Writing beyond the lines: Rebecca Gransden’s anemogram.

This novel starts by dragging us into the bushes, and entangling us in a dense, lush, damp forest of prose that twists and grows into a setting, a character, a child who is inexplicably alone. She is unafraid, but hungry. Desperately vulnerable, but somehow perfectly content. She sleeps in the woods without getting her dress dirty, and when she needs something, she finds a way of taking it. Abandoned, abused, lost… but she defies us with happiness, with taking joy in the natural world. A voice in her ear, perhaps an imaginary friend, perhaps a possessing spirit, drives her onwards with gruesome, shocking, and sad fairytales. She consumes the stories as though they are sustenance.

As the story unfolds, we meet other people, also driven by sad stories that whisper in their ear. In particular, we meet David, who sets out to help the girl. Their connection is instantaneous, worrying in a way. But by this point we understand that this child is more than capable of taking care of herself. David, maybe not so much. The girl tells David her name is Sarah, but this is likely a lie.

There is something transgressive and unpleasant in the idea of an infant who is so self-sufficient, manipulative, poised as a predator. There is something deeply suspect about the adult males who take her under their wing. The novel’s brutal climax is a relief in a way, restoring a kind of natural order and justice, a punishment by proxy of men who hurt little girls.

But nothing about this novel is easy to understand. Even the title, which Gransden claims to have picked at random, is a word shuttered inside its own referents. Anemogram: that which is recorded by an anemograph. Anemograph: a self-recording anemometer. Self-recording, a self recording itself, itself recorded… it is a fitting title, for we come to see that the self being recorded in this story is itself recorded by another self, a Tinker who tells tales and moves the world.

Yet for all this mystery and ambiguity, the novel pushes forwards with a fierce narrative drive towards its awful, inevitable climax and its gripping denouement. There is a gradually deepening sense of horror as the story twists our sympathies and allegiances in unpredictable directions. Gransden holds out answers, then rips them away, leaving the reader effectively stranded and vulnerable in a world made alien and weird.

There is a deep concern with the relationship between human-made and natural environments. The characters move around the edges of the countryside, where building sites encroach upon the woods, and trees are staked through with metal. These liminal settings are key to the novel’s unsettling atmosphere; a Macdonald’s car park or a transport cafe are places steeped in weirdness, a sense of dislocation. Sarah longs for the woods, to be engrossed in the wild minutiae of the undergrowth. In some way, it is as if she has sprung up from these edgelands, a vessel for the battle between humans and nature. Again, the title may – or may not – provide a clue.

One thing is certain, and that is Rebecca Gransden‘s superlative and thrilling prose. It is mesmerising to read, hypnotic and terrifying. Gransden spins out webs of delicate beauty, then drops in a hungry spider. She is fearless and compelling. anemogram is a uniquely weird novel, which leaves the reader unsettled, excited, and full of questions. Highly recommended.

Coming of age in the apocalypse: Helen Marshall’s THE MIGRATION

The Migration tells the story of teenage Sophie as she finds herself in the midst of family and global turmoil. Her little sister Kira has been diagnosed with an immune disorder which is mysteriously spreading among children and young people. Her best chance of treatment is in Oxford, England – thousands of miles from their Toronto home. For any teenager, being uprooted and moved across the world would be hard, and Sophie is no exception. She’s dealing with all the usual teenage angst over friendships, relationships, family tensions, and fears for the future. But as the immune disorder spreads, the world’s waters rise, and society begins to break down, she finds herself on a precipice. Solid ground is rapidly crumbling beneath her feet as first her family and then the entire world falls apart.

There are many migrations in this novel. Sophie’s migration from childhood to maturity provides the fierce narrative drive of the story. But there is a corresponding migration from order to chaos as the world rapidly changes. There are echoing migrations in every element of this story: from Canada to England, from health to illness, from ignorance to knowledge, from grief to acceptance, from life to death and from death to something beyond. The novel is masterful in its deep structure, building a sense of utter inevitability and verisimilitude from its underlying complexity. There is nothing implausible in the way Sophie is confronted with the facts of her new life, and no leap of faith is needed to believe in the unfolding of global events. It is all too real. The difficulty is believing that it could happen in any other way, although there are many in denial, such as Sophie’s mother and others who struggle to let go of the idea that everything will be alright, that order will be restored. It won’t be, and it is the children who grasp this first and bravely lead the way into a new kind of living.

