My reading in all these years has always veered towards prose – be it novels, short stories, or memoirs. Poetry, somehow, has always seemed daunting. But in recent times, I have been taking a greater interest in poetry although I must admit, I am still testing waters here, and there is much to explore.
Fiona Benson’s newly released collection ‘Vertigo & Ghost’ caught my attention for a couple of reasons – it was receiving strong reviews, and well, I loved the cover (the image is of Aphrodite crying).
And I thought the collection lived up to all the hype; it was brutal and bracing all at once. I loved it.
Vertigo & Ghost begins with the first poem ‘Ace of Bass’ and it is one of the most beautiful evocations of sexual awakening that I have read…
That was the summer
hormones poured into me
like an incredible chemical cocktail
into a tall iced glass, my teenage heart
a glossy, maraschino cherry
bobbing on top as that rainbow
shimmered through me, lighting me up
like a fish, and I was drunk,
obsessed, desperate to be touched,
colour streaming from my iridescent body
But little does it prepare you for what is about to come next. From a summer where teenage girls are hopeful for love, we are suddenly transported to a prison cell, where a woman is separated from her abuser by a glass partition.
days I talked with Zeus
I ate only ice
felt the blood trouble and burn
under my skin
on the soft parts
of my body
and a speaker-phone between us
and still I wasn’t safe
The abuser is none other than the god of gods in Greek mythology – Zeus.
This is Part One of the poetry collection, and Benson’s writing is furious, raw, visceral and unlike anything I have ever read. The poems surge along at a frenetic pace, terrifying but gorgeously expressed.
Zeus here is a serial rapist, unable to control his urges, wanting to exert his power over women and little girls.
The women that Zeus terrorizes take on many forms – they are either nymphs or goddesses or mortals.
Out beyond the pale there’s no straight course,
just waterlogged fields and Daphne’s hectic
blurts of speed. She’s at the edge of her wits,
retching with fear, and he is everywhere,
stumbling her up
Not all the poems are from the point of view of the women. Sometimes, Zeus also does the talking, about his conquests and his incarceration. Benson displays this in CAPS, possibly because of how Zeus perceives himself – the ruler of gods and men, egoistic and important.
I BRUSH THE BOUNDS
AND YET IT IS
SHALL WE SAY
ITS SUDDEN CURSE
Ultimately, the poems in this section convey the fear as well as the anger and rage of women – of being objects for men, who think they can control and abuse them.
I came to understand
rape is cultural,
that in this world
the woman is blamed
These are themes that are very prevalent in today’s times and Benson’s form of expression in this regard is unique.
If Part One of this poetry collection was literally ‘fast and furious’, in Part Two, the pace considerably slows down and is more reflective and meditative. But without losing any power.
This second section deals with the themes of depression, nature and the first stages of motherhood – especially the fear and anxiety of being a new mother.
There is a flow to how the poems are presented. The first few poems are about nature, birds and insects, the elements of the earth. And then, they ease into the phenomenon of giving birth, into motherhood.
The poem ‘Ruins’ is about the physical changes that a women’s body goes through post childbirth.
Here’s my body
in the bath, all the skin’s
and lost dominions,
‘Daughter Drowning’ explores the fear that grips a mother when she has a newborn baby to look after, how the elder child longs for her mother’s attention, which of late has been diverted increasingly towards the newly born child.
I plunged through the shallows and caught her up;
she was spouting like a gargoyle,
spluttering and weeping, clinging to my neck.
Now she’s trying to get me to look,
and I almost can’t do it, some weird switch flipped
that means I watch the new-born like a hawk
afraid she’ll forget to breathe…
There is a considerable difference in the tone and pacing of the poems in both the sections…In Part One, the poems are shorter, like staccato beats, the urgency leaping off the pages. In Part Two, the poems are longer, the lines are flowing, and the nature of these pieces is more inward-looking and contemplative.
But ultimately, there is a common thread that runs through both these sets of poems – the fears and anxieties that most women have to grapple with in today’s modern world.
Fiona Benson is definitely a poet to watch out for.
In that list, I would also include the South African author Damon Galgut.
Incidentally, as was the case with Levy, it was the Booker Prize which once again introduced me to this excellent writer.
The Quarry is a tense and unsettling tale of cat and mouse set in the bleak, desolate terrain of rural South Africa. It explores the concept of freedom, and the price that one has to pay for it.
