Book Review: The Woman in the Water

 

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This period mystery is set in the mid-eighteenth century; Bath is a fashionable watering place, but hasn’t always been quite as civilized. Beau Nash, master of ceremonies and ‘King of Bath’, the man who made it so, has just died and been buried in a pauper’s grave.

Rich invalids come to sample the curative powers of the hot spring waters, while most of the residents make their living from attending to their needs. Others come to drink, dance, gamble and find themselves a suitable spouse. But beyond the refined balls of the Assembly rooms, there are the poor of Bath, mostly ignored and often exploited, either as servants, labourers quarrying the famous Bath stone, or prostitutes working on grimy Avon Street.

The story follows Lizzie Yeo, a young woman just coming up from being down on her luck, and Jonathan Harding, a clergyman with something of a social conscience. A body is found in the River Avon and both of our leads have their own personal and moral reasons for trying to identify the woman in the water, despite the indifference of the rest of society.

The Amazon description gives a great deal away, including all of Lizzie’s backstory and some events from the last half of the novel. This one is the sort where it helps to be in suspense. Unfortunately, the authors do not always reveal things as dramatically as they might, given you already know them from the Amazon spiel.

The setting is an interesting one, but might have added interest if you have lived in or visited Bath, or perhaps know it from descriptions of it in its Regency pomp. There is no shortage of period detail. The two characters give a dual perspective on the lives of the wealthy and privileged on the one hand and the less fortunate, as well as the double standards that exist for men and woman, rich and poor.  The battle to remain ‘respectable’ is also a feature – even when Harding performs a charitable act for a young woman, rumours begin to circulate about his character. Lizzie has it much worse, as her past misfortunes and the things she has had to do in her poverty are condemned by society. It passes the Bechdel test with ease, as it is a novel where a female protagonist investigates the death of a woman.

However, It is not without weaknesses. The red herrings are disposed of in a summary manner, leaving the last section of the book as a confirmation of the inevitable. Having said that, this is done in an exciting way up until the last page, although the mystery is over. Occasionally the book feels the need to spell things out more than is necessary.

I don’t want to sound too negative about what is an entertaining mystery novel, set in a period that does not get the attention that later periods do. The authors, Will and Sheila Barton, have an obvious knack for writing in this genre, and future novels starring Lizzie and Harding seem probable – if so the series may well hit its stride later.

 

The Woman in the Water is now available on Amazon: 

About the reviewer

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Tom Andrews is a Genetics graduate and book lover based in Somerset. He has previously attempted music and game reviews. He tweets at @jerevendrai 

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The Waves Burn Bright – Book Review

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There should be a critical term for a book that you can’t stop reading; but also makes you stop and think. One that is both page-turner and intellectually stimulating, politically active and engaging. Reading The Waves Burn Bright – the latest novel by Scottish author Iain Maloney – takes you on one of those rare, utterly enjoyable literary experiences where you find yourself disappointed to have to close its pages (to change trains on the commute to work; or because it’s three in the morning and you’ve been reading avidly on your sofa having come in late from a day in the office/football practice/drinks/boozy dinner – delete as appropriate – and you realise there is a real chance you might not sleep at all if you don’t force the pages of this book closed).

Even with its pages closed, it is a book that stays with you. You will find yourself musing on its action, pondering the motives of the characters, and re-imagining the events described in the hours between reading. Indeed, there are certain passages that are so vividly described, so moving and intense, that they will remain with you long after you have come to the end of the book. For instance, as we follow the principle protagonist of the novel, Carrie Fraser, experience the traumatic evening of July 6th 1988 – the night of the Piper Alpha oil disaster, in the terror-gripped hospital waiting room, the emotional impact is frighteningly real.

It is, of course, nigh impossible to truly imagine the feelings of the families that were forced to wait in those sterile hospital walls waiting for news from the oil rig that night; nor of the men aboard the Piper Alpha itself. A disaster of such scales is rarely possible to contemplate; but less to write about effectively. As Kurt Vonnegut notes in Slaughterhouse 5, there can sometimes be an expectation that it is easy to write about these types of events (in Vonnegut’s case, the destruction of Dresden), because “you only have to write about what you saw”. Of course, the reality is quite the opposite, and so it is a sign of Maloney’s considerable writing skill that he is able to not only recreate and describe the night on the oil rig (brought to life through the eyes of Carrie’s father, Marcus), but also able to capture the raw emotional impact that the Piper Alpha disaster had – not just for the men and their families immediately involved, but also of the wider Aberdeen community.

