Grief’s Sudden Grip

L’Anglaise by Helen E. Mundler: Holland House Books, 2018

It’s not easy being difficult.

The language of families is often confusing. Ella is a successful British academic based in Strasbourg who, following her father’s death, takes a sabbatical to finally start writing her first book. Attempting to tell her mother’s story based on remembered snippets, she chips away at the polished version of events to uncover the harrowing reality. Her distant parents happened to reside under the same roof but rarely communicated, living separate lives within their outwardly prim London townhouse. Life stories intertwine as Ella attempts to make sense of the present by translating the past and exploring what home really means to her.

Intimacy is elusive to Ella. Her late father, Hugo, conversed like an automaton leading to constant misunderstandings. Close in blood ties but little else, she was never introduced to his parents and when she went to boarding school, his young boyfriend quietly moved in to the family home. Her mother, Margaret, is impervious to sarcasm or argument and renders Ella an intruder at the funeral by inviting her along only if she wants to come.

Ella’s alienation is further emphasized by her struggles with language. She speaks French but at emotional moments loses her fluency, revealing a vulnerable disconnect. As she begins a halting relationship with Max, the owner of a cat she is looking after, words – or the lack of them – threaten to create a gulf between them.

She felt again bizarrely self-conscious about speaking French, groping for words, seeing herself uncomfortably like a parody Englishwoman in a French film.

LAnglaise-1

The novel’s backdrop is both unique and relatable and the story will particularly resonate with people who, like me, moved to another country or dream of doing so. Having lived in Rome, I found Mundler’s vivid imagery illustrative of the light and shade of European life. The sunlight that comes through Ella’s bedroom window is ‘thrown over her bed like a perfectly unruffled quilt.’ As her perceptions of both France and England become less set, so does her sense of affiliation to either place. Unsure where she belongs, she feels like a foreigner in the country of her birth. Nationality, sexuality, and identity all seem fluid and old labels are called into question in what is a richly complex and thought-provoking read.

Ella’s feeling of transience as an expat is subtly drawn out. While she has a much-coveted permanent university job, she is still perceived as somehow ‘other’ despite speaking the language and setting up home. She battles everyday misogyny and her attempts to object achieve mixed results. She is inevitably defensive during these encounters but at times is herself harshly critical of the more traditional choices made by other women. Her personal brand of feminism seems to allow for routinely dismissing women who disagree with her. Despite her frustration at being judged for choosing not to have children, for instance, she seems to look down on other women regarding everything from their lifestyle choices to their appearance.

Narrative voice changes frequently as Ella attempts to see things from the point of view of her own mother and Max’s mother.  Margaret spent time in a psychiatric ward before being married off, engagement viewed as her only possible route to social acceptance. She therefore views Ella as incomplete without a husband, rather than as the successful woman she actually is. There are parallels, too, with Max’s artist mother who committed suicide, providing a compassionate insight into the impact of post-natal depression on the mother-child relationship.

There are frequent references to suicide as a sort of security blanket that has become a regular part of life. Bereavement sometimes catches Ella unawares, leaving her ‘howling on the kitchen floor,’ and she keeps enough medication in the house so that she could take an overdose at any time.

At bottom, however, it was herself she doubted most, the depth of the black holes of her own soul.

Ella’s introspections reveal her isolation as she searches for a sense of belonging. At times there are multiple inner voices whom Ella addresses directly in her head.

‘Well?’ she enquired, sharply, within. But at this the bluestocking and the soul-keeper exchanged a glance and then only lowered their separate eyes, each with the merest and most lady-like of shrugs.

These slightly cringe-worthy inner monologues jar with the overall tone of the novel. Fifty Shades of Grey did unexpectedly spring to mind! Ella’s character is brought to the surface better through her interactions with other people, subtly revealing her thoughts through her reactions. Her character is eloquently drawn and her voice is clearest when unimpeded by clumsy narrative tricks. There are laugh-out-loud funny moments, too, like when she imagines reducing her patronising manager to six inches high and ‘banging him into the ground like a tent peg.’

L’Anglaise is a profound exploration of the damage caused by parental neglect and the ensuing struggle to rebuild self-esteem. Painful snapshots capture this perfectly, like when a very young Ella is told to kiss her Daddy and ‘paralysed and powerless to perform as required’ she holds her arms up to the wrong man. But it is ultimately a hopeful story as time and experience allow the main characters to comprehend a little more about each other’s experiences and find forgiveness. As this intensely personal story unfolds, the rich prose and beautiful details ensure that the reader will be captivated from beginning to end.

Click here to order L’Anglaise direct from Holland House Books.

About the publisher:

Holland House is a bold, dynamic publisher of high quality literary and genre fiction. Investing time and energy into producing books by unique voices, they are not afraid of advancing new and challenging work, as well as great books written in the classic style. ‘We want to produce quality writing and to work with good people’. Imprints include Caerus Press for historical fiction and Grey Cells Press for crime fiction.

