Friday, 19 August 2011

The Empty Family, Colm Toibin and Touchy Subjects, Emma Donoghue. Review by Sophie Long

On paper, Colm Toibin and Emma Donoghue are writers working very much in the same style. Both were born and educated in Ireland, both have lived and worked in the US and both have written a collection of short stories spanning these two countries. In practice however, these two authors could not be more different.

Colm Toibin’s The Empty Family has proved to be a challenging one for me both to read and to review. As a student of creative writing, these stories break almost all of the rules that have been almost relentlessly drummed into me. From sentences that are longer than two lines to graphic sexual descriptions, these things made this book extremely difficult to read with an open mind, and I had formed an unfavourable opinion of it within the first few pages.

However, perhaps the ‘rules’ are different for the more experienced. Under a more practised hand, what I saw as broken rules might in fact be the very best way of telling a story. So, I tried to stop isolating what I saw as negative points and consider them as part of the whole narrative. Did they work in the context of the story? For the most part the answer was yes. For example, the sexual content in 'Barcelona, 1975' might be eye-wateringly graphic, but the main character is a man discovering and testing his own and society’s boundaries. The bedroom is somewhere that this character can discover things about himself and the people around him, somewhere where every action, however small, can carry great meaning and consequence. In which case, the detail is important.

In Emma Donoghue’s Touchy Subjects, the themes are ostensibly the same – significant moments in human life. However, while Toibin’s characters are looking back on life changing moments in their own lives, for Donoghue’s characters, these moments are taking place, the characters reacting as their lives turn on often the tiniest of moments. This gives the stories in Touchy Subjects an immediacy and vibrancy that is necessarily lacking in the reminiscing style of The Empty Family.

Touchy Subjects also displays a wildly varied cast of characters, a born-again Christian, a woman who lies about being pregnant and a man donating sperm to his wife’s best friend. These characters are unusual in their actions, but Donoghue’s easy and unassuming prose makes them likeable and intriguing, as though we are reading about an old friend. In The Empty Family, Toibin’s characters speak through bleak but often highly symbolic language, making them a puzzling read, one where the reader is given nothing and must guess at everything. These characters are not easy to relate to, and they like it that way.

Where Touchy Subjects invites the reader in, The Empty Family leaves them to peer through the keyhole. Where characters in the latter are looking back, those in the former are experiencing, doing, feeling. Both styles are valid and both are equally strong in the way they invite us to watch the most intimate actions of their character’s lives.

These collections are well worth a read, but it is perhaps the interesting, immediate, person-next-door characters and stories of Touchy Subjects that have made the most lasting impression on me. I did not know enough about the characters in The Empty Family to allow me to feel close to them.

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Watch this space... upcoming editor blog, 'Goodness Gracious Me! Wake up to Wales, Radio Four!' (review of radio adaptation of Jasper Rees' Bred in Heaven) and 'Coming of Age for all ages', teenage fiction recommendations

Monday, 15 August 2011

Crotch-rot, gay lib and the payrolled poseur

As I was an infant in the late sixties, you will forgive my ignorance of how tight men’s trousers had become. In The Naked Civil Servant (1968), Quentin Crisp describes the postwar acceleration of male flamboyance. ‘The population of England now contained more men than women… masculine plumage had become more colourful… the distinction between the sexes was reduced to the point where [you couldn’t] tell the boys from the girls if the clothes of the young men had not become so sexually revealing. Indeed their trousers could go no… nearer unless they adopted a Plantagenet style, wore tights and carried their pride and joy in a specially tailored sack tied with two smart bows.’

Since he was a life model who, when dressed and in his heyday, personified camp, Crisp’s account of art students’ style rings true (as does that of dwindling drawing skills and an ambition shrunk from Michelangelo Muse to payrolled poseur). How come I’d not read this stylish, scream of a memoir?

Another cultural milestone I missed, right up to 1979’s costume-change of crotch-rot latex for rip-aerating jeans, was how tight they were, how tight, throughout that decade too. But my sexual latency lasted longer than Crisp’s, apparently. Born in 1908, abused in infancy by a rag-and-bone man, he braved ostracism, street attacks, arrest, unemployment and snotty sales assistants. His getup was a satin-thread shy of cross dress, complete with crescent eyebrows and henna. Setting off with a mission to educate the world about homosexuality, by the sixties this had crystallised to personality. Nevertheless, the ‘queer-baiting’ continued. Unusually for a narcissist, Crisp happily turns the scalpel on his self. While his self-deprecation is as manicured as his ‘Mandarin’ nails, his perception never falters. Nor does his dissection of social nuance. ‘To the [new] generation… to whom the words “good and evil”, “innocence and guilt” have lost all meaning, it was no longer my wickedness that annoyed them; it was… my insistence on taking the blame for something on which judgement was no longer passed… the symbols… adopted forty years earlier to express my sexual type had become the uniform of young people… I had by mistake become the youngest teenager in the business.’

