‘I miss so many people’ The Starboard Sea – Amber Dermont

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You never sail with one wind. Always with three. The true, the created, and the apparent wind; the father, son, and Holy Ghost. The true wind is the one that can’t be trusted. The true wind comes in strong from one direction, but then the boat cuts through the air and creates her own headwind in turn. The apparent wind is the sum of these two forces. A combination of natural gusts and the forward movement of the boat. The sails create their own airflow, constantly forcing the skipper to reevaluate the angle of travel. Handling the apparent wind requires finesse.

There are novels one feels are resoundingly of this world and there are those which strike one as inhabiting some fallen Arcadia. I imagine it is that tone alongside its setting in a late 80’s New England populated by troubled young moneyed characters that causes The Starboard Sea to be compared to The Secret History. Whereas in Tartt’s novel one feels transported into the world of myth and the Greek language, in Dermont’s our induction is into the world and language of sailing: of knots, winds, rigs, skippers, and crew. Both novels also contain terrible acts, grief, private sadness.

Chester picked up two coiled ends of rope and practiced the bowline knot I’d shown him. He tightened the knot and placed his hand inside the small loop. ‘So binding something together doesn’t make it any stronger.’

‘No,’ I said. ‘Not in the long run.’

In the wake of the suicide of his best friend and crew mate Cal, Jason Prosper arrives at Bellingham Academy, a renowned school for the hopeless offspring of America’s rich. After a sailing accident he decides to abandon allegiances and aim for anonymity: ‘I was through playing.’ Throughout sailing and the sea are ciphers for intense encounters, great joy, and utter desolation. The hurricane at the centre of the novel symbolises those terrible forces and heralds a darker and fallen world in which those one thought friends can do terrible things. Emphasising the connection with the sea, Jason shares a name with the leader of the Argonauts. More significantly, Prosper is but a letter’s breadth from the ruler of a recalcitrant storm-ringed island. Likewise, Cal recalls Caliban: both creatures of the sea. Aidan, the girl Jason comes to love tells him her name means ‘fire’: an element. In The Tempest Ariel is an elemental commanded by Prospero, and Aidan is indeed otherworldly in many respects.

One should not, however, overplay any straightforward parallel between The Starboard Sea and The Tempest. Dermont’s novel amounts in some ways to an inversion rather than a retelling. Jason singularly fails to manipulate those around him and is in thrall to his guilt over Cal’s death, whose name proves to be bitterly ironic. It is Aidan who begins to free him from that guilt, rather than Prospero liberating Ariel. However, as The Tempest is in part a story of the abandonment of magic and the reconciliation of a divided nature, so The Starboard Sea traces Jason’s loss of innocence and the hesitant healing of his tripartite soul: Jason, Cal, Aidan.

What made me like her? Her pain. Her mystery. I was drawn to her because she reminded me of Cal. I was drawn to her because she reminded me of myself. I couldn’t tell you what she saw in me. She certainly didn’t expect that I would add to her hurt. She could not have known the harm I’d bring.

As she explores the tortured sexuality, secrecy, and competition of her teenage characters, Dermont’s prose is gentle, freshwater flowing into a saltwater ocean, navigating the sands, avoiding cliché and inadvisable extended metaphors. To overextend that image, The Starboard Sea is a saltwater estuary: a delicate, perfectly judged sense of detail and quiet humour mingles with a sharper, colder current into which it must ultimately dissolve. It’s beautifully written if not particularly innovative; its depiction of honesty, pain, and betrayal sufficient motivation for thinking The Starboard Sea emerges from the bubble of its privileged characters to say something significant about grief and the nature of responsibility.

The storm had warmed the Atlantic, agitating a bloom of plankton. The entire bay lit up with phosphorescence, the water glowing from within, a blazing grand ballroom. With every lapping wave the light pulsed turquoise, then emerald. I loved this trick. Wanted to swim in the phosphorescence, even though I knew this particular type of plankton was toxic. By day the shore would be covered in a poisonous red tide. For the moment, though, it was as if the ocean had swallowed a swarm of fireflies. I felt Aidan’s kiss on my mouth.

