Work-in-Progress

The Practical Senior Teacher, Finella and Philip Davenport (Curated by Tony Trehy)  Knives Forks and Spoons Press, 2016

‘bbbbut…’

Finella and Philip Davenport’s The Practical Senior Teacher is a book in the loosest possible sense of the word, and yet also in multiple senses of the word, too. First the loose associations: This is a collaged work spanning over thirty years begun by sister and brother Finella and Philip Davenport (collaborating as The Gingerbread Tree) in 1984 and continuing to evolve as a work in progress to this day. The pages collected, printed and bound as the 2016 KFS edition bearing the title represent a fraction of the 300-plus page work that exists and has been exhibited in loose-leaf form at the Text Festival in Bury and the Storey Gallery in Lancaster.

Beyond the codex are the physically collaged pages incorporating layer upon layer of magazine cut-ups, adverts, government health warnings, comics, paint, lipstick, scribbled notes and empty painkiller packets. The book is just one possible iteration of the project of The Practical Senior Teacher, and readers can accompany their reading with the YouTube playlist The Margaret Thatcher Museum for an additional, aural, layer to the collage. Further videos by The Gingerbread Tree feature collaged pages from the book thrown into alternative contexts.   This is a restless and relentless project, a perpetual work-in-progress that has been continually worked and re-worked since its inception. The ‘book’ is just a part of it.

Yet this project also fulfils the definition of book from multiple perspectives. The title, The Practical Senior Teacher references the original textbook that forms the substrate for the composition of the collaged pages. This book started life as a textbook for school teachers in the Thatcher era, and the subsequent collage-work provides its own document (Old English boc, book) of those times through its incorporated layers. This is both a personal and a cultural document of those years, creating a history from the detritus of a throw-away culture interwoven with the debris of personal crisis and development. Pages documenting Finella’s experience of the life-threatening post-natal condition HELLP are left unchanged by Philip, yet the condition is represented, like everything in the book, by its waste products.

the practical senior teacher

Throughout the book, various excerpts and iterations of Finella’s poem Bee Scandal are woven with the collaged pages, giving a kind of loose metaphorical narrative of a society disintegrating and self-destructive – the same society attested to by the decades-long collage project.

The days

we hid in a      basement

beneath the incessant buzz

didn’t know which side was winning

took turns to take

guard

(ear to the radio:

the well-bred

            the dead

 

will take

the Queen

The poem carries echoes of a bunkered and broken society as well as a colony of bees in a hive. As the poem becomes more fractured and fragmented the bees themselves begin to pile up ‘like abandoned rubbish … trash stings scattered needles’ – again interweaving the twin narratives of the bees and the society they echo. The bees piling up like abandoned rubbish, their stings scattered like the needles of a drug user. Society itself broken and addicted. Each reduced to its own destruction. Through collage, however, the abandoned rubbish becomes the material of recreation, the constant reconstruction as work-in-progress with whatever materials happen to be at hand.

Other fragments of text from the layers of collage appear and disappear through the worked pages – whose most recent form of reworking includes digitisation. This has allowed pages to be duplicated, mirrored and adapted digitally; distinguishing the collected pages from their material counterparts and enabling effects such as reversal and repetition that further distort the reading and disorient the reader.

When the work was displayed in Lancaster it was as part of Understanding the Ritual, an exhibition of art-shamanism, and it’s this that interests me the most about The Practical Senior Teacher: the ritual process at play in the project. The restlessness of the ritualistic acts that have compelled Finella and Philip Davenport to keep creating, destroying and recreating this work for over three decades, and the alchemical transformation of that act physically, mentally, emotionally and perhaps even spiritually. One of the most intriguing text-fragments for me is set onto a page painted almost entirely red and includes the following mythically-resonant phrases:

‘Heart of Dionysus

 

heart of hare

not eaten lest it make the eater timid

heart of lion or le[op]ard eat           heart of wolf

& of bear

eat to acquire courage

 

SCREWS YOU UP’

The final phrase is taken from the 80’s Government health warning ‘Heroin Screws You Up’, and there’s so much going on here. Is the eater of the wolf’s heart the mythical equivalent to a junkie? Does the juxtaposition suggest equivalence or contradiction, or something less exact? The association with heroin brings to mind a play on wasted / waste / wasteful that resonates with the theme of detritus throughout the book and finds another expression in the empty pill packet representing a moment of serious threat to Finella’s life.