There is hope in this book, magic and beauty. Helen Marshall’s prose is transparently clear and precise, effortlessly creating tension, humour, sorrow and fear, and playing each off against the others in a thrilling symphony of emotion and empathy. At the novel’s climax, a crescendo of glittering prose lifts us into a soaring and expansive sky. Marshall is a writer who can break your heart, and mend it again, and leave you dazzled, gazing out at her beautiful, broken universe.

The Migration is a serious, powerful novel, which confidently transcends the many genres that inform it – thriller, horror, science fiction, and fantasy, to name but a few. Helen Marshall has combined the personal and political in a compelling novel that is as thought-provoking as it is thrilling. Memorable and moving, deeply intelligent, and steeped in compassion, The Migration is a remarkable debut by an exceptionally talented author. Highly recommended.

the big-headed people

who are the big-headed people

No one is brilliant the way the author/recorder of these stories, Des Lewis, is brilliant. I thought I’d try to gestalt-real-time-dream-catch-review ‘The Big-Headed People’ but found myself instead foundering, sunk by the weight of these stories, through the floor and into the basement and then somewhere underneath that opened up into great vistas of strange incomprehension. It’s not an overstatement to say these stories are radical. A kind of un-writing that speaks to the unconscious spirit, translating the everyday and quotidian into its sometimes sinister, sometimes absurd, sometimes godly language of feeling and knowing. It’s impossible to do justice to these stories in a brief response. They are small but TARDIS-like in that they are bigger, infinitely bigger, on the inside. Which is funny, considering Des Lewis is the outsider-artist of our times, the one who sees it all.

THE BIG-HEADED PEOPLE

“What happened between then and now is told, I’m told, in detail elsewhere, by another source…”

The first story in the collection sent me reeling. I didn’t know you could tell that story. I didn’t know it was possible to completely transform every recognisable element of a story into something else, and present the reader with such a generous trusting invitation to make her own art from it. This story shocked me. At first I thought of Kafka, and Borges, especially his labyrinths. But the closest comparison I could make to an existing work of art is to Tarkovsky’s film ‘Stalker’. The labyrinth doesn’t look like a labyrinth, but it is, a maze sunk underground. An understory. The rest of the story is “elsewhere,” generated by an anonymous source, unreliable and distant. We are left with the part of the story that can’t be told.

The mannequins with their leaking, rusty groins put me in mind of my own Dreemy Peeple: inarticulate and broken, they haunt the story, perform operations, move with the sick compulsion of a dream. The derelict tower is a tarot card, signifying breakdown. A level of dysfunction that drives the narrator to find a primal connection to his own birth.

A HALO OF DRIZZLE AROUND AN ORANGE STREET LAMP

“I am depending on hearsay and rumour…”

Alma wants a real experience, something that matters, a “real-time fact of her diminishing life.” But her connection to the world is attenuated, alienated; again, the story has been told elsewhere, by anonymous others. In this case, only understanding one facet of the story, Alma invites sinister shadow-stories into her world. There can be no record, no story, not even the Family Bible can keep Alma tied to this world where “things are all technological and nobody has proper picnics at all.” There is a loss of simplicity, a loss of connection to the past, to family, to memory. The sun is “panicking” and so are we.

THOUGHTS & THEMES

“It was my turn to stand watch at the front room window tonight…”

Two clowns, Vladimir and Estragon in another dimension, take turns to pay attention to the world and meditate on its themes, as a circus rolls into town. Entities and urges are disguised as normal people and everyday things. Behind their masks/clown-faces, an unfathomable intellect. Beyond that, a physical mystery. The two (?) characters are emphatically not “normal human beings” by their own account. And yet there is something familiar and domestic in their attention. Characters in these stories are growing older, monitoring and documenting the world as it changes and morphs into unrecognisable forms. Trying, perhaps, to capture something real or meaningful and keep it alive.

