Duane Allicock’s Thoughts on The Man Who Ran Away by Alfred H. Mendes

Published in 2006 by The University of the West Indies Press. Edited by Michèle Levy.

While reading this short story collection, I couldn’t help but come away with the sense that, had Alfred Mendes existed during a time without such fierce intellectual competition, his name and talent would have stood a greater chance of being sufficiently acknowledged and lauded. Alas, coming of age and into your own in a period when you occupied the same space with a figure such as C. L. R. James, all but guaranteed that you would always be relegated to the shadows cast by the glare which reflected off that West Indian luminary.

Include the names of a few other younger, but very promising authors, such as Lamming, Naipaul and even Selvon, who would eventually become internationally acclaimed, and you begin to realize why the name Alfred H. Mendes continues to receive honourable, but never effusive mention in the West Indian canon. Which is a shame, because what was discovered while reviewing the work of this Trinidadian writer of Portuguese descent, is that the man not only crafted eloquent literature, but articulate West Indian literature. In the end, there’s just that indefinable ‘something’ that results in some brands becoming ubiquitous, while causing others to remain so obscure, that when you do mention them, people get that ‘eureka moment’ and mutter, “Oh yeah, I’d forgotten about that…”

Like many authors of his generation, Mendes continued to mine a timeframe during an era about which he felt passionate, and for him, the tales told remained rooted in the decades of the 1920s and 30s, a preference which is of such great significance, that it is included in the work’s title. The title story is the first in the collection, and sets the tone for what, essentially could be an exploration of what a familiar Trinidadian song writer referred to as our “Old Time Days”. While the Nappy Mayers composition carried more than a whiff of rosy-eyed nostalgia, Mendes’ depiction cannot be charged with attempting to gloss over any of our lesser desirable qualities.

His portrayal of Trinidadian society in eleven of the twelve stories which span these years, maintains an appreciation for the complications inherent in a society as multiethnic and multicultural as ours, and the limited impact that a century had had on modifying the prevailing attitudes of the members of a society connected by the colonial experience. This observation is not meant to imply that all the reader should expect is thinly veiled, heavy handed rhetoric, clothed in a literary facade; far from it. A writer as competent as Mendes operates with subtler brush strokes, and introduces realistic characters, many of whom are memorable and would perhaps even be familiar to someone who may have grown up during this time. The persons are, in spite of class, ethnicity or gender, often shown to be products of their era, with their attitudes and assorted prejudices to their fellow Trinidadian informed and haunted by this shared colonial experience.

Of the stories themselves, I will say that Mendes, who had a self-avowed passion for describing the natural beauty of our West Indian environment, renders it with aplomb, in none more so than the stories “Malvina’s Nennen”, and “Colour”, the sole inclusion whose setting is not in based in Trinidad. I’ll also admit that although most of the characters are fairly well drawn, there are moments where the stories that they inhabit left me unsatisfied, and with a distinct sense that, like the content of many a popular music album, they were included to make up the numbers. There is even an instance where I found the plot and climax of an earlier offering being essentially plagiarized. Not even the brevity of the repeated tale could redeem it for me, and that final shortcoming, brevity, is what brings me to my major grouse with this collection.

I will readily acknowledge that it is the quality, and not necessarily the quantity of words used which can make a story not merely resonate with a reader, but elevate it to the level of the truly memorable. Yet, I will also go on record and state that Mr. Mendes handicapped himself with some of the shorter inclusions in this collection. However, on those occasions when he gave his muse free reign to roam wherever it pleased, the compositions, though lengthy, are really something to behold, and likely to elicit the most emotionally charged reaction from the reader.

What may irritate the Tobagonian who reads this collection though, is that although the subtitle does specifically acknowledge Trinidad as the setting of choice, for some inexplicable reason, he also chose to make Grenada the setting of his final story, a decision which might be interpreted as an affront to our sister isle.

Although editor Michèle Levy, readily recommends this work by Mendes as a useful “text for university literature courses”, I’m once more left with the impression of the author’s abilities not simply being under marketed, but undervalued. Admittedly, he may be regarded as a torchbearer whose light shines less brilliantly than the authors mentioned earlier, but confining him to the stuffy setting of a class filled with English undergrads may expose him to a fresh round of ridicule and apathy which might very likely cause him to ‘turn over in his grave’.

I’ve often found that the only way that an artist like Mendes becomes more recognizable, is to sell his strengths to a wider readership, rather than a niche clientele. Often times a connoisseur, maybe even an influential one, will come along and pay top dollar for an obscure collection because of the very flaws which provide it with its unique character. With that awareness in mind, permit me to offer that person looking for a new vintage of literary wine to sample, something from one of the lesser known vinters, a Mr. Alfred Mendes. Now, some of what you taste you’re going to love, others you’ll wish you had more of, and some you’ll simply spit out. Just remember though, that when everyone else is gushing over the finer points of their Cabernet Naipauls, and their Pinot Lammings, you can take delight in having tasted something not only unique, but equally well aged.

Duane Allicock hails from the island of Trinidad and lives for reading, cycling and running; in that order. When not pursuing any of these passions, he prefers to immerse himself in listening to music, or the silence of the Mount Saint Benedict monastery, pondering on life’s humorous ironies.

29. The Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings

Published in 2008. This Edition: Vintage Books, 2011.

Matt King’s life, all things considered, could do with a major overhaul. His wife, Joanie, has been in a coma for twenty-three days, courtesy of a boat-racing accident. Matt finds himself flounderingly out of depth in the management of his two daughters: rebellious, drug-recovering Alex, and exuberant, highly peer-pressurized Scottie. Lurking in the background of this familial implosion is the weight of a decision Matt must make: as principal trustee to a collective of Hawaii’s wealthy, royalty-descended landowners, he must say to which highest bidder huge tracts of heritage land should be sold. As time ticks by, and Joanie’s future prospects look increasingly grim, Alex stuns Matt with the revelation that Joanie has been unfaithful to him for some time. Bundling up his daughters, Matt takes them on an unexpected trip to locate the man Joanie possibly loves more than him, so he, too, can pronounce final farewells at her bedside.

It isn’t hard to fathom the reasons why this novel inspired a touching, thoughtful film adaptation. (As you can see, the book’s cover features a haunted George Clooney gazing into the distance, perched on Hawaiian littoral, flanked by sandcastles.) This is one of those books that reads as though there’s a script already imbedded in the prose, waiting to be lifted, licensed and imaged for the screen. Almost every good point I can make about the visual imagery of the descriptions tie in to how stunningly well they salute the mind’s eye. Witness, for instance, this picture of Scottie, who, having gone on an impromptu mini-adventure with her father to Alex’s boarding school, arrives decidedly the worse for wear.

“Scottie looks thrilled by the situation. Her red sores are bright in the hall’s fluorescent light. Her T-shirt says VOTE FOR PEDRO, whatever that means, and her hair is sticking up in places and matted down in others. In one section near her ear, the hair is held together by some unknown substance. She had fruit punch on the plane, and her lips and chin are stained the colour of raw meat.”

The images Hemmings conjures are consistently entertaining, moulded and primed for dark, honest humour, as well as aching sadness. The most notable include impressions of Matt’s difficult, likeable daughters, but also of Matt himself, and the way he perceives everyone and everything around him — tourists; his daughters’ cohorts; hospital staff; the ways in which other people perceive him; his fellow landowning descendants; the shifting structures of Hawaiian landscapes. Matt is a faithful archivist of the place he’s from, the place he loves, and his daily photobooks of observation afford rich, deeply funny insights into a place typically thought of in terms of multicoloured leis and roasted pig cookouts on pristine beachfront.

