Sexy, sweary, drug and alcohol-fuelled, and very funny, Polly is a heroine for the 21st century. She’s failed the year at university, slept with her housemate’s boyfriend and thinks she and a friend might have accidentally caused the death of a Spanish student. Police are calling for witnesses so, instead of a holiday sunning herself on a beach, she’s staying with her mother in Scotland and trying to catch up on her uni work. The weather is terrible, the people worse and Polly doesn’t think she’ll survive a summer there, in spite of access to drugs and porn.
Then everything gets more complicated: there are strange happenings (real or imaginary or too much weed?) and she gradually becomes more and more involved with a local man. Swansong is a fascinating depiction of one man’s extreme isolation and oddness; the way it brings out more of Polly’s curiosity and determination is what drives the novel. What starts off as a rollercoaster of drink, drugs and endless exploration becomes a tender, heart-breaking love story that is almost unbearably poignant.
The language is brilliantly inventive with similes always taken from Polly’s jaded, urban worldview. When she’s walking on the beach the seaweed makes ‘bubble-wrap pops under my hands’. Or a ‘black and white bird with a long, neon-orange beak flew low making little rape alarm calls.’ Or she describes ‘tons and tons of sky, the clouds all whipped up into a TV chef’s best egg whites and moving fast.’
It’s refreshing in a contemporary novel to read what a protagonist would really see, smell and feel. I was less convinced by the italicised passages in the voice of… is it a girl? is it a bird?, which isn’t revealed until the end; but this is a very satisfying story with a tough, flawed heroine. Although we don’t want Polly to change and settle down, we do want her to be happy and by the end of the novel she’s grown up and learned how to love.
Kerry Andrew, a musician and composer, uses myth, legend and storytelling in this innovative literary debut. The language may not be to everyone’s taste but in Polly we have a tough female protagonist to rival any larger than life male hero.
Don’t let either the cover or the title put you off this novella, published on 25 January by the independent press, Holland House Books. I nearly did. Who wants to read about dead dogs?
This debut from the very talented Mickela Sonola is a seemingly naïve tale about a ten year old dual heritage girl, Yinka growing up bored and lonely in Lagos, Nigeria. Her parents don’t have much time for her so she turns to one of the house servants who gives her sweets, money and attention. But, when she finds herself unwilling witness to a burglary and is accidentally kidnapped, Yinka has to rely on all her limited resources to find her way back home from the bush. As an unreliable narrator her voice is very effective although occasionally slips into being over-naïve (I was really not keen on the use of Capital Letters to signal Powerful Words in her life); but interspersed with viewpoints from other characters in the story, it all builds up to a powerful short novel with a shockingly dark heart. What begins as the story of a child’s attempt to get home turns into an examination of the way some men groom and abuse vulnerable girls and young women.
Mickela Sonola uses Nigerian tales and magical realism to elevate Yinka’s story to one that stresses the vital importance of telling stories and the development of the imagination to make sense of the world. The language used is often very beautiful: ‘Darkness was pouring into the sky now. The red light drained into the horizon, leaving behind a blanket of black, pin-pricked with stars.’ But Sonola also uses it for more sinister effects: ‘The sharp glint of a knife appeared against his throat and there was a sprinkling like raindrops splattering pitter-patter, on the leaves around her, on the ground, on her skin.’
This is a stunning debut with a strong voice, comparable to the poignant child’s voice of Leon in Kit de Waal’s best seller, ‘My Name is Leon’. I look forward to reading Mickela Sonola’s second novel.
One of my favourite books of 2017, these extraordinarily vivid and visceral short stories come from the American writer, Carmen Maria Machado who lives with her wife in Philadelphia. She’s been widely published in magasines and anthologies, but this debut collection demonstrates her dizzying ability in both storytelling and language. It’s not surprising it was shortlisted for the NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FICTION PRIZE 2017.
These stories have a strong vein of dark humour, but it’s difficult to categorise Machado’s style as each story if so completely different from the previous one. Sometimes disturbing, gothic or erotic (like a contemporary Angela Carter), what links them all is the relationship between women and their bodies; how women are treated by men and by love between women. In one story a writers’ retreat goes horribly wrong; in another women’s relationship with clothes is taken to the extreme and women become part of the clothes. In another the youngest sister in a family finally opts for gastric band surgery and is haunted by the ghost of her former self, gurgling underneath the floorboards.
