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Posts tagged ‘Book Reviews’

Yoko Ogawa, Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales

RevengeTowards the end of ‘Afternoon at the Bakery’, the opening story of Japanese author Yoko Ogawa’s slim but mesmerizing volume, Revenge, the narrator describes the discovery of the body of her late son, who suffocated after crawling into an abandoned refrigerator.

“He’s just sleeping,” she says, refusing to believe he is dead, “He hasn’t eaten anything, and he must be exhausted. Let’s carry him home and try not to wake him. He should sleep, as much as he wants. He’ll wake up later, I’m sure of it”.

It’s an exquisitely unsettling moment, and not just because of the way it plays upon our deep-seated sense of the strangeness of death, its closeness to life, but because of the way it evokes a particular sort of psychological instability, reminding us of how easy it is for our minds recoil from reality and take refuge in fantasy and denial.

Yet it might also serve as a microcosm of the emotional landscape and method of the book as a whole. For as becomes clear when the image of the abandoned refrigerator recurs to deeply disquieting effect in the book’s final pages, the stories in Revenge are not so much a collection, or even a suite or sequence, but something more closely resembling a set of uncanny matryoshka dolls, each nestled inside the last like the dead boy folded into his refrigerator.

For many readers this sort of metafictional gameplay will probably be reminiscent of Murakami, in particular his sprawling opus, 1Q84, with its worlds within worlds and floating cocoons. But where Murakami’s fiction is characterised by the tension between the curiously bland, almost affectless, prose (and its digressive fascination with cooking and running and whatever else seems to take its author’s fancy) and its surreal elements, Ogawa’s draws much of its power from somewhere considerably darker, the almost preternatural clarity of the prose belying the profound cognitive dissonance that lies at the heart of many of these stories.

Sometimes that dissonance reflects a disengagement from reality, rather as the calm words of the narrator of ‘Afternoon at the Bakery’ offer an unsettling suggestion of a mind both rational and profoundly disturbed, a quality that is repeated in ‘Old Mrs J’, in which the slightly-over-familiar landlord of the neighbour turns out to have murdered her husband and buried him in her vegetable plot, an act that has led, in one of the book’s more disturbing images, to crops of carrots resembling human hands (apparently the carrots are “plump, like a baby’s hand, and perfectly formed”).

Elsewhere though it takes other forms, as in stories such as ‘Welcome to the Museum of Torture’, in which a young woman abandoned by her boyfriend (whether for her disturbing affectlessness or for her interest in a nearby murder is never entirely clear) finds herself fascinated by the exhibits in the titular museum, or ‘Lab Coats’, in which a young woman with a crush on her co-worker hears her shocking confession (the story ends with the unnerving image of a tongue lolling out of the pocket of a used coat. “It’s still soft,” the narrator says. “And maybe even warm”).

As the repeated images of bodily mutilation and death suggest, much of the power of the stories in Revenge lies in their capacity to articulate anxieties that are usually suppressed. And certainly the book is at its strongest when it is exploring repression and sublimation, rather than in more deliberately surreal moments such as ‘Sewing for the Heart’, in which a bagmaker is commissioned to make a special bag for a woman whose heart is outside her body.

Yet in many ways what is most striking about Revenge is the way its nested imagery echoes and recurs, weaving a web of implication that is as suggestive as it is disturbing, and giving shape to a world in which the line between reality and our most morbid imaginings is never entirely clear.

Recent Reviewage

Shining GirlsDeep in the final stages of the second draft of my new novel, so no time to post, but thought I might link to a few recent reviews. First up I’ve got a long piece on Patrick Ness’ The Crane Wife in the Sydney Review of Books, in which I talk a little bit about about folk tales and the way contemporary writers tend to (mis)read them. It was a fun piece to write and I’m really pleased to be a part of the SRB, which – much to the credit of its editor, James Ley – seems to have come into the world pretty much fully formed, delivering one fantastic piece after another.

Over in today’s Weekend Australian I’ve got a piece on Lauren Beukes’ science fiction-inflected riff on the serial killer novel, The Shining Girls, and going back a few weeks, a longish piece on Jami Attenberg’s The Middlesteins and Michael Kimball’s Big Ray, both of which feature obese characters. And if you’re interested you can also check out my reviews of Ron Rash’s Nothing Gold Can Stay and Sean Howe’s excellent and extremely entertaining history of Marvel Comics, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story.

I’ve got several more pieces due out over the next few weeks, as well as a story I’m really pleased with, so will link to them as they appear.

