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.
Fourteen years after her critically acclaimed debut novel Evening is the Whole Day was published, Preeta Samarasan returns with her second full-length novel, Tale of the Dreamer’s Son. It is an ambitious and darkly humorous book that examines the hubris and frailties of a community of Malaysians. Novel and insightfully written in a way that only Preeta can, the book delves into the synthesis of religion, politics and violence that lies at the heart of this country.
The France-based Malaysian writer celebrated her homecoming and launch of the new novel at Lit Books on 5 Nov, 2022. Below are edited excerpts from the conversation she had with Min Hun.
On how the novel first took shape: This book very much began with the characters, with their individual stories. […] It’s about the children, first and foremost, who are just dragged along their parents’ weird, spiritual quest. It’s, of course, also about the way that the Malaysian political context shapes the destinies of the characters, in a quite obvious way.
I began with the child, the narrator Clarence Kannan Cheng-Ho Muhammad Yusuf Dragon. I started with him because I have been very interested in the way that parents decide what values their children are going to believe, the values that they’re going to pass on. I think this is true for all children but it’s sort of more apparent when the parents embark on some unusual spiritual journey.
I tend to not begin with themes. Everything grew out of this idea of who would this child be, what would it be like to be an observant child yet a child sort of marooned in this weird situation where your parents, they have this weird relationship to the cause. And you’re there trying to figure it out. I did have this novel be bookended by May 13th and Operasi Lalang, and I think the themes emerged out of that as well.
On whether the novel is the story of Malaysia writ small: It is this one guy who’s a visionary trying to build what he feels he can build… Yes, Malaysia writ small. He’s building a small community where all of what he wants Malaysia to be can be done in this hermetically-sealed context. He’s lost hope that it can happen on the grand scale, but he can at least do this.
On how she came up with name and concept for the Muhibbah Centre for World Peace in the book: It went through several iterations. I had various, different names, and none of them felt right. And then one day, we were discussing the whole concept of muhibbah on social media and I was like, ‘That’s it!’ That’s the Orwellian concept this book needs … you know, this big hope but it ultimately means nothing. It’s empty. It doesn’t ever happen.
It’s not based on any one particular sect or cult. My parents, they never entered into any residential commune like this where they were fully involved in the cause, but they experimented in a lot of different things. My mom especially was always seeking truth. As a child I was exposed to a lot of religious movements and the characters are amalgamations of people that I ran into and also of the infighting that I saw in all of these movements. And also, the way that I was exposed pretty young to different religious leaders and the way they’re all this sort of weird mix of really believing in the cause, being really committed to their values but also being flawed human beings, having their own desires and imperfections.
On whether May 13th continues to be a major issue in Malaysia: I think on a conscious level, no. I think most people don’t think about it, really. It’s sort of gone. But I think that, the fact that people don’t think about it is the exactly why it continues to matter. Because I think we’re not really exorcising those ghosts; we’re not really facing our history and not really talking about why and how we would want to depart from where we were. Precisely because we don’t talk about it in any meaningful way, it’s still very much a part of our biological makeup as a nation.
On whether her role as a fiction writer is about seeking redemption: I feel like that’s kind of what almost all writers do. We tell these stories in an effort to somehow fix something in the retelling, even if the retelling is not in an obvious way because it’s not like we retell the story and then put some happily-ever-after perfect ending. But somehow in the retelling, it’s a way to relive it and to fix certain things. I think this is an idea that was there in my first novel and it’s very much there in Ian McEwan’s Atonement. It’s in a lot of books, this idea of going back into history and somehow if you can think about it the right way, if you can just fix the story in your head, that you’ll change something, that you could change the way that we experience the present.
On her favourite character in the book: Oof. They really aren’t likeable characters. They each have their moments where they’re actually being kind of a halfway decent human being. I have a lot of sympathy for the narrator, especially when he is a child. But would I want to be his friend? No, absolutely not. He’s terrible. I mean, I wouldn’t want to spend more than two hours with him. When he’s a child, he’s my favourite character in the book. He has the possibility of becoming what he doesn’t become.
On portraying identity and class in the novel: I think it would’ve seemed too unrealistic to have everyone treating everyone, regardless of race or class, with the utmost respect all of a sudden. You can’t just switch on a switch and all of a sudden Malaysians, or anyone anywhere in the world, becomes capable of never thinking about class or race. Of course, they arrive at this community and the idea is that they’re never supposed to think about race and class. But they just can’t do it. In the end, they’re just conditioned by their prior lives. I’m not trying to make any larger point but as a writer, I felt myself constrained by reality. Like how would Malaysians behave if they suddenly found themselves in a place where they can’t talk about race? I don’t think they could do it.
