I have been a big fan of Sheila Armstrong since coming across her debut collection of short stories, How to Gut a Fish and you can read my review here. In that review, I gushed about the Shirley Jackson-esque flavour of her writing, and marvelled at the seamless transitions in her writing. I was therefore very excited when Bloomsbury sent me a review copy of her debut novel Falling Animals, which I finished months ago and promptly let procrastination (in writing this review) get the better of me.
Falling Animals is brilliant. (And what an amazing cover!)
Putatively a mystery concerning a dead man, Falling Animals is told from the perspectives of the villagers living in a small Irish tourist village by the beach where the corpse is found. The stage opens with the story of the waste collector who has been hired to dispose of the beached carcass of a seal. Though not an everyday occurrence, it happens regularly enough that there is a checklist of kit that needs bringing, and a proper handling sequence to avoid a revolting end. All this happens at the break of day, where dawning light further illuminates the props and setting of the stage: the skeletons of a shipwreck and a whale; an exposed beach recovering from an unseasonal thunderstorm; and a serene dead man sat cross-legged on the wind-swept dunes.
An unidentified dead man is a question mark, a challenge. Who is he? How did he get here? How did he die? Why did he die? No one seems to know the answer to these questions, not even the police and the forensic pathologist whose raison d’etre in these situations is to come up with the answers.
The sergeant’s eyebrows come together into one hard line when she presents him with the autopsy results, and he asks if she is sure. She isn’t, of course, isn’t sure at all, but his questioning makes her bristle and dig in her heels… But still, she cannot make up facts that are not there. Death by natural causes.
The unnamed man will be buried in a public grave, but we will hear more from those who have crossed paths with the dead man. Among them, the village gossip who first finds the body; the barman who owns the pub in which she holds court; the grieving mother whose story is entwined with the wrecked ship; an artist who paints the ship; and the ship, to which the dead man is inextricably linked. Armstrong weaves a tangled web, and though each narrative strand seems individual and unconnected, a portrait slowly reveals itself with each turn of the page.
As each vignette gets told, our circle gradually closes in on the identity of the dead man. But perhaps that isn’t really the point of the story. Even as more light is shed on the identity of the dead man, we come to learn more about the chorus of voices, who they are, how they got there, and why. We come to learn of their grief, their guilt, and importantly, their redemption. The stories of those who come across the dead man are tinged with melancholy and regret, and reflects primaeval truths of the human condition.
She watches the wrecked ship from the cafe’s window every day, seeing the tide wash around it, rust climb up its sides, the hull buckle and break. Sometimes she suspects it steered itself into the sandbank, broken and exhausted by whatever years it had spent on the water, whatever weights it had carried, whatever sadness it had soaked up. As metaphors for her life go, it is slightly on the nose, but she will take what she can get. Candlesticks and doilies are not for everyone.
Falling Animals isn’t the sort of story that invites the reader to go on a journey of discovery; instead, it’s one where the entire story has always already been there, and the author is slowly unfurling the tapestry from one small corner. The book is dark, elegiac and at times unsettling, but what emerges is a quietly beautiful tale helped along by Armstrong’s poetic sensibilities and sparkling clarity in her writing. From this perspective, Falling Animals bears strong similarities with other novels of quietude, such as John McGregor’s Reservoir 13 and John Williams’ Stoner.
My favourite book of 2023.
Falling Animals is available both in-store and on our online store.
2023 marks 60 years since the territories of Malaya, Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak were brought together to form Malaysia. Much has transpired in the decades since, not the least of which was the ousting of Singapore from this alliance just a couple years later. Nevertheless, our two nations still share a bond, though it may be at times a fractious one.
Two years ago, Daryl Lim Wei Jie, a poet, translator and literary critic from Singapore, had this idea to commemorate our two nations’ shared history with an anthology that would bring together writers from both countries to engage creatively and critically with this sense of entwinement. He roped in fellow Singaporean writer Hamid Roslan onto the project, as well as two Malaysian writers and editors, Melizarani T. Selva and William Tham. The result is The Second Link, put forth by Singapore publisher Marshall Cavendish in September, and which we had the pleasure to launch at Lit Books on Malaysia Day, 16th Sept, 2023.
With the Malaysia-Singapore relationship as its central theme, the book is an anthology of fiction, essays, short monographs on specific topics, poetry, and photography. Expertly curated, each piece is reflective of our thoughts during quieter moments: Who are we? What are we doing? Where are we going? How did things get to be the way they are today? In other words, questions that circulate in our subconscious, hidden beneath the froth of our day-to-day. The Second Link does a superb job in bringing these ponderings to the forefront, and is an excellent anthology that deserves a place in the regional literary canon.
At the launch, three of the four editors — Daryl, Melizar, and William — sat down with Lit Books founder Fong Min Hun and a packed audience to talk about the book. Six of the contributors were also at hand to read snippets from their pieces. The following are edited excerpts from the conversation with the editors.
