The Last Children of Tokyo: a review

Yoko Tawada’s latest book is a novella set in a dystopian Japan where climate change and disease have forced the country to close its borders – no one is allowed in or out. Even foreign words are banned.

Yoshiro is bringing up his great-grandson, Mumei in a world where the old still work and only get older, and children get sick and die young. The rest of the family have left Tokyo or died.

“The aged could not die; along with the gift of everlasting life, they were burdened with the terrible task of watching their great-grandchildren die.”

Getting Mumei to eat or get dressed is a constant battle; like all children his teeth are soft, he is underweight and at risk of an infection. If he expends too much energy getting dressed, he won’t be able to walk to school.

The future is bleak. And yet the writing is effortlessly light and often darkly humorous: People aren’t called “middle-aged elderly” until they’re well into their nineties. Children without parents aren’t orphans but “independent children”.

A surreal story about human love in the face of an unimaginable future, this is a thought-provoking short novel; it’s images of damaged children living in a ruined world will stay with you. A cautionary tale for our troubled times.

This English translation by Margaret Mitsutani is published by Portobello Books.

Separated from the Sea: a review

Separated from the SeaIn the UK, the short story had its heyday in the first half of the twentieth century, but more recently there’s been a tendency to treat it with caution – an almost anxious feeling each time you start a new story that there’ll be characters you’ve never met, in unfamiliar scenarios. Like being invited to a party where you don’t know anyone. You don’t have the comparative safety of the novel where the author leads you gently by the hand from one chapter to the next, developing the narrative. But, in this age of soundbites and instant gratification, I’m happy to say the short form is quietly being resurrected as a flexible, relevant vehicle for narrative. As in this collection of accessible short stories from new indy publisher Retreat West.

 
Amanda Huggins is an experienced and widely-published fiction writer and has won awards for her travel writing but Separated from the Sea is her first full collection of short stories. Her skill at world-building makes getting to grips with new characters and new settings very easy for the reader – she makes you equally at home in the urban sprawl of Tokyo, in a lonely seaside town in Yorkshire or in a bar in New York. With just a few killer sentences she hooks you into a new world. There are some flawless little stories here – imaginative and concise, which are the basic requirements of a successful short story. Just a couple are less well thought out than others and would have benefitted from more redrafting, but in a collection like this I didn’t mind; like eating a packet of Revels (I may be in a minority here) the pleasure is always heightened by knowing a few of them will be the ones you don’t like (chocolate peanuts in my case).

 
Themes include: decisions made then abandoned, women leaving men and branching out on their own, failing relationships, loneliness, dealing with grief at losing a father, and other losses. The sea as in the title story features in several of these richly-imagined stories. The writing is taut and no word is wasted. In Already Formed a woman dealing with the end of an affair finds out the baby she’s hoped for is ‘not even a line on a pregnancy test.’ The Last of Michiko shows a widower gradually coming to terms with his loss: when a friend gives him a jar of what she claims is his wife’s homemade bean jam ‘He knew it was not Michiko’s; he knew it was a deception. But he understood it was meant as a kind one.’ And in Edgware there are beautiful images from the narrator’s travels: ‘silk scarves billowing like jewel-bright parachutes.’

 
These entertaining short stories are perfect for a summer holiday, a short commute or for your bedside reading.

 

 

Review: Nothing is as it was

Nothing is as it wasA fascinating and timely mix of short stories and flash fiction exploring the impact of climate change. Nothing is as it was places established authors alongside newer writers to make  a unique and wide-ranging collection of voices.

There are apocalyptic visions of a drowning planet or a world about to incinerate. In Lorraine Wilson’s excellent Thirst a woman’s desperate attempts to keep her children from dying  of thirst, side-steps into vandalism. Walking with the Weather is a fine example of what flash fiction can do: ‘We are looking at the fire as it starts to burn my fingers. We are standing and staring at the petition in flames.’ Mirror Image offers a stark choice in two stories back to back: the first ‘assuming massive global action’, the second ‘assuming our current climate trajectory’.

