Reservoir 13 – Jon McGregor

“There were dreams of her walking home. Walking beside the motorway, walking across the moor, walking up out of one of the reservoirs, rising from the dark grey water with her hair streaming and her clothes draped with long green weeds.”

Reservoir 13 is a beautifully crafted (seven years in the making!) novel and it kind of left me akin to living in a less gruesome episode of Midsomer Murders – or some other quaint country English town – the Peak District to be precise. I can’t quite explain the cleverness of McGregor’s writing, how lyrical and soothing his words are, so subtle yet lucid. However, it’s definitely not for everyone, so if you rather fancy: slow, intimate portraits of landscape and people, affecting descriptions of the passage of time, endearing country life and zero plot – this is probably for you.

The initial premise of the novel is that of a missing girl, however, the story becomes much more than this as McGregor weaves intimate portraits of the towns inhabitants over the next ten years. There are births and deaths, new-comers arrive, old-timers return, secrets are hidden and revealed. Each story unfolds minutely with the seasons, rivers overflowing, trees in bloom, the local allotment weary with produce.

 

“The summer had been low with cloud but in September the skies cleared and the days were berry-bright and the mud hardened into ridges in the lanes. At the allotments the main crop of potatoes was lifted, the black earth turned over and the fat yellow tubers tumbling into the light.”

Reservoir 13‘s structure is brilliant, each chapter beginning with the new year, and through the seasons we watch both the land grow and people change (or not) over time. The way McGregor writes his passing of time is both eloquent and exquisite. I’m not sure I am able to explain it, but it was infectious and integrating, I was immersed within a community. Yet more engaging than any of the characters was the township, the village, the landscape itself. I think perhaps the sheer beauty of Reservoir 13 is owing to the village, to landscape itself. The landscape swallows a young girl, and it then in turn begins to gnaw away and mold like clay all the inhabitants of the area. It has always done this, and it always will. In short, “landscape is a character in our lives, as much as the people around us who we know and don’t know.” *

“The missing girls name was Rebecca, or Becky, or Bex. In the photo her face was half turned away from the camera as though she didn’t want to be seen, as though she wanted to be somewhere else.”

Reservoir 13 is an exquisite, rather brilliant, insanely clever novel. I’ve never read anything like it and now I want to read more by this author. FUN FACT: McGregor is writing a series of short-stories as a prequel to the novel due for broadcast via radio later in the year!

4 out of 5 stars for me! How did you get on with this one or with McGregor as an author? I’d love to hear your thoughts below.

“In May the days broke open with light. Breakfast was eaten under the spell of clear sunlight, and tea prepared to the sound of children playing outside.”


* from an Interview with Jon McGregor – http://themanbookerprize.com/news/jon-mcgregor-interview

 

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History of Wolves – Emily Fridlund

“You know how summer goes. You yearn for it and yearn for it, but there’s always something wrong. Everywhere you look, there are insects thickening the air, and birds rifling trees, and enormous, heavy leaves dragging down branches. You want to trammel it, wreck it, smash things down. The afternoons are so fat and long. You want to see if anything you do matters.”

History of Wolves is an atmospheric, promising debut, although it took me a while to gather my thoughts. We follow the story of Linda and her life in the isolated woods of northern Minnesota. Her parents are from an ex-commune and she is an only child with a quiet home life and no friends at school. She soon strikes up an obsessive friendship with the new family across the lake and hence the story begins to unravel.

“When the early light caught her face, every freckle became vivid and precise. I noticed a slim white scar I’d never seen before, parting the down on her upper lip. I saw tiny flecks of dandruff riding a few hairs near her scalp.”

Overall I found it a rather creepy read and it started off with strong Eileen vibes, but unfortunately for me the ending fizzled out and left me unsure of what really happened. On reflection I suspect this was Fridlund’s intention; allowing the reader to slip unconsciously into Linda’s shoes.

Fridlund’s writing is precise and chilling, quietly mesmerizing as she submerges you in her subtle details, you feel as if you are there beside Linda. The setting is powerfully done, it’s place in the story beautifully evocative of the isolation in the deepest of winter. In fact, I’ll go so far to say as it’s one of those novel where the main character is the landscape itself. I also enjoyed Fridlund’s juxtapositions of Linda’s life of destruction; her aging parents and discarded home life; the exhaustion of it all versus the idyllic deliciousness of Patra and Paul’s life.