About the reviewer:

Becky Danks is an avid reader, creative writer, book reviewer, and dog lover. She recently won the City Writes competition for her short story, The Anniversary. She is currently organising a UK and Ireland-wide poetry and short story competition which will launch very soon. Follow her on Twitter: @BeckyD123 or visit her website: www.beckydanks.com

 

 

In the Blink of an Eye

Truth, Beauty and Death: Photography, the Artist and Mourning

In the Blink of an Eye, Ali Bacon, Linen Press, 2018

In a single instance, a transformative and indelible impression may be etched onto the mind via vision, a happening that occurs in “the blink of an eye”. There was seemingly one such moment for the author of this novel. Ali Bacon was working in Oxford’s Bodleian Library when she found a cache of famous Victorian photographs. The overwhelming surge of emotions aroused by that encounter with the first wave of photographic images sparked a life-long interest in early photographers. This, Bacon’s second novel, is the fruit of those powerful feelings and interest. It follows the life of the Scottish artist David Octavius Hill, one of those early pioneers of nineteenth century photography, as he brings to completion the first painting based on photographs, an endeavour that spanned decades. Hill brought a refined sensibility to his photographic partnership with the more technically minded Robert Adamson to establish photography as a recognised art form and the novel is very much a song of praise to this innovator.

The novel is also more than that, of course. It is both history and biography, imagination and reality, fact and fancy. The writing playfully and self-consciously alludes to its status as both truth and fiction, as prominent characters in the establishment of photography as a serious pursuit debate in its pages whether the photographic form of representation is art or artifice, the representation of things as they are or a reimagining of the world. That the issue is relevant to an understanding of the novel itself is indicated by the headings that the chapters fall under: the names of early photographic processes. Thus the novel is seemingly constructed as a photograph and presented as a photograph, one that invites philosophical reflection on its capacity to represent the world and to bear truth beyond surface appearance.

in-the-blink-of-an-eye

There are a number of themes which develop in the novel besides its focus on truth and
artifice. Bacon makes much of imbuing her photograph of a novel with the sensibility of
women. She draws on Hill’s relationships with women and often writes from the perspective of these women to understand the man. The novel is therefore interesting in being a “her-story”, rather than a “his-story”, and a self-consciously feminine biography. However, the great theme of the novel which struck me the most was the relationship that it constructed between truth, beauty and mourning. Death is one of the most significant characters in the novel and touches all those involved. From the first, Hill is shown as a widower and then his partner in photography dies. There are further tragedies. All the art and photography that takes place in the novel, described constantly in terms of truth and beauty, can therefore be situated in ideas of death, bereavement and mourning. As Hill’s wife remarks to him towards the close of the novel in a terse summary of the perspective of the novel, Hill’s art can be understood thus: “‘[t]he sadness gives it beauty, the beauty gives you comfort” (204-5).

Inevitably, one wonders why, in Bacon’s view, sadness gives beauty. Is it the sense of
mortality that gives what is beautiful its value and meaning, the sense of an impending
ending? Is it the fleetingness of the moment that gives both art and photography, and this
novel constructed like a photograph, their ultimate raison d’être? Or can we only understand the true artist in the Western tradition as one that suffers?  That is, can Hill only be given recognition as a “proper” artist since he suffers and his suffering bears fruit? After all, one popular image of the artistic genius is “the tortured soul” who is besieged on all sides by harsh happenings, experiences which appear to give his or her art greater depth, value and meaning to the public. One thinks of how their biographical details add to the status of figures like Vincent Van Gogh and the feminist icon Frida Kahlo, who is in fact called “La Heroina del Dolor”, or “The Heroine of Pain”.

Bacon’s novel is certainly a substantial and well-wrought affair which invites the larger
questions on the part of readers. The individual chapters have been nominated for and won several awards and the novel is an engrossing read which also has a feminist dimension. It is a good second novel. It is also a good introduction to the early history of photography and the key debates that the medium first aroused, debates which follow us to the contemporary moment. In the Blink of an Eye is therefore, in my view, a richly rewarding read.

Click here to order Ali Bacon’s In the Blink of an Eye from Linen Press.

About the Publisher:

Linen Press is “a small, independent publisher run by women, for
women”. It published its first book in 2006 to much acclaim and strong sales. The Press
describes itself as the only indie women’s press in the UK. Its policy is “to encourage and
promote women writers and to give voice to a wide range of perspectives and themes that are relevant to women”. Linen Press, in its own words, aims to “publish books that are diverse, challenging, and surprising”. The collective background of the writers in the publishing house is described as “a multi-coloured patchwork of cultures, countries, ages and writing styles”.

Review by Suneel Mehmi

Suneel is currently researching the relationship between photography and law in fiction from the mid-nineteenth century to the 1920s. He is a scholar and an amateur writer, poet, singer/songwriter, musician and artist. Suneel is a member of the British Asian community and lives in East London. He holds degrees in Law and English Literature from the London School of Economics and Political Science, Brunel University and the University of Westminster.

Gaudy Bauble

Has there ever been a Lesbian Zoo?

Gaudy Bauble by Isabel Waidner: Dostoyevsky Wannabe Originals

Shortlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize 2018

Olivia Laing was not wrong in saying “the future of the queer avant-garde is safe with Isabel Waidner”, as Waidner creates a topsy-turvy, destabilising, dismantling, distorting post-identity Britain inhabited by Gilbert & George-esque lesbians, Peggy “the let’s-get-the-hell-out-of-here Pegasus”, hoofed fibreglass sculptures, Healthy-lips, chalk faeries, a transarmy with red question marks compressing the left-facing heads and the “phantom of prohibited futures”. In this novel, the riff raff are running the show and you’re in for a treat.  Gaudy Bauble explores the political potential of innovative writing at the intersections with intersectional subjectivities – issues of gender, class, sexuality and race are at the forefront of this short novel, which seeks to disrupt normative social and literary structures at every turn.

