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What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah

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A childless woman resorts to forbidden magic in her quest for a baby. A widow boils with rage at the grudging welcome her daughters receive in her sister’s home. In a devastated, not too distant future, a ‘grief worker’ discovers a miraculous ability to remove emotional pain – at a price.

The characters in What It Means When A Man Falls From the Sky are men and women who want things that remain impossible or out of reach. What unites them is the toughness of lives where opportunities are scant, and fortunes can change faster than the flick of a switch.

Conjuring worlds at once familiar and unsettlingly different, What It Means When A Man Falls From the Sky showcases the work of a writer of startling promise at the beginning of an exciting literary career.
~~~~~
I’m not much of a literary fiction reader, as regular followers of this blog will have noticed; however, sometimes, an author crosses my path with enough force and weight behind them from both genre and literary communities that I have to pick them up. Lesley Nneka Arimah is one such author, and her debut collection, What It Means When A Man Falls From the Sky, seemed like the place to start…

The collection opens with a real firecracker of a story, ‘The Future Looks Good’. The title is a definite misdirect; the story looks at the history of lives that have led to the moment that Bibi is in, the expectations and relationships of her predecessors that went into producing her and the moment she occupies. Arimah beautifully builds misdirects into these histories, and writes with a fascinating grace; which lends the unexpected punch of the last line an incredible power, which makes ‘The Future Looks Good’ take on a very different shape.

‘War Stories’ is more typical of the collection, a slightly longer story, and again a story that is as much about stories as anything else. The focus on parental and familial relationships, and the way the past shapes the present, are again powerfully brought to the fore. This story suffers a bit from not knowing quite where it is going, however; Arimah doesn’t really end it, but instead just stops the narrative, either just before or just after its natural conclusion, leading to a kind of dissatisfaction with what had gone before.

‘Wild’ is a story of immigrant experiences and parallel lives; the lies people tell each other and believe of each other form a key part of this third story. The way Arimah builds up and knocks down expectations is very effective, and her deployment of female friendship and rivalry incredibly powerful. The way that mothers treat their daughters is the central theme, and it is very well conveyed. However, this is another story that drifts to a close; while the last line is powerful, it isn’t an ending, and it feels rather as if Arimah wrote towards that line but didn’t quite know how to use it to wrap up the story.

‘Light’ is less a story than a character study; Arimah looks forward and backwards through the life of a girl and her father, who is parenting her alone while his wife studies in the United States of America. It’s a powerful, moving story about the risks of parenting, about the difficulties of relationships at a distance, and about the struggles to bring up a child in a world that is hostile to them. The circular structure of the story works incredibly well, and the slight unhinging from time is very effective in really giving us a fantastic look across a life.

‘Second Chances’ is less effective, although the central conceit is arguably more so; a mother returned from the dead. This is a plot we’ve read before – it’s almost Orphic in its resonance, and Arimah’s treatment of the conceit definitely has a strong scent of that about it. The way Arimah draws the discontented relationship of one daughter with her mother against the rest of the family feels a little strained; it’s almost excessively differentiated, and the story as a whole feels a little drawn out, although the punch of the end is very powerful.

‘Windfalls’ is one of the least effective stories. Arimah’s use of the second person feels strained, and the lack of focus is a little wearying. It is once again the story of a difficult relationship between mother and daughter, but the way Arimah tells it, we really don’t care about the mother, who comes across incredibly two dimensionally; unusually, the characterisation here is incredibly weak, and the end of the story is spectacularly predictable almost from its start.

