Book review: The Only Story, by Julian Barnes

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Paul and Susan meet at a tennis tournament, at their village sports club, when they get randomly paired together. He is “only nineteen”, is not interested in British politics at all and “dislikes and distrusts adulthood”; she is blond, in her forties, has prominent front teeth and looks beautiful in her white tennis dress. They both seem to instantly know they will fall in love with each other. What they don’t seem to know, is that this love will destroy their lives.

When opening this book, leave aside all of your assumptions of what this story will be about. Embrace it without expectations. This is not a story where a boy who falls in love with a woman who could be his mother. Where she then teaches him the arts of love. Where he eventually grows up and looks back at the love affair with nostalgia. This is a book about the destructive power of relationships. Indeed, from the very first line, Barnes doesn’t hide that the characters of this book will be suffering because of love: “Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more; or love the less, and suffer the less? That is, I think, finally, the only real question.”

Perhaps you picked up this book because of its title: it’s short, it’s absolutistic – it indubitably means there’s only one story worth telling. This is a recurrent theme throughout the whole book: Susan’s story is the only story that will characterise Paul’s existence forever. “Everyone has their love story,” she explains to her young lover, “Everyone. It may have been a fiasco, it may have fizzled out, it may never even have got going, it may have been all in the mind, that doesn’t make it any less real. […] Sometimes, you see a couple […] and you can’t imagine them having anything in common, or why they’re still living together. But it’s not just habit or complacency or convention or anything like that. It’s because once, they had their love story. Everyone does.”

What is peculiar and fascinating about Barnes’ The Only Story, is the honesty of the narrator’s voice. Paul tells the story of his love for Susan exactly as he remembers it, because he thinks “there’s a different authenticity to memory, and not an inferior one. […] Memory prioritises whatever is most useful to keep the bearer of these memories going.” This way, Paul’s memory itself becomes one of the main characters – we follow the story not simply through him, but through his memory. And Paul is not afraid to admit that his memory can sometimes be faulty. He has no interest in focusing on details such as the food he ate, the clothes he wore, the name of the village he and Susan lived in, or the subject he studied at university. “I’m remembering the past,” he says, “not reconstructing it.”

At the same time, we witness some extraordinary moments of intimacy between Paul and Susan, which are described with precise and vivid details. For example, when the two move together to a small flat in London, which Susan has managed to buy, Paul’s account of their nights together is sweet, funny and exquisitely real: “The notion of lovers falling blissfully asleep in one another’s arms resolved itself into the actuality of one lover falling asleep on top of the other and the latter, after a certain amount of cramp and interrupted circulation, gently shifting out […] I also discovered that it wasn’t only men who snored.” Julian Barnes is, indeed, the master of delicate descriptions.

Unfortunately, this idyllic life that Susan has always dreamt – this life that Paul has chosen to be his forever when he’s only nineteen – will not last long, and Paul will have to choose if he’d rather love the more and suffer the more, or love the less and suffer the less.

This heart-breaking, tender novel reminds us that we all have one story worth telling, and that is the only one that matters.

About the reviewer

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Anna Maria Colivicchi was born and raised in Rome. After a BA in Italian Literature, she is now pursuing a Master’s in Writing at the University of Warwick. In her writing, she seeks the extraordinary in the ordinary, focusing on the details of everyday life.

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Book review: Slack-Tide by Elanor Dymott

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If you’ve ever wondered why you write, why you feel the need to create, why you feel everything constantly depends on what you are capable of creating, then you should read Elanor Dymott’s Slack-Tide.

Elizabeth is a novelist in her forties, who had a miscarriage that led her marriage to an end. When she’s set up on a blind date with Robert – who vaguely looks like Keanu Reeves and whose job is “designing cities” –  she feels it is the right time to start again, to be happy again.

From the very beginning of the book, we know this is a novel about an intense, even though only temporary, love story: at the end of the prologue, it is Elizabeth herself who says “by midsummer the thing between us was finished, and it was as if a storm had torn the roof from over me”.

Indeed, Sarah Moss’ quote on the back of the book anticipates this is “a compelling and beautiful account on the stories that hold us together and keep us apart”. Dymott’s hypnotic, sharp prose takes us on a journey where love and loss are indissolubly intertwined – and, despite already knowing it would finish, I couldn’t help it but keep on wishing that Elizabeth and Robert’s love story never ended.

It is Elizabeth’s clear voice that guides us: she is fierce, beautiful and tells her story as if she’s whispering it to a friend. The loss of her child haunts her. Flashbacks of a life that could have been and painful memories – her tears when the anaesthetist asks her to confirm she’s at the hospital for an abortion and the way Elizabeth screams “I’m not choosing this. I wanted my child. I wanted my baby. Do you understand?” – come back at her, neat and clear. These are constant reminders of how vulnerable she feels.