The Starboard Sea is out now from Corsair.

My thanks to Corsair for this review copy.

‘I am sitting, alone’ First Novel: A Mystery – Nicholas Royle

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The person who denies himself and sacrifices himself for duty gives up the finite for the infinite; he is secure enough. The tragic hero gives up what is certain for what is still more certain, and the eye of the beholder rests confidently upon him.

                Søren Kierkegaard Fear and Trembling

Nicholas Royle’s First Novel somehow contrives to be a thriller, a tragedy, a study of voyeurism, writing, grief, the loss of agency and the question of suicide, all whilst being something we still tend to call ‘literary’. I imagine that many reviews have included something like the following irresistible point: this is manifestly not a first novel. The other term I can’t imagine having been neglected by the thoughtful reviewer is ‘meta’. I will say right away that I think this is a great, strange, sad, joy of a book. First Novel is indeed centrally concerned with the business of writing and its relation to life. One bleeds into the other and each diminishes for Royle’s protagonist. Paul Kinder is an author and creative writing tutor with a fetish for sex in cars beneath the flight paths of passenger jets. In car parks he tries to escape the existential enervation with which he is struck. The creative writing course is central to novel and the work of two of his students, Helen and Grace, makes its way into the novel.  Grace’s writing becomes increasingly significant as it develops, another voice with its own agenda communicated via her novel, almost pushing Paul’s voice to the side at times.

 ‘It’s no fun when you’re tossing and turning and a great big bloody jumbo jet goes over,’ she says, her hands planted assertively on her hips.

‘Well, I beg to differ,’ I say, just about able to remember Susan Ashton. Her Gold GTI. Hatton Cross Tube station car park.

Paul searches through The Guardian’s ‘Writers’ Rooms’ series for a glimpse of his novel, picking up along the way the accoutrements of a successful writer, or so he thinks. ‘The way things look is important’, he says. The deceptiveness of appearances is ultimately a key aspect of First Novel. ‘A Mystery’ runs the subtitle, and there are several running through the novel. Paul seems to wish to appear to be a writer as much, if not more so, as he wants to be one. Why is he so fascinated by first novels that he teaches an entire course on them? How did his wife and children die? Why does his acquaintance Lewis wish to manipulate his interests? The unravelling of these mysteries is masterfully handled so as to disorientate the reader. Paul’s voice reflects the careful cataloguing of books he is so fond of. He is also strikingly future-averse, almost always speaking in the present or of the past.  This is seemingly related to his inability to handle binaries, choices, as the following (edited) quotation shows.

 That evening, I am returning from Tesco with a loaf of bread and a bottle of milk, thinking about the student who came to see me after Helen. His name is either Lawrence Duncan or Duncan Lawrence. Either or. I can never remember which…

…it is not forgetfulness that is to blame. It is rather that I know both variations are possible and so I find it impossible to distinguish between them. Like hot and cold. Sometimes I will look at the taps on a washbasin, even ones affixed with a blue or red spot, and I don’t know which one to turn.

…Life and death is another. There are numerous well-known public figures who could be alive or may be dead.

…It’s not that I think there is little difference between being alive and dead. It is that I cannot distinguish between the two. Almost as if I cannot choose.

Royle’s use of the either-or formula amounts to an appropriation of the title of Kierkegaard’s first work, a satire on Hegelian synthesis. (Kierkegaard is quoted at the beginning of several of the novel’s sections). Kierkegaard’s central concern was the manner in which the apparent opposition of the voyeuristic, nihilistic, manipulative aesthetic and the social, dutiful ethical could in fact be held together dialectically, annulled, and synthesised in a higher unity – the religious. Perhaps that is another part of the multifaceted ‘mystery’ of the title. There are intimations of the religious throughout First Novel, but Royle doesn’t allow that synthesis and transcendence. Paul belongs to this world: Royle quotes Borges at one point ‘things happen only in the present’. Recall Paul’s present-tense narration: his transcendent is the future. But the future is somehow blocked. Why should such a man be interested in taxidermy, seeking to transcend death, refusing its end? It is because, for Paul, there is no transcendence that the either-or becomes a dissolution, a loss of self and agency: he cannot choose. Until he does. Which is the great sadness of First Novel.

