Posts Tagged ‘goldsmiths prize’

Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun

October 26, 2016

like-a-mule

Sarah Lapido Manyika’s second novel, Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun, is a story of old age and loneliness, yet, despite this, it is defiant rather than downbeat. Dr Morayo Da Silva is a retired English professor, a Nigerian living in San Francisco, who is approaching her seventy-fifth birthday. We sense her loneliness from the encounters she extends in the casual conversations which punctuate her day, for example the mailman bringing her mail to the door as her box is full:

“That’s the way I leave it these days because I like him stopping by.”

A visit to the local bakery is to “talk to my new friend, the cashier.” In a phone call about her driving licence she asks what the weather is like, assuming (incorrectly) that the caller is in India. That phone call is also the first sign that age may be catching up with Morayo – a mandatory medical check as a result of a complaint over careless driving, which she suspects may have been occasioned by her haphazard parking, something which is quickly verified for the reader:

“On my way out I glance ruefully at Buttercup, my beloved old Porsche, parked admittedly a little more than eighteen inches from the kerb.”

Shortly after, her age and isolation are foregrounded by a fall that sees her first hospitalised and then placed in a Home to recover. This brings her own fears to the surface:

“I think sometimes that I’m losing my memory. I’m more forgetful these days and, lying in bed all day, I worry. Will I become just another old woman with Alzheimer’s? And who will look after me?”

Later, she reflects:

“Old age is a massacre. No place for sissies. No place for love songs. No place for dreaming.”

Inside the Home, she also loses control of her life outside when an ex-neighbour helps out by tidying her apartment. Morayo has already explained her idiosyncratic way of organising her books – “arranged according to which characters I believe need to be talking to each other” – but to her friend, Sunshine:

“Books are everywhere, strewn haphazardly across the shelves, some with spines facing inwards, others facing out…like abandoned children’s toys, I find many more books tucked away in clothes drawers and cupboards.”

In her efforts to clean the apartment, some books are even accidentally thrown out.

Yet, despite all this, the novel is ultimately optimistic. Early references to Morayo’s undiminished desire may seem initially only to exacerbate her loneliness, but her time in the Home allows her to make new friendships, including one with a man, Reggie, whose wife has Alzheimer’s, which may lead to something more. Reggie, too, misses physical companionship:

“I dream of being held. Of being touched. Of being desired again.”

Even the books she loses are found by a homeless women who “gave some to friends, who like to read” as well as keeping one on Africa for herself, speculating she might go there to start a new life “cos, when you think about it really, with what I’m suffering now, my life isn’t that much better than what Africans are living through.”

Another reason for the novel’s ultimately optimistic tone is its use of multiple narrators. As well as first person chapters from Morayos’s point of view, we also experience events through the eyes of a number of other characters. These various viewpoints all display some level of kindness and empathy, despite having problems of their own to contend with, a good example being the otherwise incidental chef for the Home:

“Well I just like making people happy how I know best and that’s with food.”

Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun may be the least threatening novel on the Goldsmiths Prize list, but it is a skilled character portrait which gently, but unflinchingly, contends with the fears of ageing, and demonstrates that we should not lose hope.

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Solar Bones

October 9, 2016

solar-bones

Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones is, in many ways, an apocalyptic novel. No wormhole opens in the sky threatening otherworldly invaders, nor are its streets crowded with shambling corpses, but behind the layered normality, as paragraph after paragraph piles up, thought over thought, there is an end of the world insinuation, like rot, weakening the structures of the everyday.

Solar Bones begins with Marcus Conway at his kitchen table:

“the kids all away now and of course Mairead is at work and won’t be back till after four so the house is mine till then, something that should gladden me as normally I would only be too happy to potter round on my own here, doing nothing, listening to the radio or reading the paper, but now the idea makes me uneasy, with four hours stretching ahead of me till she returns”

Over the next 200 pages Marcus reflects on his life and marriage, his relationship with his father and his two children, Darragh and Agnes, in one unspooling piece of prose, broken into sections but not sentences, each paragraph joined to the next in a relentless flow. Memories merge with recent events, as we piece together the days before beginning with the opening of Agnes’ exhibition where Marcus is shocked to discover she has been painting with her own blood:

“whatever dreams a man may have for his daughter it is safe to say that none of them involve standing in the middle of a municipal gallery with its walls covered in a couple of litres of her own blood”

