Review 31's Best Books of 2018
by Review 31
Sulaiman Addonia, Silence is My Mother Tongue (Indigo Press)
‘Dung everywhere,’ observes Saba, the protagonist of Sulaiman Addonia’s second novel, Silence is My Mother Tongue, in a clear allusion to the fog of Dickens’s Bleak House. But the East African refugee camp in which she grows up is about as far from London as can be imagined. Arriving as a young girl, Saba has negotiated her existence with her mute brother, Hagos, in a micro-society where a woman’s every action is policed by men. Addonia brings this world where ‘the smallest of items have value’, and in which everyone lives ‘on top of each other’, vividly to life. This is not surprising, as he himself began life as an Eritrean refugee, spending his early years in a Sudanese camp. ‘The rhythm of dough slapping against mogogo stoves’ is a poetic detail, until we’re reminded that the toilets are open fields, and sexual harassment is rife.
The book’s main action turns on Saba’s trial for alleged incest with her silent brother, held in a kangaroo court consisting of a male judge and an all-male committee of elders. The underlying motive for her detention, however, is the accusation that Saba is one of the girls who ‘discovered how to enjoy the same pleasure as boys without destroying their marriage prospects’. Indeed, the pressure on her to submit to FGM becomes overwhelming as the novel progresses. The silence surrounding the practice mirrors the silence of both Saba and Hagos – a ‘universe of silence’ in which women are expected to curb their desires and undergo genital mutilation by ‘a midwife who doubled as a circumciser’.
Addonia doesn’t hold back in describing Saba’s carnal longings, despite the extremity of her situation. The book is explicitly somatic, though as one of the camp’s older inhabitants comments: ‘we have our needs wherever we are’. Addonia ultimately asks not only whether Saba will survive her trial and persecution, but how she can retain a sense of selfhood. ‘We all entered this camp as humans but only some of us would leave so’. Written in lambent, lyrical prose, with deep human empathy, Silence is My Mother Tongue is a timely and fierce novel about survival, conflict and immigration. It deserves wider recognition.
Maria Gabriela Llansol, trans. Audrey Young, The Geography of Rebels Trilogy (Deep Vellum)
The cast: Pegasus the flying horse, St John of the Cross, Copernicus, Nietzsche, and a number of lesser-known mystics, cartographers, printers, peasants and radical preachers from Germany and the Low Countries, one of whom spends most of the book transformed into a fish. The setting: overlapping layers of historical periods and geographical locations, from the battlefields of the 16th-century German Peasants’ Uprising to the Spanish town of Toledo, where John of the Cross was imprisoned.
This is the Portuguese writer Maria Gabriel Llansol’s Geography of Rebels trilogy, published by Deep Vellum in a luminous and light-footed translation by Audrey Young. The Book of Communities (1977) and The Remaining Life (1982), the first books in the trilogy, centre around the wealthy widow Ana de Peñalosa, a benefactor of St John of the Cross, and the community of exiles that forms in her house by the river in Spain. The third book, The House of July and August (1984), continues to explores communal living and Low Countries intellectual history, mostly from within a lay religious order of women – the Beguines – in 16th-century Antwerp. This is Europe seen through a kaleidoscope: a fascinating rewriting of the continent in which different myths, geographies, intellectual and political traditions and mystical forms of knowledge are brought to the fore.
Navigating the dreamlike, shape-shifting territories of Llansol’s trilogy is a reading experience unlike any other. Llansol’s writing sets out not to represent reality but to experiment with it and create it anew: her texts are her crucible, allowing her to mix elements that are normally separate and see what reactions occur. Very early on, I learnt to stop trying to pin down exactly what was happening or exactly what it all meant. The best way to experience this book is simply by continuing to read, just as the best way to experience a new landscape is simply by continuing to walk.
Will Eaves, Murmur (CB Editions)
Disclosure: Murmur shouldn't be in this roundup. Full disclosure: it's here because, when recently compiling my books of the year list for another publication, I forgot when this novel appeared, having read an early draft a while ago and lived under its spell since. And now here we are, nearing the end of 2018 and still with nothing to match it, neither in the depth of its ideas nor in its style.
The hero, Alec Pryor, a fictional embodiment of Alan Turing, is able to step outside himself and observe everything from this unique viewpoint. These visions, recounted with painful vividness, seep into his life, merging with his journals and correspondence. Letters from his former fiancée provide some consolation in a world that has turned against Alec for being different. His hallucinations are brought on by chemical castration he must undergo to be 'cured' of his desires. The barbaric treatment causes physical and moral suffering, but also dreams about a boy he loved at school, who 'enters at the speed of thought', making this imaginary space, 'the price paid for a suppressed reality', habitable.