It was either going to be all right or it wasn’t. In fact, no, it wasn’t. It was never going to be all right.

It wasn’t all right.

One of the questions at the heart of First Novel is the tragedy and tension of observation and its supply of material for literary production. It’s not simply that Paul is the aesthete of Either/Or – that he performs and watches performances by others – he is also a manifestation of the ethical, the objective, for that experience is putatively the foundation of his work: work which becomes objective because a novel amounts to a statement about the world. ‘I suppose I think first novels are important because it’s the first thing the author says about the world.’ This is why Paul’s pseudonymous authorship of his first novel becomes significant. It amounts to a measure of his inauthenticity. Writing is an act. Either-or won’t cut it.

Though, arguably, most of that is subtext.

First Novel is far more compelling than any paraphrase of its concerns could be. I have neglected to mention a central aspect of the book and will continue to do so: there is no way I am spoiling that. It knocked me sideways in the best possible way. Rest assured that Royle refuses easy resolutions and wrong-foots the reader repeatedly. The handling of the last third of the novel is simply superb as it races towards its conclusion without ever feeling anything but controlled. The ‘mystery’ of the title is, in many ways, the novel itself: both how it manages to be so good, and what on Earth it all means. What I can say for sure is that this is a progressive, intensely contemporary, brilliant work which challenges the easy certainties of the traditional novel. It should win prizes. Read it.

First Novel is out now from Jonathan Cape.

My thanks to Jonathan Cape for this review copy.

‘It takes sacrifice’ WOOL – Hugh Howey

Wool‘Expressing any desire to leave. Yes. The great offense. Don’t you see why? Why is that so forbidden? Because all the uprisings started with that desire, that’s why.’

WOOL began its life as a self-published short-story of about sixty pages. It has grown into a five-part novel and a potential film. It’s easy to see why: a community stranded in an apparently unique silo buried beneath the dead earth, taught from birth never to question their position on pain of being ‘sent to cleaning’: the ultimate sanction, ejection from the silo in a suit that will disintegrate in the toxic air, but allow just enough time to clean the lenses which give the silo its limited view of their immediate environment. Why does everyone so condemned perform this final duty? From a slow start in Parts One and Two the series builds to become very compelling indeed in its creation of a world of hope, despair, and simmering discontent. That slow start is entirely understandable given that they are very much short stories rather than the opening chapters of a pre-planned novel.

The children were playing while Holston climbed to his death; he could hear them squealing as only happy children do. While they thundered about frantically above, Holston took his time, each step methodical and ponderous, as he wound his way around and around the spiral staircase, old boots ringing out on metal treads.

The original story ‘Holston’ is nicely self-contained, if occasionally clunky, and builds to surprising conclusion. It examines the grief of Sheriff Holston, whose wife apparently lost her reason and demanded to go outside. Her body lies in a gully visible from the camera. In other words, a solid short story. It is, however, clearly ripe for development, and one can understand the clamour for a follow-up, which came in the form of Part Two ‘Proper Gauge’ which adds many more layers to Howey’s creation. In search of a sheriff to replace Holston, Mayor Jahns travels the great stairwell at the centre of the silo, passing through hydroponics, IT, Supply, living quarters, recycling plants, before reaching the Mechanical section of the ‘down deep’ where Juliette, her preferred but controversial candidate works. By structuring this story around the descent and ascent and a burgeoning romance with her friend Deputy Marnes. Howey great develops the world of the Silo and, crucially, its inter-departmental and individual tensions. The IT department and its head begin to emerge as powerful forces with a shadowy agenda. The story ends in tragedy and one senses that this is where Howey really began to envisage the greater arc of the final five-part work. The threat of disintegration looms ever larger as his plot becomes more involved and begins to pull the reader along.