Do you remember playing make-believe games as a child, engrossed in your own imagination where a teddy bear could suddenly be an evil genius and a pencil could become a frog? Where your toys took on a life of their own as characters in a twisted plot that only made sense to you, as you hadn’t learnt the “rules” of the game yet and anything could still be anything? Waidner creates this world anew in a queer dystopian utopia, expanding the possibilities of identity, narrative and style beyond any limits one might usually find within a novel. The reader is reminded that not only is imagination for adults too, but that our abilities to imagine, to go beyond categories, labels, genres, constructs and stereotypes, is only limited by our own boundaries, preconceptions, and compliance with social norms to keep them all intact. The best way to read this novel, therefore, is to shed those constructs and enjoy the rollercoaster ride.

Waidner breaks down conventions, literary genres, historical stereotypes and identities with style and finesse; if you let the text hit you right, moments of poignancy find themselves enmeshed with humorous undertones. Picture the character P.I. Belahg finding themselves wearing a bikini over their clothes, as they sleepily put it on without the realisation of what it was, only to awaken fully to the nightmare childhood trauma of gender conforming clothing and succumb to a meltdown. Here, the bikini acts as a trigger for memories of the “gender police” who “had seen to the dyke child being taught many life lessons. Lest she become a bulldagger. Lest she become a fully-fledged, raving, raging, reckoning and incorrigible adult powerdagger. Strong and unhinged. What if she organised. Already there had been Techtelmechtel with that wildgirl interpretation of John Taylor. Girl-on-girl hanky-panky. Innocent, but. Best nipped in the bud.” Waidner tackles age-old perceptions of lesbianism in subtle and effective ways. The reader catches a glimpse of Pre-Bikini Atoll, a 12-year old from West Croydon – whose name also gestures toward histories of colonialism, occupation, oppression and nuclear weapons testing at the site of Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean – and who preferred gender neutral pronouns: the past merges with the present in a significant moment of transformation whereby Bikini Atoll is “born”, as a performance act in a cabaret troupe called ‘The Avant-garde of the Oppressed’. This scenario ends in a poignant recognition of the struggles and pressures of gender conformity and the ways in which clothes can come to signify this in society, as Blulip, in drag as Painlevé Hypercamp, assists in providing the “context in which a bikini on a butch meant genderqueer camp rather than normative femininity.” These two characters partake in “Hypocamp micromovement […] a strangely microfied, butoh-like, and restrained full-body expression of gay exuberance” – an act I only wish I could see in real life!

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Historical gay identities creep in and start taking control of the workshop as queer identities wrestle with a history that still haunts their present. As team Reco.Mö hijack Tulep.tv, “Combating A Localised Evil” by airing a be-on-the-look-out and attempt to locate Cadavre Exquis for a Mördervogel that none of the characters can truly define or draw, Hilary adorns Bobák’s abdomen and face with maroon-coloured lipstick in the shape of tiny kidneys only for this creation to evoke the haunting inscription of sarcoma, an illness that shares a lineage of being known as the mark of aids. Present and past collide in the body’s inscriptions, highlighting how the body tells all, how it has been marked as the bearer of identity, of histories and of stigmas one does not choose. Waidner’s ability to swiftly alter the perception and representation of the smallest things, whether that be lipstick marks, hoofed figurines, chalk faeries, glittery faces or carpets that hold entire ecosystems of germs, continuously wrong-foots the reader in the best of ways.

Taking us through a gay taxonomy of anthropomorphic animals deemed appropriate for gay stereotypes, the reader is introduced to the gay zoo, a newspaper article entitled Who’s Who at the Zoo? that lists male homosexuals as Gay Bears, Owls, Cygnets, Pussycats, Gazelles, Afghans, and Marmosets. Waidner addresses the lack of a lesbian equivalent with an amusing tangent about creating lesbian counterparts. Had there been a lesbian zoo? And if there was one, what would there be in comparison to the cubs, otters, and other animals that allowed gay men to strip themselves of their humanness and take on animal qualities? Detailing the scenario with creations, such as Ursula “a lesbian-identified Bear, or a Bear-identified lesbian”, the reader sees the woeful lack of a lesbian history and how, in a post-identity Britain that would prefer to forget the past before women have had a chance to create their own equivalents, women are left to grapple with their own makeshift identities, often restricted to the femme-butch dichotomy that cannot seem to be shaken. Waidner addresses crucial issues and hard truths, but wraps them up in glitter and imagination, so that the reader doesn’t fully realise the richness of Waidner’s narrative as it creates a present so haunted and full of the past that brought us to it. There is no comparing this novel to previous texts, for it is one of a kind and will take many more reads in order to fully engage with all the references and attention to detail that Waidner has brought to these eccentric, quirky and queer characters and the world they inhabit.

Click here to buy Isabel Waidner’s Gaudy Bauble direct from Dostoyevsky Wannabe.