ORIGAMI SHADOWS

“This story knew where he was, all the time… sure in its own heart that reality was its gift to the world, not make-believe…”

This story opens with a reference to Bill and Ben, the flowerpot men, which reminded me of a jubilee street party, long ago in a different time, where my brothers were dressed up as Bill and Ben, and I adamantly refused to be dressed up as Little Weed, thinking I was being made an insignificant feminine sidekick to the main characters. As well as Bill and Ben, I spotted Alice and Escher in this story, my own ‘White Rabbit’, and that Ian McEwan story about the geometrical shape that disappears people. For all its spreading web of connections to story after story, this is the most blatantly un-written story in the collection. It seems to be admitting to its project of undermining story in order to get at reality… or something deeper. “The origin of the shape was slowly pre-dating the shape itself…”

THE SOFT TREAD

“A black rose.”

The past is mysterious, illusory, a tapestry of lies. A suspicion of noises. The sound of stone revolving over stone, a sound we pretend not to have heard. The soft tread of the story, following us along the hallway. A ghost story that made me feel like the ghost.

This collection of stories is tiny, but it weighs incredibly heavy. We are so lucky to have Des Lewis in these times. His project as a reader and as a writer is dazzling huge but touchingly intimate all at once. A genius, no doubt. But much more than that – his writing is a resource for all of us who think stories matter. READ THIS BOOK.

my top ten books of 2016

Because books didn’t let us down in 2016.  Books didn’t allow Poundshop Cruella to take over the UK. Books didn’t elect Dipshit McHairdo as US president. Books didn’t exacerbate and instrumentalise divisions between people. Books didn’t conspire with evil dictators around the world to usher in a new age of fascism.

Because books are good.

Alice, by Christina Henry

This book gripped me from the very first line, and had me enthralled right to the very last. I love Alice in Wonderland, and over the years have collected many versions and adaptations (some relevant ones here are Jeff Noon’s Automated Alice, and The Looking Glass Wars, by Frank Beddor). Christina Henry’s version gives us Alice as a victimised, imprisoned, oppressed young woman, who finds within herself the will and strength to fight back against the gruesome misogynist magical regime of the Walrus and the Caterpillar. It is gripping, funny, gruesome, and feminist as fuck. Highly recommended.

Wylding Hall, Elizabeth Hand

Creepy fiction about a bucolic summer in which something very strange happens to the members of a folk band recording their first album at Wylding Hall. The compelling thing about this book is its telling – each of the band members relays what they recall of that strange summer, and in the gaps and overlaps between their stories, we begin to see the shape of something very sinister emerging. By layering their stories one on top of the other, Hand is able to make a whole other story emerge, ghost-like, from the interstices. A brilliant book.

Bodies of Water, V.H. Leslie

This is a book which keeps on unfolding and revealing itself long after you’ve read the last lines. Kirsten moves into an apartment at Wakewater House, a former hydropathy sanitorium. Her story intertwines with that of Evelyn, a woman treated at Wakewater House many years before. From there, this gothic ghost story is transformed by Leslie’s sensitive, passionate writing into a frightening and moving explication of the tortures that ‘unnatural’ women were subjected to, and the need to keep this history alive. Leslie is a superb writer of the feminist gothic and Bodies of Water is a very exciting first novel.

My Name is Leon, Kit de Waal

I had to stop reading this book on the tram because it was making me cry so much that it was actually embarrassing.  Leon is a young boy in foster care, broken up from his younger brother, and very lonely. His foster carer is one of those brilliant ordinary women who understand how to love and who rage against the racism and callousness of the care system. Set in Birmingham around the time of the Handsworth Riots, this is a story about family, love, racism, and power. If you like having your heart broken and put back together again, this is the book for you.

The Lost and Found, Katrina Leno

Full disclosure: Katrina Leno happens to be a good friend of mine. But I am only friends with the best, most accomplished, talented and interesting people, and she is one such. She has a unique voice which is both sensitive and sarcastic, and an imagination which knows no bounds. In her second YA novel, she tells the story of two young people who are brought together in a mysterious way, each on their own journey to solve their own particular problems. Leno’s evocation of falling in love is the most moving and compelling aspect of this book, which will make you laugh and cry. What more do you want?