 Don’t let it unravel, not just yet.

From Part Three ‘Casting Off’ onwards the book begins to feel far more like a novel than a collection of linked stories. Indeed, one feels Howey’s expressive ambition grow: ‘And he only distantly felt, but for a tremble of time, the end of him that came next.’ Juliette emerges as the central figure as the silo becomes an ever more dangerous and rotten environment shot through with the awfulness of hope. In some ways WOOL resembles the television miniseries of recent time: developing slowly as detail builds and the premise begins to arrest the audience, with cliff-hangers at the end of each episode. As a novel it wouldn’t quite work, but as a series of stories developing the reader’s commitment as Howey begins to flex his muscles it is effective. Part Four ‘The Unravelling’ and Part Five ‘The Stranded’ become more ambitious and in some respects conventional as more of the world in which the Silo sits is revealed. Yet the core story is as compelling as ever, well-paced, and always very readable.

What God would make so much rock below and air above and just a measly silo between?

 

WOOL is is out today (17/1/13) from Century

My thanks to Century for this review copy.

New Directions – 2013

Copious notesThis was meant to be a New Year post but book reviews, essay marking, and PhD work pushed it back. Which is rather the point. Just as I feel the blog is really getting going and my plans for the range of books I read and review develop I find that this is the year I should be – need to be – writing up my thesis. What with teaching and researching the time I have to write the kind of review I find the most rewarding – about 1,000 words – of a standard I’m comfortable with – someone might not think I’m an idiot – is simply unavailable. Unavailable, that is, if this thesis is ever going to be written. I’d also quite like to write some short stories this year. My grand total of 500 words last year hasn’t really satisfied that particular urge.

‘What does this all mean?’ I hear you cry. Well, never fear, I know many of you would feel utterly bereft were this small blog to disappear. My conscience would never allow such a disturbance in so many lives. I have a heart. Not incidentally, I also rather enjoy this reviewing business. I will keep reading and reviewing, I’m just going to be very strict with a 500/600 word limit and the amount of time give each one. I have been known to spend days on a single review; although that hasn’t happened recently, because I haven’t had time. Which brings us back to the beginning.

So, what are my aims for this year? Well, I’m going to be reading more translated literature (from the likes of Pushkin Press, Peirene, And Other Stories, NYRB Classics), American fiction, and older works like Henry James, Graham Greene, and so on. I absolutely  intend to keep reading new fiction as well; so I hope people are still willing to send it to me despite the new format. I have quite a few exciting books waiting on my shelf and my new regime should let me read and talk about them without derailing the PhD. These include, but are definitely not limited to:

WOOL – Hugh Howey (Century) Currently reading.

The Starboard Sea – Amber Dermont (Corsair) Read and awaiting review.

The Forbidden Kingdom – Jan Jacob Slauerhoff (Pushkin Press) Read and awaiting review.

First Novel – Nicholas Royle (Jonathan Cape) Read and awaiting review.

Clay – Melissa Harrison (Bloomsbury)

Five Star Billionaire – Tash Aw (4th Estate)

The Taste of Ashes – Marci Shore (William Heinemann)

Idiopathy – Sam Byers (4th Estate)

The Crane Wife – Patrick Ness (Canongate)

All That Is – James Salter (Picador)

The Book of My Lives – Aleksandar Hemon (Picador)

Journey By Moonlight – Antal Szerb (Pushkin Press.)

In Search of Venice – Box set from Pushkin Press.

Amity & Sorrow – Peggy Riley (Tinder Press)

The First Book of Calamity Leek – Paula Lichtarowicz (Hutchinson)

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie – Ayana Mathis (Hutchinson)

The Children’s Hospital – Chris Adrian (Granta)

Traveller of the Century – Andrés Neuman (Pushkin Press)

Quite a lot of the Penguin English Library.

