Dale Peck – Night Soil

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Dale Peck — Night Soil

Judas Stammers lives a peaceful life with his mother. He does not know anything about his father; only when he dies and leaves him masses of books and money does he actually notice this person. His mother is a potter and to their astonishment, her pots sell for an unbelievable amount of money that they actually do not need since their ancestors were coal magnates and founders of the Academy, a private school that also Judas attends. His mother often leaves him alone and the fact of being an outsider makes Judas ruminate a lot about life, his personality and also the history of the place he lives in.

I admittedly did not really get into the novel. Somehow for me, the narration did not completely make sense. I guess this was due to the fact that Judas narrates the long history of his family with masses of enumerations which made me lose the red threat. I found his personality quite interesting, but whenever I had the impression that the novel gets more fascinating and focuses on his development, the plot turned to something different. The end of the novel what highly noteworthy, the philosophical treatise about the parable – but how does this connect to the rest? To finish with something positive: I found many parts hilarious, I liked Judas style of narration, the way he puts his words, the comparisons, but this unfortunately could not counterbalance the weaknesses of the plot that I perceived.

Ottessa Moshfegh – My Year of Rest and Relaxation

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Ottessa Moshfegh – My Year of Rest and Relaxation

Looking at her from the outside, she has everything one could wish for: she is blond, pretty, thin, a Columbia graduate, stylish without effort and she has a job at a gallery. Due to her inheritance, she can afford an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. But that’s just one side of the medal, her relationship with Trevor has been all but healthy, her parents never showed any affection and thus losing them both when she was in college was a minor affair. What she is lacking is an aim in life, something that gives her a reason for being alive. She feels exhausted and just wants to sleep until everything is over. She slowly extends her time in bed, she even falls asleep at work and then, finally, she decides to hibernate. A crazy therapist provides her with medication that allows more and more hours of sleep at a time. She hopes that after a year of rest, she will awake as somebody new.

Ottessa Moshfegh is a US-American writer who earned a degree in Creative Writing from Brown University and whose short stories were received with positive reviews. After her novella “McGLue”, her first novel “Eileen” was published in 2015 and made it on the shortlist for the 2016 Man Booker Prize. Having chosen a mostly unsympathetic protagonist for her former novel, I found it much easier so sympathise with her narrator in “My Year of Rest and Relaxation”.

The young woman who is portrayed is quite typical in a certain way. She is the modern New Yorker who takes part in the glittery art circus, is a part of a subculture of believes itself to be highly reflective and innovative. At a certain point, the superficiality becomes exhausting and the aimless tittle-tattle and prattle don’t provide any deeper insight.

“The art at Ducat was supposed to be subversive irreverent, shocking, but was all just canned counterculture crap, “punk, but with money”.

Also her relationship does not go beyond superficial sex and one-night-stands that lead to nothing. Added to this is the easy availability of all kinds of drugs, of therapists who themselves are too crazy to detect any serious illness in their clients and therefore just fill in any prescription they are asked for. Even though the plot starts in 2000, the characters are quite typical for the 1990s and they need a major event to wake them up and bring them back to real life.

The narrator tries to flee the world and takes more and more pills mixed with each other, as a result she is sleepwalking, even gets a new haircuts and orders masses of lingerie without knowing. Her radius is limited to her blog, her only human contacts are the Egyptians at the bodega at the corner where she buys coffee, the doorman of her apartment house and Reva, her best friend who still cares about her. Even though she is bothered by the things she does when she is not awake, she has become that addicted that she cannot let go anymore.

Even though the protagonist is highly depressive and seeing how badly she copes with her life is hard to endure in a way, the novel is also hilarious. I especially liked her meetings with her therapist since Dr. Tuttle is riotous in her eccentric ways and their dialogues are highly comical – despite the earnestness of their actual topics. Ottessa Moshfegh most certainly earns a place among to most relevant authors of today.