This manifests itself – at times – as righteous anger in the writing. The bitterness, for instance, carried in Marcus’s remarks as he recalls: “nobody cared about safety standards” – or the revelations Carrie discovers for herself: “decisions about safety, budgets, cuts, were made onshore by people who would never be put in danger.” This, of course, is the natural reaction to events that expose – ultimately – the failures of the modern neoliberal capitalist model, where profits are placed above people, and regulations stripped away. Here, The Waves Burn Bright places the blame for the disaster squarely and quite fairly at the door of the oil industry – but without the need to create moustache-twiddling villains of the oil company executives themselves.

Of course, this is not just a book about the Piper Alpha disaster – thematically and narratively, The Waves Burn Bright touches upon numerous different elements and dimensions. Carrie’s world-traveller life post university, Marcus’s alcoholism, gender roles and sexuality, questions of reality, of how we derive meaning from life. Are adventures good for us or do they just wreck our lives? Does travelling the world make you a cultured adventurer, or just a way of avoiding coming home, of addressing feelings we rather would avoid or ignore?

These are questions that are not necessarily met with answers in the book. This is a relief, for there is often a tendency in modern writing to lay it all out there for the reader – as though we wouldn’t be able to bring our ideas to the table otherwise (which ultimately is surely against the very nature of literature, reading and writing). Indeed, Maloney’s real strengths as a writer is that he doesn’t fill in just for the sake of it. There is a Hemingway-esque brevity to many of his sentences; particularly in the passages describing the night of the Piper Alpha disaster itself, as well as in other pivotal narrative moments, such as during Carrie’s visit to the Sakurajima volcano in Japan. This style ensures it is the reader who fills in the gaps – and our mind runs along the same thought patterns of Maloney’s protagonists. This creates a liberating sense of openness and inclusivity – which is surely a key reason why reading The Waves Burn Bright is such a pleasure.

 

Book review – F(r)iction, issue 4

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F(r)iction (4)  is the latest anthology from literary publisher Tethered by Letters. This is an important point to make because neither F(r)iction, nor Tethered by Letters, are quite like any anthology or literary publisher you’re likely to come across. The publisher doesn’t just print books – it is also an excellent resource for writers of all stripes, offering invaluable insight into the trade of authorship, as well as into the fascinating world of literature and the publishing scene in general. It’s no surprise that an organisation clearly unafraid to push the boundaries of literature and explore new possibilities of the written word have produced such an interesting book.

Simply put, F(r)iction is a stunning, visually and intellectually inspiring book to pick up. The illustrations that run throughout its pages are truly brilliant works of art – and all of these complement the pieces of writing they sit among, while also telling their own tales, in a wide variety of artistic styles.

As with all anthologies, there will be pieces of writing that one is drawn to more than others. It is therefore fortunate that the standard of writing throughout the anthology is so high; and that any preference between pieces comes down to a matter of taste, rather than negative criticism of one story or other.

Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum’s On the 100th Anniversary of Mary’s death is certainly one story that deserves special mention. While the fact that the story is cut out into shards and pieces runs the risk that some may see it as a simple formatting gimmick, the writing itself is so tight and crisp that evidence of a very real writerly talent is clearly on show. Intriguing and captivating throughout, with subtle shifts in emphasis and tone keep the reader entrapped in an quasi-mystical relationship with the words on the page. Certain extracts, also, leap out at you:

“Instead, we ate cheese on crackers and drank Australian Shiraz from clear plastic cups in the foyer. Instead, we made visors of our hands to shield the glare of fluorescents reflected in Mary’s blown-up stills: snapshots of stairs cut into the stone of a mountain, Nepalese children beaming and bedraggled before a straw hut, a shaman naked in dreads on a wheel of stone. No, She did not strain her eyes at us from her portraits. No, the hallway fluorescents did not shiver and blink. Her sisters stood awkwardly by the exit door. Strangers shuffled past with their refreshments. No one paused to question the light.”

And the cumulative effect of the scattered narrative is of having spent the day watching a combination of Adam Curtis documentaries and Alfred Hitchcock movies (which can only ever be seen as a good thing).

