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Showing posts with label amy liptrot the outrun. Show all posts
Showing posts with label amy liptrot the outrun. Show all posts

Tuesday 7 April 2020

Review: Yrsa Daley-Ward, The Terrible

I read this book at one sitting (rare) and had no real quibbles (also rare). True, it’s not quite as big a read as its 208 pages might suggest - that’s because there is a lot of white space. I’m a fan of white space and don’t mind buying blank pages.

Daley-Ward chronicles a troubled (sometimes traumatic, sometimes chaotic)  Northern England black girl childhood and adolescence in deft, word-sparing sketches which sufficiently evoke character, milieu and feeling to make any more plodding framing (“I was born in … my mother …. my father ….) unnecessary. At no point did I feel lost in what are often quite complex relationships - her mother has three children by three men, for example. This suggests to me that Daley-Ward has deployed a lot of craft skill in shaping her material and a lot of thought in keeping a firm hold on a main narrative thread. She knows what she is doing and it isn’t splurging. (The question whether some of it is poetry rather than prose or vice versa does not interest me, though I see that other reviewers discuss the question).

Daley-Ward sustains that thread from birth to eighteen, often using her precise age as an anchor point. This takes her to page 107 at which point I suspect many writers would have stopped and said, That’s it; done my childhood. At no point did I feel she was using her prose to illustrate some general truth, nor did it feel as if she was writing with the baleful gaze of hindsight and the disapproval of adult judgement. No one really gets hit over the head with an imported adjective; Daley-Ward simply tries to express how she felt about her life and people in her life, sometimes in everyday terms, sometimes more poetically. Both ways, she carries the reader (this reader) along with her.

The bold decision was to continue beyond the age of eighteen and into the fairly recent past (she was born in 1989 so still not thirty when this book was published in 2018). This continuation is written very frankly (to her credit) and my quibble would be to say that when your life is in a messy period it’s hard to give it much narrative shape; there is just a succession of things which happen. You hook up with this person and then move on to the next; you drink and then you take drugs and back round again; you do sex work and then modelling or vice versa. And you live to tell the tale ( those who don’t live simply don’t tell their tale).

The book was awarded the PEN Ackerley prize in 2019, a prize which is given to a British literary autobiography published in the previous year - and with quite a bit of emphasis on the literary; ghost written celebrity memoirs don’t qualify for consideration. Though I haven’t read the other two shortlisted autobiographies, I think this one clearly meets the standard expected for that prize. It sits comfortably alongside Amy Liptrot's The Outrun which won  in 2016 and which also has religious fundamentalism and alcohol as prominent themes. The two books could be read together in a book group; Liptrot is white, grew up in Orkney and was in her early thirties when she wrote her book.

My own memoir I Have Done This In Secret was called in by the judges for the same longlist of twenty six from which Daley-Ward emerged the winner and I would of course be very happy if you read that memoir too. But do read this one first. 

Tuesday 3 July 2018

Review: Jade Sharma Problems

The top executives of contemporary trans-national conglomerate publishing have the same dream and it’s a wide screen Cola advertisement where all are Represented and all have happy smiles and deodorised armpits. No one is angry, no one smells, and no one says Fuck you.

It’s a dream world in which, ideally, Philip Larkin will not write a poem about Your Mum and Dad but if he does then the line will continue they f*** you up. The Cola advertisement is a happy snap of a Sunday school outing, everyone on their way to Heaven because it’s not strictly true that everyone is Represented.

The bad guys aren’t Represented, all those unpleasant people who get angry, smell, swear and who it was always a mistake to invite along in the first place. They probably drive old Ford cars and they will never get to Heaven. 

This novel is a refreshing read, brought to the public originally by a small American independent publisher and picked up in the UK by another independent. It’s not a conglomerate book.  It’s first person narrator, Maya (a name which means Illusion), is a drug addict who is enthusiastic enough about sex to be classed by Sunday school as a sex addict, and who is foul-mouthed and opinionated. She is angry, she smells, and she says far worse than Fuck you. Her life is a mess and Jade Sharma does not spare us the details, creating a novel in the tradition of those which animate their characters through their pissing, shitting, puking, fucking and jerking off. It’s not a book I would recommend to a polite Book Group.

It held my attention for its 220 pages, even though there is always going to be a hazard in making a novel out of someone who is heading towards dereliction. The writing is smart and funny. I guess it belongs in an American tradition which includes William Burroughs, Hubert Selby and Kathy Acker.