Claire Douglas – Do not Disturb

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Claire Douglas – Do Not Disturb

After her husband’s breakdown, Kirsty and her family move from London to Hywelphilly, a small village in Wales where they buy a guesthouse. After weeks of refurbishing, they look forward to welcoming the first guests, among them to Kirsty’s dislike her cousin Selena whom she hasn’t seen for more than sixteen years. They had been like sisters, but Selena’s constant lying lead to the inevitable break. Kirsty’s two daughters Evie and Amelia struggle with the move at first, but when Selena and her daughter Ruby arrive, the house awakes. The cousins manage to sort out their quarrels; yet, Kirsty cannot get rid of the feeling that Selena still does not tell her the complete truth. When Selena’s former boyfriend shows up to rent a room, the atmosphere gets tense and with the arrival of Kirsty’s brother and his wife, trouble is in the air. And then, the worst fears come true: Selena gets murdered.

I really liked the novel because Claire Douglas has well dosed the revelation of secrets the characters keep – and there are many of them. Everybody has something to hide, buried down in his or her mind, even the nice ones are not what they seem at the first glance. There is something mysterious about the house, the whispers of the village inhabitants add to this and many of the incidents are hard to make sense of.

The novel is told from Kirsty’s perspective, quite normally, you are biased in what she tells as you only get her limited point of view. On the other hand, this adds to the suspense and you can easily share her feeling of unease. To me, Kirsty is authentic in her action and in the way she tries to protect her family. Since it is not clear where the threat comes from, you suspiciously eye all the other characters simply to learn in the end that you were completely wrong. I absolutely liked that especially since the whole mystery is solved convincingly.

“Do not disturb” triggers the biggest fear: having evil in your own home, the place where you want to feel safe and secure and where you assume that also your children are protected. Many twists and turns and unexpected revelations keep suspense high throughout the novel, a mystery thriller just as it should be.

Laura van den Berg – The Third Hotel

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Laura van den Berg – The Third Hotel

Clara travels to Havana, Cuba, to attend a film festival. She is there on professional terms she tells the people, but actually, she works as a sales representative for ThyssenKrupp. She watches a horror movie, Revolución Zombi, due to its renowned director and she is looking for Richard – her lately deceased husband who was actually working on film. During her endless search, memories come up, the last days together with Richard before he was killed in an accident, their wedding day, her childhood when her parents owned a hotel in Florida that she roamed like a ghost.

Just as Clare wanders the streets of Havana, so do her thoughts and the reader accompanies her in her search which will lead to nothing – quite the contrary, the longer she roams, the more she herself seems to get lost. At times, she is self-conscious, understands exactly what is going on, that her mind is in exceptional circumstances due to the loss she has just experienced, but then again, she is talking to Richard as if he stood right next to her.

“The Third Hotel” – the name Clara gives her accommodation in Havana since twice before the taxi driver had taken her to the wrong one – is a psychological study in what can happen to a person whose life is turned upside down. Even the simplest things become obstacles hard to overcome:

“What was she doing in Havana? A simple question and yet she could not find a simple answer.”

Clare experiences as she calls it a “dislocation from reality”. There are phone calls when the phone never rings, there are people at the other end of the line that could be herself – she is lost in a parallel world that collides with other peoples’ reality but then again, there are walls that clearly separate those two spaces. Towards the end, a short dialogue perfectly sums up how Clare feels:

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, Clare said, with bitterness.

What doesn’t kill you leaves you alive, Richard countered. (…)

What doesn’t kill you only leaves you feeling broken and insane.”

She is not herself anymore, just like her father who also suffered metal degeneration, she at times cannot differentiate between what’s real and what’s imagined anymore.

The strongest parts of the novel are the descriptions, Laura van den Berg has an eye for the detail and particularly for the sensory aspects. Her protagonist might be gone mad, but her feelings are real. Apart from this, I liked the travel metaphors a lot. The characters are constantly moving in the novel, everybody is travelling, alone in a group, going here and there, on trains, buses, airplanes – yet, does anybody every arrive? Figuratively, aren’t we all relentlessly roaming and searching for our self, not knowing if we ever arrive?

