Wednesday 30 October 2013

The Sinistra Zone by Adam Bodor

Lyrical, surreal, and yet unsettlingly realistic, The Sinistra Zone swims in the totalitarian backwaters of Eastern Europe

Entering a weird, remote hamlet, Andrei calls himself "a simple wayfarer," but he is in fact highly compromised: he has no identity papers. Taken under the wing of the military zone's commander, Andrei is first assigned to guard the blueberries that supply a nearby bear reserve. He is surrounded by human wrecks, supernatural umbrellas, birds carrying plagues, albino twins.

The bears - and an affair with a married woman - occupy Andrei until his protector is replaced by a new female commander, "a slender creature, quiet, diaphanous, like a dragonfly," and yet an iron-fisted harridan. As things grow ever more alarming, Andrei becomes a "corpse watchman," standing guard over the dead to check for any signs of life, and then ...

Goodreads description

This is a strange book, combining poetic descriptions, earthy humour and satire, sometimes in the same sentence: Hamza Petrika took his brother’s rubber boots under his arm and started back toward the bear reserve without a word, letting out colossal farts on the way, as if his soul was fast departing his body. 

Some readers will be shocked by this earthiness, by the casual way the "hero" shares the wife of another man and especially by the portrayal of paedophilia. A Goodreads group I belong to has recently been reading and discussing One Hundred Years of Solitude and many members object so strongly to the incest in that book that it clearly completely colours their view of the book's merits. They certainly wouldn't like The Sinistra Zone. As you know One Hundred Years of Solitude is one my all time favourite books and additionally grew up in a family which enjoyed fart jokes. I have also spent a lot of my time in a country which endured four decades of communism and so have some understanding of the impact of totalitarian rule, its absurdity and its cruelty. 

The location of the Sinistra Zone is deliberately ambiguous. To my mind the setting seems to be somewhere on the borders of Ceaușescu's Romania. The author is a Transylvanian Hungarian. But this land is also a land of the imagination, albeit a very bleak one. The lives of the inhabitants are desperate: their diet seems to consist of dried mushrooms and forest fruit, washed down by a lethal moonshine which has to be filtered before consumption. Whether you live or die is down to the whim of the local military commander: short, hunched and pallid, Coca Mavridin-Mahmudia was... like some lurid nocturnal moth giving off the stink of dead bugs. The commander also decides what job you do and who you sleep with. The book's grotesque imagery and story holds up a mirror to the obscenity and brutality of life under a dictator like Ceaușescu. 

Bodor ignores many of the rules of structure. The chapters overlap, information is repeated,  the book shifts from first to third person narration without obvious reason. At first I wondered whether this approach was a form of magic realism metafiction, but later decided that it wasn't and that Bodor just seems to work to his own rules. Maybe the structural oddities reflect the arbitrariness and unpredictability of life under totalitarian rule. There is instead magic realism of the type we see in Marquez's work. Throughout the novel the umbrella of a former commander flies above the zone like an oversized bat. When the same commander dies a bird builds a nest in his mouth. 

This is a book one should approach with an open mind. If you do that you might find, as I did, that you are drawn into the weird and terrible world of the Sinistra Zone.
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Wednesday 23 October 2013

If I Told You Once by Judy Budnitz

'I should have known that this would happen. My granddaughter is too like me, My daughter too. Sometimes holding something too tightly, trying to guide it too closely will only make it turn against you. Like a river bursting through the dikes and dams and flooding over the fields.'

Ilana has her ways. They are old ways, the ways of the forest, full of magic and mystery, elemental, fundamental. When she leaves the deep, dark, ancient lands of the east for a new life in a bright new country, she carries the spirit of the forest with her, and hopes she can create her own way, create her own story. For her, her daughter Sashie, for her granddaughter Mara and even her great-granddaughter Nomie, in the stories of their lives men are mostly absent, children are mostly wayward, the past is ever present and survival is slippery.
Goodreads description

This novel,  starts in the shtetls of eastern Europe at the beginning of the 20th century but it could have been any century as so little has changed. Ilana's childhood world is one of medieval superstition, where fairytales live, as do wood spirits, witches and other demons. It ends in what I took to be modern-day New York.

The opening chapters of Ilana's childhood, youth and escape to America are simply wonderful. The magic and surreal works perfectly here, as you might expect given the beliefs of the people in the "old country". But it is not an idealized view of that world. Buditz does not spare us the brutality and grind of life in which everything is dull and grey: In a place like that, the colour of an egg yolk was something of a miracle. Understandably when Ilana gets to see another world in the interior of a Faberge egg she wants to go to that colourful place. In so doing she rebels against her mother and escapes. In so doing she sets the pattern for daughters rebelling against their mothers that occurs over the four generations of women, whose narratives make up this book. 