And so on…

My Elvis Blackout – Simon Crump

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Anyway, so I twisted Chris’s weedy arm up behind his back and marched him round the side of the trailer. I jammed the muzzle of my .38 in his much and blammo! that little fucker wouldn’t be dancing with the lady in Red any more.

The problem that My Elvis Blackout causes the aspiring book reviewer is that it tends to render one entirely speechless. It is for neither the squeamish nor the unadventurous. In the first two pages Elvis kills Barbara Cartland and commits suicide. Quite. These stories were originally released in 2000 and have been reissued by Galley Beggar Press with an introduction by Jon McGregor in which he analyses them as a kind of luxuriation in the absurd development of the Elvis Presley cult of personality. I think that this is about right; and the sheer delirium that powers one on through each story is remarkable. I read it in one sitting.

“Keep your fucking canoe,” said Elvis, “I want to eat men.”

My Elvis Blackout is funny, macabre, funny and macabre. How profound it is I’m not sure. There is a certain extension of the representation of thought and behaviour beyond which profundity becomes difficult to attain. Of course, that may be a failure on my part to move beyond the extreme violence; and my complete lack of interest in Elvis probably doesn’t help. The writing is punchy, the stories are inventive, Chris De Burgh is shot in the head. If it sounds like your sort of thing, you should give it a go. It’s one of those books you have to experience for yourself; I can only wave my hands oddly in its general direction. At the very least, it’s an experience you will probably remember. (For an excellent and much fuller review, read John Self’s post at Asylum).

‘When he was a foetus, Elvis used to wait till his Mom was asleep, carefully remove his umbilical cord, sneak out of her insides and head off into town. He usually wore the little tartan coat which Alfredo, their disgusting toy poodle, wore for his walks with Momsy on cold winter mornings. Elvis looked a complete tosser in this outfit, what with the blood and the dog hairs, but what the fuck did he care? He was the unborn King of Rock’n’Roll and if he wanted to go out naked except for a ridiculous coat, he bastard well would.’

My Elvis Blackout is available as an ebook here.

My thanks to Galley Beggar Press for this review copy.

‘Hands that knew’ Intermission – Owen Martell

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The relationship between music and language is intuitively close, but fiendishly difficult to understand. Rhythm, metre, cadence, intonation, and interplay all serve and are served by both. Structurally, too, there are analogies between pieces and poems, stories, novels, collections. Yet to move beyond analogy and metaphor to any actual affinity between music and language, music and writing, the experience of listening to music and that of reading literature, is a challenge. Thus to attempt in a novel to both capture something of the nature of jazz in one’s prose and structure, and to explore the minds of four people, one of whom was something of a genius in his field, is a tall order. Perhaps too tall.

 the fundamental question is one of life, of how to live, precisely, in music.

Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby are widely acknowledged to be two of the greatest live jazz albums. Both emerged from sets played by the Bill Evans Trio at the Village Vanguard in New York on 25th June 1961. Evans at the piano, Scott LaFaro on bass, Paul Motian on drums: each attuned and in melodic sympathy to the other two, pushing forward with their material as only this trio could. Ten days later LaFaro died in a car accident. Evans was devastated by the loss of someone with whom he had so deep a musical communion.  In Intermission Owen Martell addresses what happened next as Evans is passed like a theme between his brother Harry, his mother Mary, and father Harry Sr, before the devastated pianist completes the quartet. Each has their own baggage: a less talented older brother, an unhappily married wife, a father who has retired and lost his purpose. Bill’s presence seems to absorb the cares of others, bringing them either to consummation or to crisis.

 ‘Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there.’