On how different the experience of writing this second novel was from the first: It was quite different, for one because Evening Is A Whole Day is so much closer to my immediate life experience. It was about a Malaysian Tamil family. It wasn’t autobiographical, but it drew a lot on my familiar world. In this one, I had to, sort of, invent a lot more, speculate a lot more, imagine a lot more. So the experience of writing it was very different. The experience of publishing it was night and day. […] It’s not a book that’s easy to pigeonhole ethnically and because it’s a much less South Asian but much more Southeast Asian book, it’s much, much harder to sell because Southeast Asia is unfamiliar to the West. And the West is not particularly interested in Southeast Asia yet. They say they are, but they’re not really. So yeah, it was very different in that sense as well.
During an author event here at Lit Books on Nov 2, 2022,Audrey Magee, author of The Colonyand former journalist, said that while writing her novel, she had to keep the reporter within in check. Notwithstanding the self-professed demarcation of roles, The Colonyis a fine example of a key journalism precept, namely, show, don’t tell. The result is an achingly beautiful novel written with a fluency and sparseness of prose that draws all emotion out from the page to inject them fully within the soul of the reader.
Such is the prowess of Magee’s Booker-longlisted novel that it makes absolute sense as to why it didn’t win the prize: it simply reads too well. Also working against it Booker prize-wise is that rather than it being a simple story masked in complexity, it is a complex story that masks itself in simplicity. The Colony recalls to mind that other quietly powerful novel, John Williams’ rediscovered Stoner, which similarly traverses the themes of class, ambition and betrayal within similarly narrow confines. Indeed, Julian Barnes’ verdict on Stoner can and ought to be restated in respect to The Colony: “the prose was clean and quiet; and the tone a little wry”.
Set in a fictitious remote island in the Atlantic at the height of Irish sectarian violence in 1979, The Colonycentres around the arrival of two neo-colonials, an Englishman and a Frenchman — an artist and a linguist, respectively — to an unnamed island. Entitled and oblivious, both arrive with the aim of seeking out and capturing for themselves an authentic Irish experience, to the amusement and bemusement of the islanders.
Despite initial reservations about the intentions of Mr Lloyd, the Englishman, some of the islanders begin to warm to him, particularly James, an island boy with a preternatural gift for painting. Recognising James’ talent and in appreciation of his willingness to run around as his dogsbody, Lloyd promises to take James home with him to London and showcase his precocious, if naive, talent at his wife’s gallery. In the meantime, Lloyd is also painting James’ mother, Mairead, in the style of Gauguin, despite the disapproval of the remaining islanders.
The Frenchman, Jean-Pierre Masson, has arrived on the island to complete his longitudinal research on the Gaelic language. He has been coming to the island annually for five years to document and capture changes in the language on the island, which, thanks to the remoteness of the location, was relatively free from outside influence. Viewing himself as a protector of the authenticity and survival of the language, Masson finds favour with the matriarch of the family who fervently insists on keeping with the old ways. Masson expects to be lionised for his work; the islanders know better.
At its core, Magee’s novel is a restatement of the violence of colonisation, and a revelation of the play of power within a complex weave. It is when this dynamic is normalised — when the one who wields power and the one over which power is wielded forget their place — that the nuanced wretchedness of the colonial relationship is revealed. Indeed, this is stated with some force in The Colony where each chapter is divided by a short report on some incident of violence that happened in Northern Ireland in 1979, culminating in the assassination of Lord Mountbatten on August 27.
No such ruckus disrupts the quietude of the main story, save for a rather menacing, albeit ambiguous, ending for some of the islanders. The Colony ends the way that Irish novels must: a melancholic return to the status quo with everyone just that little bit more sad.
The author session we had with Magee and Pusaka founder Eddin Khoo was thanks to the support of the Embassy of Ireland in Malaysia. Below are edited excerpts from the hour-long conversation.
On achieving a sense of distance in her writing: I think I grew up in an Ireland that was kind of almost distant from itself. The core of this novel is the violence — the violence that was the backdrop to my childhood, to the childhood of the people of my generation. And it was obviously distant from me as I was living in the south, but the violence was up in Northern Ireland. And most of the time you lived your life, but sometimes it cut into your life and it became very difficult to absorb.