Follow the leader, a comic-book styled narrative from Jonas McCluggage, is another arresting piece from this overwhelmingly enjoyable collection. Aside from the graphic illustration, which is superb, the story the words and images combine to tell is both disturbing and compelling, as we are drawn into a hunt not only trying to discover the reality behind the mysterious opening section, and the so-called ‘cult’ that has taken over the otherwise peaceful American town of Larranceville, but also into an exploration of mortality – and of the human condition. Quite a feat for a short comic.

But it is not for us to review and comment on every piece in this anthology. The marriage between narrative forms – including fiction, comic book and poetry – as well as between new writers and voices, throws (as all marriages tend to do) curve balls at the reader as we move from one piece to the next. But it never feels jarring, and it never feels forced. Indeed, as is perhaps the ideal for all marriages; F(r)iction has a remarkable habit for only ever throwing up pleasant surprises. And, underneath it all, it burns with a true passion for literature, for the written word, and, most importantly of all: for new ideas – which are so often lacking in contemporary publishing. A must read.

To purchase a copy of F(r)iction, please click here.

 

Book review: What A Way To Go, by Julia Forster

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In many ways, the 1980s can be seen as one of the most pivotal decades in British history since the second world war. Accompanying the rise of the city and the collapse of the Fordist, Keynesian consensus, were cultural changes that embedded themselves in Britain through the booming entertainment industry. This is the decade of Madonna; Back to the Future; Boy George; Prince; The Return of the Jedi; Michael Jackson; and Top Gun, just as much it is the decade of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Pinochet, credit crunches and miner’s strikes.

Yet just because a decade is important does not mean it is easy to bring to life. And this is part of what makes Julia Forster’s debut novel, What A Way To Go, so impressive: because Forster doesn’t simply recreate the 1980s: she makes it dance.

What A Way To Go is the story of twelve-year-old Harper Richardson – and it is through Harper’s eyes that we are transported back to the era of Bananarama, neon trousers and the gradual decline of the unions.

As you might expect from a novel following the life of a twelve-year old, this is, essentially, a coming of age story. Living two distinct, separate lives, Harper divides herself into “two cut-out versions” of herself: “one for each parent”. It’s an intriguing and – to anyone who has been a child of divorce – instantly recognisable concept. It is a sure sign of a novelist in possession of clear literary talent that Forster is able to create such an emotional connection between the reader, her characters, and the text itself.

When writing in the first person from the perspective of a young girl on the cusp of puberty, it is crucial that the world we as readers experience, and the characters we meet, ring true. And the real skill Forster shows is her ability to render this work of fiction as incredibly authentic. This is not simply through Harper’s consistent voice; but also in the way she and other characters in the novel interact and adapt to the world around them.

Indeed, the dialogue between characters, also, runs extremely true – and is often delightfully surprising and funny. And this fills in the world – and the characters – which is complemented by scenes that feel thoroughly drawn from real, lived experiences: Harper watches Top of the Pops every Thursday; and has her hair cut while Cilla Black’s Blind Date plays on the television in the background.

Because the novel feels so real, as readers we quickly slip into uncovering some of the underlying themes of this marvellously witty and insightful book. Family, of course, looms large, as Harper feels compelled to attempt to bring her parents back together. And through the prism of divorce we can see mirrored the splintering divide that – from the 1980s onwards – has come to separate British society, as inequalities widen and social attitudes diverge.

It’s also a novel about women. Harper’s mother, perfumed and chain-smoking, signs up to credit cards in order to keep a healthy stock of high heeled shoes. Harper, thinking that “buying high heeled shoes is an illness” is demonstrably unlike her mother. She visits graveyards with her father and is interested in the Socialist Worker magazine. Perhaps sensing this difference, her mother repeatedly encourages Harper to be “more feminine”. It is this question of womanhood – of what it means to be a woman – that ultimately sits at the heart of the novel. And it is therefore that much more intriguing to have the spectral figure of Margaret Thatcher looming large in the backdrop. Britain’s first – and, at this time of writing, only – female Prime Minister notoriously hated feminists and feminism; a curious figurehead indeed for any young girl to encounter on her journey to adulthood.

Forster addresses these themes and ideas incredibly well, with controlled, tight language and astute observations, alongside slight asides and allusions the reader is able to pick up on themselves.

This makes What A Way To Go far more than an enjoyable coming-of-age story. It’s also a showcase of writerly talent that is a joy to experience; and, what’s more, it is an extremely valuable and important book through which we can better understand Britain of the 1980s – and the Britain of today.

