Swimming Home

Author, Deborah Levy

This is my first read from the Booker Prize shortlist, a book that fell into my hands during a recent visit to London. I have been aware of Deborah Levy’s work for some years, though outside the mainstream, so seeing it being nominated in the Booker list, it was one title I felt a definite connection to, there being only two degrees of separation between Deborah and I.

Hers is an interesting story in light of recent perceptions that much literary fiction is or has fallen out of favour now with pressure on publishers to go with titles that are likely to make significant if not mass profits. Her previous publishers neglected to take on this title because, as she said:

‘the fear among those who admired it was that Swimming Home was too literary to prosper in a tough economy … to be fair, there was quite a bit of agonising, but in the end Marketing and Sales won the argument.’

Titles published by ‘And Other Stories’

In my earlier post What is Really Harming Literature, I mention the commodification of literature, something the publisher of Levy’s latest book And Other Stories developed in response to. For a set fee, members subscribe to the publisher, kind of like a club and elect whether to receive two or all four of the titles they will publish during the year. You won’t know who the authors or the books are until published, except that they are international fiction, either in English or translated, and of the type the publisher believes is being ignored by mainstream corporations.

The selection of titles passes through an open consultative process which agents, interested members of the public, writers, friends, colleagues contribute to, so as a subscriber you are invited to contribute to the choice of future books to be published. The first copies are limited edition, so all subscribers receive not only a potentially excellent book, but something of a collector’s item as well.

Swimming Home for all that, I found a relatively easy, medium paced accessible read, with enough story to keep the reader intrigued, while delving into the various characters, two families staying in a French villa on holiday; Joe the home based poet, his war reporting and frequently absent wife Isabel, their teenage daughter Nina and their friends who own a struggling shop in Euston, Mitchell and Laura.

Their relative tranquillity is disturbed by the unexpected arrival of Kitty Finch, a young woman due to rent the villa a week later, whom they allow to stay, despite her collection of Joe’s poetry books on display in her room, her tendency for skinny dipping and resistance to taking a prescribed medicine.

It’s a story of repression and denial, all the characters appear to be hiding something, carrying unspoken baggage, whether a problem, resentment or obsession which Levy somehow with her brilliant but sparse use of language gifts the reader with an understanding that is more than the sum of words on the page.

I was struck on the very first page by an example of this and realised this was a book I would likely need to read twice, because there is much to discover in the way she is able to capture so much in one sentence.  Here is the opening line of the book and the second sentence from the third paragraph. We already have a strong sense of Kitty, who though perhaps the least repressed character, is the most dangerous.

When Kitty Finch took her hand off the steering wheel and told him she loved him, he no longer knew if she was threatening him or having a conversation…

She asked him to open his window so she could hear the insects calling to each other in the forest. He wound down the window and asked her, gently, to keep her eyes on the road.

Even the author herself only shares parts of conversations in dialogue, the rest narrated by a character adding an element of unreliability as we dip into multiple perspectives and have to rely on the thoughts of characters all of whom have some kind of hidden agenda.

During seven days we learn more about each of the characters as we watch them interact and ponder the significance of that body found floating in the pool at the beginning of the story and wonder how all this silent yet volcanic like tension is going to erupt.


Yesterday he had watched her free some bees trapped in the glass of a lantern as if it were she who was held captive. She was as receptive as it was possible to be, an explorer, an adventurer, a nightmare. Every moment with her was a kind of emergency, her words always too direct, too raw, too truthful.

There was nothing for it but to lie.

Who or what is really harming literature?

All the hoopla created by Booker judge and TLS Editor Peter Stothard’s untimely comments in The Independent suggesting that book bloggers are harming literature, reminded me that I have yet to post a review of Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home, which I finished a short while ago and shall rectify shortly. (now done)

While posting a rant isn’t one of the objectives of this blog, since I’ve been commenting on the issue elsewhere, I decided to do something a little different and turn our eyes away from the culpability of book bloggers for a moment – who if you’ve read anything I’ve written in the last 24 hours you will know I think do a marvellous job – and instead suggest some other groups or individuals who it might also be said are harming literature today.