About the Publisher:

Dostoyevsky Wannabe publish independent/experimental/underground things: We publish a lot of books, any types of books − short books, long books, flash fiction, poetry, anthologies, samplers, chapbooks, experimental things.

Review by Isabelle Coy-Dibley

Isabelle Coy-Dibley is a PhD student at the University of Westminster, where her research predominantly considers inscriptions of the female body within women’s experimental writing.

 

 

Family Fortunes

We That Are Young, Preti Taneja: Galley Beggar Press (2017)

Shortlisted for the 2018 Republic of Consciousness Prize

‘Set your watch. India time.’

The sudden resignation of a tyrannical CEO threatens to tear a carefully constructed world apart. Born to a Maharaja and his 15-year-old wife, Devraj Bapuji has invested in industries as diverse as hotels, textile mills and transport to build his extensive Company. In the right place at the right time, he has profited from the new capitalism of contemporary India but his attempt to divide his legacy between his family unexpectedly precipitates the rapid unravelling of all their lives.

The action moves seamlessly between New Delhi and Srinigar, Kashmir. Devraj has three daughters and no sons, a fact he laments despite acting like a doting father. His youngest, Sita, has run away, leaving her married elder sisters, Radha and Gargi, to pick up the pieces. Gargi steps forward as Acting Chairman of the Company, trying to introduce positive employment practices, particularly for women. She plans to move the Company forward but faces deeply ingrained misogyny. Conservative traditions override even familial love as women are both idolised for purity and considered possessions for men to play with.

‘Our Indian women are a special breed in the world. Like beautiful phools they bloom best in beds, when they are well tended… just tell her what you want, she will never say “No.”’

Meanwhile, close family friend Jivan Singh returns home after fifteen years in America. The illegitimate son of a wealthy married man and a beautiful dancer, as a child he lived at his Dad’s stately home before being banished to America. He discovers a transformed New Delhi, wealthy and thriving at the forefront of India’s new status as a world competitor. Jivan is tormented by unresolved childhood issues and feels intimidated by the ostentatious ‘VVIP’ lifestyle of his former playmates. He attempts to acclimatise but unspoken rules conspire against him and at his homecoming there is a sad sense that he will always be considered an outsider, even in the country of his birth.

‘Here, of course, they will see his American smile, his suit and tie, first class, pure gold. The truth is, he is Jivan Singh, half brother to Jeet Singh, son of Ranjit. He was born on this Indian earth, he waited all this time to return.’

We That Are Young

This epic family saga explores complex universal themes including heritage, social class, political unrest, and the fragile nature of identity. It is disturbing how quickly the ties that bind are broken and how easily the truth is manipulated. As a reader, my loyalties were severely tested as the characters are so well drawn and sympathetic. When things unravel, likeable protagonists turn very nasty indeed.

The story is told from the points of view of five key characters and seeing things from the perspective of different generations provides a deeper insight into unfolding events. It is based on King Lear but don’t let that put you off if you haven’t read it. Those familiar with the play can enjoy spotting details like Devraj’s hundred young trainees replacing King Lear’s knights, and perhaps the inevitable horrific violence won’t be quite as unexpected. But being a Shakespeare fan isn’t essential to enjoying the novel.

Preti Taneja makes shrewd observations about modern PR as profiles are raised and images managed, disguising what is rotten beneath. Protecting the Company name and reputation comes above all else. The family home is called a farm for legal purposes but no farming is done there and the flowers look real but have no scent. And the murderous Devraj is described fondly by the media as an ‘animal lover and environmentalist’ despite owning a pet tiger and beating a servant half to death.

We That Are Young is a sumptuous feast of language and culture, written in English effortlessly interspersed with untranslated Hindi. Every sentence is meticulously crafted, instilling the exquisite prose with meaning and ensuring that no page is wasted in this huge feat of a book.

Click here to buy We That Are Young direct from Galley Beggar Press. 

About the Publisher

Galley Beggar Press is committed to producing beautiful books. Nurturing unique and innovative writers and publishing works of the highest quality and integrity, they also believe in the ‘fantastic potential of ebooks to reach new audiences, to spread our writers’ precious words around the world and to revive and revitalise books that would otherwise either be out of print or lost on the backlist’.

Review by Becky Danks

Becky Danks is a creative writer, book reviewer and dog lover. She recently won City University’s City Writes competition for her short story The Anniversary. She is a judge of flash fiction for the Hysteria Writing Competition. She is also a Shakespeare fan. Follow her on Twitter: @BeckyD123. Website: www.beckydanks.com

 

 

 

Republic of Consciousness Prize 2018 – Shortlist

The Republic of Consciousness Prize Shortlist 2018 was announced in Manchester last night.  Congratulations to all the writers and publishers who made it through!

RofC shortlist 2018

Attrib: Eley Williams (Influx) – Read our review here.


Blue Self-Portrait: Noemi Lefevbre (Les Fugitives) – Read our review here.


Darker with the Lights On: David Hayden (Little Island) – Read our review here.


Die, My Love: Ariana Harwicz (Charco) – Read our review here.


Gaudy Bauble: Isabel Waidner (Dostoevsky Wannabe) – Read our review here.


