IMG_3109I am an English teacher, and am lucky enough to be part of a fantastic department; full of creative, passionate, interested people. This book was given to every member of our faculty by our esteemed head of department. She had enjoyed it, and thought we all would too. She was not wrong.

I admit, I was not convinced at first. Really? A novel about 1920s housewives from Hampstead going on holiday? Surely not. But even as I was rolling that prejudice around in my mind, reading the first page or so, I felt some of that resistance go slack. I was totally unprepared for what followed.

This is one of the funniest, most precisely observant novels I have read in a very long time. Elizabeth von Armin writes such perfect characters, with such knowing humour, that I no longer cared about the unlikeliness of the plot, or my – misplaced and irrelevant – impatience with female authors writing on purely social/domestic themes. It’s an utterly charming, absorbing, hilarious novel. That is all.

FuIMG_3106ll disclosure: I saw this book’s cover and was infatuated. Every morning I walk past a fantastic independent bookshop, and this was in the window in the week leading up to the Easter break. Its strangeness and simplicity got under my skin. Knowing nothing about the author or the subject matter, I bought it and carried it home happily. This happens more often than I like to admit.

Han Kang is a South Korean author, who teaches creative writing at the Seoul Institute of the Arts. Human Acts is the second novel she has published in English, the first being The Vegetarian – which I intend to read very soon.

What you need to know before reading this novel is laid out simply and clearly in Deborah Smith’s introduction. I was, as always, astonished and embarrassed by my ignorance of the events this novel deals with – a brutal military suppression of civilian protest in a Southern city in the early 1980s. It made the experience of reading it even more biting. The world does forget. People are indifferent. These stories are necessary.

Based on real stories, told from many intertwined perspectives, with a hint of magical realism (that is less like magic, more like hope); this novel uses its structure to wind you gradually towards its heart. Kang does not pull her punches, but this is a novel with a wonderfully light touch. This ability to look straight at horror for a fleeting moment, and not dwell there, is astonishing and deeply moving. It is full of side-glances and subtlety, and more powerfully dreadful for it.

IMG_2855I love Ali Smith. I read the accidental at university and was struck by how fresh and strange that novel was – it felt new, in a reading list full of modern fiction. I was intrigued by this title – How to be both – when it came out. It made me think immediately of all the great stuff I associate with her writing; especially her approach to representations of gender and voice and time.

I read this immediately after H is for Hawk, which I will not write about here as it’s non-fiction, but there were some crossover points which occurred to me as I read, and will share here. A shared theme is grief, and healing. H is for Hawk is an autobiographical journey through grief and the process of healing, which is meticulous and earnest. I enjoyed it, although it felt slightly over-written, and it is a fascinating insight into a world of birds of prey I knew nothing about. Reading How to be both immediately afterwards was a good demonstration of the versatility of fiction versus non-fiction, and why I have chosen to dedicate this blog to it.

How to be both tackles the subject of grief through the prism of a young girl whose mother has died. It is structurally and narratively inventive in the way that it does this. Rather than a straightforward ‘telling’, Smith uses structure and time to make the reader feel unsettled, as though something is missing, and a genuine sense of wrong-footing, which is reminiscent of the disbelief often associated with grieving. Moreover, this is just one of the themes that could be said to be central to this novel. It is thoroughly multifaceted… like the best fiction should be, it is about everything.

One thing you may already know about this novel, which should give you some insight into the artistic ingenuity of this writer, is that two versions of it were published simultaneously. There are two narrators – George, the young grieving girl, and Francesco, an artist from Renaissance Italy – and the novel is divided into two sections, one narrated by George and one by Francesco. The two different versions start with different narrators. The version I read begins with George. Immediately, the way we perceive the world of this novel is being playfully manipulated – the narrator with whom you begin will form your first impressions, and so, as in life, our first biases are formed.

I’m not going to write an essay, although the temptation is strong. There is a lot to say about this novel. It is disarming, and clever, and utterly different to anything I’ve read this summer. The way in which Smith plays with gender, and femininity, and female experience is very exciting. I can see myself (next summer) re-reading and re-reading How to be both – especially Francesco’s narrative, which is sprinkled with hints and references that would benefit from closer reading (closer reading than is really possible whilst sitting in a beer garden in Berlin..). I adore this novel. Read it, please.

A timage-4hriller… told from the perspective of a bee called Flora 717. This is a not a genre I’m very familiar with, and as a consequence I found it stylistically a little flat in places, however it’s one of the most original things I’ve read in a long time. Had I not just finished Familiar, which is also completely unique and fascinating, I would perhaps have been even more impressed with it.