Voila, the list:

  1. Governments – I’m referring more to the British government whose budget cuts in the culture sector have had a crushing effect on many cultural and literary organisations (and libraries!!) who relied on funding to keep their operations and artists/writers supported. Sadly, either the government doesn’t appreciate the cultural value and importance of the Arts or hopes it will turn itself into a more commercial business model, if it can’t earn a living, either the private sector will save it, or it will cease to exist.
  2. Literacy – there had been a significant increase in the percentage of non-readers, an alarming trend and certainly harmful to all literature however, a recent survey in the US has shown that for the first time in a quarter century, literary reading has increased among American adults.

    A decline in both reading and reading ability was clearly documented in the first generation of teenagers and young adults raised in a society full of videogames, cell phones, iPods, laptops, and other electronic devices.

  3. Technology – the quote above says it all; technology has affected the leisure and entertainment options of children and young people, who might otherwise have picked up a book. However, this cloud may have a silver lining if the same people then hear about books via social networks and get reading on their gadgets. The book industry is going to have to get pretty creative to capture the attention of young people. Bloggers are the first step in that direction, right?
  4. Parents – Yes. Parents. Are we encouraging our kids to read by reading to them, taking them to the library, buying books or engaging in animated storytelling? All kids love being read to or told made-up stories and while they are young, books also assist them to undercover their passions and interests! Not a new problem, but one that can be detrimental to our beloved literature.
  5. Artists and Book Sculptors – Well, really this is an excuse to show you the extraordinary, exquisite, mysterious sculptures created by an unknown sculptor in Edinburgh late last year, which also sets out to prove that sometimes great literature actually needs to be harmed in order to generate support, awareness and appreciation.
  6. Libraries – both a victim and a culprit, the poor old library is being phased out in many cities, but libraries have also been known to be engaged in selling off and destroying the old to make room for the shiny new things that want to steal the limelight!

    Cité du livre Bibliothèque Méjanes Aix-en-Provence

  7. Social Networking – it may be having an adverse effect on some writers as they navigate the fine line between having a public profile to assist with promotion of their titles and the distraction of random communications and information that keeps them from writing. Not surprising that some enterprising company has come up with an app you pay for that restricts your internet access, we can now purchase discipline for the undisciplined!
  8. E-books – so you think e-books are good for literature? I’m not so sure, I think that e-books have turned literature into a much more accessible and easy to purchase commodity, with an associated risk that many people are consuming books and not actually reading them. So good for the writer’s pocket and for the estates of classics and at least the bookshelves aren’t suffering, but are we at risk of becoming collectors rather than readers.
  9. Telephones – I’ve mentioned technology already, but I have to register my concern at lugging my brick of a book, Murakami’s 1Q84 on holiday and a quick glance around the beach suggested I was one the very few doing that old fashioned thing, reading a book. Everyone else was doing the finger tapping dance on their teeny gadgets – alas, the mobile telephone has replaced the beach read, at least in St Tropez this summer!
  10. Steve Jobs & the Apple team – when computer hard drives required an entire office to house them and technology was beige, boring and you had to be a geek to operate it, literature was in no way threatened – now that it’s sleek, sexy and can facilitate a music, film, or other visual experience, a whole new level of entertainment has captured our imaginations, to the detriment of the more passive, noiseless book.
  11. The iGen – the baby boomers are becoming grandparents, the X generation are coping with being older parents and the new generation have been dubbed the iGen. They are going to create and imagine a whole new way of doing things. We don’t yet know what kind of literature they will want to read or create and they will decide which of our contemporary writers become future classics. Perhaps books are going to become more of an interactive experience?

The point being, there are a good many things out there and I am sure you can think up more of them, that could be said to be harming literature. But at least it stimulates a good debate and brings out those who are passionate about reading, writing, reviewing, critiquing.

Ok, back to writing that review then.

The weird and enigmatic world of 1Q84

Haruki Murakami’s work was introduced to me by my Uncle, he is a designer and as such, in my eyes at least, is often at the leading edge of new trends. He gave me Dance, Dance, Dance to read and off I went twirling and spinning into the world of this unique author who takes you in and out of reality with such ease, you soon fall into his writing’s magic – at least if you allow yourself to just go with it.

