Posts Tagged ‘j robert lennon’

Books of the Year 2021 Part 1

December 26, 2021

Although I mainly read translated fiction, this doesn’t mean I entirely avoid contemporary novels in English (though it would be fair to say I haven’t read a wide selection). Here are five of the best I read this year:

Real Estate by Deborah Levy

The third volume in Deborah Levy’s autobiographical trilogy is not only another valuable meditation on what it means to be a (female) writer, but also a though-provoking examination of growing older, a moment of reassessment. Levy uses her biographical ‘character’ as a metaphor for her own ‘character’ development: in writing herself she considers the self she wants to write. Similarly, she uses the practicalities of life – here focusing on the simple question, where is home? – to look more deeply into the choices we have and the decisions we make. Her rebirth as a writer since Swimming Home has been a pleasure to see.

Panenka by Ronan Hession

Leonard and Hungry Paul was such a runaway word-of-mouth success that I greeted Panenka with a little trepidation. Yet, few writers can write about ordinary life as well as Ronan Hession. Here, retired footballer Joseph is at something of a crossroads in his life, but does he have the courage to both face up to his mortality and to love again? Hession’s novels are filled with sly humour, yet the laughter is never directed downwards at his characters. Not only do we find ourselves on Joseph’s side, but on that of his daughter, and even of the regulars at Vincent’s pub. Every adjective we apply to Hession’s fiction – likeable, heart-felt, hopeful – may seem like faint praise but the sincerity of his work makes the reader equally sincere.

Tokyo Redux by David Peace

The much delayed third (and best) volume in David Peace’s Tokyo trilogy confirms that he is one of England’s most important writers. In a novel which ranges over fifty years, Peace weaves together numerous strands of (possibly) the one story beginning with the death of Shimoyama Sadanori, the head of Japan’s national railway, in 1949 during the American occupation. The other two years which feature are 1964, when the Olympics were held in Tokyo, and 1989, when Emperor Showa, perhaps the last remnant of Japan’s World War Two past, died. Each section has its own voice, with Peace perhaps in less danger of verging into parody than he has been in some previous novels. Neglected as usual by all prize juries, it will be exciting to see what Peace does next.

Luckenbooth By Jenni Fagan

Jenni Fagan’s third novel proves, beyond all doubt, that her emotionally raw debut and her dystopian follow-up only scratched the surface of her talent. Featuring the same marginal characters (including William Burroughs), it presents us with almost one hundred years in the life of a building. The historical recreation is vivid, but also laced with the spirit of fairy tale and myth. Characters are fully formed within pages and the loss the reader feels as we leave one behind is only alleviated by the introduction of another, equally fascinating. Another novel which should have won prizes.

Subdivision by J Robert Lennon

American writer J Robert Lennon’s ninth novel has, sadly, not yet been published in the UK but is still well worth seeking out (it’s published by Graywolf Press in the US). It begins with the narrator checking into a guest house in the Subdivision run by Clara and the Judge – she’s not sure which is which, especially as Clara was a judge and the Judge is called Clara. Such Alice in Wonderland strangeness will only accelerate, from her electronic companion, Cylvia, an Alexa which gives her life advice, to the bakemono, able to appear in different forms but always intensely desirable and equally dangerous. And why does a small boy keep turning up? Behind it all we sense a puzzle to be solved, either by the narrator or the reader – or perhaps both.


May 26, 2014

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There are many counter-factual novels, presenting history as it didn’t happen, from Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle to Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America. J Robert Lennon’s Familiar takes this familiar idea and uses it for entirely different purposes. Instead of taking the wide angled approach and changing world events, he focuses on the life of one woman and, by undoing one significant event in that life, demonstrates its effect. In doing so, he not only highlights the capricious nature of fate, but writes a character novel that gains depth by having two characters play the same role.

The ‘exchange’ takes place as Elisa is driving home after a conference. In the first few chapters we learn a little of her background, her husband Derek, and her two sons, Silas and Sam. This all seems perfectly natural as driving along an empty highway is the ideal time for such reflection. In particular, we learn of Silas’ death a number of years before and the effect this had on her and her marriage. This is the event that will change and will change everything with it, though at first Elisa is only aware of superficial differences:

“The sound inside the car has changed. It’s quiet. The window is closed. The air conditioning is on, the dashboard isn’t dusty anymore, and the taste of mint gum is in her mouth. In fact the gum is there, she has gum in her mouth right now.”

Now driving a different car, and in a different body (“She’s, what, ten pounds heavier?”), Elisa returns to her to her home to find herself in what appears to be a much better marriage:

“’The chicken’s almost done,’ Derek says from the doorway. ‘You want a glass of wine?’”

On the surface she would seem to have found the better life she has dreamed of since Silas died, but you will not be surprised to learn that everything is not a rosy as it seems. Her happy marriage, for example, is built on a compromise she finds it difficult to understand or sustain.

The novel is gripping because Elisa has to come to terms with her new life without being able to easily ask the questions she needs to as everyone assumes she knows the answers. She has, for example, a completely different job. As she comes to know her new life, she also has to make decisions as to whether she should try her best to fit in, adopt the habits of her ‘old’ life, or aim for something new. The more she is the ‘same person’ to herself, the more she has ‘changed’ to others. The novel therefore asks a lot of questions about identity and how far we can shape it; these same questions also apply to her role as a parent.

Familiar is a science fiction novel that’s mostly about character. Yet, like all good science fiction, it starts with the idea: what if you were suddenly transported into an alternate universe, inserted into the life of your doppelganger, but with your memories intact. (In this Lennon also builds on the literary trope of the double). Lennon takes this idea and executes it perfectly.