‘Who Will Greet You At Home’, one the other hand, is a very effective use of a twist on the common metaphors around making babies from various materials. Arimah’s mingling of a number of fantastical elements is very effective, none of them themselves the focus of the story but rather lens through which to approach human relationships. The way she treats the metaphor she’s using for childbearing is at once very unsubtle and very effective, with a glorious commitment to some of the darkest extensions of the idea. The end of the story is a brilliant close, with a call back right to the beginning that is a clear hallmark of Arimah’s best stories.

‘Buchi’s Girls’ is the exception to that rule. This story is the only one of those about mothers and daughters which centres the mother over the children; her concern for her offspring, and her attempts to give them a good life, are the focus of the story. Arimah never loses sight of the central relationships and the possibility of betrayal in the story, and the layered accidental woundings characters give others never fail to have consequences and all feel horribly real, right up to the open ending.

The titular story of the collection, ‘What It Means When A Man Falls From the Sky’, is perhaps the most fantastical, combining sin eaters, a post-climate apocalypse future, and an equation that allows for magical abilities into one narrative. It is also one of the weaker stories; Arimah has gotten a lot of concepts in, but a number of them feel underdeveloped and underexplored, leading to a world which doesn’t quite make sense. The whole narrative is drawn out, and while the foreshadowing of the end is very effective, Arimah has failed to really make the story connect to the reader enough for the ending itself to work.

‘Glory’ is one of the most frustrating stories in the collection, because it just doesn’t work very well. Arimah’s story of Glorybetogod, a woman who always makes the wrong choices, feels somehow off; it doesn’t really have a heart, it feels like a story written because its author had the concept but didn’t really have any characters. Everyone in the story is an archetype, and feels very thin, as do all the relationships; there isn’t really anything to get emotionally hooked into.

‘What Is A Volcano?’ is, from a different angle, almost equally frustrating. A just-so story of the origins of vulcanism, it is also a mythic story of warring gods; but it never really feels like it takes its concepts seriously, and every time a critique of some of the key parts of the tale start to appear, Arimah skips over them and moves on, never engaging. There are hooks to a much more interesting story which problematises its assumptions scattered throughout, but they’re never picked up on, which makes this just another mythic story that doesn’t really do anything.

Finally, ‘Redemption’ closes out the collection with a return to realism. This is a powerful an effective story in many ways, with its themes of rape culture, classism, and the shared reality and oppression of women, but the lack of emotional connection between any of the characters is frustratingly distancing. Arimah emphasises repeatedly the way the narrator creates fictional emotional connections, but meanwhile, the narrator is too flat for us to even connect with her; thus, we fail to have any connection to the story, although the ending retains a lot of power despite that.

What It Means When A Man Falls From the Sky is a strong collection in terms of ideas, and Arimah clearly has the ability to write beginnings and middles; but a lot of the stories simply drift off, rather than ending, and there are too many missed emotional connections to call this the masterwork it is being described as. The best stories are brilliant, but there simply aren’t enough of that quality in here.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

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Jojo is thirteen years old and trying to understand what it means to be a man. His mother, Leonie, is in constant conflict with herself and those around her. She is black and her children’s father is white. Embattled in ways that reflect the brutal reality of her circumstances, she wants to be a better mother, but can’t put her children above her own needs, especially her drug use.

When the children’s father is released from prison, Leonie packs her kids and a friend into her car and drives north to the heart of Mississippi and Parchman Farm, the State Penitentiary. At Parchman, there is another boy, the ghost of a dead inmate who carries all of the ugly history of the South with him in his wandering. He too has something to teach Jojo about fathers and sons, about legacies, about violence, about love.
~~~~~
Jesmyn Ward is a previous winner of the National Book Award, a recipient this year of a MacArthur genius grant, drawing parallels with fellow NBA winner and MacArthur grant awardee Ta-Nehisi Coates; whereas Coates’ work on America is largely in the medium of nonfiction, Ward’s meditations on the country are through the medium of fiction.