Here’s how the book opens:
Then he came out of the grass at the side of the road and stood without moving. He rocked very gently on his heels. There were blisters on his feet that had come from walking and blisters in his mouth that had come from nothing, except his silence perhaps, and bristles like glass on his chain.
The main protagonist is never named but it is clear from the opening ages that he is a man hunted and on the run. Just what exactly he is escaping from is something we will never know.
As he walks resolutely across the harsh and barren landscape, he runs into a minister who is on his way to a town to take up a new position there. He offers to give the man a ride.
In due course, they reach a quarry – abandoned and empty – on the side of the road and halt there.
There were boulders at the bottom of the quarry and trees warped into crazed curious shapes and what appeared to be holes in the earth. He could see no clear path down and it was a wonder to him how men had ever mined this hole.
The minister and the man spend some time by the quarry, knocking down a few drinks while in the car, and trying to make conversation.
And then something terrible happens.
All of it takes place within the first few pages itself, and I will not reveal any further.
But as the novel progresses, we are introduced to some more characters – the policeman, and a couple of petty criminals, who are brothers named Valentine and Small.
Somewhere along the way the lives of Valentine and Small become entwined with that of the main protagonist, so much so that you feel it’s all blurred, with not much to distinguish between the fates that befall the three of them.
And then there is one point in the novel, where you get the feeling that even the hunter and the hunted are one.
He sat down on the ground and waited. When the policeman climbed back out of the dam he got up again and went on. He was no longer sure that there was a difference between them or that they were separate from each other and they moved on together across the surface of the world and the sun went down and it got dark and still they continued in duet. They moved through the night in faintest silhouette like dreams that the soil was having.
Midway through the novel, the protagonist is consumed by this persistent urge to clear his conscience, and in the process sets off a chain of events leading to the final outcome.
In a novel of this kind where not much can be revealed for fear of spoiling the plot, it makes sense to focus more on the quality of writing.
It’s where Damon Galgut excels.
His prose is lean but lyrical, stripped back, and bare, pretty much like the stark South African landscape.
The story reads like an allegorical tale and a sense of unease prevails throughout. This is characteristic of most of Galgut’s novels, set as they are in a South Africa where the transition post-apartheid has been anything but easy.
Rural South Africa is unflinching and unyielding – heightened by Galgut’s descriptions…
It was early afternoon and the sun was hot as they drove. They passed the carcass of an animal next to the road on which three black crows were feeding and one of them flapped up ahead of the car and lumbered off over the veld. The road went through a salt pan that was cracked like a mirror and in which there was nothing alive. There were river beds that were dry.
And then later on…
The sun went down in a sewage of colour and the landscape looked violent an strange. At first the darkness was complete. The only light came from the stars. He thought he could change course in the night but the sky to his left grew paler and he could see the horizon and then the moon came up. It was full and round with a blue barren face and it cast its radiance down. The grass was like metal in the thin blue light and everything could be seen.
Indeed, The Quarry is an apt name for the novel signifying as it does both – the deep mining pit where quite a bit of the action takes place, as well as the man being pursued by the hunter.
As we race towards the conclusion, we will keep wondering – Will the protagonist find an ace up his sleeve and manage to dodge the law? Or will the law get the better of him?
The Quarry, published in 1995, is one of Galgut’s earlier works and all the more impressive for that.
However, he became known to a much wider audience (that includes me) post the Booker shortlisting of his wonderful novel The Good Doctor in 2003.
Subsequently, he went on to pen two more brilliant but very different novels – The Impostor, and In A Strange Room – which remain my favourites of all his books I have read so far, and which I wholeheartedly recommend.
As an aside, In A Strange Room was also shortlisted for the Booker…in 2010.
Although 2017 is long gone and we are well into 2018, I couldn’t resist compiling this list. It’s a great way to summarize what had been an excellent reading year. Besides my Top 12 Books for the Year, this includes many more books that I loved but just missed the Best of the Year list.
So here goes…
A Book with More Than 500 Pages
A True Novel by Minae Mizumura
At around 800 pages, this is a wonderful novel from Japan about family, class distinction and the rise and fall of Japan’s economy. It has also been billed the Japanese ‘Wuthering Heights’ focusing on the intense relationship between the brooding Taro Azuma and the beautiful Yoko. And yet without the Bronte tag, this rich, layered novel stands well on its own feet.