Min Hun: I’d like to know more about the provenance of this anthology. Daryl, you were the mastermind. How did this idea come into your head? Daryl: I’m a student of history and that’s really where I come from. I did my undergrad and master’s in history, and I’ve always been very interested in Singapore’s and Malaysia’s history. To me as a historian, dates and significant anniversaries are very important. Two years ago, I started to think about how in 2023 it’ll be the 60th anniversary of the formation of Malaysia and also of the merger between Singapore and Malaysia.
As the idea grew prominence and force in my mind, I felt that it’s very odd that at least from Singapore’s side, no one really thinks of it as the 60th anniversary of the formation of Malaysia. In fact, if you go on Singapore news right now, what is really being given prominence is the 100th birthday of Lee Kuan Yew. But then again, that makes you think what a fortuitous coincidence that Kuan Yew’s birthday was the day Malaysia was formed. To me, the conjunction of those two events was a call to action in my mind that something had to be done. What I wanted to do is to bring together writers from Singapore and Malaysia, and part of that reason was because I had already been quite involved in the Malaysian scene.
I was a good friend of the late [Malaysian poet] Wong Phui Nam, and he and I actually had a really interesting and unusual relationship considering that we were almost 50 years apart in terms of age. But we somehow became very good friends after I met him. I loved his poetry, and he, sadly died last year. So that connection, the significance of the dates, the fact that I felt Singaporeans were going to forget — and they did forget, as the news tells you — made me want to do this. The other reason is I think in the past, the ties between Singapore and Malaysia in the 60s, 70s and 80s were much stronger between the two groups of writers. Famously there was this anthology from the 70s called The Second Tongue, which Edwin Thumboo edited, and it was a poetry from Malaysia and Singapore.
Min Hun: How did you assemble this motley crew of editors? Daryl: It wasn’t very structured at first. Actually, the one who’s not here, Hamid Roslan, might be the first person I approached. I felt he would be perfect because he has very interesting thoughts on being Malay in Singapore. I thought he brought an interesting perspective. Then I got to know Melizar quite well… I think she, being a Malaysian Indian working in Singapore, again brings an interesting perspective — you’re away from home, but you’re very close to home; things are very similar, but also totally different. William was brought in by Melizar because William has a more academic background, and so some of the more academic essays in the book were shaped by him. He brought a lot of that deep knowledge and thinking, which I think gives quite a significant depth to this book.
Min Hun: William, in addition to being a writer, has also edited his own anthology of essays before. How did you find the experience this time around with The Second Link? William: With every single book that comes out, it’s always quite an adventure because while you have a general idea of the mechanics of the process when it comes to soliciting entries, for example, and working with individual contributors, every book does have its own particular special trajectories. They go from one place to another without you ever knowing how things will turn up in the end. For this anthology, there’s a lot of stuff for you to parse through. There’s a lot more agency on the part of the reader this time. Rather than the editorial sense of telling you what to expect, it’s very much an invitation to walk through the entries one after another to decide, in terms of interpreting the text themselves, what constitutes fact, what constitute fiction, and the idea of generic boundaries as well, and how these are all very much permeable and fluid. This was a very different experience in that regard.
Min Hun: Melizar, can you tell us your experience of working on The Second Link? Melizar: I had the opportunity and privilege of editing mostly Singaporean writers, which is very strange how that all came together. During the editorial process, we received about 70 submissions via the open call, and we also invited a few other writers to contribute because we wanted to balance out the themes — we didn’t want all these tired tropes in the book. Once we received the pool of stories, Daryl, William, Hamid and I got on Zoom, and we asked each other which stories we each wanted to work on. We chose stories that we had an affinity for, and that we wanted to work with the writer on. Ultimately we asked ourselves, do we want to be advocates for this narrative? So that’s how we chose the stories that we had.
Daryl: What’s different about this book is that the submissions we received were not completed pieces. What we asked the writers to submit were pitches — the majority of them had not written the story or piece that you have now in the book. They just gave an idea and also some examples of their past writing. What this means is effectively we had 30 projects ongoing at one time. We were each working with the writers to shape their various pieces, and along the way we would check in. In some ways that explains why the book is special because there was a kind of mental coming together in that everyone converged on the same themes and the things we were looking for. That makes the book a bit more special and why I think we were able to make something cohesive, although people were doing lots of different things.
Min Hun: I’d like to come back to the title of the book, The Second Link. You’ve already mentioned that it’s a homage to The Second Tongue. Is there a more abstract hidden meaning to it as well? Daryl: Yeah, I guess in some ways The Second Tongue was Edwin Thumboo gathering all these Singaporean and Malaysian poets to prove to the British, the Americans, all these so-called native speakers, that we could write poetry in English. With this sequel, we don’t need to prove it anymore; they are no longer in the picture. It’s not about the tongue that is in question; the focus is on ourselves and the relationship between the two countries, which I think, at least from the Singaporean perspective, we often take for granted.
