“Our house, in the middle of our street.” (Madness)

This my second contribution to the wonderful #ReadIndies2 events hosted by Kaggsy and Lizzy.

This time I’ve chosen two novels linked by the theme of communities.

Firstly, Hotel Silence by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir (2016 trans. Brian FitzGibbon 2018) published by Pushkin Press. I wrote about Butterflies in Novemberby this author in my previous post, explaining that I’d also enjoyed Miss Iceland. Unlike both these novels, Hotel Silence features a male narrator and is set away from Iceland.

Jónas Ebeneser is just shy of 50 and his wife has left him, telling him that his daughter, Gudrun Waterlily, is not his. His elderly mother has dementia and is fixated on war. All this has prompted a significant crisis:

“Will the world miss me? No. Will the world be any poorer without me? No. Will the world survive without me? Yes. Is the world a better place than when I came into it? No. What have I done to improve it? Nothing.”

So he decides to end his life. But because he doesn’t want Gudrun Waterlily to find his body, he decides to do so in another country. He flies to an unnamed country that has just seen the end of conflict:

“The situation is said to be precarious, and it is unclear whether the ceasefire will hold. It seems ideal”

The first section, Flesh ends with his arrival at the titular hotel. The second part, Scars, forms the rest of the book, in which Jónas finds his skills as a handyman in great demand as an entire generation of men has been wiped out.

He helps May and Fifi, the young siblings who run the hotel, and gets roped in to making western saloon doors for the nearby Restaurant Limbo where he takes his meals. Word spreads, and Jónas begins to heal, albeit with scar tissue – not a return to what was before.

“My unhappiness is at best inane when compared to the ruins and dust that lie outside my window.”

He also assists with healing in others, as he helps May and Fifi rebuild their hotel. There is a mosaic of cultural significance somewhere in the building, but also more prosaically rooms that need rewiring and painting. The brother and sister hope to see tourists back soon, although to a very different hotel than before the war, as the uncovered shop postcards attest:

“What strikes me are the bright colours, the vibrant blue sky and golden sand; the world was still in colour back then and people didn’t know what was in store, they’re alive, both their legs are of the same length, they have plans for the future, maybe they’re going to change cars or kitchen units or take a trip abroad.”

Hotel Silence shows the power of community to heal both collectively and for the individuals within it. It is about how hope doesn’t mean a diminishment of pain, but a way to live alongside it. And it’s about how both hope and healing can be found in the most unexpected places, if we can find the strength to stay open to such possibilities.

Secondly, Esperanza Street by Niyati Keni (2015) published by AndOtherStories, a not-for-profit publisher whose website explains: “And Other Stories publishes some of the best in contemporary writing, including many translations. We aim to push people’s reading limits and help them discover authors of adventurous and inspiring writing.”

They are a publisher I really enjoy, one where I’ll pick up a novel simply because it’s one of theirs, which is exactly what I did with Esperanza Street. The story is one of a community in a port town in the Philippines, told by Joseph, an eight-year old houseboy: “Esperanza, one of the oldest streets in Puerto, its heartbeat made up of a thousand smaller pulses, lulled us with its apparent constancy.”

Joseph’s mother has died, and shortly before this his father takes him to Mary Morelos’ house to work. Mary is kind but exacting, and Joseph gets to know her sons, good-looking mechanic Dub and artistic Benny as well as the cook America.

We follow Joseph and the inhabitants of the street through the next few years, beginning in 1981 with the Marcos’ in power. It’s a poor but busy area with food stalls, coffee shops and beauty parlours, and I thought Keni achieved a good balance of evoking the environment without indulging in poverty porn:

“from the gate, I watched the street turn to velvet and everything become rich, convivial. In a line stretching from the brow of the hill down to the jetty, the lamps came on in clusters, their yellow light seeping through the smoke that layered upwards from the braziers.”