We think of the impossible caverns of love and grief as thorny terrain to demystify, and perhaps some of the best fiction shies away from putting such things into quantifiable, qualifiable terms. The opposite approach is explored in these pages, with Matt the compass for one man’s perambulations through the messy business of re-evaluating one’s love while simultaneously preparing for the worst. This isn’t to suggest that our protagonist is the only person in the novel whose experiences aren’t linear. Conversely, Matt’s interactions with his daughters, with his in-laws, with Alex’s sort-of-but-not-really boyfriend, Sid, all work like character references in a stuffed docket for emotional complexity. No one loves in singular colours; no one tolerates loss on a full palate of either beatitudes or vices. In one of my favourite passages of the novel, Matt reflects on a rare, treasured memory: his perpetually self-sufficient wife seeking comfort in his arms, immediately following a harrowing trauma.

“She sank down to the rocks, pulling me down with her, and then she lunged into my chest and wept. We were in the most awkward position on those rocks, but I remember not being able to move, as though the slightest movement might upset either her or the moment. Even though she was sobbing in my arms, it was a nice moment for me, to be stronger than her, to be needed by her, and to see her so fragile.”

The torment truly sinks in when Matt contemplates, right on the heels of this, the excruciating possibility that Joanie has dismantled her armour thusly for the man of her affair, too… and, most damning of all, there’s no reliable way of confronting either of them. Matt, like so many people stricken with the dead weight of an infidelity involving two silent sources, is saddled with a lifetime’s worth of maddening, perhaps debilitating hypotheticals.

Immersing yourself in Matt’s bleak and blackly comic inner monologues is as thrilling as it is because it grants you the relief of uncensored permission: to feel fully all those ideas that aren’t politically correct, to hate your children and love them; to hate your wife and love her; to want to be the best person and the worst all bound up in one festering, grinning knot of humanness.

Reading The Descendants is a shotgun ride in the author’s dodgy pickup truck, skirting some emotional landmines, rattling full-on into others. This, really, is what I love best about the novel: it confronts the non-poetic shit storm that reality quite often resembles, without any fumblings towards a sense of… literary rightness. There aren’t any perfect similes for pain, or, if there are, Hemmings doesn’t concern herself with trying to unearth them for our benefit. Truly, cosmically horrific things are as likely to happen to you as they are to the person alongside you in the bus.

How you feel about this book will depend largely, I think, on whether or not you require, or secretly long for, a primer on how to navigate life successfully, with minor bruising. If you find it hard to fathom that there can be one good way to be a worthy father, lover, landowner, descendant, or decent human being, then you’ll be hard-pressed to read something more organically attuned to the general state of loving, grieving and every curious, maddening human state from here to there.

I pledged to give away all the books I bought myself in 2012. I’m giving this book to my exuberant and all-round excellent friend and fellow writer, Leshanta, whose work I’ll be featuring at Novel Niche in a future coming to you shortly. 

28. Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan

Published in 2010 by Dutton Books.

When I first saw Will Grayson, Will Grayson, winking at me from the hardcover bookshelves, I don’t know why I thought it would be science fiction. Perhaps it was the prismatic, kaleidoscopic-reminiscent imagery on the front cover that made me imagine interstellar journeys. Even when I read the front jacket cover’s blurb, the description of fate, delivering both Will Graysons to the same surprising crossroads, led me to conjure up non-terrestrial possibilities. As I read on, I realized that the novel was decidedly non-speculative… but not an iota less fantastic.

Will Grayson, probably best known to his fellow high schoolers as loyal friend to the irrepressible, unabashedly gay Tiny Cooper, has curated a couple simple rules for getting through life relatively unscathed. They are: “1. Don’t care too much. 2. Shut up.” Both devoted to his friend and increasingly bemused by him, Will finds himself struggling to make sense of his role in the shadows that Tiny’s larger than life influence casts. His uncertainty only seems to mount as he wrestles with inconvenient feelings for a girl he maybe likes, maybe doesn’t: she of the quiet cleverness, the parallel music-crush on Neutral Milk Hotel, and the ultra-awesome smile, Jane. In another school, another Chicago town, will grayson, anti-capital letter user, anti-everything-ist, makes it through the tedium of his days by way of furtive online conversations with isaac, a guy he’s never met in person, a guy who gets will on every seeming level of importance. will keeps isaac a solemn secret, even from his more-or-less best friend, maura, a goth girl whose dependence on will runs deeper than he can initially suspect. Will Grayson and will grayson are seeking out entirely different things when their paths converge in the unlikeliest, potentially most scandalous of places, and their lives take on unimagined dimensions, expanding to include new allegiances, bewildering affections, heart-singing revelations… and the most bejewelled, glitteringly decked out high school musical of All Time.

This is a laudable book for many reasons, principal among them the ways in which it de-exoticizes the story of the gay high school student. I expect that there’ll be some opposition to this notion. “Who could be a more outlandish character than Tiny Cooper?” one might ask. It’s true; they don’t get much more delightfully camp, more technicoloured-in with non-heteronormative pride than Tiny does. He revels in his romantic and lifestyle choices, and makes no apologies for them… but this, the authors seem to be saying, isn’t even strictly the point. The point resides in the suggestion that Tiny needn’t be an anomaly, that writing about the lives and loves of any number of Tinys should really be par for the course in capturing the richness and diversity of the young adult’s life, gay, straight, bisexual or otherwise inclined. Tiny himself, in a candid conversation with will grayson, puts it best:

“tiny: you know what? i’m totally at peace with being big-boned. and i was gay before i knew what sex was. it’s just who i am, and that’s great. i don’t want to be thin or conventionally beautiful or straight or brilliant. no, what i really want – is to be appreciated.”

It isn’t just Tiny who struggles with the desire to be embraced for who he is, for what he brings to the table – every character of note, including but not limited to the Wills – feels this instinct deeply. In fact, they feel all their feelings deeply, and the authors never shy away from documenting those feelings with grace, humour and irrepressible honesty. Here’s an example of that unflinching candour from will grayson, as he contemplates Tiny’s declaration of a necessary “mental health day”.

“i think the idea of a ‘mental health day is something completely invented by people who have no clue what it’s like to have bad mental health. the idea that your mind can be aired out in twenty-four hours is kind of like saying heart disease can be cured if you eat the right breakfast cereal. mental health days only exist for people who have the luxury of saying ‘i don’t want to deal with things today’ and then can take the whole day off, while the rest of us are stuck fighting the fights we always fight, with no one really caring one way or another, unless we choose to bring a gun to school or ruin the morning announcements with a suicide.”

The truly beautiful thing? So much of the book is this refreshingly forthright, no matter which Will is narrating. I read Will Grayson, Will Grayson like a nostalgic primer on what it felt like to be marginalized, misunderstood, poorly-quoted, confused, sexually uncertain and bursting with a thousand intense ideas, in my teenage years. Green and Levithan don’t, to their credit, ever explicitly state that your life becomes better when you become an adult. They don’t even pretend that the things you cared about when you’re a teenager will evanesce in importance when you’re saddled with a full-time job and greying hairs. They concentrate on the absolute, inviolable sanctity of your God/dess and the Universe-given right to feel the feelings you’re feeling, no excuses, no regrets. There’s no need to sweep those passionate outbursts beneath the rug, no need to objectify your silences, be they awkward or serene: every bit of you, young person, is valid, has meaning, is worth something on this planet.

In a genre of literature stifled with romantic considerations, (many of them poorly worked out and dubiously contextualized) a book like this is a saving grace. There are concerns of the heart in these pages, to be sure – how the heart breaks, how the heart resists love while plummeting towards it, how the heart seeks like-beating hearts out… but the novel’s epicentre isn’t carnally-propelled, and this is a relief. It would be more accurate to say that the writers throw themselves into tides and currents of the whole heart, not just the chamber that pines for a boyfriend or girlfriend. These are affairs of the heart in their baffling, million moods per minute-ness, making this book required reading for young adults, and those who know that being boldly and beautifully sixteen is just a state of mind away.

26. Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Published in 2011 by Vintage Books.

Longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction, 2011.

Ava Bigtree can’t help but feel like she’s floundering, rather than flourishing, in her deceased mother Hilola’s footsteps. Hilola was the feature attraction show-stopper at the Bigtree’s family-owned and operated alligator wrestling theme park, “Swamplandia!”, nestled on an island little more than an adventurer’s spit of a hundred acres, off the Floridian mainland. “Mainland” is a geographical state that the Bigtree children—Ava; her awkwardly academic brother Kiwi; her eerily disengaged sister Osceola—have come to both desire and decry. The swamp, the theatre of routine and spectacle, of sold-out crowds clamouring in the stands, the moods and movements of their alligator brood (each animal named Seth, to avoid ambiguity): this is the life to which they’ve been born. However, when Hilola Bigtree succumbs, mundanely and sadly, to cancer, “Swamplandia!” falls on hard times. First Kiwi, then the Chief (the children’s gruffly well-intentioned father) head to the mainland for reasons both disparate and bonded, leaving the girls, the alligators, and the island to each other.

Much has been made of Swamplandia! since it was published, and it’s easy to see why—the novel is a quirk-factory. The ingredients for a tall-taled yarn are stacked sky-high, lined up for our perusal without even a shred of self-effacement in the prose. Nothing seems tongue in cheek or inversely satirical about the host of Seths, the fantastic Bigtree establishment ensconced within the swamp, the undead visitations of Osceola’s supernatural gentleman callers. To swallow this narrative arc, you won’t need suspension of disbelief so much as an utter willingness to park your reliance of concrete allegories outside. This novel isn’t for the reader who dismisses weirdness; quite the contrary… if you’re not inclined to wade through the inlets that lead to the sound of surreality, then this isn’t the best way to kick off your year in reading. Adherents to the sweet, cerebral cult of oddities, however, will find the book gratifying, akin to a curious girl’s fictional compendium of island-within-island navigation, of gritty, unsentimental survivalism.

I have read few books within recent memory wherein the author so skilfully constructed her setting as integral to the work’s beating heart. In Swamplandia!, the swamp is far more than a mere cardboard backdrop against which a plastic alligator or two is positioned. The landscape is capable of eliciting fear, awe or grudging respect (or all three), depending on which season you confront it. Early on in the story, Ava’s description of persistent bad weather coincides with the theme park’s declining fortunes.

“Our swamp got blown to green bits and reassembled, daily, hourly. The wet season was a series of land-versus-water skirmishes: marl turned to chowder and shunted the baby-green cocoplums into the sea; tides maniacally revised the coastlines. Whole islands caught fire from lightning strikes, and you could sometimes watch deer and marsh rabbits leaping into the sea of saw grass on gasps of smoke.”

When the plot becomes dense with dreadful adventure, much later on, as Ava, in the company of the enigmatic, leather-jacketed Bird Man, embarks on a quest to rescue her sister from the dark maw of the underworld, the descriptions of the islands teeming around our tenacious narrator threaten to steal the show. The nearer Ava draws towards the Stygian wilderness in which she believes Osceola to be trapped with her paranormal beau, Louis Thanksgiving, the more dreadfully fascinating her surroundings become.

“I was seeing new geometries of petals and trees, white saplings that pushed through the peat like fantailing spires of coral, big oaky trunks that went wide-arming into the woods … A large egretlike bird with true fuschia eyes and cirrusy plumage went screeching through the canopy.”

If landscape in Swamplandia! can be considered a pliable, inventive entity, then the tridented, oft-unspoken concord among the Bigtree progeny often feels and reads like a ghost character who haunts the pages, howling with love and angst. Ava’s frankly inquisitive absorption of the secrets and foibles in both her brother and sister’s nature make her a talented voyeuse. The perils into which she dashes, seemingly uncaring of her personal welfare, are prompted by the fiercest of sibling devotions, and yet, very little that is voluminous or fulsome distinguishes the talks that Ava trades with Osceola and Kiwi. Their adoration is made to stretch thinly over mysterious swamp islands, into the cheerless concrete of mainland life. In depicting it, Russell reminds the reader of the craggy heartlands of human communication, of how, even (or especially) among those who love each other best, familial adoration is unerringly represented by a snarling, non-communicative beast, one who skulks in a cave, one whose feelings run too deep to fathom.

It is, however, in the narrative split between Ava and Kiwi that the structure of the novel falters, diminishing a sustained sense of reading pleasure by forcing unsolicited somersaults from one compelling character, to one decidedly less so. This shift is taken up when Kiwi heads to the mainland, his act of teenagerly defiance to his father’s pipe dreamed notions of salvaging the future of “Swamplandia!”. For what he’s worth, Kiwi is not an unsatisfying character. His self-imposed blend of awkwardness and haughtiness, his massive disconnect from mainland life meeting his puppyish desire to ingratiate himself into the best ideas of his full potential: these make for good reading, and hold the bulwark of levity for much of the novel’s narration. Anyone’s who’s felt the weight of being a smart outsider hang heavy on their shoulders will relate to what Kiwi goes through as he endures the undignified employ at the subterranean-themed rival amusement centre, The World of Darkness. Witness, for instance, as poor Kiwi’s inner sufferer-scholar flares up, following the unwarranted opprobrium of a superior.

“Kiwi could feel his intelligence leap like an anchored flame inside him. His whole body ached at the terrible gulf between what he knew himself to be capable of (neuroscience, complicated opthalmological surgeries, air-traffic control) and what he was actually doing.”

Indeed, reading the ‘World’ segments are grimly, wit-stingingly winning: the setting is described as so mock-garish, so ostentatiously macabre, so unaware of its own enormous kitsch, that it prompts comparisons with similar, comically absurd urban designs. A short story featuring Kiwi’s exploits and misadventures at the ‘World’ would go over spectacularly, but even for all his tragicomic fumblings towards manhood, Kiwi’s narration is eclipsed utterly by Ava’s.

Perhaps what I like best about Swamplandia! is its audacious ambition. There is always some distance, in varying increments, of how outstanding a thing wants to be, of how ardent its desire to overwhelm you, compared to the impact, the force of actual resonance it generates. Respectfully, there is more distance between ambition and impact in this kaleidoscopic swamp-romp than, say, the illumination of other, greater first novels. That said, (bearing in mind that even a poor work of art, which this is not, usually requires patience, effort and devotion), Russell’s work here is both charming and challenging, beautiful in a graphic, grounded light. It introduces us to a pragmatic heroine fighting for a happy story, or at least, a safe one, while a wilderness of reconditely-curved fates clutch at her ankles like vine creepers. If there were no other fine hallmark of writing prowess in Swamplandia!, Ava Bigtree on her own would be worth the price of the paperback/hardcover/Kindle copy. She’s the sort of little girl whom grown women ought aspire to de-age themselves towards.

25. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

This review is affectionately and irreverently dedicated to Joshua X. Thank you for introducing me to Patrick Bateman, and thank you even more for not doing so in person.

Published in 1991 by Vintage Books, New York.