Like the making of this ‘book’, the reading is a work-in-progress, an unsettled and unsettling process of excavating and creating connections within, between and beyond the pages. No two readings are ever the same and there’s no fixed ‘meaning’ to discover. Reading this book is a physical process that can, if the reader chooses, engage multiple senses and experiences. For me, its magic is in its perpetual openness to recreation, coming alive at its multiple points of connection, writing and creating not only the lives it contains but also the lives it touches.

Click here to buy The Practical Senior Teacher direct from Knives, Forks and Spoons Press.

About the Publisher:

Knives Forks and Spoons Press is a prolific publisher of avant-garde poetry by internationally acclaimed poets and emerging young writers. ‘KFS is a forum for an extraordinary range of diversity and risk-taking artistic experiment.’

Review by Sally-Shakti Willow

Sally-Shakti Willow researches and writes utopian poetics at the University of Westminster.  She is Research Assistant for the Contemporary Small Press.

 

Secrets Remain Untold

Swimming with Fishes by Rasheda Ashanti Malcolm: Jacaranda Books, 2017

Having never read a Caribbean novel, I was intrigued by Rasheda Ashanti Malcolm’s
Swimming with Fishes, especially after researching the author and the publisher, Jacaranda Books. In a ‘Question and Answer’ piece published on Jacaranda’s website, Malcolm claims that the inspiration to write her debut novel came from ‘listening to women across generations talking about the lack of genuine love’.  From this, the novel falls straight into the romance genre, however, it takes on interesting and realistic twists along the way.

The protagonists, Kat and Ben, fall passionately in love while Ben is on a business trip to Kat’s native home, Jamaica. Though Kat and Ben’s island love appears to fill Malcolm’s void of ‘genuine love’, as in true life, love is not that simple and their affair grows beyond either of their expectations. Malcolm’s development of realistic character is admirable as the novel unveils the significant secrets that Kat and Ben hide from each other, including Kat’s struggles with sickle cell anaemia and the fact that Ben is married. The character’s secrets may be complicated, but the plot is simple to follow and I like to think that the large number of chapters flipping back and forth from Ben’s life in London to the Meadows in Jamaica mirror Ben’s heart, confused and split between two women and two countries.

swimming-with-fishes-mech_final_cvr-wpcf_234x360

Malcolm presents the reader with an interesting female perspective in Ben’s wife, Claire. By giving her such a large role in the novel, Claire’s character is well established and it is
impossible to ignore her position as the ‘right’ woman for Ben, no matter how much the
reader would like to route for Kat and Ben’s impulsive island love. Malcolm’s creative descriptions of the Meadows, including the sand, sea, the smell of flowers and even Jamaican foods, allows the reader to be pulled along with Kat and Ben’s island romance, even with the reality of London edging closer within the next chapter. This irresistible nature of love is put up for questioning multiple times throughout the novel and through characters such as Kat’s mother, Miss Ruthie and her relationship with Old Man Jaguar, and even the village gossip, Nellie Potato.

Overall, Malcolm’s debut novel is an enjoyable read, focusing on relatable and relevant issues within modern day romance.

Click here to buy Swimming with Fishes by Rasheda Ashanti Malcolm direct from Jacaranda Books.

Jacaranda Books Art Music is a new independent publishing house based in London
publishing adult fiction and non-fiction, which cross linguistic, racial, gender and cultural boundaries, with an aim to represent the cultural and ethnic diversity and heritage that can be found in London, and a particular interest in works related to Africa, the Caribbean, and the experiences of those peoples in the Diaspora.

Review by Kelly Blewitt

Kelly is a recent graduate of English Literature from the University of Westminster and is
currently pursuing an MA. She loves literary fiction of most genres but prefers crime,
mystery, and romance fictions.

 

 

Women, Writing and Freedom

Linen Press in collaboration with The Contemporary Small Press 
Keynote talk by Maureen Freely, President of English PEN.