“Maybe if I’d been someone else I’d see it differently. But isn’t that the crux of the problem? Wouldn’t we all act differently if we were someone else?”

I am confident of its merits, however, without sounding snobbish I am unable to understand it’s place on the longlist. History of Wolves is divided into two parts: Science & Health – which I felt is never fully explained. Perhaps it’s to do with the religious aspect of the novel – which I shan’t talk about for fear of spoilers. Other than that it felt a little rushed towards the end and semi-young adult. Nonetheless I found the novel gripping and I read it in two sittings. 3/5 stars and a writer I could be persuaded to read more from in the future.


This has been my first Man Booker read this year! What did you think of this one? Are you eager to pick it up? Love to hear your thoughts on this one and all the other MB’s.

For now,

do svidaniya my bookish fiends…

the absolute faves – short stories j’adore (pt. i)

My favourite form, my preferred mode of writing, the highlight of my dream of a mediocre life – is the short story. I can understand why people mightn’t adore poetry, but the short story, there’s no excuse, why you can read one in twenty minutes, a novel on your lunch break! And there’s every kind imaginable, from horror to dirty realist, minimalist, flash, classic, romance, poetic – the list goes on.

Pt. I – The Absolute Favourites

Those which have stuck with me over the years, stories and authors I come back to with reverence, whose words linger on my skin long after dusk.

“She did not know; she could not think; she knew only that she did not want to go home, she wanted to sit here on the edge of the grave, never catching any more buses, crossing streets, walking on icy footpaths, turning mattresses, trying to reach jam from the top shelf of the cupboard, filling coal buckets, getting in and out of the bath.”

    from ‘The Bath’ published in You Are Now Entering the Human Heart: Stories

I read ‘The Bath’ by Janet Frame in high school and not a year has gone by where I haven’t thought of it or the author herself.  A day in the life of an elderly woman who lives alone, it isn’t a happy story but this is Frame’s forte: a depressive look at the life of the lonely people.

Frame is New Zealand born, and if you  haven’t heard of her –  she had an interesting life in and out of psychiatric hospitals and she was nearly given a lobotomy until the surgeon due to operate recognized her name and was like, oh hey you’re that writer who just won an award in the paper. Her writing is lyrical and soulful and at times it makes no sense. She plays with language, colour and perception. Lots of her works have themes not too dissimilar her own experiences in life. Others I adore are: ‘The Reservoir’ and ‘You Are Now Entering the Human Heart’.

“Her eyes faced the lighted exit. I saw her fear. The exit light blinked, hooded. The children, none of whom had ever touched a live snake, were sitting hushed, waiting for the drama to begin…”

from ‘You Are Now Entering the Human Heart’

 

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Raymond Carver, I discovered in my first year of Uni in an American Literature, a class I nearly didn’t take because I was an angry little punk back then, but man, I did and I can’t imagine my life without it. We briefly studied ‘So Much Water So Close To Home’ and it probably remains one of my top favourite stories of. all. time.

“In the kitchen I find a note from him signed “Love.” I sit in the breakfast nook in the sunlight and drink coffee and make a coffee ring on the note. The telephone has stopped ringing, that’s something.”

It’s about an everyday family in a small town. The husband goes on a hunting trip and they find a dead girl floating in the river. I can’t explain the feelings it gives you. And there’s also a movie adaptation of this particular story – Jindabyne – I thought it was a’ight eh…

Carver is a minimalist writer with a focus on the ordinary day to day lives of the working class. Now, there wasn’t a particular quote that ensnared me, in fact I don’t find Carver as quotable as other writers, but merely a feeling. I had never read anything like it. His way of creating lasting images, the ordinary moments of ordinary lives, everyday events with a melancholic twist that tugs away at you in the early hours. Not creepy like a Shirley Jackson story, it’s not even unease, it’s a mere feeling; the exhaustion that begins to settle with the twilight.

“I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone’s heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.”

from ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’

I also often find myself thinking about: ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’ and ‘The Bath’ – yes, another melancholic story with a bath in it. This could be a theme of mine… FUN FACT: Carver greatly admired Chekhov and Murakami used to be friends with Carver.

