Book Review: Salt Picnic, by Patrick Evans

cv_salt_picnicAvailable in bookshops nationwide.

Patrick Evans’ Salt Picnic is set in Ibiza in 1956, where young writer Iola has just arrived expecting Roman Holiday-esque adventure, naïve to the political realities of Francoist Spain. The novel’s divided into four parts: Iola arrives in Ibiza and makes observations, Iola meets an excitable American photographer, Iola meets a prim English doctor, and Iola goes with the doctor to a nearby salt island for the titular picnic. Spare-plotted and with few English speaking characters, it’s a difficult book to classify; we could maybe think of it as an experiment in writing an international political thriller with the strictly personal stakes of the bildungsroman and the densely descriptive, self-consciously sensual prose of the contemporary literary novel.

Your enjoyment of Salt Picnic will depend on whether you prefer loveliness to energy. The novel’s unmistakably the work of a long-term industry insider, with the associated upsides and downsides; the prose is uniformly handsome at the expense of vitality, and its exotic setting shows warning signs of an author settling into that frustrating things-I-saw-on-holiday genre favoured by writers who reckon they no long have to prove anything. Evans has been an outspoken critic of the IIML-to-VUP literary machine, but his own writing has developed the same safe, workshopped quality, playing defence rather than offence – there’s no mistakes. For a fan of the clumsy energy of literary overreachers, it’s as dull as a Mayweather fight.

It’s a shame to see such stateliness from an author like Evans. In his nonfiction work, he’s one of the country’s most charming writers in a discipline not always renowned for charm – you’re unlikely to find another Postcolonial Literature primer that could plausibly be described as Shavian. Look up any article he’s written or any interview and his wit strikes you right away, but while his instinctive feel for the sentence carries over to the novel, the cutting insight doesn’t. Evans’ Gifted, though frustrating for similar reasons, at least found in Frank Sargeson a protagonist allowed to be as clever as his author, while Salt Picnic’s Iola is too naïve and ever-more-bewildered to think anything remotely pointed. Consequently, this is a pretty humourless book; the American’s a little goofy and the Englishman’s bad at crosswords, but otherwise the tone is so sober you’d never guess that a few decades ago Evans was writing comic novels about the bawdy misadventures of a hapless and horny underpants salesman.

Evans has said Salt Picnic is the third in a trilogy of novels inspired by Janet Frame, drawing on her 1956 trip to Ibiza, but that Iola is not intended to resemble Frame. This might be a bluff to avoid once again incurring the wrath of the notoriously combative Frame estate, but Iola is so indistinct a character that it’s difficult to say. There’s been some controversy over whether Evans considers Frame to have had a genuine psychological condition; I wondered if Iola’s extreme passiveness and naiveté is meant to suggest this before considering that it isn’t ideal if you can’t tell whether a writer’s depicting a radically alien schizoid or autistic perspective or if the character’s just boring.

Assuming neurotypicality, Iola’s naiveté about personal, political and sexual matters stretches credibility even for a young woman in the 1950s. She’s written like a sheltered fifteen-year-old despite presumably being an adult – her age is unclear, though she’s been travelling Europe alone for some time before coming to Ibiza. Passive point-of-view characters are a literary standby, but we’re presumably meant to heavily invest in her character given the intimate scale of the story and if we don’t, the story’s revelations fall flat, because they’re meaningful revelations to her and not to us. Plus she’s alone for huge chunks of the book – picture The Great Gatsby with another 30,000 words of Nick Carraway pottering about West Egg looking at old buildings and spying on his neighbours.

I struggled with the novel’s elliptical style, often having no idea what a scene was about thematically and sometimes literally. Evans likes having bashful-monologued Iola refer modestly to ‘that’ without telling us what it is, and I often didn’t know. There are key plot points I’m still unclear on – halfway through the novel Iola seems to be pregnant, but I don’t remember this being mentioned again after a scene where her lover insists she can’t be pregnant. Was he right? Surely Evans would’ve resolved this somehow, but I didn’t pick up on it, don’t remember it, and can’t find it scanning through the book. C.K. Stead confessed to not understanding a number of crucial plot points in his review of Evans’ previous book, The Back of His Head, so I’m not alone here. It’s possible this is an immensely rewarding book if you really put the time in, but I felt no organic impulse to; by the time the novel ended with Iola telling the Englishman she had something to confess, I no longer cared that I didn’t know what that was.