We That Are Young: Preti Taneja (Galley Beggar) – Read our review here.

If you’d like to read the books on the Republic of Consciousness shortlist, we recommend buying direct from the publishers.  The more people reading these books, the better.  Independent publishers are usually very small operations, and the more control they can take over their distribution and sales, and the bigger the slice of the pie they get, the better for them.

So, follow the links above to get your hands on the RofC shortlisted books!

He built a house and next to it a church

As a God Might Be, Neil Griffiths: Dodo Ink

‘I don’t believe much of what goes for basic Christianity. It might be that everything I believe would be rejected as heresy. Actually, there is no “might.”’

When Proctor McCullough decides to desert his comfortable London life to build a church on a clifftop, nobody knows what to make of it: McCullough is not religious. Is it a midlife crisis? Has he gone mad? Is he suffering a spiritual breakdown in a secular age, where identity is shaped by wealth and status.

Or has he really been chosen by God for a new revelation. McCullough finds himself torn between love for his family and a group of local drifters who are helping him to build his church. When one of these drifters commits a shocking act to test his beliefs, McCullough finds himself pushed to the very limits of understanding and forgiveness.

As a God Might Be is an epic novel, and Proctor McCullough is a complex and deeply human character struggling to cope with the grand issues of modern life.

Let me say straight away that—while I have a few small quibbles—I think this novel is a triumph. Griffiths had me from Contents, for I was enraptured by a book brave enough (or brazen, or mad enough) to divide itself into New Testament and then Old Testament (note the inversion) and then divide its subject matter further into books as though it were, self consciously, a theological text with beguiling titles such as ‘Tetragrammaton’, the Hebrew name for God transliterated in four letters, YHWH or JHVW, articulated as Yahweh or Jehovah. For me, the book felt like an adventure because of the attention to detail here, not to mention its inclusion of the bold acclamation of Abraham—‘Here I am’—which prefaces the book and its first chapter beginning with Pascal,

‘You must wager.

It is not optional,

You are embarked’

Proctor, in embarking, upends his life, with its pains and worries, his loves, his children and his work, itself about conflict, the worst that can happen and a study of what it is that drives us or compacts us when we are in crisis. The central theme—embarking, let us call it—recalls William Golding’s 1964 book The Spire, a novel that traced the journey of Jocelin, a dean who believes God has directed him to erect a spire above Salisbury Cathedral. That book, like As a God Might Be, is both a meditation on faith and a study of those who question the sanity of believers or, in the case of Proctor, of those who believe they have been chosen for a task. I loved that book, too, but here, with Griffiths is something a little different;

First, you’re assuming I’m a Christian. But what does that actually mean?’ Proctor asks of his clifftop building cohort. ‘What kind of battle is someone in for if they want to announce an authentic interest in the existence of God?’

Proctor is imperfect, selfish, sententious, clever and boorish. He is weak when he should challenge—do I have a drink with or lay flat the man who slept with my partner?—but I think that this is rather the point and a fascinating tension in the novel: that he is and remains all those things, yet you cannot take your eyes off him and off the process. And I’m minded, too, of the biblical precedent that I’ve not seen referred to as yet in other writings on Griffiths’s book. I thought of it immediately and it was another reason I was drawn into the text. By biblical precedent I mean, look at the prophets and look at some of the peculiar things they were commanded to do. Hosea was told by God to marry a prostitute; Ezekiel was asked to dig a wall, shave off his hair and beard and weigh the trimmings in a scale, and once made his tongue cleave to the roof of his mouth so he was unable to speak; Moses most definitely did not want to be a prophet and Jonah, called and called, decided to run away. I think these callings and their responses are fascinating whether or not you believe in God, whether or not you believe the bible is bunkum and Christianity—or all religion—the source of nothing but conflict and separation, or think Proctor (quoting Terry), is ‘fucking nuts!’or that God is all delusion, as Richard Dawkins (whose screaming fascinates me) would have it. The psychological process is compelling.

            He built a house and next to it a church.

Take this example, a dinner party at Proctor’s house, with his partner Holly and their mostly egregious friends, whom you cannot actually believe they entertain (a flaw in the plot, for me: a quibble. Their friend Simon is different and, ultimately, in crisis over the vapidity of his friends’ morals as he sees them: I wanted to see this developed, perhaps as a counterpoint to what is occurring with Proctor). Proctor makes a speech and it is excruciating, the embarrassment is visceral as he explains to his friends what has happened, with his notes on the table.

‘This is what I think. Or what I thought. Something…God is the transcendent Other, for whom creation, what we know as life, is a gratuitous act of love, a dispossession of a portion of His infinite creativity given over to our thriving…’

Proctor is sick and embarrassed, but he has the strength to press on, though he knows he could stop now and that ‘outside, the air was full of the promise of spring, of the simple bounty of physical life.’ He wants to be held by Holly or ‘squashed’ between his twin children; he knows what he has said is irrevocable, yet it means nothing and he is torn between these things: a purpose with meaning and just a string of clever words, for he is good at stringing together clever words; he gets paid for it in his job as an ‘atrociologist’. And then there is this: I confess I was in tears over here and am not ashamed of that.