As the Miles Davis epigraph suggests, Martell’s aim is to explore the central tragedy by implication and allusion, to create, as it were, a negative image of Evans’ turmoil. This is a really interesting idea, but it does not quite work. What made this trio great is precisely what undermines Intermission. Evans, LaFaro, and Motian are each masterful, each capable of producing great work. Yet it is in their interplay, their cohesion, and the resultant exploration that the Vanguard recordings become so special. Martell produces passages of beautiful writing, probing what might be tired themes by spreading into unexpected thoughts and rhythms, much like Bill himself. There is a lovely line of thought emphasising the contingency of every act of musical expression. But too often the thread is lost as the balance tips too far toward the odd and occasionally dissonant line. Too many paragraphs end with a short punctuation mark of a sentence, an offbeat following a flowing couple of sentences.  That period halts rather than syncopates Martell’s rhythm; and each repetition lessens any effect.

 a competition of brothers

Evans’ family view him through a prism of working-class immigrant aspiration, waning tradition, and parental pride. But for all the depth of feeling, this novel can feel cold. And in that sense Martell is both too ambitious and not ambitious enough. Less emotional detachment coupled with more modest aims surrounding the themes of inheritance and home – admittedly rich veins from the point of view of a standards-centric jazz tradition – might have created a greater focus whilst allowing the prose to retain its exploratory tone; and some of that prose is very satisfying indeed. In what is the strongest section, ‘The Colour of Saying’, Harry Sr. considers his and his wife’s aging:

 It isn’t a realisation, however, more like catching up with an evidence. Something he’s known well enough for some years already, having seen the decline as it was happening. He didn’t always pay it particular attention but there it was all the same, in the way everything remade itself as present, in flickering permanence, like television. It was the very real evidence of nothing being actually past. Mary’s smile, his hands. What he sees now, all he has before him, is everything he’s ever seen. Before going to meet Mary, he used to scrub his hands with wire wool, inspecting them carefully for signs of manual labour, then thrust them into his jacket pockets. Twenty-five years later, they’d be swollen and hot when he woke up on mornings after nights before. And all this is perfectly visible, he thinks, in the fact that they now tremble.

That is a wonderful paragraph: flowing, slipping through time, tied up in an affecting image. Martell is particularly fine on that silent accumulation of present moments which seem so still and yet encompass entire lives. It is clear, however, that a variation of this paragraph could lose itself in its own exploration. I think that happens with several passages, particularly in Mary’s section ‘All Night Vigil’ and in Bill’s ‘Acknowledgement’. Bill’s section doesn’t work for me. Again, it is not the absence of fine writing. Perhaps the problem – bound within the very title – is that the intermission, the absence of music in Bill’s life, requires that the music be present such that the reader misses it, such that they feel something of that loss. Without being particularly familiar with Evans’ life and work this can be a barrier. It becomes unclear why this is a book about Evans in particular, rather than any person in such family circumstances who suffers a tragedy – at least until the very end, when Martell  comes to Evans and ‘the particular tones of his fragility.’

 What would remain of them, she thought, was bound to be unsaid.

Fundamentally, Intermission is a great idea that does not quite come together and feels mannered as a result: a problem when writing of and in a jazz mode. The subheadings within each of the four characters’ sections clearly relate to the theme in their musical terminology, reference to standards, or liturgical hours, but they feel far from necessary. If you are looking for a jazz-infused and reflective book I would head to Geoff Dyer’s But Beautiful. Intermission is worth a read for some great passages of writing, but I think it could have been so much more.

I really recommend listening to the Village Vanguard albums. These links are to Spotify.

Sunday at the Village Vanguard

Waltz for Debby

The Complete Live at the Village Vanguard 1961

Intermission is out on 3rd January from William Heinemann

My thanks to William Heinemann for this review copy.

Tenth of December – George Saunders

tenth-of-december-jacket-LS A fundamentally optimistic satirist is hard to find. A satirist who is fundamentally optimistic and actually funny is even more elusive. Yet in Tenth of December George Saunders presents a plural and intensely humane collection of stories which probe the dynamics of motivation, self-consciousness, violence, and the abuse of language in supple prose which unfailingly captures the diverse voices of characters in sore need of an entirely feasible redemption. And it’s funny.