This ambiguity gives the book a lot of thematic leeway. You can’t be sure if a point’s banal or if you’re unperceptive. If the blurb didn’t tell me Salt Picnic was “about mistranslation, fantasy and the historical echoes of ideology”, I would assume I’d missed the thrust of the novel completely. I still don’t think I really get it – Iola meets a fascist, and he’s a right bastard, and she finds out about what happened during the Spanish Civil War. Is this it? I have no idea. If the point of the book is a naïve character’s introduction to the realities of the war – and in a closing note Evans references the lack of real popular awareness about wartime atrocities prior to the 1960s, so this might be it – it doesn’t land, since we already know about these things. Presumably there’s more to it than I picked up on, but the style reflects a reader-adversarial understanding of subtext: if you have to work harder to understand something, you’ll consider it more valuable and profound.

Salt Picnic is a fantastic objet d’art – it’s got a great cover and a great title and if you open it to a random page you’ll be impressed. It’s handsome, admirable, and static. There’s definitely an audience for this book, but it’ll likely leave readers who can’t supply their own engine of interest cold. I’d recommend Salt Picnic for New Zealand fiction completionists, prose aficionados, and those who find their chief literary pleasure in the detective-work of meaning; late Henry James fans might love it.

Reviewed by Joseph Barbon

Salt Picnic
by Patrick Evans
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561698

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Book Review: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_eleanor_oiliphant_is_completely_fine.jpgWhat an absolute joy to read this was, definitely one I will keep, share with others, and put into book club.

Eleanor is almost thirty, she lives in Glasgow, she works for a graphics design company in what could loosely be termed admin, she has worked there for nearly ten years. She has no friends. Her work colleagues think she is odd, they know very little if anything about her and can’t really be bothered to find out more. Every Friday night she leaves work, goes to Tesco, buys two pizzas and two bottles of Vodka. She goes home, demolishes the lot over the weekend, then turns up at work, bang on time Monday morning for another week the same as the previous. She is completely fine. These are her good days.

To the reader, her loneliness is extreme, the walls she has built around herself painful to see. It is hard to fathom the depth of loneliness that people can feel in their lives, and if this is a voluntary state, an enforced state, or a combination of the two. Is there a mental illness of sorts going on here, does she have a personality disorder, has something happened to her to have her life turn out like this at not even thirty? Slowly, page by page, we learn about Eleanor and the carefully structured life and walls she has built around herself over the years. We learn that from about the age of eleven she was in foster care, that she had a boyfriend who was violent to her, that she has a very controlling mother in prison with whom she talks once a week.

Life takes a sudden turn when she bizarrely falls madly for a wannabe rock star, her perfect man. To attract said man’s attention she pays a visit to a beautician, buys some swanky new clothes. She also befriends a work colleague who is forced upon her as the repairer of her work computer. By chance they are out during their lunch hour and assist an elderly man who falls over in front of them. These minutely small human connections are the beginning of the budding and flowering of the wonderful Eleanor. There are some hiccups along the way, as she struggles with her reconnection with the world, letting people into her small tightly held bubble – there are bad days, until finally we reach better days. And of course, we find out all about Eleanor’s early life that put her into foster care at eleven and explains why she has become this strange, out of touch, and odd person.

Eleanor is a wonder to behold. Being so little involved in others’ lives, having no social network or friends, having no need to deal with people in her work, she has lost all the social filters that most of us develop over the years of interacting with others. Our socially conditioned and finely tuned antennae tell us when we say or do something out of kilter, not so Eleanor. Her conversational exchanges are hilarious and endearing, if they weren’t quite so sad; her observations of those around her and how they behave equally wicked and funny, although of course she does not see it like that!