Ward’s latest, Sing, Unburied, Sing, takes the American roadtrip, and twists it ever so slightly. Not only is this a roadtrip of a mixed-race family to meet their father on his release from the state penitentiary, there are also ghosts and supernatural forces mixed up in things, as well as drugs and intergenerational familial relations and resentments. Ward doesn’t resist complexity here; the whole book is centred on the tangled morality and reality created by the white supremacist, patriarchal state. Sing, Unburied, Sing doesn’t provide a simple moral solution, or any solutions at all, to the various problems which lie at its heart. Ward doesn’t seem interested in that so much as in using her art to lay out the problems, letting others look for solutions.

Sing, Unburied, Sing isn’t a political manifesto of a novel, though. Ward has a lot of heart in here; the characters are absolutely brilliant. Leonie’s tangled relationship with her children, with her boyfriend, with her parents, with the parents of her boyfriend, and with her past, make her a complex and difficult character. The tensions she feels are beautifully conveyed, even when the reader doesn’t wholly empathise with her reactions. Similarly, Jojo’s maturation coinciding with his resistance to Leonie’s attempts to be a mother are beautifully conveyed; Ward somehow manages to get inside the psychology of a teenage boy fantastically, and really brings him to life, making his strands of Sing, Unburied, Sing incredibly powerful. The contrast between the way the two characters see the same events, especially at key emotional moments, is absolutely brilliant, and the alternating viewpoints really bring that out.

The rest of the cast are a little thin; this is especially true of Misty and Michael, Leonie’s friend and her boyfriend, but also of Mam and Pop, Leonie’s parents with whom she and her children live. Sing, Unburied, Sing gets into their heads a bit, especially in the case of Pop, whose past in the same pentitentiary Michael is being released from forms a key lynchpin of the novel, but not enough to really make them characters. Ward does this even more so with Michaela, or Kayla, Leonie’s daughter; while a toddler has limited interiority, the level displayed by Michaela seems to shift repeatedly across the course of the novel.

So far, this review has not touched on the plot. Sing, Unburied, Sing isn’t a plot-driven novel; in some ways, Ward has written a kind of partial biography of these characters, and as such, there is less a plot than a series of connected events that form a life. These moments are powerfully written and joined by some beautiful, elegaic writing; both the darkness and light of family are exposed, and some of the absurdities of road trips, as well as their dangers, are made clear by Ward. This is at times a very visceral novel, both emotionally and physically, and it is in these moments that it really grips the reader.

There are two mysteries threaded through Sing, Unburied, Sing; one, which has an obvious conclusion to the reader far before it is revealed to the characters, is entangled with Pop’s incarceration at Larchman, and his attempts to protect a fellow inmate, Ritchie. The other is the murder of Given, Leonie’s older brother, by Michael’s cousin; this gives rise to a complex relationship between Michael and Leonie, as well as Leonie’s family. Both are founded on American white supremacy, and Ward doesn’t shy away from the manifestations of that in personal interactions or the state itself; the long shadow of slavery and Jim Crow are never far from sight in the novel.

In Sing, Unburied, Sing, Ward has given us an artistic reaction to American white supremacy; and it is a beautiful, powerful, and intelligent, damning reaction. I highly recommend it, and afterwards, her Guardian essay about raising a black son in America. Vital reading.

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Gnomon by Nick Harkaway

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Near-future Britain is not just a nation under surveillance but one built on it: a radical experiment in personal transparency and ambient direct democracy. Every action is seen, every word is recorded.

Diana Hunter is a refusenik, a has-been cult novelist who lives in a house with its own Faraday cage: no electronic signals can enter or leave. She runs a lending library and conducts business by barter. She is off the grid in a society where the grid is everything. Denounced, arrested, and interrogated by a machine that reads your life history from your brain, she dies in custody.

Mielikki Neith is the investigator charged with discovering how this tragedy occurred. Neith is Hunter’s opposite. She is a woman in her prime, a stalwart advocate of the System. It is the most democratic of governments, and Neith will protect it with her life.

