Monday, 22 February 2021

Fragile Monsters by Catherine Menon


Reviewer:
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


Reviewer:
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.

Mayflies
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


Reviewer:
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