A Spell to Conjure Violets, Kate Mascarenhas

Kate Mascarenhas is not only a fantastic writer, but a talented artist and a bookbinder. She printed, bound and covered each copy of Violets herself – which has sadly now sold out. You’ll be lucky to get your hands on a copy of this book, but if you can, then do! Because it is fantastically weird and beautifully written – a portal fantasy that goes fractal. It’s a novel about abuses of privilege and power, and also about what connects us to one another. A book of wonderful, frightening, enthralling possibilities. I treasure this book, and commend this writer to you with all my heart.

Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys

Jane Eyre has been one of my favourite books since I was a small child – so I’m not sure why it took me until this year to get around to reading Jean Rhys’ incredibly powerful sister-story, Wide Sargasso Sea. It tells the story of Rochester’s mad wife in the attic, and in doing so, it moves Bronte’s gothic sensibilities into new dimensions of power, privilege, abuse, racism, colonialism, and sex. This is a brilliant book in its own right, but to me at least a part of its greatness comes from the conversation with Jane Eyre, who is also oppressed as a female, yet is part of the system that oppresses Bertha and denies her freedom. A very beautiful, sad, and thought-provoking book.

The Bird King, James Knight

Total cheat, as this isn’t actually just a book, but a series of books, poems, and tweets which explore nightmares (both personal and political), other worlds, strange cabaret, the thing behind the mirror, Mr Punch, illustrations of your dreams, and more besides. James Knight is currently writing a novel, which will no doubt be brilliantly surreal, moving, and extraordinary in every way. In the meantime, you can buy one or several of Knight’s books here.

The Vegetarian and Human Acts, Han Kang

The Vegetarian grabbed everyone’s attention this year by winning the Booker prize – deservedly so. This short novel is about the madness and oppression of Yeong-hye, a woman who no one notices at all until she stops eating meat and thus begins her struggle to escape the imprisonment of her female body. An utterly brilliant, though bleak, book, which led me to Human Acts, Han Kang’s absolute masterpiece. This is not only the best book I read in 2016, but one of the very best books I have ever read. It is a shocking account of the 1980 Gwangju massacre, in which hundreds of students were viciously killed and their bodies carelessly thrown onto pyres. Han Kang carefully and lovingly draws out several strands of this story, bringing to life the humanity and need of each of the characters, taking us the reader into the heart of the horror, and then leading us back out to the light. This is a book of magic, with Han Kang working at the height of her powers to put the ghosts of Gwangju to rest. It is more connected and active than any writing I’ve ever come across – I came away with the feeling that the book itself is a form of prayer, a burial rite, and a powerful kind of healing. Han Kang is an extraordinary writer, a genius, an activist, and a luminary.

I read about 100 books this year, and many of them were excellent, but only ten of them can be on the list, because that’s the arbitrary rule I’ve invented to torture myself with. So sorry to those books I loved but didn’t make it. And happy new year! Read, write, and resist.

25 books that will stick with you and blow your mind

Apologies for the stupid title. I stole it from this stupid article, so do forgive me.

1. The Tale of Genji, Murasaki Shikabu
The first novel ever written! Universally recognised as a great masterpiece of Japanese prose narrative, The Tale of Genji is an incredible insight into the moral, social, political and sexual values of its time and place.

2. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
One of those books that changes lives, especially young lives. It teaches the importance of justice and integrity in the face of cruelty, racism, hatred and fear. A classic, by anyone’s standards.

3. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
Widely considered to be the first science fiction novel, Frankenstein endures because of its insightful evocation of character and theme. Apparently, male-book-list writers also consider this a worthy book. Thanks a lot!

4. & 5. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte, and Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys
You can’t read Jane Eyre without reading Wide Sargasso Sea. Bronte’s novel is a fantastically gothic tale of the unloved, the orphaned, the abused and the unwanted, set against the wild Yorkshire moors. Rhys’ novel provides a mind-altering reading/rewriting of Jane Eyre. It’s a powerful story of dislocation, dispossession, sexism, racism, and the ways in which these oppressions can lead to “madness”.

6. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
A dystopia that has proved to be frighteningly prescient. Atwood’s powerful novel is a brilliantly written, witty, and terrifying insight into religious fascism.