In the autumn issue of NWR, Mike Parker looks another generation ahead, at gay liberation’s ‘precocious adolescence’ in the post-AIDS era. How did Michael Tolliver, the darling of Armistead Maupin’s landmark Tales of the City becomes a ‘smug bore’ in the series’ latest addition, Mary Ann in Autumn? How does Maupin’s San Fransiscan haven compare with Tristan Garcia’s Paris in his new novel, Hate, A Romance, with its ‘freewheeling rage at the delusions of… liberal queers of the AIDS age’? Pass me my kegs: I’ll tell you.

This was first published in Gwen Davies' Saturday 'Insider' books column in the Western Mail, 13 August 2011

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Thursday, 11 August 2011

The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht. Review by Eluned Gramich

As I went to Waterstone’s to ask for a copy of the 2011 Orange Prize Winner, the shop assistant rather anxiously informed me that they only had three copies to begin with and that these copies had all sold out within a day; all because the publisher (I was filled with sympathy) was in-between hardback and paperback the moment the novel was announced as the winner. It seemed even those working at the Orion Books imprint Phoenix had not been betting on Téa Obreht to scoop the top award.

Born in the former Yugoslavia and now residing in New York, twenty-five year old Obreht’s debut seemed to be (on paper) the underdog of the competition. Especially when placed alongside the much lauded Room by experienced author Emma Donoghue. But Obreht outshone her fellow competitors. Her debut, The Tiger’s Wife, follows the young medical student Natalia as she copes with the loss of her grandfather, retracing his mysterious journey to the village of Zdrevkov in the war-torn districts of former Yugoslavia. The narrative is split between the contemporary and politically-charged landscape which Natalia inhabits, and the fairy-tale childhood of her grandfather and his fables. One of which is the tale of the Tiger’s Wife, a deaf-mute teenager who - as the name suggests - forms a strange attachment to an escaped big cat, roaming the outskirts of her village. The other haunting tale is of ‘the deathless man’, a strange tale which never really fades from the mind.

The novel centers on the art of fables: the type of narrative which brings together philosophical, moral and fantastical elements. A master of language, Obreht moves perfectly between the sterner colloquialisms of Natalia’s narrative; and the slower, poetic realm of her grandfather’s storytelling.

Everything necessary to understand my grandfather lies between two stories: the story of the tiger’s wife, and the story of the deathless man. These stories run like secret rivers through all the other stories of his life (...) One, which I learnt after his death, is the story of how my grandfather became a man; the other, which he told me, is of how he became a child again.

The testament to her maturity as a writer does not reside in the use of language alone. It is her approach to politics which is the most startling and impressive. Of course, having had those experiences first-hand which Natalia describes in the novel, one can expect that Obreht will be able to tell that personal history of living in Yugoslavia at that time; a personal history which is unknown to most readers. And yet, Obreht distances herself from the ‘Balkan war’. The city in which Natalia and her grandfather live at the beginning is simply referred to as ‘the City’. Borders are called borders, without reference to what they may be bordering. Geographical names are spurned, and all we are left with is a sense of something shifting, a country in danger: troops, the war-injured, bombings, border controls where there were none before, civil unrest - but Obreht does not lay anything bare, does not say which side or which people, and not once is the country’s name mentioned. You are left guessing only by the clue in her biography and in the names of villages and small towns. In one episode, Natalia’ grandfather recounts to her how he has a long dinner on a balcony in a besieged town, watching the anonymous troops closing in as he tucks into a meal of lobster:

I sit down and listen to them down in Marhan. Every few minutes this blue blast lights up the hilltops at the crown of the valley, and a few seconds later comes the cracking sound of the artillery. There’s a southerly breeze blowing down to me through the valley, and it brings in the singed smell of gunpowder....At this moment, the old waiter comes back, bringing with him my bottle. It’s an ’88 Šalimač from a famous vineyard which will soon be on our side of the border.