Another pattern which is repeated across generations is the role of men, sons and brothers are idealized and more intelligent sisters are both neglected and expected to sacrifice themselves. Nevertheless the men come and go: they disappear, they go to war, they die in foreign lands, even Ilana's husband drifts away mentally before dying, after hearing of his family's deaths in the holocaust. But through it all Ilana remains strong, almost ageless, something her great granddaughter recognizes: Ilana, whom I could not bear to call my great-grandmother because saying the word is like trying to shout across a canyon, across a great distance. And she did not seem far away at all. And Ilana carries the old ways and old beliefs to America, something her daughter and granddaughter despise and dismiss. 

Fairy stories and folktales are woven into the book, appearing in new clothes but still recognizable - one reason why the author has been compared with Angela Carter. I had great fun recognizing spotting them: Little Red Riding Hood, a female Bluebeard, Baba Yaga and the Pied Piper were the most obvious. And what is more they work within the novel. It is partly because of the familiarity of these stories that one can fill in gaps. 

I enjoyed reading this book. Yet again we have a magic realism book which tells the tale of several generations of mothers and daughters. If I were to fault this book it is that with Ilana beinge such a strong character it is difficult sometimes to sustain the same level of engagement when the story turns to Sashie and Mara and they pick up the narrative. This is partly because neither is particularly likeable, indeed Mara is downright psychotic. Both doubt Ilana's tales of life in the old country and dismiss them as lies and fabrications, but when their view of the world and Ilana are also clearly fabrications and self delusions. As Ilana says: The trouble is not in my eyes; my vision is as sharp as ever. It is the world that has become more blurred. My sympathies and interest returned with the arrival of Nomie, who comes to believe her great grandmother: I had not been paying attention in the right way. I had thought her stories were only about her, I had not thought they had anything to do with me. 

The book is beautifully written. There are some wonderfully evocative descriptions: The men made a fermented liquor so colourless it was invisible, nothing but a raging headache stoppered in a bottle.  Images occur and reoccur, with variations, woven into the fabric of the story, sometimes reinforcing Ilana's account of her youth. The book ends with one of loveliest last lines I have ever read, but I will not spoil it for you by repeating it here.  


Wednesday 16 October 2013

The Long White Sickness by Cecelia Frey

On a remote lonely mountain, Constance skis toward her death and Harry Weinstein loses himself in an avalanche. Meanwhile, back in the city, Gully Jillson is the suspect in the investigation of a murder that has taken place in Constance's high-rise condo. The collision of this strange menage a trois is at the heart of Cecelia Frey's latest novel of love and death, sex and life. Complicating matters for Constance in her pursuit of a recalcitrant and perfidious muse are the ongoing intrusions of Sgt. Rock, homicide detective with ulterior motives; daughter Lara and her rock musician partner, Rowlf, fugitives from a California religious cult; and 84-year-old Aunt Olive, one floor down, who shoots from the lip, and the hip, if anyone messes with her boyfriend, Fred. In the ensuing hijinks, Constance becomes a character trapped in her narrative, which is hijacked by her former husband. Ultimately, a novel about how to find a way to live in the world.
Publisher's description.

This is a fun book to read, whilst at the same time it tackles some serious subjects. When I came across a review in the Calgary Herald, I was pleased to see that this is a book written from the point of view of a 60-year old woman and so when the review also mentioned that the book has a magic realist twist, I approached the publisher to ask for a review copy. 

The magic realism comes at the end of the book and is in the metafiction strand of magic realism. As the publisher's description says above: Constance becomes a character trapped in her narrative, which is hijacked by her former husband. Writing and in particular the struggle women writers have with other demands on their time is at the heart of the book. One gets the impression that Cecelia Frey is writing from bitter personal experience as children, elderly relatives and the demands of husbands all contribute to Constance's inability to write. 

Much of the fun in the book is in the interplay of characters. For starters Constance is an unreliable narrator, and as each character arrives we see her through their eyes and vice versa. We realise how Constance and the others are continually developing narratives (which are often contradictory) about themselves. The characters at times seemed to me a little stereotypical, but then is that because of the way Constance sees them. 

Add to that a murder mystery and fraught love life and you have a fun read. 