Min Hun: William, with some of the academic essays — especially the one by Jonathan Chan, which I enjoyed tremendously, profiling two enfants terribles and their opposing viewpoints in terms of searching for identity — is this question of a missing sense of self something you find intellectually interesting? William: In many ways it actually ties in to a lot of the work that I’ve been doing as part of my postgraduate studies, different ideas of self as well as that relationship of self to a particular national identity. And I think this might be a point that ties together a few ideas that we’ve been talking about today, like the idea of Malaysian-ness or Singaporean-ness, but also as alluded to in quite a few of the pieces that are scattered throughout the book, this idea of what other kinds of imaginaries could look like. It’s sort of like the Malayan vision that was very much in the ad in the immediate post-war period. This of course all gets intertwined with questions of decolonisation, empire, but also in a lot of different ways, that idea of what was then the Malay states as well as Singapore as a broader shared national imaginary. This anthology is very much a way for us to reflect upon the different ways in which we imagine what the country could look like.
Even as we talk about today’s 60th anniversary of the formation of Malaysia, one aspect that I think gets overlooked a lot is how in some of the promotional material that was created to celebrate the formation 60 years ago, there was one song called Lima Negara or Five Countries. The fifth mission country in this case was Brunei. What we knew as Malaysia didn’t last quite as long as those working in highest levels would’ve liked to think. So again, this is an invitation for us to think about the different ways in which we constitute ourselves in relation to the imagination states that have emerged.
Get a copy of The Second Link from our physical store or online.
Marzahn, Mon Amour, the Dublin Literary Award 2023 winner by Katja Oskamp (translated by Jo Heinrich), brims with warmth. Part memoir and part collective history, Marzahn is a portrait of the eponymous Berlin district, its inhabitants and Oskamp’s relationships with them. It is therefore perplexing that the publisher had unwisely included the all-too-familiar “This book is a work of fiction” caveat in the edition notice of the book when this is clearly not the case.
On the one hand, this is typical fare: an attempt by the publisher to dissemble and taichi legal liability away. But from a reader’s perspective, it is impossible and unjust to read Marzahn as a pure work of fiction. In doing so, we do great disservice to the writer, the book and the book’s subjects. Especially in Marzahn where the author’s intention is clear throughout the book: Here are these people and here are their stories. Read and bear witness, for these stories and these lives matter! Clearly, it wouldn’t matter so much if these stories and lives were merely “coincidental” as the caveat would have us believe.
This issue aside, Marzahn, Mon Amouris a splendid book that is touching without falling into the pitfalls of whimsy and over-sentimentality. The narrator of the book (read: Oskamp) is a former professional writer who has retrained as a chiropodist and is working at a beauty salon in Marzahn, a Berlin district which was part of the former German Democratic Republic. The book begins with her decision to change careers in her middle-age, a decision, she says, that was partly due to a setback with her writing career, but also by the changing seasons of her life:
I was forty-four years old when I reached the middle of the big lake. My life had grown stale: my offspring had flown the nest, my other half was ill and my writing, which had kept me busy until then, was more than a little iffy. I was carrying something bitter within me, completing the invisibility that befalls women over forty.
This struggle against invisibility is a central theme of the book. Marzahn, for one, is an overlooked district that would not be regarded as an ‘iconic’ German district or a must-see for tourists to Berlin. Developed as a model socialist city in the 1970s, Marzahn once held the dubious honour of being the largest expanse of plattenbau prefabricated tower blocks (read: concrete jungle) in Europe. The district was meant to be one of the shining examples of the central planning prowess of the German Democratic Republic, but the fall of the Berlin Wall saw an exodus of young, progressive people to pastures greener. Marzahn subsequently became home to socialist die-hards, and is today still regarded as a bastion for the German far-right.
Oskamp does not judge. Chapter by chapter, Oskamp tells the stories of her clients, her co-workers and her city with affection without glossing over the sharper corners. Her clients are mainly elderly Marzahnites, former East Germans whose identities were crystallised before German reunification. Despite some of their unique foibles — Herr Pietsch was a right-leaning party organiser in his prime and whose laser-eyed focus on efficiency and order has carried over to his 70s, to the chagrin of his hiking group — these are ordinary people who have lived through the transition from communism to capitalism. There are those among them who have lived admirable lives of sacrifice and duty, but whose status as residents of a district past its prime have consigned them to invisibility.
Having spent time in marginalised cities such as Marzahn, Oskamp’s book tugs firmly at my heartstrings. As a former journalist working in such communities, I can tell you first-hand that these inhabitants are generally closely drawn together and fiercely protective of theirs and their stories. It takes patience and a great deal of empathy before the walls start to come down brick by brick, but the stories and friendships made are usually worth the effort. Chiropody is probably an ideal way of building such relationships; after all, it’s probably quite difficult to hold anyone’s feet for an extended period of time without some chat.