The writing is wonderful, and being narrated in the first person the reader is right inside Eleanor’s head. We root for Eleanor all the way even when she is frustrating the whatever out of us, as do the people she meets in the course of this story. She may be tetchy, difficult to talk with, unpredictable, but all the characters love her, from her colleague Raymond, to the elderly man, to her hairdresser, to her boss – it is as if they can all see the potential in this young woman, but just don’t know how to tap into it. I want to read this book again, it is just great, and gives a tender and sensitive insight into the loneliness that many people must live in. Heart-warmingly wonderful.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
by Gail Honeyman
Published by HarperCollins
ISBN 9780008172121

 

Book Review: 4 3 2 1, by Paul Auster

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_4321.jpgPaul Auster’s novel 4 3 2 1, his first in seven years, is a sweeping river of a book, taking us on a ride through the heady events of America’s 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s, and all told through the eyes of one young man called Ferguson. Or, rather, told through the eyes of four different versions of that young man Ferguson. Ferguson’s genetic makeup and personality stay the same, but from the moment of his birth, Ferguson’s life splits four different ways and the novel travels down four increasingly divergent paths, following four increasingly different Fergusons. In so doing Auster writes four versions of the great American novel, all running alongside each other at the same time.

Written in alternating chapters, the first Ferguson’s life story focuses on his romance with Amy Schneiderman, the great love of his adolescence and young adulthood. By contrast, Amy never even enters the story of the second Ferguson, and in the third Ferguson’s story, Amy is much longed for but eventually set aside in exchange for the confusing and exhilarating experiences Ferguson 3 experiences in Paris, where he eventually moves. In Ferguson 4’s story, his home life is vastly different — eventually his family becomes a blended melting pot of step-siblings and step-uncles.

Having said that, each Ferguson stays in many ways the same — baseball and books seem like the most important things in all the Fergusons’ lives, as well as his family, especially his mother. As such, Auster doesn’t seem interested therefore in seeing how much he can make each Ferguson’s path diverge from the others (though they do in some cases diverge widely). Rather, Auster is interested in the ‘what if?’ What if I had journeyed down the path less traveled? What if that relationship I wanted so badly had actually worked out? What if I had moved to Paris like I always wanted to? What if I had been born rich? What if I had been born poor? What if my father, or my grandfather died, or I died when I was a child? How would things be different? Who would I be, and what world would I be living in?

4 3 2 1 always gives you the feeling of movement – flowing or running through the years like a boat borne on a swift tide. Auster’s long spinning sentences, some of them lasting a full, hefty, paragraph, contribute significantly to this effect. But these sentences never become annoying or tiresome. They only speed you along, making this novel something of a page turner (which sure helps to make this 800-page tome more digestible). And the pace of the book itself is quick without being rushed. We move swiftly through the fifties, sixties and seventies but we still manage to get a good sense of how those decades felt — especially the sections set in the late sixties, where scenes of young anarchists marching on campus and disenfranchised black New Jerseyans rioting in the streets were hair-raising to read, and in some ways hair-raisingly familiar.

I cannot pretend that I didn’t get a bit confused between the different Fergusons, especially in his adolescent years when the Fergusons were all living fairly similar lives. But that confusion was never enough to make me want to stop reading. And amazingly, after having made my way through all 800 pages, my first thought was: I want to read it again. A great plot, written in an athletic style, with above all the central character of Ferguson, a Jewish everyman whom you grow to love. Why wouldn’t I want to read it again? I can’t think of a single reason. Very highly recommended.

Reviewed by Feby Idrus

4 3 2 1
by Paul Auster
Faber and Faber
ISBN 9780571324620

Book Review: The Atomic Weight of Love, by Elizabeth J Church

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cv_the_atomic_weight_of_loveIn 1941, Meridian Wallace begins her ornithology studies at the University of Chicago, determined to prove worthy of the sacrifices her mother made for her to enable this to happen.

Although dating a student similar in age she falls in love with her physics professor Alden Whetstone who is twenty years older than her. “When I was with Alden –discussing listening, leaning across tables and fully animated –life was painted in more vibrant colours; birdsong was more elaborate, rococo.” But when Alden goes to Los Alamos in a secret government project (later known to be the atomic bomb), Meri has to decide whether to continue with her studies or be with Alden in New Mexico.