You’ve met Patrick Bateman. He’s the guy you had Waldorf salad/ apéritifs/ a candid sauna conversation/ a three course dinner/ a tray of Bellinis with, last Friday/ weekend/ fortnight/ financial quarter, at Indochine/ Dorsia/ 21/ Tunnel/ Pastels/ the Hamptons, with… oh who remembers, really? He’s a member of your yacht club/ exclusive gym/ Harvard graduating class, and you get your ties/ pocket squares/ tans/ dry cleaning from the same places. If you’re an attractive, elegantly dressed woman of a certain social set, you’ve probably shared his bed. If you’re an unsure yet comely prostitute, or an ecstasy-addled socialite, you’ll probably die in it.

But do you know Patrick Bateman?

He is handsome; there can be no denying this. He is superbly educated, outstandingly networked, exquisitely attired. His apartment, housed in the same building in which Tom Cruise owns the penthouse suite, is an interior designer’s wet dream. He has friends. He has money. He is… he is… a damned unreliable narrator, and why? Patrick Bateman is insane. You have, in all likelihood, never encountered a principal narrator whose word you could trust less, and this is, at once, outstandingly written and utterly bemusing—a twinned pleasure/migraine to parse. The novel’s plot, which in terms of thickness could be described as bareboned at best, is delivered to us entirely through Bateman, a Manhattanite yuppie businessman, as he navigates the breakneck-paced, agenda-laden, hyperactive worlds of commerce and pleasure that dictate the speed and settings at which he consumes, makes love, arbitrates, teases vagrants, and contemplates murder. As the novel progresses, Bateman’s brutal inner monologues morph into equally misanthropic slayings, several of which are highlighted and lovingly recounted to the reader in high-definition detail. Ultimately, our urbane protagonist becomes less and less capable of neatly compartmentalizing his serial killer and business savant personas, and as the body count grimly rises, so too does his paranoia, despair, desolation and impeccable cruelty.

One of the most striking facets of Bateman’s world is that it is inundated with a never-ceasing stream of conversation, a steady, witty, charming flow of dazzling one-liners and emphatic recommendations. It is a world in which no one listens to anyone else. Indeed, Bateman might be one of the few people who does any real listening. He might be the only person he knows who listens. It isn’t that he never shares the worrying compulsions within him, either. He quite frequently bares his… er, soul… on the subject of his insatiable blood-lust, but on the incredibly rare occasions that his words penetrate his audience’s mire of self-indulgence, his confessions are met with distracted humour and prompt dismissal. In one interchange, when his romantic partner for much of the novel, Evelyn, gushes enthusiastically about her visions of wedding splendour for them, Patrick effusively responds with a description of the ideal firearms he’d bring to their nuptials, with which to slaughter Evelyn’s immediate family. He receives no response to this other than his girlfriend’s continued pre-bridal salivations. In another, particularly mirthful scenario, when asked by a vapid model he is vaguely interested in bedding about his occupation, he shares that he is “into, oh, murders and executions, mostly”, after which, predictably, his companion asks him if he enjoys the work. The establishment of this savage, smirking landscape, in which no one practices human interaction without artifice, provides the perfect canvas against which Bateman lets the blood of so many flow. Perhaps our protagonist might be less deranged than he is, if he existed in a convivial, earnest setting, perhaps not… but there is no denying that it is infinitely easier to committ atrocities against someone if they have never, despite their honeyed insistence, truly given a damn about who you are.

Easton Ellis is arguably at his finest when he allows us to peer into the ragged veil of Bateman’s flinching, badly bruised humanity. Any passable horror story will be strewn with as many depictions of smouldering carnage as can be forced between its dripping pages; few are capable of drawing out our sympathy and begrudging acceptance of the similarities between ourselves and the monster that crawls across the chapters with smoking entrails for his necklace. Bateman works as well as he does because he is crafted with multilayered complexity, with unerring attention to detail, with as much brittle amusement as raw terror. In one of his final executions of the novel, in the midst of a failing attempt to wrangle a culinary delight from a section of corpse, our murderer slips into plummeting despair.

“And later my macabre joy sours and I’m weeping for myself, unable to find solace in any of this, crying out, sobbing “I just want to be loved,” cursing the earth and everything I have been taught: principles, distinctions, choices, morals, compromises, knowledge, unity, prayer — all of it was wrong, without any final purpose. All of it came down to was: die or adapt. I imagine my own vacant face, the disembodied voice coming from its mouth: These are terrible times.

This is a remarkable work of fiction. It might be most remarkable for how much your conflicted, uneasily mottled reactions to the depiction of its protagonist will render your introspective ruminations, your late-night diary scribblings, your smoothly hip but really self-conscious Facebook posts, not just of the book, not just of this genre of literature, but of and on yourself. Patrick might well become your antihero nonpareil, your reverse answer to the question, “What Would Jesus Do?”. You will not only be disgusted and sickened by him, startlingly enough. You will be touched by his overtures of gentility, by his saccharine daydreamings of ambling through the park with his secretary Jean, buying and releasing balloons into the air. You will laugh uproariously at his expense. (I challenge you to go into a Chinese drycleaners’ and not dissolve into hysterics after softly whispering “Bleach-ee”, with just a hint of threat in your voice). You’ll laugh at Bateman because of every one of his thousand nervous tics, his ridiculously overblown reactions to perfectly common occurences, his manic stops and starts, his revolting yet astoundingly funny pranks (coating a much-pissed-upon urinal cake in cheap chocolate, then proffering it to Evelyn over dinner). Then, when it dawns on you that you’re laughing at a man whose mind is the wasteland of serious dementia, a man desperately in need of a cornucopia of corrective drugs, you’ll ask yourself about your own sickness.

While reading American Psycho, it was easy enough for me to commiserate, in the abstract, with popular opinion surrounding its release at the end of the 1980s. Reviled, condemned, near-categorically panned, it was described as being too vulgar, too misogynistically self-serving to be worthy of the worst pornography. It would be unfair to wipe some of the mud from these allegations by theorizing that the novel was written before its time. When, one wonders, would be ‘the right time’ for a work of fiction concerned with the graphic satirical exploration of a young  lunatic, simultaneously trapped and liberated by the consumerist, capitalistic framework of fiscal success and personal nihilism that is his life? Perhaps there is no time in which such a book could have been written which would have ensured it a stellar reception—perhaps, when you’ve read the book, you will think this is more of a coup de grâce than a criticism. You might not be happy living in a society where the only thing a publication such as this merits is rousing applause. It would mean, one supposes, that either no one got the point, or, worse, everyone did, and endorsed it unflaggingly for the wrong reasons.

Almost every awful thing you have heard about American Psycho is true. It is nauseatingly graphic about murder, rape, torture, cannibalism, necrophilia, animal assault, and the perverse, detached delight that the perpetrator of these crimes takes in committing them. It will not comfort you. It is not a comforting book, but, as Patrick himself is always reminding us, these are not times for the innocent—and if they weren’t, on the cusp of the 1990s, they are indubitably not so, now.

I maintain, however, that Patrick Bateman should not terrify you.

Somewhere, even as you read this, even as you gingerly contemplate adding this book to your “must-read” (or “never-read”) list, there is an improbably beautiful man in an Ermenegildo Zegna suit, wearing A. Testoni loafers, crossing the street to go to work, where he will be greeted by a receptionist he believes, despite an overwhelming lack of evidence, to be madly in love with him. His body is a wonderland. He grows weak in the knees at the sight of expensively manufactured business cards, and the thought of not being able to secure a dinner reservation at the town’s most exclusive restaurant could, quite likely, bring tears to his eyes. He is frequently, ruthlessly cruel to homeless people, and demands abortions of the girls he’s gotten pregnant without so much as batting a well-rested eyelid. Last Hallowe’en, he wore one of his suits, covered in a plastic overcoat, and carried a chainsaw, to go to an upscale party as Patrick Bateman, because Patrick Bateman is his non-ironic hero. He has no natural sympathy, proclivity for kindness, no moral compass, no scruples, and no criminal record.