The threat of redevelopment hangs over Esperanza Street. Local gangster Eddie Casama has left the area behind through his accumulation of wealth – though his mistress lives in the area – and he has an interest in seeing the area change. “he looked like the kind of man who’d let his kids ride on his back at weekends.” Yet his potential for violence and disregard for others is never in doubt.

There isn’t a huge amount of plot to Esperanza Street, though there several strands that we watch unfold. The inhabitants of the street are subject to their own passions and also to external forces of politics and money, all of which determine their fates. Joseph is an intelligent boy and both Mary and his father are anxious that he finishes school, but there will be events that loom large in his life along the way.

“I read with the hope something would finally arrive that would illuminate everything, a single piece of knowledge that would show how my life would unfold.”

Keni grew up in London though she has travelled a lot in the Philippines, so I would be interested to know how accurate her portrayal of the area is. It’s certainly a fully realised fictional portrait, which I found very evocative.

To end, a song named after a street near where I live:

“Sometimes me think, ‘What is friend?’ Then me say, ‘Friend is someone to share the last cookie with.’” (Cookie Monster)

This is a contribution to the wonderful #ReadIndies2 events hosted by Kaggsy and Lizzy.

The two books for this post were buried in my TBR, so I’ve put them together as they are linked by the theme of friendship.

Firstly, Butterflies in November by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir (2004 trans. Brian FitzGibbon 2013) published by Pushkin Press (which I thought was an indie, then panicked that it had been bought by Penguin, but which Lizzy has helpfully reassured me is definitely an indie!)

I really enjoyed Miss Iceland by this author so I was looking forward to this. Like Miss Iceland, this novel has a central female protagonist whose voice is bone dry, determinedly going her own way.

At the start of the novel, the unnamed narrator returns home to her husband after a meeting with her lover, one of her translation clients as she speaks 11 languages. She doesn’t seem especially attached to either man:

“After we had slept together for the first time, he looked surprised when I handed him the bill with the VAT clearly highlighted.”

Her husband announces he is leaving, to be with his pregnant girlfriend. This doesn’t seem like any great loss, given that as he’s going, he details her failure to live up to his ideals of womanhood:

“‘The amount of times I’ve prayed to God to ask him to make you buy a skirt suit.’

‘Wouldn’t it have been simpler just to ask me?’”

She moves to a new apartment but her wet blanket husband keeps turning up, so she starts daydreaming of foreign travel somewhere warm. However, her best friend Auður is pregnant with twins, and needs to stay in hospital for the late stages of the pregnancy. This means she finds herself driving round the Icelandic ring road which circles the whole island, with Auður’s son Tumi:

“a deaf four-year-old clairvoyant boy with poor eyesight and one leg three centimetres shorter than the other, which makes him limp when he is only wearing his socks.” 

There seems little worry that Tumi will miss any education, as his teacher demonstrates ableism, gender stereotyping and racism, all within a remarkably short conversation.

The plan is to travel east to a prefab cottage that she won in a lottery for the Association for the Deaf. This involves her returning homewards, and we get glimpses of her past which may explain some of her detachment, although things are never fully explained.

What follows is a road trip story – funded by her and Tumi winning another lottery, which they split 50/50 –  whereby the two meet a variety of characters. My personal favourite was the Estonian choir who kept turning up. There are also some lovers, as predicted by a clairvoyant at the start of the novel:

“three men in your life over a distance of 300 kilometres, three dead animals, three minor accidents or mishaps, although you aren’t necessarily directly involved in them, animals will be maimed, but the men and women will survive. However, it is clear three animals will die before you meet the man of your life.”

The animals: suffice to say there were passages I had to skip. But skipping those didn’t detract from the overall story at all so I would still recommend this novel, even if you share my sensitivities.

Tumi is a sweet, self-possessed boy “He always stands at the back of the group, avoiding conflict.” and I thought his relationship with the narrator was nicely evoked without sentimentalism.

Looking on goodreads, the reviews for this are a very mixed bag. My tolerance from whimsy is pretty high and I don’t mind things left unexplained, so I enjoyed this novel, and I do really like Ólafsdóttir’s detached female voices.