This un-naming of the political situation only serves to bring it to the foreground, creating a blank space in the text into which a reader stumbles. It reminds me of Kazuo Ishiguro’s debut A Pale View of the Hills, which follows the destruction of Nagasaki in 1945, but only talks of it in passing (‘the rubble’, ‘after what happened’). Unlike Ishiguro, Obreht does not limit herself to naturalism. The novel straddles the fantastic and the real, opening it to comparisons with the ever-compared-to One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez; incidentally one of Obreht’s most admired authors. It is here where the novel falls short and where the youth of Obreht’s voice is detrimentally revealed. It owes a lot to these voices: Marquez, Isabel Allende, Jose Donoso. It owes, perhaps, a little too much. Sentences such as these - “Luka was the sixth of a seventh son, born just shy of being blessed, and this ‘almost-luck’ sat on his shoulders all his life” - for me announce themselves as ‘magic realist’. The lengthy character-driven expulsions of slightly eccentric mannerisms, and the at-times heavily overwritten lines (The God of Small Things knocks) is the very opposite of the kind of sparse, do-it-for-the-plot style favoured by some of the other entries.

Is it because the reviewers and critics have not read a Marquez for quite some time that their enthusiasm for the genre is re-invigorated with The Tiger’s Wife? If you were looking for originality, then Room would have won the Orange Prize without question. I am left thinking that The Tiger’s Wife, stylistically speaking, is rather a conservative option. There is a small, cheeky and suspicious part of me that suggests that, like the Young Musician of the Year, the jury can’t quite forget that Téa Obreht is twenty-five. In the end, you will be more astounded by a eleven-year-old playing the Bruch Concerto in G then you will be an eighteen-year-old, regardless of which rendition is the better one. You want to forget that aspect - it shouldn’t come into it at all - but it’s impossible to ignore the surprise of her age.

Despite the fact that the book recalls too closely the voices of her literary heroes, The Tiger’s Wife is a beautiful, lyrical and impressive debut; made more so by the promise of what’s to come. According to her website, Obreht is already working on her second novel. I wonder whether, as time goes by, she will let go of her debt to Marquez and Allende, and begin to write entirely in her own, uninterrupted and powerful narrative voice.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Psychogeography: Fiction and Memoir by Tristan Hughes, Iain Sinclair, Richard Collins and Jim Perrin

Cardiff-born author Iain Sinclair is associated with ‘psychogeography’. His latest book, Ghost Milk: Calling Time on the Grand Project, a look at the 2012 Olympics and other white elephants, was out last month. But what the hell does this term mean? Wiki dates the literary genre’s London-centred renaissance to 1980, defining it as ‘the pedestrian exploration of the urban and suburban landscape… utilising romantic, gothic and occult ideas to describe and transform the city… Sinclair [draws] on this tradition… as a way of criticising modern developments of urban space.’

Guy Debord’s label, eschewing urban exclusivity, is ‘the study of the… specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals.’ Compared to the deep emotional connection to place, long present in Welsh homages to the ‘milltir sgwâr’, psychogeography is broader, and bored with belonging. It likes stumbling across the new rather than confirming the known; even proposing the anarchic act of getting lost by superimposing one map onto another place.

Tristan Hughes’ latest novel, Eye Lake, shows how fiction rooted in place can be influenced by rural psychogeography (of course any fictional setting should be an emotional exploration of place). Indeed, Hughes plays with the idea that his location, Ontario village Crooked River, can be understood by two maps: before and after Red Rock lake was drained to mine iron ore. Half Canadian, the author grew up in Llangoed: this is his first book set outside Ynys Môn. Welsh motifs haunt it, for instance the eyes of the dead studding the bed of an artificial lake. Kirsti Bohata, previewing this novel in the summer issue of New Welsh Review, is well qualified to comment on Hughes’ ‘ritual charting, engaged as she is with a digital mapping pilot of the literary geography of Wales (

The ‘occult’ aspect of psychogeography should perhaps be restored before the term becomes a beach-bag for travel guides. Seren ‘Real’ series uses the label but will its autumn title, Mike Parker’s Real Powys, dare to cover Presteigne’s poltergeists? Hughes’ best story, ‘Ley Lines’, in his debut collection The Tower, parodies a New Age incomer’s mystical attachments to our physical landscape. However, mountaineer Jim Perrin’s affection for ‘fairy wing’ toenail varnish and pagan weddings in West, A Journey Through the Landscapes of Loss (new out in paperback) reclaims both romanticism and the occult as a valid insider viewpoint.

Meanwhile, Richard Collins’ psychogeographers in The Quality of Light are the most grounded participants of an urban art project. Another classic of dual mapping, this novel overlaps prisms of place, viewpoint and timeframe. Collins’ latest proves, just like those by Perrin, Hughes and Sinclair, that Wales’ authors understand place better than most.