Robert is vulnerable, too. In his fifties, he has lived a life between the comforts of a wealthy family and a successful career as an architect, that brought him to travel around the globe. We get to know him when his marriage with Lea is already over, and he is torn between the social pressure of being a good father to Philippe and the need to share his daily life with a lover. “I want to be with someone,” he says, “When I come back from a trip, I want to have someone to talk about it […] About the stuff I see. I see so many things. I have so many things to say. […] Right before I met you, I was beginning to think I might burst with the things I’d seen.” As we read on, we begin to discover his acute selfishness. As a reader, you’ll find it impossible to feel indifferent to him: you’ll either love him or you’ll hate him.

Slack-tide is a book about love, about loss, about the details that make our lives unique. But what strikes most about this novel is Elizabeth’s attachment to the characters of her own books. She is loyal to them, and she’s firm in her decision of putting her writing first, come what may. When Robert tries to make her change her plans, claiming that there are other people involved, she explains “I have characters, waiting for me to tell them what to do. […] the only difference between my ‘other people’ and your ‘other people’ is that I have to make mine up. Every thought they think, every word they speak, and every single thing they do. You are lucky, Robert. You pack your case, get on a plane, and when you get off at the other end, your ‘people’ are waiting in arrivals, holding up a little sign with your name on.”

Elizabeth was not capable of giving birth. She was not able to create a new life. However, she is capable of bringing those characters to life, and she defends her work at every cost.

In this way, Slack-tide is, most of all, a book about the power of creating.

About the reviewer

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Anna Maria Colivicchi was born and raised in Rome. After a BA in Italian Literature, she is now pursuing a Master’s in Writing at the University of Warwick. In her writing, she seeks the extraordinary in the ordinary, focusing on the details of everyday life.

 

 

 

 

Book review: Cane, by Sam Bully-Thomas

Nothing in the Rulebook’s resident book reviewer Tom Andrews digs into ‘Cane’, by Sam Bully-Thomas, published by Wundor Editions.

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The first thing that struck me about this slim but attractive volume from Wundor (see this interview with their founder to hear how they are making unique and interesting in-roads into the publishing sector) is that it has word poetry front and centre on the cover. As if the publisher wanted to avoid anyone picking it up and complaining that they never expected poetry.

Sam Bully-Thomas (http://issamthomas.com/) grew up all around the world and the poems in this collection are similarly globe spanning – we go to Iran, Cuba, Mexico and Alaska among others. She mixes themes from what I imagine are her own experiences with the historical experiences of the poor and enslaved, usually connected by the sugar trade. Havana 1857 is written from the point of view of a kidnapped Chinese forced labourer, while ‘Husbandman’ describes Cimarron fighters (escaped slaves) planning the ambush of a plantation owner. Set between the poems are quotes from a Hindu veda, a history of sugar (written by a Mr Mintz), a biography of abolitionist Harriet Tubman and the author’s own brief explanatory notes.

The collection shares its title with a Modernist, Harlem Renaissance novel by Jean Toomer. The poet favours blank verse and sentences that run over many short lines. Sadly, few lines or poems are truly memorable – the overall effect, like the volume itself, is slight. Generally, the historical poems are stronger than the contemporary ones. Havana 1857 is the best poem in it, an evocative and tragic account of people trafficking from China to work in the sugar plantations as the luckless captive remembers the night he was kidnapped. This is one that stays with you:

‘Your sores from beatings never healed./And I was traded many times over, my brother,/in the ten years between us.’

Overall, Sam Bully-Thomas shows a knack for evoking far flung places and times. She is clearly a writer comfortable in several mediums, also writing screen plays and micro fiction. Hopefully future works will offer more substantial rewards.

To purchase a copy of ‘Cane’ visit Wundor Editions https://wundor-store.myshopify.com/products/cane-by-sam-bully-thomas

About the reviewer

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

Book review: Bopper’s Progress by John Manderino

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It is a remarkable feat to read a book that follows a day in the life of a would-be Zen Buddhist, in essentially real-time, and come away feeling refreshed, lighter, hopeful and – perhaps – more zen. Yet this is precisely what John Manderino’s latest book, Bopper’s Progess, does.

Written in a fragmentary form, with our first person narrator setting an informal tone, we follow the trials and tribulations of the titular protagonist, Bopper, in his quest for enlightenment (though it turns out enlightenment may just be a stand in for getting over an ex).