 

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“The slowness of Sundays. Something about the glare, the smell of warm grass, the church service, the relatives visiting in nice clothes. The whole day kind of lasts forever.”

from, ‘Human Moments in World War III’ published in The Angel Esmerelda: Nine Stories

Another discovery thanks to that first year paper and if there could be a perfect man, he would be a pretty even mix of Greg Graffin and Don DeLillo. A punk rock veteran, paleontologist and post modern novelist – how could you go wrong?

“She knew there was someone else in the room. There was no outright noise, just an intimation behind her, a faint displacement of air.”

from ‘Baader-Meinhof’

DeLillo writes sparingly much like Carver, but there’s a lyricism to his works, he’s more quotable and less blunt, I find. I’ll be honest and confess that on the whole I prefer DeLillo’s novels to his short stories: (White Noise, Mao II, The Body Artist – being my faves), however, his stories are probably a great place to start and get a feel for his work as they follow much the same themes of his novels. He focuses on post-modernist themes like mass media, rampant consumerism and the idea of violence generating a sense of rebirth. Stories I have enjoyed more than once are: Baader-Meinhof and Midnight in Dostoevsky.

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FUN FACT: you can probably read a good portion of the stories mentioned and others at the new yorker -> just search the title/writer!

For now my chickens,

Do svidaniya xx

Judas – Amos Oz

(Tr. Nicholas de Lange)

“In many flats in Jerusalem you might find van Gogh’s starry whirlpool skies or his shimmering cypresses on the living room wall, rush mats on the floors of the small rooms, and Doctor Zhivago or Yizhar’s Days of Ziklag lying open, face down, on a foam sofa-bed that was covered with a length of Middle-Eastern cloth and piled with embroidered cushions.”

Dear Mr. Oz, you had me at van Gogh.

I can hear you now, ‘but you vehemently dislike novels centered around religious content’ and yes, yes, yes you would be right. But, we all know that people only grow with trying new things and getting out of their comfort zone. So here we are. I’m out on a limb. I have zero (absolute zilch) knowledge about Christianity, the Bible, Jesus and religion in general. So, let’s talk about why I adored this novel and wished I had bought it so I could’ve underlined the crap out of it because I’m sure the library frowns upon such methods.

  • The writing style. Oz’s characterizations. His subtle warmth, delicate humour, absolutely vivid and stunning scene setting.

“Professor Eisenschloss was a small, compact man with thick beer-bottle lenses in his spectacles, and movements that reminded you of a cuckoo darting busily out of a clock.”

  • Short chapters. C’mon now, who doesn’t love a short, sweet chapter? Much like those who dislike cheese, prefer vanilla to chocolate and wear underwear in their own homes – untrustworthy I tell ye.

“Anyone willing to change, will always be considered a traitor by those who cannot change.”

  • Shmuel Ash.  How can you not love the guy?

“He suddenly wanted very much to live in that attic, to curl up inside it with a pile of books, a bottle of red wine, a stove, a quilt, a gramophone and some records, and not go outside, for lectures, debates or love affairs. To stay there and never leave, at least while it was cold outside.”

Something tells me that Shmuel and I are the same person, maybe not all the time, but definitely at times – we have our moments. Disclaimer: I have worked as a carer looking after the elderly for over five years, so I may be a tad biased.

I also adored Atalia. I would like to talk more about her, but I can’t find the words at present.

“And on the ceiling of your attic room, directly over your bed, oceans and continents take shape in the cracking plaster: you lie on your back for hours on end gazing at the archipelago of peeling plaster, islands, reefs, gulfs, volcanoes, fjords.”

Basically, if Amos Oz doesn’t win the MBI I’m not sure what I will do. That being said, I’ve only read half the shortlist, but if a compassionate, soft-spoken, affecting story that can entertain a self confessed agnostic/atheist cannot win a major literary prize, then what can?

“A slanting beam of sunlight filtered through the slats of the shutters, and innumerable tiny specks of dust whirled in it, like so many brightly-lit worlds in a shining milky way.”

This was my first Amos Oz, and it definitely won’t be my last.

A Horse Walks into a Bar – David Grossman

(Tr. Jessica Cohen)

“How inadequate are the expressions our faces offer us.”

