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Book Review: Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler

I hadn’t come across Yara Rodrigues Fowler’s Stubborn Archivist before it was shortlisted together with three other books for the Sunday Times / Young Writer of the Year Award. For me, it’s a perfect example of how valuable this prize is in championing talented and exciting new voices while also broadening their prospective reader base. I’m thrilled to have discovered this book and its author when I did.

When your mother considers another country home, it’s hard to know where you belong. When the people you live among can’t pronounce your name, it’s hard to know exactly who you are. And when your body no longer feels like your own, it’s hard to understand your place in the world.

This is a novel of growing up between cultures, of finding your space within them and of learning to live in a traumatized body. Our stubborn archivist tells her story through history, through family conversations, through the eyes of her mother, her grandmother and her aunt and slowly she begins to emerge into the world, defining her own sense of identity.

Yara Rodrigues Fowler’s Stubborn Archivist shares some common ground with Raymond Antrobus’ poetry collection, The Perseverance, also shortlisted for the same prize. Both it and some of the poems in The Perseverance give a voice to their author’s generation’s experience of having grown up between the parents’ two distinct cultures which are Brazilian British and Jamaican British, respectively.

Stubborn Archivist bursts onto the page with an urgency which immediately grabbed my attention; the style felt like that of a stranger’s hurried confessional, where they’re confiding in you because they know you’ll go your separate ways afterwards. It almost felt as if I had picked up a notebook or journal someone had left on a train, looked to see whose it was and started reading it anyway, when I couldn’t find any identifiers. And then before I knew it, I was too far down the rabbit hole to put it back down where I had found it.

Yara Rodrigues Fowler doesn’t confine the telling of her story to a straight narrative but instead launches into fragments of dialogue or prose-poetry before bringing in more conventional and longer prose sections that we expect to form a novel. Yet even when using these, she often does away with standard punctuation, and gives her story the white space it needs, switching back and forth between much shorter passages of text as and when the story requires. Read more

Book Review: The Naseby Horses by Dominic Brownlow #damppebblesblogtours

Dominic Brownlow’s evocative yet unsettling debut novel The Naseby Horses opens with a teenager returning home only to discover that his sister has been missing since the very same day he was admitted to hospital.

Seventeen-year-old Simon’s sister Charlotte is missing. The lonely Fenland village the family recently moved to from London is odd, silent, and mysterious. Simon is epileptic and his seizures are increasing in severity, but when he is told of the local curse of the Naseby Horses, he is convinced it has something to do with Charlotte’s disappearance. Despite resistance from the villagers, the police, and his own family, Simon is determined to uncover the truth, and save his sister.

Under the oppressive Fenland skies and in the heat of a relentless June, Simon’s bond with Charlotte is fierce, all-consuming, and unbreakable; but can he find her? And does she even want to be found?

While the novel purports to cover the six-day period since Charlotte’s disappearance, Dominic Brownlow cleverly decides to truncate this still further to only three, with the book beginning on the day that Simon returns home. This ensures that Simon and the reader come to the story at the same time, knowing about as much as each other; both have to play catch up, and any confusion on the part of the reader as to what might be happening is only mirrored and even amplified by Simon’s own.

An unreliable narrator he may be but Simon decides it’s down to him to find out what’s going on: “I don’t know what’s going on here and I don’t know the answers to these things, for I don’t even know if they are even things, not merely the shadows of things. I only know that Charlotte is not dead. I feel it within me. I feel her heartbeat next to mine, as I always have, the echo of my own… I have to save her, for that is all in life I have ever been required to do.”

Simon’s resolution will single him out even more in the small Fenland village to which his family only recently retreated from London and make him a target for unwelcome attention. But it’s also a search that takes him through a killer inventory of mystery elements, including his own family’s books and papers; a disurbing painting they inherited with the house; letters from the dead; time spent unravelling the truth behind a local legend that comes with its own curse dating back to the time of the English Civil War; and a list sharing one spooky commonality.

To further complicate things, Simon is taking medication and trying to avoid any more epileptic episodes. The description of the aura experienced shortly before the onset of an episode is wonderfully well done but this different way in which his brain fires and makes connections might be the very thing which also helps him to see the things that no one else can. Read more

Book Review: Salt Slow by Julia Armfield

I bought Julia Armfield’s much-anticipated debut story collection, Salt Slow, shortly after it came out in May this year. It’s since been shortlisted for the Sunday Times / Young Writer of the Year Award and, with the winner due to be announced on Thursday evening, I wanted to share my thoughts on it.