The humour is excellent, the writing succinct, full of flavour and character – and the overall effect is rather like spending an evening with a very close friend talking casually as the sun sets about life, love, people you hate, people you miss, the furtive feelings that keep you up at night and the existential crises we try to ignore.

The simple tactic Manderino employs of writing in the present tense of course reflects one of Zen’s main teachings: that the present moment is what matters more than anything else. In our western relationship with time, in which we compulsively pick over the past in order to learn lessons from it, and then project into a hypothetical future in which those lessons can be applied, the present moment has been compressed to a tiny sliver on the clock face between a vast past and an infinite future.

Bopper, we see, is entirely consumed by this western approach to time: of pouring over the past so that it consumes his present. Yet in reading the book in our own present, a strange thing happens – our consciousness drifts (as should be the case when reading good fiction), and suddenly we are unaware of ourselves in the relationship between book and reader. Our empathy with Bopper transcends time and space – as well as our own egos.

It’s a brilliant thing – until, of course, you realise you are thinking about how you have just transcended the self (perhaps moving to the edge of enlightenment) and now you are thinking about thinking about that, and the whole thing collapses into an overdose of self-awareness.

At its heart, this is a book about trying to make sense of the world and in that way it truly is a book for our times, since we find ourselves living as we do in an era of political polarisation; with tyrants and despots in the highest echelons of world power, where previously firmly-held ‘truths’ or assumptions have been challenged or proven to be false. In a world of fake news and both traditional and social or disruptive media bias, it is increasingly difficult to tell fact from fiction.

Of course, the search for meaning in life is not new. Human beings have likely been searching for it since the dawn of consciousness. Though it likely remains true that the only thing that anyone really can know for sure is that nobody can ever know everything. What’s more, the more you study life and the world around you, the more you realise that everything is contradiction and paradox, and no one really knows much for sure, however loudly they profess to the contrary.

In both these ways, Boppers Progress speaks to something inseparable from ourselves and connects directly to our human spirit. We are all of us striving, in one way or another, for answers, perhaps to questions we don’t yet know we are asking.

Buy Bopper’s Progress from publisher Wundor Editions here https://wundor-store.myshopify.com/products/boppers-progress-by-john-manderino 

 

 

 

 

 

Creatives in profile: interview with Michael Caines, co-editor of the Brixton Review of Books

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It increasingly appears as though we live in an era where the biggest publishing companies and media organisations are only concerned with stabilising profits for shareholders – and are prioritising making money over supporting originality and new creative ideas.

With the largest corporations influencing so much of the culture we consume, this has the potential to limit us to a devastating cycle of reboots, sequels, prequels and franchises; where the only novels we read are copies of novels that are themselves copies of commercially successful novels. This risk-averse and profit-focussed approach in turn risks homogenising our culture; and limiting our exposure to new ways of thinking.

Yet there are reasons to hope. Across the world, new creative ideas are being put to seed – supported by groups of energetic and enthusiastic individuals.

We caught up with the team behind one such creative endeavour: the Brixton Review of Books, a new literary quarterly magazine – published by a team of creative volunteers who help ensure the magazine remains completely free to readers (though you can also have four copies delivered straight to your door for a tenner).

It’s an honour to bring you this detailed interview with Michael Caines, co-editor of the Brixton Review of Books. Caines also works at the Times Literary Supplement, and is the author of Shakespeare and the Eighteenth Century and a founder member of the Liars League.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourself, your background and ethos.

CAINES

I’m an editor on the Times Literary Supplement by day and a layabout by night. I write the odd review, and the odder poem as a private distraction, and have made limited forays into academia, such as writing a book about Shakespeare and the eighteenth century, and editing some plays by female dramatists of the same period. Brigid Brophy and T. F. Powys are among my more recherché hobbyhorses, although I’d argue, of course, with the tedious fervor of the true acolyte, that both should be more widely known that they are at present.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

CAINES

Brigid Brophy and T. F. Powys. Jane Austen. William Makepeace Thackeray. Anne Thackeray Ritchie. Vernon Lee. Sylvia Townsend Warner. Ronald Firbank. Italo Calvino. Alberto Moravia. Christine Brooke-Rose. The Oulipians. Marguerite Youcenar. Penelope Fitzgerald. Michael Haslam. Lorrie Moore. Peter Reading. Weldon Kees. Elizabeth Bowen. Elizabeth Bishop. Henry Green. Nicholas Mosley. Stewart Home. It’s an incoherent set of influences, I grant you. Yes, they are, some of them, names off the top of my head. There are others who will come to me later. More seriously, there are others who are mainly TLS editors, of infernally greater mental powers than me – damn their eyes.

