Tuesday 13 November 2018

Muscovy by Matthew Francis

Like his acclaimed Mandeville (2008), Matthew Francis's fourth Faber collection explores a world of marvels, real and fantastic. A man takes off for the moon in an engine drawn by geese, a poltergeist moves into a remote Welsh village, and a party of seventeenth-century Englishmen encounter the wonders of Russia - sledges, vodka, skating and Easter eggs. The scientist Robert Boyle basks in the newly discovered radiance of phosphorus (the noctiluca of the title) and the theme of light in darkness is taken up by the more personal poems in the book: phoneboxes, streetlamps, moonlight. 
Goodreads description

Another lovely poetry book for you. Not all the poems are magic realism, but most have that magic-realist sensibility that I have written about in the past. 

The collection opens with The Man in the Moon, an account of a trip to the moon powered by geese. It made me think of Calvino, although it is a based on a 17th century fantasy by Francis Godwin. Many of the poems in the collection are influenced by the past or by historical accounts. Some are realistic such as the title poem, which is based on an account by Andrew Marvell of an embassy to Russia. Others have a more supernatural  element e.g Corpse Candle and Familiar Spirit.  I have written before that historical novels (and poetry) that include the supernatural are presenting the world of the past realistically.

My favourite poem in the book is The Walker. It is a beautiful and subtle poem. It of course has a magic-realist angle, but also evokes its mountain setting accurately and in wonderful language:
And the sheep carried on, canted to one side,
    trotting on their adjustable legs

and the narrator's response to it:
I was an inkwash of myself, wet on wet, 
  among the limp vertebrae of ferns
  and the fuzz of bilberry. 
One stroke would smear me into a blur.

The natural eeriness sets the scene for the twist at the ending of the poem.

Wonderful stuff.

Sunday 30 September 2018

The Girl Who Forgets How To Walk by Kate Davis

"We never speak of it, but here we know the land
can t be trusted"

The debut collection from Cumbrian poet Kate Davis tells a personal narrative of contracting polio as a young girl, her subsequent disability and slow rehabilitation. A book of things known and not known, of untrustworthy ground and unsteady bodies, The Girl Who Forgets How to Walk finds comfort in the ancient limestone of her home county as she teaches herself to move again along its hills and coastlines. Inspiring, funny and deeply personal, with this book Davis creates her own map to navigate the wild landscape, demonstrating a unique connection to the earth beneath us.
Amazon description

After 278 posts, the vast majority of them reviews of magic realist books, I have rather run out of steam as evidenced by the low number of reviews this year. I don't want to stop posting on this blog, as I get great pleasure from sharing with you. But I have decided I need to make some changes - one is a bit of a break from reviewing novels. I will still review a magic realist novel when I read one, but I want to diversify. I have already reviewed an exhibition and a theatrical production, but there is one literary form which I have yet to review and yet it is ideally suited to inclusion in this blog and that is poetry. Of course this will require me to gain new skills and approaches, but then I need something new. I just ask that you bear with me as I find my way. 

The back cover of Kate Davis' poetry collection states Kate Davis writes magical realist poems, born of the hills, marshes and coastal edgelands of south Cumbria. And she does so wonderfully. 

The suite of poems The Girl Who Forgets How To Walk is the central section of the collection. It focuses on the story of the girl with polio. The beginning and concluding sections are made up of poems which complement it, being more focused on the landscape, its history and archaeology of Cumbria. These poems, while providing a setting to the girl's story (before and after her illness), do so much more.The girl's body afflicted by polio and the landscape mirror each other - 
We never speak of it, but here we know the land can't be trusted.

But the relationship between the Cumbrian landscape and the girl is a complex one. She wants to find the footpaths for herself. When she is shown geological maps she sees what is inside herself instead of seeing what is in the earth. In one of my favourite poems the members of the family are described as different rocks - 
Our mother was a stony outcrop,
our father a cobble chucked in a pond
and sunk.

A few poems, such as the one where she sees people floating in mid-air, are very obviously magic realist. But as I have written so many times magic realism is a sensibility and nearly all these poems share it. 

One of the joys of this work is that while Kate David deals with a highly personal and difficult issue she does so in a way that is joyous and even at times humourous. 

I recommend this collection to you.

Saturday 7 July 2018

Daughters of the Air by Anca L. Szilagyi

Tatiana "Pluta" Spektor was a mostly happy, if awkward, young girl—until her sociologist father was disappeared during Argentina’s Dirty War. Sent a world away by her grieving mother to attend boarding school outside New York City, Pluta wrestles alone with the unresolved tragedy and at last runs away: to the streets of Brooklyn in 1980, where she figuratively—and literally—spreads her wings. Told with haunting fabulist imagery by debut novelist Anca L. Szilágyi, this searing tale of love, loss, estrangement, and coming of age is an unflinching exploration of the personal devastation wrought by political repression.
Goodreads description

I was asked to read this book by its author, who is also a member of the Magic Realist Books Facebook Group. I am under no obligation to write a review, however here it is. 