Marzahn is also a book about personal epiphany, the virtues of the small, and the gratification of work dedicated to the service of others. In an interview with The Irish Times, Oskamp said she “saw how people dealt with loneliness, with children leaving, losing their flat, their job, disappointment, and I got a lot out of this on a daily basis. It was really important for me to understand that you can always rely on that: these people supported me, they helped me, and in that moment of my life I was very open to these small, friendly, warm gestures.”
In the book, she describes how her decision to switch from writing to chiropody — a “comedown” of sorts — is greeted by those around her with revulsion, incomprehension and, “worst of all, sympathy.” And yet, this career switch would fundamentally change her life for the better. The bitterness disappears, and she finds that her world is significantly enlarged by her new role in the service of others. Seldom emerges the thought that a small, ordinary life can be more gratifying than one of a higher calling, but it can be so.
“It was very important to me at the time that I wasn’t stuck in the intellectual writing experience, a writer in this writing tower,” Oskamp said in the interview. “If you are in front of your screen all day long you don’t know in the evening what actually made you tired, what we achieved or did not achieve. In chiropody I know every evening what I have done. I know I had 13 or 16 pairs of feet, everybody was happy, everybody was satisfied, everybody left in a better mood than they entered the room, and this is something very satisfying.”
As Voltaire says in Candide, we must cultivate our garden.
Marzahn, Mon Amour is available in-store and on our online shop.
Belfast writer Paul McVeigh made a name for himself as a playwright and writer of comedy shows before he penned his first novel, The Good Son, published in 2015. The novel, which won the Polari Prize and the McCrea Literary Award, is a coming-of-age story of 11-year-old Mickey Donnelly set in Belfast during The Troubles. It is an evocative, thoughtful and well-written book that’s full of humour despite the bleakness of its setting.
We had the privilege to host Paul in an author event at Lit Books on 17 June, 2023, where he charmed us with his warmth and wit. The novel is very much drawn from his own experience of growing up in Belfast during this horrific period of Northern Ireland history, and he tells us that humour was a survival mechanism. He shared with us stories from his life in the hour-long conversation with Min Hun and our audience – the following are edited excerpts from the session.
On the history and personal background that informs the book: I was born in 1968 and that is recognised as the beginning of The Troubles. I thought if I was going to write a book, everything in it I would have to know is absolutely true. In order to do that, I thought I would set it where I grew up and in the environment I grew up in… In Belfast, it was war but they never called it that. They called it The Troubles, which makes it sound like something a little bit annoying, like bad traffic. It minimised what it was – it was actually a war and it was absolutely barbaric.
Where I was born, in Ardoyne, which is where the book is set, at the bottom of my street there were walls and barricades so I couldn’t get out. At the top of my street there were walls and barricades and I couldn’t get out. Two streets away was a Protestant community, and three streets another way was a Protestant community. Ardoyne was unique in that we were surrounded by our enemy. It was like an open-air prison.
The second and probably more damaging thing, because it affected everyone’s psyche, was you couldn’t be different. Any difference was not tolerated at all. You couldn’t have your hair different, you couldn’t wear different clothes, you couldn’t be LGBT, you couldn’t be artistic, you couldn’t want an education because somehow that was an insult. If you wanted an education, you were trying to better yourself and that meant where you were at wasn’t good and you want to be better than that. So you couldn’t do well or stand out in any way – it was really oppressive.
On how this novel came about: I was a playwright and I wrote for stand-up comics. After one of the shows, someone asked if I would like to write a short story. One of the major repercussions of growing up working class is that you never think you could be a writer. You think you’re stupid so how could you write a book? When these people asked me, I was a writer already for comedians and for plays where you could write and be inarticulate. You can just say funny things, you can use bad grammar and have a limited vocabulary… When they asked me to write a short story, I thought I was never going to be able to because I had no confidence even though I had been up for awards for these comedy shows and plays. I don’t know how to write a sentence that describes anything; I only write dialogue. And so, I said I’ll cheat – I’ll write in the voice of a little boy and he can make loads of mistakes. So the whole book is a monologue of him thinking. That is genuinely why I wrote the initial story [that became this novel].
On the experience of writing a novel derived from personal story: It was quite a traumatic experience writing the book, I’ll be honest… When I was reliving those things I was thinking, I can’t believe I just accepted that as normal, you know? But growing up during The Troubles, we didn’t know any different… When I was writing this, it was just a litany of the most horrible things. I had to rewrite it and remember that each page had to have laughter and love. It really is funny, the book. It sounds depressing but there are a lot of jokes in it.
On the protagonist Mickey Donnelly: I think he’s an absolute hero because when everyone’s telling you you’re wrong but you know you’re right, you put up with all sorts of abuse because you know in your heart that you’re right. He protects his family – he makes massive sacrifices to protect his mother and his little sister. He does things that are going to affect him for the rest of his life but he has no idea. He will go through all that torture because he refuses to be cruel and he refuses to be nasty and harsh. There’s another way, there’s love… he’s gonna take on The Troubles, he’s going to take on Ardoyne and the way people behave, and he’s going to say, ‘You’re the one that’s going to change’.