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry or do both simultaneously with this one. A novel I would have probably never looked twice at otherwise, A Horse Walks into a Bar is a hilarious, yet poigant novel which addresses grief and the question of how we use art in our lives: be it, words, music, painting or in this case, stand up comedy. Do we use it to escape or enrich, augment or avoid, to harmonize or hightail out of our own little hell.

A Horse Walks into a Bar is set in one room on one evening in Israel and follows a stand-up comedian essentially breaking down on stage. The novel is narrated by an old childhood friend of our comedian, Dovaleh G, who has been summoned to the show and sitting in the back of the room we too are thrust into a show that wasn’t quite what we had expected. As our protagonist, Dovaleh, disintegrates before his audience, many audience members get up and leave, hurl abuse as others support and encourage him prompting us as readers to ask ourselves, what would we do in the same situation.

“He is out on a limb that is getting heavier than the whole tree. The crowd can feel it too. People look at each other and shift restlessly. They understand less and less what it is that they have unwillingly become partners to. I have no doubt they would have got up and left long ago, or even booed him off stage, if not for the temptation that is so hard to resist – the temptation to look into another man’s hell.”

The novel also focuses on the link between the private and public. Dovaleh’s life has been torn apart by grief and as he exposes this wound that he’s lived with he crumbles in the most public of places. As the evening progresses it is easier to differentiate where the acting gives way to real life and the audience’s reactions become divided.

“[…] sometimes I think that the most cunning form of cruelty is indifference.” *

As well as grief and its’ role in society, Grossman uses the novel as a metaphor for the Israel / Palestine conflict, however, don’t let this put you off as it’s so much more than politics. The writing is also astounding: mixing Dovaleh’s crass/hilarious stand-up with an imbued beauty and subtleness.

“We covered birthdays, which as you know are a day of reckoning, of soul-searching, at least for those who have a soul, and I’ll tell you that personally, in my state, I just don’t have the resources to maintain one. Seriously, souls demand non-stop upkeep, don’t they? It never ends! Every single day, all day long, you gotta haul it in for servicing. Am I right or am I right?”

Grossman’s novel is emotional and unsettling and by the halfway point, I struggled to put it down, even just to breathe. While it hasn’t been a 5 star read, upon reflection it is a steady 4 and I can wholeheartedly see it’s merit. (I found it’s writing style reminded me a little of last year’s MB longlisted Coetzee novel, The Schooldays of Jesus, although more memorable.) And after reading an interview with Grossman I am definitely adding him to my never-ending TBR pile of translated fiction, (he has quite an extensive back-list to look forward to!)

“I think that being a writer brings you into contact with the endless options of every human situation, in every human situation there is an enormous arsenal of options, of potential, of passions, of energies.” *

A Horse Walks into a Bar is brave, unrelenting and brutally human, and even if you don’t think it’s your ‘thing’ please do pick it up and give it a try. I have a sneaky suspicion that you may not be disappointed.

     *  from, DAVID GROSSMAN: ISRAELIS ‘MORE PRONE TO FANATICISM AND FUNDAMENTALISM’ – an interview with euronews.

Fish Have No Feet – Jón Kalman Stefánsson

(Tr. Philip Roughton)

“Music can dispel the darkness, rip us out of melancholy, anxiety, negativity, and swing us over to joy, exuberance at being alive, at existing here and now; without it, the human heart would be a lifeless planet.”

I’m not sure I fully understood this one. I really wanted to adore it and carry it with me on dark days but I didn’t connect quite as much as I’d hoped too. It started out brilliantly I must say, and if you take a look at my copy you would wonder why I’ve underlined so many passages if I didn’t adore it.

Fish Have No Feet and you don’t need any either in this novel. Stefánsson’s lyrical prose sweeps you along, no navigation needed, but let me tell you now that if bleak poetry isn’t your slice of pie this novel will drown you and drown you good. Fish Have No Feet is reflective, nostalgic, depressive; filled with rhetorical questions and existentialist musings.

“I’m not so sure we seriously try to understand other people – do we really give it our full attention? Don’t we actually do the opposite, and constantly try, all our lives, to make others see the world as we see it? Isn’t that our great misfortune?

