“It’s just a job. Grass grows, birds fly, waves pound the sand. I beat people up.” (Muhammad Ali)

Every six months or so the friends I made when I was training for my profession meet up, which we did yesterday.  They were remarkably good natured as the question “how are you?”, when directed towards me, was met with a wail of despair and a twenty minute garbled monologue about how difficult I was finding things. Safe to say I’ve never really mastered the British stoic reticence thing.


My ongoing crisis aside, time spent with my lovely, indulgent friends prompted me to look this week at novels that focus on a profession. Firstly, The Electric Michelangelo by Sarah Hall (2004, Faber & Faber), which is about a tattoo artist. Undoubtedly this is a growth industry, certainly in the UK which is the most tattooed nation in Europe: one-fifth of adults have a tattoo, rising to almost one-third of those under 45. That’s a lot of ink.


 I recently wrote about Hall’s first novel Haweswater, which I loved.  I didn’t feel The Electric Michelangelo, her second novel, was as accomplished as her first, but it was still strong.  It follows tattooist Cy Parks from an adolescent apprenticeship with the alcoholic Eliot Riley in his hometown of Morecambe Bay to a career in carnivalesque Coney Island and back again. Growing up in early twentieth-century Morecombe, Cy’s formidable mother Reeda runs a hotel for consumptives:

“They sucked it down in between their fits and held it inside their lungs like opium smokers in a den…Morecombe’s air was renowned, if not nationwide then reliably in the north, for its restorative properties, its tonic qualities. That was how everyone described it…”

Cy is fairly directionless until his artistic skills catch the eye of Eliot Riley, a man who “lived as if trying to siphon out that darker portion [of life], with alcohol, with banter, with bad habits, bad politics, bad language, obloquy, anguish and despair.” Riley offers Cy an apprenticeship, and for reasons he doesn’t entirely understand, Cy accepts. “Tattooing was like being called by a siren song, or the music of the spheres, impossible to resist, impossible to explain.”

We are drawn into the world of tattooing alongside Cy “a dreamscape type of world, where strange occurrences and dark-wrought ideas, if not normal, were almost commonplace.” Hall is clearly respectful of this ancient trade and its rituals and rites: what the tattooists enact and what the customers endure.

“Riley paused for whisky. After ten more minutes the customer stood wearing art. The snake and dagger flexed on his back, weeping a little as he bent for his shirt. The man had added to his body in a way that was brave and timeless and beyond adornment.”

After his apprenticeship ends, Cy moves across the Atlantic to Coney island, where he falls in love with circus performer Grace, who employs him to tattoo her entire body with eyes.

“the eye was in a league of its own. It had meaning upon meaning, there were currents writhing under currents where that symbol was concerned, like the sea. He had the distinct impression that Grace possessed a fast-flowing undertow also, a restlessness behind her own dark eyes.”

Eye tattoo by Niki Norberg

Eye tattoo by Niki Norberg

Image from here

Like the other relationships in Cy’s life, his romance with Grace is characterised by the unknown and the unsaid. The man who works in images finds spoken language inadequate and lacking, unable to express pain, desire and love in the way his needle can. Sarah Hall certainly doesn’t suffer from a lack of eloquence, but despite this, I came away feeling The Electric Michelangelo didn’t quite add up to an entirely satisfying whole. However, she is such a hugely talented writer that this barely matters. The Electric Michelangelo is a beautifully written character study of Cy and of a profession.

Secondly, The Tango Singer by Tomas Eloy Martinez(tr. Anne McLean, Bloomsbury  2006), and one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit. It was Sarah from Hard Book Habit who made me aware of this novel so a big thank you to Sarah 🙂

The Tango Singer is narrated by Bruno Cadogan, a student who is writing his thesis on Borges and the origins of tango.  He travels to Buenos Aires to track down Julio Martel, the titular legend whose voice has never been recorded but is unforgettable to those lucky enough to catch one of his impromptu performances around the city:

“I was floating in mid-air, and when the voice fell silent, I didn’t know how to detach myself from it, how to get back to earth…the Martel experience is like another dimension, almost supernatural.”