The opening and closing stories explore the different ways that language aids us in gaining traction on the world. In ‘Victory Lap’ a young girl’s emotional and linguistic naivety is shattered by a foiled assault, her rescuer repressed by the internalised edicts of his parents, his only release the strings of swear-words he composes. Here is the first hint of Saunders’ concern with the structures of thought which constrain action. That theme continues in the title story, where a boy for whom the world overflows with voices and a dying man for whom that world has narrowed to a cancerous point cross paths in the snow. In the process, how each meets the world changes, as the voices and concerns of one recede, and those of the other, in a manner quite distinct, begin to reassert themselves.

‘His aplomb threw them loops.’ I really like this sentence. It bubbles and flows and is simply happy. Anyway.

‘Escape from Spiderhead’ is in many ways the heart of the collection. It considers the commercial manipulation of thought and feeling in a grim caricature set in a penal laboratory where powerful drugs with eerily familiar names like ‘VerbaLuce’, ‘Vivistif’, and ‘Darkenfloxx’ are mainlined by human guinea pigs for whom the sheen of agency resides in their apparent freedom to ‘acknowledge’. The endurance of conscience throughout this harsh story of chemical manipulation is testament to Saunders’ belief that goodness is our natural state.  False reductions of crime or of love are damaging, for what you can reduce a thing to is far from being that which you destroyed in the analysis.

In ‘Sticks’ Saunders encompasses an entire life and the contingency of its expression in two pages ostensibly about a metal pole and its various accessories.  The different brands of irresponsibility and their problematic reduction to a deficit of love or kindness are addressed in ‘Puppy’, which opens with one of my favourite paragraphs from the collection: at once rhythmic, amusing, and insightful.

Twice already Marie had pointed out the brilliance of the autumnal sun on the perfect field of corn, because the brilliance of the autumnal sun on the perfect field of corn put her in mind of a haunted house—not a haunted house she had ever actually seen but the mythical one that sometimes appeared in her mind (with adjacent graveyard and a cat on a fence) whenever she saw the brilliance of the autumnal sun on the perfect etc., etc.—and she wanted to make sure that, if the kids had a corresponding mythical haunted house that appeared in their minds whenever they saw the brilliance of the etc., etc., it would come up now, so that they could all experience it together, like friends, like college friends on a road trip, sans pot, ha ha ha!

That insecurity inflected need for shared experience in the face of well-intentioned failure develops in ‘Al Roosten’ wherein the eponymous sufferer of an inferiority complex shifts and twists under the world’s gaze and finds himself exhausted by reflection. ‘My Chivalric Fiasco’ echoes ‘Spiderhead’ and contains moments of pure brilliance as a medieval theme park employee’s day goes completely wrong under the influence of ‘KnightLyfe®’: an aid to improvisation which moulds not just its consumer’s vocabulary but their moral compass as well.

Did I want all home? I did. I wanted all, even the babies, to see and participate and be sorry for what had happened to me.

The most haunting and topical story is ‘Home’ in which ‘the power of recent dark experience’ emerges in the slowly discomfiting revelation of an Iraq veteran’s loss of self and the struggle to reintegrate on his post-court-martial return.  His filter between thought and action has dissolved and brings him closer to the baby he isn’t allowed to hold than to those around him, each of whom thanks him for his service in such a way that it becomes a meaningless beat in an awkward conversation for a man who has lost almost all sense of home. The kernel which yearns to return is what makes this story heartbreaking.

Throughout Tenth of December Saunders resists the reduction of human behaviour to the things which condition our lives: drugs, military service, background, and language. Each constrains, but not irredeemably; and that possibility of redemption underpins a belief in a kind of prelapsarian goodness. Yet Saunders’ optimism isn’t metaphysical. It is here and now that we can do that tiny bit better. A plea for a common but plural humanity in the face of a thousand natural shocks, Tenth of December is a consummate collection which I thoroughly recommend.

Tenth of December is out on 3rd January from Bloomsbury.

My thanks to Bloomsbury for this review copy.