‘Perhaps that’s all it would take to slip through the infinite transparency back into the world. All he needed was to focus on his family, turn sideways, draw his body up and slip around. But it was impossible. There was no narrow passageway, however determined he was and slender he became. You cannot disbelieve what you believe. There is no choice’, the lyrical beauty of which is punctured by and, ‘What a fool he was. What a stupid fucking fool.

Holly looked around the table and then at him. She paused. ‘I’m not sure you’re being entirely honest, are you, Mac?’

Human, imperfect and others understandably sceptical or derisory of what he is doing. And yet we recall the prefatory quote from Pascal that I mentioned:

‘You must wager.

It is not optional,

You are embarked’

I think the scope of As a God Might Be is remarkable; that it is clever and ambitious, subtle and brave; the fine writer and booktuber, Kate Armstrong, saw it as a Victorian novel in its preoccupations, then offering comparison with Middlemarch. Yet I see it as fresh and modern, too, and hope to discuss this further with others. There are other contextual factors that I’ve been pondering, also. William Golding wrote The Spire in fourteen days, its own miracle, about building a spire above a cathedral that is itself, with no foundations, a miracle. I am interested in the process of writing this book because Griffiths is quite frank, at text’s end, about how long it took and about the reserves of energy it took. There is such candour, such generosity, I think, in telling the reader this (I always read the acknowledgements pages) and I suspect anyone would have been enormously daunted by examining and confronting eschatology (itself the title of the fourth chapter) over an extended period. I believe, without reserve, that encountering the last things, what we think happens to us when we die, is a central tenet of our lives and of the governance of our behaviour, the girding, or not, of our mental health; axiomatic of what we believe in. We can run from those questions, but whatever we decide—grave worms or eternity; atoms moving in and out of form or the transcendence of the soul to be with God—this is not a question we can evade. We do, I think, need to see we are ‘embarked’. I also think what we think happens when we die, does have a daily pull on our lives. Our fears—our darkest fears—of the deepest loss and our own personal annihilation are surely related to what we regard as new life, frightening judgement or end stops and grave worms. Might this not inform our decisions and judgements? Whether our life is lived with meditative space in it, or at top speed because ‘this is not a rehearsal’ to quote a fridge magnet someone gave me (which I actually hate). I can tell you, both as a questingly religious person for whom the quality of doubt is finer than the quality of faith (I’m paraphrasing T.S. Eliot’s summation of Tennyson’s great poem of loss and grief, ‘In Memoriam’), and as someone who has had many bouts of mental ill health, that the deepest darkest end-fear — eschatology—was there, and rattling me in my loneliness. I see such poignancy in Proctor’s thoughts and actions.

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So this simple statement from the author moves me and makes me warm to the book further:

‘This book has taken years to write; one might argue most of my life, or at least the thirty five years since my state school teacher…gave me a copy of Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky.’

I think that we need more books which test us in this way. I also—and I am no expert in publishing matters and how one decides what will be read, what will sell and so on—cannot see why a theological novel should be an obsolete thing, as seems to have been an argument raised around this book. Why? Is God not done these days, like ‘We don’t do God’ in the words of Alastair Campbell, once interrupting Tony Blair? There are a number of fairly recent books which explore faith, (though none, I would say, quite like this) and I think you’d have a hard time denying the immediacy of a book about theological matters to those of faith, different faiths, all around the world, but also to those who have decided they are atheists but want to see an exegesis of sorts on the subject. And why should it be assumed that those who aren’t sure, don’t know, have never thought or tried not to, would not be interested in a book that deals with (to quote Rowan Williams on the book), ‘encountering and speaking about God’? In writing this, I am mindful of an article by Griffiths himself in ‘The Irish Times’ earlier this year. In ‘God and the Author’, he wrote about how difficult the route to publication was, including the loss of his agent. But step forward the independent press, in this case Dodo Ink, not afraid to take on a risky book. I quote,

‘Route to publication was difficult. I lost my agent: he didn’t think readers were interested in characters who were interested in such things. Rejection letters began to arrive. One publisher, who very generously described the novel as potentially award-winning, claimed as “an atheist, materialist and humanist” she couldn’t support it. But it wasn’t just atheism. The oldest Christian publisher in the world (The Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge) called in the novel and then rejected it as “theologically unsound”. This came as no surprise. When my friend suggested I seek support in the US, my response was that while they might read it, their next step was more likely to burn it.’

And I was fascinated by this; the assumption and the dissention here. Frankly, if all of it held true, then Dostoevsky’s books, which Griffiths cites as a major influence (and which I would cite as some of the finest books written), would have no chance. And it seems to me that an important discussion of impulse, experience and encounter, should not be dismissed as ‘theologically unsound’. That is not only a diminution of another’s experience but also missing the point—hence, as Griffiths has said,

‘As a novel As a God Might Be allows me to set aside the question of the existence or not of God, but still ask what his nature might be – a question science isn’t interested in, and, I’m afraid, no longer a question religion can rightfully claim to answer. It’s time for the novel to enter the debate.’