Embracing a breathtakingly broad spectrum of concerns, Alec's reflections on cosmic questions, such as whether 'the real nature of mind is that it is unencompassable by mind', always loop back to his inner universe. He is recursion incarnate, and so is this book, its themes including that of the mirror, an object that defies determinism. Out of its optics the notion of encryption emerges, encapsulated in the phrase 'The key is part of a message', a vision from a future where one can be both a man and a machine. 'Thinking machines', another recurring thread in Alec's dreams, are simultaneously terrifying and fascinating. Parallels are drawn between society's fear of homosexuality and its wariness towards the possibility of Artificial Intelligence; an original idea allowing both phenomena to be exposed in a new light.
Murmur could be compared to the writings of Georges Perec (think logic and formal structure) and Robert Walser (normalcy as a relative concept), but it's too multifaceted to categorise without resorting to the clichéd 'experimental'. Its variety of philosophical arguments aside, it offers many stylistic delights. Flowing from thought to thought, the prose keeps erupting with poetry – 'For I am mathematics and a page, the witness of a wilderness' – before recursing to higher mathematics: a mode of thinking and being, a way out of and back into reality.
Rob Palk, Animal Lovers (Sandstone)
There’s a mordant comedic genius unexpectedly at work in this story of brain haemorrhage and badger murder, a combination of insouciant fluency and incorrigible hangdog wit that tugs and shapes a narrative of unconventional marital breakdown into a contender for 2018’s funniest, glummest and most human comic novel. Palk’s narrator, Stuart, suffers a bleed on his brain, and loses much of his sight (all wrenchingly well described – ‘my sweat was all leaving me and hurting in the process, needles threading my pores . . . I was allergic to existing’ – based on Palk’s real-life experience). He then has to contend with the departure of his new wife, Marie, to join a gang of activists who are protesting against the government’s badger cull.
The consequences, while occasionally absurd, are not in themselves hilarious; Palk’s ploy is an old-fashioned one, as he places the reader in the hands of a highly amusing narrator and trusts in that to be enough. It is: Animal Lovers is funny because Stuart is funny (because Palk is funny). A hug from Henry, the protesters’ charismatic leader (and Stuart’s love rival), is ‘like being clutched by a musky robot’. A friend advises Stuart that ‘once half of your relationship lives in a van with someone else, it might not be built to last’. Stuart reflects that ‘first they came for the badgers but I did not complain because I was not a badger’. There’s definitely something of PG Wodehouse in all this, which makes the decision of the judges in the 2018 Wodehouse prize for comic fiction to withhold the award this year seem especially tin-eared, or thick-headed.
The satires here (on the artsy, on the over-committed, on the earnest, on the self-important) are mostly gentle-ish and are invariably counterpointed by Stuart’s unrelenting bent for autoparody and self-doubt. As Stuart stumbles – both literally and otherwise – through a nicely worked plot, Palk’s wit and linguistic deftness enliven every page, playing with paradox, jibing at social convention, devilling moments of authentic heartbreak with mustardy humour, and generally keeping up a covering fire of dry impertinence as the cruel world closes in.
Roberto Bolaño, Cuentos completos (Alfaguara)
If you’ve found your way to these pages, you’ve likely already read some, or all, of Roberto Bolaño’s work, translated into English with remarkable speed: fine slim volumes, majestic larger tomes, posthumous texts. The step of compiling his stories, though, had not been taken until Cuentos completos appeared this year in Spanish, gathering the Chilean writer’s separate collections (Putas asesinas, El gaucho insufrible, Llamadas telefónicas, El secreto del mal) into a single rose-coloured book. It is big, but not as big as one would expect; dizzying, yet an invitation to read everything again, differently, with a wide-angled lens and the slight disorientation of déjà vu.
A new introduction by Lina Meruane, who discusses Bolaño in friendly if ambivalent terms, presents doubts about her ability to say something fresh. Luckily she doesn’t opt for historical context, preferring to emulate her old mentor’s style with a numbered format and letters (M, B) as stand-ins for names. This move is irritatingly derivative yet sympathetic, an understanding nod towards her own infection: homage as imitation. Meruane articulates the lure of his fragments, which from different angles approach the essential. ‘Strangely that system of cross-references did not produce a work enclosed in itself, cramped, sterile, immobile, unbreathable, but rather worked as a galaxy full of planets and asteroids and stars, turning in their orbits, avoiding a fall into the black sun at their centre.’ Black sun: clear symbol of fascism (one of Bolaño’s great themes); void; mystery.
The centre of gravitation in Bolaño’s work is not only horror, however, but the passion for writing: to live, create oneself, survive. ‘I set out for the library; its door was shut but without a key, as seemed the custom. I lit a small lamp, looked for paper and pen, and began to write,’ he says in ‘El contorno del ojo’ (The Outline of the Eye), the one previously unpublished story, which appeared in 1983 in a collective volume. To read Bolaño’s collected stories is a rediscovery of his work, but also a rediscovery of writing, particularly this sort of writing: superficially confident, yet always searching.