‘A word after a word after a word is power.’ Margaret Atwood

In a masculine centred literary tradition that values male over female voices, women refuse to be silenced and continue to tell the truth about their personal and political lives. Join us in exploring the politics of silence and in honouring the voices of women writers everywhere who, despite repression and invisibility, risk all to give voice to the need for liberation and freedom.

Thursday 19th October
17.30 – 19.30
University of Westminster
309 Regent Street
London
W1B 2HW
Freedom

Speakers:

Keynote speaker Maureen Freely on the crucial work done by English PEN and like-minded partners, with particular reference to women writers.

Hema Macherla on the plight of Indian women – fallen women, broken women and women shunned by society.

Avril Joy on working for over twenty-five years with women writers in HMP Low Newton.

Lynn Michell on publishing women writers. She is here to celebrate ten years of Linen Press and to launch The Red Beach Hut.

This event is hosted by Linen Press – a small, independent press run by women for women – and the Contemporary Small Press, which aims to promote, explore and facilitate the work of small press publishers of fiction and poetry.

Who Killed Emil Kreisler?

A malevolent gorilla in a zoological gardens is witness to the flaws and foibles of the keepers who care for him. A busload of limbless children are driven to school in a warzone, where they are taught about the innocent delights of ‘animals and flowers.’ A cherished collection of refined Japanese erotica conceals a far darker secret. These are just some of the vivid scenarios in Who Killed Emil Kreisler?; twenty stories that are eclectic, intriguing and often discomfiting. Nigel Jarrett reaches across continents and cultures; blending fact with fiction and challenging his readers’ belief in identity, memory and legacy.
‘You know when you take pictures off the wall after many years and they leave a ghost of where they’d been hanging?’

Jarrett’s most successful stories, and the ones that burrow deepest under the skin, are those concerned with the ghostly traces we leave behind after we’re gone, like fingerprints on a windowpane. In Wish You Were Here, a haunting tale about mysterious messages from an unknown sender, the narrator shares this belief in spectral outlines; ‘You know when you take pictures off the wall after many years and they leave a ghost of where they’d been hanging?’ Since the death of his elderly neighbour, he has been the recipient of blank postcards, which follow him from place to place and always contain the ‘start of a written message, abandoned before it had got under way.’ Jarrett is deliberately ambiguous about the suggestion of anything supernatural, and even when he spots a woman with the same face as his dead neighbour staring at him on a train, the narrator is dismissive of his own instinctive fear (‘Having said that, I acknowledge how the mind plays tricks’). However, there is something undeniably eerie about the premise, especially as some of the postcards contain pictures of ‘unbearable desolation’. The creep of enveloping, elemental nature is palpable, with the figures in the pictures reduced to pixels in an indifferent landscape; ‘they are composed of dots, just like the surroundings that overwhelm them…the elements triumph; there is no-one to be found.’

In Images from the Floating World, there is a similar sense of gradual disintegration; ‘Grandmother’s Polaroid shot of the missing piece, now faded almost to a white-out, seems the paradigm of slippery truth. The original is lost forever, the facsimile of the original is going the same way’. This story is typical of Jarrett’s style; seemingly about a charmingly eccentric butler-cum-valet and a set of wealthy grandparents who collect rare and valuable pornography, the dark heart of the narrative is only revealed in unsettling snapshots. The suggestion of abuse is always implied rather than explicit but this makes the confessional letter sent by the narrator’s sister before her death (‘At the end of the letter was an intriguing sentence: And then there were three – Diggory, Grandma and Lewis’) all the more disturbing for its suggestion of middle-class complicity. The narrator strains to understand the enormity of what befell his sister in the darkened corridors of their childhood home but finds the full picture of what happened is always ‘being spirited secretly out of reach’, although whether by delusion or deception is unclear.