“A relationship for me is all about the right body and the right smell, the home is a shell for the body, not a place for exchanging existential views and having discussions. Even though you still have to load the washing machine and cook for the body.”

Secondly, Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession published by Bluemoose Books, an independent publisher based in Hebden Bridge, whose manifesto explains “At Bluemoose our aim is to publish cracking stories that engage and inspire.”

I tried to read L&HP back in the summer and totally failed, but it had a lot of positive reviews in the blogosphere and so I gave it another shot. Now my reading is recovering somewhat I zipped through it with ease, so I’m sure my earlier troubles were indicative of my reading slump and not Hession’s writing.

The titular friends are men around their mid-thirties, who are easily overlooked. Leonard is grieving his mother, who he lived with in the family home until she died, never moving out because they got on well and there was no reason to. I found this relationship very touching. So often parent/child relationships are dramatized as being full of unspoken judgements and resentments, and it was a pleasant change to see someone who loved his parent, but also liked and respected them.

“Had he the courage, Leonard would have spoken up and said that his mother looked after everyone in her life as though they were her garden birds: that is to say, with unconditional pleasure and generosity.”

Leonard’s grief is of the quiet, ordinary kind where you still get up and go to work every day, carrying a deep sadness with you. In other words, the type pretty much everyone experiences.

“Leonard took off his noise-cancelling society-repelling headphones and went to the kitchenette for a mid-morning cup, even though he always disliked the awkward wait for the water to boil and the prospect of kettle-related time-killing small talk.”

I am with you Leonard.

Hungry Paul – whose attributive adjective is never explained – still lives at home with his parents, happy to bumble along, working as a casual postman and seeing Leonard regularly for their boardgame nights.

“He had no interest in, or capacity for, mental chatter. He had no internal narrator. When he saw a dog he just saw a dog, without his mind adding that it should be on a lead or that its tongue was hanging out like a rasher.”

Paul’s quiet stillness comes into its own when his mother insists he join her as a volunteer hospital visitor. While his extrovert mother chats away happily with one patient, Paul becomes the only one another patient will tolerate “He sat there calmly, simply sharing the moment with the woman.”

Not very much happens in L&HP but there is enough plot to pull the reader along. Paul’s sister Grace is getting married; Leonard begins a tentative romance; Hungry Paul enters a competition at the Chamber of Commerce. Really though, the novel isn’t so much about what happens as providing a glimpse into ordinary, quiet lives, and showing how they are worthy of attention:

“Their friendship was not just one of convenience between two quiet, solitary men with few other options, it was a pact. A pact to resist the vortex of busyness and insensitivity that had engulfed the rest of the world. It was a pact of simplicity, which stood against the forces of competitiveness and noise.”

I found L&HP to be a paean to the kindness and the gentleness found in the everyday small gesture:

“She was a person for whom kindness was a very ordinary thing, who believed that the only acceptable excuse for not having a bird feeder in the back garden was that you had one in the front garden”

(Or in my case, because you live in a London flat and the management company have banned them because the rats feast on them ☹)

It’s not an overly worthy novel though, there is plenty of humour. No-one is put down, but the absurdities of people are gently ribbed, such as Leonard’s colleague “Okey dokey. This will take just one minutiae. Take a load off, compadre,’ said Greg, unable to complete one conventional sentence.”

As an introvert who despairs at the relentless noise of modern life (why do shops think blaring out music will entice you to spend more time and money there? Why are cinema volumes now kept at ear-bleeding decibel levels?!) and who firmly believes in the meaning of the everyday, I was definitely the target audience for L&HP. If this sounds like you too, then I think you’ll enjoy this novel.

“We live in an age of cacophony.  Everyone talking and thinking out loud, with no space or oxygen left for quiet statements and silence.”

To end, one of the best TV theme songs ever, all about being a friend:

“It’s the end of the world as we know it” (REM)

Kate from booksaremyfavouriteandbest suggested this week’s title & theme  – I think we all know why.

