on reading. I had been over-enthusiastic on the library reservations site a few weeks ago and ended up with four books arriving all around the same time. I’m not the fastest of readers and hate rushing books. Unfortunately some of these titles couldn’t be renewed so The Confessions of Thomas Hawkins by Antonia Hodgson was returned yesterday without ever having been opened.
I did however read The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett. It’s years since I came across a novel I simply could not put down. This was one of those books. It’s a superbly constructed book of three separate story lines and two characters that asks the question many of us ponder at different points in our lives: what if I had done X instead of Y? How would my life have been different? If you enjoy well written stories about relationships, this is probably going to delight you.
I also finished a delightful short story collection by Carys Davies called The Redemption of Galen Pike and, unusually for me, reviewed almost immediately.
Now I’m part way through the third book I found through the 2015 Jerwood Fiction Uncovered award winners; The Offering by Grace McCleen. It’s told from the perspective of Madelaine who has been an inmate of a mental health facility for the last 20 years; taken there after a breakdown at the age of 14. Through hypnotherapy, she is forced to return to the days when she lived on a remote island with her evangelistic father, deeply confused about what she believes to be her relationship with God. The novel is clearly building up to a point where McCleen reveals what caused Madelaine’s breakdown. Parts of the book are very moving but I’m not yet sold on the novel as a whole.
What have you all been up to? Have you uncovered any hidden gems recently?
I’ve never been much of a fan of short stories. I can admire the skill needed to create compelling characters, evoke a sense of place and tell a well rounded story all within a few thousand words. But when I read a short story I always get to the end feeling I’ve been short changed; that I’m just getting into it only to find myself adrift.
But two recent collections have shown that maybe the problem is that I just hadn’t found the right author.
I ordered The Redemption of Galen Pike by Carys Davies on the day it was announced she had won a 2015 Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Award and I discovered she comes from my home country of Wales. We have so few good contemporary authors that I wanted to show my support. I must have been in a fog at the time because I didn’t even twig that this was a collection of short stories.
Having now read it I can only concur with one of the Jerwood judges who called this collection ‘stunning’. It’s a slim book of 17 stories one of which Nothing Like My Nightmare is essentially a paragraph; a complete story told in 186 words by an unnamed narrator (a parent I surmise) reflecting on all the things that could go wrong as the daughter embarks on a flight overseas. Without spoiling the effect I’ll just say that the final sentence caught me so unawares I gasped.
The other stories, many of which have won prizes or been shortlisted in competitions, show the infinite variety of Carys Davies’ use of the short story form. They vary wildly in location from the wilds of Siberia to a remote farm in the Australian outback and a prison in a small Oklahoma community. It’s hard to determine exactly the time period in which some of the stories are set — the only clue in Precious, for example, a story about a foolish, idolised middle aged man who falls for his young cleaner, comes early on when he describes arriving at an apartment dragging his wheeled suitcase.
Many of these stories convey a impression of the vulnerability experienced by individual members of the human race and their consequent desire to connect with a fellow creature. In the title story, the connection is motivated by the desire of a Quaker spinster to bring comfort to a condemned prisoner and persuade him to cleanse his soul before death. When he rejects her overtures she simply sits with him in compatible silence waiting for the moment when he feels ready to talk. In another story, a woman reluctantly lets a neighbour into her home while her husband is away, believing him to be obnoxious only to discover they endure the same painful secret.
Vulnerability isn’t confined to ordinary people in Carys Davies’ world. She delivers a delightful story of a man’s daring attempt to rescue the widowed Queen Victoria from yet another desperately dull official event by relating a story about his wife’s infidelity. Another, rather poignant, tale brings us Charlotte Bronte purchasing a new hat before a meeting with the publisher to whom she’s rather taken a shine.
These are stories that are hard to resist reading in one sitting. But they are best savoured in small doses, the more fully to enable the resonance of each to linger.
The Redemption of Galen Pike by Carys Davies is published in the UK by Salt Publishing.
You can read the title story at Prospect Magazine here but I urge you not to stop at this one story. Go and buy the book.
1. Awards. Justice at last for Jim Crace whose novel Harvest should have won the 2013 Booker Award because it was simply outstanding and far, far superior to the other shortlisted titles. I was delighted to see this week’s announcement declaring this book the winner of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. It’s a recognition that is long overdue. If you don’t know this novel, take a look at my review
2. Acquisitions. Two of my library reservations came through yesterday. Just in time because I was on the final few pages of Ghost Road by Pat Barker which I didn’t enjoy particularly. I now have The World of Thomas Hawkins by Antonia Hodgson to look forward to opening tonight. This is the second book by her which features Thomas Hawkins, a young ne’er-do-well in seventeenth century England who somehow can’t help getting involved in events which threaten his life. Her debut novel The Devil in the Marshalsea which I read just last month was so good I was delighted to find her follow up was just out. The World of Thomas Hawkins is a sequel to The Devil in the Marshalsea but the publishers say it can also be read as a standalone historical mystery.
Here’s the blurb from the publishers Hodder & Stoughton:
Spring, 1728. A young, well-dressed man is dragged through the streets of London to the gallows at Tyburn. The crowds jeer and curse as he passes, calling him a murderer. He tries to remain calm. His name is Tom Hawkins and he is innocent. Somehow he has to prove it, before the rope squeezes the life out of him.
Doesn’t that just want to make you open the book immediately?? For me yes, but then I also collected another novel which I’ve had my eye on for some time. A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar, is a novel about revenge and redemption, that was named this week as a winner of a Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize. The UK publishers Hodder & Stoughton describe it as:
Deep in the heart of history’s most infamous concentration camp, a man lies dreaming. His name is Shomer, and before the war he was a pulp fiction author. Now, to escape the brutal reality of life in Auschwitz, Shomer spends his nights imagining another world – a world where a disgraced former dictator now known only as Wolf ekes out a miserable existence as a low-rent PI in London’s grimiest streets.
The subject matter will not make this a comfortable read I’m sure but it’s such an interesting premise that I’m looking forward to getting stuck in soon.
3. Progress. Although I’ve weened myself off doing challenges for the last few years, I still have a few reading projects underway. While I haven’t made any conscious effort to make progress on them it seems I’m further ahead than I would have expected. With the completion of The Ghost Road, I find I’ve read 25 of the 47 Booker Prize titles on my list so well over the half way stage. I’m also exactly half way through my Classics Club project with just over two and half years left to read the remaining 25 novels. And I’m bang on target with the TBR Challenge run by Roof Beam Reader which is the one and only ‘challenge’ I’m doing this year. Usually I’m moaning that I’m behind schedule with my reading so it makes it a pleasant surprise to be right where I want to be.
4. Unplanned reading. A couple of months ago I decided that if I wanted to preserve my sanity I needed to stop creating reading schedules. I was spending too much time fretting about the fact that if I didn’t read book X then I’d be behind with my world literature project and if I didn’t read book Y I’d be late in delivering a review of an ARC. Reading stops being fun when you’re having to read a particular book or following a prescribed schedule. So instead I just adopted the behaviour of picking up whatever book was on the top of the two piles nearest to hand – one is my TBR challenge listed books and the other is a motley collection of classics and Booker prizes. And if I don’t fancy what my hand rests on, then I just scan the vast number of titles yet unread in the bookshelf. Hassle free reading is much more delightful than scheduled reading.
5. Library news. Progress this week on the campaign in which I’m involved to save our local library. A High Court judge has ordered our local authority to respond to our complaint within one week. We’ll then have a further week to make our own responses before the judge will rule if there is a case that needs to be heard. So though we’re not yet claiming victory, it’s at least some positive news.