That should terrify you.

Charting Children’s Literature: Mama’s Saris, Owl At Home

Mama’s Saris, written by Pooja Makhijani, illustrated by Elena Gomez. Published in 2007 by Little, Brown and Co., New York.

This tale first came to me in my early twenties.

A young girl wants to celebrate her seventh birthday party in the finest style possible, and for her, this means the right to wear one of her mother’s intricate saris. As her mother produces the infrequently worn, much-treasured collection from its storage space beneath the bed, her daughter pleads, cajoles and sulks, seemingly to no avail. Each sari the mother holds up from the leather suitcase has its own story. The one she selects for herself to wear at her child’s birthday celebration is brilliantly orange, trimmed with a carmine hem, and it was also donned on the day she brought her infant daughter home for the first time. Others, in colours of ripe fruit; the ink-dark midnight sky; the wide, blue ocean, are paraded before the daughter, and finally, sensing the young girl’s urgency, the mother comes to a momentous decision that will frame the day in heightened significance for them both.

What enchanted me?

Which girl hasn’t wanted, in one way or another, to walk in her mother’s heeled, perfumed, glittering footsteps? Mama’s Saris strikes keen chords of remembrance and nostalgia for me, as I have been that giddy, optimistic protagonist, perched on my mother’s bed, my arms arrayed in purloined bangles every colour of the rainbow, yearning for an induction into the mysterious magic of my first sari. Author Makhijani expresses it well in the note that introduces us to the story:

“I wrote Mama’s Saris after realizing that my own fascination with my mother’s fancy clothes was not unique. It seemed as if each of my female friends, regardless of ethnicity or age, remembers being captivated by her mother’s grown-up clothes. By dressing up like their mothers (and emulating everything else that they did), they would be just as beautiful, too.”

Gomez’s art partners itself with Makhijani’s prose in an exquisite, sensorially aware marriage that is, simultaneously, rapturous to behold and arresting to read. Each page unfurls before us like a yard of ornately bedezined sari cloth, stitched with remarkable love, attention to detail, and master (mistress!) craftswomanship.

Lines for Life:

” ‘What about this one?’ I point to a sari that I don’t think I’ve seen before. It is orange like fire with edges that look like they have been dipped in red paint.

‘I wore that sari the day we brought you home from the hospital.’ Mama smiles. ‘All your aunties and uncles came to greet you.’

‘Wear it again today!’

Mama unfurls it. It shines like the afternoon sun.”

This book would be best-beloved by:

♣ anyone for whom the sari is a sublime expression of beauty and artistry.

♣ mother and daughter duos eager to infuse their lives—and dress up dates—with even more revelry!

♣ those who skip and lilt, exultantly, at the place where traditions are delicately and deliberately passed on, those torches that bloom through the years.

Owl At Home, written and illustrated by Arnold Lobel. Published in 1975 by Scholastic Books, New York.

I first opened these pages when I was less than five.

Owl At Home is an offering of five short tales in the life of Owl, an affable, thoughtful gentle-bird who seems to delight in his own company, as well as in exploring the world around him. In “The Guest”, Owl learns that some visitors simply won’t adhere to expected protocol, when he invites Winter past his threshold on a particularly chilly night. “Strange Bumps” tells the story of Owl’s fear of two mysterious lumps that appear near the foot of his bed when he lies down, and how he deals with their persistent recurrence. A kettle full of weeping, prompted by ruminations on the saddest things, such as forgotten pencil stubs and never-seen sunrises, fills the kettle for Owl’s delicious, albeit slightly salty, “Tear-Water Tea”. “Upstairs and Downstairs” reveals Owl’s frustration over his inability to exist both on the landing as well as at the foot of his twenty-stepped staircase. Finally, in “Owl and the Moon”, our avian friend finds that a contemplation of the moon near the seaside doesn’t necessarily end when he folds his wings and prepares to head home.

What enchanted me?

I’m tempted to say, “Everything!”, and conclude this section thusly.

It’s important to know that this was one of the first books I learned to read. Owl At Home didn’t just teach me about proper pronunciation, basic grammar and syntax governance, though. It schooled me in self-sufficiency, creative zeal, an Owlian zest for life, of the wonder of imagination and the power of suggestion. Owl didn’t *need* a Mrs. Owl, or a flock of owl-lets. He wouldn’t have been diminished by their presence, sure, but more importantly, the absence of their presence didn’t diminish *him*. I don’t think I mused on it so lucidly at four, but I loved his aloneness, even then, and the way in which his solitude didn’t make him lonely, or morose. We could all stand to borrow a page or three from Owl’s book… a book which I can still read today, and delight in, and laugh with, and smile til my face aches, just as much as I did when I was unfamiliar with the intricacies of the shoelace. You won’t be able to read this book (to yourself, or to your children) and tell me you’re not at least tempted to try out that Tear-Water Tea recipe. Come on… you’re thinking up at least five sad things right now. Go fetch a kettle, mate.

Lines for Life:

“Owl watched the moon.
It climbed higher and higher
into the sky.
Soon the whole, round moon
was shining.
Owl sat on the rock
and looked up at the moon
for a long time.
“If I am looking
at you, moon
then you must be
looking back at me.
We must be
very good friends.” ” 

This book would be best-beloved by:

♣ ramblers, ponderers, pocket sages, anti-politicos, and all people who’ve wanted to be both upstairs and downstairs at least once in all their lives.

♣ everyone. Everyone. This book is for everyone. It’s for you. It’s still, and always will be, for me.

Charting Children’s Literature is a monthly feature at Novel Niche that seeks to highlight the beauty and richness inherent in many of the books written and illustrated with the enjoyment and education of young children in mind. The feature was launched in August 2011, and is set to run for the foreseeable future (to infinity and beyond)!

If you’re interested in bringing to my attention beautiful children’s books I haven’t yet covered, feel free to leave a comment on this page. If you would like to contribute a guest Charting Children’s Literature feature, please make use of the contact form provided. I’m looking forward to hearing from you!

24. Anatomy of a Disappearance by Hisham Matar

Published in 2011 by The Dial Press.

Nuri’s childhood is well-heeled, sensitively moulded; he does not lack for parental affection, though it is frequently distilled with eccentricity. The recipient of uncommon, and uncommonly shown, affection from his parents, he finds himself, at a tender age, thrown into a bemusedly altered state when his mother succumbs to a mysterious illness. In an attempt to restitch the tenuous fabric of their familial comfort, Nuri and his father, former political dissident of international reknown, Pasha, vacation at the Magda Marina Hotel, a sweltering beachside resort dotting Alexandria’s coastline. It is there that father and son encounter the entrancingly beautiful, yellow bikini-clad Mona. Their interactions with her form the basis of a complicated, acutely felt triangular relationship that spans erotic awakenings, unspoken betrayals, and the passage of many years, indelibly altering each participant in its perfumed wake. When Nuri and Mona are left reeling in the aftermath of Pasha’s abduction, the mire of bureaucratic red tape and festering resentments through which they must navigate leave them sceptical as to just how precise their lifelong impressions have been, of the man they love most.

Something about reading Matar’s prose puts one in mind of wandering through the dense foliage of a half-sentient dream, wherein the author delineates, blurs and casts colours of sound and light over our keenest emotive reactions, wearing the robes of a master chiaroscurist. Seemingly ordinary expositions are transmogrified so that we drink his imagery beneath a sea that is mapped somewhere between our own imagination meeting his. Rarely do we doubt this authenticity of voice, which renders the work as easy to absorb (for the reader who appreciates fineness of form) as the purest air. Lexically, stylistically, Matar barely makes a misstep, and in this regard, each page is a pleasure.