The Best Australian Stories 2012

Best Australian StoriesSince it’s been out for a couple of weeks this is a little after the fact, but I wanted to say how delighted I am my story ‘The Inconvenient Dead’ has been selected for this year’s Best Australian Stories (which comes complete with a spiffy redesign). The volume, which was put together by Sonya Hartnett, also includes stories by a bunch of good people such as David Astle, David Sornig, Romy Ash and newcomers like Rebecca Harrison, and while I haven’t read all of it yet, I’m happy to report that what I have read is fantastic.

I’ve also added three reviews to the site: my pieces on Patrick Flanery’s striking and often unsettling exploration of trauma, memory and complicity,  Absolution and Dana Spiotta’s stunning third novel Stone Arabia (if you haven’t read it run, don’t walk to your nearest shop and buy it now), both of which appeared in The Weekend Australian earlier this year, and my review of Peter Heller’s haunting excursion into apocalyptic fiction, The Dog Stars, which ran in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age a few months back. And while we’re on the subject of reviews you might also want to check out my piece on James Meek’s The Heart Broke In, which appeared in The Weekend Australian a few weeks ago.

And the novel? Nice of you to ask. It’s grand: not there yet but close-ish to a (very rough) first draft, which is nice.

Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth (and some other reviewy stuff)

Some of you may have noticed I had a review of Ian McEwan’s new novel, Sweet Tooth in Saturday’s Weekend Australian.

I’ve reproduced the review over the fold in case you’d like to read it, but before you do I thought I might point you toward my reviews of Karen Walker’s vastly overhyped The Age of Miracles and Lauren Groff’s wonderful Arcadia, both of which appeard a few weeks ago, and both of which are books I want to fold into a longer piece I’m working on about the current fashion for dystopia, and what it tells us about the state of science fiction and our imagining of the future more generally.

And while you’re there you might want to check out my reviews of G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen, and Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312, both of which I’ve now posted on the site.

Pascall Prize for Criticism

I’m incredibly excited to be able to say that on Saturday night I was awarded the Pascall Prize for Criticism. It’s a huge honour, and needless to say I’m delighted, although in a way the really wonderful (and weirdly humbling part) has been how many people have written, tweeted or sent messages to say congratulations.

If you’d like to read my acceptance speech, it’s available on the Pascall website, as is the Judge’s Report, but since I suspect most of you won’t make it over there I’d like to say again how grateful I am to the judges, Geordie Williamson and Alison Croggon (both of whose work I admire immensely) and to the Pascall Foundation itself, for its commitment to the idea of criticism as something important and worthy of celebration. You can also read an extended interview with me over at Stephen Romei’s blog, A Pair of Ragged Claws.

I should also thank all of you, since at least part of the reason I was chosen was the work that appears on this site, work that has been shaped considerably by the generosity and intelligence of the many, many people who have taken the time to comment and engage with each other here. I’m aware things are a bit slow around here at the moment but hopefully that will change once I’ve got a couple of the things I’m working on locked away.

Angelmaker

I’ve got reviews of Nick Harkaway’s Angelmaker and John Lanchester’s Capital in this morning’s papers. You can read the Lanchester piece unpaywalled at The Weekend Australian, but because the Harkaway isn’t on the Sydney Morning Herald site I’ve posted it over on my Writing Page.

If you’re interested you can also read my review of Harkaway’s first book, The Gone-Away World, but in the meantime I thought I might post the first couple of paragraphs, which touch on some ideas about the way changing cultures of reading are transforming literary culture I’ll be exploring further in the not too distant future:

“I sometimes wonder whether the real transformative force in contemporary writing isn’t digitization but fandom, and more particularly the technologies that underpin it. For while digitization is transforming the publishing landscape, the internet is breeding not just a new breed of highly engaged readers deeply invested in their particular area of interest, but also a new hierarchy of taste, founded not in traditional literary verities but in ideas of delight and generic awareness.

“Fandom’s rising power is visible in phenomena as seemingly unconnected as the hegemony of the superhero movie and the influence writers such as Neil Gaiman wield on Twitter. Yet it’s also visible in the rise of a new kind of fiction, one whose playfulness and generic promiscuity might once have seen it labelled post-modern, yet which more effectively elides the boundaries between high and low culture and art and entertainment than the writers of the 1980s could ever have dreamed of doing.” Read more …

Totally Hip Book Reviews

I’m a little muzzy this morning from last night’s Sydney Writers’ Festival Opening Party (oh yes, the writer’s life is a fabulous one) but one thing I definitely remember from last night was a conversation in which I was recommending Ron Charles’ hilarious video reviews to somebody. Since that person’s identity has now fled my mind, I thought I might use that conversation as an excuse to post his rather fabulous review of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. Unfortunately Ron’s taking a breather from producing them for a while, but if you’d like to see more you can visit The Washington Post’s Totally Hip Book Review page or Ron’s Youtube Channel. In the meantime, enjoy!