Nigel_Jarret-9780956892119-Perfect.indd

Although the scope of his stories is ambitious and free-wheeling, Jarrett is the master of understatement. He depicts momentous, and occasionally horrific, events with a journalist’s wry eye for detail and a detached curiosity. In Christ, Ronnie, Christ, a pensive tale of trauma, failing memory and disconnect, a disturbing act of accidental voyeurism is told with such minimal embellishment that it is bordering on indifference. The first sentence of the story is stark in its simplicity; ‘Merrett once saw a woman leap to her death from a high cliff.’ He goes on to describe the apparent calmness before the moment of impact; ‘she strode smartly like a high-diver, leant forward at an impossible angle and plunged towards the river head first, bouncing off some protruding rocks and falling into the water with a brief, visible commotion, but no sound.’ This act of self-destruction is seen from a distance, with no context other than that dreamlike high dive, but I found that the image of the falling woman was seared into my consciousness despite its superficial tranquility and bloodlessness.

‘Grandmother’s Polaroid shot of the missing piece, now faded almost to a white-out, seems the paradigm of slippery truth. The original is lost forever, the facsimile of the original is going the same way’

There are many other stories in the collection which convey Jarrett’s lightness of touch and ability to transcend genres; the lingering sense of cultural dislocation in El Cid, the gentle pathos of Ziggurat, or the utter immersion in a specific time and place that comes as a result of reading Rhapsodie, an epistolary saga which spans decades and continents. However it’s A Weissman Girl that contains the description of a style of writing uncannily reminiscent of Jarrett’s own. This evocative tale of a writer and his disturbed wife living in rural isolation, like Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald without the urban glamour, includes a passage where the narrator describes the reclusive writer’s particular style of storytelling: ‘its imaginative kite flight reigned in and let out by almost deadpan reportage, at turns strolling and hurrying.’ This is such an accurate description of Jarrett’s own understated style of writing that it almost feels deliberate. The fictional writer profiled in A Weissman Girl ‘tells the tale yet…deepens what’s told’; perhaps a reminder that subtlety and suggestion, Jarrett’s modus operandi in this collection, is sometimes more powerful than shock value.

If there is an image which Jarrett’s stories bring to mind, it would be a faded photograph; muted, shadowy and slightly blurred around the edges but all the more enticing for it. Although some of his stories are overstuffed and rather dense, (Miss Mercedes Gleitze comes to mind) and his narratives tend to meander frustratingly towards anti-climatic conclusions, Jarrett’s devastating subtlety in Wish You Were Here, Christ, Ronnie, Christ and A Weissman Girl will haunt you long after the final page has been turned. One of his narrators asserts that ‘So much dies of us when we die’, but many of the characters in these stories leave indelible traces which reach out to warp and stain the lives of others, like watermarks on a page.

Click here to find Who Killed Emil Kreisler? on the Cultured Llama website

About the Publisher:

Cultured Llama, which was originally established by Maria McCarthy and her husband Bob Carling in a converted stable, publishes poetry, short fiction and cultural non-fiction or, as the website intriguingly describes it, ‘curious things.’

Review by Katie Witcombe

Katie Witcombe is a book-fiend and (very) occasional poet. She will quite happily read anything, including the backs of cereal boxes. Also a recent convert to long-distance running.

‘We bulwark our flesh from the effort’

Common Rest, Holly Pester: Test Centre Publications

By song we bulwark our flesh from the effort and flesh from our flesh from effort from them

– Care

Common Rest takes the form of the lullaby as a structural and thematic starting point for experimentation with poetry in its material manifestations.  A project in collaborative, improvisational sound-poetry accompanied by a book of written poems, both of which explore the languages of work and rest.  Holly Pester’s collaborative sound-work with accompanying book of poetry is available as a 10” vinyl LP in a gatefold sleeve from Test Centre in a limited edition of 250 copies. Pester is exceptionally talented in this field, and this collection features collaborations with Nat Raha and Verity Spott – both of whom are working experimentally with sound in innovative and exciting ways.  The record also features collaboration with poet Vahni Capildeo, as well as artists, musicians and sound artists: the result is a poetry project tangible and alive with shapes and shades and weathers.

tonight you might feel your feet multiply / you might lick or suck or clean ‘em / cos you’ve got a nighttime job 

– Burn

Common Rest

The juxtaposition between the poetry on the page and the sound poetry generates tangential layering and a satisfyingly physical sensation to roll around one’s tongue and cradle in one’s limbs. It’s tangible, tasty and textured.  The materiality of language in its verbal and visual forms is central to Common Rest’s project: the soundscapes feature improvised repetition based on sounds, words and phrases lifted out of sequence from the poetry; ad libs; riffs; vocal and instrumental atmospheric sounds; shifts in volume and pace; haunting, dream-like lullabies both sung and spoken… What the LP is NOT is a spoken word recitation of the poems in the book. There are counterpoints and variations, fissures and reimaginings, teasing and testing the limits of the poetry on the page. The book of poetry itself is equally aware of its material qualities: printed in teal-blue lettering on spacious, soft-white pages, the colour and layout create the sense of tranquility that each poem desires and yet which eludes the vocabulary of most.