Shortly after Mairead falls ill:

“I stood by the side of her bed, frequently at a loss as to what exactly I should do, her face glossed with sweat, skin glowing in the weak light of the bedroom and something deathly about the way this illness closed her eyes”

The illness is traced back to a glass of water she drank when they went out for a meal in the city after the exhibition: the water supply has become contaminated and Mairead is just one of thousands to feel the effect:

“the story started drifting towards us in mid-March, coming out of the middle distance with its unlikely news of viral infection and contamination, a whole city puking its guts up, the stuff of a B-movie apocalypse seventy miles up the road”

As Marcus nurses her back to health, a wider debate over how much control we have over our lives opens up. As a civil engineer, Marcus builds a world of function and utility, but in his job we see that it is politics which often has the final word. When he refuses to sign off on the foundations of a school, believing them to be unsafe, the contractor simply goes above his head to the local councillor. He points out a lamppost to Mairead which has been placed in the corner of a field so that the farmer can feed his cattle:

“that’s ridiculous
it’s not as ridiculous as trying to remove it now, when our engineer tried to do that he was told fairly sharpish that he could forget about making a budget submission the following year if he moved it”

He tells Darragh a joke about a lawyer, a doctor, a politician and an engineer arguing about which profession came first. The engineer proposes that it must be his as God was the first engineer when he created the earth and the heavens out of chaos. “Who do you think made the chaos,” says the politician.

The water contamination, too, is an engineering problem – “the politicians will make sure the engineers take the blame for this” – demonstrating that engineering alone is not the answer. Marcus knows this form a visit to the Museum of Torture in Prague:

“it became clear from their craft and complexity that these machines, with their screws and gearing mechanisms were… the highest technical expressions of their age, the end to which skilled minds had deployed their gifts”

Marcus’ doubts can be seen in his original intention to join the priesthood before turning to engineering, two different ways of understanding the world. The novel quietly questions us on how we understand the world and how much control we have over it. In the face of our limitations, it offers a very ordinary love.

The novel’s conclusion is revealed in its blurb (or maybe I’m just a bit slow) which luckily I hadn’t read, and would suggest any potential reader avoid. Often beautiful, at times elegiac, it is an immersive experience from which readers will not emerge untouched.

Martin John

October 4, 2016

martin-john

“I’m compelled by what the novel might become rather than what I know it to be,” might well be the credo of the Goldsmiths Prize, so it is perhaps no surprise that Anakana Schofield’s second novel, Martin John is to be found on the short list. Martin John is an unusual novel, but then Martin John is an unusual man:

“They had come for him after the incident outside the SuperValu shop, down the lane with the girl.
They had come for him with the one on the bus.
They had come for him that time with the girl who said he put his hand down the band of her skirt.
The other girl where he put his hand between her legs.
They had come for him.
They were her brothers. It was brothers who usually came. Well their fists mostly.”

Martin John doesn’t mind the beating – “He derived pleasure from their aggression” – but his mam decides something must be done:

“- We’ve got to get you out, mam said when she saw the state of him. If you can’t stop, we’ve to stop it.
Could he stop it? What would he stop?
– Stop what, he said. She will not go further. She will never give voice to that which she wished stopped.”

Martin John is exiled to London where he finds work as a security guard:

“Mam has warned him the only thing keeping him on the straight is the job…
The job, she points out, stopped you doing the other stuff. The other stuff no-one can save him from.”

This not the tale of Martin John’s redemption or damnation, however: this is the story told but not the way the story is told. Martin John’s past and present unfold together in a pattern of tenses and voices. Repetition is the key because Martin John is a repeat offender. The circuits he patrols as a security guard, and in his own time around Euston Station, are both his salvation and temptation.

“To clarify: the novel is predicated upon a loop, the form of the novel is deliberately circular, punctuated throughout by five recurring refrains. It is constructed this way to speak to the cyclical nature of reoffending, the cycles of mental illness and the cycle of complicity.”

The daily crossword, the weekly visits to Aunty Noanie, the annual Eurovision Song Contest: Martin John’s life is one of ritual. The language, too, takes on the rhythm of ritual, with Martin John’s five refrains listed at the beginning in an index (surely a sign in itself that order will not be observed). These five nonsensical statements accrue meaning throughout the novel, but do not become meaningful: they are little more than hooks on which Martin John hangs his life and rationalises his irrational behaviour. The circuits with which he seeks to control that life simply circumscribe it; as time loops backwards and forwards, language tightens the noose, the echo of recurring phrases emphasising the walls of his prison.