Daisy Johnson – Everything Under

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Daisy Johnson – Everything Under

Gretel does not grow up like other kids do. Her mother is different, they live on a boat, stop here and there and they even invent their own language. After the mother’s sudden disappearance, Gretel is left on her own devices and has to find a place in the world. The early fascination for words quite naturally makes her a lexicographer, a very lonesome job in which she updates dictionary entries. Even though she hadn’t been in contact with her mother for more than sixteen years, she hasn’t forgotten her and always feared that she might be the person behind a newspaper article about a fatal accident. When they are re-united, also the long lost memories of their former time together come back.

Daisy Johnson’s debut novel is nominated on the Man Booker Prize 2018 longlist, itself already an honour, but even more so for an author at the age of only 28. It only takes a few pages into the novel to see why it easily could persuade the judges: it is wonderfully written, poetic and shows a masterly use of language:

 

“I’d always felt that our lives could have gone in multiple directions, that the choices you made forced them into turning out the way they did. But maybe there were no choices; maybe there were no other outcomes.”

Gretel’s has never been easily and having found her mother, seriously marked by her illness, doesn’t make it easier since she will never get answers but has to live with how her life turned out.

What I found most striking was how Daisy Johnson easily transgresses boundaries in her novel: being female or male – does it actually matter? If you call a person Marcus or Margot, it’s just the same, you immediately recognize the person behind the label. Sarah and Gretel live on the water and on land, they blend in nature and don’t see a line between man and animal or plants, it’s just all there. The language itself also doesn’t know any limits; if need be, create new words to express what you want to say. And there is this creature, a fantastic being that can also exist either in Sarah’s mind or in this novel where so much is possible.

Just like Gretel and her brother Hansel who were left in the woods but managed to find a way out, Gretel follows the crumbs to her mother, retraces the journey they did when she was young and with the help of the people she meets, tries to make sense of her own and especially her mother’s life.

The structure is demanding since it springs backwards and forwards which I found difficult to follow at times. But the language’s smoothness and virtuosity compensate for this exceedingly.

R.O. Kwon – The Incendiaries

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R.O. Kwon – The Incendiaries

When Will comes to Edwards University at Noxhurst, he has a lot of things to hide from his fellow student: he does not come from a prestigious background, quite the opposite with his mother an addict and his father bullying the family, he is ashamed of his constant lack of money and the fact that he left a Christian college since he lost his faith is also something he’d rather keep for himself. When he meets Phoebe, he immediately falls for the girl of Korean descent. Soon they cannot live one without the other, but they both keep some things for themselves. Phoebe, too, has things to hide but the feeling of having to share them is growing inside her. It is John Leal and his group where she feels confident enough to talk about her past. But the enigmatic leader is not just after the well-being of his disciples and it does not take too long until he comes between Will and Phoebe.

R.O. Kwon’s debut is a rather short read which nevertheless tackles quite a number of very relevant topics: love and loss, faith and cult, abuse and how to deal with it and last but not least abortion. A lot of issues for such a novel and thus, for my liking, some were treated a bit too superficially and I would have preferred less.

In the centre of the novel, we have the two protagonists Phoebe and Will who, at the first glance, couldn’t hardly be more different than they are. But when looking closer at them, it is obvious what brings them together: as children and teenagers, they had a kind of constant in their lives which gave them orientation and lead them. For Phoebe, it was music, for Will, his Christian believe. When they grew older and more independent, they lost that fixed point and now as students they are somehow orbiting around campus searching for their identity and guidance.

Opposing them is the charismatic leader of the Jejah group. The way he precedes is quite easy to see through from the outside, but it also clearly illustrates why he can be that successful nonetheless. He offers to Phoebe exactly what she needs at that moment and thus it is not too complicated to put a spell on her. John always remains a bit mysterious, but there is no need to reveal all about him, that’s just a part of being a strong leader of a cult, keeping some mystery and fog around you.

