Monday, 22 February 2021

Fragile Monsters by Catherine Menon

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

"Stories twist through the past like hair in a plait. Each strand different, weaving its own."

Fragile Monsters tells the often parallel stories of a grandmother and granddaughter, growing up either side of the Japanese occupation during the Second World War and the Emergency that followed, as the British colony of Malaya struggled to become independent Malaysia.

Durga is a lecturer in mathematics who has recently come back to Malaysia from Canada following an unhappy end to a love affair. She pays a dutiful visit to her Ammuma’s (grandmother’s) home for Diwali. But when an accident with cheap market-bought Diwali fireworks lands Ammuma in hospital, Durga is forced to confront ghosts from both of their pasts.

Durga was brought up by Ammuma after her mother died when she was a baby – or at least that’s what she’s always believed. But then why has she found an obviously much more recent notebook with her mother’s name and address written in a childish hand?

And then there is Tom, now a doctor in the same hospital, with whom Durga shares the guilt of an accident which killed one of their schoolfriends.

The book is laced through with dry-as-bone humour that underlines the prickly relationship between grandmother and granddaughter. (“Granddaughters, she thinks, should stay where they’ve been put.”)

Equally, the mastery of language that was displayed in Menon’s short story collection, Subjunctive Moods, is used here to evoke the atmosphere of Malaysia – from the sticky heat to the class-and-race ridden society that is the legacy of British efforts to divide and rule.

Menon herself is a mathematician, and the text is sprinkled, too, with mathematical metaphors that sent me right back to my student days.

“We leave this as an inference for the reader,’ a mathematician will happily write. Too trustful, these mathematicians. Too trustful by half” she writes - a joke perhaps perhaps only someone who has sat through First Year Maths lectures will fully appreciate. 

A complex and tender story that manages to blend maths with folk legend, and complicated human relationships with scars of war and colonialism.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Ponti by Sharlene Teo, Suncatcher by Romesh Gunesekera, Subjunctive Moods by Catherine Menon (writing as CG Menon)

Avoid If You Dislike: Overlapping timelines

Perfect Accompaniment:
Rendang curry and tea

Genre: Historical Fiction

Buy This Book Here

Friday, 12 February 2021

Mayflies by Andrew O'Hagan

David C. Dawson

What we thought of it:

Only occasionally does a book come along whose every page contains at least one quotable phrase, at least one pithily worded exposition of the human condition that makes you stop and think.

is such a book.

On the surface it's a story about what happens to two friends from a small, nondescript Scottish town. The book starts in their optimistic late teens when they are carefree, daring, and rebellious. Then it jumps forward thirty years to when they are jaded in middle age.

But Mayflies is about far more than that. Woven lightly into this witty story of friendship are significant issues that may at some point affect all of us.

James, the narrator, is eighteen and his best mate Tully Dawson is twenty. They live in Scotland -  “Irvine New Town, east of eternity.”

Tully “had innate charisma, a brilliant record collection, complete fearlessness in political argument, and he knew how to love you more than anybody else.” James is in awe of him.

The first half of the book follows a reckless weekend in Manchester, when the two young men go to the G-Mex for a music festival headlined by The Smiths. Over the weekend they meet up with their friends and reveal dreams, ambitions and their rejection of practically every aspect of conventional life. 

“What we had that day was our story. We didn't have the other bit, the future, and we had no way of knowing what that would be like. Perhaps it would change our memory of all this, or perhaps it would draw from it, nobody knew." 

Thirty years later some of them are married, some of them are divorced. And Tully is about to reveal a major twist in the story. It puts James in an ethical quandary. Its resolution left me thinking for a long time after I’d finished the book.

O’Hagan’s story is genuinely unpredictable. He writes deceptively simple prose, which gives deep insights into our relationships with each other on every page. One of the best books I’ve read in a long time.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Trainspotting by Irvine Walsh

Avoid if you don’t like: References to euthanasia

Ideal accompaniments: An indie soundtrack from the 1980s and a pint of Black & Tan

Genre: Contemporary

Thursday, 4 February 2021

Mrs Death Misses Death by Salena Godden

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

How do you even begin to talk about a book like Salena Godden’s Mrs Death Misses Death? It is a book that defies description, let alone comparison.

It is, at its core, an uplifting meditation on the nature of death. Structured more like a mind-map than a novel, it branches out in multiple directions, using poetry and prose, narrative, monologues and conversations.

At the heart of the story are Wolf, and Mrs Death. One Christmas Eve, Wolf uses the rent money to buy an antique desk with a dusty red leather top. But the desk used to belong to Mrs Death. And sitting at her desk, Wolf begins to hear her stories.

Mrs Death is fed up of the way the world has imagined Death as a man. “For surely only she who bears it, she who gave you life, can be she who has the power to take it. […] And only she who is invisible, ore readily talked over, ignored, betrayed or easily walked past then a woman: a poor old black woman, a homeless black beggar-woman with knotty, natty hair, broken back, walking ever so slowly…”

And she tells her stories to Wolf. Wolf who met her once before, the night a fire swept through their block of flats. The night Wolf's mother died and Wolf didn’t.

As well as listening in on the conversations between Wolf and Mrs Death, we find ourselves in the slums of Victorian England, in 15th Century Spain and 18th C Edinburgh, in Holloway Prison and the Australian Outback. As Wolf says, “This work has a very high dead and death count.”