In her brilliantly inventive and haunting debut collection of stories, Julia Armfield explores bodies and the bodily, mapping the skin and bones of her characters through their experiences of isolation, obsession, love and revenge.

Teenagers develop ungodly appetites, a city becomes insomniac overnight, and bodies are diligently picked apart to make up better ones. The mundane worlds of schools and sleepy sea-side towns are invaded and transformed, creating a landscape which is constantly shifting to hold on to its inhabitants. Blurring the mythic and the gothic with the everyday, Salt Slow considers characters in motion – turning back or simply turning into something new entirely.

Beautifully packaged by Picador, this is a fantastic collection of stories about women and their bodies, which relates their evolution in a society that resembles our own but which is also altogether darker and differs to it, or is other.

I may be long past those teenage years spent craving the company of boys as much as the main character in Mantis, the first story in the collection, but she’s also someone who suffers from a debilitating skin condition and this eczema sufferer so identified with her when she describes this: “I dream in sheddings – spend my nights sunk deep beneath sets of teeth and fingernails, the suffocation of skin cast off and left unbodied.”

If the first story chimed with me, the second only served to suggest where we might be heading, if sleep continues to be squeezed out to make room for more work and leisure activities and is no longer seen as fulfilling an essential need. “…our mother told us warning stories about the proliferation of ghosts in big cities… towns that seethed with spectres, mime the permanent unsettlement of a city night” “insisting that cities could not be lived in but only haunted.” In The Great Awake, Sleeps detach from their humans, which leads to conflict between those belonging to couples, uneasy housemates and colleagues for everyone else and a source of jealousy and envy for those left without one and still able to sleep. “It was described more commonly as a phenomenon than a disaster; … an amputation of sorts, the removal of the sleep state from the body… Television became a gradual sea of doubles, of familiar faces and their silent, unaccustomed companions.” It sounds as if this is a state we could evolve into, if we continue to give sleep such low priority.

In The Collectables, three friends mark the last of them being dumped with a bonfire of the keepsakes and possessions accumulated while together with the errant boyfriend. When the dumpee begins a new collection, it escalates into something altogether more worrying. It also might make you think twice about being friendly towards relative strangers, especially if you’re a pizza delivery guy.

Formerly Feral is a brilliant nod to Angela Carter with its twisted take on a dark fairytale where a father and daughter find themselves becoming involved with a neighbour who adopts a wolf. This is one story which has really stayed with me and it’s fascinating to follow the evolving relationships between those left behind in the house, those who left the family home, and those newly moved in. Read more

Book Review: Testament by Kim Sherwood

Kim Sherwood’s Testament won the 2016 Bath Novel Award and is one of the four books shortlisted for this year’s Sunday Times / University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award which is announced on Thursday.

Of everyone in her complicated family, Eva was closest to her grandfather: a charismatic painter – and a keeper of secrets. So when he dies, she’s hit by a greater loss – of the questions he never answered, and the past he never shared.

It’s then she finds the letter from the Jewish Museum in Berlin. They have uncovered the testimony he gave after his forced labour service in Hungary, which took him to the death camps and then to England as a refugee. This is how he survived.

But there is a deeper story that Eva will unravel – of how her grandfather learnt to live afterwards. As she confronts the lies that have haunted her family, their identity shifts and her own takes shape. The testament is in her hands.

Although I’d seen and heard plenty of good things about Kim Sherwood’s debut novel, Testament, ever since it won the Bath Novel Award in 2016 and then again upon hardback publication in July 2018, I only read it after it was shortlisted for the Sunday Times / University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award.

I can’t help thinking that it was the exactly right time to read it though, despite the delay, because I happened to read Testament shortly before meeting up with a Hungarian friend of mine. Telling him the premise behind the book led to him letting me into his own family’s secret history while we pored over the most wonderful collection of old photographs together. And I’m not sure we would have shared that, if Testament hadn’t unlocked a discussion about family secrets and unearthing documents holding the key to those, only after a close relative’s death.

In Testament, video producer Eva, decides to continue her work on the documentary she was making about her beloved grandfather, after his death. It leads her to a discovery which sheds light on a time in his life that he had always refused to discuss with her, or indeed any other family member. In fact, he almost seems to have wiped it from his history altogether by taking on an anglicised name upon his arrival in England and going on to become the renowned painter, Joseph Silk, who worked in his Blue Room studio in the house they shared until his recent death. Read more

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