Those of faith should not be offended by a brilliant and honest exploration, either. I am Anglo-Catholic; my husband is a Benedictine oblate (that is, a lay-person attached to a monastery) and thus I hang around monks and talk to them; we have lunch together sometimes. Their faith is brilliant, but difficult: they are not rescued from the pains and depressions of life by cant prayer or cosiness with a God who has chosen them. No, they work at, repeatedly, daily, and their thoughts and discussions are expansive. There: life inside a monastery. I’m taking them Griffiths’s book. Can’t wait for that. And actually, there is something more at stake here because can’t novels encourage us to enter belief systems outside our own, and empathise with people of different cultures, worldviews and backgrounds? I know from discussing the book, that other readers don’t see it as primarily a religious novel because Proctor’s central dilemmas can be relatable for anyone. His doubt, and the existential crisis of his life, is manifested in a religious experience. In the hands of Camus in The Outsider or The Rebel, or for Sartre in Nausea, how might this look? We’re back to eschatology again and we will all, though perhaps some will push it away for longer or more effectively than others, go through something similar in our time—that is, with or without God.

‘You’re building a church; I want to sit in my chair. You want to spread the love; I feel like killing someone.’

‘Fine lines, Terry.’

‘Lines nonetheless, my friend.’

‘I want to help you.’

‘Of course you do. Maybe God sent meto test you.’

‘I don’t believe that…in that.’

It fascinates me, this book. Proctor is managing his life well; he is comfortable enough; he loves his partner and his twins. It is, on the surface, a tidy middle class existence, and into this comes a revelation for Proctor which, while he has read and thought and explored philosophy theology and faith—otherwise how could he expound at such great detail on the subject?—is entirely inconvenient. It is brilliant, but it is painful. He explores the notion that God has chosen him to build a church, finds common land and gets to it. In this, he is both reckless, selfish and extraordinarily brave. And here’s where Griffiths excels. He has written a book which is a sweeping exploration of faith and of the nature of God; he has created a text which displays a good deal of learning and managed to hold this in tension with brilliant and convincing characterisation and balance the sublime with the banal elements of life. I loathe all of their friends; they are reptilian (though one, Simon, as I said, I feel I want to know more) and self interested, ingenerous middle class dinner party folk. It is against the wine and the cheeseboard that Mac first explains what it is he must do and it’s brilliantly realised.

[Plot spoilers ahead]

I’d actually like to push them all off the Dorset cliff. I’d like to push Proctor off sometimes. He can be intensely dislikeable and full of high sentence. He is a hypocrite; it’s as though, by bringing another woman to orgasm without actually having full sex with her, he lets himself off the hook. He does nothing to properly challenge Lucian the entirely unapologetic seducer of his partner, Holly, a man who comments, unashamedly, that he had warned him this might happen. Griffiths’s portrayal of flawed, broken, repulsive humanity is wonderful. The rustic drifters who help him build the church are a tremendous counterpoint to the dinner party and professional swamp and, ironically (that is, if you’re inclined to jump to such conclusions), their intellectual engagement with what Proctor is trying to do, is much heftier than that of his London friends. The portrayal of Nat I’ve seen mildy criticised as being one dimensional, but I disagree; this is the irony of the situation; he is forced into a dimension and constrained by a family which is oppressive and does not understand him. I found this profoundly moving—to see the man-boy in deep pain, yet with so much love and potential brimming. And to see what becomes of him. His appalling end. I loved the insouciant Rebecca, the complexity and closeness of the life she shares with her mother; it makes for uncomfortable reading, but it also rings true. None of it is tidy, all ragged. Rebecca is deeply clever, sexy and a temptation (though it is a dalliance with her mother which occurs for Proctor). And Terry. This is interesting indeed.

Griffiths mentions in his acknowledgements and elsewhere, the influence of Dostoevsky. He refers to Crime and Punishment, and I had it in mind when reading about Terry; Crime and Punishment is a thriller which is nonetheless infused with philosophical, religious and social commentary, and in which a young man plans the murder of someone whom no-one will miss and no-one will mourn; a book in which the notion of a just crime—and by a man of genius—which transgresses moral law is explored. Why does Terry do as he does? I thought, primarily, of The Brothers Karamazov which is, to summarise, a spiritual drama; a wrestling with faith, doubt, judgment, and reason; it is set against a modernizing Russia and its plot centres upon the subject of patricide, a crime which might well have been committed by Terry in the book. Terry is on a wilfully self destructive path and so tests faith and the world by committing a similarly wanton crime; it is Nat but could, he tells Proctor, have been him first and I do feel that the delicately limmed relationship between Proctor and Terry is part friendship, part father-son. Terry is rootless, alcoholic and suffering; wanton, because of it. He has not been well educated and yet he has an intellectual drive and spiritual perspicacity that had me in tears because he was also on the slide, hurtling, in fact, towards a cataclysm. In The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan talks to Smerdyakov about Fyodor Pavlovich’s death; Smerdyakov eventually confesses to Ivan that he, and not Dmitri, committed the old man’s murder. But he also says—and here I see a parallel with the things that the dying Terry says to Proctor, never letting off the hook the man who is there in his final hours—that Ivan is also implicated in the crime: the philosophical lessons Ivan taught Smerdyakov about the impossibility of evil in a world without a God, made Smerdyakov capable of committing murder. Terry commits a brutal act in the most brutal way to prove a point: because he could. Who is Terry testing? God, Mac, himself, the world? All four.