On modelling Mickey’s mother after fierce and courageous women: My mom was fierce. It was women who ended The Troubles. it was women that got Catholics the vote. Everyone thinks The Troubles started because the IRA started shooting and bombing people. The Troubles started because of the right to vote [Catholics didn’t have the right to vote at the time]. It was started by a 16-year-old girl who got a march going from Belfast to Derry for the right to vote, housing and the right to get a job. It was a human rights march, happening at the same time for black people in America. It was women who did it… They would take on the world to protect you.
Signed copies of The Good Son is available in-store and online, while stocks last!
Elaine and I were in Amsterdam on holiday recently, and made a quick detour to The Hague to see Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring and catch the Escher exhibit. On the way back to the train station, we passed a bookshop just down the road from the Central Station with the following message above the entrance:
“Friend, you stand on sacred ground. This is a Bookshop.”
Sadly, we didn’t have time to stop in Boekhandel Douwes, but the message on the transom resonated and amused us, reminding us of the high regard and fierce loyalty that book people develop for their favourite bookshops. As a result of which, a mythology develops over time turning the bookshop into hallowed ground. No surprise, then, that bookshops have long been fertile ground for both speculative and documentary writers.
A recent entry into this long and storied writing tradition is Satoshi Yagisawa’sDays at the Morisaki Bookshop, a Chiyoda Literature Prize winner translated into English by Eric Ozawa this year. The story revolves around Takako, an erstwhile office worker who is thrown for a loop when she suffers a psychological setback. Out of the blue, Takako’s boyfriend announces to her that he is getting married, but not to her. The news sends Takako into a spiral of depression that subsequently leads her to quit her job and turns her into a shut-in. Takako spends most of her days and nights asleep to keep her emotional pain at bay. Her uncle, Satoru Morisaki, who runs the Morisaki Bookshop in the storied Jimbocho book district, offers to let her live above the bookshop. The offer is made under the guise of helping Takako stretch her savings, but the uncle is clearly more of a meddler than he lets on.
What happens in Morisaki Bookshopshould be obvious by now: Takako, a non-reader, takes up residence on the second floor of the shop to begin her involuntary convalescence. One sleepless night following a confessional with her uncle, she chooses a book—or the more romantic of us might say that the book chose her—to while away the time, but instead finds it unputdownable. The book in question, Until the Death of the Girl by Saisei Murō (untranslated in English), keeps her entranced till dawn. Finishing the book, Takako ignites her love of reading and finds new ways of connecting with her uncle and the people around her. During the course of Morisaki Bookshop, we see Takako discuss Osamu Dazai’s Schoolgirl with a new friend, attend a local book festival with pure glee, and transform herself into a more expressive and connected being.
The overall plot ofMorisaki Bookshop is tropey: the bookshop is a place of succour and books are balms for a bruised soul. There is a daintiness in the story’s execution that one typically finds in Japanese light novels, but Morisaki is hardly the worst perpetrator. What makes Morisaki Bookshop worth reading—and it is—is the whirlwind tour through modern Japanese literature that Yagisawa takes us on, the way his love for Jimbocho and bookshops shine throughout the novel, and, yes, dammit, one does care somewhat about what happens to Takako and her uncle. There is also a second part to the book which sees the return of Satoru’s wife, Momoko, who walked out on him five years ago.
Morisaki Bookshop is a charming story that book lovers will find endearing despite its flaws. It pays homage to the saving grace of the act of reading and to the places that house its instruments. In Javier Marias’ The Infatuations, Marias has the antagonist, Diaz-Varela, say the following:
It’s a novel, and once you’ve finished a novel, what happened in it is of little importance and soon forgotten. What matters are the possibilities and ideas that the novel’s imaginary plot communicates to us and infuses us with…
Book people are interesting for various reasons, but one eccentricity they share is that many of them also tend to enjoy reading about reading: i.e. about books, bookshops, booksellers, libraries, librarians and about other people who enjoy reading. Perhaps it’s because these books communicate to them the possibility of an utter life of bliss, a sacred sanctuary bounded by bookshelves. One can but dream.
Malaysian visual artist Red Hong Yi is renowned for her larger-than-life portraits and art installations created using everyday objects and materials not typically associated with art-making: socks, teabags, bamboo chopsticks, eggshells, and coffee stains, to name a few. An architecture graduate who found her true calling in making art, Hong Yi has established a worldwide following with her unique creations and artistic vision.
Hong Yi spent the better part of the pandemic writing How to Paint Without a Brush, an autobiographical survey of her work over the past decade, charting her growth and development as an artist. The book, which features Hong Yi’s earliest works and her transformation from promising architect to global artist, was put out by American publisher Abrams in May this year.