Threads of the disturbingly and entrancingly erotic hem each page of Anatomy of a Disappearance, and they don’t strictly apply to the characters one might pair by default, either, which is what makes the implementation of this ragged desire all the better. Insofar as the tri-pointed bond among stoic Pasha, mercurial Mona and frequently discomfited Nuri himself can be said to be its own personage, that unnamed fourth character that embodies their inharmonic disunion feels eros across the board. Some of the best passages of the novel thickly hint at never-to-be-resolved shards of sexual tension between father and son; the foundations of this are even more intriguing to parse than every sweaty boudoired flirtation that Nuri and Mona trade, predictably. Those open to the multivalence of burgeoning sexuality will find this aspect of the reading richly, thoughtfully cast.

Emotional complexity could be said to be the feeling cornerstone of the novel; this marries seamlessly with the thematic exploration of the survivor’s impasse: of what remains to be done once a loved one’s enforced absence drags itself past the point of rational hope. The novel is also constructed as much on the skeletal considerations of a bildungsroman, making the aching peregrinations of Nuri all the more valid. We both feel for him, and feel that his suffering, his sense of displacement at his typecastedly stolid British boarding school, his fumblings through the onsault of sexual prerogative, are necessary and credible. If Matar has Nuri flounder and regret for the sake of sustaining depth, then it is skilfully done, not without compassion, not without (more importantly), reminding us of how easily replaceable his childhood and teenage difficulties are, with any of our own, barring (or including) the shadow of a father one fears may never return, or be returned.

At times, Nuri grapples for an identity outside of the distant cloak of his father’s presence, and the complexity of his reaction to feeling this is vividly imparted—his reluctance, guilt, shame, bravado, swirl all together, blotting onto the page our impressions of him as a meticulously drawn protagonist, worthy of our attention, sympathy and solicitude. In one of the most perspicaciously hopeful scenes of the novel, an adult Nuri pauses in the midst of a solitary walk, to consider the apartment block before him.

“The stone buildings stood dimly in the night, and, looking at them, I felt a deep longing to inhabit their rooms. To make love and eat and bathe and sleep in there, to quarrel and make promises, to sit with friends and talk into the night, to listen to music, read a book, write a letter, consider the position of a new object, watch flowers in a low vase, watch them at different times of the day, clip their stems and replace their water daily, move them away from a harsh light, a drafty passage, draw out their time.”

Occasionally, the contemplation over whether Pasha will ever reenter Nuri’s life becomes subtly secondary to the question of whether or not Nuri will ever successfully navigate a personhood with which the latter can be content, away from Pasha’s all-encompassing orbit. Truly, Nuri works against the threat of his own inevitable disappearance, specifically in how he can make his life count, before the decline, in how he can etch himself visibly into a world where he, not Pasha, can own the starring role.

Some books seem so quietly, inexorably suffused with the idea of the best they could be that they never quite, to phrase it with seeming, but unintentioned unkindness, get over themselves. Anatomy of a Disappearance is one of the most thoughtful, thinking person’s reads I’ve had the pleasure to know this year, but perhaps much of its internal grey space is never externally worked out across the page. The result is a study of the intricately plotted map of minefielded human interaction, which may yield more casualties of clarity than clearly charted coordinates… which, when you’re reminded of Tolstoy’s oft-quoted opening liner on family, seems to be less disingenuous than damned honest.

A free electronic copy of this novel was provided by the Random House Publishing Group (The Dial Press imprint) for review, through NetGalley. The opinions expressed in this review are entirely my own, and are not influenced by their generous gift of gratuitous literature.

Duane Allicock’s Thoughts on The Gift of Rain, by Tan Twan Eng

Published in 2008 by Weinstein Books.

Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, 2007.

“You were born with the gift of rain. Your life will be abundant with wealth and success, but life will test you greatly. Remember—the rain also brings the flood.”

I’ll open this review with a tiny confession of sorts; I’m a bit of a sucker for quirky titles and quotations featured at the beginning of any literary work. The effect it has on me is akin to what the average man may experience while driving, and suddenly spotting a pretty woman jogging in the opposite direction. We’re both likely to get whiplash; me, from craning my neck to try and read what’s written on the spine of the shelved book and him from the fender-bender he will inevitably cause.

Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, Tan Twan Eng’s debut novel The Gift of Rain, is the kind of work which could have piqued my interest from the title alone, but the aptly selected quotation from Jean-Dominique Bauby’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly pretty much ensured that I would read on. Partly because I was intrigued, but primarily because those two aspects are merely decorative icing; to be certain about how the creation tastes, I have to consume the sample.

The story told is as common and familiar as rainfall is to the island of Penang in Eng’s novel; that of an autobiographical tale recounted by an individual who is in his twilight years. The character in question is Phillip Hutton, a half Chinese, half British native of Penang who, in his early seventies, is the lone resident of the mansion which has been in his family for generations. What precipitates the telling of his story, and simultaneously stirs him from years of self imposed solitude is the arrival of two entities, both of which are obliquely related to him by varying degrees of separation.

The most unfamiliar element in the equation goes by the name of Michiko Murakami, a Japanese woman of similar age, whom Phillip, though never having met her before, remains convinced that she has for a long time “…been set upon a path that would lead her to the door of my home.” This is because Phillip once heard her name spoken by his long deceased friend and sensei, Hayato Endo, during the very tumultuous years when he came of age; namely the Japanese invasion of Penang in World War II. As a mutual person of interest, Michiko’s arrival instantaneously carries him back to that era.

However it’s his listening to her ‘fill in the gaps’ about the life of this enigmatic ghost from his past which cements the effect. The final impetus to his confronting the memories of that period though, is the result of a pair items innocuously presented as gifts; an old katana and a letter, written by Endo in 1945, which had only recently reached Michiko prior to her meeting Phillip. So, with all these seemingly random, but related set pieces in the appropriate positions, Phillip Hutton, “…gently unfolded” his “life, exposing what was written, letting the ancient ink be read once again.”. Thus begins a story in which the action, save for those occasional key intervals in the tale where both the elderly narrator and the reader might require a quick break to refresh themselves, principally occurs during those six years of the war.

Now, I’ll admit that the aforementioned story-telling mode is fairly effective for this type of narrative, and the connection which Eng establishes with the reader, through Michiko, is accomplished so deftly that one could literally imagine Phillip Hutton as a real person. By the end of this novel I could feel his pain, loss and identify with his moments of anxiety and ambivalence in having to choose between his loyalty to friends and greater causes, which in his case, is defending his family and the country he called home. I could even empathize with the sense of grief and alienation he often experienced when, despite having the best of intentions, every completed action made him feel like he was being hurtled along the road to hell.

There remain certain elements in the story however, which reminded me that although this is eloquently composed fiction, by a very capable writer, it is still a debut novel. My first grouse is with the coalescing of those parts which introduce Phillip in his teenage years. Whenever you do read Gift you may beg to differ with me, but in hindsight, I was left with a sense of contrivance in how Eng attempted to weave together the circumstances of Phillip and Michiko’s initial encounter. I’ll admit, stranger things have happened than a mailed package meandering around Asia for more than four and a half decades, but the plausibility of the prospect produces a strain which could break that aforementioned ancient katana.

Another feature that I found equally double edged was the presentation of genders in this debut. Having studied and read my fair share of works across cultures from the bildungsroman genre, it was a welcome change to observe a young man’s transition from youth into adulthood, facilitated no less by his exposure to a martial art, in this case aikido. Even the treatment of the growth of the father-son relationship is handled in a way that, like Phillip Hutton, I could imagine myself echoing his observation about “the best of fathers” who endure their sons’ “callousness with dignity and silence”. As the novel progressed however, I began to notice a pattern; almost every critical relationship in Eng’s book is distinctively male. Be it Phillip and Kon, a fellow student of aikido, training partner and friend, Phillip and his father Noel, Phillip and his grandfather, and the most profound, Phillip and Endo.

