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ericmitford (London)

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Do Not Say We Have Nothing
Do Not Say We Have Nothing
by Madeleine Thien
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.09

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A moving tale of China's modern history, 11 Aug. 2016
At the heart of this epic and moving story, which spans China’s history from the Great Leap Forward to the present day, are three young people who live for Western classical music. Kai is a virtuoso pianist; his friend Sparrow is a composer; and the latter’s younger cousin, Zhuli, is a violin prodigy.

The narrative follows the shattering impact on their lives and careers, as well as on those of their parents and children, of the Cultural Revolution and the 1989 events in Beijing. There are some tremendous set-pieces as the Party’s collectivising instincts organise to crush any wish for individual freedoms. This saga of three generations - Tolstoyan in its scope and argument though not, be reassured, as long – had me gripped.

A post-Tiananmen framing device draws the strands of the stories together such that by the end a self-willed death can be understood as less a despairing suicide than an affirmation of love.

To enjoy the novel, you don’t need to be a music specialist, and if the author really believes that Bach and Busoni were born 300 years apart then she probably isn’t one. Nor do you need to read ideograms or appreciate Chinese poetry. But with the best of literary fiction, show a little effort and the rewards will be great.

I’m a great admirer of Madeleine Thien’s previous novel, Dogs at the Perimeter, so I hope this major achievement propels her star up and up.


Under the Rose: Selected Stories
Under the Rose: Selected Stories
by Julia O'Faolain
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.78

5.0 out of 5 stars Heft and humour in this welcome revival, 27 July 2016
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I’m surprised to be the first to review these short stories – but then I’m surprised they’ve been out of print until resurrected by Faber Finds and then anthologised for this collection.

Though many of the stories have Irish settings and deal with the traditional themes of poetry and poverty, church and insurrection, they transcend convention through their humanity and emotional insight. They have clearly been worked through and over in their writing – a useful author’s afterword refers to this – but the result is not cut-glass preciosity but heft leavened with much humour. Other stories reflect the author’s close acquaintance with France and Italy, where she has spent long periods, imbibed the culture and learned the languages, bringing to the stories set in those countries a European sensibility.

Somewhere along the way, Julia O’Faolain’s work has slipped from view, even though one of her novels was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. The short story is in robust health right now, with plenty of new writers making their debuts, and it is well worth going back a little in time to read their antecedents. No whimsy for Julia O’Faolain: these are stories you can bite down on. Try this selection and I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.


The House In Smyrna
The House In Smyrna
by Tatiana Salem Levy
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.08

5.0 out of 5 stars A richly layered Brazilian novel, 18 May 2016
This review is from: The House In Smyrna (Paperback)
The grandfather of Tatiana Salem Levy, named as one of Granta magazine’s Best Young Brazilian Novelists, was a Sephardic Jew who emigrated from Turkey in the tumultuous year of 1923. Levy’s parents were, after her mother’s torture by the new dictatorship, forced into exile in Lisbon, where Levy was born; the family later returned to Brazil.

Much of this personal backstory features in Levy’s well-translated novel, The House in Smyrna. Its unnamed young female protagonist is sick and in some state of semi-paralysis, so her elderly grandfather gives her the key to his old home in Smyrna, Turkey, and urges her to travel there in search of meaning for her life, past and present. With a typewriter propped on her lap she does this, but the story – like the key – seems metaphorical rather than literal.

Apparently so, anyway, for much remains opaque in this book. Interspersed with the character’s self-dramatising travels are conversations with her dying but pleasingly astringent mother and the tale of the young woman’s relationship with an increasingly violent lover. These storylines are then chopped up into small pieces and re-assembled in a fragmentary way that demands close attention if we’re to make sense of what’s going on.

At first, this is difficult; hard even to tell whose voice we’re hearing. Levy has said that she writes more to pose questions than to offer up answers, preferring to let readers reach their own conclusions rather than present them with what she calls ‘closed doors’. But soon the reader does grasp the book’s structural design and settles into the rhythm of things. Then the story and the writing shine through and repay our time.

The House in Smyrna was one of a number of books by Brazilian authors recommended by the Independent newspaper earlier this year. I can also recommend it, along with two others on the list that I’ve read, Milton Hatoum’s The Brothers and Diary of the Fall by Michel Laub.


Katherine Carlyle
Katherine Carlyle
by Rupert Thomson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £13.48

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The pursuit of self-knowledge - and love, 11 Feb. 2016
This review is from: Katherine Carlyle (Hardcover)
Other reviewers have pretty much covered the storyline. Katherine Carlyle, 19 years old and conceived by IVF, moves with her parents to Rome at her dying mother’s request. Katherine has come to believe that her father, a foreign correspondent, loves her mother more than he does her and in any case his job means he is seldom on hand. So after her mother dies she runs away, pulling up all drawbridges behind her as she plots a determinedly random way northwards through Europe.