These are objects that have been designed with materiality in mind. The poetry’s physical effect/affect on the listener’s body is central to its extended materiality: ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) artist Claire Tolan works with Pester on the track Brush to engender a soundscape that will soothe (and haunt) the listener physically as well as mentally and emotionally, perhaps as a lullaby traditionally might.

I am asleep


but my organs work on some image my heart

likes to look at in the rest space

– Glamour hallucinated love

Playing with the structural conventions of the lullaby and the vocabularies of work and rest, these poetic works explore the impacts of work and rest on human bodies and psychologies.  The two Untitled Lullabys highlight  both the song’s ability to ‘bulwark [the] flesh [against] effort’ and the exhaustive toll of that effort on the physical body. Pester suggests that, ‘While a lullaby sounds out the material labour of care, makes its flesh and breath felt, it also sounds out the radical obscuring of work. Therefore a lullaby might be a chorus for all bodies, affectively performing a different worksong, a kind of common rest.’  Physical Capabilities seems to take its vocabulary from a standard government document to assess a disabled person’s fitness for work.  Pester compounds the words ‘tell us how’, so that the verbal telling is conflated with the visual showing, highlighting the burden of proof as it increasingly falls on the vulnerable, as well as foregrounding the formal strategies employed within Common Rest as a project.

Tellus if you use


a stick tellushow it affects It varies Can you go up tellus more about steps Reaching

– Physical Capabilities

This poetry project locates the effects of the political within the physical bodies of the individual and collective workers and their rhythms of song and sound.  It is one of the most innovative and exciting new poetry projects currently available and it’s a perfect showcase for the publishing work of Test Centre.  Test Centre has an impressive back-catalogue of spoken-word vinyl LPs, books and pamphlets published since 2011, a regular magazine of poetry and fiction, and a forthcoming list of new works.  The combined sound-and-book production of Common Rest re-energises the publication and performance of poetry and demonstrates why Test Centre was nominated ‘Most Innovative Publisher’ at the 2015 Saboteur Awards.

In my opinion, ALL poetry should be presented like this, but I suspect that it just wouldn’t always work.  What Holly Pester and her collaborators have created, however, has found its most fitting expression in the publishing expertise at Test Centre.  This is a collection you should own.

Click here to find Holly Pester’s Common Rest at Test Centre.

Common Rest contributors:
Holly Pester is a poet, writer and cross-disciplinary researcher. hollypester.com
Emma Bennett is performance artist and stand-up comedy scholar. emmabennettperformance.wordpress.com
Vahni Capildeo is an award-winning poet, multi-disciplinary writer and Old Norse scholar. carcanet.co.uk/cgi-bin/indexer?owner_id=1167
Jenny Moore is an artist, musician and drummer in a band. jennymoore.co
Nat Raha is a poet, trans activist and researcher in queer Marxism. sociopatheticsemaphores.blogspot.co.uk
Vera Rodriguez is a photographer, dancer and a sex worker support telephone line operator. ethicalstripper.com/site/the-collective/vera-rodriguez/
Verity Spott is a poet, cellist and mental health care worker. twotornhalves.blogspot.co.uk
Claire Tolan is a sound and ASMR artist. cst.yt
Yasmin Kuymizakis (sound editor) is a sound artist, sound designer and singer/songwriter. soundcloud.com/yasmin-kuymizakis
Mariana Simnett (album cover artist) is an artist. frieze.com/article/focus-marianna-simnett

About the Publisher:

Test Centre is an independent publishing house and record label with an interest in the spoken and written word. Based in Hackney, East London, it was established in 2011 by Will Shutes and Jess Chandler.