When Neith opens the record of the interrogation, she finds not Hunter’s mind but four others, none of which can possibly be there: the banker Constantine Kyriakos, pursued by a ghostly shark that eats corporations; the alchemist Athenais Karthagonensis, jilted lover of St Augustine of Hippo and mother to his dead son, kidnapped and required to perform a miracle; Berihun Bekele, artist and grandfather, who must escape an arson fire by walking through walls – if only he can remember how; and Gnomon, a sociopathic human intelligence from a distant future, falling backwards in time to conduct four assassinations.

Aided – or perhaps opposed – by the pale and paradoxical Regno Lönnrot, Neith must work her way through the puzzles of her case and find the meaning of these impossible lives. Hunter has left her a message, but is it one she should heed, or a lie to lead her into catastrophe? And as the stories combine and the secrets and encryptions of Gnomon are revealed, the question becomes the most fundamental of all: who will live, and who will die?
~~~~~
Nick Harkaway has always straddled the line between literary fiction and science fiction, whether it be in his post-apocalyptic The Gone-Away World or the superhero-meets-colonialism of Tigerman. The question this begs for each new work is, which side of the line does it favour…?

Gnomon is a complex book, to the point of being difficult to review; the question of where to begin so as not to get bogged down in one aspect and neglect others is a difficult one, because it is so dense. Harkaway’s worldbuilding is incredible; he’s not only written a near-future London whose transport infrastructure feels intensely real, but whose political infrastructure also feels all too plausible. Gnomon is set in a Britain that has embraced a system that combines direct democracy with a panopticon surveillance society, overseen by the computer algorithm known as the System; in everyday life, that manifests as the System being a personal assistant like a Siri that can predict your wants and almost read your mind… and that perhaps functions at times like a nudge unit. The impact of this is part of the conflict at the heart of the novel; what it means for individual privacy and freedom isn’t given a simple answer. If a crime is committed, it is investigated by the humans who make up the Witness, combining human insight with the non-intelligent technology of the System; and people’s minds can be mapped and read to establish innocence or guilt – or conspiracy.

Nominally, Gnomon follows the investigation of Mielikki Neith, inspector of the Witness, into a mind-mapping operation on Diana Hunter which went wrong and led to her death… and to the information the mapping was meant to discover. Inevitably, for something which combines thriller with science fiction, this leads Mielikki to a greater conspiracy; but it is also how Harkaway brings in a number of secondary narratives, shells Diana used to hide herself from the brain mapping by giving it false personas and histories to read. Each of these narratives within the central narrative of Mielikki’s investigation is as brilliantly written and complex, and fully peopled, as the main narrative itself; Gnomon essentially has five different narratives, four of them shell games around the fifth central one, each of which has clues to what is going on in the others and what they mean. The way Harkaway weaves these different narratives together, and draws different points and keys out of them, and links them in to each other symbolically and literally, is beautifully done, albeit weaving the kind of web across nearly 700 pages that it can be hard for the reader to keep track of.

One of the things Harkaway uses to help with this is excellent characterisation. Gnomon is one of the most interestingly peopled novels I’ve read in a long time, and with one of the most unusual approach to personhood; not only does the text demand the reader interrogate the idea of the individual, but the text itself does. The cast includes ancient alchemists from the time of Augustine (Athenais, fictionalised mistress of the real Augustine before his conversion and mother of his son) to present-day Greek bankers playing the markets and playing gods (Constantine Kyriarkos, whose name alone is suggestive), an immigrant Ethiopian exile and extraordinary artist (Berihun Bekele, who Harkaway uses to talk about the history of colonialism and interrogate online racism, right up to a direct albeit not-by-name engagement with the hate campaign that is GamerGate), and a multiply-embodied far-future post-human engaged in a war with entropy (Gnomon’s sections are by far the strangest). Most of these characters are as powerfully fleshed out as those in the real world of the novel, with their own lives and relationships; Gnomon goes in deep on the granularity of individuality. The one character Harkaway falls down on is Gnomon themself; the multi-bodied post-human being seems rather two-dimensional, and their thoughts rather too human, while also being at the same time a little too simplistic and, compared to the other narratives of the novel, essentially uninteresting.