Lit Books hosted Hong Yi in an author event on 27 May, 2023, and the wonderfully down-to-earth artist spoke candidly with Fong Min Hun and our audience about how the book came together, her art and journey as an artist. The following is an excerpt from the hour-long chat.
On how the book and its format came to be: What’s amazing about Abrams my publisher is they were open to ideas. They said we could do something that’s about your culture as an Asian artist or a compilation of your projects or it can be a materials book… If it’s purely autobiographical, they told me from the get-go it might not sell as well as a how-to book. That is why there’s a how-to at the back, so it appeals to a more general crowd. I thought if I’m going to come up with a book, I want it to reach as many people as possible.
On the process of writing the book, the challenges and joys: I found it quite intimidating at first. I love reading, and I do enjoy writing but I never thought of myself as an author… The best advice I was given was just to write the way you speak. I read a lot of advice tips from authors and they said your first draft is going to be bad; you’re going to have to edit and edit, which is what happened.
The first draft was hard. I felt it was really rigid and boring. My mom read the first draft and she was like, ‘The first page makes me want to sleep.’ That was really scary for me and I thought I better get rid of all this jargon and make it more personal. I was trying to make it sound hyper-intellectual at first. But then I thought maybe I should write it in a tone like I’m talking to a friend, so I changed it completely. I quite enjoyed that process.
The introduction was the part that was the hardest for me — to come out and be vulnerable. You’re talking about challenges you had, your childhood, and I felt I had to really dig things out of me. That was daunting, but also beautiful, too.
I had [art consultants] Rachel and Beverly from RogueArt help me. I felt I needed feedback from people in the art industry that knows art in the Southeast Asian context so they read the draft and helped me with the edits quite a bit.
I dedicated this book to my mom and dad because they were the ones who taught me how to paint and draw when I was a kid. My mom especially — she had a Picasso print from Ikea in her room and I remember she told me, ‘Look at it — it’s just a few lines, but you can tell it’s a person. You don’t have to make it elaborate.’ I thought that was so profound.
On why she uses materials in her artistic creation: I think a lot of it really comes from my background in architecture. When I graduated I realised that I really wanted to create all these portraits but painting, which is something I used to do in high school, didn’t come naturally to me anymore. What’s me is reading floor plans, playing around with the material, understanding space and scale. If I’m going to create art that’s really me, I thought I should make it with materials and tools I know best… Till today that speaks to me.
On her wide choice of materials: I see this book as a compilation of my first 10 years. Some of my early inspirations were artists like Ai Wei Wei, who uses a range of materials. That became my inspiration at the start. My first decade is about experimenting with materials. But the next decade, I do want to stick to a certain type of material and master them. I’ve been burning red paper in particular and searing that red pigment onto canvas. That’s become my focus and I do want everything to be predominantly red — I’m going through this red phase right now. I’m hoping it would become a more recognisable material in the future.
Sheila Armstrong’s debut short story collection, How to Gut a Fish, is a poised and masterful blend of the quotidian and the unsettling. The stories showcase an author with an array of writing styles at her disposal, ranging from the slow and lyrical, to the quick and punchy, to the arrhythmic and surreal. These are put to good effect with each story coming off as equally unique and compelling.
In the title story, we follow the travails of a down-on-his-luck fisherman in the midst of gutting a mackerel while waiting for a late night appointment with clients of questionable disposition. His existential ruminations take him from fish to family, and his poor fortune that has turned him into a pleasure boat operator and potential criminal. Written in the second person, the story feels pregnant with fatalism: “Find a prayer as the little death whispers away across the deck and over your shoulders into the sunset. Look your fish in the eye: they say the last thing a man sees is imprinted on his pupil. You check every catch this way for your reflection, but there is only a dark hole of fright.”
Red Market opens with preparations for a village Christmas fete. It is a communal affair that brings people together for the festive season to barter and sell their artisanal wares. Men and women busy around their booths selling an eclectic mix of goods ranging from used wedding dresses and used cooking utensils to an ancient diving suit. But at the centre of the fete is the star attraction of the auction: a trussed up young girl whose vocal cords have been anesthetised and placed belly down like a Christmas turkey. It’s quite clear why she’s there:
Some stop to admire the girl on the podium. A student nurse fingers a foot-long scar across the girl’s exposed abdomen. Pity, she thinks, the left is usually the stronger. Marci opens her palms in a helpless motion when questioned about the missing kidney; it is difficult to get undamaged goods these days , but the stitches are neat and old.
The story is a horrific one, made all the more so by the nonchalance of those participating in the auction; even the bound girl herself adopts a ‘Well, what are you going to do?’ air in these last few hours of her life. Red Market recalls to mind Shirley Jackson’s equally terrifying and superb The Lottery.
Then there are the quieter stories. Lemons tells the story of a girl’s journey to adulthood in 10 brief pages, but nevertheless succeeds in compressing the pains and challenges of a life in a reflective, melancholic story. Mantis, written as an unbroken stream of consciousness, offers a glimpse into the mind of a man in the grips of a mania as he reckons with regret, death, relationships and parenthood.