I can definitely see why this one has been nominated for the Man Booker International and good pickings, for it has everything I love. Iceland, bleak weather, bleak landscapes, bleak meandering questions about what it is to be alive, lyrical prose, and did I mention it’s a bleak novel? It’s translation is definitely beautiful and muted and I can only imagine how stunning it is in its original language, but in spite of all this, something still doesn’t sit right with me. A definite A++ for Stefánsson’s writing and use of the passive narrator (which is done so well – and I also enjoyed the footnotes) but I can’t help but think that this has all been done before.

“Can happiness be luck, a lottery win, or does it come, on the contrary, only to those who have worked for it, with their diligence and way of looking at things? Life, writes Margrét in her diary, is nothing but a senseless beast if happiness is just luck.”

Basically, in the end Margrét was all I was reading it for. The passages of her story were my favourite and even though I still adore Iceland (as I write this I’m listening to sigur rós and wishing our rain would turn to snow) there was just too much penis for my liking. Now, not to sound like a raging feminist, but I’m sure the penis thing has been done before. And that’s great it still continues as I’m sure there are many men who still read books and will have enjoyed this novel. But, like I said, it’s been done before. Imagine if this was filled vagina imagery. Would it have the same reception?

“It’s raining and ten years have passed. You blink and you’re older, the darkness of death hangs over the mountains. Time passes so swiftly, yet sometimes so slowly that we nearly suffocate.”

Fish Have No Feet is a great book and I don’t doubt it’s literary success of which it deserves but in the end I got annoyed with the philosophical meanderings of the penis while the women filled themselves with drink or attempted suicide on account of their “excessive imaginations.”  2.5 stars – which would’ve been one if it wasn’t set in my dream country.

Swallowing Mercury – Wioletta Greg

(Tr. Eliza Marciniak)

“Between sleep and waking, he seemed to have the impression that pine needles had grown out of this thighs and that brambles had sprung up inside his boots.”

My second MBI 17 read and this one ticked a lot of my boxes. I’ve seen a lot of ‘meh’ reviews, people saying they were mislead by the book’s blurb, but quite frankly I think the blurb tells exactly what Wioletta’s debut is (the book’s blurb is basically a mini series of images – much like the  novella itself).  If you don’t like vignettes don’t even bother with this one. If you have no interest in Eastern Europe, Soviet history or rich textured poetic language – again I say walk away. Me, however, I love ALL of these things. Vignettes are a lifeline to me, a way of understanding the extraordinary in the ordinary, my preferred method of mindfulness. Poetry is in my blood and having met the love of my life who is a Russian – I can honestly say that I will devour anything set in 1980s Eastern Europe.

“My grandmother added cream to the sour rye and potato soup and opened the window a crack. The sooty net curtains billowed out like fish swim bladders.”

Wioletta’s coming-of-age novella reads like folklore, rich with images and laced with religious imagery. Normally I’m not a fan of religious matter, however Wioletta keeps it quaint and delicate, it serving only to enhance her Polish tapestry. Her language is exquisite and I found myself rereading so many sentences for their sheer beauty and originality. One of my favourites being: “The asphalt glistened like the skin of an aubergine.”

Our main character is Wiola and we follow her as she narrates her life through a series of vignettes, events in her town, and experiences she and her family go through. Her father is a deserter, a taxidermist, a terrible gambler. Her mother is devout and superstitious – believing that killing spiders brings on storms. Wiola collects matchbox labels, likes to paint and befriends a local harlot.

“In the water, the slender misproportioned body with small crimson nipples looked like a beetle with an elongated abdomen which I used to see sometimes by the edge of the pond but whose name I couldn’t remember.”

Wiola’s experience, despite it’s initial exoticness to the Western reader, is wholly universal. We begin through the eyes of a child, hiding under a table looking out at the world with ears covered as raspberry juice drips from above. As Wiola grows, so do we. We rebel, lust and are lusted after, we are dealt grief and loss.

Swallowing Mercury is rich and cozy with a warmth emanating from the pages. It is the familiar in the unfamiliar and even though it may begin a little rough in texture, it rubs off on you, smooth and comforting as a hug from a loved one. Four stars from me and now I am keenly on the lookout for some of Wioletta’s poetry ~

“That evening, we sat in the glow of the stove like prehistoric insects frozen in amber: my father submerged in his new world of muffled sounds, and me stupefied by Milocardin and irregular forms of German verbs. The air shimmered over the stovepipe. Sparks shot out of the ash pan and vanished on the marbled lino like meteors falling into a dark, dense ocean.”