I’m not saying that there’s a dearth of female characters, some of whom, like Phillip’s sister, Isabel, and his Aunt Mei, are drawn in a relatively satisfying manner. Yet the reality is that as figures in this work, they don’t seem to exist in their own right, but are merely supporting characters in the drama of Phillip Hutton’s life, and only gain significance when they assist him in discovering a key facet about himself. The female relationships in Gift are thus often tenuous, strained, and too often the female member met a tragic end.

Furthermore, there’s a specific white elephant in the room that needs to be acknowledged, and that is the relationship between Phillip and his sensei. As bonds go, it is indeed one of a very intense loyalty, and the subject of serious conflict, not merely between Phillip’s family, and friends, but also Endo and the latter’s associates. There’s also a fair amount of anguish present between the two characters, so much so that my ‘gaydar’ kept detecting a barely concealed homoerotic vibe to what is shared between the student and teacher.

There are moments where I found that that the two talk and even act like a couple. What’s more, even though Michiko speaks of the romantic affection she had for Endo, and Phillip states that he heard Endo utter her name, I don’t recall it being spoken of by Endo in similar terms. I’d also have never guessed that he had a past love waiting for him from the manner in which he and Phillip would stand near each other, and Endo would occasionally caress Phillip’s face, or another seemingly innocuous part of his anatomy. There’s one scene in the work, where Eng has Endo rubbing Phillip’s bruised muscles after a particular vicious round of training at the Japanese consulate that is rendered in such a tender tone, that were it not for the imagined scent of liniment, you could expect the moment to proceed in a particular fashion.

Admittedly the author never has a physical consummation of this intimacy occur, seemingly content to have the two circle each other, bound by their duty to family, country and the tenets of aikido. It’s an ambiguous portrayal that, alas, could leave parties on either side of the gay/straight divide feeling equal parts unsatisfied or uncomfortable with the writer, wishing he didn’t vacillate.

Rest assured though, these identified objections to The Gift of Rain ultimately do not detract from the work being a most noteworthy debut. Eng is at his absolute best when illustrating his natural environment, and I recommend that future readers look out specifically for his description of a boat ride Phillip takes with Michiko to observe fireflies. Also, when incorporating the key moments of Penang’s history during that era into the narrative, Eng doesn’t allow himself to get carried away. He is also adept at capturing the capriciousness of the time, both for many of the key characters, and also that of the ordinary citizens, none of which is presented quite so well as the fate which befalls an elderly piano teacher.

Ultimately, I could see this work resonating with both those who have never had a father figure in their life, while making those who did, remember the pleasant and less pleasant moments of growing up. The colonial subject will identify with both the personal and national feelings of abandonment, especially at critical moments in the experiences. Phillip Hutton’s story also speaks to the fact that personal alienation touches both the affluent as well as the impoverished. In the end, I, like Phillip didn’t gain a full appreciation for his ‘gift’ until the close of the work and I wouldn’t want to spoil the epiphany for anyone. Just know that when the revelation arrives and you turn the final page, the denouement will feel, in a word, gifted.

Duane Allicock hails from the island of Trinidad and lives for reading, cycling and running; in that order. When not pursuing any of these passions, he prefers to immerse himself in listening to music, or the silence of the Mount Saint Benedict monastery, pondering on life’s humorous ironies.

23. After the Fire, A Still Small Voice by Evie Wyld

Published in 2009. This Edition: Random House Australia, 2010.

Winner of the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, 2009.

Shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, 2011.

“He was still whole, there were still things that one man alone was worth.” 

Frank Collard turns to the wild, and his grandparents’ rustic outpost in the swamplands, when an abusively disastrous relationship shatters his heart. Lonely, he gradually inches away from being corralled by the teeming landscape that surrounds his shack, to becoming a part of it, blending gracelessly and gruffly into the local milieu. Though he adapts the semblance of a normal life, rooted in work and earnest, albeit thorny, social interaction, he shares little of the past he’s fled. His reluctance to unburden himself of old hurts mirrors the journey of his father Leon, an extraordinary maker of cakes who found himself hard-pressed into military service, feeling it change him perhaps irreparably, as it did his own father, who volunteered eagerly, yet found vital parts of himself effaced by the reality of war.

There is the distinct impression one sometimes receives, when reading of something grand, or sweeping, or otherwise elaborately contrived, that a character has just done in the book one’s reading. The feeling is akin to furrowing the brow and exclaiming, “Well, that’s just not how real people behave, is it?” It is worth noting right here that Evie Wyld’s book is built on the structure of something unflinchingly honest—even the way it flinches is honest. While reading, one gains the impression of absorbing something stripped to barebones and left in the sun to roast, of prose subjected to a rigorous, flinty syntax, studded through with alarming pinpricks of raw beauty.

Wyld is at her best, here, when discussing grief, and the book could be considered a generationally unfolding sorrow-documentary, of a kind that dampens our eyes and makes us suck in our breath, with the laughter we laugh when things are good and proper miserable, so that to laugh about it is the only sane recourse. What is particularly laudable is the manner in which Wyld inserts gut-spasming woe into the most domestic and non-extraordinary of settings. Witness, for instance, Frank’s messy navigation of girlfriend-withdrawal, in the aftermath of a nasty confrontation that effectively seals their rupture:

“The toast pinged up, and, crying, he buttered it and daubed it with jam, inhaling deeply and letting out long shaky breaths. He ate it breathlessly between hiccups. His mouth, which at that moment had nothing to do with him, would not stop making the sound ‘Aaaaaaaa’ like a stiff door opening. He lay on the floor, a smear of jam on his cheek, and mashed the last of the bread into a wet pap with an open bawling mouth. The crusts sat on the floor. He swallowed and breathed in sharply, then cooled his crying to a whimper, then to sniffling and then just to staring. The sun moved across the kitchen floor, regardless.”

The author writes this so convincingly that we accept a grief so cavernous as to unman Frank, a relentless sadness that chokes, rendering useless the elegant protestations of studied melancholy. There are no fainting couches here, no dainty snifflings into handkerchiefs. I especially love the way in which Frank’s mouth “…at that moment had nothing to with him…”, reminding us that when we are this transported outside ourselves with a surfeit of intense emotion, even our anatomy feels remote, conducted by another, out of our sight, outside the realm of interest.

Though Frank and his father lead separate, near-diametrically opposed lives on the page, the ways in which Wyld unites their divergent stories with lashings of past trepidation, of an unquantifiable sense of void, are skilful and subtle. Both men feel themselves hunted and haunted by the nigh-unassailable sensation of being pursued into unknowns. Nothing in their resentment-riddled, mysteriously ill-articulated communion, or lack thereof, allows for the sharing of this unified phobia; neither of them knows the other suffers in a language so well suited to his unique understanding. The reader wonders, for the duration of the reading, whether or not it would make a difference to their relationship if, for instance, Frank were ever told of the dreadful doubts Leon nursed while at war:

“Tears on his face, he felt the teeth of a terrible thing on the back of his neck, breathing through its nose on him, in, out, hot, pant.”