Novels about ‘bad’ people can seduce the reader (think Lolita, think American Psycho), but Martin John lacks any glamour. The looped world of his obsessions makes him small, yet we also come to understand that world. Martin John is so focused on his own gratification he does not consider his actions within the realm of right and wrong; “harm was done”, one of his five refrains, is an empty catechism, not an empathetic realisation. Schofield achieves the perfect balance of engagement without identification: we understand Martin John but do not sympathise.

What, then, is the attraction for the reader? Firstly, the poetry of the prose; not a poetry of beauty but one of power – fierce, incantatory – allowing, secondly, the cracking open of Martin John’s mind, an under-the-stone glimpse, but without forgetting, thirdly, the reverberation of his actions on those around him. Schofield lures the reader, at times, into the narrow tunnel of Martin John’s viewpoint, only to suddenly look up and reveal the outside: mam’s complicity; the treatment of his victims:

“Years ago his mother had come. His mother had come and asked that she – The Girl – not press charges. She, his mother, said The Boy, her son, would be going away and promised he would never bother her again.”

The novel may come from a different time – “It was a time when people didn’t ask as many questions” – the 1980s, but its urgency is never in doubt. The paralysis Martin John creates in the final scene echoes society’s indecision when faced with the problem he represents. Ironically, as much as Martin John remains unchanged, in Martin John we witnessed the novel becoming something new.

Quotations from Anakana Schofield are from an interview in the Irish Times.

Hot Milk

September 30, 2016

hot-milk

In her latest novel, Hot Milk, Deborah Levy once again (as in Swimming Home – a villa in Nice – and The Unloved – a French chateau) takes us on holiday. In Levy’s hands, however, these sun-bleached beaches, glittering pools and glaringly white buildings become other-worldly, as altered in her handling as Ballard’s suburban Britain. (Though, to be fair, Ballard himself wasn’t averse to getting out the passport in his later novels like Cocaine Nights). This time we are in Almeria, mingling with tourists, but on a different mission. Sofia and her mother, Rose, have come not to holiday but to heal at the hands of Dr Gomez, a last resort made possible by re-mortgaging their home. Rose is unable to walk, a mystery that no medical professional in the UK has been able to solve, and Sofia’s life has been placed on hold as she cares for her:

“The dream is over for me…. It ended when she became ill and I abandoned my Ph. D. The unfinished thesis I wrote for my doctorate still lurks in a digital file behind the shattered screen saver like an unclaimed suicide.”

As her future fades, Sofia becomes less and less certain who she is in her present. This is highlighted when she is stung by a jelly fish and must write down her name, age, country of origin, and occupation: when it comes to the latter she doesn’t know what to write. Even her nationality is in doubt, with a Greek surname from a father she hasn’t seen in years pointing towards a language she doesn’t speak. She puzzles Dr Gomez by referring to her mother as ‘Rose’. As he says, “identity is always difficult to guarantee.”

Rose’s identity is her illness; as Sofia says, “I have been sleuthing my mother’s symptoms for as long as I can remember.” Her father leaves because he, too, has adopted a new identity:

“My father suffered a religious conversion but as far as I know he has not got over it.”

In both cases, these identities allow her parents to undermine Sofia’s sense of self: her father simply ceases to see her, as if she were no longer his daughter; her mother reduces her to the role of carer, even complaining about her to Gomez:

“Sofia is lazy when it comes to putting a glass of water by my bed at night.”

At times Sofia finds it difficult to separate herself from Rose. Shaking Gomez’s hand on behalf of her mother she thinks, “Her arm is my arm.” Later on the beach:

“Sometimes, I find myself limping. It’s as if my body remembers the way I walk with my mother.”

From the moment we meet Gomez we sense that he is suspicious of Rose’s illness:

“His tone was vague. Vaguely mocking and vaguely amiable.”