But there is also hope and levity. In Portal a way is found to get rid of our rubbish – it literally disappears through a portal, but the twist in the story is that one day, just as inexplicably, it starts reappearing, along with the scientist who found it: ‘It was only when Reed appeared, dusting himself off with a confused expression, that Kellerman concluded, ‘I think we have a big problem.’  Parental worries about their child’s obsessive hoarding are misplaced in Blue Planet Collection when they find he is single-handedly trying to save the planet from plastic.

What these stories illustrate is that it’s still not too late, but it will take not just individual effort, but decisions and governmental-backed initiatives into research and development at an international level to hold back our runaway global warming.

Retreat west logo

Retreat West Books is an independent press publishing paperback books and eBooks. Founder, Amanda Saint, is a novelist and short story writer. She’s also a features journalist writing about environmental sustainability and climate change. So all Retreat West Books publications take advantage of digital technology advances and are print-on-demand, in order to make best use of the world’s finite resources. Retreat West Books is an arm of Amanda’s creative writing business, Retreat West, through which she runs fiction writing retreats, courses and competitions and provides editorial services. Initially started to publish the anthologies of winning stories in the Retreat West competitions, Retreat West Books is now open for submissions for short story collections, novels and memoirs.

The Retreat West Novel Prize is now open for debut writers without an agent:
Entry fee: £15
Deadline: 19th August 2018

Retreat West Novel Prize 

 

 

Review: Ponti

Ponti.pngA coming-of-age novel set against the relentless modernisation of Singapore, where air pollution is measured daily and reeks of rotten eggs, or burnt barbecue. 

In Ponti, men are largely absent or feckless. This is a novel about three women and told in three time perspectives. In the early 2000s Szu is sixteen, tall, awkward and ostracised by everyone; even her own mother is a monster who rejects her. She eventually finds a friend in Circe, another loner who is equally unpopular. There are brilliant descriptions of the ‘mean’ girls, the in-groups who tease and bully Szu and Circe: They are as idle and cunning as crocodiles … Every morning, in unison, they twist their shampoo-advert hair gently in their hands and draw it over their shoulder like a rifle sling.

As well as a  monster for a mother, Szu is also coming to terms with a missing father, and the knowledge that now her mother is dying, she’ll never gain her affection or approval. She’ll be left with only the mysterious Aunt Yunxi who works as a medium, with Amisa as her assistant. 

In the 70s Amisa,  young, poor and impossibly beautiful, is spotted by a film director and promised international stardom: Her face would grace billboards in Hong Kong, Paris, Hollywood … she would be immortal. She makes a series of three shlock horror films starting with Ponti! about the Pontianak, a vampire-like monster who lures men to their deaths with her ethereal beauty. But when the films are released, horror is unfashionable; everyone wants American sci-fi movies like Close Encounters. The films are a flop. Amisa never hits the big time and her short film career defines the rest of her life.

In 2020 Circe, estranged from Szu, is working for a cutting edge media company promoting a reworking of Ponti for a contemporary audience. But she’s living with a medical condition more typical of developing countries – a tapeworm that she feels moving inside her, symbolising the monster she feels she is and the guilt that she was disloyal to Szu when her mother died. Circe also felt the strange mystical bond with Amisa – What linked us was something real and true and rare. Szu wouldn’t understand.

Writing in the Observer, Julie Myerson was damning about Teo’s knotty verbiage and MA creative writing-speak; while I think she’s heavy handed in her criticism, she does have a point about the language; but only on a very few occasions.

Overall this ambitious debut novel is a success – it took me back to the sometimes gruesomeness of life as an angsty adolescent. Painfully sad but sometimes humorous, Ponti is an eye-opening read about the effects of rapid modernisation on a developing country and the people who have to live with the consequences.

 

 

 

Review: Census

Census by Jesse Ball.png

A dying man takes a road trip with his son who has Down’s syndrome; he wants to mark their last few weeks together so becomes a census taker, travelling in an old car where, if there’s nothing better, they spend the night.

This structure gives the author the opportunity to link a range of odd characters and strange settings together, and provides the space for the narrator, a former surgeon to muse on life, parenthood, bereavement and bringing up a child with Down’s syndrome; both the challenges and the happiness.

A deeply moving short novel, based on the author’s own brother, told in simple, clear prose.

Writing update

Sometimes you need to go back to a piece of writing you thought was finished. I completed the nth draft of my first novel about 18 months ago, and my lovely agent sent it out. Some positive comments but no takers. So I worked on my second novel, and then the third.