7. Human Acts, Han Kang
A novel about the Gwangju massacre of 1980. I don’t know if such horrors have ever been written about with such compassion. A novel that lays ghosts to rest. Han Kang is a genius of the highest order.

8. Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Gabriel Garcia Marquez said, “the worst enemy of politicians is a writer,” and it’s hard not to recall those words when reading this effortlessly brilliant story about the state of Biafra. Like ‘Human Acts’, it lays out the human truth and makes us care.

9. The Bloody Chamber and other stories, Angela Carter
Only read this if you like magic, fairy tales, blood, sex, horror, dreams, talking animals, Jungian archetypes, and beautifully accomplished writing. Classic writing that will endure.

10. Kindred, Octavia Butler
A rich and complex novel that combines slavery memoir with fantasy, and political allegory with time travelling science fiction. An absolutely astonishing feat of literature.

11. The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin
A ground breaking work of science fiction, with one of the most compelling settings ever devised. This novel explores sexual politics and colonisation within an adventure story that has you on the edge of your seat.

12. The Blazing World, Siri Hustvedt
Narratively innovative, thematically complex, a brilliant collage of a novel that makes you fall in love and leaves you utterly bereft. The art works in this book deserve whole galleries to themselves.

13. The Neapolitan Quartet, Elena Ferrante
These lucid, original and page-turning novels tell the story of a complicated friendship, and in doing so chart the subtle effects of class, poverty, marriage, and education on individuals and their communities.

14. The Lover, Marguerite Duras
No one writes like Duras, with such vulnerability, sensitivity, and courage. The Lover is a book that is suffused with feeling and contradiction, ardour and terror.

15. White is for Witching, Helen Oyeyemi
One of the best haunted house stories ever written. Oyeyemi is one of those perfect writers who can seemingly do anything at all, create ghosts out of thin air, anything she likes.

16. Netsuke, Rikki Ducornet
This short, terrifying novel takes us inside the mind of a dangerous narcissist as he hurtles towards destruction. Absolutely mastery from Ducornet: careful, precise, and shocking.

17. Magic for Beginners, Kelly Link
The same flavour of surrealist magical realism that Haruki Murakami writes – but Link does it better. These pieces expand the territory of the short story, setting up outposts in contemporary culture and politics, creating and dispelling illusions with masterful sleight of hand.

18. The Knife Drawer, Padrika Tarrant
This is the book I most frequently recommend to other book lovers. Why? Because it is utterly brilliant. Moving, funny, frightening, and very very weird. A Jan Švankmajer film in prose. Like nothing else you’ve read.

19. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler
The less you know about this funny, charming book before reading it, the better. One of the most awesome – and technically accomplished – twists of all time.

20. The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud
“How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.” So begins this brave and magnificently furious book, so angry it could burst into flames at any moment and you wouldn’t be too surprised.

21. We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson
An unreliable narrator, possible death-by-mushroom-poisoning, and angry villagers with pitchforks are just a few ingredients in this wonderfully funny and macabre book.

22. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark
Spark’s sparse and precise language here serves to emphasise the brittle brilliance of Miss Jean Brodie – magnetic, charismatic, an inspirational leader — and a fascist. One of the greatest fictional characters of all time.

23. The Hour of the Star, Clarice Lispector
Lispector’s final novel, and her masterpiece. A deceptively simple story with a philosophically intense and ambiguous underlying narrative that echoes and ripples long after the end.

24. We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lionel Shriver
A big, American novel that both responded to and shaped the cultural conversation around motherhood and violent masculinity. Shriver writes with great authority in this deeply serious book.

25. My Name is Leon, Kit de Waal
It’s only just been published, but I predict that this book is going to be huge. HUGE. And deservedly so – it’s utterly heartbreaking, ultimately uplifting, and full of heroes. An instant classic.

Notes:

* This list was compiled just off the top of my head in response to that seriously ignorant Independent article, and I’ve left out SO MANY wonderful writers – I could have mentioned Rebecca Solnit, Magda Szabo, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, George Eliot, Jane Austen, Nnedi Okorafor, Zadie Smith, Nicola Barker, Lydia Davis, Alice Thompson and so many many many others.