If the stories can’t be categorised, the language certainly can: precise, fresh, inventive and utterly new, with original and startling images. In The Husband Stitch Machado dissects the role of women in folk tales and stories and tells us: Brides never fare well in stories. Stories can sense happiness and snuff it out like a candle. The story, Difficult at parties has a killer first line: Afterwards, there is no kind of quiet like the one that is in my head. Paul brings me home from the hospital in his ancient Volvo. In The resident a sinister atmosphere is evoked in a description of the entrance to the hotel: the wood curled in organic tendrils from where the doors met, like an octopus emerging arms and suckers first from a hiding place. In Mothers a woman leans in to a mirror to put on mascara, the amoeba of her breath growing and shrinking. This technique of defamiliarisation works particularly well in creating the strange and threatening worlds of Machado’s fiction.
These stories may often be dark and even disturbing, but they are literary horror of the highest order, defying expectations of what short fiction ‘should’ be. Ultimately this collection is a joyous celebration of lesbian relationships and of the strength of women to overcome misogyny. By the end of this ground-breaking collection I’d challenge anyone to disagree with the assertion that: It is my right to reside in my own mind. Which should be a basic human right, certainly the right of any woman and of course, of any author. As the narrator of the first story says: This isn’t how things are done, but this is how I am going to do them.
Carmen Maria Machado tweets at https://twitter.com/carmenmmachado
Helen Garner is an Australian novelist, short-story writer, screenwriter and journalist. Her first novel, Monkey Grip, was published in 1977, and established her as an original voice on the Australian literary scene. At 75, she is a hugely experienced writer; James Wood of the New Yorker calls her ‘A natural storyteller’. 25 January, 2018 sees the UK publication by Text of her collected short fiction: Stories.
There’s a timeless quality to Garner’s work which means it isn’t limited to Australian culture or society. She minutely dissects life as it is lived with a dizzying clarity of vision and deals with the smallest incidents and moments of unhappiness. She’s bracingly honest and psychologically acute; there is sometimes humour, but her stories are always challenging. She is working at the limit of the short story form.
Until I read this collection I’m embarrassed to say I was unfamiliar with Garner’s work; this fascinating collection has made me want to read more.
Dear friends, readers and bloggers!
Wishing you a very peaceful time wherever you are and whatever you’re doing. Thank you for looking at my blog and for liking or commenting on my posts. It’s good to know you’re there. Looking forward to a great year of reading and writing in 2018
by Virginia Moffat
published by: Unbound, 2017
Three generations of women are linked by repeating patterns of love, loss and conflict in times of war – the 1991 Gulf War, the 2nd World War and the 1st World War. This well-researched and very well written historical novel takes place in and near Echo Hall where the mysteries of thwarted love and disappointing relationships echo down the generations. In a climate of suffocating English reserve, women are kept in their place and silenced, while men go to war or are imprisoned for their pacifist beliefs. There are echoes of Wuthering Heights: love turns to obsession and bitterness, and the atmosphere of the novel is one of dark brooding and revenge. There is even a character called Earnshaw.
When Phoebe Flint visits Echo Hall in 2014 she begins to uncover the story of her family, the Flints (aptly named) who owned a stone quarry. Virginia Moffat has structured the novel in a very satisfying way: from the present we work our way back in time through the generations of Flints, to see the origins of all the sadness, then we travel back to the present again so that the story is resolved. A very pleasing arc.
The voices of each character are effectively evoked by mirroring the speech patterns of the appropriate time (1990s, 1940s and Edwardian). And there is just enough historical accuracy to make the story completely believable, rather than striving for effect by including too much detail, which often happens in historical fiction.
If I have a criticism, it’s that the book is overlong; as the layers of family loss repeat themselves and accumulate, rather than making the story more powerful, the tragic effect is dulled. The repetition also means characters from each generation tend to blur. Initially I saw this as a fault, but on reflection this demonstrates just how effective the echoes of the tragedy are.
Overall Echo Hall is a good, historical family saga with some memorable scenes: the sudden death of a spouse, the delivery of a baby without medical assistance and the shared pleasure of watching a meteor shower. It is a story to read at a leisurely pace, to enjoy the gradual accumulation of sadness and the discovery of how misunderstandings happen.
Aha! Finally made the leap from sofa + notebook to office chair + my pc. I even opened a new folder and wrote the date + working title (very pretentious so I’m not going to tell you what it is). Strange to think that all these notes and random thoughts might be a novel after all. At the moment I have two unconnected voices, one of which I prefer so I may go with that one. But it’s exciting to see that after only a week I’m on page 19. OK some of the dialogue is clunky but this is the First Draft and it can all be revised. Or binned.
Reading: Echo Hall by Virginia Moffat. Crowdfunded by Unbound. Three generations of women experience love, loss and conflict in times of war. So far it’s a very good, old-fashioned ghost story (I think) like Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black.
Travelling: to Leeds again. For birthday celebrations tomorrow with my daughter.
Exercising: a good way to think, come up with ideas. Jogging, walking and swimming.