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell us a bit about Brixton Review of Books – how was it borne into existence?

CAINES

It’s an experiment, you might say:  people take all kinds of free newspapers and magazines at tube stations around London, but might some of them take a free literary paper made up of long reads rather than short ones? There are some obvious and quite brilliant models – such as the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books and the TLS itself – to which I suppose the BRB pays the impudent homage of imitation, while paradoxically trying to do its own thing at the same time. I hope for some readers the BRB will serve merely as a suggestion of what’s to come if they aren’t already readers of one of those other, infinitely more prestigious publications. This particular literary newspaper is free, though, and available to all who pass a tube station at the right time, or spots it in a café, bar, bookshop, library, gallery, waiting room etc (the kind of places to which we’re also distributing it).

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The Brixton Review of Books – look out for a copy at tube stations around London.

INTERVIEWER

It’s no easy feat to bring a new independent literary magazine into existence. What are some of the main challenges you faced in establishing Brixton Review of Books?

CAINES

Well, for the most part, I put together the first issue by myself, and I enjoyed that a great deal. But it’s a relief to have a small team working on the paper from here on.

Then there’s the money. This “experiment” wouldn’t be happening at all if it weren’t for the generosity of the Literature Matters awards established by the Royal Society of Literature. They gave the BRB the funds and the endorsement to get things going.

Thirdly, there’s usually some agony with the administrative side of these things, such as subscriber copies going astray in the post.

And I also worried for a time that the first issue would be universally despised and scorned and laughed out of existence. That hasn’t happened . . . yet . . . that I know of.

INTERVIEWER

What, do you think, are the biggest opportunities for independent writers and artists within the publishing sector?

CAINES

I suppose there’s a sense in which all writers and artists are (or ought to be) independent, assuming that all trade on some inalienable, intrinsic idiosyncratic approach to their work. Some are just more obviously amenable to the established trade publishers than others, perhaps, and therefore able to cut some kind of a deal. It depends on what a writer or artist truly wants. Publication can mean many things – this airport novel or that pentagonal limited edition with unique perfumes embedded in every leaf – but maybe there’s a mode of publication to suit all tastes. So I suppose the opportunity is out there, and the challenge is finding the right one.

INTERVIEWER

In an era of digital content and e-zines, as well as ‘fake news’ and social media; what role do printed publications like Brixton Review of Books have to play?

CAINES

I’m one of those people – it’s not just me, I hope – who stare at screens for a large portion of the working day but love print. I think I even mean that I can love the material book as a work of art, and reading online, necessary though it often is, forms an instructive contrast to that art. But, er, in less hilfalutin terms, I hope that reading the BRB, or any newspaper or printed work on paper, is simply a change from reading on a screen, and being continuously poked in the eye by electric light.

INTERVIEWER

As editors, do you feel any ethical responsibility for the content you publish?

CAINES

Absolutely – although I tend to mistake ethical responsibility, in this context, for aesthetic responsibility. The two are so easily confused, don’t you think?

INTERVIEWER

Julian Barnes has stated that the problem with the big publishing companies is that they are too risk averse: they are only willing to “publish novels that are copies of other successful novels”. Do you think that independent magazines have a duty to champion independent voices of authors and essayists whose writing may never be given a chance by the bigger companies in the sector?

CAINES

Perhaps, unfortunately, the indie economy as a whole doesn’t have much say in the matter. But either way, I guess that there are plenty of writers temperamentally too rich for the mainstream, and who flourish in indie magazines and in the literary communities to which those magazines belong. But it depends on the magazine’s character. There seem to be some indies that seem to embrace underground-ness, and others that nurture more commercially lofty ambitions. There’s room in the world for both, I hope.

Regarding an aversion to risk: beyond the world of books, some big companies run (what I think they call) “accelerators”, designed to promote and invest in innovation, because innovation is precisely what big companies, for the most part, don’t do well. It’s interesting that so many big publishers, for their part, now run nimble, pseudo-indie imprints, which are arguably meant to play a similar role. The real indies, meanwhile, don’t necessarily receive the recognition and remuneration they deserve – but that inability to er realize an investment may be a further mark of their indie-ness.

INTERVIEWER

The future of literature; of writing – and indeed the future of publishing – are all frequently discussed at great lengths. What are your thoughts on current industry trends – where are we heading?

CAINES

I’m no industry guru. So rather than second-guess the future, may I instead offer you a naïve wish-list?

1) That the books business gets over its daft dependency on the insipid drug that is literary prize culture.

2) That the indie scene flourishes in perpetuity.