A Forgotten Classic
Excellent Women by Barbara Pym
Barbara Pym wrote some excellent novels during her time but probably fell out of fashion later. But she has seen a revival of late in the book blogging world. ‘Excellent Women’ in particular is an extraordinary novel about ordinary people. Mildred Lathbury is a spinster, leads an uneventful life and is quite happy with her circumstances, until a new couple move in as neighbours and wreak havoc.
A Book That Became a Movie
Vertigo by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac
The first book released by the Pushkin vertigo crime imprint, but much earlier it was the inspiration for the Alfred Hitchcock movie of the same name. This is classic crime fiction with enough suspense, good characterization and plot twists.
A Book Published This Year
Compass by Mathias Enard
An erudite, mesmerizing novel about the cultural influence that the East has had on the West. Over the course of a single night, the protagonist reminisces on his experiences in Damascus, Aleppo, Tehran and his unrequited love for the fiery and intelligent scholar Sarah.
A Book with a Number in the Title
Madame Zero by Sarah Hall
I love Sarah hall’s novels for her raw, spiky writing and she is particularly a master of the short story. This is another brilliant collection of stories about metamorphosis, sexuality and motherhood, the standouts being ‘Evie’ and ‘Mrs Fox’.
A Book Written by Someone under Thirty
Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh
Waugh penned this novel in 1930, when he was 27. A humorous, witty novel and a satire on the ‘Bright Young Things’ – essentially decadent young London society between the two World Wars.
A Book with Non-Human Characters
Record of a Night Too Brief by Hiromi Kawakami
This is a strange, surreal but highly original collection of three stories. From the blurb on Amazon – In a dreamlike adventure, one woman travels through an apparently unending night with a porcelain girlfriend, mist-monsters and villainous moneys; a sister mourns her invisible brother whom only she can still see, while the rest of her family welcome his would-be wife into their home; and an accident with a snake leads a shop girl to discover the snake-families everyone else seems to be concealing.
A Funny Book
Bye Bye Blondie by Virginie Despentes
The novel’s protagonist is the highly volatile Gloria, now in her middle age, but having lost none of her capacity for rage and outbursts of anger. And yet it is not a gory novel. Infact, it has many moments of humour and compassion; a novel brimming with spunk.
A Book by a Female Author
Edith’s Diary by Patricia Highsmith
There were many this year, but I chose one of my favourite female authors, Patricia Highsmith. Edith’s family is breaking apart and she takes to writing a diary. A heartbreaking novel about a woman’s gradual descent into madness told in very subtle prose.
A Book with a Mystery
Black Money by Ross MacDonald
Ross MacDonald wrote the excellent Lew Archer (private detective) series of novels and this is one of them. A solid mystery with wonderful evocation of California, interesting set of characters, and a tightly woven and compelling plot with enough twists and turns.
A Book with a One-Word Title
Sphinx by Anne Garreta
An ingeniously written love story between a dancer and a disc jockey where the gender of the principle characters is never revealed. An even remarkable feat by the translator for ensuring that the essence of the novel (unimportance of gender) is not lost.
A Book of Short Stories
A Circle in the Fire and Other Stories by Flannery O’ Connor
Remarkable collection of stories by the Queen of Southern American gothic. A dash of menace lurks in the everyday lives of ordinary Americans living in the rural regions of the South. The theme of her macabre stories? The painful, necessary salvation that emerges from catastrophic, life-changing, and sometimes life-ending, events. ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’ and ‘Good Country People’ particularly are classics.
The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride
This is a passionate love story between an eighteen year old drama student and an actor in his thirties written in innovative prose that brings out the intensity of feelings of the young girl. It was the first book I read in 2017; I loved it and it pretty much set the tone for the rest of a wonderful reading year. The novel had also been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize in 2016.
A Book Set on a Different Continent
Solar Bones by Mike McCormack
The continent is Europe and the novel is Solar Bones – a wonderful, quiet story of a man, his whole life, his work, his marriage, his children set in a small town in Ireland. It is an ode to small town life, a novel suffused with moments of happiness, loss and yearning, and quite simply beautifully penned. This novel was the winner of the Goldsmiths Prize in 2016.
A Non-Fiction Book
Shakespeare and Company, Paris: A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart
This is a fabulous book on the history of the iconic bookshop in Paris – Shakespeare and Company. It is the story about its founder George Whitman, his passion for books and how some of the most famous authors of his time frequented the shop. Budding authors were allowed to stay in the bookshop (they were called ‘Tumbleweeds’), provided in return – they helped around in the shop and wrote a bit about themselves. The book is a wonderful collection of stories, anecdotes, pictures and also displays many of the written autobiographies of those Tumbleweeds.