The strongest point of Gnomon is perhaps its unexpected ending; Harkaway goes to his most literary at the close of the novel, with an ending that is simultaneously cliche and utterly new, and wholly unexpected. Each character’s narrative is beautifully and powerfully resolved, although not necessarily closed off; people don’t necessarily get what they deserve. Hints and clues which have been dropped throughout the narrative suddenly become obvious in hindsight, and the whole shape of Gnomon is shifted into a new format.

If there’s one drawback, it’s that it takes nearly 700 pages to get there; at times, Gnomon feels like it is dragging, drawn out for the sake of it. Harkaway has certain moments and character motifs that repeat endlessly, as if to drive the point home; over the course of the full novel, these can become wearing, and the lack of obvious links between the narratives and Mielikki’s actual investigation, and the things going on in the background, can all become a little frustratingly obscure as Harkaway layers up the puzzle pieces that will eventually all fall into place together to create the final picture.

In the end, though, Gnomon is definitely worth it; another monumental, brilliant, brain-bending piece of literary science fiction from Nick Harkaway.

Disclaimer: This review was based on a final copy requested from and provided by the publisher, William Heinemann, for review.

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You Should Have Left. by Daniel Kehlmann, trans Ross Benjamin

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On retreat in the wintry Alps with his family, a writer is optimistic about completing the sequel to his breakthrough film. Nothing to disturb him except the wind whispering around their glassy house. The perfect place to focus.

Intruding on that peace of mind, the demands of his four-year-old daughter splinter open long-simmering arguments with his wife. I love her, he writes in the notebook intended for his script. Why do we fight all the time?

Guilt and expectation strain at his concentration, and strain, too, at the walls of the house. They warp under his watch; at night, looking through the window, he sees impossible reflections on the snow outside.

Then the words start to appear in his notebook; the words he didn’t write.

Familiar and forbidding by turns, this is an electrifying experiment in form by one of Europe’s boldest writers. The ordinary struggles of a marriage transform, in Kehlmann’s hands, into a twisted fable that stays darkly in the mind.
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Literary turns at horror are an interesting beast; some people, like Michelle Paver, get it absolutely right, whereas others end up writing subpar horror and subpar literature at the same time. So with the imprimatur of authors like Jonathan Franzen behind it, and a brilliantly simple cover, I was curious to see what the German novella You Should Have Left. would be like…

At the start of the book, Kahlmann proceeds as if this were just ordinary literary fiction; a blocked screenwriter and his former actress wife take their four year old daughter to a lodge in the mountains to retreat from the distractions of life while he writes a new screenplay. The book itself is the notes, a mixture of diary and screenplay, the nameless husband is making. The domestic tensions are all there, from the disinterest of the wife and the little squabbles between the spouses to the frustration of trying to care for a child; You Should Have Left starts in a very mundane way, leavened more than anything else by the snatches of screenplay we see, which look like a fascinating what-next romcom sequel about growing up and domestic dissatisfaction.

However, Kahlmann slowly builds up the weirder elements; from the odd warnings villagers the nameless narrator encounters, to the dreamlike nightmares and visions of the narrator, You Should Have Left leaves the realm of the mimetic and enters a slightly sidewards realm, with the cliches of horror the signposts to what is to come. What raises the book above those cliches at this stage is the way the writing breaks up, at moments; things like “Get away” are interspersed in ordinary narrative, and the writer of the book keeps breaking off the narrative only to return and explain the odd event that caused him to stop writing mid-sentence. It’s very artistically done, and does create a kind of mingling of reality and unreality; none of the events at this stage are necessarily external to the narrator’s own mind, after all.

