Category Archives: Novels

The Potato Eaters

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The Potato Eaters
By Manuel Rivas
Small Stations Press 

When did her teeth start falling out? Has she always had the inklings of a moustache?

Having read most of Manuel Rivas’ books, I still have to say, if not fully maintain, that the brilliant Books Burn Badly is still my favourite. That’s not to say his books published since (The Low Voices, One Million Cows, From Unknown to Unknown) do not make for intrinsically interesting and occasionally captivating reading.

They absolutely do and The Potato Eaters is no exception.

From the opening gambit that evolves around drug addiction with a sense of humour – in which the protagonist is more than attracted to what sounds like a well-stacked nurse by the name of Miss Cowbutt (great name, somewhat reminiscent of Eddie Izzard’s Mrs Badcrumble) – the reader instinctively knows s/he is in for a quintessentially robust ride of a journey. The sort of which, one has come to expect from Rivas, of which the opening quote above is a most pristine example.

From a short piece simply entitled ‘The Umbrella,’ it is preceded by the altogether hooky, kooky summerisation of an endemically bonkers game show: ”Recordman today, it has been announced, is going to be more intellectual. It’s a question of using your head. The contestants, a couple of men who look like primates in their Sunday best, have to knock down a wall of breeze blocks with their heads. The first one to do so will get a million. The gong goes, and they all rush to the wall. From the initial impact, one them, the one who looked most hard-headed, falls flat on his face and is looked after by two recordwomen, who today are wearing tight, discreet dresses, though they do have a hole right over their nipples, The audience claps. Unbelievable! This is great.”

Indeed!

Blankety Blank it most clearly isn’t – which is what essentially accounts for The Potato Eaters being the sort of book it (most provocatively) is: witty, satirical, and like a lot of the Galician author’s writing, prone to going off on totally terrific tangents.

David Marx

Berlin Cantata

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Berlin Cantata
By Jeffrey Lewis
Haus Publishing – £12.99

We were up late that night in the inn, quietly with the lights out. Holly couldn’t sleep. Se felt, she said, like a stranger to herself. ”It started sometime in the carols. I though: listen, they singing to me with Christian love? Is this the reality Jews are blind to, that could convert a soul on the spot? I must be weak, I thought. I hear the lovely voices of children, and then.. all I could hear was a lot of my own voice, like static. Telling me to listen. All these words. The music! I wanted to live in the music. But just then I couldn’t.

Initially attracted by the book’s title, these 240 pages are a rather cyclonic read, which, to all intents and inherently jarring purposes, is intense and simultaneously intriguing.

Indeed, throughout, Berlin Cantata, Jeffrey Lewis bequeaths the reader with quite a bit to think about as well as dissect – by way of an array of heterogeneous voices. All of whom are fundamentally fraught and forthright in their own way. All of whom appear haunted by history; which partially explains their search for acute (subliminal) redemption.

For instance, Holly Anholt: ”Everything was stacked high as if you were getting something wholesale, empty suitcases, pairs of shoes, Zyklon B cans, hair. Now there would be a punishment, a just retribution, to have to spend your life counting up every single hair, and if you make one mistake, if you miss one hair, you have to start over. I thought such things. I was alone. And this too: if work can’t make you free, what can? Only God’s grace? Only love? Only luck? (‘Journey’).

There is so much psychologically gruesome information packed into the above few lines, it’s hard knowing where to begin, where to start assimilating. Let alone come to terms with.

It is this veritable coming to terms with which keeps the reader going, yet somewhat vexed. Curious, yet simultaneously perplexed – in an altogether good way might I add.

As the author of Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-eyed Stranger, Lee Smith, has since said: ”Jeffrey Lewis has written a stunning novel, as deep and intriguing as the city itself. The varied cast of characters tell their own stories as they wind their tortured and tortuous way through the dark past toward some kind of understanding, if not atonement.”

David Marx

Dirt Road

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Dirt Road
By James Kelman
Canongate – £16.99

According to Roddy Doyle, Dirt Road ”is a brilliant, a deeply moving and exciting novel. The words feel so believable I forgot at times that I was reading fiction.” To be honest, I can only partially agree, as the more I read, the more I felt weighted down by some sort of undercurrent of literary deja vu.

To quote The Talking Heads singer, David Byrne, ”say something once, why say it again?”

Indeed, why say it again, which was uppermost in my mind having read this book, which, albeit terrifically well written, bordered on being rather pregnant in explanation; so much so, that the choice of words didn’t so much as punctuate the imagination, but rather tout themselves in such a way that almost lingered towards being humdrum.