The clue to what interests the author must surely lie in the opening epigraphs: from Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ and a Hungarian poet, Endre Ady. Like Dr Frankenstein’s laboratory creation, Katherine is struggling towards an understanding of who she is and to gain a clear, unmediated view she cuts herself off from the people and places she knows. Instead she travels, stops for a while, then moves on again, heading further north each time until, like the Monster, she ends up in the cryogenic climate of the Far North.

At the same time, however, she is testing – in her imagination at least – how far her father is prepared to go to find her because, as the Edy epigraph implies, what she also wants is ‘to be loved and to belong to someone’. Her encounters along the way make perfect sense in this context and are always engaging. If you know that Rupert Thomson is a fan of the French Nobel Laureate Patrick Modiano, whose novels have for years explored notions of individual identity, ‘Katherine Carlyle’ makes a bit more sense again. Ambitious, well written and recommended.


Dinosaurs on Other Planets
Dinosaurs on Other Planets
by Danielle McLaughlin
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £13.48

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fine first-time story collection, 9 Feb. 2016
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A family man finds himself negotiating the minefield of a neighbourhood party whose hostess had good reason to think he’d be bound to decline the invitation. A woman holidaying unexpectedly on her own in Italy stumbles through an encounter with a younger Austrian woman also visiting the area. A girl sent to stay with an aunt she hardly knows is confronted by her aunt’s autistic daughter and male lodger.

Many of the protagonists in Danielle McLaughlin’s debut collection of stories are obliged to cope with emotional dislocations such as these, that require them to feel their way down unanticipated pathways of the heart. The stories themselves though are not of the type that take place largely in the characters’ heads, leaving us not much wiser at their end as to what if anything has actually transpired. Here things happen, plot and character development move satisfyingly forward, even if not always concluding with a snip of the ribbon and a neat bow.

So don’t be mislead by the book’s title: we are not in the realm of science fiction. No, these are stories that take place in the light, often in the open air of rural Ireland, and are all the more refreshing for it – and are beautifully written.


The Private Life of Mrs Sharma
The Private Life of Mrs Sharma
by Ratika Kapur
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.08

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Clever and subversive, 6 Feb. 2016
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In her second novel, Ratika Kapur has created a character - Renuka Sharma, 37, perhaps a little plump these days? - who gloriously shows up the social and economic tensions of middle-class Delhi life, and manages to skewer herself.

Mrs Sharma, married with a son, living in the marital home with her in-laws and husband – though he’s away in Dubai trying to earn some real money – tells us in splendid detail about her life in the months following a chance meeting with a man on the railway platform.

The key to a novel like this is tone: how to depict an ordinary wife and mother, left to cope alone, who insists on her respectability while gradually losing her emotional balance amidst clouds of self-delusion. Even as her flights of fancy amuse us, we feel sorry for her dilemmas. She dotes on her son, but half the time could cheerfully strangle the little so-and-so; she knows her husband was right to go abroad for work, but where the devil is he when she needs him?

How should we assess Mrs Sharma? Is she just a bit flaky or a monster in the making? Is she becoming unhinged or just a woman with burdens to bear and time on her hands to worry about them? We can smile at her, but she may be more like us than we’d care to acknowledge.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 10, 2016 11:38 AM BST


A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories
A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories
by Lucia Berlin
Edition: Hardcover

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Stories with immediate appeal, 9 Oct. 2015
In 'A Manual For Cleaning Women' Stephen Emerson and Picador have collected a good half of Lucia Berlin’s published stories, with an informative introduction by Lydia Davis – and quite a revelation they are to someone like me not familiar with them.

Berlin’s father was a mining engineer whose work took the family to a number of US states, Mexico and Chile. Later she lived variously in New York, New Mexico and the Bay Area. She marries and divorces three times, has children, fights alcoholism, suffers from curvature of the spine, nurses her dying sister. She holds down a number of different posts – as an ER nurse, a switchboard operator, a teacher, the cleaning woman of the title story. All these locations and jobs find their way into her stories, to the extent that you wonder whether they’re stories at all or in fact her autobiography.

Certainly Lucia Berlin’s life experiences feature throughout, but from what we know of that life with events and conversations added or re-worked. Ultimately what matters about these stories is less whether they are factually based but their raw immediacy, the way thy draw you in to the lives of family and friends, neighbours and colleagues. The empathy shown throughout is so strong, the reader is almost there in the stories with her. And we like her, she’s human. This book has given Lucia Berlin’s reputation a welcome reboot in the US and she deserves to be just as well known in the UK.