 

To purchase What a Way to Govisit https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/1782397523/ref=s9_simh_gw_g14_i2_r?ie=UTF8&fpl=fresh&pf_rd_m=A3P5ROKL5A1OLE&pf_rd_s=desktop-1&pf_rd_r=0J8NWC2D9RANBKKCY5QB&pf_rd_t=36701&pf_rd_p=26de8ef0-2ad7-412c-8634-6cd03b7b73e2&pf_rd_i=desktop

Book Review: Kingdom by Russ Litten

 

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Kingdom is written by Russ Litten and published by Wrecking Ball Press. You can read our extensive interview with Litten here

Few books will capture your attention from the first page as Russ Litten’s Kingdom. Indeed, the quasi-surrealist opening scene in an unknown prison library is perhaps the most interesting and unique introduction to a novel that we here at Nothing in the Rulebook have read all year.

Of course, many novels start extremely well – explosively well, even – only to lose some of their initial spark and magic as the plot progresses. And while in this case the plot does settle down, it retains that opening magic for the entirety of the book.

While the action of the plot may be light on significant moments of incident (this is about gradual exploration of both the world and the self – more so than driving the narrative on through event after event), Litten’s style is infectious. And when you read writing as crisp and as fast as this, it is difficult not to turn page after page with a broad smile on your face.

Described on paper as a ghost story, this is unlike any ghost story you’ll have read before – and that’s a declarative statement we’re happy to be challenged on. More than anything, the book is a reflection on – and an exploration of – what it means to be alive (or not) in 21st Century Britain.

Indeed, what Litten explores, with gripping clarity, is a reality left unseen and marginalised in the national consciousness. As with works such as Alisdair Gray’s Lanark or Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, Litten vividly paints a picture of working class inner city life with concision, but also sensitivity and charm.

In the context of modern Britain, Litten thus explores the legacy of neoliberalism – which leaves us with a country of burgeoning inequality, stripping assets from the poorest and most vulnerable to redistribute them to the wealthiest in society. But we can all read statistics about income gaps, zero hour contracts and housing and rental crises; what is more difficult is imagining the realities these statistics infer for those people most affected by them. And this is where Litten’s remarkable writing skills truly enter the fray, because this book is not cold in the way facts, figures and statistics – or even political theory and rhetoric – so often is. It is rich, and warm – with a underlying, constant beating thread of humour which is both grim and good. And there are moments that will also hit you in the lungs and take your breath away.

Indeed, it is a hard task to think of a more sympathetic character than the novel’s protagonist, Alistair Kingdom. Considering Kingdom is self-described as having been “born a ghost”, creating such a compelling and fleshed out (pun intended) character from a ghost is quite some feat. And when Kingdom falls in love with another of the book’s great characters – Gemma – it pulls at the soul in a way few other love stories manage.

A clear reason Litten’s characters – especially Kingdom – seem to grow out of the page, is Litten’s use of language. For this is the language of real people.

For want of a better term, one might describe the changes in syntax, the interior monologue technique which leaves sentences unfinished and thoughts left unsaid – as well as the use of expletives – as “non-standard English”. But there is hesitation in using such a term since there is surely no “right” or “wrong” way to speak.

Indeed, using language in the way Litten does strikes the reader very much a political decision. Since Adam Smith’s Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres in 1748, there has been a conscious effort to standardize the English language; cultivating what Smith viewed as “the most imperfect” dialects found across the United Kingdom.

But what this standardization of language has meant is the obliteration of entire cultures and communities. Thousands of voices silenced, or pushed to the margins, seen as inherently other – as being beneath those who hold the power of “perfect” speech.

And when you take away an individual’s language, you also remove their heritage, their culture. Consider the words of Booker-Prize winning author James Kelman:

“Everybody from a working class background, everybody in fact from any regional part of Britain  none of them knew how to talk! What larks! Every time they opened their mouth out came a stream of gobbledygook. Beautiful! their language a cross between semaphore and Morse code; apostrophes here and apostrophes there; a strange hotchpoth of bad phonetics and horrendous spelling  unlike the nice stalwart upperclass English Hero, whose words on the page were always absolutely splendidly proper and pure and pristinely accurate, whether in dialogue or without. And what grammar! Colons and semi-colons! Straight out of their mouths! An incredible mastery of language. Most interesting of all, for myself as a writer, the narrative belonged to them and them alone. They owned it.”