The following excerpts from pages 34 and 214 respectively, being more than pertinent, strident example: Murdo wondered what would happen but nothing did happen. Somebody clapped and somebody laughed, and the accordeon player spoke to people. This was a community place composed of back gardens running into each other; some had fences and some didn’t. Kids played wherever; girls throwing a ball and a couple of boys horsing around. A dozen folk were sitting on chairs. Dotted about the grass. A few were standing” […] ”They were passing through a built-up area. Uncle John was doing his cheery wee whistling now, hardly making a sound other than the breath escaping, how it escapes sometimes like how with the pipes the bag expels air, the breath, huh, hih huh hih huh hih, and the drone, that drone.”

It’s all a bit blah, overtly linear, and dare I say, so what?

Essentially anchored around the two prime protagonists, Murdo, a teenager obsessed with music who dreams of a life beyond his Scottish island home; and his father Tom, who has recently lost his wife and stumbles towards a future underlined with the sort of insecurity which only grief can necessitate.

So in all, a cool premise form which to embark writing; but again, I found the writing merely meandered within the cloying parameters of nigh beige repetition – a quality, which, given Kelman’s very substantial back-catalogue (The Busconducter Hines, A Chancer, How It Was, How Late and You Have To Be Careful In The Land Of The Free to name but four titles), is a tad surprising to say the least.

I can’t help but think that Dirt Road would have benefited greatly had a robust editor been on-board. But what do I know?

David Marx

Affections

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Affections
By Rodrigo Hasbun
Pushkin Press – £9.99

Every now and then, it does seem as if one is living in both a veritable
vacuum of one’s own making – whether by design, whether by default. And such is most definitely the case with the prime protagonists in this seemingly dark investigation into the human psyche.

Affections is admittedly, an affectionate book so far as (three) sisters’ troubled relationships can be concerned; yet it’s also a scenario of political reportage with regards the Bolivian revolution – in which Che Guevara was captured and murdered (supposedly financed by the US government).

But what I found the most alluring and satisfying about the Bolivian, Rodrigo Hasbun’s overtly convincing novel, was it’s all prevailing, under-written humanity – the subliminal trajectory of which, was never far away: ”I saw my sister everywhere. Not a single day went by when I didn’t see her. If the telephone went, my first reaction was always to think it was her. I bought a dog, and then another. I needed to feel like I had company, that someone was always there waiting for me at home […]. It’s not true that our memory is a safe place. In there, too, things get distorted and lost. In there, too, we end up turning away from the people we love the most.”

Written in such a way that is capable of stopping one in their everyday tracks, these 142 pages, are, if nothing else, poignant, powerful and provocative, as substantiated by El Pais: ”Hasbun’s writing has a strange power. He likes to reach into the darkest places. Reading him is like… a journey to the brink of an abyss.”

It’s no wonder this book is the Winner of an English Pen Award.

David Marx

Grief Is The Thing With Feathers

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Grief Is The Thing With Feathers
By Max Porter
Faber & Faber – £7.99

This book appears to have been lauded beyond high, literary heaven.

Not only is Grief Is The Thing With Feathers, The Spectator’s book of the year, it has been short-listed for the Goldsmiths Prize, The Guardian’s First Book Award, and, in conjunction with Swansea University, is Winner of the International Dylan Thomas Prize for 2016.

Personally, I don’t get it.

I really like the theme of two young boys facing ”the unbearable sadness of their mother’s sudden death” in a London flat they share with their father – ”a Ted Hughes scholar and scruffy romantic” who imagines ”a future of well-meaning visitors and emptiness.” But, I found the irksome, relentless reliance on the visitation by Crow (”antagonist, trickster, healer and babysitter”) eventually getting on my tits.

Normally, I’d be up for the surreal quality of such intent and well meaning, but the mere fact that so much of the healing process is pronounced by way of Crow (not even The Crow, just Crow, the brazen familiarity of which, for some reason, I still find annoying), suggests some kind of total disconnection. And I don’t know why.

Naturally, there are some really lovely segments, such as that on page fifty, where the author, Max Porter brilliantly writes about the sorrow of longing: ”I missed her so much that I wanted to build a hundred-foot memorial to her with my bare hands. I wanted to see her sitting in a vast stone chair in Hyde Park, enjoying her view. Everybody passing could comprehend how much I miss her. How physical my missing is. I miss her so much it is a vast golden prince, a concert hall, a thousand tress, a lake, nine thousand buses, a million cars, twenty million birds and more. The whole city is my missing her.”

Yet even such well written and compelling prose, wasn’t enough to distract my imagination away from what I actually found a distraction: the thought process behind Crow itself.

David Marx

The Tobacconist

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The Tobacconist
By Robert Seethaler
Picador – £12.99

Politics always messed up absolutely everything, so it didn’t really make much difference whose fat bum currently occupied the seat of government – the late Kaiser, the dwarf Dollfuss, his apprentice Schusschnigg or that megalomaniac Hitler across the border – politics messed up, screwed up, fouled up and dumbed down absolutely everything, and basically ruined it one way or another.