The First Book by a Favourite Author
A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter
This isn’t exactly his first book but one of his earlier ones. James Salter has a knack of crafting exquisite sentences and conveying a lot in poetic, pared back prose. ‘Light Years’ still remains my favourite one of his, but this title is also good.
A Book You Heard About Online
Climates by Andre Maurois
Climates is a story of two marriages. The first is between Phillipe Marcenat and the beautiful Odile, and when Odile abandons him, Phillipe marries the devoted Isabelle. It is a superb novel with profound psychological insights, a book I only heard about through one of the reading blogs I regularly frequent.
A Bestselling Book
Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
Not sure this is a bestselling book, but I can say that it was certainly the most well-known of all that I read last year. I have always balked at the idea of reading a Woolf for fear of her novels being difficult and highbrow. But I decided to take the plunge with the more accessible Mrs Dalloway. And closed the final pages feeling exhilarated. More of Woolf shall be explored – perhaps, To the Lighthouse will be next?
A Book Based on a True Story
The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald
Penelope Fitzgerald is a wonderful but underrated writer. The Blue Flower is a compelling novel that centres around the unusual romance between the poet Novalis and his young fiancé Sophie. Novalis was the pen name of Georg von Harden berg who was a poet, author and philosopher of Early German Romanticism in the 18th century.
A Book at the Bottom of Your TBR Pile
Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi
This was the first title published by Peirene Press way back in 2011, and on the strength of some solid reviews, had been meaning to read it for a while, only to find it languishing at the back of some shelf. I finally pulled it out and gulped it in a single sitting. It is quite a dark, bleak but poignant tale of a young mother and her two sons and the extreme step she takes to shield them from a cruel world.
A Book your Friend Loves
First Love by Gwendoline Riley
First Love had received quite some rave reviews last year and was also shortlisted for a couple of prestigious prizes. It is a story of a woman in an abusive marriage told in sharp, intelligent, lucid prose. Here’s the blurb on Amazon – Catastrophically ill-suited for each other, and forever straddling a line between relative calm and explosive confrontation, Neve and her husband, Edwyn, live together in London. As Neve recalls the decisions that brought her to Edwyn, she describes other loves and other debts–from her bullying father and her self-involved mother, to a musician she struggled to forget. This novel had been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize in 2017.
A Book that Scares You
Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin
This is a tense, chilling and utterly gripping book that combines elements of the supernatural with the more real matters of agricultural disasters. The tone of storytelling is feverish and urgent; it filled me with dread as I raced towards the ending.
A Book that is More Than 10 Years Old
The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford
A great novel with psychologically complex characters and a narrative style that forces you to keep shifting sympathies with them. And the opening sentence is a corker – This is the saddest story I have ever heard.
The Second Book in a Series
Transit by Rachel Cusk
The first was Outline, which I read at the start of the year. So impressed was I that I read the second in the trilogy – Transit – the same year too. The third one is yet to be published. In both the novels, the protagonist who is a writer meets people while she is away in Greece or in London. They tell her stories about their lives, each one with a different perspective. Paradoxically, the protagonist is in the background as the stories told by her friends, colleagues and new people she meets take centre stage. While the main character’s story is never directly narrated, we learn something about her from the way she interacts with the others. This novel had been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize in 2016. Incidentally, Outline was shortlisted for the same prize in 2014.
A Book with a Blue Cover
The Doll’s Alphabet by Camilla Grudova
This one was easy simply because the publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions made it so. All their fiction titles have blue covers. The Doll’s Alphabet is a collection of 13 stories. Each story is wondrous, fantastical, weird and an ode to anachronism. Grudova has painted a different world; a macabre world of fables, dreams, nightmares and otherworldliness.
Norway is a country of gorgeous scenery. When I visited it a couple of years ago, I was stunned by the beauty of its fjords and the charm of its small towns. It was also where I was treated to a fabulous display of the Northern Lights!
But besides nature, Norway also has a strong literary heritage as I am beginning to discover. Two months in and I have already savoured the novels of two Norwegian authors. One was the existential Novel 11, Book 18 by Dag Solstad, which I had reviewed on my blog earlier. The other is the one I will be reviewing now – The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas.
The Ice Palace is a haunting tale of two 11-year old girls Siss and Unn. When the novel opens, it is a cold winter’s evening and Siss is one her way to Unn’s house.