By using language and accurate representations of working class, urban dialects, Litten thus presents us with a challenge to the status quo. Kingdom therefore provides us with a glimpse of the real United Kingdom that is so often otherwise ignored. An extremely timely and necessary book.

 

Book Review: The Inevitable Gift Shop by Will Eaves

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An artistic movement is forming. One that is open to spontaneity, artistic risk, emotional urgency and one which flies against traditional models. Will Eaves’s latest book, The Inevitable Gift Shop, is an example of this movement displayed in written form. We may call it a book at first mention, rather than a novel or a collection of poetry, because really this is simultaneously both of these things, and at the same time, something else and something new entirely. A combination of prose, poetry, literary critique and philosophy, it is collage, it is memoir, it is anything and everything that you want it to be. If there were rules to writing – which there aren’t (probably) – this book is rewriting them.

While mainstream publishing continues down a well-trodden but not exactly adventurous path – Julian Barnes suggests in an interview with the Paris Review there is little objective beyond “publishing copies of novels that are copies of commercially successful novels” – Eaves is cutting an entirely new path, machete in hand, through bush, briar and jungle into uncharted artistic territory.

So what does this new territory look like? In one word – episodic. In sections ranging in length from a single line to two or three pages, are contained mini-narratives and episodes, which sit alongside poems, and abstract thoughts and expressions of ideas. For instance, here runs a complete section early on in The Inevitable Gift Shop:

“The novel is the autobiography of the imagination”

Such lines make us question whether we feel we are reading a novel; an autobiography or, perhaps most intriguingly of all – an accurate representation of creative imagination.

Imagination, after all – and, indeed, so many of our thoughts and ideas – does not run in linear patterns. Rather, it comes in flashes; moments of clarity and inspiration. As Daniel Dennet notes in Consciousness Explained:

“While we tend to conceive of the operations of the mind as unified and transparent, they’re actually chaotic. There’s no invisible boss in the brain, no central meaner, no unitary self in command of our activities and utterances.”

Traditional forms of fiction, therefore, do not to justice to the reality of the human mind. Conventional fiction teaches us that life and our thoughts are coherent – they are linear and whole, neat and wrapped up. When the truth of the matter is quite the opposite; our lives, and our ideas, are fragments, and we stumble upon them as though they were bright splinters.

Eaves’s previous book – The Absent Therapist­ – worked within a similar form and structure. It brought together a succession of mini narratives, and a multitude of different characters and protagonists. In The Inevitable Gift Shop, we are again introduced to different characters, but more than anything, the protagonists in this book are ideas. We might call The Inevitable Gift Shop collage – a collage of the ideas that are created within the human imagination.

What’s fascinating about works of collage in literature, where short paragraphs and vignettes are brought together as a collection of fragments to create a whole – alongside Eaves’s latest two books, think Reality Hunger by David Shields or What I heard about Iraq by Eliot Weinberger – is the exciting sense of newness contained within them. In Reality Hunger, Shields contests that neither fiction nor non-fiction, in their current forms and structures, adequately meet the needs of the 21st Century reader. And in this new structure we see again here in The Inevitable Gift Shop, we perhaps see a possible alternative model for writing and literature. This is something Eaves touches upon early on in The Inevitable Gift Shop:

“A literary convention is a retrospective abstraction. It exists only in relation to the experiment or the revolution that overturns it. It doesn’t exist until someone does something new and you see how far you’ve come. Form and content, in other words. There is a widespread misconception about form, as the poet Elizabeth Jennings once pointed out: it is not a jelly mould into which one pours content. Rather, the two things are co-eval. Form will arise to express content, and the established forms (sonnets, novels, collage) are those that, like an evolutionary convergent body shape, have by long trial shown themselves to be optimally expressive.”

The novel and the sonnet have been with us now for centuries, with precious few innovations in form and structure between their invention and now. Collage has been with us since the 20th Century and has largely existed within visual media – art, montage in cinema. The marriage between collage and the novel (and indeed poetic forms) as displayed here is perhaps the beginning of a new revolution that overturns previous literary conventions. The question one might rightly ask when you see how well books like The Inevitable Gift Shop work is, “well, what’s taken so long?” It feels as though the book almost proves that the narratives we are accustomed to are long overdue a makeover.