Wave of Terror
Wave of Terror
by Theodore Ordach
Edition: Paperback
Price: £16.95

5.0 out of 5 stars Fear and loathing come to the Pinsk Marshes, 13 July 2015
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This review is from: Wave of Terror (Paperback)
The events of this novel take place close to the border of what is today Belarus and Ukraine at the time immediately preceding Hitler’s sudden attack on the Soviet Union. Hard on the heels of the Red Army, which has just ‘liberated’ the village of Hlaby and the regional town of Pinsk, come Stalin’s political commissars and then the dreaded NKVD. The inhabitants find that no sooner have they been freed from the feudal oppression of their Polish landlord than they are re-enslaved by the centralising power of Moscow.

The new young headmaster of the local school is Ivan Kulik. The heavy hand of authority is always ready to clamp down on his shoulder as he tries to teach the Soviet-redesigned syllabus. Although the language of the area is Ukrainian it has been reassigned to the new republic of Belorussia, whose language is almost unknown locally, and in any case Russian soon becomes the official tongue. Meanwhile informers are saving their skins by arbitrarily fingering their fellows to the authorities, who cart them off to Siberia or to torture in the local prison.

This is a terrific book, incomplete at the time of Theodore Odrach’s death in 1964 and edited and translated for publication by his daughter Erma. The natural descriptions are beautifully rendered and the dialogue fizzes between a wide range of characters all vividly depicted – especially the women - from the teachers to the politicos and those who work the land. If the more chilling parts of the story are reminiscent of Solzhenitsyn, and the wistful sense of an era disappearing conjures up Chekhov, then much of the novel satirises the stupidity and counter-productiveness of what goes on, in the broad manner of Gogol’s ‘The Government Inspector’.

Pinsk, incidentally, was the home town of Ryszard Kapuscinski, and if you read the opening chapter of his ‘Imperium’ you’ll find that his memories of a childhood interrupted by the arrival of Russian authority in 1939 overlap tellingly with Odrach’s narrative.

A splendid read this, well worth anyone’s time.


The Seasons of Trouble: Life Amid the Ruins of Sri Lanka's Civil War
The Seasons of Trouble: Life Amid the Ruins of Sri Lanka's Civil War
by Rohini Mohan
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Life amid the ruins, 8 Jun. 2015
‘The Seasons of Trouble’ tells, in roughly alternating chapters, the stories of two Sri Lankan Tamil families’ experiences of the country’s appalling civil war, which - in military terms at least - reached its bloody conclusion in 2009.

This is a work of reportage, dense in its grim detail and vividly brought to life by the journalistic skills of author Rohini Mohan. The main protagonists are Mugil, a young woman co-opted into the separatist war of the Tigers in the north of the island; and Sarva from the south, who is bundled into detention by government authorities from whom his mother Indra desperately tries to get him released.

The first half of the book broadly deals with the final throes of the war, in which both sides committed countless atrocities. The second half, just as interesting, examines the after-effects, psychological as well as physical, of the war and its continuation by other means. It is in short a vision of hell, from which international press and NGOs were almost totally excluded by the majority Sinhala army and government.

You wouldn’t expect this it be an easy read and it isn’t. But the descriptions of the nightmarish lives not just of the book’s main players but of tens and hundreds of thousands of the wretched and displaced are all the more potent for taking place in times almost up to the present. With a new government in place since the book’s conclusion in 2013, can the poison be sucked out of intercommunal relations? Even if so, it looks like taking decades.


The Captains and the Kings
The Captains and the Kings
by Jennifer Johnston
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An astonishingly assured debut from years ago, 28 May 2015
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In rural Ireland old Mr Prendergast, now widowed and semi-estranged from his only child in London, rattles around his decaying house. His housekeeper too is dead, leaving only the gardener for company. The Rector claims an unlikely friendship but is more concerned for social propriety.

Into his life comes 14 year-old Diarmid, evading school and the slaps and barbs of his parents. Diarmid’s visits become a regular feature that summer; Mr Prendergast offers him kindness and the chance to recreate battles using toy soldiers exhumed from the long-neglected attic:

“Slowly [Mr Prendergast] tidied the soldiers away into their boxes and put the dust covers back on the furniture. The room was asleep once more. The child had, somehow, halted for a while the inevitable, dreary process of dying. Now, as the last grey cover went over the last chair, he could feel the process beginning again...”

Mr Prendergast’s childhood was untroubled by parental affection, his preferred elder brother having fallen at Gallipoli. Perhaps as a consequence, he has been an indifferent husband and father. With his mind now loosening under the assault of whiskey and memories, he just wants to live out his remaining days as he sees fit – but will his vengeful gardener and a sceptical community let him?

Published in 1972 this exquisite short novel, with its subtle, affirmative but doomed central relationship, was Jennifer Johnston’s first and remains my favourite of hers. The writing is beautiful, the sentiments nuanced and wholly believable. My mother put this book in my hand 20 years ago as a way in to reading novels; it worked. Discerning woman; and now that she is recently dead herself, this review can be my tribute.

If you like this book, you can do no better than read the author’s second novel, Shadows on our Skin, set in Northern Ireland at the time of the Troubles.


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