Sunday 22 April 2018

Review: Sara Baume A Line Made By Walking

This is very good. There is really no plot, but right through I wanted to keep reading. It’s true that I did not read it as a novel but rather as an autobiography recollected – that is, crafted – in tranquillity. There is an enormous amount of skilful, talented crafting here. There is also a lot going on and any summary will be partial: a young woman holed up in her late grandmother’s isolated bungalow going through a nervous breakdown or, at least, a long episode of serious depression which makes isolation less of a challenge than human contact, less of a challenge than human intercourse. There is no sex and that is very striking and when it is alluded to, it appears only in the context of violence or the threat of violence: being followed, being stalked, being attacked. There is some use of alcohol to escape and consistent use of the natural world both as a thing to think the depression and sometimes overcome it. An obvious compare & contrast book to read beside this one would be Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun (reviewed here on 19 September 2016  ).

The author makes use of two devices which are played off against the main narrative. Frankie (the narrator) photographs animals dead in the garden or at the roadside and each of the ten chapters is titled for the dead animal whose photograph appears somewhere in the chapter pages: Robin, Rabbit, Rat, Mouse, Rook, Fox, Frog, Hare, Hedgehog, Badger - the usual cast of roadside fatalities.  I have my doubts about this. Modern digital printing allows for small grey and white images to be inserted into text (usually as 600 dpi jpg’s), at no extra cost,  rather than separated out onto expensive gloss paper photograph pages. I don’t think these thumbnail snaps work very well, in this book or in others I have looked at, and it may be that Baume’s descriptions would have sufficed – or worked better - without the inevitably disappointing grey-scale photographs themselves. Baume somewhere rightly remarks that making it bigger does not make it art, but in the case of photographs I don’t think you can appreciate them as thumbnails. Miniatures almost certainly do not work as art – that is why museums of miniatures are museums of curiosities rather than museums of art.

Her second device, very impressively deployed, is to find an art work – usually a work of conceptual art – which relates to a theme, a topic she is discussing and to list and thumbnail- describe the work in a separated paragraph which always begins with a formulaic phrase on the pattern of  Works About Killing Animals, I test myself: …

 Some of these works are well-known like Tracey Emin’s My Bed (1998) or Richard Long’s A Line Made By Walking (1967), but most are more obscure. Though Baume at the end of the book (pages 303- 307) urges us to go to the works ourselves, I suspect she has actually and accidentally already illustrated the weakness of conceptual art: that you don’t have to see it, experience it, to respond to it. You just need a description – you just need the Concept which it was designed to illustrate. Conceptual art is basically illustration of an idea, and that is its weakness and banality as art; its realisation (often elaborate and costly, as well as fugitive) is pretty much irrelevant. We can all debate the Concept all night with only a nod to the work which illustrated it. There is really no need for us to confront the work itself, if indeed it exists to be confronted anywhere. Frankie/Baume effectively says as much herself:

Works about Time, I test myself: Christian Marclay, The Clock, 2010. A 24-hour film, a collage of extracts… Each extract represents a minute of the day .. I have never seen it for real. Right the way through from beginning to end. I don’t imagine many people have. Nevertheless, I love this piece. I love the idea. (p 181)

Actually, you don’t love the piece if you haven’t seen it. And it would almost certainly be a waste of your time to watch it. When back in 1997 London’s Tate Gallery screened Gillian Wearing’s Sixty Minutes it would have caused a log-jam in the gallery if visitors had paused for sixty minutes to watch it. The gallery correctly assumed that everyone would give it at most a few minutes, to get the general idea, and then move on. I only had to sit cross-legged on the floor (no seats provided) for 17 minutes to outlast any other visitor in that period by at least ten minutes. What would we say about a commercial cinema film which could not hold its audience for more than a few minutes at most after which they would all leave because they had got the general idea?

Put differently, Baume could simply have made up the majority of pieces to which she refers, and in a work of fiction, who could object to that?  There would have been no loss of idea.

Monday 19 September 2016

Review: Amy Liptrot, The Outrun

This is a lovely book written by a thirty year old woman who has returned to her native Orkney to recover having written off the best part of ten years in London – most of the time spent in becoming an alcoholic and staying that way. The book has a natural honesty, though I would avoid phrases like “searingly honest” since that conventional trope tends to make the honesty a smaller thing than it is.

A large part of the book’s interest lies in the way Amy Liptrot uses her habitat in Orkney – the sea, the rocks, the birds, the wind – as a thing to think with about her predicament. Occasionally, she seems to be trying too hard at the metaphor or at creating what I suppose T S Eliot might have called the “Objective Correlative” of her feelings. But most of the time it does not feel forced and most of the time it is disciplined – the book does not wander off at tangents but sticks to the twin themes of alcoholism and the exploration and inventorying of the natural world to which she has removed herself.

This discipline also helps the book to come across as an act of reparation. She is repairing herself in writing it, making good wasted time by doing something with her life, and also making some kind of gift to other people including those she has alienated along the alcoholic way. That surely is one reason way the reader ends up wanting to wish her well.