When it ramps up the horror is when Kahlmann is perhaps weakest, although also most innovative. You Should Have Left bends and plays with reality, and the way the characters are trapped in the rented lodge is dark and powerful; however, the constant seeking for a cosmic metaphor, or one based in quantum physics, for the entrapment feels forced and unnatural from the narrator. Furthermore, Kahlmann can’t quite seem to decide if the ennui of the fear or actual terror at the impossibilities going on are the emotion he wants to convey and make readers feel; at times it seems almost like he thinks one leads to the other, and thus neither really lands.

You Should Have Left. is an interesting little book, and a good approach to melding literary and horror fictions, but in the end, Kahlmann is far better at the literary than the horror, and leans too much on the latter for the former to really shine.

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Strange Practice by Vivian Shaw

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Meet Greta Helsing, doctor to the undead.

After inheriting a highly specialised, and highly peculiar, medical practice, Dr Helsing spends her days treating London’s undead for a host of ills: vocal strain in banshees, arthritis in barrow-wights and entropy in mummies. Although barely making ends meet, this is just the quiet, supernatural-adjacent life Greta’s dreamed of since childhood.

But when a sect of murderous monks emerges, killing human undead and alike, Greta must use all her unusual skills to keep her supernatural clients – and the rest of London – safe.
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There is a fine tradition in crime fiction, going back as far as Doctor John Watson if not further, of doctors acting as, or alongside, murder investigators. There’s a long tradition in urban fantasy of crime plots, from Jim Butcher and Seanan McGuire through to less known authors. What Strange Practice does, what Vivian Shaw’s innovation is, is bringing those two things together.

Strange Practice is essentially a kind of whodunnit, albeit with a lot of supernatural elements. A killer is attacking supernatural creatures with weapons actively designed to destroy them as rapidly as possible, at the same time as another killer is stalking humans and killing them in ritualistic ways – and they might be the same killer. Much of Shaw’s narrative is actually revealed in the blurb of the novel, unfortunately, in that regard; but who those monks are, and why they’re doing it, and the cosmology involved, are more interesting that that bald plot summary makes them sound. Shaw has clues planted for the reader and repeatedly calls back to earlier brief mentions in the course of the investigation undertaken by Greta and her group of allies, and manages that well.

Greta and her allies are what really makes the novel. Strange Practices has quite a large central cast of six, leaning overwhelmingly male, although the secondary characters balance that out a little more; but they’re all fantastic and fascinating individuals, many drawn from gothic and horror literature. Greta herself is really well written, with her desire to make sure the supernatural community in London is safe and taken care of fighting her curiosity and desire to actively protect, rather than heal, that community. Her personal life is a bit of a mess, and Shaw really ties that into her general commitedness to her job as a whole person, a really well done bit of writing.

Ruthven, Varney and Fastitolacon (Fass) are the three supernatural members of Team Helsing; two vampires from classic gothic works, and a supernatural being whose nature only becomes clear late in Strange Practice, and that Shaw works with really well. Their different personality types are fascinating, and their relationships with Greta are really well drawn; the way that Shaw treats developing attractions, and the way she treats paternal care, are so true to life it almost hurts.

They’re far from the only things that go bump in the night in a book that also has ghouls, mummies, rusalka and more in. Strange Practice sits interestingly in the continuum of monstrous urban fantasy; different creeatures have different reactions to being a monster, and one of Shaw’s innovations is making those parallel to different kinds of queerness, in many ways: self-hatred, assimilationism, and holding oneself apart in a separate society entirely. Different characters of the same kind of being are allowed different reactions, and none are judged for it – though society is judged for putting them in that position, at times. The mundanity of their problems is also brilliant – a ghoullet with an ear infection, for instance, or mummies with arthritis and bone problems; Shaw has a real flair for the medical side of the book, and the ghoullet is incredibly adorable.