“By morning I’d found a place of compromise. I agreed to a one year trial period. I’d still do what I could in terms of crow observation, and then I’d use that research as a foundation for my master’s degree.”

The reader feels Meri’s frustration as the storyline continues to map out her life attending a women’s discussion group in the town as well as exploring the area studying her crows. When in 1970 she meets Clay, a young geologist and veteran of the Vietnam War, her life gains new meaning and she begins to question her life with the professor.

The Atomic Weight of Love examines the changing roles of women following the Second World War and the Vietnam conflict when it was still the expectation that women would fit in with a man’s plan, sometimes at the expense of their own dreams.

This is the first novel written by Elizabeth J Church, who has practised law for more than thirty years. She was born in Los Alamos and still lives there now and her writing reflects her intimate knowledge of a fascinating area. “Hardy adaptive plant life managed to wedge itself into dust-filled cracks in the lava, and there were bluffs where rainwater collected in shallow pools.”

Church has given each chapter a title which includes a different bird such as “A Deceit of Lapwings” and she has then cleverly included aspects in the chapter which is reflected in the title. I found it a slow read to begin with but was soon gripped with the story and its surprising ending. The cover of the book is stunning with birds beautifully displayed in a periodic table setting.

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

The Atomic Weight of Love
by Elizabeth J Church
Published by HarperCollins
ISBN 9780008209308

Book Review: Autumn, by Ali Smith

Available in bookshops nationwide.Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_autumnWhile this novel was promoted as the “first post-Brexit novel” it is far more than a story about opinions and divisions. Rather, it reads like poetry and narrative twisting together. The chapters are interspersed with reflections, lists, words, musings which create an impression rather than telling a straight line story.

But there is a story line, or rather two. Elisabeth (the spelling matters) is an art history lecturer struggling with the down-sizing and marginalising of her subject. The second story is about a 101-year-old Daniel Gluck who was her neighbour and babysitter in her childhood. He is now in a care home and she acknowledges the part he played in introducing her to, “arty art,” in which she majored at university. Even the subject of her dissertation, Pauline Boty, is based on a real person and the real events surrounding her life and works. It is this movement between worlds which are real and imagined that gives the book such beauty.

Autumn is the first of a quartet based on the seasons. Ali Smith has already established herself as an inventive writer and the way she plays with words, thoughts, time and events is innovative and exciting. This is not a straight-line story. The plot moves forward but slips sideways to fill in the spaces at the edges. Amid such innovation she uses an ageless framing device for the overall story. At the beginning the young Elisabeth is asked for a” Portrait in Words of my next door neighbour”. Towards the end of the story we are given the completed exercise. It is written in the unpunctuated language of a young girl, but the portrait includes much of what has been uncovered in the story.

I enjoyed Autumn more as a drifting, reflective read than a gripping tale. It reminded me that language can be so much more than words on a page. Language can paint, can emote, can create.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Autumn
by Ali Smith
Published by Hamish Hamilton Ltd
ISBN 9780241207017

Book Review: The Lesser Bohemians, by Eimear McBride

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cv_the_lesser_bohemiansThe woman in Eimear McBride’s second novel, The Lesser Bohemians, is still a half-formed thing. The Irish 18-year-old arrives in London to study drama and to “make myself of life here for life is this place and would be start of mine”. She meets a brooding troubled actor twice her age and their relationship unfolds in a series of excruciatingly lovely and excruciatingly awful episodes.

They each bring some serious baggage to the relationship, recalling some of the dark themes and the damaging nature of secrets that McBride covered in her first novel A Girl is A Half-Formed Thing, which won the 2014 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and a slew of other awards.

There’s drugs and drink, squats and bedsits, drama and literature and many of the other accouterments of a ‘bohemian” lifestyle, albeit the lesser one of the title.

