Sunday 26 August 2018

American War, Omar El Akkad

It’s late in the twenty-first century and America is once again in the throes of civil war. It has been wracked by climate change and the free Southern States have refused to give up fossil fuel. The Chestnut family live in a metal shack in a wasteland, terrified of the ever closening war. Benjamin, the father, is killed in a suicide bombing while attempting to organise a way for his family to move to the North. Martina and her three children; Dana, Sarat, and Simon, are forced to move to Camp Patience, a sprawling refugee camp that will be their home for years to come. The book goes on to show the irreversible damage war does to the Chestnut family.

Sarat is the main focus of the text. Tall, tough, and trusting, we see the war gradually break the innocent trust and curiosity she held at the opening. She is radicalized and tortured and commits acts of terrorism that the reader may struggle to reconcile with their desire for a happy ending and admirable protagonist. El Akkad has said that his aim was not to create a likeable or even a sympathetic character in Sarat but for the reader to understand how she came to be the person she becomes. In this he certainly succeeds, and although her actions are at time shocking it feels difficult to entirely condemn her.

Camp Patience has all the hallmarks of the refugee camps we are familiar with hearing about, yet being thrown into the day to day, knowing the characters are there for years, brings home the realities of displacement in war-torn countries, that the struggle continues long after the cameras have gone. El Akkad based the experiences in the novel deeply in fact, both from his time as a journalist and in research for the novel. This is also true of Sugarloaf, the detention centre where atrocious tortures are doled out. Again, he has made nothing up, and the reader knows this, making it all the more harrowing.

With the current problems in America it is easy to read this as a cautionary tale, and yet it was written before Trump announced his intention to run for President. Instead it is concerned with the past and the present and bringing atrocities that people turn a blind eye to into such close proximity that they can’t be ignored. A difficult read that rings true on many levels.

Sunday 19 August 2018

First Love, Gwendoline Riley

First Love is a study in unhappy relationships. Neve and Edwyn have an uncomfortable marriage. The reader is to expect nothing less as we are told early on that they’d both planned to be alone and married against their better judgment. Neve is a writer with a part-time job to subsidise her income, something which Edwyn seems to consider a flaw on her part, relying on him to provide for her. He is significantly older, has an illness which frequently causes him pain, and takes his frustrations out on Neve and rages against women more generally.

As a reader the perpetual question is why are they together. Edwyn claims freedom is the most important thing, something which he evidently feels Neve restricts. Even in the scenes showing their supposed affection the terms of endearment he uses have an unpleasant edge – ‘little compost heap’ and ‘little cabbage’. Later in the novel we see what can only be described as abusive behaviour and Neve’s attempts to cope with his outbursts. In an interview, Riley commented that she hoped by the end you could see that there was something in Neve that drives him to these rages, which is not to say it’s her fault. A complex and difficult emotional situation.

We are also show how Neve’s psychological makeup was forged through a challenging upbringing. Her father was a bully and after his separation from her mother forces himself into Neve’s life. He is controlling and sometimes cruel. Edwyn accuses her, during an argument, of relating to him in the same way she did her father. The reader can’t help but wonder if her intimate relations have indeed been coloured by this dysfunctional parental relationship.

Her mother also proves to be a challenge. She leads a chaotic life and is needy in a child-like way. She married again but found unhappiness once more and so looks for her next companion, her attempts to date falling flat. Neve tells us that she doesn’t want to end up like her, which perhaps goes some way to explaining why she perseveres with Edwyn. Her mother is an intriguing character, seemingly deeply unhappy yet determinedly optimistic. She mentions in passing sexual trauma in her youth which she claims not to have been deeply affected by yet her reaction to suggestions of sexual desire and her marital celibacy suggest otherwise. Neve is frustrated by her but won’t fully cut her off.

First Love is a powerful, uncomfortable read. The first-person narrative perhaps skews our opinion in Neve’s favour and yet you’re left feeling like you can’t quite pin her down. Is everyone as unfair to her as she thinks, or does she have a deep seated aversion to being relied upon that makes her feel she is being taken advantage of? An intriguing, complex little book.