If there’s a flaw in Strange Practice, it’s that it tries a little too hard at times. The descriptions are architecture are atmospheric and powerful, and usually accurate, but at times end up feeling trite; the level of trope-laden weather and scenic cliches abounds, at times feeling far too dense – tripes both about gothic weather and about British weather, sometimes clashing; and occasionally, Shaw shows off how clever she is a little too much by making unsubtle literary allusions that don’t work very well.

In all, though, Strange Practices is a fun novel, and a great new take on an old idea in urban fantasy; I want to hear more from Vivian Shaw about Dr Greta Helsing and her work with the supernatural community of London, especially the medical side.

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Amatka by Karin Tidbeck, trans. Karin Tidbeck

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Vanja, an information assistant, is sent from her home city of Essre to the austere, wintry colony of Amatka with an assignment to collect intelligence for the government. Immediately she feels that something strange is going on: people act oddly in Amatka, and citizens are monitored for signs of subversion.

Intending to stay just a short while, Vanja falls in love with her housemate, Nina, and prolongs her visit. But when she stumbles on evidence of a growing threat to the colony, and a cover-up by its administration, she embarks on an investigation that puts her at tremendous risk.

In Karin Tidbeck’s world, everyone is suspect, no one is safe, and nothing—not even language, nor the very fabric of reality—can be taken for granted. Amatka is a beguiling and wholly original novel about freedom, love, and artistic creation by a captivating new voice.
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Karin Tidbeck first came to my attention through Cheeky Frawg’s publication of Jagganath a few years back; it feels like even then we were all waiting for a novel by this multitalented multilinguist who translates her own fiction from Swedish into English, including this novel. So perhaps it is no surprise that Amatka is such a linguistically involved novel…

Amatka is on the surface of it a novel in the tradition of Ursula Le Guin mixed with a good dash of George Orwell; The Dispossessed meets 1984. At the start, it seems like a fictionalised version of the Soviet Union with a dash of the Weird, with its intrusive government presence, communist and communal system, dismal dreariness, spartan tendencies, and general bureaucratic and depersonalising approach. Tidbeck sets us up to expect one kind of novel, very much in the mode of 1984, where love as resistance leads to a more generalised resistance against an unjust authority; but Amatka goes in a different direction, with its weirder elements.

Those weirder elements are also present almost from the very start, with the labelling of everything; it’s implied that in the world of Amatka, naming things helps them or forces them to keep their form. It’s an interesting concept on the face of it, and that’s before Tidbeck goes further with the idea, playing with it and pushing it to weird and strange places. Tidbeck uses Amatka to play with, and literalise, the ideas of form and function as defined by language, and reality being what we describe it as; there are fantastic unspoken parts of the book about the way poetry versus prose describe things, and fiction versus fact, that are really interesting and could have been almost a whole novel in themselves.

Amatka is an entry in a long discussion in fiction about dystopia and the way strictures are enforced on society. Tidbeck builds her Soviet-reminiscent setting before explaining at all why it is necessary or how it came about; we see everything from the perspective of Vanja, and her status in society, which influences our reactions to everything, for reasons which only become clear as the book continues. Amatka plays with the necessity of the strictures of oppression, requiring the reader to ask whether freedom is worth the price, in this context, of that freedom, or whether order is worth the cost of order; there aren’t easy answers here.

The characters of Amatka are the weak link here. While Vanja’s outsider status and feeling of being a universal outsider is well written, and her doubts and anguish at the oppression of the communes well conveyed, the rest of the cast have a tendency to feel a bit flat, like ciphers or game-pieces moved into place for the sake of the plot and the sake of Vanja rather than people in their own right. Nina comes closest to breaking this pattern, and Tidbeck conveys her various conflicts between ideology and personal relationships very well, although at times, especially when they’re most strongly opposed, it can feel a little forced.