And there’s sex, lots of sex. McBride pulls this off (excuse the pun) with explicit but not graphic descriptions, and with a female sensibility that will resonate with many readers. It took me back decades to when I thought my own virginity was a millstone which held me back from experiencing LIFE because I too had run fast and far from a small town to university in a big city.

However the great strength and enjoyment of The Lesser Bohemians is a continuation of the starkly original style which almost defies definition, that McBride introduced us to in her first novel. Her sentence structures can almost run backwards, there’s unconventional word use, using nouns as verbs, and the word spacing and kerning is erratic. It’s almost stream of conscious narrative but is much more than this too – the technique enables us to tap directly into the psyche of the woman making for an intense and surreal read. It is like slowly driving on an unsealed road. Sometimes it’s smooth and familiar, then a pothole jolts you to a new consciousness and you have to retrace your steps. This slows you down but makes for a most satisfying and rewarding journey.

For example, only a few pages in, we are settling into a lonely Saturday in her bedsit when “Waiting, behind the distractible time, a little bit of pain. Just a tipple. Hardly a thing. Almost pretty pink petals cigarette burns on my skin. Bouquets exist, rosiest at the shin, contemplating though up my thigh. It’s a pull rope for the wade of hours on my own, and matches slice for slice all diversions I know”. It’s a hang on, WTF moment. Did that mean what I think it meant? And The Lesser Bohemians is full of these moments.

It’s a book that is also about identity, reinvention and the power others have over our view of self. We are two thirds into the book before she is named, by him, and he is named, by her, only 40 pages from the end. In A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, the final sentence is ”My name is gone.” In The Lesser Bohemians the naming signals a form of redemption and personal reconciliation, although not necessarily an unequivocally happy ending.

So if you like your fiction dark with shocking shards of brilliant illumination, and your characters flawed, sometimes unlikeable but utterly human; and a style that can pull you through a hedge with just about every sentence, this is a book for you. If you don’t like that kind of stuff, I’m sorry for you but look elsewhere.

The Lesser Bohemians has just been nominated for the avant-garde Goldsmiths Prize, which McBride won in its first year, 2013.

Reviewed by Rose Boyle

The Lesser Bohemians
by Eimear McBride
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781925355161

Book Review: Everyone is watching, by Megan Bradbury

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_everyone_is_watchingThis is the first novel from Megan Bradbury, who has an MA in creative writing from the University of East Anglia; it’s hard to know quite what to make of it.

Allegedly a work of fiction, it’s a novel which recounts some of the recent history of New York, as it was experienced by the town planner Robert Moses, the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, and writers Walt Whitman and Edmund White. Since Edmund White is still alive and writing, it’s a bit odd that there is no note about having permission to write about him in the forthright tone which Bradbury uses. Another unusual thing is that she has chosen to write entirely in the present tense. It feels a little odd but then again, perhaps it helps hold the narrative together, since all the main characters are from different time periods. She does write well.

The difficulty I have with this novel is that there is sufficient factual detail about the main characters and their interactions with one another (particularly White and Mapplethorpe) for it to seem not really fiction. Yet it is clearly written in the form of a novel, and the stories of the characters do come through well on the whole. (The exception for me is Walt Whitman, who feels like a bit part when compared to the main roles played by the others).

There is a great deal of attention, it seemed to me, given to the sexual proclivities of Mapplethorpe and White. I learned more about some of the grittier aspects of the homosexual scene in New York city than I was expecting – but in the event, what remains with me from reading this novel is the vision – and the passion and bludgeoning singlemindedness – of Robert Moses. He was accustomed to getting his own way, regardless of method, but it’s clear that the Big Apple would not be what it is today without his determination. There was indeed opposition to his ideas, as he was ruthless in pulling down whole neighbourhoods in pursuit of his dream, and Jane Jacobs is portrayed well as a battler for local rights. She and others were however unable to withstand the sledgehammer of Moses.

It’s an interesting book. Readers who have visited New York will find many points of familiarity, and there are many allusions to photographs of the city – a city which indeed everyone is watching, all the time.

I’ll be intrigued to see what Megan Bradbury comes up with next.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Everyone is watching
Megan Bradbury
Picador, 2016
ISBN  9781509809745