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Starting with an obvious choice, Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera (2009, tr. Lisa Dillon 2015), published by the wonderful &Other Stories Press – I wrote about another of their Mexican novels here. Herrera looks at the illegal immigrant experience through Makina, seeking out her brother at the behest of her mother, and desperate to return home.

“You’re going to cross and you’re going to get your feet wet and you’re going to be up against real roughnecks; you’ll get desperate of course, but you’ll see wonders and in the end you’ll find your brother, and even if you’re sad, you’ll wind up where you need to be.”

Makina’s journey is both physical and mythical.  As she travels through her homeland she has to ask men with pseudonyms for different types of help to get her across the border. The places she visits have similarly folkloric names: ‘The Place Where The Hills Meet’, ‘The Big Chilango’, ‘The Place Where People’s Hearts Are Eaten’ and across the border ‘The Place Where The Wind Cuts Like A Knife’. By not grounding Signs Preceding the End of the World in recognisable names and places, Herrera expands the simple journey to something much larger. Any tale of illegal immigration is going to have particular political resonances, but Herrera makes his heroine an Odysseus character and her trials a quest. While the tale is not surreal, there is a sense, as in myths and fables, that anything could happen:

“She looked into the mirrors: in front of her was her back: she looked behind but found only never-ending front, curving forward, as if inviting her to step through its thresholds. If she crossed them all, eventually, after many bends, she’d reach the right place; but it was a place she didn’t trust.”

Herrera is a writer who invents neologisms (definitely worth reading the interesting Translator’s Note for this novel) and so is fascinated by language. Through Makina’s journey he tracks the way that boundaries of countries, self and language are all permeable, and how this creates a modern, constantly shifting society:

“Makina senses in their tongue not a sudden absence but a shrewd metamorphosis, a self-defensive shift. They might be talking in perfect latin tongue and without warning begin to talk in perfect anglo tongue and keep it up like that, alternating between a thing that believes itself to be perfect  and a thing that believes itself to be perfect, morphing back and forth between two beasts until out of carelessness or clear intent  they suddenly stop switching tongues and start speaking that other one.”

Signs Preceding the End of the World is a fascinating, multi-layered novel, at once a story for our times but also engages with enduring, expansive themes. Hugely impressive.

And now I pause for thought to wonder if there are enough pictures of kittens in barrels to get me through a single news bulletin right now:

Secondly, Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller (2015) which I was alerted to last year by the many bloggers who loved this debut novel (written when the author was in her 40s – I must remember to tell my friend C who is coming to terms with the fact that she’s missed her window for those ‘30 Under 30’ type lists). I’m not going to buck the trend on this – I found it a compulsive read which I whizzed through to its gut-wrenching conclusion.

Peggy lives with her parents in the kind of north London middle-class bohemia that keeps Mini Boden in business.  Peggy doesn’t wear Mini Boden though, as it’s 1976 and her mother is busy being a concert pianist while her father gets into arguments with his friends in the North London Retreaters group. This collection of (male) survivalists are convinced nuclear war is imminent. A personal crisis forces Peggy’s father to act on his rhetoric, and he takes her to Germany, to live entirely isolated in “Die Hutte”, in the middle of a forest.  We know this fairytale has unravelled horribly from the opening line, told 9 years later by Peggy who is back in Highgate after a long absence:

“This morning, I found a black and white photograph of my father at the back of the bureau drawer. He didn’t look like a liar.”

The lie Peggy’s father told is astronomical: that the rest of the world has disappeared and they are the only two left living.

“ ‘We’re not going to live by somebody else’s rules of hours and minutes anymore,’ he said. ‘When to get up, when to go to church, when to go to work.’

I couldn’t remember my father ever going to church, or even to work.”

What follows is a narrative that moves back and forth between Peggy’s life in Die Hutte and that in 1985 Highgate with her mother and brother she never knew, Oskar. Fuller handles this extremely well, and I didn’t find the chopping back and forth disruptive or gimmicky. While not a thriller, Our Endless Numbered Days is definitely a page-turner, as Peggy’s comments drip-feed us information about what has gone on: there has been a fire, she has no hair, part of her ear is missing, her teeth are rotten, there is a man called Reuben involved in some way… and her father is no longer around.