I think you naturally created a distance from your identity to protect yourself from the violence. I say this because as a child, your identity was so defined by what you thought of the violence. For anybody growing up in a violent situation, whether it’s a violent marriage or a backdrop of violence, they can become quite distant as a way of self-preservation. I think a lot of us became quite distant from our heritage and our sense of Irishness — by that I mean our relationship with the language, our relationship with the flag because it was so politicised. Everything about our identity was politicised. So our flag is green, white and orange, which embodies the Catholics, Protestants with the neutral white between us. That was deemed to be an appropriate foundation of the state — and it was. But when the violence started again in the late 1960s… most of us just distanced ourselves.
I became very interested in otherness, and I became very interested in France and Germany. It was an easier space than Ireland. And then I continued that passion by going into journalism; it’s not your story, it’s somebody else’s story. So that kind of life as a viewer became quite a natural space for me, to stand outside of things. That’s a very valid space as a writer.
That fed into the titles. My first novel is called The Undertaking. It’s the Second World War from the perspective of the ordinary German — again, standing back to analyse. The Colony is obviously about colonisation, what it is to be colonised, what it is to be the coloniser. But I deliberately went with the definite article and a noun. I suppose drawing to a large degree on Camus and that whole L’Étranger/La Peste, that sense of creating an environment from which you can stand back to then explore. So it’s a distance to create an exploration because we assume we know what happened in Nazi Germany. We assume we know what happened in Ireland, what happens when you’re colonised, what happens in colonisation. But I’m much more interested in the latencies, in the things that are hidden from one generation to the next. Or the things that are passed on from one generation to the next by parents, grandparents, schools, institutions, politicians, society in general that we don’t even understand we’re inheriting and that we’re still repeating. And to do that, you need a distance. […]
But I can create a space for us all to think about what we know, what we’ve inherited, what we don’t know, what maybe we should think about. […] I wanted to understand the implications of that for all of us. We go on because we’re always focused on the future, because we have to be. We have to focus on the next generation. But sometimes to bring the next generation to the right place, you have to go back a bit to go forward. And that’s the space I’m trying to create.
On the passage from journalism to writing her first novel: I really had to — and I kid you not — go on a detox programme. I had to unlearn everything I had learnt about writing and create a freedom of space for something to happen. When you’re in journalism it’s always very preordained — obviously much more so in news writing than in feature writing and I did both — but also to no longer be certain. I had always been involved in otherness because that was exciting. Journalism is the epitome of other. But sitting with [the man who’s family was killed] the most precious thing we can hope for is an ordinary life. So I became compelled to try to create that ordinariness, and what was the impact. I wrote my first novel, which is what is the impact of fascism on the ordinary person. and then I was halfway through The Colony when I realised I was actually writing a triptych of power and the ordinary person. So we have fascism and the ordinary person, [The Colony] is colonisation and the ordinary person. There is a third novel, it’s got “the” in the title and that’s all I can tell you.
It was quite a process. I had to go back to the writing I was writing before I ever went into journalism. I was a ferocious letter writer, I had dabbled in short stories and plays but then buried them thinking I’ll never be a writer. You’re also dealing with the legacy of Irish writing. It’s hard to underestimate the legacy of four Noble Prize winners. Where do you begin? So to even put yourself forward and use the word writer was such a huge step for me. I couldn’t do it; I couldn’t say I’m a writer. In journalism I was never a writer; I was a journalist who wrote. It’s just such a precious word in Ireland. Writer is a very precious space, and I revered that space. Therefore, to enter it, I had to leave journalism behind me.
On how European literature shaped her fiction writing: I was 16 when I met French writer Marguerite Duras for the first time. I had a wonderful French teacher in school who is my friend. She decided to do Moderato Cantabile with us which is one of Duras’ very sparsely written books. It’s a beautiful book, not a lot happens and yet a ton happens. I had been reading as part of my English curriculum all the Dickens and the Jane Austens and they’re all grand, lovely, great. But there was no space for me as a reader. I was always being told what to think, what to feel. I found that a bit boring. And then I met Duras and I was like, ‘Oh my god’. This is so radical for me because she created a space for me where I could engage; I could make my own decisions and I could analyse things for myself. She treated me as somebody who had thoughts and that was utterly radical. [Albert] Camus was huge because of his integration of narrative, politics, philosophy and sociology all into a novel and I thought that was thrilling. There was obviously Beckett, Bertolt Brecht, Heinrich Böll, Thomas Mann — the list is long and wonderful.
