Thursday, 31 March 2011
Sunday, 27 March 2011
Joanne Limburg, having grown from a lonely, hair-chewing, skin-picking London Jewish overachiever into a poet and mother who cannot take her toddler to the shops for fear of pushing him under a bus, works out that she has Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. She loosely groups anorexics, bulimics, people with Tourette’s and hoarders (Hoarders Disorder?) into the OCD spectrum but is aware that a tendency to tighten loose ends is a symptom of her obsessive nature. She has a lovely wit that leavens the occasionally repetitive material (goes with the territory, and anyway it was only the New Mother phase that started to bore me briefly, probably because we all go a bit mad then). Limburg is especially witty on how her reading and the internet fed into a hyper-expertise which so alienated her psychiatrist, she was refused treatment. Self-disparagement is par for the course for someone whose head is jammed with warnings of woe. But Limburg knows this, makes a joke, and harnesses it. She shows how, despite having wasted half her youth in psychoanalysis when she could have been having sex, her cure was simple and rather boring: a to-do list of scary challenges. She recognises the bathos of her eventual treatment, “If I look at [this] cognitive behavioural model of OCD with a poet’s eyes, the picture that emerges is of a person who is suffering from hyperbole, and perhaps and over-excitation of the metaphorical… it’s not an impulse but the DEVIL’S PROMPTING… it’s not a mistake but a FATAL FLAW.”
Monday, 21 March 2011
View from the Goldfish Bowl: review of Help Me, Jacques Cousteau by Gil Adamson and True Things About Me, Deborah Kay Davies
A first person narrative, then, such as Deborah Kay Davies' debut novel, for Canongate, True Things About Me, should have been a personal dead cert, allowing me to chime in with voices claiming this novel could have won the next Wales Book of the Year Award, had its author not been one of the prize's current judges (a selfless move on her part, coming after her winning last year for short story collection, Grace, Tamar and Laszlo the Beautiful). It is a brief novel bolstered by wide margins, happy to be constrained by one mind-set, few characters or settings and a claustrophobic scenario of a woman surprised to catch herself in acts of increasingly compulsive, humiliating, plein air and sadomasochistic sex with a stranger. True Things About Me also has distinctive literary style in buckets. So far, so good, and a strain of female-gothic right up my street.
However, it was when I came to read another first person novella presented as a novel, Help Me, Jacques Cousteau by Canadian Gil Adamson, that I saw how both authors were attending to voice at the expense of width and depth of characterisation, creating a rather cloying, narcissistic world in whose fate I quickly ceased to care.
Help Me, Jacques Cousteau is Adamson's first written work of fiction, appearing this year for the first time in the UK following awards for her first novel, The Outlander, including the International Association of Crime Writers' Dashiell Hammet Prize. Protagonist Hazel is rather handily given a superpower allowing her to hear through walls, thus allowing her perceptions to range beyond the immediate. These experiences, however, from being an infant on board ship from Australia to Canada, to herself as a young woman taking solace – just like Davies' heroine – in sex with random men, are most convincing when they are personal, visual and sensual. One instance is the recurring imagery conveying Hazel's passive view of her neighbourhood as through aquarium glass, binoculars or a ship's porthole. Things happen: her brother doesn't speak for a good while following her parents' separation; the siblings fish-sit for their neighbour Mrs Draper who may or may not be having an affair with a young man who may or may not be her son; Hazel craves her dad's attention, and we see him being over-involved with a kooky set of sketchily drawn brothers and their rotating wives and ladyfriends. The mother is either absent or ignored for much of the time which is probably the missing heart of this book. But there is little artistry in the lack of plot, and less in terms of emotional motivation or perception. Hazel's empty musing, “I'm considering my brother... and I'm wondering: do I have some kind of problem seeing the impossible for what it is?” shows the author seeking refuge in generalising when she could have shown exactly the what and why of Hazel's emotional ailments. It is fine for an author to share with us their main character's alienated mindset but we do need to take home some specifics of dysfunction, not just blanket malaise.
Narcissism, passivity, promiscuity and a tendency to miss the mark when describing emotional states are what characterise the heroines of both Davies' and Adamson's novellas. Both are alienated and inhabit isolated worlds, and so it is right for their viewpoint to capture those underwater refractions. This reader, however, began to get the bends and long for the air circulating in bigger books with a wider dramatic scope. For once, I'll take the bird's eye view over the goldfish bowl.
Sunday, 20 March 2011
Audience feedback forms include questions on the book, TV and film versions. Touring now to Cardigan, Brecon, Taliesin Swansea and The Riverfront, Newport: definitely worth a night out.
Thursday, 10 March 2011
The story strains a little towards the end where it stretches the composite novel’s family sinews too far over the years. Also in a rare drop of the reins, Fernando has Kumar’s blunted sensibility leap into the head of a prison tutor we care nothing about. The subject of child abuse is often badly treated in short stories but this one carries it off, mainly by making it more than a tale of a single injustice. Instead, it is a tale of debt, dislocation, penance and belonging as well as damage.
"The Fluorescent Jacket" by Roshi Fernando is NOW shortlisted for The EFG Sunday Times Short Story Award, worth £30,000; winner chosen during April at the Oxford Literary Festival.
Tuesday, 8 March 2011
Fantastic lineup headlining Howard Marks planned for an Academi Life Writing day in May. A way off (Saturday 14 May) and tucked away down in Blaenavon Workmen’s Hall, but definitely worth travelling to and booking right now. Howard Marks always brings to my mind Super Furry’s Fuzzy Logic (nice) and a weary niggle (not) as to why a convicted bigtime drug dealer should be hailed as Wales’ prodigal son, especially in the literary world. Not even Rhys Ifans’ deep involvement with Project Mr Nice makes me interested.
So why does the name of Caspar Walsh, alongside Marks’ in the programme , appeal? Walsh and Marks have been appearing as a double act in literature festivals this spring to promote Walsh’s first novel, Blood Road (Headline). An insider’s insider to the world of crime, whose father was a petty criminal apparently so charismatic and loving that young Walsh couldn’t fail to join the family firm, this author interests me for his insight into traits of father-son dysfunction leading to addiction, and for his ongoing commitment to the personal development of prisoners and their families. His memoir, Criminal, was published to international acclaim. Drawing on his boyhood, his time inside and his work with offenders, Walsh turns True Crime into crime thriller in Blood Road, reviewed in the Belfast Telegraph thus, “Walsh undoubtedly draws on his own experience to make [protagonist] Nick simultaneously irresistible and repugnant. The balance is perfectly struck and gives the novel a core strength. But he also brings in much else – the fruit, plausibly, of his more recent work running writing courses in prisons where he comes into contact with those who have ended up inside as one of the logical outcomes of chaotic childhoods.”
Maybe then, what I steer away from in Howard Marks is an impression of unreformable hedonism, whereas Walsh’s work suggests reflection, reform and atonement: proper Welsh values!
Friday, 4 March 2011
Also on Saturday, look out on the telly for Wales Book of the Year winner Deborah Kay Davies, who will be featured on BBC 2's Culture Show special, “New Novelists, 12 of the Best”, broadcast at 9pm. Five judges with John Mullan as Chair made the selection of debut authors in an unashamed embracing of literary fiction. Deborah's first novel, True Things About Me, was published by Canongate but her prizewinning short fiction collection, Grace, Tamar and Laszlo the Beautiful, came out with Parthian. The Guardian, recently covering the Culture Show showcase, made an interesting exploration of literary fiction but did not mention the crucial, undersung role small and independent publishers play in discovering debut authors. Plus ca change.