Some may find it unrewarding that the exact cause of the father-son malaise remains largely unearthed. It can be galling to consider that Frank and Leon might have fallen out over some poorly edited snafu, a minor discrepancy that wounded both their masculine prides; perhaps Frank’s girlfriend wonders at this, as she tries to sift through the rubble that nourishes a long-term vow of silence. Personally, the ambiguity marshalling the quietness between these men works admirably; it leaves it to the reader to devise reasons, grand or minute, and it prompts speculation over how much of the events of the last chapter of the novel coloured Frank’s perception of Leon, and Leon’s musings over Frank. This is good writing, the skilfully underscored balance of omitting just enough, of never bludgeoning the reader over the head with detail; those of a discerning, thoughtful bent will notice appreciatively (while those inclined to fast-food in their literature will probably have put the book down by now).

Grief and terror couple and uncouple against a background of settings one would initially think too bland (save for the backdrop of Leon’s outpost and battlefield, which Wyld blesses with no war paint, just irksome bush scratching the legs and loosing the bowels of boys pretending at soldiers) to support their movement through the chapters. Yet none of the settings read as anything less than exquisitely suited to the unfolding of each private, stunted drama. The dirt and insect-framed jungle wilderness that surrounds Frank’s shack, the family bakery in Parramatta to which Frank returns, despite himself, in search of his father (the same bakery in which his father once turned out elaborate baked goods in a thorough, calm manner; the very bakery in which he courted Frank’s future mother), the home of Frank’s sole friendly family unit, in the unkempt northlands: all these locations in the novel are implacable, inviting themselves near-perfectly for Frank’s fumbling self-discovery. The author infuses as much detail (without rendering her landscapes in a saturated style) to these places, making them represent geographic markers as well as placeholders for the full range of human emotional discord and desire, as if to suggest that cartography remains immune, for the most part, to the petty dramas with which we map our time on earth. This makes Frank’s sadness and stubbly conflicts simultaneously relevant to him, and gloriously, disturbingly irrelevant, given the sweeping dismissal of Enough Time: a fact of which Frank himself seems all too cognizant for much of the novel.

Yet the mission statement of Wyld’s book, if there can be said to be but one, is not as reductive as “Life causes despair to run roughshod all over you; therefore, despair.” The gnarled, honest interactions he shares with Sal, the precocious child of the aforementioned family unit, are some of the best passages of the book, and attest to the contrary of prevailing desolation. Their unlikely bond speaks instead to the surprising friendships that can be worked at when embarrassment and artifice are cast aside. Beset at every dirty, suspicious corner with the long arm of the past, Wyld’s grittily redemptive novel seems to whisper, “This is the way you come back to yourself; this is how to banish spells of unremitting dark: gracelessly, naturally, with pain—the only way possible.”

This is the third book I’ve read and reviewed on my personal reading list (which you can see here) for The Bookette’s British Book Challenge 2011.

On a blood-blotted book launch: Featuring Bled by Jason McIntyre

“It will have blood; they say, blood will have blood.
Stones have been known to move and trees to speak;
Augurs and understood relations have
By maggot-pies and choughs and rooks brought forth
The secret’st man of blood. What is the night?”
Macbeth, (III.iv.121-125)

I’m a girl who’s down with particularly good horrific suspense… reading it, that is. Spare me the legions of chainsaw-wielding, lip-sewing stalkers of screens both silver and small, but if your writing can thrill me past any temptation of sleep, keep me pacing, prompt my fumblings for a totem of familiarity, or rip a gasp out my throat, then you’re good. The real question I ought to ask Jason McIntyre, author of Thalo Blue and The Night Walk Men, weaver of wickedly unsettling prose, then, is this: “Just how afraid should we be about your latest literary offering, Bled?”

Tell us, Jason… how much blood are we really in for? Should I be wielding my special anti-sanguinary parasol, for good measure? Here’s his response.

Why is blood so creepy?: discussing my new book, Bled

There’s no denying that there’s blood in my new book. After all it’s front and centre: the title is Bled, after all. And there’s a big dab of it right on the cover, hot red against stark white.

So what’s with suspense and horror writers’ fascination with the stuff? It’s visceral, I suppose. It’s the stuff we are all made of. Pumping in all our veins is this common material. Without it we would die.

And if we see some of it (or lots of it, as the case may be) it probably means we’re on the very cusp of dying. Or hurting. Since suspense is often about what it is to hurt, and horror is often about what it’s like to have hurt inflicted, it makes sense that blood would be bound up in these kinds of fiction.

But how much blood is in my new book Bled, anyhow? Is there just gobs and gobs of it? If you read this story, will you have to get on your waders and dive in?

I can tell you that it’s not gory for the sake of it. There are some difficult scenes but my catalogue would never be called gratuitous. Nor would Bled.  In fact, I would venture to say I’m not a horror writer at all. Bled is much more about the human condition, much more about facing imperious odds and seeing if one can come out alive. If there’s a lasting legacy with the story, if readers can remember something other than the bloody cover, I do hope it is this: people can push back when they’ve been pushed too far.

So, what do you think of the title and cover? Does blood make you squeamish? Does it excite you? If it does, I might be tempted say you do like horror. But I bet you’ll like this book anyway.

Ah, yes. That’s the sound of my parasol billowing open to meet the wind. While I wrestle on a spatter-resistant raincoat, have a look at this spine-tingler of a teaser trailer, then tell me you’re not all the more intrigued. I was.

If that made you hungry for more than a minute’s revelations, sink your teeth into this description.

Bled: About the Novella

She only wanted to leave. But he took that option from her. Now she wants it back.

Set on the same island as the reader favorite Shed, the latest literary suspense novella from bestselling author Jason McIntyre picks up the Dovetail Cove saga with this story of one lonely woman… trapped.

Tina McLeod is on the cusp of a new life. Extraordinary change is rare in her world but this newsflash means she can finally leave her small island town for good. No more pouring coffee for townsfolk in Main Street’s greasy spoon, no more living under the weight of her born-again mother. That is, until Frank Moort comes in for his usual lunch and dessert on an ordinary Friday in May.

Bled sees things turn backwards and upside down for each of them. Their encounter is prolonged and grotesque, the sort of thing splashing the covers of big city newspapers. Both are changed. And neither will come out clean on the other side.

A story about taking what’s not yours, Bled explores pushing back when you’ve been pushed too far. It paints in red the horrors from our most commonplace of surroundings: right out in the open where nothing can hide behind closed doors and shut mouths.

About the Author

Jason contemplates labelling all Bled proceeds as blood money.

Jason McIntyre has lived and worked in varied places across the globe. His writing also meanders from the pastoral to the garish, from the fantastical to the morbid. Vibrant characters and vivid surroundings stay with him and coalesce into novels and stories. Before his time as an editor, writer and communications professional, he spent several years as a graphic designer and commercial artist.

McIntyre’s writing has been called darkly noir and sophisticated, styled after the likes of Chuck Palahniuk but with the pacing and mass appeal of Stephen King. The books tackle the family life subject matter of Jonathan Franzen but also eerie discoveries one might find in a Ray Bradbury story or those of Rod Serling.

Jason McIntyre’s books include the #1 Kindle Suspense, The Night Walk Men, Bestsellers On The Gathering Storm and Shed, plus the multi-layered coming-of-age literary suspense Thalo Blue.

I’ll be reading Bled this weekend, garbed in all my protective gear, clot-resistant umbrella at the ready. Can I withstand the carmine-coloured assault and remain untouched? More importantly, why would I ever want to? Bring on the psyche-unravelling, spinal-tremor-eliciting, literary maelstrom.

You can purchase Bled directly from Amazon, here. Peruse the Bled feature over at Books, Personally, hosted by my dear friend Jennifer, hereStop by Jason’s website, The Farthest Reaches. Follow him on Twitter, and ‘like’ his Facebook fan page. With all that virtual love, perhaps his next book will be about fairies and unicorns, and blithe forest creatures of eternal light? No, probably not.

A free electronic copy of this novel was provided by Jason McIntyre to the reviewer.