“The Incendiaries” is one of the most anticipated novels of 2018 and I was also immediately intrigued by the description. I definitely liked Kwon’s style of writing a lot, it is lively and eloquent. Also the development of the plot and her characters are quite convincing. However, I think she could have gone into more depth, especially towards to end.

Liese O’Halloran Schwarz – The Possible World

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Liese O’Halloran Schwarz – The Possible World

Being invited to a birthday party isn‘t something that comes easy for Ben. Too many things can happen, all is so unpredictable with other boys, but his mother can convince him to go nevertheless. And then, the most unexpected happens: a murderer comes to the party and kills the two mothers in the house as well as all of the kids, except for Ben. In hospital, Lucy can only determine that he hasn’t been hurt physically, but there seems to be a kind of trauma since Ben wants to be called Leo and remembers life with a certain Clare. At an elderly home somewhere in town, Clare is fighting again against having to socialise. Her life alone in a recluse hut and later with her foster child Leo has simply been perfect. How come Ben remembers being Clare’s son Leo?

Liese O‘Halloran Schwarz‘ novel is one of the rare books that you just open and then get completely lost in. I read it in just one sitting because I simply did not want to get away from her characters. It is bittersweet, often melancholic, but you see the good heart the characters have and you are convinced that there must be something good coming from them. It is a perfect feel-good book, even though it tells harsh reality in an emergency room and the story of a child given away by his mother.

I liked the alternate narration of the three protagonists, even though it did not completely make sense at the beginning, you slowly manage to put together the puzzle pieces that form a new and complete picture. All three are very sensitive characters, misunderstood by the people around them and therefore lonely. I guess these kind of people recognize each other what helps them to find each other. What also links them is the fact that they are highly intelligent and question the world: why do the things have to be the way they are and why don’t people change something about it?

A beautifully written story about non-mainstream characters who can easily be overlooked.

Michael Donkor – Hold

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Michael Donkor – Hold

Belinda knows her place in the world, when her father cannot pay for her anymore, her mother sends her away to work in the household of people she calls Aunt and Uncle in accordance with Ghanaian customs. She is not the only maid there, also 11-year-old Mary works for them and quickly becomes something like a sister Belinda never had. When Belinda is sent to England to take care of Amma, a girl her own age, the two have to part which isn’t easy for either of them. Yet, they manage to stay in contact over the thousands of kilometres that now separate them. Mary wants to know everything about Belinda’s posh life in London, but the older sister cannot tell everything that she experiences in England. Her role is different now which is hard to get used to and people behave in a different way. She misses her home town, but also sees the chance that she is given since she can go back to school and study. When a tragic incident calls her back to Africa, Belinda realises that only a couple of months were enough to change her completely.

Michael Donkor was born in England to a Ghanaian household and trained as an English teacher and completed a Master’s in Creative Writing. He was selected as a “New Face in Fiction” by The Observer in January 2018. “Hold” is his debut novel in which also autobiographical elements can be found even though his protagonist is female and he has lived all his life in the UK.

What I liked about the novel were the different perspectives on life that you get and the difficulties that living between different cultures can mean for you personally but also for the people around you. First of all, I hardly know anything about Ghana so the beginning of the novel when we meet Mary and Belinda, young girls who work full time as maids, gives a short glance at what life in other parts of the world might be. They were not treated especially bad, quite the contrary, but the fact that the lack of money in their family leads to giving up education is something which is far away from our world in Europe.

Most interesting also Belinda’s arrival in London and her awareness of being different. She has brown skin, but this is different from the Asian brown of the Indians or the skin of the girls from Jamaica. It is those slight differences that are of course seen by the members of those groups at the margin but often neglected by the majority society. Even though she shares the same cultural background with Amma, the two girls could hardly be more distinct. The most obvious is their sexual orientation where Belinda sticks to a romantic understanding of love and where Amma has her coming-out as homosexual. Belinda can easily adapt to a lot of things, but this clearly transgresses a line that she will not cross. The girls’ friendship is nothing that comes easy for both of them, but it splendid how Donkor developed it throughout the novel.