Politics does indeed screw things up and dumb ”down absolutely everything.” Especially when left to a misfit representation of an utter naïve and total toss-pot persuasion as perfectly exemplified by Brexit. Not forgetting of course, that in ten days time, we have one of, if not the most misogynistic ”megalomaniacs” on the planet, taking over the most powerful office in the world.

And just like the intelligent, gracious actress, Meryl Streep, I don’t even have to mention the odious toads name, as readers will no doubt, fully understand and know to whom I refer.

Furthermore, were it not anchored in Vienna in 1937/8, this most beautifully written of books, could just as easily be referring to the politics of right now. To the folly induced politics of today – where Brexit and the dreadful likes of Marine Le Pen, Beppe Grillo and Nigel Farrge aside (all of whom, surely pale into utter indifference when compared with who is going to be taking over The White House on January 20th)) – which, truth be told, doesn’t even bear worth thinking about.

Yet, should one need a reminder of what blind faith and utter misplaced, myopic ignorance is capable of, then might I recommend The Tobacconist. A simply stunning book, written by Robert Seethaler who is author of five novels, including the most acclaimed A Whole Life which just last year, was short-listed for the Man Booker International Prize.

As told through the relatively innocent eyes of the teenage Franz Huchel, this is a very powerful and poignant book; one which simply brims with all the regaled restraint of a writer who, without any shadow of a doubt, most definitely (not to mention, defiantly) knows his craft.

A mere two pages in, and I was already struck at the use of language and wonderful depiction of imagery: ”Her apron stuck to her body; tangled strands of hair hung down over her forehead, and drops of water were forming and falling one by one from the tip of her nose. Behind her the peak of the Schafberg reared up ominously against the grey, cloud-covered sky, in which blue flecks were already reappearing here and there. Franz was reminded of the lopsided, oddly carved Madonna that someone in the olden days had nailed to the doorframe of the Nussdorf chapel, and which was now weathered almost beyond recognition.

As a whole, these 234 pages follow the thoughts and numerous travails of young Franz, through the seemingly vile trajectory of Kristallnacht, and the eventual coming to power of the all consuming Third Reich – over his dead body.

But I have to say, it’s the overtly contemplative, delicate and heart-warming-way that the book has been written, that accounts for its undeniable genius: ”When the whistle shrilled to signal its departure and the train began to move, the boy hopped off the bench and ran along the platform, waving and laughing. At that moment, something curious happened: all the prisoners at the windows waved back. The boy ran to the end of the platform, then stood still and shielded his eyes with his hand. Even at a distance, as the train gradually dissolved in the morning sunlight, it looked like a huge caterpillar with countless waving legs, crawling away.”

When Trump mocked the disabled New York Times reporter, so too is much of this astonishingly well-crafted book, completely heartbreaking.

In fact, I’m endeavoured to say it’ll be quite a while, before another novel comes remotely close.

David Marx

Rembrandt’s Mirror

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Rembrandt’s Mirror
By Kim Devereux
Atlantic Books – £12.99

Even against his will he feels comfort seeping through him. He closes his lids. Her fingers stroke his hand, their very gentleness uncorking his emotion. His body doubles over, somehow producing sobs despite his efforts to prevent them. Suffering – how inadequate a word for his apocalypse.

                                                                                                                        (‘The Shell’)

At best a love story – with an insight into the mind of one of the greatest painters the world has ever known – Rembrandt’s Mirror is a literary journey of the most profound sobriety.

Both chronological and somewhat linear in the telling, authoress Kim Devereux herein explores the three women of Rembrandt van Rijn’s life – as seen not only through the tumultuous prism of passion one has come to equate with the artist, but also the eyes of his last great love, the coy and coquettish Calvinist, Hendrickje.

Along the way, we as readers (or should I say, innocent bystanders) are informed and invariably touched by the degree of inherent sorrow and tenderness throughout; which I have to say, is surprisingly moving: ”His arms opened and we embraced. We stood like this for a lifetime. I held him in his maturity, as a baby and as a dying man. I sank deeper into his chest as if into Mother Earth herself. I felt his care for me as I grew younger, and younger still, until I was a newborn and then nothing at all.

This nothing-me felt the touch of his lips. Felt them but not the way I’d felt them before, more like the ocean holds the fish that swim in it. I was each wavelet and the stillness at the bottom where no current stirs” (‘The Return of the Prodigal Son’).

By way of occasionally taking the reader through the rough and ready streets of seventeenth century Amsterdam, the authoress herself, does much to paint a picture that is as authentic as it is adroit in explanation. Primarily that of Rembrandt’s anguish, as regaled and suffused by Hendrickje – over a period of many years, where ”perhaps love and truth did dwell.”

David Marx