Cadogan’s search for Martel becomes entwined with the city and its history, ultimately indivisible: “the grass that grows over this field of music and lyrics is the wild, rugged, invincible grass of Buenos Aires, the scent of weeds and alfalfa.” Buenos Aires is a city in a constant state of flux: politically, linguistically, architecturally, geographically:

“Every time I looked up I discovered baroque palaces and cupolas in the shape of parasols and melons, with purely ornamental turrets. I was surprised that Buenos Aires was so majestic from the second or third storey upwards and so dilapidated at street level, as if the splendour of the past had remained suspended in the heights and refused to descend or disappear.”

“the language of Buenos Aires shifted so quickly that the words appeared first and then reality arrived, and the words carried on when reality had already left.”

This layering is a theme throughout the novel. Martinez is interested in how reality is formed of the past as well as the present, the unknown as well as the known. It is a beautifully evocative portrait of a city and explores big themes around politics, memory, loss, time and truth in an extraordinarily short novel (243 pages in my edition) which cannot be read quickly. It is also a highly literary novel, peppered with allusions and quotes. Bruno becomes convinced the city houses Borge’s aleph, all of the universe held at a single point. If the aleph is anywhere, probably it is Buenos Aires, which in this novel is a place where reality constantly reforms itself.

The Tango Singer is a sad novel, but not depressing; it is elegiac, and yet suggests that nothing is ever truly lost:

“I would have liked to explain that it wasn’t her who attracted me but the lights that Martel had left on her face that I could half make out, the reverberations of the dying voice that were inscribed on her body.”

To end – what else? – an Argentine tango being performed on the street in Buenos Aires:

“In springtime, the only pretty ring time,/When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding” (William Shakespeare)

Things are not going well, reader. I won’t bore you with details, but as I survey the Beckettian wasteland that is my life (never piss off a bibliophile, we can exaggerate and self-pity in such literary terms) two things bring me solace: one, that the forty minute commute to my circumlocution-office job gives me fixed time to read (apart from one particularly bad day where I spent the journey staring out of the window into the abyss of my existential crisis gardens of south London); and two, that my favourite season is finally here. Hooray for Spring!

giphy (7)

So this week I thought I’d look at novels that are linked with Spring in some way.  Firstly Haweswater by Sarah Hall (2002). The connection to Spring is tenuous at best – I chose it because it’s set in the Lake District, which thanks to Wordsworth is irrevocably linked with this time of year. Hall’s highly accomplished first novel centres around the true story of the valley of Mardale being flooded in 1935 to create a reservoir to supply water to Manchester.

“This valley, with its own natural shape, created as the earth’s muscles cramped and pulled with ferocious sloth millennia earlier, was perfect.  Six miles down, at the bottom of the dale, where the fells curved towards the ground and flattened inwards, hard volcanic rock came to the surface, and it would be possible to lay down a flat arm of cement and brick.”

Images from here and here

The Lightburn family work the land, raising sheep and living lives deeply connected to their environment. Janet, their daughter, works as hard as anyone, refusing to let her gender limit her. She is formed by her strong independent nature and the land that surrounds her:

“There are deaths that have made more sense than lives here. But nothing hangs in the balance. She has been pressed between two vast mountain ranges without claustrophobia or repression; each year she is re-forged. She accepts the weather and the ability of the rain to overwhelm all else. It’s inconsequential. This is a sacred place.”

The charismatic and glamourous Jack Liggett arrives from Manchester to tell the villagers that their entire lives are about to be literally swept away, and Janet’s pious mother has a horrible sense of what is to come:

“There was a vast black bird in her heart, she said to him, foreboding. It warned her of sickness and ill change, lifting its morbid wings. And with the dark man in their midst there was danger, she knew it. But Samuel could not understand. And how could he see fear taking shape or feel its feathery wingtips along her ribcage?”