Without a doubt, Michael Donkor is a great new voice among the British writers who themselves have made the experience of belonging – but not completely, of being trapped between cultures and having to find their identity while growing up.

Anne Tyler – Clock Dance

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Anne Tyler – Clock Dance

Willa Drake is only eleven when her mother suddenly disappears and leaves her two daughters and husband to themselves. Since their father is a good man but incapable of managing the household, Willa has to take over the mother’s role. Ten years later, she has almost finished her studies and dreams of a career in linguistics when her boy-friend proposes and expects her to give up her studies. Another twenty years later, a preventable accident kills her husband and leaves her alone with their two sons. When she is already sixty, again somebody makes a decision which has a deep impact on her life. A neighbour of Denise calls her – the ex-girl-friend of her son has been shot in the leg and now her 9-year-old daughter Cheryl is left to her own devices in Baltimore. Willa decides that she is needed even though she neither knows Denise nor Cheryl and heads to Baltimore accompanied by her second husband Peter. What she finds there is what she has been longing for for years: somebody who is grateful for what she does and a group of people who are, on the one hand, lonesome, but on the other hand, take care of each other.

In the first part of Anne Tyler’s novel, we only get short episodes, decisive moments which will make a change in Willa’s life: the mother’s disappearance, the proposal and the death of her husband. What they have in common is not only the impact on Willa, but first and foremost the fact that she is on a position where she has no power over her own life, it is others who make a decision for her without consulting her and without taking her own opinion into consideration. First her parents, then her husbands and she never openly opposes them, but gives in by far too soon. The second part is quite different since here, we accompany Willa travelling to Baltimore and taking care of Cheryl and Denise. Even though she was always there for her husbands and sons, Willa does not really seem to be loved and appreciated by them. It is those strangers that give her the impression of being important and needed and what she does is not taken for granted.

Willa is not a perfect woman, she also has her flaws and seems to be rather ordinary in many ways: the life she leads is the one many thousands of women of her generation lead, her view of herself and her place in the world is also shared by millions. She regrets the weak bonds she has with her sister and also with her sons when they are grown up and hardly stay in contact with their mother. However, this does not have to be like this and there is always the chance of escape as Anne Tyler shows. It is not the big sudden decision, but a long and slow process which also has some steps backwards and isn’t easy at all. It is hard not to like the protagonist, even though at times I had the strong urge to push her a bit to stand up for herself, but this would have been completely against her character.

“Clock dance” is a novel narrated in a very lively way. The dialogues as well as Willa’s thoughts seem to be absolutely authentic and easy to imagine. The characters are realistic in the way they are modelled, none of them is really outstanding from the crowd, but this makes them this interesting: Anne Tyler captures those particular aspects, the traits easily to be overlooked that make them lovable and important to someone. Her style of writing is smooth and makes you just rush through the novel. It is one of those novel which do not need the big event or outstanding character but captivates the reader through its authenticity which shows that the average person can make a change.

Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott – Swan Song

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Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott – Swan Song

He has been one of the most fascinating writers of the last century, not only his works but also his private life offers much to talk about. Both are closely linked since he used the people around him as a source for his creative work. Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott retells Truman Capote‘s life as it might have been. From his first steps in writing as a boy – the chance to win a puppy was motivation enough to take part in a competition – to his well known novels „Breakfast at Tiffany’s“ and „In Cold Blood“. He had his charms, could easily win people for him, but then he misused their trust and confidence, played his games and made fun of the people who took him for a close friend.

The novel is lively told, the fact that Greenberg-Jephcott does not stick to the chronological order but springs back and forth in time adds to the liveliness. The dialogues are vivid and you get quite a good idea of how the people around Capote might have been, especially his mother and Babe. It is not a biography, but real life events taken and told a story out of the facts – just what Capote himself did. Also from a psychological point of view quite impressive.