I was a little unsure after the first novel, it was so unlike anything I’d ever read, but I was curious to know how he continued and whether there was some common thread among his novels, so I went for his well-known classic The Wind-up Bird Chronicle next.

In this volume Toru Okado is looking for a job, and while living through this in-between stage, in between jobs – his wife doesn’t return home one day thus he enters into a strange period where each of his interactions take on questionable qualities as he tries to navigate his days and understand what is happening around him.

If it sounds somewhat surreal, it is – but then aren’t those periods in life when we are neither here or there, in between one thing and another?  He finds an empty well in a yard near his apartment and enters it, just to dwell. Revelations come to him from people, from being in the well and from situations he encounters, even reading about this world and its strangeness almost normalises it, we adapt to it as readers.

Revelations came to me also, weird dreams of deep wells and immersing in blue pools of water and seeing things clearly.

And so to 1Q84, my beach read this summer. 1Q84 is an alternative world (and there we have the reference to George Orwell’s 1984 another alternative world). Murakami by now I have discovered is a creator of these worlds that look and feel exactly as the world we know, they are inhabited by the same characters, their protagonists have the same life, but reality has been altered somewhat and they usually spend the story trying to discover what that is and why things have suddenly changed.

Having now read three of his works, I have found in each of them a kind of ascent or descent involved in entering this parallel universe; in Dance, Dance, Dance it was the lift/elevator, in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle it was a descent to the bottom of the well and now in 1Q84 Aomame climbs down an expressway stairwell to street level, which seems to have been the portal to 1Q84 (although Janáček’s sinfonietta playing in the taxi may have had something to do with it).

Aomame is a loner, growing up in a Jehovah’s Witness family she had no real friends and rejected her family’s way of life early on. The one true friend she did have later in life met a tragic end which changed Aomame’s life; she couldn’t save her friend but through her skills and work she ensured that many other women were saved from a similar fate.

In alternate chapters we meet Tengo, an aspiring writer who agrees to edit and improve a book that has been nominated for an award. Naively he agrees, though he also feels something is compelling him to become involved against his better judgement. The stories of Aomame and Tengo follow a similar trajectory, there are many parallels between the two, not just their previous lives, but in the way events seem to happen simultaneously.

By the conclusion of Book Two Aomame’s and Tengo’s worlds are coming together again (as they did when the two were 10 years old). Tengo realises he too is in 1Q84 and it all has some link to the book he has edited, a world of two moons, where The Little People exist and the purpose of their air chrysalis has not yet become clear.

After 623 pages, I must now read Book Three to learn what happens next and tie up the threads of the story which certainly feel as if they are working towards some kind of weird revelation.

For a surreal trip, one almost guaranteed to affect your dream-life, pick up a Murakami if you dare, he is strangely addictive.

Death off The Lifeboat

Post my visit to Belfast in Northern Ireland and the Titanic Museum, followed by reading Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember and Christopher Ward’s The Band Played On I have continued with this reading theme with Charlotte Rogan’s novel The Lifeboat, which felt like reading the next chapter of a Titanic story, the one that hasn’t been written to my knowledge, the story of what might have occurred had the lifeboats and their inhabitants been left overfull to roam the high seas.

 Set in the summer of 1914, the story centres around Grace Winter, a 22 year widow; right from the beginning we understand she is one of three women being held in prison while on trial for a crime that is alleged to have occurred while they were afloat on a lifeboat after the sinking of a grand ocean liner they were travelling to New York on.

Thirty-nine people started out in the boat, but a lot less than that survived under somewhat suspicious circumstances. As the trial progresses, to aid her defence her lawyer asks her to record the days as she remembers them in a kind of journal, and so simultaneously we too read her re-enactment of what she perceives happened as if it were happening now.

At the same time it occurred to me – and it must have occurred to Mr Hardie as well – to wonder if Rebecca was the victim of some sort of natural selection and to think that if she had fallen overboard, maybe it was for the best.

Having suffered one family tragedy already and seeing their prospects dwindle after the death of their financially troubled father, Grace’s aspirations had been in the ascendant after marriage to the young, successful Henry, although all is not clear around this, it is a subject she neglects to delve into in great detail and neither subsequently do we hear much of either her own family or her in-laws. Only her ruthless determination to marry the already engaged Henry, rather than follow her sister’s example and seek a governess role or other employ. Marriage was to be her saviour and Grace exhibits ambition had used her resources stealthily to achieve it.

It is an interesting premise, the concept of floating at sea for days on end, death never far from seducing some, and destroying others in dramatic fashion. This story pits men against women, the strong against the weak and the cunning against the calculating. I did wonder about its authenticity when they decide very early on, in the first hours to abandon a child clinging to some debris, it is clear the child will perish and even if the boat is hopelessly overfull, it is hard to accept that women in particular could be so in shock as to allow such a young soul to be left.

Later, Hannah stamped her foot against the floor of the prison van and cried, “What is this, a witch trial? Is the only way to prove our innocence by drowning?”


Note: This was an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice

Firstly I have to thank my blog buddy Cassie for recommending this glorious oeuvre to me, her blog review is written with such passion and awe, she even inspired the author Terry Tempest Williams herself, to leave a wonderful appreciative comment.

When she wrote this book, Terry Tempest Williams was fifty four years old, the age her mother was when she finally succumbed to a cancer that first perched threateningly within her breast in her late 30’s, then a young mother of four children.

Raised in a Mormon family and heritage it perhaps should not have been such a great surprise when Terry’s mother informed her that like previous generations of women, she had left her daughter a collection of carefully preserved, beautiful cloth bound journals. A tradition yes, but a legacy, this daughter of words knew nothing of until that revelatory moment.

In Mormon culture, women are expected to do things: keep a journal and bear children. Both gestures are a participatory bow to the past and the future. In telling a story, personal knowledge and continuity are maintained. My mother kept her journals and bore four children: a daughter and three sons. I am her daughter, in love with words.

One month after her mother’s passing, Terry Tempest Williams felt ready to receive their wisdom and sat quietly opening one after the other absorbing their blessed pure message. She opened the journals to discover that the pages were blank. Every. Single. One.

Word by word, the language of women so often begins with a whisper.

I am leaving you all my journals…

Terry Tempest Williams creates an opportunity and uses those pages to reflect on the legacy her mother has left her and fills the pages with fifty four vignettes, fifty four variations on voice. She comes to understand many things about the blank page and the infinite possibilities this offers, the things her mother’s gesture may have meant. She indulges her imagination and shares a flock of realisations:

My Mother’s Journals are an expanding and collapsing universe every time they are opened and closed.

My Mother’s Journals are a gesture and a vow.

My Mother’s Journals are a collection of white handkerchiefs.

My Mother’s Journals are an obsession.

Part way through writing these short chapters, Williams attended a family event, which unhinged something inside. Restless, she came home and wrote a list, a list of the things she had been writing about in these pages and struggled to find a connection. Her list looked like this:

Great Salt Lake                      Mother

Bear River Bird Refuge             Family

Flood                                  Cancer

Division of Wildlife Resources    Mormon Church

Circling both lists, it seemed as if nothing connected them. Until she wrote the letters TTW underneath; then the exercise became apparent. It is she who connects these subjects, it is within her that they reside and it is through her voice on the page that we share an intimate and creative journey, like observing the beauty, the wonder and constantly evolving shape of a murmuration. A privilege to witness.

This is a book to slow read, to re-read and to ponder. This book is in every one of us. Whether we create our list first or mid way through as TTW did.

A Murmuration – click here to see two women and the most amazing flock of birds ever. Spectacular.

Man Booker Prize 2012 Shortlist

Quiet on the blog front while life enters an extremely busy period here with La Rentrée and a working visit to London; I have a few summer reads still to review, so hope to add those as I find time.

Well the Bookies are favouring Hilary Mantel and Will Self, a couple of Scottish authors are bagging it for being “based on the conceit that upper-class Englishness is the cultural yardstick against which all literature must be measured”, but the reading public are generally enthusiastic and optimistic for a unique collection of literary fiction in the Man Booker Prize this year.

Speculation aside, the judges have concluded their re-reading and literary debate and announced this morning the following shortlist:

Tan Twan Eng, The Garden of Evening Mists (Myrmidon Books)

Deborah Levy, Swimming Home (And Other Stories)

Hilary Mantel, Bring up the Bodies (Fourth Estate)

Alison Moore, The Lighthouse (Salt)

Will Self, Umbrella (Bloomsbury)

Jeet Thayil, Narcopolis (Faber & Faber)

“After re-reading an extraordinary longlist of twelve, it was the pure power of prose that settled most debates. We loved the shock of language shown in so many different ways and were exhilarated by the vigour and vividly defined values in the six books that we chose – and in the visible confidence of the novel’s place in forming our words and ideas.” Peter Stothard, Chair of Judges

The 2012 shortlist includes two debut novels, three small independent publishers, two former shortlisted authors and one previous winner. Of the six writers, four are British, one Indian and one Malaysian.

I have not yet read any of the list, but I now have Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home in my possession and plan to read it on the flight home tomorrow.

Watch this space!

Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace – The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady

Kate Summerscale likes to take ordinary people who have been noted for doing some extraordinary thing, though not usually something to be admired – and shares their story in a way that reads like compelling fiction.

Her previous book The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or The Murder at Road Hill House reads like a detective novel and coincided historically with the introduction of the adapted role of a certain type of police officer – that of the detective.  This person was required to use specialist skills to investigate suspicious deaths, such was the case with Mr Jack Whicher of Scotland Yard, assigned to investigate the gruesome death of a young family member of a supposedly respectable household in a quiet Wiltshire village, putting all members of the family under suspicion and creating an unprecedented public sensation.

Now she has turned her pen and research skills towards the diary and letters of a Victorian lady, Mrs Isabella Robinson, an impulsive, intellectual woman, widowed young and remarried to an uninterested man who seemed to require nothing more of her than to keep house and children in order, a role she fulfilled, but was not content to be limited to and thus her attentions strayed towards the happily married Dr Edward Lane.

Throughout most of her diary entries he appears not to return her amorous feelings, but Mrs Robinson has the skills of Flaubert (who was prosecuted in the late 1850’s for corrupting public morals with Madame Bovary – a novel considered ‘too repulsive’ for publication in Britain) in expressing both her angst and sexual frustration and perhaps even her fantasies (were they?) with regard to certain men hovering in her vicinity – certainly, as with Flaubert’s prose, there were pages deemed unsuitable and unfit for the eyes of anyone outside the court and the media banned from laying eyes on it for fear of corrupting the public.

Her dramatic verse, which employed few filters would prove to be her undoing and became the sensation of a highly publicised court case, which also straddled a moment in history, when divorce laws were changed to make them easier to obtain, particularly as the law discriminated against women and allowed some terrible situations to endure as a result.

The law stipulated that to secure a divorce, a husband needed to establish just his wife’s infidelity, whereas a woman needed to prove that her husband was not only unfaithful but also guilty of desertion, cruelty or sexual misdeeds such as bigamy, incest, rape, sodomy or bestiality.

Ironic, in that no one questioned Mr Robinson concerning his mistress and two illegitimate children, clearer evidence of infidelity than anything penned by his errant wife.

Queen Victoria

Allowing these situations to be resolved through the Court created a predicament with the population concerning reportage in newspapers, an issue to which even Queen Victoria was said to have addressed.

On 19 December, Reynold’s Weekly, observed that the cases in the Divorce Court ‘seem to indicate that among the high, the moral, the respectable, and the Christian classes…adultery is in a highly flourishing, if not exceedingly rampant, condition.’ A week later Queen Victoria wrote to Lord Campbell, the chief designer of the Divorce Act, to ask if he could suppress some of the stories coming out of the court.

It seems the Queen had no power to stop the presses and received a reply indicating that they were unable to limit the newspaper stories.

Overall, an interesting read and historical context and no doubt opinion continues to be divided on whether Mrs Robinson was hard done by or plain foolish to have committed such desires, whether fantasy or fact to paper.  A woman fifty shades before her time perhaps.