So do read the book. Read it for its risks and dilemmas; its beautiful descriptions of stone, sand and water; of building, physical sensation and spiritual thirst. Read it to wonder about the personal nature of God and ‘As a God Might Be’, in the words of Wallace Stevens; read it if you’re wondering or you’ve stopped. Notice how well Griffiths handles erotic detail, uncomfortable humour, a London street or how children interact with their siblings. There is more to explore than I have space to tell you about here.

Tolstoy thought that Dostoevsky was a man of little accomplishment or expansiveness of mind, though he said he ‘admired his heart’. But a copy of The Brothers Karamazov was found next to Tolstoy’s nightstand when he died. I’ve always liked this little detail. I am now re-reading it, and I’ve got Neil Griffiths’s book and, my new encounter, Wallace Stevens, on mine. Hopefully, not a portent, but there because it is joyous to explore, ‘…our painful, confusing and at times burdensome freedom to love.’

Click here to buy As A God Might Be by Neil Griffiths from Dodo Ink.

About the Publisher:

Dodo Ink publishes original fiction, with a focus on risk-taking, imaginative novels; particularly books which don’t fall into easy marketing categories and don’t compromise their intelligence or style to fit in with trends.

Review by Anna Vaught

Anna is a novelist, essayist, poet, editor, reviewer and also a secondary English teacher, tutor, mentor to young people, mental health campaigner and mum to a large litter. A great champion of the small presses, she reviews their books and writes for them: novel, Killing Hapless Ally (Patrician Press, 2016), novella, The Life of Almost (2018) and poems and essays with Patrician Press and Emma Press. Saving Lucia, Bluemoose Books (2020).  Anna is working on her fifth novel.

Women Having to Huddle Under Kiosk Roofs

Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel, translated by Jen Calleja: Peirene Press, 2017
Dance by the Canal, or Tanz am Kanal, as Peirene promises, can be read in a single two-hour sitting. The category of the ‘single-sitting’ novel is one Dance by the Canal fulfils in all aspects; engaging, complicated and addictive. This novel in translation is a haunting reminder of German history and of the all too familiar challenges unresolved in our current world. Kerstin Hensel, born in Karl-Marx Stadt in the German Democratic Republic, is a prize-winning poet. She also studied in Leipzig, the basis for the fictional industrial town of Leibnitz in East Germany, where the bulk of the story occurs. This is probably why the sense of place that surrounds the novel is so strong and not at all lost in the translation:

‘Katka knew a place under the Green Bridge for forbidden things and other thrills.
Goldenrod and something that looked like giant rhubarb grew on the embankment.’

dance_canal_2000px-568x900

The story begins in 1994 with the protagonist and narrator, Gabriela von Haßlau, feeling joy for the first time in years because she has decided to write a book, an autobiography on whatever blank scraps, she can find to write on. The reasons she has not felt joy for so long soon become abundantly clear, starting with the fact revealed on page one that she lives under a canal bridge, which is very definitively her bridge, with only the comfort of a thin, grey blanket (two in the winter months) from the homeless shelter to keep her warm. From then on, we are flung into two narratives, the one of her writing, living under her bridge, and the one of what she has already written, and how she ended up there. The switch in time flows beautifully, answering questions from the present through the past with just enough room for the reader to speculate.

Her memories begin with five-year old Gabriela being presented with a violin, ‘-Repeat after me! Vi-o- lin! Vi-o- lin!’ Her father, a successful vascular surgeon, tells her. Because language and words, words which belong to certain people, are so important to this story. A particular focus throughout being the ffffon in Gabriel von Haßlau that every character besides her mother and father take note of. They take note because von is a symbol of wealth; something which Gabriela, along with the rest of Eastern Germany in the 1960s, do not have. The von Haßlaus are living under communist rule and there is no place for their von any longer. Combined with the ‘I’ marked next to Gabriela’s name on the register for Intelligent it would appear she would be at an advantage, but her von and her ‘I’ are only the beginning of her downfall.
Being unfamiliar with the history of the GDR, there were observations, I am sure, that
were lost on me. The general consensus seems to be that us younger Brits do not
have enough knowledge of this particular period of German history to fully grasp the
extent of the truth underlying this story. It would possibly be helpful to read up on the subject before embarking on this book, for example knowing more about the huge
social, economic and political differences between East and West Germany, and
how they became unified, what the longer term consequences were for people living
in the East. However, not knowing the history does not impinge on the overall impact of the novel. Since the number of people sleeping rough in Britain has more than doubled in the last two years, and has risen by 134% since 2010, this is a novel not only about the past, but about the present, and how it doesn’t take much change for someone to lose everything. In the brief foreword that founder of Peirene, Meike Ziervogal, writes in every Peirene novel, she states “This book will make you think.” It certainly has.

Click here to order Dance by the Canal from Peirene Press.
About the publisher:
Peirene Press is a boutique small press publishing house, specializing in contemporary
European novellas and short novels in English translation. Peirene Press publishes its
translated European novellas in trios and Dance by the Canal is the final instalment of the “East and West: Looking Both Ways” series.
Review Laurie Robertson
Laurie Robertson is a recent Literature and Creative Writing graduate from the University of Westminster, currently working at Penguin, DK in non-fiction works, craving the kind of fiction that the Contemporary Small Press reviews!