The book captures the sense of existential crisis so many of us felt, even before Covid-19 took over our lives. “What is wrong with everyone?” Wolf rails. “I am not catastrophising. This is a f*** catastrophe. […] Maybe I’m crying because you aren’t crying with me right now, because you just aren’t mad enough.”

But the book is also incredibly life affirming. Because if life is short and death is inevitable, then is up to us to live it in the best way be can. As Mrs Death exhorts us, “you all need to be heroes, to step up, to speak up, to support each other.”

It is extraordinary, in hindsight, that this book, which must have been completed before the end of 2019, should come to be published just when the whole world has been forced to come to terms with the nearness of death. But though the victims of Covid-19 play no role in the text, Godden has found a way to remember “all we are losing and have lost to the corona virus pandemic [as well as] the murdered, the disappeared, the stolen and the erased. The fallen and the pushed.” The last six pages of the book are left blank, and in her final section, Godden invites her readers to “add your loved one’s name on one of these blank pages, maybe add a date, a memory or a prayer. In this one act of remembrance, we will be united. From now on every single person who reads this book will know their copy contains their own dead. As time passes, if this book is borrowed or passed along, their names will live on.”

In my head, I imagine readers, fifty or a hundred years from now, searching second-hand bookstalls for copies of this book, just to find the secret memorials hidden in each one. Please make it so.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Felton, American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Avoid If You Dislike: In the author’s own words, “If you are sensitive or allergic to talk of the dead or non-living things, use this work in small doses.”

Perfect Accompaniment: “The spicy aroma of jerk chicken and rice and pea. The sizzle of plantain. Curried Goat.”

Genre: Literary Fiction

Buy This Book Here

Thursday, 28 January 2021

A River Called Time by Courttia Newland

Catriona Troth

What We Thought Of It:

A River Called Time, Courttia Newland’s latest novel, is unlike anything he has written before. It may well be unlike anything you have read before – even if you are familiar with the genre of speculative fiction.

In his Afterword to this book, Newland writes that he set out to write, “a decolonised novel, freed of any adherence to the race-fixated, identity-based reality we live every day. I would mentally free myself from the White Gaze.”

To do so, he constructed a world – in fact, a series of parallel worlds – in which “the Transatlantic Slave Trade, colonisation and the genocide known as Maafa … hadn’t ever taken plate, one in which Europeans treaded Africa as the ancient Greeks once treated Kemit, coming not to pillage, rape and murder, but to learn.”

But these worlds are no Utopias. Most of the parallels contain a version of London (Dinium) in which a large area of the centre has been destroyed by a catastrophic event and replaced by a giant monolith in which millions of inhabitants live their lives without ever emerging from its hermetic space. Within that monolith, there are lives of privilege, lives of poverty and gruelling labour,  and pretty much everything in between.

As we move between the different world, the same cast of characters is reconfigured again and again, playing different roles and standing in different relationships to one another. We even briefly find ourselves in a world that seems indistinguishable from our own. Each one is fully realised, the differences between them sometimes minute and sometimes vast.

The book has been a long time coming. Newland describes how he struggled, first to find a way to write the book he knew he wanted to write, and then to find anyone who was willing to publish it. There were those who thought he should stick with the urban stories he was previously known for. But finally, the book found its publishing home, with Canongate Books.

It is a slippery book – one that refuses to give up easy explanations. Each section is enthralling in its own right - the connections between them elusive but intriguing. Yet the author offers no moral compass. There are no clear ‘good guys’ or ‘bad guys’. Like Markriss, the character we follow from world to world, we are left to work out for ourselves what constitutes the right choice.

Powerful, liberating and challenging, this book is an explosive new entry to the canon of speculative fiction.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Technologies of the Self by Haris A Durrani, Shadowshaper by Daniel J Older, An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obiama, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell.

Avoid If You Dislike: Books that stubbornly refuse to give up easy explanations..

Perfect Accompaniment:  Spaghetti Bolognaise (if you read the Afterword, you’ll know why!)

Genre: Speculative Fiction

Buy This Book Here

Wednesday, 13 January 2021

The Family Tree by Sairish Hussain

Catriona Troth

What We Thought Of It:

Spanning almost thirty years, The Family Tree is a portrait of a family riven by a mother’s death in childbirth, by the pressures on Muslim family life of 9/11 and its aftermath, but most of all by a vicious assault that leaves a close friend lying in a coma.

It begins with the father, Amjad, newly bereaved and struggling to cope, trying to comfort his frantically wailing baby girl and his lost and heart-sore son. The profound tenderness in that opening scene will be tested to breaking point in the years that follow, but that little family of three will remain at the core of the story.

It’s a story of love within a family, how it can fracture and what is needed to repair it. And of how, following trauma, friendships can shatter and reform along lines that were previously unimaginable. It encompasses both private grief and public tragedy, and examines what can happen when those two things collide and exert unendurable pressure on a young person on the threshold of life.

Through the story runs image of the shawl that belonged to Neelam, the mother who died giving birth to her daughter. It’s a teal blue pashmina with the mustard-coloured blossom tree stretching along its full length, with birds that flit from branch to branch. In Amjad’s mind, the tree becomes their family tree, and when the children are little, he teaches them to identify the birds with each member of the family. It becomes the golden thread through which the family can find itself again.

This is a novel wide in scope and straightforward in its narrative style. An impressive debut.

Shortlisted for the 2020 Costa First Novel Award.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved:
Dear Infidel by Tamim Sadikali

Avoid If You Dislike: Stories involving homelessness, drug addiction and serious assault

Perfect Accompaniment:
Home-made roti

Genre: Contemporary