Wednesday 9 October 2013

Diving Belles by Lucy Wood

Straying husbands lured into the sea can be fetched back, for a fee. Magpies whisper to lonely drivers late at night. Trees can make wishes come true - provided you know how to wish properly first. Houses creak, fill with water and keep a fretful watch on their inhabitants, straightening shower curtains and worrying about frayed carpets. A teenager's growing pains are sometimes even bigger than him. And, on a windy beach, a small boy and his grandmother keep despair at bay with an old white door. In these stories, Cornish folklore slips into everyday life. Hopes, regrets and memories are entangled with catfish, wrecker's lamps, standing stones and baying hounds, and relationships wax and wane in the glow of a moonlit sea. This luminous, startling and utterly spellbinding debut collection introduces in Lucy Wood a spectacular new voice in contemporary British fiction. 
Goodreads description

Amazon Recommends usually fails to throw up much of interest or if it does the book is often one I already have (it even recommended to me one that I wrote), but once in a while Amazon recommends a gem. This debut collection of short stories by Lucy Wood is one such gem.

It has been suggested that Western writers aren't in touch with their magical past, but this book gives that notion the lie. Diving Belles reminds me of the works of Alan Garner, a British writer who had a tremendous influence on me as a child. Just as Cheshire runs through Garner's books, so Cornwall does in this one. Lucy Wood is remarkable at creating a sense of place:  Nothing moved across the moor except the rain, which appeared as suddenly and soundlessly as a face pressed against a window. Like Garner, Wood takes the folklore and myth of her home county and weaves into her stories. You might also compare her with Susan Clarke, but Wood's roots are strongly local and combine the mundane and the magical. For example: one of my favourite stories is Countless Stones in which a woman is struggling to get through a list of tasks (turn off the electric, close the windows) and is waylaid by her needy ex-boyfriend - only she isn't going away on holiday - she is turning into a menhir.

Many of the stories are about grief and loss, and, as is so often the case in magic realism, about the spaces between people. Most have a female central character, beautifully drawn, as shown in this description of a mother and adult daughter reunion: June helped her up and dusted off the back of her T-shirt. She had strong, capable hands. Tessa had always assumed her own hands would change somehow when she reached thirty, becoming strong hands for brushing off backs and changing tyres, but they hadn't so far.  

Another daughter/mother reunion also appears in one of my favourite stories, Of Mothers and Little People, in which a daughter realises that she has seen her mother in completely the wrong light, that her mother is not lonely but instead has an fairy lover normally invisible to the human eye. The story ends: When you look back his thumb is touching the smooth dip of her throat. Look again and they have gone – there are only the leaves rustling and the branches swaying in the wind. You can hear your mother’s footsteps somewhere close by but you cannot see her. You hear her laugh, or maybe it was just a bird trilling, you are not entirely sure.

If you are uncomfortable with such an ambiguous ending, then these stories are not for you. There is a sense of incompleteness about many of the stories, but why is it necessary for short stories to be neatly tied up? I love ambiguity: maybe that's why I love magic realism, and have no such problem.

 The final short story is about a traditional Cornish storyteller. As it starts the droll teller is thinking he had let the stories slip away. They weren’t buried anywhere. He thought they might have been buried somewhere. He realised now why the world had become flat and empty. Things were ending. But by the end of the story He could hear the story creeping out of the mine towards him... and now here he was beginning again; somehow, despite everything, he was beginning again. I felt the same about the folklore in these stories and for that reason was very excited by this book by an interesting debut author.
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Saturday 5 October 2013

Kabu Kabu by Nnedi Okorafor

Kabu kabu-unregistered illegal Nigerian taxis-generally get you where you need to go. Nnedi Okorafor's Kabu Kabu, however, takes the reader to exciting, fantastic, magical, occasionally dangerous, and always imaginative locations you didn't know you needed. This debut short story collection by an award-winning author includes notable previously published material, a new novella co-written with New York Times-bestselling author Alan Dean Foster, six additional original stories, and a brief foreword by Whoopi Goldberg.
Goodreads description

Nnedi Okorafor is an American-born daughter of Igbo Nigerian parents and that mix of cultures is just perfect for the writing of magic realism. This collection of short stories draws on Okorafor's West African roots more than her American life. But the writer being American brings an outsider's point of view. The eponymous story is a good example of that. A successful American lawyer hails an illegal taxi (kabu kabu) to take to the airport for her flight to a family wedding in Nigeria, but the taxi takes her on a ride into the Nigerian supernatural. Another story features two American sisters staying in the house their parents built and furnished in Nigeria but which the family has denuded of furniture. 

The twenty-one short stories in this collection tackle some serious subjects: intolerance, genocide, stereotyping, war including the civil war, persecution of the other, and the environmental and social destruction wrought by Western oil companies. Foremost is the treatment of strong women who dare to break with the patriarchal society in which they live. There are several stories about windseekers - women who are physically marked out by their dada hair and independent spirit, and who can fly. They are feared and persecuted as witches. Fortunately the book comes with notes from the author, which give an interesting insight into what inspired these stories. The notes also explain that, as I suspected when I read the stories, some of the stories were originally parts of or side stories from full-length novels: the windseeker stories come from a novel Zahrah the Windseeker which won the 2o08 Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature. 

