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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As booksellers, Elaine and I constantly work through an endless pile of books to determine their suitability for our shelves. We usually divvy up the books between us and avoid reading the same book to speed up the assessment process (which makes for interesting book conversation, because rather than discussing something we had read together, we are almost always telling each other about the book that we just read). It’s not often that we would say to the other person, ‘Hey, you need to read this book’ but she said just that after finishing Elizabeth Wong’s We Could Not See the Stars several months ago. I mumbled, ‘Okay, I’ll get around to it,’ and left it at that. But several weeks ago, she’d thrown the book at me, metaphorically speaking, and said ‘Read It!’, because the author was going to be making an appearance at our shop and I Needed To Read The Book. And so I did.
At first blush, We Could Not See the Starsis a work of speculative fiction set in an alternate Malaysia populated by emigrant Chinese in which Manglish is spoken exclusively. The story begins in Kampung Seng, a small fishing village on the west coast of the Peninsula, where our protagonist, Han, lives the quiet, unassuming life of a rural fisherman. He schleps for his rich uncle — Tauke Lim — who owns the largest fishing operation in the kampung and spends his days aimlessly rooting around, despite his young age. What sets Han apart from all others, however, is his spotty provenance: his mother, Swee, had suddenly appeared at Kampung Seng with him in tow years ago armed with a mysterious looking spade, and never disclosed any information in regards to her origins or her family. That she would then deliberately run into the sea to her death several years later, leaving no clue as to her origins save for the odd-looking spade, would further deepen the mystery of the pair.
Han, who has little recollection of his mother and even less of their past, is phlegmatic about this void in his life even though he is plagued by dreams and fragments of memories embedded in his being. All this changes when his mother’s spade is stolen from his house — “She’s dead and I have nothing left of her!” — spurring Han to go after the thief, setting him off on a journey that will take closer than ever to the discovery of the truth of his heritage. His odyssey will see him leave his tiny kampung for the first time, taking him to the Capital in the Peninsula, then across the deadly Desert of the Birds, and finally across the sea into the Hei-San archipelago where the secret of his origins lies within the forest of Naga Tua.
First, a word about the language. It is clear from the off that Elizabeth Wong is adamantly writing a book about Malaysia, for Malaysians. However, there is also no doubt that she is writing about a specific setting of Malaysia and for a specific segment of Malaysians:
In their evenings, they lingered in the parking lot of the former Golden Star cinema. The last rays of sunlight flared across their motorcycles as they smoked their cigarettes, and the dust clouds from the main road billowed around them. Sometimes they would race from Golden Star to Liu’s prawn farms on the other side of the village, and back again… If they were at Boon Chee, they would watch football matches that were showing on the twenty-year-old Sony TV that hung over the entrance, next to Laughing Buddha looking at them. ‘Eh, boss, boss, more beer, peanuts also, why like that so slow?’ Chong Meng would holler, and the workers would scurry.
Those of us of a certain vintage and variety would certainly recall such locales: Chinese townships anchored by the local cinema — the Sentosa, Paramount and Ruby cinemas come to mind — supported by an enclave of petty merchants selling sundry items and fireworks under newspapers during Chinese New Year. The local patois would very much be dictated by the majority dialect group in the area, and if any English was spoken in these areas, it would be in the Manglish so deftly illustrated in the line of dialogue above. Even the cry of the rooster, which Wong phonetically dishes out as Goukokoko, is typically Manglish; nowhere else would you find a rooster’s cry written out in this way, in the same way that so many thousands of Chinese Malaysian mums have sounded the cry of the rooster to their children.
Indeed, all of Wong’s characters speak in Manglish in the novel. Nevertheless, it is a particularly Chinese Malaysian variety of Manglish that dominates in the book which leaves the question of, ‘What about the other races?’ unanswered. The fact of the matter is, the other races don’t feature in the book at all; or if they do, their distinguishing marks are subsumed under generalities and abstractions. (White men do make an appearance in the book, although they are, perhaps slightly pejoratively, described as the White Ghosts, a literal translation of the Cantonese term for Caucasians, gwai lo [鬼佬]. Before anyone loses their composure over this, it’s a very minor role and their presence more a function of world-building demarcating boundaries than anything else).
But there is a reason for the Chinese-Malaysian-centricity of the book. At its core, We Could Not See the Starsis a fable about the Chinese diaspora, and about the descendants of those who left the motherland for Nanyang in search of riches in these relatively virgin lands. It is about those of us who have been separated from our ancestral lands for generations, who have lost all bonds of familiarity with these lands, and yet hold on to a thin thread that ties us to a past and impels us to seek out our identity by following that thread of history. This theme is repeated in several passages through the novel:
We are all part of this world, Ah-ma explained, connected in this great shining net of humanity, and to belong in it fully, one needs a past, a history.
For we are stardust — we are merely a minuscule physical manifestation of larger processes, planet forming from bits of rock and dust, plants generating oxygen, comets and asteroids delivering water, volcanoes spewing aleum, creating homes for humans to find and populate; we are one sentence in a larger story, one whose ending has not been written yet. To lose this history is death.
We Could Not See the Stars is not a perfect novel. I have some reservations about the pacing and the structure of the book, and there is a sense that the balance between world-building and plotting is slightly off-kilter. Nevertheless, the book continues to resonate deeply within me because the problem of historicity and identity is one that I can strongly identify with. Going back to the metaphor of the thread of history which ties us to our past, we can also see that the thread thins and weakens with each successive generation. There will be a point of inflection in which the thread snaps altogether, and decisions will have to be made: about when and where we are to re-anchor ourselves, and to decide our part in the larger narrative. We will need to do this, because, as Wong tells us, to lose this history is death.
Join us for an author session with Elizabeth Wong in Lit Books on 6 Aug! Purchase tickets here.
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.