The writing style is simple, and I found this a quick read, but the ideas are complex. Fuller is interested in the fantasies we tell ourselves and others in order to survive and the dangers inherent in not questioning these (insert heavy-handed political parallel here). She is interested in the price paid by powerless members of society when the powerful seek fulfilment by disregarding the needs of others (insert… well, you get the idea) and she is interested in the psychological fallout from childhood and our parents.  I saw the twists a mile off, and sometimes Peggy’s voice wavered, but this may have been intentional and it really didn’t matter. Peggy’s complex fairytale was both extreme and subtle, quite a feat.

“Oskar rapped his knuckles on the thick white ice which had risen like a soufflé out of a bucket hanging on a nail beside the back door. I recognised it, it was the bucket my father and I had used…Oskar laughed and turned the handle twisting it hard; his mouth twisting too with the effort. The tap snapped off. And for the first time since I had come home I cried – for the music, for Reuben, but most of all for the waste of a bucket.”

To end, goodbye to a poet and musician whose work is bringing me some comfort – as always – in these troubled times:

“Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.” (Vincent van Gogh)

This is my contribution to Small Press September, hosted by Bibliosa. Do head over to her blog to read all about it and join in! The novels are also two more stops on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit.

Firstly, Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos (tr.Rosalind Harvey, 2011), which I picked up after reading Shoshi’s excellent review.  It is published by And Other Stories, a not-for-private-profit company which concentrates mainly on translated fiction. That sentence makes me feel better about the world 🙂

9781908276285

Back to the novel: Tochtli (rabbit in Nahuatl, an indigenous language of Mexico), tells us about his love of samurai films, hats, learning new words, and his life as the young son of a drug baron, Yolcaut (rattlesnake).

“I think we have a very good gang. I have proof. Gangs are all about solidarity. So solidarity means that because I like hats, Yolcaut buys me hats, lots of hats, so many that I have a collection from all over the world and all periods of the world. Although now more than new hats what I want is Liberian pygmy hippopotamus. I’ve already written it down on the list of things I want and given it to Miztli. That’s how we always do it, because I don’t go out much, so Miztli buys me all the things I want on orders from Yolcaut.”

The isolation is a necessary part of his father’s business, whose paranoia is an occupational hazard that is no doubt keeping them all alive. The tragic effect that this is having on young Tochtli becomes increasingly apparent as the story progresses. Tochtli accepts his life, knowing no different, but to the adult reader he displays worrying signs of severe anxiety: wanting his head shaved because he doesn’t want ‘dead’ hair on him, compulsively wearing hats, constant severe stomach pains, and later, after he sees something his father tried to keep hidden, selective mutism. He also takes violence pretty much in his stride:

“One of the things I’ve learnt from Yolcaut is that sometimes people don’t turn into corpses with just one bullet. Sometimes they need three or even fourteen bullets. It all depends where you aim them. If you put two bullets in their brains they’ll die for sure. But you can put up to 1,000 bullets in their hair and nothing will happen, though it might be fun to watch.”

Although dealing with extremely serious subject matter, there is humour is the novel, such as Tochtli’s description of the preparation for a drug run to Liberia which he also goes on in order to get one of his beloved pygmy hippos:

“By the way, Franklin Gomez started being Franklin Gomez yesterday in the airport. That’s what his passport from the country of Honduras says: Franklin Gomez. There were problems because Franklin Gomez didn’t want to be Franklin Gomez. Until Winston Lopez convinced him.”

In such a short tale (70 pages in my edition)Villalobos effectively widens the narrative of drug trade away from the usual barons/dealers/ users paradigm to show how the fallout from the industry can reach far and wide, including devastating those too young to have a choice about their own involvement. It is a truly moving story, not about drugs (you can read an article by the author where he refutes the term narcoliteratura here), but about children trying to cope with the messy, corrupt world adults create around them: sadly, pretty much a universal theme.

