Incantations

Adam Scovell’s début novel Mothlight was one of my highlights of 2019. So it was a pleasure to be able to write for The Guardian on his follow-up, How Pale the Winter Has Made Us:

Scovell doesn’t aspire to realism: instead he invests his talents in hallucinatory imagery, haunting atmospherics and prose that again blends the stately melancholia of WG Sebald with the logorrhoea of Thomas Bernhard. Abstruse and florid as Scovell’s style can be, its rhythms over time become incantatory, and its mournful musicality and serpentine recursions are as hypnotic here as in Mothlight. And while its simple transference to another narrator may suggest a limit to his creative powers, diminishing Isabelle’s distinctive persona, Scovell scales up something his debut confined to domestic settings: a disorienting effect described by Isabelle as the “quiver[ing]” of “temporal instability”.

Politics Eats People

New today at Splice, I’m reviewing Fernanda Melchor’s blistering novel Hurricane Season:

Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season is a novel about the threshing machine of politics in the lives of people who struggle to recognise it as such, much less to name and discuss it, though they absolutely register its effects on their experiences. While the novel is Melchor’s third, it’s her first to be made available in English, in a fierce and forceful translation by Sophie Hughes, and every word bristles with indignation at the politics in which its characters are immured. Not the bickering of spin doctors, not the argy-bargy of international delegates, not the supplications of diplomats or the pontifications of op-ed blowhards. Hurricane Season maintains a tight focus on just one tiny village in Mexico, a superstitious place blighted by “poverty, destitution and ignorance”, and page by page it forensically examines the daily deprivations of the townsfolk. The picture is unremittingly bleak. La Matosa is the kind of place where a grown man can remain haunted by memories of finding “a work of witchcraft” outside his boyhood home, “one of those extra-large mayonnaise jars with an immense toad floating inside, a dead, decomposed toad swimming in a murky liquid”. It’s also a place where the family of an asthmatic child try to help him survive the winter by blanketing his bed with clothes, and bathing him in the feeble warmth of a lightbulb, only to wake up one morning and find that he has died in his sleep. What hope for future generations when material resources are insufficient and the black arts are taken to be a greater cause for concern?

Modern Times: What Went Wrong?

I’ve got a new review up at Splice today, but I won’t lie: it pained me to write the damn thing. My subject is Modern Times, the début collection of short stories by Cathy Sweeney. I was very much looking forward to this book. I love Sweeney’s stories, and have done for a while:

To put a finger on what makes her stories so distinctly hers, I’m inclined to say that [Sweeney’s] method involves circling around characters bent out of shape by depravities of this sort — some exceptional squalor, some abhorrent inclination — and then probing the gap between their affliction and their ho-hum daily concerns. Although Sweeney’s grotesques invariably have some startling quality that seizes the reader’s attention, this quality is not the same as whatever quality makes them remarkable for Sweeney’s narrators. By playing up the difference between these two positions — these irreconcilable views on what makes someone’s story worth telling and what makes it worth reading about — Sweeney throws the gravity of her fictional world off-balance. The reader’s eyes are drawn towards something that is for the narrator only a peripheral concern, functionally inconsequential, so that the interests of the two parties never align and the work is pulled apart by antipodal priorities.

But Modern Times is finally a disappointment. I hope my review articulates some of the reasons why, without imputing that Sweeney’s body of work is without merit.

An Obscure Constellation

It’s a new year for reviews at Splice, and here I am kicking it off with a close look at 926 Years, an intriguing collaborative project by Kyle Coma-Thomson and Tristan Foster:

Comprising what could be called a flash fiction cycle, 926 Years is a slim collection of twenty-two interlinked stories, each written in an identical form: a single, unbroken paragraph no more than two pages long. The stories are all titled after their central character, though not necessarily using a proper name, and the titles are all appended with an indication of the character’s age: “Yujun … age 26”, “G.W.W. … age 54”, “Greyhound Slim … age 29”. The title of the book refers to the sum of the characters’ ages, and, by encouraging readers to view these formally indistinct sketches in the aggregate, it does something fascinating with the value of the events they depict. As each story crystallises around a single moment in one character’s life, it suggests that that moment holds some particular value. Why this moment and not another? Why not one of the countless alternatives implicit in the character’s history, or in the years they have yet to live?

The View From Thirty Thousand Feet

Take a breath, then exhale. Relax. Recline. Head back, eyes closed. Feel the world fall away as you rise. It’s lift-off.

That’s how these last few days have felt to me. Earlier this week, I handed over to my editor the next-to-final draft of At the Edge of the Solid World. The book has a beautiful, haunting cover, and an online presence. It’s due to be published in July. It’s out for proofreading now and should come back to me in a few weeks, hopefully with all errors caught, and with comments on infelicities that have so far escaped the eyes of its early readers. This part of the process leaves me feeling as if I’m entering a little limbo, breaking through the fog of close proximity to the manuscript. Lift-off. As I glance back at the trajectory that has brought me to this point, I think I can begin to see what the novel looks like from a remove.

Continue reading →