Sally Rooney, Normal People (Faber)
Our being is constituted of who we have been. We bring with us our families, our friends, the people we’ve loved before, the places we’ve lived in, and the habits we never managed to break. We are worlds of lived experience. But sometimes in life, or more commonly in literature, people find someone with whom they can be truly naked – no baggage, and probably few clothes. If Normal People is about those moments of radical intimacy, it is also about how impossible they are to sustain. At points, you wonder whether they really exist at all.
The novel is about two people, Marianne and Connell, who are drawn back to each other time and time again. They leave home, travel, try to trace or carve some purpose in life. They swap roles, defining and redefining which of them is ‘normal’, as if riding on some graceful wheel of fortune. But they always return to one another. We know that the line stretched taut between them will never quite break.
The seclusion they feel, a kind of Donnean ‘world contracted thus’, suggests that they manage to escape the clutches of circumstance when in each other’s company. Yet this figurative homecoming is also always a kind of actual homecoming: Connell and Marianne grew up together. Escaping the past often looks disturbingly like recasting it. Is it possible to belong anywhere you haven’t known before? Do we ever leave behind whom we have been? Can love ever be between just two people?
At just 27, Rooney is the laureate of our desire for acceptance. She writes about simple and important things: vulnerability, the longing for companionship, the need to be respected and understood. Her language is unsparing, and at points the words are stretched so thin you think that they cannot possibly sustain the weight of emotion. But it is in this light but forceful prose that Rooney seems to most effortlessly draw the depths of human emotion. Ever so gently, with great wit and compassion, she makes us question what it means to love another.
Caterina Pascual Söderbaum, trans. Frank Perry, The Oblique Place (MacLehose)
Caterina Pascual Söderbaum’s novel rages against any idea of completion. It’s a literary memoir in which the author explores the narratives of her family’s history and its surfacing trauma whilst confronting the painful and trans-generational wounds that are inscribed in the ancestral psyche. We’re coming to that time of year in which completion and roundedness presents itself as a mythical prospect of the calendar’s turn. When I inevitably blunder through January, this hope dissipating, I will look back on Söderbaum’s work as one such aspect of the previous year that left such an indelible print on me I was exhausted by it. If I wasn’t writing about it, I would have been unable to go back and turn its pages. Yet, I somehow felt lesser when I didn’t have it in my hands and its indelibleness is not inscribed then in its compelling appeal to be read over and over again, but its endurance and how complete it makes you feel upon its completion.
The Oblique Place is 417 pages of recursive and digressing paragraphs. It contains such an organic interplay between seemingly unconscious and conscious imagery in a novel as I’ve not read in recent times. One of those standout moments is when the narrator confronts an image – or rather, an image of an image, that represents so many woeful components of her family’s history: a picture of Hitler above her grandfather’s fireplace. This has been a year in which the far right has re-emerged as an electoral force across Europe, and so as I think about this passage from Söderbaum’s novel, I’m reminded of Auden: ‘Love was a word they never said aloud/ As something that a picture can’t return.’ Despite the many direct and existential threats we read about, I’d say that on the whole, our world is filled with good people. The Oblique Place shows that, potentially, all of us might have a choice in the narratives we create of ourselves one day. I’m glad I chose Söderbaum’s to read and I hope many others do too.
Amy McCauley, Oedipa (Guillemot Books)
The novelist Rose Tremain recently shared with readers of the Times Literary Supplement her confident belief that 'contemporary poetry is in a rotten state'. Arguing about poetry has rightly been compared to a knife-fight in a phone booth. I don't want to bang on about the astonishing range of contemporary poets who prove Tremain wrong, but will single out one debut volume that can stand for dozens of others published this year. Oedipa by Amy McCauley is a book-length poem presented as a stage play set in a mental asylum in an English seaside town, with an all-female cast. It's a feminist take on Sophocles' Oedipus – ferociously good, brilliantly original.
Citing Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and Freud alongside a vast range of other cultural references, the poem expresses (in McCauley's words) 'the buggering muchness of the world that will not fit inside my head'. I saw her read Oedipa in London earlier this year, doing all the voices. It was a blazing performance – courageous, honest and visceral. Oedipa is very intelligent but not at all daunting. Much of the incantatory verse is hauntingly clear and simple, such as this chorus, voiced by the Fates towards the end of Act III:
Have you ever seen a blind girl swim?
She looks like she's drowning
She looks like a thing with nowhere to go
Have you ever seen a blind girl drown
She looks like she's swimming
She looks like she's having the time of her life
This is poetry with range, depth, drive and ambition. The design by Emily Juniper makes each verso page into a stage; the typesetting is a marvel, and the use of red and black pigment creates two levels to the text. Brilliantly integrated graphic elements include lists of properties and furniture required for each of the three Acts. This book is among the the most exciting, sophisticated and original publications from any small press in recent years.
And here's a bonus ball: Blush (CB Editions) is a collaboration between the author Jack Robinson (aka the publisher Charles Boyle) and the artist Natalia Zagorska-Thomas – an elegant, intelligent and beautifully illustrated essay about that exclusively human trait, blushing. On a first reading I chose page 39 as my page of the year for 2018. Read it and see for yourself.