In Self Help, Lorrie Moore wrote that “plots are for dead people” – the traditional narrative format and structure cannot serve the living. Eaves breaks apart the traditional model for something far more engaging; and far more alive. The poetry is, at times, penetratingly devastating simply for the real, life-lived truth it exposes – consider the line from The Crossings, for instance: “you choose a friend for life as you might choose a seat”. While the prose moves you, as you read it, through ideas and emotions, asking you to seek out new ways of looking at the world.

You can recognise good art and good writing if it surprises you. And, boy, can this book surprise you. Just as you are critiquing Shakespeare’s 37th Sonnet, a line of pure magic – “I eat fish with a clear conscious because they neglect their young” – will fly out and catch you off guard, shifting the tone in an exhilarating rush.

The structure of Eaves’s novel allows readers to pull away from notions of narrative as an important – or indeed central – part of any story or essay. This is important, because it allows us to move toward contemplation, and is more conducive to helping us expand our own understanding of both the ideas contained within the book, and the thoughts and ideas they inspire within us as we read.

Consider, for instance, Eaves’s skilful and fascinating literary critiques and analysis – present throughout the book in analysis of Shakespeare’s sonnets, but also Madame Bovary, and indeed the works of other literary critics. One of the longest sections in the book focuses on William Golding’s The Inheritors – a brilliant novel in its own right – and Eaves guides us through Golding’s book, its plot and themes, and leaves us considering not only the novel; but “the whole of human history” – a concept so brilliantly large and fascinating in itself that we immediately find our imaginations stirred, our horizons widened.

The writing is sharp and fresh, and the work as a whole is inquisitive, analytical, contemplative; significant. Subtitled “A memoir by other means”, there is something incredibly personal about the book, which is surely appropriate for a memoir, and in the end it leaves you feeling as though you’ve spent a long while in the intimate company of a stranger, who nonetheless somehow feels achingly familiar.

Frequently hilarious– “really what tortoises teach you about is abusive relationships” – there is almost a cinematic element. Both through the vivid descriptions of the natural and man-made world, and also in the way the collage effect feels not unlike a visual montage; whereby overall meaning is not to be found in any one section or episode but instead created by the juxtaposition of each of the different fragments and bits and pieces intercut together. Of course, while a viewer’s relationship with a montage is relatively binary – you watch the images on a screen in front of you – the reader’s relationship with The Inevitable Gift Shop is far more interesting. It’s interactive. By picking through the options, it’s possible to arrange the overarching narrative in different ways; and to find new meanings contained within it.

It’s a book that demands to be read and re-read – and then re-read again; both front to back, back to front, and in all other manner of combinations. The perfect book to revisit.

Book Review: River of Ink by Paul M.M Cooper

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At a time when the world seems at times to be descending into chaos, and with writers, artists and activists imprisoned, and persecuted, a story about a poet whose written words change the world and fight injustice is exactly what the doctor ordered. It was a real treat, therefore, to review River of Ink, the new novel by British author Paul Cooper.

Within this novel, mediaeval Sri Lanka is vivified – it lifts itself from the pages and chapters and engulfs you, utterly and completely, in the real, lived intricacies and complexities of the mysterious and intriguing world Cooper weaves for us. It is a world of steaming jungles and dust-covered streets, of stamped okra fingers and pink rambutan skins and, of course, of spat betel juice – a continuous feature of this world we encounter again and again, until we start looking for it in our own homes and streets.

Asanka’s world becomes familiar for us, in this way, yet this does not hinder our ability to be surprised by the things we see and the characters we encounter: Sarisi, Asanka’s mistress, whose own story and thoughts intrigue us right to the end of the book and beyond; King Magha, the tyrant king who is not entirely unlikeable, even if he does have a touch of Hitler or Pinochet about him; the Queen of Polnnaruwa who we, like Asanka, underestimate.

As the story twists and turns, the shifting literary world we encounter seems to move as we move, and the language lifts it up – bringing us both beautiful and terrible things, fear and hope, anger and hate; but most of all love. In some novels, the use of similes can be distracting; but here each one seems to fit and compliment – rather than detract from – the story itself and the language used. Cooper’s description of an ancient tome of the Shishupala Vadha as sitting on a table “like a blood fat tick”, for instance, reminds us how similes, when used properly, can present us with new ways of looking at things in the world – and the world itself, which we never otherwise would see.