I had two amazing departments in University College Dublin (UCD). In 1980s Ireland we were doing French feminism while there were rows raging about divorce, abortion, homosexuality — all these things were really introduced by the church and anybody who stepped out of line was in trouble. I was on the fourth floor of UCD immersed in French feminism, French film, French linguistics, French language, German philosophy. I mean it was the most incredible space of otherness and it absolutely fed into me. But I think it fed into me in a very interesting way as well because you know you might be reading Goethe in German or German in the Middle Ages. And of course I didn’t understand a thing. So you learnt how to grasp onto a tiny phrase that gave you an understanding. When you read in a foreign language, you learn how much you can actually say with very little, that you can cut out tracks and tracks of description and put it into two words and you still pass your exams.
That really fed into understanding the impact of just two words, or three words or a phrase and how much that can carry, and how little you need to carry a whole scene.
Signed copies of The Colony are available to purchase in-store and online.We also have Magee’s first novel, The Undertaking.
Malaysian author Hanna Alkaf’s third novel, Queen of the Tiles, is set in the world of competitive Scrabble. Hence it was only fitting that the author session held at Lit Books on 2 July, 2022 would feature life-size Scrabble boards where attendees could try their hand at fielding high-scoring words. The event was organised by the Two Book Nerds Talking podcast headed by Honey Ahmad and Diana Yeong, who are no strangers to those who have been following us for a while. This dynamic duo has collaborated with us on numerous literary events over the years.
The morning of Hanna’s event dawned bright and beautiful, and the audience who came were eager to get up close and personal with one of their favourite authors. Hanna spoke at length with Honey and Diana about Queen of the Tiles, a mystery novel set in the world of competitive Scrabble that explores teenage friendship, grief and mental health. The full podcast will be out soon, but in the meantime, here are some snippets from the hour-long interview.
On how she came to write Queen of the Tiles: I grew up in a time when my brother was playing competitive Scrabble. There used to be weekly tournaments at the Park Royal Hotel downtown, and I used to teman my mother to send my brother and pick him up. I sort of absorbed the atmosphere and would watch my brother walking around with these massive printed out lists of words that he bound with duct tape on one side — he would study them.
While I was thinking about what my next book would be after The Weight of Our Sky [Hanna’s debut novel], the idea came to me to write about a Scrabble tournament because I’d never seen books that really centred a Scrabble tournament before. And then I thought, well, what if I added murder…
On how she crafted Najwa, the novel’s main character: Najwa was tough in a lot of different ways to write because first of all, Najwa is dealing with such immense grief. In order to write those kinds of emotions, I find that I have to mine them within myself and really explore my own feelings in order to bring that to the page, and that’s a tough thing to do. You have to scrape away the layers of protection you put around yourself and really sit with your own ideas of grief and loss.
The other level is just that Najwa is much smarter than me so it’s very hard to get into her head and write the way that she thinks, which is to float from word to word, definition to definition, and tie it altogether. I wanted to write her that way and I was also very mad at myself for writing her that way because it made my life much more difficult. The search for the perfect word at the perfect time that would tie to the next word and the next word, that wasn’t an easy thing to do. It didn’t come naturally to me. It involved a lot of reading of the Scrabble dictionary.
On being unapologetic about injecting Malaysian elements into her stories: There are things about the Malaysian experience of growing up that stick and that I really want to see written about normally in the narrative, the same way that we accepted tea parties with tea and crumpets, nurseries and governesses — we all read this as kids and we just accepted that they were the narrative of our childhood even though it didn’t look anything like our childhoods. And that’s what I wanted for us. I wanted to read it and be like this is just a thing. It’s one of those things that I write without trying to make it a big deal. It’s not a focal point; it’s not a thing I want outsiders to look at and exoticize. I just want it to feel familiar to you.
When we talk about who I’m writing for, I’m writing for Malaysians. I may be published in the US, but I’m writing for Malaysians. I want them to feel like they are home to you. I write them thinking about how I was at that age, how I grew up, how my kids are growing up, what’s normal for us, and what’s normal for them.
On plotting an absorbing and compelling mystery: Queen of the Tiles is in many ways my most technically difficult book because plotting a mystery is very difficult. Writing any sort of mystery is very difficult and very technical and it involves a lot of meticulous planning and follow-up, going back and forth and making you’re foreshadowing right and adding the correct red herrings and making sure that you’ve led people astray enough times and all sorts of stuff like that.