Review by Sally-Shakti Willow

Sally-Shakti Willow researches and writes utopian poetics at the University of Westminster and is the research assistant for The Contemporary Small Press. @willowwriting

Skimming over Black Glass and Counting Lies

The Red Beach Hut by Lynn Michell: Inspired Quill, Release date – October 2017

‘Ready?’ Always the same word. The same starting gun. He liked that.

Are we ever truly ready for what life throws at us and can we outrun fate? As Abbott, a gay man who works with troubled boys, runs to the refuge of a red beach hut during a time of fear, persecution and the threat of his life being torn down, he meets an unlikely friend, Neville, a young boy aged eight. Lynn Michell writes a beautifully innocent and endearing tale twisted by the tainted gaze of society’s perverse darkness, as two lost souls find hope in their unlikely companionship amidst their separate turmoil. As the odd yet surprisingly complementary pairing draw the attention of others’ gazes, which eventually places them under suspicion, Michell subtly tackles prejudice by treading the thin line between what is and is not appropriate. Abbott continuously questions how his actions may be read and misconstrued by those watching, yet both Abbott and Neville provide each other with the quiet trust, understanding and constancy they are each searching for in a time of need.

TRBH crop

The novel’s structure eloquently intertwines memories and inner dialogue throughout, weaving Abbott’s childhood memories of days on the beach with his aunt and the terrible mistake that led to him running from his current life. The Hut becomes a refuge and a safe place to revisit these memories – a place of innocence and happiness. Meeting Neville helps Abbott, in many ways, to recapture this time and see the world through a child’s eyes once more; allowing him to share the heartfelt, excited, compassionate, and honest perception of Neville. Michell develops the characters with an undercurrent of stillness running through their fibres; capturing the mind of Neville with such authenticity and attention to detail, which is no small feat. She interlaces his inquisitive nature with a quirky need to count everything in an attempt to appease an anxiety for order, rules and consistency. The literal, black and white mind of a child tests the grayscale of an adult’s mind, as Michell captures deep and poignant moments when tackling the truths and lessons people learn as they grow up.

Neville has a fascination and desire to understand words, to understand language and his place within it. Abbott meets this desire through the knowledge he’s gained whilst working with troubled boys, providing Neville with an adult figure who will actually be honest with him and treat him as an equal – recognising that he needs consistency and someone to take the time to know him. 

‘But we can say now it’s day and now it’s night…’

‘Only afterwards. There’s light and dark but there’s grey in between. Twilight. It doesn’t matter if we aren’t sure. It’s OK sometimes not to know. To be uncertain.’

‘I like certain.’

‘I know you do.’

‘What about me and you? Are we certain?’ He liked the word.

Whilst Neville teaches Abbott to be true to himself and find the honesty in what is spoken, Abbott provides Neville with the safety and security to be ok with the uncertainty of life; to be ok with not knowing. Michell presents the reader with the delicate and fragile moments in which one reveals oneself to another and hopes that that vulnerability will be met with compassion. Abbott gives Neville the confidence to speak and the trust in someone being there to listen. He is given the chance to share his voice and his thoughts, a truly powerful gift to give another, which Abbott, knowing the danger of being made to feel voiceless against discrimination, knows all too well.

In The Red Beach Hut language is not always vocal: Lynn Michell’s writing evokes the subtle languages of touch, of music, of being on the sea, and of being still. There are other ways, and sometimes more powerful ways, to communicate than with words.

 

Before they set off, the boy bounded up the steps and slipped his small hand into the man’s big one. Abbott let it rest there. The gesture spoke of trust and Abbott offered his acceptance. How could he betray it?

They give each other companionship, yet through this pairing Michell similarly tests the boundaries of intimacy, as Neville desperately wishes Abbott was a father-figure and Abbott must navigate the conflict of the intensity of emotions within a child’s mind. There is a tenderness to Neville – the deep and absorbing love of a child who’s found a friend with whom to learn how not to be so alone. The internal world of a child is a lonely place, a confusing place of learning the rules of life, and Abbott offers a helping hand of guidance.

One goes on and on, running on the same treadmill, never considering an alternative until forced to stop, he thought.