4) (3 was unprintable, even online, and was basically a curse on reviewers who think their duty is to their pals in the business rather than their readers.) That somebody in television works out how to make a show about books again.

5) That Amazon mends its ways.

(Well, I did say “naïve” . . . .)

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

CAINES

A terrible problem we all have to deal with, but some of us are more successful at banishing it than others, poor souls, who have to slog out their guts over “novels” and “villanelles” and the like. Pity them in their enslavement to the myth of art!

Sorry, what was the question again?

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell us a little about your editorial and submissions process? How can aspiring writers get involved?

CAINES

For the most part, we’re commissioning reviews, and trying to come up with an eclectic mixture of voices: younger writers and worn-hoarse-by-time-but-very-much-still-worth-hearing, from different backgrounds, with varying interests. We have three months between issues, and it’s the middle month when things start to get serious – when deadlines becoming more deadly serious/merely deadening etc. I hope we’ll be trying out new writers (writers new to us at least) in every issue, albeit probably not as many as we’d like. The budget isn’t limitless, and dependent to an extent on advertising. Aspiring writers are welcome to get their moneybags mates to take out full-page ads in every issue.

INTERVIEWER

What advice would you give to authors thinking of submitting their work to BRoB – or other publications?

CAINES

We’re only publishing four issues a year, and most of those issues will be full of reviews. We’re planning to run poetry in every issue, and maybe some fiction from time to time. So with expectations suitably lowered, I hope, I suggest that anybody who’s still interested check out our website, then drop us a line and declare some area of especial expertise or even enthusiasm.

I’m not so interested in “pitches” for particular books, incidentally. I’m not ruling them out altogether, but pitches can sometimes seem a little intellectually suspect: it’s not that I sense outright cronyism in every e-mail; rather that I wonder if the would-be reviewer has already made up their mind about the book, whether they’ve read it yet or not. So the result may be fine, terrific even, but can also feel shop-bought and stale rather than nattily bespoke.

INTERVIEWER

What’s next for Brixton Review of Books? What should we look out for?

CAINES

In the not-too-distant future, we’ll do the decent thing and expand the website to look proper n all. We’re hoping to put on a few bookish events around town. (Go on, guess which part of town. Go on!) And there are going to be some good things in the paper itself later in the year. I’m very much hoping, for example, that a few writers with Brixton connections are going to give us little stories about their personal experiences here. That’d be an acceptably educational digression from reviewing books, I hope.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in six words?

CAINES

Joan arrived, kicked ass – and left.

INTERVIEWER

What are your 5 – 10 top tips for aspiring writers and artists?

CAINES

I’m still aspiring myself, and must stock up on gnomic tips for these occasions. Revise until it looks like you haven’t. Remember style is the ultimate expression of substance. Read New Grub Street. Um. Don’t automatically “um” in the presence of uncertainty? And I’ll get back to you when I’ve thought of a fifth. . . .

 

Book Review: ‘Scratch’ by Steve Himmer

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A forest can be a spooky place. It may seem lush and inviting to an urban dweller, but it’s not as welcoming as it seems. It’s easy to imagine that there might be things in the thickest part of the forest that are quite beyond our knowledge, watching and waiting.

This novella begins uncannily enough, with the narrator urging the reader to join him in the shape of a coyote. Afterwards the reader is present in the narrative as you press your coyote nose against the windows of the human characters.

The lead character is a big city property developer building a housing estate in rural New England. Martin dreams of building the suburban home that he never had during his rootless childhood, living in a trailer on site and planning to settle in one of the houses he builds. One morning, our hero wonders into the new England forest on a whim, straight into a revenant style bear attack. After staggering back to civilisation relatively unscathed, he hears the local legend of Scratch. Scratch is a local bogeyman and shapeshifter that the locals blame for various small misfortunes. A series of strange events occur around the town and it seems Scratch may be more than a myth.

Himmer’s writing is conversational and effortless, picking out the rhythms of small town life, Martin’s yearnings and the timeless patterns of the forest with equal ease.

It’s literary fiction with a supernatural edge. It starts slowly, but it comes to life gradually and by the end I was reading hungrily up until the chilling final sequence. The narrator’s strange presence in the story creates a feeling of being watched and of inevitable disaster. It become clear from the way they address the reader knowingly that they aren’t quite human.

This attractive volume from Wundor editions is Steve Himmer’s third book, all of which have links to nature and the outdoors. This is an intriguing and unsettling little novel, worth reading.

To purchase a copy of ‘Scratch’ visit Wundor Editions https://wundor-store.myshopify.com/products/scratch-by-steve-himmer

About the reviewer

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