May 2012 Reading: Tiny Sunbirds,Far Away, The Thing Around Your Neck, The Whore’s Asylum, Tipping the Velvet, Incredible Bodies, One World, Jawbreakers, Knockemstiff

Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away by Christie Watson (2011)
Watson’s debut novel is told from the point of view of 12 year old Blessing, a Nigerian girl who is forced to move from Lagos to Warri, a village in the Niger Delta, with her mother and brother when her father leaves her mother for another woman. Using a narrator who is both a child and new to the village allows Watson, herself an ‘outsider,’ to explore the world she creates with a wide-eyed attention to detail. The violence and political unrest that hover menacingly on the periphery of Blessing’s world sometimes threatens to tip this into a ‘novel with a cause,’ and the episodic nature of the story makes it seem a little less than whole. Certain incidents ring truer than others, and Watson’s background as a nurse seems to stand her in good stead when describing Blessing’s new job as a midwife’s assistant, working alongside her grandmother. The book won the Costa First Novel award, and although I felt that it had its flaws, I would be very interested to read her work again in the future.
The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2009)
While in the process of writing an essay on Adichie’s novel Half of a Yellow Sun, I checked out her short story collection. The bright young star of Nigerian literature, Adichie’s stories tend to focus on ideas of exile and identity, and many are narrated by young women, so that I had the sense that Adichie was sticking close to the dictum ‘write what you know.’ It seems to pay off; there is a readability to these stories that makes the prose seem effortless, though on closer inspection, the elegance of her sentences becomes clear. I didn’t love all of the stories; one or two felt a little too rushed, and I had to raise an eyebrow at the story of the young female writer who is invited to a conference of Africa writers and there writes a possibly autobiographical story – all a little meta for me. But on the whole, I am almost as impressed with Adichie’s skills as a short story writer as I am with her novels. I’m looking forward to seeing what she produces next.
The Whores’ Asylum by Katy Darby (2012)
Coursework finally handed in, I decided to treat myself to an afternoon of novel reading. A few hours later, I finished Katy Darby’s debut novel without having moved from the sofa. A page turner in the best sense of the word, this book draws on the tradition of writers such as Wilkie Collins, but brings a modern sensibility to its Victorian setting, without stumbling into anachronism. There are fallen women, duels at dawn, and even a dancing bear. What’s not to love?
Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters (1998)
More Victoriana, and another speedy read, despite its bulk. Waters’ attention to detail is something that impressed me greatly in The Night Watch, and this earlier novel didn’t disappoint. I’ve got Affinity and The Little Stranger on my ‘to read’ pile – since I’ve messed up the Waters chronology already, any suggestions as to which to read first?
Incredible Bodies by Ian McGuire (2006)
A bitingly funny campus novel, written by one of the tutors at Manchester (I did wonder if any of his characters were based on his colleagues – impossible to say, of course!), Incredible Bodies tells the story of Morris Gutman, hapless lecturer at the University of, ahem, Coketown. It is an all-too-accurate picture of everything that is wrong with academia, and contains some fantastically black (and bleak) humour.
One World: A Global Anthology of Short Stories (2009)
Published by the New Internationalist, this collection of 23 stories from writers across the globe contains many gems. Some of my favourite writers, including Adichie and Petina Gappah, whose short story collection An Elegy for Easterly I have reviewed on this blog and would highly recommend, sit alongside writers I had never heard of, but whose stories had a real effect on me, like Sequoia Nagamatsu’s ‘Melancholy Nights in a Tokyo Cyber Café.’ I read short stories to be transported to another place, and this collection does that in spades.
Jawbreakers ed. Calum Kerr and Valerie O’Riordan (2012)
A wonderful collection of flash fiction published in honour of National Flash Fiction Day, this contains some real corkers, by well known authors and not (yet) as well known authors, and is perfect for dipping into when you want a fiction injection. As with Kerr’s collection 31, which I read back in March, Jawbreakers is another reminder of how powerful really, really short stories can be, and how flash fiction is much more than a shrunken short story or a twist-in-the-tail gag.
Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock (2008)
At the moment I am looking for suggestions for books set in small towns, with casts of characters whose lives interlink – if you have any, please wing them my way. Knockemstiff was suggested to me as a good place to start, and I am glad I followed it up, because although at times the writing reminded me of Cormac McCarthy and at other times of Denis Jonson, Pollock is a true original, and his voice is all his own. This collection of short stories paints a bleak but never melodramatic picture of life in the (real) town of Knockemstiff in Southern Ohio. The inhabitants’ struggle just to get on with life is all the subject matter he needs, and although there is plenty of violence and depravity, it never feels forced. It’s just how it is, and this sad truth is described with shocking beauty. He published a novel, The Devil All The Time, last year – if anyone’s read it, I’d love to know what you thought. I am definitely adding it to the pile.

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