Fellow hat enthusiast, the late Isabella Blow, wearing Philip Treacy's Castle hat

Fellow hat enthusiast, the late Isabella Blow, wearing Philip Treacy’s Castle hat

Image from here

Secondly, The Notebook by Agota Kristof (1986, tr. Alan Sheridan, 1989) published by CB editions,  a publishing house which focuses on short fiction, poetry and translations. Kristof was Hungarian but was exiled to French-speaking Switzerland in 1956, and wrote this, her first novel, in French.

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Like Down the Rabbit Hole, The Notebook is told from a child’s point of view, in this instance twin boys – we never know their individual names and they always use the first-person plural – who are evacuated to live with their maternal grandmother in the countryside of an unnamed nation, but which is generally thought to be Hungary.

“We call her Grandmother. People call her the Witch. She calls us ‘sons of a bitch’…Grandmother never washes. She wipes her mouth with the corner of her shawl when she has finished eating and drinking. She doesn’t wear knickers. When she wants to urinate, she just stops wherever she happens to be, spreads her legs and pisses on the ground under her skirt.”

This woman shows them no love or affection (although as the novel progresses we learn to recognise the small signs that she does care for them) and life is tough. They work on her smallholding and undertake various psychological ‘exercises’ to try and adjust to their straightened circumstances.

“ ‘My darlings! My loves! My joy! My adorable little babies!’ When we remember these words, our eyes fill with tears. We must forget these words because, now, nobody says such words to us and because our memory of them is too heavy a burden to bear. So we begin our exercise again in a different way…By repeating them we make these words gradually lose their meaning and the pain that they carry in them is reduced.”

The tone of the narration is astonishing. As the boys become more and more detached in an effort to preserve themselves from the horrors they witness, the reader is faced with filling in the gaps regarding what is happening. The delivery is so matter-of-fact that more the once I found myself stopping, thinking ‘Wait a minute, what the…’, going back and finding that something devastating had been described and I’d nearly missed it.

“Words that define feelings are very vague; it is better to avoid using them and to stick to description of objects, human beings and oneself; that is to say, to the faithful description of facts.”

The Notebook is a shattering work, and a challenging read. Human relationships are warped under the pressures of war. More than once, these pretty, golden twins get drawn into adult sex games. A young girl who is named after her birth anomaly – Harelip is apparently her given name – engages in some truly upsetting sexual acts. A neighbour behaves with horrific cruelty toward a group of starving people (presumably Jewish prisoners) and the boys wreak a terrible revenge (which they never admit in the text but you know what has happened and why). It is a difficult read but a powerful one, which does not shy away from the damage done when the acts of nations cause individuals to lose sight of their humanity. It is a political book, but not a polemical one: the twins’ equanimity leaves the reader to draw their own conclusions.

“Later, we have our own army and government again, but our army and government are controlled by our Liberators. Their flag flies over all the public buildings. The photograph of their leader is displayed everywhere. They teach us their songs and their dances; they show us their films in our cinemas. In the schools, the language of our liberators is compulsory; other foreign languages are forbidden.”

Highly recommended, but go in prepared – brilliantly written and completely brutal.

The Notebook was adapted into a film in 2013, which completely passed me by. From this trailer it looks excellent, and thankfully laws protecting children and animals means certain scenes are guaranteed to have not been filmed, surely?

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language /And next year’s words await another voice.” (TS Eliot)

Today marks a year since my first blog post.  During the year I’ve got so much more out of blogging than I ever thought possible, and that is due in no small part to my fellow bloggers, you gorgeous bunch.  So I thought it would be apt to commemorate my first year by looking at a piece of writing by another WordPress blogger.

First birthday

(Image from http://www.juicyoccasions.co.uk/2012_02_01_archive.html)

Becky Mayhew blogs at Becky Says Things.  Her blog is funny, insightful and truly original.  Do check it out, I promise you will be better for it as Becky points and laughs at the absurdities of life, and has something interesting to say about it all too. In 2011, Becky had a collection of short stories published by the lovely Treehouse Press, Lost Souls.   It is collection of three stories, “Shelves”, “Ramona” and “Roses”.