Note: This was an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

In the Shadow of the Banyan

Early morning in Hanoi, Vietnam

The countries, culture and people of Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma and the surrounding area interest me. Vietnam was the first country I travelled solo in and while I was there, in addition to the cultural immersion, I also enjoyed reading the works of two local authors, which I purchased from a street vendor, Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War and Duong Thu Huong’s Paradise of the Blind, both of which are excellent.

We learn a little how they live, what they eat and how a soldier deals with the aftermath of war. These occasional books translated into English provide an important insight into real experiences and a way of thinking that cannot be portrayed by any other than those who were raised there. Their experiences often cause us to question our own perspective, our knowledge, and beseech us to see things from another point of view. It is a joy therefore to come across a publisher of who said:

When I came to S&S, I told everyone here I wanted to publish books that deepen the cultural conversation and take readers to places they couldn’t otherwise go. – Jonathan Karp, Simon & Schuster

This is certainly the case with Vaddey Ratner’s In the Shadow of the Banyan, narrated from the perspective of 7-year-old Raami, a girl whose experiences reflect the author’s own, though she has chosen to fictionalise her story.

 It isn’t so much the story of the Khmer Rouge experience, of genocide, or even of loss and tragedy. What I wanted to articulate is something more universal, more indicative, I believe, of the human experience our struggle to hang onto life, our desire to live, even in the most awful circumstances. – Vaddey Ratner

Lest we forget, Hanoi, Vietnam

The daughter of royalty, although a failed, corrupt democracy ruled, she and her family were evicted by the revolutionary Khmer Rouge, a marginal guerrilla group – whose leaders were from the same intellectual class as Ratner’s well-educated father, however who held radical ideals to transform the social fabric by destroying traditional family, social and wealth connections and creating an experimental collective.

Their revolution took the form of putting the population into work camps in living conditions worse than peasants. Whether driven by fear, paranoia or disillusionment, they ruthlessly continued to seek out and judge people as the enemy, a definition that moved and changed like the current in the Mekong itself until through murder, disease or starvation scholars estimate that as many as a third of the population (1-2 million) died. The regime was finally overthrown by the Vietnamese military in January 1979.

Ratner tells the story of Raami, physically challenged from a polio defect which shortened one of her legs, her experience during the period of exile with her parents and sister, how she survived the extreme living and working conditions and what it taught her along the way. She remembers the stories and poems that her father shared with her and they continue to be a source of strength for her throughout her life.

“Do you know why I told you stories Raami?” he asked. I shook my head. I knew nothing, understood nothing.

“When I thought you couldn’t walk, I wanted to make sure you could fly.” His voice was calm, soothing, as if it were just another evening, another conversation.

“I told you stories to give you wings, Raami, so that you would never be trapped by anything – your name, your title, the limits of your body, this world’s suffering.”

It is a humbling story and frightening to perceive, yet dealt with by Ratner in a way that allows us to acknowledge and attempt to understand something of the seemingly never-ending cycle of oppression, idealism, revolution and the dangers inherent when revolutionary intent is hijacked by power, destroyed by paranoia and becomes tyrannical, while preserving the few special moments that continue to pass between people despite the danger posed by their selfless acts.

Terrible as it is and damaged as they are, it is those who survive and who are still able to maintain some belief in the human spirit and humanity that bring one of the few gifts that such terror evokes. It is a price no person would ever wish to pay.

For all the loss and tragedy I have known, my life has taught me that the human spirit, like the lifted hands of the blind, will rise above chaos and destruction, as wings in flight.

The author has succeeded in taking this sad chapter in her country’s history and showing us some of its beauty and culture, sharing memories and thoughts that can never be erased and putting them into a new form, this literary work, which we are privileged for it to be shared in English.

In a sense it leaves us puzzled and perplexed, just as witnessed in Aminatta Forna’s The Memory of Love, yet another tyrannical regime that loses its way to the detriment of its people. The stories can be shared and passed on, but they also represent a kind of grief for a way of life now lost to future generations.

Note: This was an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.