There is also something about the way Cooper presents us with the thought processes of Asanka that suggests a writer of clear skill and ability. For the court poet is so clearly humanised by his clear faults, as well as his virtues. We will Asanka to show more courage – every time he is summoned to speak with the cruel King Magha he immediately fears the worst, and is reduced to internalised pleading and reasoning – yet know in our hearts that the fear he has is our own. This presents us with a psychological cohesion that is all the more important when you’re telling a story that treads the balance between madness and sanity, in which characters are exposed to gruelling mental stresses and tensions that could so easily break them.

Part of Cooper’s success here is undoubtedly down to the language used, and the rhythms within each of Asanka’s internalised thoughts – as well as the vivid descriptions of the world and landscape around him. Surprising twists in the shape and structure of the novel as a whole – for instance, the use of poetry, as well as longer interjections of separate narratives from a mysterious other source – give you the feeling that the very book you are holding is alive in a way that is both beautiful and unsettling, as though the story had its own consciousness and self-awareness.

 

I Am Because You Are – Book review

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You might assume that an anthology celebrating the centenary of Albert Einstein’s famous General Theory of Relativity might be a little too deeply rooted in its heavily theoretical source material. Yet in reading this marvellous little book, it soon becomes clear that I Am Because You Are (Freight Books)is the kind of anthology that helps even the least scientifically-minded reader understand the mind-blowing, reality-altering beauty of physics.

This feat alone should grant this book deserved accolades – for too often it seems we are content to sit within increasingly closed worlds, and it so often falls to literature to open these portals through space and time, to capture our imaginations and take us on journeys we perhaps didn’t think were possible – opening up whole new realities, worlds and ideas.

Indeed, it is thanks to I Am Because You Are that, as readers, we are able to encounter fantastical circuses and impossible acrobatic stunts; brought into intimate scenarios of family lives struck down by familial break down and depression; encouraged to question our response as we watch “rising temperatures and new weather patterns [the] oceans evaporate and the atmosphere wither”; asked to contemplate whether we are simply “talking about the end of time”; we are able to discover delightful new turns of phrase that leave us asking whether we are “wise beyond our years or too immature to appreciate terror”; and we are even forced to consider whether we might, in actuality, all be rabbits – or was that a pygmy marmoset?

Such is the display of writerly talent on display here that we are reminded that, as with space and time, the possibilities of literature will likely never cease to astound, amaze and inspire us.

Yet the success of this collection of fiction, poetry and non-fiction goes beyond this. Largely, this is down to the excellent variety of writing on show from a wide-range of authors, and thanks to the incredible depth each individual story works on.

This depth stretches from the microscopic to the macroscopic, variously seen through intimate, tightly focused stories to wider reaching, expansive pieces that look at grand ideas. Yet each are original and provide gripping insight into the universe as a wide, grand space, and also into our own worlds and universes we create for ourselves. The existentialist themes that are found throughout the anthology of course look to continue Einstein’s greatest quest – to help us better understand our place within the universe, and our place within time. Fittingly, the book often leaves us asking more questions than it gives us answers for.

There are 23 pieces of writing here, from 23 writers. Naturally, we have 23 different points of views and 23 ways of approaching narrative, of using language, 23 different voices; 23 different styles.

Each deserves its own review and description – but that is perhaps for another day, since this review is about the collection as a whole. Fortunately, this is neither a case of the collection being more than the sum of its parts; nor of one or two stories or poems overshadowing everything else. The two work in perfect equilibrium and balance together. This feat, one might be tempted to suggest, perhaps is an example of Einstein’s theory in practice, and even to use that rather hammy and corny phrase, “it’s all relative”.

This is not to say that every piece is excellent or without fault, and nor is it to guarantee that they will all be to your liking; but isn’t that the point of an anthology? For their part, the editors – Tania Hershman and Pippa Goldschmidt – have skilfully created a place to showcase original and unique thinking, all through the prism of Einstein’s greatest theory. Their precise placing of each piece is extremely deft, and it’s charming to appreciate the way the structure of the anthology allows ideas and emotions to build up inside of you, only for these to change suddenly as a new piece of writing takes you down some entirely unexpected route or direction.

To badly paraphrase the great man himself (for the purposes of this review): Imagination will take you from A-B, but this book will take you anywhere you want it to. To put it another way; you won’t be quite the same after reading it.

  • To order ‘I Am Because You Are’ for £8.99, go to http://freightbooks.co.uk/i-am-becasue-you-are-edited-by-pippa-goldschmidt-and-tania-hershman.html