Haweswater is a beautifully written account of ordinary lives caught up in extraordinary circumstances. Hall has a deep understanding of landscape and a sensitive approach to her characters. It is a sad, poignant novel, but not depressing: people, like the land, mostly endure.

“He was here, within reach. The landscape had him enfolded, safe, like bark holding back the spreading rings of a tree. She put her face in the grass and her tears swept down concave blades and soaked into the dry earth, into the fossils and claws and muscles of rock from thousands of years ago.”

If that all sounds a bit depressing, my second choice may be more to your liking: The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim (1922), which I was inspired to rescue from the depths of my TBR by reading Shoshi’s wonderful review.


This novel is an absolute joy: a heartwarming, silly, acerbic, funny, insightful joy.  Mrs Wilkins and Mrs Arbuthnot are drawn to an advertisement in The Times which promises “wisteria and sunshine” at an Italian medieval castle for the duration of the titular month.  Mrs Wilkins is in need of a change:

“She was the kind of person who is not noticed at parties.  Her clothes, infested by thrift, made her practically invisible; her face was non-arresting; her conversation reluctant; she was shy. And if one’s clothes and face and conversation are all negligible, thought Mrs Wilkins, who recognised her disabilities, what, at parties, is there left of one?”

While Mrs Arbuthnot needs space to work out what on earth to do with her marriage:

“And Frederick, from her passionately loved bridegroom, from her worshipped young husband, had become second only to God in her list of duties and forebearances. There he hung, second in importance, a bloodless thing bled white by her prayers.”

They decide to take the plunge, and advertise for two more women to join them, ending up with young and feckless Lady Caroline and older and self-absorbed Mrs Fisher. The women take a while to adjust to one another, but the magic of Italian Riviera is impossible to resist (as is von Arnim’s writing, permit me a lovely long quote):

 “All the radiance of April in Italy lay gathered together at her feet. The sun poured in on her. The sea lay asleep in it, hardly stirring. Across the bay the lovely mountains, exquisitely different in colour, were asleep too in the light; and underneath her window, at the bottom of the flower-starred grass slope from which the wall of the castle rose up, was a great cypress, cutting through the delicate blues and violets and rose-colours of the mountains and the sea like a great black sword. She stared. Such beauty; and she was there to see it. Such beauty; and she was alive to feel it. Her face was bathed in light.”

Surrounded by this picturesque scene, all the women, wanting to escape their lives for a variety of reasons, undergo a healing process, a regeneration. If this makes the novel sound worthy and heavy-handed, it really isn’t.  It’s a wonderful study of group dynamics and how what we need can be brought to us by the most unlikely people. Even Mrs Fisher is powerless to resist:

“She knew the feeling, because she had sometimes had it in childhood in specially swift springs when the lilacs and syringas seemed to rush out into blossom in a single night, but it was strange to have it again after over fifty years. She would have liked to remark on the sensation to some one, but she was ashamed. It was such an absurd sensation at her age. Yet oftener and oftener, and every day more and more, did Mrs Fisher have a ridiculous feeling  as if she were presently going to burgeon.”

Von Armin doesn’t shy away from the difficulties of life: “She felt small and dreadfully alone. She felt uncovered and defenceless. Instinctively she pulled her wrap closer. With this thing of chiffon she tried to protect herself from the eternities” but what she suggests is that if we open ourselves to possibilities, the insurmountable becomes surmountable, our fears conquerable. If you need a lift; a fun, escapist read that still has something to say but does so with the lightest of touches, then The Enchanted April is for you. Enchanting indeed!

To end, there has been Shakespeare galore this weekend as it is 400 years since his death, and I opened this post with some of the weakest lines he ever wrote 😀 To redress the balance, here are some of the greatest lines he ever wrote: