Monthly Archives: May 2023

The Love of Singular Men by Victor Heringer 

This novella arrived while I was sick with Covid. I have had a subscription to Peirene for many years, and this novel, translated from Portuguese, set in Brazil, was up to its high standards. I read it within a day, despite having something of an addled brain due to the virus.

I love being able to access fiction from other parts of the world, and Peirene Press have been an important part of my ability to acquire and read translated fiction. You too could subscribe. The Peirene website is here.

The Love of Singular Men

The Love of Singular Men is a short novel – 170 pages – but full of tenderness, playfulness, rule-breaking and humour. The text is sprinkled with illustrations, some line drawings by the author, some photographs, and other material such as a school report card, or the list of things given by one of the characters. Victor Heringer likes to subvert some classic western literary practices. Perhaps the most striking is his public invitation to future readers, asking them to tell him the name of their first love and, if they chose, their own name. The result is several pages of lists from the responses. It’s a moving way of reminding the reader that there is a great deal of love in the world. At one point Victor Heringer provides a list of classmates and their attributes, or a play script, sometimes incidents are related in the traditional manner. 

The reminder of all the love in the world is welcome, for this novel is set in Rio de Janeiro in the 1970s when life was hard, even in the suburbs. The backdrop is of torture and compromise with evil. One day Camilo’s dad brings home a boy about the same age as his adolescent son.

It was only then I saw his head framed by the rear window. The shaved head of a boy as much a boy as me.
But I had a full head of hair and I wasn’t that coffee-with-watered-down-milk colour. I was red in the summer, and greenish white in the winter. His skull must always have been that same mixture of colours. He looked strong; I was skinny, more breakable, lame. But his eyes looked fragile, like the neck of a small bird, or a puppy that finds itself caught in a rat trap. (16)

The Love of Singular Men concerns two adolescent boys. Camilo is the narrator and born with legs that don’t work well. Cosme, about his age, is the boy brought home by Camilo’s father. As the boys grow older, they become close until they become lovers. It is short-lived but determines the course of the rest of Camilo’s life.

I’d like to say I lived two years in two weeks with my Cosme, but no. Two decades. These things don’t happen. We lived fourteen days. I loved every centimetre of him, but not every minute. In all, there were 20,160 minutes, many lost to school and showers, to lunches. When we were together, still others were lost in silence, with the becauses of silence. Was it because of this or that, was it because I had to do my homework, was it because you don’t like me any more? We said we loved each other, but that wasn’t the same thing it is today. (121-122)

The crux of the novel is a murder, almost senseless, very violent. About half the novel takes place years later. Camilo is now an adult and he invites the grandson of the murderer into his flat. He describes his life, empty of friendships and lovers, dominated by his lost first love, and with meaning and purpose removed.

There are so many contrasts in this short read. Love and violence; able-bodied and physical disability; gender; sexuality; class; ethnicity; adults and adolescents. It’s a heady mix, both in content and in the way it is written.

Victor Heringer

Victor Heringer was a Brazilian writer, born in 1988 who died far too soon in 2018, just before his thirtieth birthday. The Love of Singular Men is his first book to be translated into English. Zadie Smith is quoted on the cover:

Upon finishing it you want to immediately meet the young man who wrote it, shake him vigorously by the hand and congratulate him on the beginning of a brilliant career. But Victor Heringer is gone. He left this beautiful book behind.

The Love of Singular Men by Victor Heringer, first published in 2016 in Portuguese. English translation published by Peirene Press in 2023, translated from the Portuguese by James Young. 180pp

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Seven Steeples by Sara Baume

Long ago, before Covid (the pandemic as well as my own sad bout earlier this May), I read A Line Made by Walking by Sara Baume and was very impressed. I reviewed it in May 2018 on this blog.

What impressed me was the close attention she gave to details of the local wildlife by a young woman struggling with life. She walks, drives and cycles in the surrounding Irish countryside, often finding dead wildlife, which she photographs for a possible art project: robin, rabbit, bat, rat, mouse, rook, fox, frog, hare, hedgehog and badger. 

In Seven Steeples it is the slow deterioration of things which are catalogued.

Seven Steeples

A couple decide to live together, away from their friends, family, history, and the world in a house on the West Coast of Ireland. ‘Them in and the world out.’ They stay for 8 years. Gradually the couple become alike, and the text follows the disintegration of the house, their dogs and their separateness, the grounds of the house and its contents as they simply live.

At times I reacted against the pair, seeing them as without energy or determination (solutions to problems are usually to do nothing), unproductive, even pathetic. This is signalled by the failure of the couple to climb the mountain for seven years, from which they would be able to see seven steeples, among other sights. But the novel challenges dominant ideas about how we should live. This couple, Bell (Isobel) and Sigh (Simon) just exist within the context of very little action. They have no overarching purpose in their decision to live in this way for eight years, only a non-purpose. 

Neither had experienced any unusual unhappiness in early life, any notable trauma. Instead they had each in their separate large families been persistently, though not unkindly, overlooked, and this had planted in Bell and in Sigh the amorphous idea that the only appropriate trajectory of a life was to leave as little trace as possible and incrementally disappear. (17-18)

In an age when humans appear to have made irreversible damage to our natural world, it is interesting to contemplate how to live and make fewer traces. We must collect our benefits, pay our taxes, buy our food, repair our vans, and always dispose of unwanted material items. The experiences of Sigh and Bell contrast vividly with life as most of us live it.

It is difficult for humans not to leave some traces, and in any case the couple’s environment itself cannot help but alter the house and the landscape, the garden and the view. Most of the novel is a detailed description of the small, incremental alterations brought to their lives over the eight years. During this time both the dogs and the humans become interchangeable. 

The descriptions of the slow changes to their environment and their house were the main pleasures in reading this novel.

Red-hot pokers, which they had not planted, appeared in a clump at the end of the driveway – nine fireworks mounted atop the green trail of their ascent, nodding an ominous welcome.
The lilies, which they hadn’t planted either, bowed their discoloured bonnets and stuck out their bloated, orange tongues as a beacon to the hoverflies that crawled inside and supped the last of the lily juice. The cones had fantastic acoustics. A gentle, guzzling buzz became the chatter of a cassette player on fast-forward.
There was a sense of hysteria amongst the insects. (150)

The details in every paragraph are vibrant and telling.

By early autumn the house teemed with insects.
There were the moths that entered last thing at night and tucked themselves into the pockets of cardigans. There was an earwig Sigh carried around in his shoe for an entire day, unharmed, and a mosquito that ravaged Bell in her sleep, a dozen bites from scalp to crotch. There was a posse of fruit flies suspended above the compost bucket like fat dots of floating, vibrating dust. There was a black slug the size of a mouse that criss-crossed the kitchen rug at night, the streak of its slime tracing the outlines of the imitation oriental symbols: a star, the tree of life.
What we need, Sigh said, is a kitchen hedgehog. (156)

There is very little story here, which will not please many readers. Instead Sara Baume gives us a very close look at how insects, plants, weather and so forth interact on human lives, and what happens when the humans do not resist. It’s very strange and very powerful.

Seven Steeples by Sara Baume, published in 2022 by Tramp Press. 254pp

JacquiWine’s review on her blog drew my attention to this novel. You can find her review here from February 2023, in which she describes 

a beautifully-crafted story of withdrawal from conventional society for the peace of a minimalist existence. Alongside this central theme, the novel has much to say about the natural erosion that occurs over time, from the decay of buildings and possessions to the dwindling of human contact and relationships.

A Line Made by Walking by Sara Baume, reviewed on Bookword blog in May 2018. 

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Lyrics for the Loved Ones by Anne Goodwin 

Where can you hear the voices of older women? How often do you hear them or read them? I began the series, older women in fiction, on this blog assuming that I would not find many books featuring the lives of older women. I was wrong. Thanks to many readers I have compiled a list that now contains more than 100 titles, with 66 of them linked to reviews on this blog. This is the 66th post in the series.

Anne Goodwin was an early supporter of this series and has also joined in my quest to see if older women writers have been marginalised. And she answered my impertinent questions on the topic. I think her publication list indicates that it is the independent publishers who are leading the way in taking on older women writers.

Please find this list of reviewed and recommended books here. You can make recommendations in the comments box.

Lyrics for the Loved Ones

It was a pleasure to meet Matilda Windsor again in this second novel in which she is the central character. In Matilda Windsor is Coming Home we met her after 50 years of incarceration in Ghyllside Mental Hospital in Cumbria, where she had been sent as a young pregnant and unmarried girl. That story looked at the new policy of Care in the Community, and how it would affect a person who had been institutionalised for so long.

In this new novel she is now a very old lady, living in Scarrowdale care home in West Cumbria. Matty has developed strategies to deal with her long-term care. She understands her circumstances through her own fantasies, imagining herself as a great performer, for example. She is always upbeat as a result of her mother’s voice prompting her inside her head. She gives everyone nicknames, for example, the ‘Loved Ones’ are the other residents, many of whom find her difficult. Olive Oyl is a politically aware former teacher; Oh My Darling Clementine is the nurse who was much loved by Matty but who could no longer work due to Windrush investigations; Bluebell her replacement has blue hair and so forth.

The novel is set at the time of Covid, and its characters are the staff and residents of Scarrowdale and relations of these two groups. There is a great deal of angst to go round. Not only are the questions and challenges raised by Covid for care homes staff and residents explored through the characters, but they also have other issues, as we did. There is the fear of cancer when treatment must be suspended; a mental health worker who sees the additional toll of the pandemic; searching for past histories to help understand one’s life. Some of the characters are affected by the #Black Lives Matter campaign. The toppling of Sir Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol prompts Matty to imagine that she is to blame for slavery, and she feels terrible guilt. An isolated woman tries to manage with very little support.

Responding to the crisis Matty plans to raise money for the Red Cross by reciting 100 poems, one a day up to her 100th birthday, on her You Tube channel, during lockdown. She is helped by Bluebell, who equips many of the residents with ipads with which to connect with the wider world.

The creative mind of the main character is as engaging as it was in Matilda Windsor is Coming Home. A spotlight is also thrown onto the work of the care staff, especially Bluebell, who reminds us of the many care staff who went beyond what was expected of them, and who provided exceptional personal care and opportunities to the people in their care during lockdowns.

Inequalities were exacerbated during Covid, many already existed. It was a difficult time for everyone, but some suffered more than others, as this novel vividly illuminates, with humour and humanity. It also reminds me of the importance of communicating, creativity, honesty and mutual assistance in times of trouble, and at all times. 

Thanks to Anne for providing me with an advance copy of her novel.

Lyrics for the Loved Ones by Anne Goodwin, published by Annecdotal Press in 2023. 333pp

Related Posts

Matilda Windsor is Coming Home by Anne Goodwin (Bookword July 2021)

Let’s have more older women writers (Bookword February 2020)

Is there Discrimination against Older Women Writers? Interview with Anne Goodwin, author of Sugar and Snails. (Bookword December 2015)

Older Women writers – in demand or not? (Bookword April 2023)

The Bookword page about the series older women in fiction can be found here.

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Homesick by Jennifer Croft

This looked like a good book to read. It was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year and the author was known to me as a translator. It is a coming-of-age novel, and its main charm is the depiction of Amy’s childhood, isolated by her sister’s illness and her own precocity that takes her to the University of Tulsa when she is really too young to cope with the student experience. 

What adult doesn’t look back at some aspects of their childhood with feelings of regret and loss? If home is where the heart is, and Amy’s heart was with her sister Zoe, then homesickness was often with her.

Homesick

The novel closely follows Amy as she and her younger sister grow up in Oklahoma and forge a close bond from Zoe’s birth. Their intimacy is threatened by Zoe’s serious illness, which includes a brain tumour, and requires her to undergo extensive hospital treatment. On her return from hospital the necessity and inconvenience of caring for Zoe means that Amy must leave school and the girls are home-schooled. Amy is cut off from her age group as a result. Both girls decide to learn a new language and Sascha is employed to teach Zoe Ukrainian and Amy Russian. Amy, in particular, demonstrates an aptitude for languages. 

The theme of photography weaves its way through the narrative. Amy seems to need to freeze an image or a scene as protection against loss. 

Amy has taken one Polaroid picture of each room at her grandparents’ house, including the garage, the backyard, and the front yard, and two of the staircase, since they don’t have one at home. (9)

In the four years since she’s had her camera, Amy’s taken fifty-one more pictures of her sister, seven of which feature their dog Santa gave to Zoe last year. The dog is a scruffy Scottish Terrier with a black plastic-looking nose … Amy discovers a way of civilizing both creatures, of teaching them to sit still. They even learn to play dead. (9)

Amy becomes a prodigy, attending the University of Tulsa aged 15. After such a cloistered childhood she is pretty naïve about many aspects of student life, not least drink, drugs and sex. Not surprisingly Amy is not good at it, and the first section, entitled Sick ends with her hospitalised.

The much shorter second section, called Home, takes up Amy’s story several years later as she travels around, mostly in Europe. She takes up many jobs and learns more languages. She seems rootless and it emerges that she is rarely in contact with Zoe. But eventually they are reunited, in Paris, where Amy is currently living with her boyfriend Javi. This is how the novel ends:

The last portrait Amy takes of her sister is a picture of some hot pink letters on the thick transparent railings of the Pont des Arts.
Amy and Javi and Zoe are ambling from the Louvre to the Left Bank. Zoe’s health is reasonably good right now, although she is in pain and still has little seizures, along with strange, fiery, snakelike sensations that course through her veins. It is Sunday; it is summer. Glints and reflections scatter out along the Seine. Amy glances back and says, Un Segundo.
Zoe and Javi draw to a pause as Amy removes her camera from its case. Cradling it in her left hand, she takes a deep breath, studies her subject, and then, very gently, she presses the shutter button down. (219)

The format of the book emphasises the juddery nature of Amy’s childhood and early adolescence. Although it the narration is in the 3rd person, it is written in the present tense, and without quotation marks, all of which give it an immediacy and sometimes an urgency. The text is arranged in short sections, usually about 2 pages long, sometimes 3, sometimes only 1. The first sentence of each section is presented in bold like a chapter heading but despite appearances it is part of the narration.

Much of the novel describes the tightness of Amy and Zoe (A to Z), and the angst of watching her sick sister, or dealing with the sudden death of a friend. The detail of the experience of childhood is excellent. The intensity of being a sister to a very sick sibling, of growing up, of losing childhood and childhood relationships, reminds adults that adults don’t see the world from a child’s point of view.

Jennifer Croft was the translator of Flights by Olga Tokarczuk in 2018.

Homesick by Jennifer Croft, published by Charco Press in 2022. 219pp

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Pod by Laline Paull

I chose this book because it had been longlisted (and now shortlisted) for the Women’s Prize this year. Also I wanted a book to read on the train and this looked good based on my experience of reading The Bees by Laline Paull. I also remembered that my book group had high praise for the earlier book. I wasn’t disappointed. 

Because this is about the oceans, it is also a stark warning to humans about the damage being inflicted upon the seas. However there is a suggestion of optimism based on the adaptability of sea creatures.

Pod

The story is engaging. Life in the oceans is threatened, and the rituals and practices of thousands of years are no longer protection against man-made destruction. It’s a story for our times.

The main characters are very strong. Both are outsiders, one because she does not want to join in the herd activities, and the other because he was raised and trained by the US Navy. Outsiders in fiction are often the rescuers, and between them these two dolphins save the pods.

Laline Paull has an ability to digest and reproduce a great deal of information about the natural world, in this case about two kinds of dolphins, among other ocean creatures. While not ramming her research down your throat, she manages to give the reader confidence that she knows her stuff. The author’s imagination allows us to connect with life in ‘the vast’.

Anthropomorphising can be yukky, but not in this novel. The pressures and challenges of the dolphin pods have parallels in our own world. For example, the movement of people westward that produced the sacking of Rome, and the invasion of ancient Britain by the Angles and Saxons. In much the same way a pod of Spinner dolphins, who know themselves as the Longi, has been chased out of their home within an archipelago in the Indian Ocean. The survivors have relocated to another area and now live a decent quiet life but remember their exodus in an annual ritual. A young female spinner, Ea, hears a warning from a humpbacked whale but does not understand it. 

The distant whale boomed again like faraway thunder. Then as his great billows of sound were still travelling across the ocean, he wailed across the top of them win a harsh and searing lament that filled Ea with sadness and rage. It faded away, and the silence that followed had a different quality. It was over. The whale had passed on, leaving Ea with the ache of relief that someone else understood loneliness and pain. (8)

She is a rebel, but honoured within the pod, which values care, sympathy, and other feminine characteristics. The Longi pod do not encourage strong feelings, but they have a way of dealing with them: the Shriving Moil:  

The older adults began it, moving together at the centre. Now with group permission, everyone released their psychic distress, as a tangible burst of energy in the water. Ea had thought she was the only one in pain, but now she felt it coming into her body from her kin. She wanted to flee, at the same instant as she wanted to comfort them. She pressed her fins back against those people who reached theirs out to her, and were now twisting and clicking unselfconsciously. People were confessing terrible forbidden feelings: anger, resentment rage, thoughts of revenge – it came choking out in ragged clicks and cries. (29)

Ea is greatly upset by a meeting with a shoal of Manta Rays, and her fears take her and her mother into dangerous waters. Having inadvertently led her own mother into the jaws of a shark Ea leaves the pod.

She is taken by force into the megapod of 500 bottlenose dolphins, the Tursiops, the same dolphins that usurped her tribe. The dolphins are much bigger than Ea and she is easily captured by a teenage group. She is raped but makes some alliances within the hareem. This pod is large, noisy and the members are controlled through patriarchal bullying and violence. For example, here is the excitement of the hunt with the bottlenose dolphins.

At last the First Harem began to move. Fused into the greater motion and feeling the ocean again, Ea pushed forward alongside Devi [the number one female]. Up ahead was the massive kinetic power of the male alliance and she let it run through her whole body. She had never experienced this in the Longi pod, but here the male energy was so much stronger. Devi glanced across at her and speeded up. Keeping pace, Ea did not even notice. She was focused on the unfamiliar choreography of the Tursiops on the hunt. Her own peopled had never mentioned it and Ea could not help admiring how they constantly shifted into different patterns, a well-practiced team. (173)

Google, a bottlenose dolphin trained to be used by the US navy, escapes from a mission and wanders alone until he is put on a path to meet the megapod by the same whale as issued the warning to Ea. He meets and falls for Ea, but their time together is too short.

Humans are behind destruction of the ocean: plastic waste floats and creates a barrier in the ocean and interrupts the routes of animals and the spawning season; and there are some fishing fleets that hoover up the dolphins. Some of the bottlenose dolphins are able to escape thanks to Google and Ea and to join the survivors of the Longi to find the whale and his group of survivors. We know this because the prologue hinted at survival.

This is a tale of families, loyalty, survival, sacrifice, and the things that support survival and those that harm the community.

Laline Paull

Laline Paull was born in England. Her parents were first-generation Indian immigrants. She studied English at Oxford University, screenwriting in Los Angeles, and theatre in London. She has had two plays performed at the Royal National Theatre, where she is currently adapting her first novel, The Bees. She is a member of BAFTA and the Writers’ Guild of America. She lives in the English countryside with her family. [From the Women’s Prize for Fiction website]

The Bees was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2015.

Pod by Laline Paull, published in 2022 by Corsair. Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2023. 261pp. 

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