On her favourite word: One of my favourite words is obsequious. I just like the way that that falls off the tongue. It sounds like exactly what it is — a slimy person. There’s something about the way you say it that’s very satisfying.
Watch out for the full interview with Hanna Alkaf soon on the Two Book Nerds Talking podcast, which you can subscribe to on Spotify and Apple podcast.
When I started reading Jenny Tinghui Zhang’s Four Treasures of the Sky, seated behind the counter at work, I wasn’t expecting to fall so deeply in love. A stirring debut of historical and literary fiction, Four Treasures explores a young girl’s coming of age set against the backdrop of historical and personal tragedy.
Born in 19th-century China to a loving family, 13-year-old Daiyu has spent her life in the shadow of her namesake Lin Daiyu — a doomed maiden from Chinese folklore. When Daiyu loses her parents under ominous circumstances, she can’t help but feel that her name is to blame. Her grandmother sends Daiyu off to Zhifu, a seaport town, disguised as a boy named Feng, where she meets Master Wang, the owner of a calligraphy school. With his guidance, Daiyu unlocks a love for calligraphy that breathes new life into her distressing world.
But her fate sours once again when she is abducted, smuggled across the ocean and sold to a brothel. In America, Daiyu becomes Peony. Every day is a fight for survival with only Master Wang’s teachings for comfort. When an opportunity to return to China arises, Daiyu manages to escape the brothel only to face cruel betrayal. She ends up in Pierce, Idaho, where she is taken in by two Chinese shopkeepers, Nam and Lum, and a violinist named Nelson — all of whom know her as Jacob Li. As anti-Chinese sentiment spreads across the country, Daiyu’s newfound stability is threatened, and she faces a difficult choice: should she stay or go?
Four Treasures of the Skyis a powerful story about searching for identity despite extreme circumstances. As I sat to write this review, I was stumped on what to even call the narrator. Daiyu, Feng, Peony, Jacob Li. Which name is the most truthful to the character? Which name is the least? Is she all of them at once, or something else entirely? (The answer to why I landed on ‘Daiyu’ lies in the ending, so no spoilers!) To most of us, finding who we are is an organic process; to Daiyu, that timeline is a luxury. Seeing Daiyu deal with impossible situations time and time again with the measliest of resources is a gruelling experience. But the high stakes are what make her hero’s journey so compelling. When Daiyu finally succeeds and learns to forge her own identity, I was moved, haunted and ultimately satisfied.
In terms of craft, the book is elegant in its economy. The writing is buoyant, the pacing quick, and the world brilliantly immersive. What makes Four Treasures special, however, is how it bridges lyrical prose and loaded subject matter, especially given that part of the book was inspired by real-world events following the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Zhang deftly delivers emotional punches one after another, and you barely have time to appreciate the setup before feeling the blow. Here’s a little taste of what I mean:
“[In America], I am special. The white people make me that way. Why else would they step aside when I walk by, or avoid my eyes, or whisper things that I cannot hear under their breath? My body is covered in the syllables of another language, the scroll of a kingdom that has existed long before they did and will continue existing long after they are gone. I am something they cannot fathom. I am something they fear. We all are.” (207-208)
Thus, Zhang proclaims the beauty in pain, and how that beauty is anchored in art, history and community.
This book has earned its place as one of my favorite books, period. If you’re in the market for a heartbreaker,Four Treasures of the Skyis for you. Prepare to be sucked in and sucked dry.
That the last few months have been stressful is an understated and moot statement so much so that the declaration needs no further elaboration. Escapism, therefore, was very much called for so far as my reading was concerned. As a result of which, anyone going through my recently-read list will find a substantial collection of pulp science fiction and detective novels, most of which were re-reads (familiarity is an effective, if temporary, balm for the soul).
It was during this time that I came across the newly published translations of Seishi Yokomizo’s detective novels The Honjin Murders and The Inugami Curse by Pushkin Vertigo. (Full disclosure: despite being a fan of Japanese crime thrillers and murder mysteries, I was not at all familiar with the Yokomizo name despite there being a literary award named after him. This may be due to the fact that only one of his novels had been published previously — The Inugami Curse was released as The Inugami Clan in 2013 by a previous publisher.)