But a couple of months ago something made me want to read number 1 again. Partly because revising and editing is so much easier than producing new stuff,  and the new novel needs time to work out where it’s going – but also from a sense of curiosity. What was novel number 1 really like? Is it any good? Would I buy it? So I sat down and read it through, as if I was reading any novel. An interesting experience: some scenes were so familiar I knew every word, and others I could hardly remember. But most surprising was the ending – I thought I’d made it very clear, but when I read it again I realised it was not what I’d intended, or even what I thought I’d written…

So, for the last 6 weeks I’ve been redrafting. It’s even got a new title! Which I won’t share at the moment because I’m going to submit it for a few of the debut novel prizes that are coming up. I guess the process of having written two and a half novels has given me a better grasp of how to write a novel. If this one is ever published, it will genuinely be my first, but i suspect a lot of ‘first’ novels are likely to be third or even fourth ones… You can learn a lot on creative writing courses (thanks City University for The Novel Studio), but the best way to really get to grips with writing a novel is, (yes you have to read and read)  sit there with your laptop or pen and paper and (as my dad used to say) just get on with it!

Review: Ordinary People

Ordinary PeopleDiana Evans’ third novel is bookended by a party to celebrate Obama’s election as the first black president of the USA, and by the death of Michael Jackson. Against this slice of history two relationships in London start to fall apart. The ordinary people of the title are middle class couples facing the strains of ordinary domesticity, possible extra-marital affairs and divorce, the loss of parents and jobs. They’re also the ‘ordinary people’ of John Legend’s lyrics:

We’re just ordinary people
We don’t know which way to go
‘Cause we’re ordinary people
Maybe we should take it slow

At the beginning we meet Melissa and Michael who live in a lop-sided house in South London, not far from Crystal Palace (a recurring theme throughout the novel). They’re seen at the party both ‘on the far side of youth’ but still a glamorous couple. Adult life has ‘revealed itself, wearing a limp, grey dressing gown’ but with their children away for the night, Michael at least feels ‘a pressing obligation… to deliriously copulate’. But nothing goes to plan and, after the party, back in their house in the ironically-named Paradise Row, domestic needs take over: Melissa finds a mouse, a wardrobe rail collapses and the sex is no good. Michael compares himself to the singer in ‘Ordinary People’ Passed the infatuation phase /Right in the thick of love. But everything is going wrong and he can’t control it.

Melissa is struggling with the joint pressures of crushing domesticity, and the loss of her career: where she was an ‘I’ rather than a ‘we’. Descriptions of the dragging details of being at home with small children and trying to work freelance, are both hilarious and poignant. For Melissa there are hints (from her Nigerian mother) of the supernatural, of ‘night things’ – ‘beings who walk in the night hours, not quite human, who watch us.’  Symbolic of what is wrong in their relationship. There is a recurring image of the 1851 Great Exhibition and how the Crystal Palace was moved south of the river, and eventually burned down.

Then there’s Damian (Michael’s university friend) who lives with Stephanie in leafy Surrey. He’s reassured by ‘her aptitude for contentment’ so has been persuaded to move away from London to Dorking because she’s worried about inner city violence affecting the children. She loves their house with its ‘neatness and thick upstairs carpets and old wooden surfaces’. Damien is struggling with the long commute, the recent death of his father and a sense that he’s not doing anything important with his life. His father, a political activist, campaigned constantly against racial inequality, but ended up a lonely, disappointed man. Damien misses London: ‘the stern beauty of church women on Sunday mornings, the West End, the art in the air, the music in the air, the sense of possibility’. He has a running question in his mind: How long will you go on living your life as if you were balancing on a ribbon? Stuck at the bottom of a drawer he has an unfinished novel.

From here everything gradually unravels for both couples. But what makes this novel stand out is that although the main characters are black or mixed race, this isn’t the focus of the book. Race is addressed in Stephanie’s fears that London isn’t a place to bring up children, and in Damien’s father’s fight against racist attitudes, but this is a novel about relationships, not race. And in this it is quietly revolutionary. And also wonderfully funny. Ordinary People is a finely-nuanced novel of contemporary relationships that is both compelling and vital.

Ordinary People is published on 5th April.