Sunday 12 August 2018

Attrib. and other stories, Eley Williams

The debut collection from Williams contains a series of emotionally charged musings on the small things in life that can become a source of great anxiety. The interiority of each piece with their mostly first-person narratives means each nugget of beautifully constructed fiction packs a punch.

In Smote we see a woman agonizing over whether or not to kiss her girlfriend in an art gallery, unable to get over the feeling that it might not be appropriate. Alight at the Next shows a combination of turmoil over whether or not to invite a boyfriend home with annoyance at inconsiderate commuters on the Tube. These scenarios turn moments that in reality occupy mere seconds into pages as their internal monologues go into overdrive.

There are tales of burgeoning love alongside the crushing uncertainty and worry that comes when they begin to fall apart. In Concision we are privy to the painful end to a difficult phone call yet not a word of dialogue is included. In Platform the potency of a final photo of a loved one is mixed with humour as the narrator notices another personal drama unfolding in the background as a toupee flies off one head, ready to hit another unsuspecting traveller. A reminder that all around us life is happening outside of the nexus of our own.

Animals feature heavily, most memorably in Spines in which a family refuses to help a frightened hedgehog that has fallen in to their holiday pool. This story is a perfect example of Williams’ ability to draw believable, complex characters through their actions.

Whether you regularly read short stories or not I would highly recommend Attrib. It catches your heart from the first and skillfully takes you through the mundane in quite an extraordinary way. Williams’ love of words shines bright as she leads you on a journey of word play, literary experimentation and very human tales.

Sunday 5 August 2018

White Tears, Hari Kunzru

When Seth meets Carter at high school he is surprised that this wealthy, cool student pays him any attention. Their friendship is based around a mutual love of music, the blues being Carter’s particular passion. He refuses to listen to anything by white artists, believing it is never as genuine. On leaving college they move to New York and set up a recording studio where they use samples from old records to make new recordings sound aged, yet Carter still maintains this obsession with the genuine and authentic. On one of Seth’s recording trips around the city he picks up a few lines of a song. Carter becomes obsessed and they create a record, releasing it online as though it were a long lost track by Charlie Shaw, an artist they believe they have created. Among the plethora of responses is JumpJim, an old collector who warns them off getting involved in this world. The narrative begins to dissolve from this point, telling JumpJim’s tale alongside Seth’s, whose narrative eventually becomes inextricably entangled with Charlie Shaw’s.

Carter and his sister Leonie attempt to separate themselves from their famous family name, and the way in which the Wallace fortune was made. Carter is deeply involved in the cultural appropriation of the blues, and Leonie decorates her apartment to look like that of a struggling artist. She expresses multiple times that everyone always wants something from them and that nobody will take her art seriously because they’re too busy trying to sell her something. Their desire to create a visage of something that they are not while nonetheless being happy to live off the family fortune leads them to danger.

Seth has no wealth of his own, although it is his skill that allows their company to work, and is heavily reliant on Carter to provide, something that the Wallace’s fail to understand. He admits to having had  some kind of episode in his youth, and much of the latter sections of the novel feel as though he is having a breakdown as he desperately tries to escape the ghost of Charlie Shaw. He is used as a vehicle to demonstrate the inherent racism in American society, that the systems are designed to perpetuate oppression. His treatment by the police is shocking and the flashbacks show how even after slavery was abolished the justice system was rigged to force the poor into hard labour.

Seth wanders the final chapters as a ghostly figure trying to remain invisible to stay out of trouble. His comment ‘when you are powerless, something can happen to you and afterwards it has not happened’ is a poignant comment not only on the immediate aftermath of events but the way in which history is written with the absence of many voices. In an interview, Kunzru commented that with Trump in power in America these discriminations are losing the veneer of civility that has so long obscured them.

A powerful, difficult, and important read that will inspire a sense of outrage.