In each other’s company, Abbott and Neville find a moment to pause, reflect and just be, there is an easiness in which they can both stop running – Neville stops counting all the time, and Abbott stops running from himself. Out of rhythm with society, they find solace in the sea’s rhythm, the subtle shifts in the water’s moods and the constant gravitational pull they feel to be there on the seashore looking out and imagining what could be. As Neville says, “I can wish”, and perhaps wishing is all we ever can do.

The Red Beach Hut by Lynn Michell

About the publisher:

Inspired Quill is a not-for-profit publishing house which is dedicated to quality publications and providing a people-oriented platform for writers to develop their skills in writing, marketing and self-editing. They value a collaborative approach with their authors throughout the process from submission to launch, endeavouring to produce unique and powerful pieces of work.

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.

Seduction and Betrayal in Pre-War China

Seduction and Betrayal in Pre-War China

The Dancing Girl and the Turtle by Karen Kao: Linen Press, 2017

‘The rain has stopped and the street gleams like the barrel of a rifle.’

Shanghai, 1937. During the opulent days before the Second World War, 18-year-old Anyi travels to the city determined to make her fortune. Raped and left for dead on the journey, this is the story of her battle for survival in a culture where all a woman has is her fragile reputation.

As an intelligent young lady from wealthy parents, Anyi has always been frustrated by polite society’s stifling attitudes towards women. Deeply traumatised by the vicious attack, she is taken in by her aunt and uncle who, despite their initial kindness, rush to arrange her marriage before what they consider to be her shameful secret is revealed.

‘No-one must know. It never happened, you see, because you are a good girl from a good family. Something like that doesn’t happen to people like us’.

lp-tdgtt-cover9-crop-1

Referred to from the beginning as ‘the broken girl’, Anyi defiantly reinvents herself as a glamorous siren able to wrap men around her little finger. Captivatingly beautiful, she inspires lust and jealousy in equal measure. Against the odds, she becomes a successful dancer earning enough money to live independently. In the dazzling world of the dancehalls, she is worshipped by diplomats and playboys alike as she embraces her new lavish and amoral celebrity lifestyle.

‘We, the dancing girls, are the gazelles who draw the predators out of the high grass. The whores are the dead meat to be flung to the lions.’

But in secret she is plagued by visions of the soldiers who violated her and at night their ghosts line her bedroom wall. In a desperate attempt to block out the memories, she seeks release by allowing paying men to abuse her. At times a painful read featuring unflinching references to physical and emotional cruelty, The Dancing Girl and the Turtle is a sensitive portrayal of the devastating impact one incident can have on a woman’s life.

‘Why didn’t they just leave me to the dogs?’

It is also a brutally honest account of the seedier side of Shanghai as the flashbulbs of the paparazzi thinly veil the opium-addled, oppressive courtesan culture flourishing beneath the surface. Anyi’s most powerful customer, the charming Japanese diplomat Mr Tanikazi, finds her eagerness to satisfy his particular taste for violence irresistible. Political tensions mount in the buildup to the Japanese invasion as the world teeters on the edge of war. Secret desires overflow into real life as people’s public and private faces are threatened with exposure.

‘The city amazed and disgusted him. Perversion was available on any street corner of Shanghai’.

The story is narrated by multiple characters and everyone from family members to the downtrodden servants is given a voice. The human need for intimacy and understanding is apparent on every page and the reader is offered a vivid picture of events from different points of view. Progressive attitudes collide with old customs in a world tentatively embracing modernity yet still steeped in tradition. Gripping and complex, this challenging read provides an intensely detailed, often harrowing but ultimately sympathetic insight into a lost culture.

Click here to order Karen Kao’s The Dancing Girl and The Turtle direct from Linen Press.

About the Publisher

Linen Press is an independent publishing house founded by Lynn Michell and run ‘by women, for women’ that aims to promote talented female writers producing unique work in a range of genres about relatable issues that matter to women today. Michell explains: ‘I want to read beautifully crafted writing that speaks to women. I want to fall into a novel and not emerge until its ending’.

Review by Becky Danks

Becky Danks is an avid reader, creative writer, dog lover, book reviewer, and occasional poet. She was recently shortlisted for the Verve Poetry Prize 2017. Follow her on Twitter @BeckyD123 or visit her website www.beckydanks.com.