Originally from Sligo but now living in Dublin, Sheila Armstrong sets many of the stories in her home country of Ireland and deftly evokes the landscape to create an extraordinary sense of place and time in her writing. Her keen judgment ensures that her stories, which are relatively short, are sufficiently detailed to be enticing but not so much so as to break the pace of the story. An excellent collection that we highly recommend.
How to Gut A Fish is available in-store and online.
On a month-long cultural exchange trip to Japan as a teen, Malaysian writer Florentyna Leow fell in love with Japan – so much so that the Petaling Jaya-native went on to study Japanese at university in the UK, and moved to Tokyo when a job opportunity came up.
Leow jumped at the chance to move to Kyoto when a friend she’d met at university asked if she wanted to work with her and move in as her housemate as well. It was this time of living and working in this storied Japanese city that forms the spine of Leow’s first collection of essays, How Kyoto Breaks Your Heart, put out by independent UK publisher The Emma Pressin February.
In an excerpt from the foreword of How Kyoto Breaks Your Heart, Leow writes: “The following pages are a brief record of trying to find a home in Kyoto; a series of sketches, vignettes, and attempts to make sense of all the ways you can love a place. Here’s what I’ve figured out so far: when you try to belong somewhere, your chosen home becomes a reminder of what you stand to lose. It will shape you, make you, break you. To love a place is to love its people, and to love a place is to let it break your heart.”
A slim volume of 12 essays, the intimate book tells the stories of the people, places, and food that have left an indelible mark on Leow. She also reflects on friendship, belonging, and unexpectedly, tour-guiding, a side gig Leow picked up during her time there.
I was drawn in to Leow’s stories by her poignant, expressive writing. Pieces on specific streets and places, namely her favourite shotengai or shopping street and the jazz kissa she frequents, are vivid and charming. But there is, nonetheless, a thread of melancholy that darts in and out of the book as she reflects on the painful demise of a friendship. “I often joke that writing the book was like five years of therapy condensed into a month,” says Leow in an email interview with Lit Books.
Most of Leow’s professional writing encompasses food and drink (she’s written for Gastro Obscura and Japan Times, among others), and there is of course, a sprinkling of that in her book, where she waxes lyrical about persimmons and tea rituals, kakigori and eggs. She credits a food memoir she read when she was 13 as the catalyst. Titled Candyfreak by Steve Almond, it’s “a semi-journalistic memoir centred around a candy/chocolate obsession and visiting small candy factories across the US”, she says.
“Before reading Candyfreak, I had no idea you could write about food, much less write about food like that – describing how it was made, how this guy ate it, how he felt about it – and the sheer granularity of food images you could conjure through sentences. I read that book obsessively,” she adds. “I learned how to use words like ‘exude’ (as in, the dark chocolate coating of a limited KitKat Dark exudes a puddinglike creaminess) and ‘gnash’ (as in, the sweet gnash of hickeys) and ‘tchotchkes’ (as in, a bank of shelves packed to overflowing with candy tchotchkes)… I still read it at least once a year.”
How this book of essays came to be published is straightforward enough. Leow says she sent in a proposal to The Emma Press’ call for submissions and a few months later, received an email asking to see the manuscript. “I was beset with sudden exhilaration and horror at having to deliver a manuscript which was at the time 10% complete at most,” she recalls.
Does she have a favourite from the collection? Leow says, “Not especially, as they represent various aspects of my life and work, but Rainy Day in Kyoto comes quite close as it explores a friendship I cared deeply about. I’m also quite fond of A Bowl of Tea, which is perhaps the most “Kyoto” piece in the collection, as well as the most uplifting and celebratory, tonally speaking.”
Residing in a smaller city with a less frenetic pace of life than Tokyo enabled Leow to become more observant of life in general. She says, “Living in Kyoto really taught me the value of slowing down and looking closely at my surroundings. And also remaining curious. I don’t always remember this in Tokyo — life here is frenetic at times and I am a total workaholic and homebody — but it is always worth going for a walk and letting the world surprise you… I never used to like plants, nature, or the outdoors. Living in Kyoto for a few years definitely changed that.”
Old cities fill us with a sense of wonder and reverence because they are often more than just a collection of people and places. They have a mood, a rhythm, a pulse, a personality; they breathe through you, and you, in turn, find yourself changed and moved by the city. How Kyoto Breaks Your Heartcaptures some of those elements on the page.
Pick up a copy of How Kyoto Breaks Your Heart in-store and online.
Ten years after The Luminaries catapulted her to literary stardom, Man Booker prize-winning New Zealand author Eleanor Catton returns with Birnam Wood, a literary contemporary thriller that’s intelligent and zeitgeisty, but also incredibly gripping and entertaining.