This was first published in Gwen Davies' Insider books column in the Western Mail, Saturday 6 August 2011

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Watch this space... upcoming editor blog on 'Crotch-rot, gay lib, the payrolled poseur (The Naked Civil Servant) and contemporary gay fiction'

Saturday, 6 August 2011

The Captain's Tower, Seventy Poets Celebrate Bob Dylan at Seventy. Review by Barrie Llewelyn

I jumped at the chance to review The Captain’s Tower: Seventy Poets Celebrate Bob Dylan at Seventy (edited by Phil Bowen, Damian Furniss and David Woolley). Who wouldn’t? This anthology includes poems by Dylan’s American contemporaries including Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg; contributions from a British crowd including Armitage, McGough and Rumens as well as offerings from some of our beloved Welsh poets, Robert Minhinnick and Paul Henry amongst them.

And the subject – poetry anthologies are best when they have a theme and celebrating the life and work of Bob Dylan, who is as much a poet as he is songwriter – is just so completely right. Lines from Tamar Yoseloff’s ‘Sad Eyed Lady' say it best:

…He navigates me through

births and deaths, endless days of rain,

all the same to him, his song pressed

into vinyl long ago, a woman he loved,

an age; what has passed he has passed

to me…

Dylan’s music is in our collective aura. It punctuates our lives, even if you don’t know much about the man or the controversy he incited when he moved from being an acoustic folksinger to an electric rocker in 1965, you’ll know the anthems he created for a generation of Baby Boomers, ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, ‘ The Times They Are a-Changin’, ‘Like a Rolling Stone.’ and they will mean something to you. By the way, Roger McGough takes the blame for that move into rock/pop in his poem, ‘Bob Dylan and the Blue Angel’ which starts by describing a real meeting between the two poets in Liverpool in 1965. The poem soon becomes something of a fantasy or, maybe, a confession:

So over cappuccino in the Picasso I laid it all out.

Dump the acoustic. Forget the folksy stuff and go electric.

Get yourself a band. I remember the look on his face.

Sort of relief. The tension in the trademark

hunched shoulders seemed to melt away.

The poems in this book are varied as you’d expect from such a diverse collection of poets. Some of them are about Dylan’s life and times; some describe his music and its impact on the poet’s own life and work; some of them do a good job of replicating Dylan’s style. A couple of them have tenuous links to the subject and, in those selections, Dylan or one of his songs becomes a mere mention – a frame for something else. One of my favourites, ‘Hard Rain’ by Tony Hoagland echoes Dylan’s prophetic song and resounds with its own protest about the way we live:

After I heard It’s a Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall

played softly by an accordion quartet

through the ceiling speakers at the Springdale Shopping


I understood: there’s nothing

we can’t pluck the stinger from,

nothing we can’t turn into a soft-drink flavor or a t-shirt.

A foreword by rocker Ronnie Wood gives a uniquely personal view of a collaborator and friend. It adds to the richness of a collection which altogether celebrates Bob Dylan’s seventieth birthday as well as his massive contribution and immeasurable inspiration.

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Watch this space... upcoming editor blog on 'Psychogeography: Latest Novels and Nonfiction by Iain Sinclair, Jim Perrin, Tristan Hughes and Richard Collins' & 'Crotch-rot, gay lib and the payrolled poseur (The Naked Civil Servant and contemporary gay fiction)'

Friday, 5 August 2011

Reading India, Translating Wales

The half of my family that lives in England is prone to being metrocentric. Or at least my brother-in-law is, claiming as he has that St Albans has more going for it than Aberystwyth. Since we have a university, a national library, an award-winning arts centre, two cinemas and two symbiotic languages, I beg to differ. But it is the HQ here of Wales Literature Exchange (WLE) and its sister, Literature Across Frontiers (LAF), that clinches it as far as culture’s concerned. These bodies promote Wales’ authors abroad at festivals, bookfairs and translation workshops. But they also bring world authors to us, most particularly to a small Spanish-Welsh deli-cafe on Pier Street, Aberystwyth.