In the end, despite the weakness of characterisation, Amatka is an absolute masterpiece of a novel, and Tidbeck’s writing and ideas spark off the page and engage the reader wholly. An intellectual, literary piece of brilliance.

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Kingdom Cons by Yuri Herrera trans. Lisa Dillman

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In the court of the King, everyone knows their place. But as the Artist wins hearts and egos with his ballads, uncomfortable truths emerge that shake the Kingdom to its core. Part surreal fable and part crime romance, this prize-winning novel from Yuri Herrera questions the price of keeping your integrity in a world ruled by patronage and power.
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Kingdom Cons is Yuri Herrera’s third novella with And Other Stories, and his third in the peculiarly Mexican genre known as narcoliterature; whereas Transmigration of Bodies is a postapocalyptic plague-ridden story, and Signs Preceding the End of the World a more traditional people-smuggling story, Kingdom Cons is a story itself about narcoliterature, and taking the form of a more mythic story, with Arthurian resonances.

Kingdom Cons doesn’t have characters, it has roles; it has members of the Court of the King(pin). The only character whose name we ever learn, the Artist, Lobo, is our viewpoint character, and we only see his name before he’s drawn into the orbit of the King; after that, he becomes the Artist, to join the Jeweller, the King, the Traitor, the Gringo, the Journalist, and so on. Each person has a kind of nebulous property; they are defined by their role, but also exist beyond it to some extent, such that the Artist especially has both a life revolving around the King, and a life in defiance of that life. Indeed, Herrera recalls Arthurian legend with the role of the Artist especially, as he echoes Lancelot, right through to the end of the novella’s story.

If the characters aren’t exactly fleshed out, and defined largely by their roles, those roles are incredibly vivid. Kingdom Cons doesn’t go into a detailed discussion of the King’s cross-border drugs empire, but it does give a vague picture of the kind of grime of that criminal enterprise, of the compromises made with other criminals, of the complicity of the authorities on both sides of the border, of the way that it impacts the lives of those in the orbit of the King and manipulates their lives into strange, near-mythic things utterly unlike those on the outside. Herrera doesn’t glamourise this life, but doesn’t pretend it doesn’t have upsides either; it’s an interesting balance to strike, and one done with great skill.

A theme throughout the novel, largely drawn from Herrera’s focus on the Artist as protagonist, is about the way stories about the drugs trade mythologise it. Kingdom Cons is a story about narcoliterature as well as being a piece of narcoliterature; the importance of face, the importance of image, are central to the story, and Herrera is very aware of what stories can do, in terms of giving or stealing away power from someone. The way Kingdom Cons engages with those questions, and the concommitant responsibilities or lack thereof, of artists is a fascinating discussion that is held by playing out different options for the Artist, and by following through the various possible consequences of different kinds of choice.

If Kingdom Cons has a drawback, it’s the treatment of women. In part influenced by the macho culture of Mexico, women are valued only for their sex appeal; every woman we meet, with the exception of the Witch, is a sexual partner or a potential sexual partner, and they are judged by their worth as such. Herrera doesn’t really give any of them any characterisation; he comes closest with the Commoner, but even she barely has a character or motivation, and her actions with regards to the Artist seem peculiarly undirected and motiveless.

It’s impossible to discuss Kingdom Cons without discussing the language. Between Herrera and Dillman, this is a really interesting novel; the whole thing is told in one breath, essentially, with a couple of seeming asides which move outside the immediate orbit of the Artist into a wider view or a more purely philosophical approach, and these are beautifully rendered in prose that Dillman translates with a crystal clarity. Similarly, Dillman translates the poetry and lyrics of Herrera’s novella into English with a deft hand, and presumably retains their original feel; even when Herrera is using onomatopoeia or phonetic renderings of words, Dillman conveys both their meaning and that they are translated rather than the direct words, an incredible balancing act.

Kingdom Cons may be a slim volume, but it’s a fascinating, thoughtful one. Be prepared to fall into Herrera’s myth and not fall out.

Disclaimer: This review was based on an ARC received from the publisher, And Other Stories.

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