Siss thought about many things as she walked, bundled up against the frost. She was on her way to Unn, a girl she scarcely knew, for the first time; on her way to something unfamiliar, which was why it was exciting.
Those lines are intriguing and we get a whiff of an intense friendship about to develop between them.
We then learn that Unn lost her unwed mother last spring. Having never met her father, she now comes to live in the village with her only relative – Auntie.
From the beginning it is clear that Unn is shy, likes to be alone and does not participate in the activities of the other children.
Siss, on the other hand, is a lively girl, always at the centre of her friends circle and tries her best to persuade Unn to join them.
And yet, despite their different personalities, they are drawn to each other, finally culminating in Unn asking Siss to come to her house one evening.
This is where it gets intense, sensual even and the meeting between the two girls is so electric, it crackles.
Four eyes full of gleams and radiance beneath their lashes, filling the looking glass. Questions shooting out and then hiding again. I don’t know; gleams and radiance, gleaming from you to me, from me to you, and from me to you alone – into the mirror and out again, and never an answer about what this is, never an explanation. Those pouting red lips of yours, no, they’re mine, how alike! Hair done in the same way, and gleams and radiance. It’s ourselves!
These are the tentative beginnings of a deep friendship as both the girls are trying to figure each other out.
We get to a pivotal moment in their conversation, an exchange (and what it implies) that Siss will have difficulty in conveying to adults later on in the novel.
After a long silence Unn said, ‘Siss.’
‘There’s something I want – ‘ said Unn, flushing.
Siss was already embarrassed. ‘Oh?’
‘Did you see anything on me just now?’ asked Unn quickly but looking Siss straight in the eyes.
Siss became even more embarrassed. ‘No!’
‘There’s something I want to tell you,’ began Unn again, her voice unrecognizable.
Siss held her breath.
Unn did not continue. But then she said, ‘I’ve never said it to anyone.’
Siss stammered, ‘Would you have said it to your mother?’
Siss saw that Unn’s eyes were full of anxiety. Was she not going to tell her? Siss asked, almost in a whisper, ‘Will you say it now?’
Unn drew herself up. ‘No.’
And we also get a feeling that while Siss is the extroverted of the two, she is also warier. She wants to know more about Unn and yet she is afraid.
By this time, we are barely 30 pages into the novel, and there is still so much yet to take place. But as far as the plot line goes, I will not reveal more.
While the entire novel is from Siss’ point of view, there is one chapter in the early part of the novel – and the only one – which is told from Unn’s point of view.
But it is a chapter that I read with a growing sense of dread and foreboding – and also with a sense of wonderment, of the kind Unn felt too. It is also the chapter where we are first introduced to the Ice Palace (of the novel) in the Norwegian fjords.
Unn looked down into an enchanted world of small pinnacles, gables, frosted domes, soft curves and confused tracery.
A little further on…
The enormous ice palace proved to be seven times bigger and more extravagant from this angle. From here the ice walls seemed to touch the sky, they grew as she thought about them. She was intoxicated. The place was full of wings and turrets, how many it was impossible to say. The water had made it swell in all directions, and the main waterfall plunged down in the middle, keeping a space clear for itself.
The Ice Palace then is a haunting, mesmerizing novel of friendship, of loss, of redemption and recovery, of the forces of nature, of people and their lives in a village.
Vesaas’ writing (wonderfully translated by Elizabeth Rokkan) is superb. The prose is lean, spare and poetic. He is great at getting into the minds of children and conveying the world one sees through their eyes. Throughout the novel, things are implied, never explicitly stated.
He is also particularly good at expressing mood and atmosphere and describing nature.
A loud noise had interrupted her thoughts, her expectancy; a noise like a long-drawn-out crack, moving further and further off, while the sound died away. It was from the ice on the big lake down below. And it was nothing dangerous, in fact it was good news: the noise meant that the ice was a little bit stronger. It thundered like gunshot, blasting long fissures, narrow as a knife-blade, from the surface down into the depths – yet the ice was stronger and safer each morning. There had been an unusually long period of severe frost this autumn.
Clearly, Vesaas writing’ was influenced by his origins. Here’s his profile from the book:
Tarjei Vesaas was born on a farm in Vinje, Telemark, an isolated mountainous district of southern Norway, in 1897 and, having little taste for travel and an abiding love of his native countryside, died there in 1970 aged seventy-two.
I simply loved The Ice Palace. It had me captivated throughout, and I will be exploring more of this author’s backlist.