Since spring, under WLE-LAF auspices, I’ve met writers at Ultracomida from Russia, Bulgaria, Slovakia and, most recently, from India. Those of us lucky enough to be there last month, where Reading India - Translating Wales took place, are still talking about it. The seven-strong team of Welsh-language and Indian poets had clearly bonded during their mid June translation residency at Ty Newydd. Multi-award winning writer and translator K Satchidanandan joked that the trip from Kerala was ‘worth it’ just to see Eurig Salisbury’s buoyant hair! The production values, as well as the poetic ones, were high. Part of the British Council-supported India Wales Writers Chain, which launched last year at Hay Festival Kerala (where poets Gillian Clarke, Menna Elfyn and Paul Henry were also present), the Aber event delivered a tremendous sense of an unbreakable chain. This was achieved through an inclusive and incantatory choreography of their performance: a presentation of work in Welsh, Manipuri, English, Bengali and Malayalam. While the whole group gelled, so too did the pairing of poets, with translator and writer in their alternating roles taking ownership of certain images: ‘salt’ in Karen Owen and Mumbai-based Sampura Chattarji’s case, ‘water’ for Hywel Griffiths and Manipuri-medium poet Robin Ngangom, and message-carrying creatures for ‘Satchi’ and Eurig, while mother-daughter belly-button imagery had emerged in the email exchange between Menna and Sampura prior to meeting.

Sitting next to Robin, who was born in Imphal, north-east India, it was delightful to hear of his long-standing friendship with Welsh poet Nigel Jenkins, who hosted the evening. It was also an education to learn of the political and border disputes of his territory. And humbling to realise that he knew much more about Welsh soldier and poet Alun Lewis, who died in Burma (shot by his own gun during WWII), than I do myself.

This autumn three anthologies of Welsh short fiction will appear in Tamil, Bengali and Malayalam, while Parthian are currently considering a volume based on the Wales-India translations showcased last month. Aber: 7, St Albans: 0!

This was first published in Gwen Davies' Western Mail Insider column, 30 July 2011.

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Watch this space... upcoming editor blog on Psychogeography: Latest Novels and Nonfiction by Iain Sinclair, Jim Perrin, Tristan Hughes and Richard Collins

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Seals, Saints & Urban Bardsey

Author Jon Gower was once a warden on Ynys Enlli. At the launch of Fflur Dafydd’s novel Twenty Thousand Saints in 2008, he noted, without criticism, how little attention it paid to the wildlife that made the island famous, along with the eponymous saints. Having stayed there two weeks ago, I now realise the truth of Jon’s comment.

The Manx shearwaters’ eerie midnight calls (eerie daytime calls being broadcast by the Seal Channel), figure little in the novel. Few sheep are glimpsed under fleece-snagged rocks. Said seals get short shrift as busybodies populous enough to give you paranoia. The aspects of nature that do feature are human: ecologists, birdwatchers, farmers. Fflur Dafydd is an extrovert author who transforms an island associated with retreat and death rites (courtesy of The Book of Llandaf), into an urban arena. Twenty Thousand Saints, like her latest Welsh novel, Y Llyfrgell, is a satirical novel about political utopianism, with a cast of young people more interested in sex and cameras than gaslight or compost toilets.

Among Jon’s anecdotes was a black figure crucified outside a Bardsey home. These airing robes, he later recognised, belonged to the woman who inspired Fflur’s protagonist, Sister Viv. The journey of the fictional nun - from nuclear family to semi-communal living, from activism to paralysis, from heterosexuality to repressed lesbian urges - is symbolised by the Sound crossing. That we last glimpse Viv taking a tour to our Senedd proves how positive and political a writer Fflur Dafydd is.

There was no copy of Twenty Thousand Saints on public display during my visit. I did hear rumours of islanders grumbling how real-life characters and anecdote may become grist to the author’s mill. Apparently the same complaint was levelled at artist and writer Brenda Chamberlain following the publication of Tide Race.

Next autumn, as part of 2012’s centenary celebrations of Chamberlain’s birth, NWR will feature Jill Piercy’s long-awaited biography, An Artist’s Life. What better excuse for me to visit Chamberlain’s neglected murals around the landing of Carreg Fawr, her home between 1946 and ’61? One of a woman with a shawl-collar, that had dominated the dining room, has been painted over, but four remain: two of horses; one mermaid, boat and Enlli-style wall; and a mockup for a fishing boat scene, ringed with maternal and family portraits.

Chamberlain’s line drawings of fish, seals, birds and seals in Tide Race revel in the detail of natural life which is admittedly absent from Fflur Dafydd’s fiction. But it is people that interest both women most, and they change little, be they saints in sanctuary or Satellite City sinners. Funds are currently being raised to raise £15,000 to restore the Bardsey murals. Contact peter.lockyer81[at]

This was first published in Gwen Davies' Western Mail Insider column, 23 July 2011.

NWR gets new writers noticed, and helps published writers find readers. Support writers by subscribing!

Watch this space... upcoming editor blogs on Indian Poets & Wales & Psychogeography: Latest Novels and Nonfiction by Iain Sinclair, Jim Perrin, Tristan Hughes and Richard Collins