Some of the stories are very definitely magic realism, others are closer to fantasy and/or science fiction. Biafra won The Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism Short Story Contest. It also happens to be one of my favourite stories. I am old enough to remember the terrible images of the Nigerian Civil War (1967 - 1970) that fed into my childhood home via the BBC News. I can't imagine how they would haunt every Nigerian family. This story shows brilliantly how magic realism can tackle horrific subjects. The central character is a windseeker living in America: like so many of our people who were abroad, she'd felt the words deep in her bones. Come home! There are some incredible images in this story. A dying girl asked what the spirits of the girl's family and friends look like, replies: Like large pretty green lizards with long long rough tails. Helicopters are described as giant metal vultures dropping excrements of death.

I found Okarafor's work fascinating. I have only limited knowledge of the African heritage that inspires her work, but I can see how she is forging an African/American approach to magic realism. Her recent magic realist novel Who Fears Death has just been added to my to read list.

I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair review.
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Wednesday 2 October 2013

Lungs Full of Noise by Tessa Mellas

This prize-winning debut of twelve stories explores a femininity that is magical, raw, and grotesque. Aghast at the failings of their bodies, this cast of misfit women and girls sets out to remedy the misdirection of their lives in bold and reckless ways.

Figure skaters screw skate blades into the bones of their feet to master elusive jumps. A divorcee steals the severed arm of her ex to reclaim the fragments of a dissolved marriage. Following the advice of a fashion magazine, teenaged girls binge on grapes to dye their skin purple and attract prom dates. And a college freshman wages war on her roommate from Jupiter, who has inadvertently seduced all the boys in their dorm with her exotic hermaphroditic anatomy.

But it isn’t just the characters who are in crisis. In Lungs Full of Noise, personal disasters mirror the dissolution of the natural world. Written in lyrical prose with imagination and humor, Tessa Mellas’s collection is an aviary of feathered stories that are rich, emotive, and imbued with the strength to suspend strange new worlds on delicate wings.

Goodreads description

Sometimes a book comes along in my magic realism challenge which makes me rethink what makes magic realism work so well for me. Pedro Paramo was one such book and this is another. This is magic realism which is pushing the boundary of form, at times distinctly weird and often verging on poetry. Do all the stories work equally well? No, of course not, but then Mellas' writing wouldn't be experimental if it was predictable. 

The subject matter - about being female - is something that I interests me. Mellas' stories cover a number of feminist issues - the menopause, empty nest syndrome, body image, motherhood, the repression of girls' voices, competition for the attention of men - in a way that is at once fantastical and very, very real. 

The best story for me was The White Wings of Moths, which is about a woman trying to cope with the menopause and her relationship with her absent daughter by adopting and caring for caterpillars. Not only is it wonderfully poetic and lyrical, it also has some accurate descriptions of the heat of menopause: Menopause has made sleep a difficult thing, a hidden room in a hidden house in a hidden town... Her body burns and tingles. And there's a quaking inside her limbs. The bones in her spine have turned to ice. Her ovaries too. She feels them heavy and cold like stones nestled against her womb. 

In Dye Job teenage girls turn themselves blue by gorging on fruit in the hope of gaining prom partners.  Their health and friendships are strained as they compete for that all important young man. In Mariposa Girls the girls are aspiring figure skaters, willing to sacrifice everything for perfection in their sport.

Beanstalk is a story which has similarities with the Czech folk story Otesánek about a woman who adopts a baby made out of a tree root, who grows and takes over her life and her world (the tale was adapted into the film Little Otik by Jan Svankmejer). In this story it is implied that the baby the woman gives birth to may have been fathered by a plant rather than her rather boring neighbour. It is about the desire for motherhood, but it also could be considered a story about the power of nature.

Other stories also have an environmental theme. Blue Sky White is a mythic or folkloric account of a world in which one day the sky ceases to be blue. Landscapes in White is a prose poem of a world in which birds fall from the sky: The sky full of feathers, a quarrel of wings. Plumage blooms across our windows, the glass smeared cloudy with milky streaks. The beltway a blur of sparrows. City towers beaten by doves.

As the book progresses the stories tend to lose their conventional story structure and become more experimental, in grammar as well as form. These will not be for everyone, but I enjoyed and was inspired by them, although I will not claim to have understood them all.

The book concludes with the story of a woman who steals the severed arm of her former husband in an effort to reconnect with the life she once had. At once lyrical, shocking and thought-provoking it is typical of the stories in this wonderful collection.

I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair review.