Clearly very well researched, and fascinating for anyone who has even a passing interest in insects and their life-cycle. I’ve always been keen on creepy crawlies so perhaps I am predisposed to think highly of an author who has focused her imagination and talent in this area. The biological detail is immense, and woven creatively into the bees’ myth-making and social structures that drive the narrative.

I very much enjoyed the depiction of a totalitarian matriarchal society, where the bees are organised into rigid hierarchies by the ruling elite and weakness or dissent – even subconscious or accidental – are ruthlessly stamped out. I also very much enjoyed the depiction of the way in which the bees use their sense of smell to draw complex information from their environment, and the hints throughout of mankind’s almost wholly destructive interference with their delicately balanced universe.

One other thing I’d say in defence of The Bees is that it is (pardon the pun) sticky. It has stuck with me very closely; I think because of the simple, yet detailed way in which Paull narrows our focus into the single-minded perspective of the bee. I’ve found myself looking at my environment, and especially plants differently, and noticing flowers everywhere (it is summer after all).

At times repetitive and a tad predictable, but I think that is a failure of the form/structure of the story (which, given the biological certainty of the life-cycle of the bee, is necessarily predictable) rather than the writing or the vision of the author. It’s an incredibly brave and unique piece of work that is absolutely worth a read.

image-3This book wins the prize for the strangest ending I’ve read in a long time. In fact, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that this is the oddest, most unsettling novel I’ve read all year.

The protagonist is an American scientist who, while driving home from a visit to her youngest son’s grave, finds the world has changed, and her too. Her car is different, her body is different – although the same – and she appears to be driving home from a conference related to a job she is unfamiliar with. Her husband is affectionate – which is also new and unexpected. Moreover, her youngest son is still alive. She returns home and tries her best to live out this new life without completely losing it.

Whilst this sounds like mad sci-fi, the delivery is so far from being sensationalising or over the top in any way. Its central conceit – this sudden change in the universe – becomes more to do with everyday human interaction, the depth at which we conduct our relationships, and the relative importance (or not) of our actions. Our main character finds herself in a world that is familiar, but alien, and tries to retrace or guess at the steps that have taken her to this alternative life and personhood – especially regarding her relationship with her sons, both of whom are alive in this world, but also estranged from her. She weighs up the good and the bad – which one is better? is either one better than the other?

This novel is a complex and thoughtful exploration of causation, regret and individuality that entirely eclipses the unlikelihood of its conceit with the brilliance of the writing and subtlety of the narrative. Bizarre. Superb.

image-2I was given this book by a friend who travels widely in Pakistan. I had often seen it on his shelves; eyes drawn by the gorgeous title. He gave it to me before moving house. I read it while finishing my PGCE, supporting my family through a traumatic upheaval, and moving house myself. A period of considerable stress, for which these short, tightly packed stories seem the perfect antidote.

This collection by Pakistani-American author Mueenuddin is his debut, and has been showered with praise, all of which is emblazoned across the front and back covers, and the first three inside pages. Impressive. In Other Rooms, Other Wonders: the title, which is so beautiful and evocative, serves as a good introduction. The short story form, when it is done well, leaves us wanting more; looking back over our shoulders at characters already receding into the background as we enter ‘other rooms’. So it is here.

The characters are all loosely connected, via a large Pakistani landowning family, and the ancient feudalism and traditions of this country. There is an ambient sense of loss that runs through all of these stories. Not melancholic, but looking through old eyes. The collection closes with some of the least interesting characters – a socialite who marries a farming entrepreneur but finds herself craving the unfettered decadence of her unmarried lifestyle in Lahore; bringing misery to herself and her husband. A damning portrait. I’ll be interested to see what Mueenuddin does next.


imageThe Lowland
is one of those novels that is so vast – not in size, but in scope – that it makes me hesitant to describe it. Lahiri is one of those writers who is really writing worlds; truths, whatever that means. Bringing forth lives and unravelling them meticulously. This novel is about the lives of two brothers and the women who touch their lives. It is also about America and India, and politics, and education, and family, and freedom and what it costs. You know, light stuff. Lahiri’s slow-burning narrative, and lightness of touch lulled me into the immensity of this novel’s highs and lows without feeling as though I was being dragged through mud. No mean feat, considering.

Her greatest achievement with The Lowland, I think, is that each of Lahiri’s characters feels wholly believable – I was going to say ’rounded’ but that is a flawed descriptor; people are rarely ’rounded’, and it would be better to say ‘asymmetrical’ or ‘irregular’. Lahiri draws the two brothers in the romantic/mythic but also often truthful mode: they are two sides of the same coin. Opposing, inseparable, complementary. These men are the anchor of the novel. The women – refreshingly awkward and (again, this word) truthful – are not as they should be, and it is still a joy to read women like this; cut from no discernable pattern, and all the colours of the rainbow. Bravo.

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