“Shelves” is told to us by a librarian, whose sexual encounters are intertwined with her job and the reading matter of her partners.  So she sleeps with the “insipid, vole-like” Geoffrey when he takes on board her suggestion to abandon John Grisham for Jane Austen, and later, after Wuthering Heights:

“I think the dynamic impression of hot-blooded Heathcliff had gone to his head a little, as he had the audacity to suggest we go back to mine. I conceded, and took him round the corner along the twelve houses to my flat, almost entirely for my own personal interest in what a week of Heathcliff does to a man; as it turned out, less than I hoped.”

As the passage above shows, there’s a wry, dry humour running through the tale, and the librarian’s voice is strong and distinctive.  There are some beautiful images and Becky has an original turn of phrase:

“His eyes slid like oil over titles, one black eyebrow raised; occasionally he paused to finger a book spine or to bend to a lower shelf, and then he moved on, disappearing and reappearing in and out of bookcases like a thief.”

Fellow bibliophiles, didn’t we always know that libraries are hotbeds of sexual tension?

The narrator of “Ramona” is a middle-aged teacher, struggling to assert herself in all aspects of her life.  I know enough teachers to know the description of how “it is depressing trying to teach a class of idiots who are far more interested in their social and sexual status than in how Margaret Atwood develops her characters” rings true.  The narrator’s interest in one of her pupils, Ramona Manson, is slightly baffling to her, as Ramona “is not charming, she is not beautiful, she is not even particularly threatening”, and yet, she goes through life with an ease the narrator cannot achieve, and with a sense of authority that continually evades the older woman.  The plot of “Ramona” is a simple one, and yet through this largely unremarkable time the fracture lines in the teacher’s life become fully exposed.  The story is an artfully constructed portrait of an ordinary life teetering on the edge.

I loved the first line of the final story, “Roses”: “There he is, inside a flaming scarlet halo.” It’s a perfect example of what is to come – a beautifully written, unnerving, and insidiously violent tale. Unlike the other two stories, “Roses” is told in the third person, from the point of view of Elizabeth, a florist and fantasist, for whom the flowers are people:

“The bamboo chuckles raspingly under its breath.  The lilies poke out their tongues; the sunflowers nod on their aching necks, shoulders shaking with weary laughter…”

Elizabeth spends her day obsessed with a man who uses the coffee shop opposite her florists:

“Sometimes she can feel him, in the long stretches when she is alone with her flowers; she can feel a presence, a warmth about her, as though he is sitting right there beside her, breathing her perfumed air.  Their worlds beautifully interlaced like the coiling infinity of an open rose.”

That last sentence is such perfectly balanced writing: an image of originality and meaning without any pretension or heavy-handedness. I don’t want to say too much more about “Roses” as it would give the plot away, but the final page of this book, containing the last four short paragraphs of this story, was breathtakingly well-written.  The images are startling and evocative, and I absolutely loved this story.  Becky has blogged in the past about her tendency to procrastinate.  I can only hope she is more successful than me at beating this behaviour, because I want to read more of her work very soon…

On their website, Treehouse Press say “we want our books to be unique and beautiful objects, a thing you’d want to hold in your hand, and also for the writing and the artwork to engage you”.   Hopefully I’ve convinced you of the engaging quality of Becky’s writing.  In the book the stories are alongside the haunting images of Paul G. Vine’s photographs, certainly making it a lovely object. You can buy Lost Souls direct from the publisher at http://www.treehousepress.co.uk/products/lost-souls , so if you’d like to get Becky’s book can I enter a plea that you buy it there and not from a certain tax-avoiding multi-national company?

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(Image from http://www.treehousepress.co.uk/products/lost-souls )

Thanks to everyone who’s looked at the blog/followed/commented/re-blogged etc and made the last year such a joy!