He encourages her to reduce her medication, and the treatment becomes a battle of wills as Rose refuses to admit her health, even suggesting she might have her feet amputated. However, Gomez gives Sofia courage, as does her holiday romance with Ingrid, a woman, she admits, who is “not a safe person to love.” Just as Sofia struggles to see herself, so too she finds it hard to visualise Ingrid or the relationship clearly. She first meets Ingrid when she thinks she is a man in the Ladies’ toilets. Later, Ingrid gives her a blouse with a word stitched into it, but it is a different word to the one Sofia reads there.

The novel is the story of Sofia’s attempt to free herself, just as she wants to free the dog of owner of the diving-school, Pablo. But, as Ingrid points out, freedom is never straight-forward:

“There is a problem, Zoffie. Pablo’s dog has been badly treated. He will not know what to do with his freedom. The dog will run through the village and eat all the babies.”

Hot Milk (is the title a reference to maternal comforts?) is a novel about freeing yourself from family, not only those who cling to you, but also those who reject you. In pushing Rose to find the first step she needs to save her life, Sofia hopes to save her own. It’s another sharp, insightful novel by Levy, who writes realism (like Ballard) by jarring the probable against the possible. Its recent appearance on the Goldsmith’s Prize shortlist (as well as the Man Booker) is no surprise.

Acts of the Assassins

October 18, 2015

acts

Acts of the Assassins is a sequel, of sorts, to Richard Beard’s 2012 novel, Lazarus is Dead; as this is my first exposure to Beard’s idiosyncratic version of the New Testament, I can safely say that knowledge of the previous novel is not necessary to appreciate his latest. Acts of the Assassins may feature the same protagonist – Cassius Marcellus Gallio, Roman Speculator (that is, a member of their secret police) – but we are quickly made aware that what matters most about the Lazarus case is that Gallio regards it as an “embarrassment.”

“He still doesn’t understand how they did that. Lazarus died from multiple diseases…Gallio couldn’t explain the mechanics, the trick, and when he failed to come up with answers they put him on a caution…He couldn’t afford to fail again.”

Gallio’s latest case is the disappearance of Jesus’ body from his tomb:

“What they have here is an unusual but annoying theft. That is what it is. What it can’t possibly be, and what he refuses to contemplate, is died, risen, coming again.”

The novel’s brilliance lies in the way the story is told. Gallio doesn’t just adopt the speech patterns of a contemporary policeman (“lead”, “tip off”), the novel itself inhabits an anachronistic world in which Rome is the dominant power but one with all the trapping of a modern police force:

“CCTV is inconclusive. The disciples are in and out. From above, with fisheye angles and in corridor light, the men are interchangeable.”

Beard has taken two genres with which most people are over-familiar – Bible stories and police procedurals – and intertwined them to remove that familiarity from both. Time is further disregarded in the novel’s structure, with each chapter based around the death of disciple. Judas, a police informer, is obviously first to meet his end (suicide? or murder made to look like suicide?), but his death sees Gallio punished for losing Jesus’ body by demotion and a posting to the furthest reaches of the Empire. The story picks up years later when he recalled as Rome begin to fear the growing Jesus cult and two of his disciples are found to have returned to Jerusalem:

“You know these people. You were closer to them than anyone else. We have a job for you.”

(Followers of crime fiction will also recognise this particular trope). Once Gallio begins tracking down the remaining disciples, however, they begin dying thick and fast. Again, this is a common feature of crime novels, where the killer’s victims pile up as the detective hunts him down – that Beard draws on Christian tradition (cherry-picking the disciple’s most gruesome deaths) echoes the violence of the most sadistic fictional serial killers.

Beard’s novel is also, of course, a political satire. The hunt for Jesus unavoidably brings to mind that for Osama bin Laden. His followers are regarded as a dangerous sect; their willingness to die for their beliefs the most dangerous thing about them. They are being blamed for the recent fire in Rome. At one point, the phrase ‘ground zero’ is used. As the novel progresses, the terror threat level rises.

This, in itself, would be enough, but Gallio’s own journey gives the novel further depth taking it beyond mere satire. He can, of course, find no evidence beyond the disciples’ unshakeable belief and what he himself has witnessed. Though desperate for a rational explanation, his experience as a detective tells him to keep an open mind:

“Speculators have open minds. That’s one of the requirements written into the job description.”

In Gallio, the novel explores what happens when the rational (and what could be more evidence based than police work?) collides with the inexplicable.

All of these elements have been woven into an exceptional novel, one that fully deserves its Goldsmiths Prize shortlisting.