This is an interesting book, beautifully written. It is also, as the Goodreads description makes clear, an unflinching account of the devastation wrought by political repression. Indeed there will be some readers who will find this novel somewhat too unflinching. It does not look away from what too often happens when a naive teenage girl runs away to the big city. The magic realism reflects this grittiness. In another writer's hands when Pluta grows and spreads her wings (literally and metaphorically) they would be a bird's or an angel's - all soft feathers - but Pluta has the wings of a bat or similar. 

For the Disappeared in the world of the Argentinian Dirty War, flying was a matter of being hurled from a helicopter into the ocean. It is against this background and the unknown fate of Pluta's beloved father that Pluta's story and that of her mother, Isabel, unfolds. In some ways Pluta's descent into the hell of 1980's Brooklyn, mirrors that of her father, who like Pluta is both naive and innocent. 

The book's chapters alternate between Pluta's story and that of her mother, between Pluta's current story and the family's backstory. This seems to be a popular story structure at the moment, but it relies heavily on the reader being engaged by both stories to the same degree, or otherwise the reader gets frustrated with the shifts in story. Unfortunately Isabel is not as sympathetic character as her daughter. 

Szilagyi's treatment of both the main characters require the reader to think and fill in the gaps. The ending is in many ways not a resolution but a compromise that allows life to continue. In every way this is a mature intelligent book which may not suit all readers, but it is an example of how magic realism is so suited to ambiguity and  to difficult subjects. 

Saturday 7 April 2018

The Stone Book Quartet by Alan Garner

A classic work of rural magic realism from one of Britain’s greatest children’s novelists.
Through four interconnected fables of a way of living in rural England that has now disappeared, Alan Garner vividly brings to life a landscape situated on the outskirts of industrial Manchester.
Smiths and chandlers, steeplejacks and quarrymen, labourers and artisans: they all live and work hand in hand with the seasons, the elements and the land. There is a mutual respect and a knowledge of the magical here that has somehow, somewhere been lost to us. These fables beautifully recapture and restore that lost world in simple, searching prose.

When I was a teenager I remember arguing that Alan Garner was a better writer than Tolkien. Now over forty years later I still think that there is a case to be made. At first it might seem ridiculous when one looks at the slim volume of this book (made up four short stories), but then the economy of Garner's writing is one of its strengths. He never overwrites, is never self indulgent, and yet he always writes enough to create complex layers. There is so much in this book that it is impossible for me to do it justice in this short blog post. If you are a reader who likes the writer to make life simple for you, who doesn't like having to think about what you are reading, then you probably will not appreciate Alan Garner's books. I found myself thinking about The Stone Book Quartet for weeks after reading it, which is partly why it has taken me so long to write this review.

The Stone Book Quartet is set around a specific area of Britain, a part of the county of Cheshire called Alderley Edge. It has been home for Alan Garner's family for time immemorial  and it is where he still lives.  The Stone Book Quartet is to some extent based on four generations of his family. Each quartet focuses on one young person from each generation - all are finding themselves and their place in a world that is changing. The first book in many ways is a benediction to a way of life that had not changed for centuries, but the good stone which generations of men in the family had hewn and worked is now running out. Masons of course have long been associated with secret rituals and in this quartet the central character, Mary, is initiated into a family secret, a rite of passage, in which she sees the hand of generations past. 

One reason I love Garner's writing so much is the way history pervades his work. His is an understanding of history, I might say a intuitive feeling for history, that chimes with mine. It is ever present and acts as a recurring theme, not in a doomed way (as is the case in Garner's novels The Owl Service and Red Shift) but in a no less profound way. 

The Stone Book Quartet is in part a celebration of handicraft. In the second book Mary's son turns his back on working stone and becomes a blacksmith. But there is still the sense of work well done, of hands mastering the world (and the elements) around them. It is a world that is constantly changing and yet is continuous. In the final book William, Mary's great-grandchild, is made a sledge by his blacksmith father. The sledge is formed from the handles of the forge bellows (the smith is retiring), from forged iron, and from some old wood which came from a hand loom used by Mary's uncle in a craft that was dying out even when Mary was a girl. The book ends with William sledging:

He set off. It had not been imagined. He was not alone on the sledge. There was a line and he could feel it. It was a line through hand and eye, block, forge and loom to the hill. He owned them all: and they owned him.

Of course the story of the family's craftsmanship does not end with William, Alan Garner is part of that story and, as I said in my first paragraph, you will not find a better master of the writer's craft. The stone book in the title is a book crafted for Mary with great love by her father from a stone. Mary's stone book was a prayer book and so might have been considered blasphemous, but it wasn't. For me Garner's Stone Book Quartet is a very spiritual and mystical book and I am reminded of the Victorian church in Vauxhall, London, where I used to work. Although it was a church full of beautiful craftsmanship, it was a church for the poor working class people of the neighbourhood. Everywhere, in the stone and wood carvings, the mosaics, the embroidered vestments and banners, the church celebrated the sacrament of working with your hands. "Remember," it said, "Jesus was a carpenter, a working man like you."