I was thrilled to learn that the books were set in inter-war/post-WWII Japan as I had just come off a Sherlock Holmes binge and was very much still in the mood for period detective fiction. Likewise, both books feature a brilliant young detective, Kosuke Kindaichi, who has a good shout of being lumped together with the greats such as Auguste Dupin, Poirot and, of course, Holmes himself. It comes as little surprise that Yokomizo was a self-declared fan of the popular mystery novels of Western authors, particularly John Dickson Carr, and the Honjin Murders, a locked-room mystery,is very much a tip of the hat in Carr’s direction.
Picture this: the heir of the wealthy landowning Ichiyanagi family (former proprietors of a honjin — an inn frequented by warlords and other Japanese nobility in feudal Japan) and his new bride are found dead in their chambers on the night of their wedding. Both are stabbed to death and the murder weapon, a katana, is found blade down in a snowbank metres outside the chamber. On the days leading up to the double-murder, a mysterious and terrifying three-fingered man was spotted around the estate and making enquiries of the dead man. The manic playing of a koto (Japanese zither) could be heard in the nights leading up to the murder and on the murder night itself. Moreover, it takes only three fingers to play the koto…
As with all good detective novels, it seems that everyone in the extended family — the brothers, cousin and mother included — has a motive to kill except for the youngest sister who, being a bit simple, seems to be the only one who is innocent. But she is an expert koto player and seems to know more than she can or will let on. The local police are baffled, suspecting everyone and no one in equal measure. Enter Kindaichi, an eccentric-looking young man who has only recently started his detective practice following a less than stellar start in life. With a string of successive cases under his belt and the endorsement of the influential adoptive father of the dead bride, Kindaichi goes to work on the family.
The Honjin Murders is a wonderfully descriptive piece of period detective fiction replete with quirky family, mysterious bordering on supernatural suspense and numerous thrusts and parries between our hero detective and the unknown perpetrator. But as with all locked-room mysteries, much of the book’s success hinges on the big reveal of the murder mechanism at the end with three possibilities: the mechanism is not clever enough, the mechanism is just clever enough, or the mechanism tries to be too clever. I think we can safely scratch out the first possibility although I leave it to the reader to decide where the book fits in respect to the remaining two options.
Having been introduced to Kindaichi, we encounter him again in The Inugami Curse, which is set immediately after Japan’s defeat in WWII. It is again an unhappy family that is the seat of all ills. The story proper begins with the repatriation of one of the potential heirs of the wealthy and influential Inugami family following the completion of his tour of duty in Southeast Asia which left him a broken and disfigured man. The patriarch of the family had died a few months prior leaving behind express instructions that his will remain unread until the entire family could gather together.
But this was no gentle, wise old family head who expired; rather, it becomes immediately clear that there was a vicious streak in him that bore no love for either of his three daughters or their children. The will that is read is particularly divisive, with the fate of the bequest very much determined by the actions of a couple of outsiders including the granddaughter of a former benefactor and his illegitimate son by another, unrecognised woman. Moreover, the will is so structured that there is a very good chance that only one of the daughters would stand to inherit the fortune leaving the other two branches of the family very much out in the cold.
With razor sharp claws honed by years of ambition and indifferent treatment by their father, the three vituperative daughters will go to any means to secure the substantial wealth and businesses of the Inugami clan for their branch of the family. Kindaichi is first called on to the scene by one of the lawyers involved in the case because of several failed attempts at the life of one of the players in the will; however, the lawyer is himself killed before he can divulge his findings to the detective. So Kindaichi stays on and becomes an indispensable tool to the local police when, one by one, the heirs to the fortune are found dead in mysterious circumstances.
A quick google of The Inugami Curse reveals that it is one of Yokomizo’s more favoured novels with several movie adaptations made from it, and it is not difficult to see why. Compared to The Honjin Murders, Inugami is a more accomplished murder mystery that is made more complex by the competing motivations of the various actors in the novel. This may mean quite a few side plots and red herrings, but Yokomizo is masterful enough to tie up all the loose ends in a satisfying ending while maintaining a good level of suspense throughout the book. The Inugami Curse may also be the only detective novel which features a manhunt on skis, although this may just mean that I don’t read enough Scandi noirs.
It’s difficult for a non-Japanese reader to really gauge Yokomizo’s influence on the genre, but a regular reader of Japanese crime thrillers should be able to feel the distant echoes. Both books are really good yarns, and I for one am looking forward to the other translations of Yokomizo sensei’s works promised by Pushkin Vertigo.