Birnam Wood has it all – a cast of well-formed characters, a pacey, compelling plot, and writing that’s full of verve. The story is set in present-day New Zealand, and the Shakespeare-inspired moniker is the name of a guerilla gardening collective headed by Mira Bunting and her sensible sidekick, Shelley Noakes. The activist group grows food on unused land using scavenged materials, and what they don’t consume they sell. But five years on, the collective is still far from being financially self-sufficient.
When earthquakes trigger a landslide at the Korowai National Park, local entrepreneur Sir Owen Darvish and his wife Jill are forced to temporarily vacate their nearby farm. For Mira, the landslide is an opportunity, and she heads down to check out the place as a potential planting site. While there, Mira is caught unawares by mysterious tech mogul Robert Lemoine who tells her that he has secretly purchased the property from the Darvishes, and plans to build a doomsday bunker on the land. Intrigued by Mira and her efforts, the American billionaire unexpectedly offers to contribute $100,000 to Birnam Wood while also allowing them to cultivate the land. However, when Mira’s former flame and aspiring journalist Tony Gallo hears about this arrangement, he becomes immediately suspicious of Lemoine’s motives and sets out to investigate.
This satirical, social novel holds a mirror up to society with its examination of several issues including the prioritisation of profits over planet and the corresponding consequences; the prevalence and abuse of tracking technology; and the pervasive obsession with self-mythologising. It is replete with astute observations and wry commentary but stops short of being preachy or didactic. Catton actually draws from real people and events – for instance, Lemoine is partly modelled after billionaire Peter Thiel, whom the New Zealand government granted citizenship after spending a mere 12 days in the country.
But this is also an intimate novel where perspectives alternate between Mira, Shelley, the Darvishes, Lemoine, and Tony. Catton has an uncanny talent for writing interiority, and the result is multi-dimensional characters that practically leap off the page. We discover that, for instance, Mira and Lemoine are actually more alike than would seem. Both are conceited – Mira “was long accustomed to being thought the liveliest and most original thinker of any company in which she found herself”, whereas Lemoine “loved to wonder at his own motivations, to marvel at his own eccentric mind, to evaluate himself in the second person, and then even more deliciously, in the third”. The crusading millennial and the conniving billionaire are equally Machiavellian in their approach to obtaining what they want.
I thoroughly enjoyed this darkly comic novel with its Shakespearean overtones, vivid characters and intricate plotting punctuated by zingy dialogue. I became invested from the get-go and couldn’t wait to find out what happened next as the story built to a heart-thumping crescendo. Catton has written an immersive story that you can really sink your teeth into but that also asks urgent questions about the way we are today.
Birnam Wood is available in-store and online. Special thanks to Meora at Pansing Distribution for the review copy of the book.
I seldom read through a book in one sitting, so I was surprised when I found myself fighting sleep to finish Janice Hallett’s The Appeal, a whodunnit written in the form of a modern epistolary novel. The quick and dirty synopsis: senior barrister Roderick Tanner QC has assigned two law students to review the materials of a done-and-dusted murder case. Tanner believes that the wrong person has been incarcerated, and wants some fresh eyes to review the case ahead of the upcoming appeal to cast new light on the matter. What follows is a series of emails, messages, press cuttings and correspondence from key individuals involved in the case.
It starts off with the return of Sam and Kel to the UK from Africa—the husband-and-wife duo are nurses who had spent the better part of the last decade working as overseas volunteers. They settle in a small, closed community led by Martin and Grace Hayward, both of whom jointly own the local golf club and chair the local theatre troupe, The Fairway Players. It becomes readily apparent that the troupe plays a central role in the community, and participation in the troupe is a quick way for newcomers to ingratiate themselves with the community.
Martin Hayward is acknowledged as the alpha of the community and runs his family and the Fairway Players with a firm hand. Things change suddenly when, after the announcement of the new play, Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, Martin announces that his two year-old granddaughter, Poppy, has developed a rare form of brain cancer. Her only hope is an experimental drug being developed in the US which is unavailable through conventional channels, and which will cost £250,000 to obtain through Poppy’s oncologist. But Sam, whose time in Africa has perhaps made her a more worldly person, smells a rat…
It may be difficult to get a firm grip onThe Appeal at the start as the entire story is told through the written correspondence of the various characters. However, Hallett’s remarkable ability to get in the head of her characters and channel their quirks and biases through their emails and WhatsApp messages—difficult at the best of times—gives the story greater emotional texture than initially anticipated. Of course, we must also accept that her characters do selectively censor themselves in their correspondence, which raises questions about the reliability of their testimony. And some parts are just irresistibly funny: an exchange between the garrulous, but annoying, Isabel Beck and an uninterested Martin had me bursting out in laughter when Martin responds to Isabel’s novella of an email with a one word reply.
One thing: the book supposedly gives you enough information to figure out whodunnit before the big reveal at the end. I’m not sure if it does. But then again, I read it in one sitting so I might have been too tired, or just not clever enough, to figure it out. All in all, The Appeal is a gripping read, but perhaps not one for fans of dark Scandinavian detective noirs.