Thursday, 20 January 2022

Review by Peter Raynard of "The Thoughts" by Sarah Barnsley

Sarah Barnsley’s debut collection The Thoughts is a wondrous and vital book that pushes the boundaries of what a poetry book can do and the subject it takes on - in this case, the mind (said to be medical science’s final frontier).

Divided into eight sections, (Ruminations, Compulsions, Avoidances, Magical Thinking, Thought-Action-Fusion, Formulation, Treatment, and epilogue) the book follows a coherent narrative arc, which is somewhat ironic given the chaotic experience of compulsive thinking.

Such thinking goes beyond excessive worrying or extended bouts of rumination. ‘The Next Poem’ shows this starkly: ‘I would have to touch everything in my box room in a specified order … and if I got it wrong I had to start over.’ Then in ‘The Thoughts,’ the poem is set out as a table of text with a list of examples (‘grabbing money from naked strangers in bank’) with a box to measure distress levels. In ‘The Horse,’ the metaphorical equine mind is anxious about choking on an apple: ‘and the more the horse tried / to swat the thought away / the more the apple grew.’ 

The approach taken by Barnsley perfectly fits the subject at hand. The poems come in many forms, from your expected black-on-white lineation to the downright surreal - as a questionnaire, a puzzle, funding proposal, and PhD Viva that draws on Barnsley’s experience as an academic. This makes the subject of intrusive and uncontrollable thoughts all the more direct by putting them in everyday examples.

The penultimate poem, ‘Examples,’ was, to my mind, the most moving, as it shows how common compulsive thoughts are in society: ‘We are pilots, lorry drivers, lawyers, firefighters, artists, opticians,’ as well as the types of thoughts they have: ‘an office worker who thought he’d blow up the building / if he switched on the lights.’ Exposure and challenging thoughts are two of the main strategies in treating compulsive thinking. 

This is a superb collection, smattered with humour, that shows a condition many experience but is rarely talked about - one of the many invisible disabilities, and one which Barnsley bravely makes visible.

About the reviewer
Peter Raynard’s two books of poetry are Precarious (Smokestack Books, 2018) and The Combination: A Poetic Coupling of the Communist Manifesto (Culture Matters, 2018). His third book Manland will be published by Nine Arches Press in June 2022.

Saturday, 15 January 2022

Review by Tim Grayson of "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" by Raymond Carver

It's amazing how the great 'realist' writers manage to say so much, with so little. Carver's short story collection is like this, and as real as it gets (unflinchingly so, at times). All of his stories are set in the real world, the situations are realistic (sometimes tragically so), and his characters could easily be our family, friends, acquaintances or strangers we pass on the street. 

The title of the collection (also the title of a short story in the book) is deceptive, as it's not all about love, or what we talk about when we talk about love. Rather, it's focused on a myriad of human relationships: family, friends, acquaintances, and even the relationships between strangers. It's almost as if these stories act as a type of keyhole, through which the reader can peek to see a glimpse of these imperfect lives, and then, when the story ends, the keyhole is blocked off, leaving us sitting in the dark.

For such a short book, it contains a variety of tales, some better than others, some darker than others, some longer than others, but all are charged with such emotional intensity that they'll grab you by the shirt and won't let you go until you finish them. Often, I found myself putting down the book, breathing a sigh of relief, immediately searching for and reading an analysis, and then just sitting there, closed book in hand, thinking about the characters' lives, and the consequences of their actions over and over.

It's written in such a simplistic, straightforward style that anyone could (and should) read it, but just because the stories are relatively short and easy to read, don't let that fool you into thinking it's a 'light' read. It's not. There's so much bubbling beneath the surface here that it deserves time, and respect. As mentioned, I often found myself finishing a story, putting the book down, thinking about it for hours afterwards, and then returning for another hit.

In short: it's simple writing, functional, and yet so incredibly powerful. Like all good ideas.

About the reviewer
Tim Grayson (born 1987) is the poet-in-residence at Belvoir Castle and something of a polymath, with experience in the arts, technology, politics, game design, submission wrestling, fencing, live events and more. He lives in Leicester (UK) with his wife and two children. His work and projects have taken him all over the globe.

Thursday, 13 January 2022

Review by Peter Raynard of "The Underlook" by Helen Seymour

In Helen Seymour’s fantastic debut collection, the poems fizz with controlled anger, satire, and surreal examples of how we navigate a society that constantly dehumanises disabled people.

A lot of the poems echoed my own experience as a disabled person: ending up in A&E and being asked your level of pain from nought to ten: "you have to say nine; if you say ten they think you’re being over-dramatic." Or, feeling disembodied when your condition is being described by a health professional, as Seymour describes in a sequence of short prose poems, "24 Hours in A&E": "Before they clean the blood off, they lever out the driftwood," and in the list poem "Spinal Fusion," where each line begins "the patient will …"

There is a central sequence, "Where is Hugo," about an abduction of a pig by a vegan, with a stand-out sestina "Chase the Forest," which like a number of the poems leaves you breathless with its pace and message. In "My Time in the Hospital," Seymour subverts the idea of passivity, with short lines and direct tense: "Mate, mate - / honestly - / I’m breathing with three lungs."

The most shocking poems are where Seymour rearranges the words of official reports, which further demonstrates the alienation of disabled people. In "Case dismissed of Slaying of Deformed Baby," a baby with a cleft palate was thrown to the floor at birth, and the perpetrator unpunished. The jolting juxtaposition of the words reflects society’s cognitive dissonance and lack of accountability: "Slammed one. Slammed seven. Bring in a realizing. Murder appealed the murder. Sustain."

Seymour utilises the surreal and satire to face up to such injustices and there is much arresting imagery; "I’m sucking in the air of a bouncy castle / breathing in the bumps." Not only is this an impressive debut, it is an impressive and urgent collection, full stop.

About the reviewer
Peter Raynard’s two books of poetry are Precarious (Smokestack Books, 2018) and The Combination: A Poetic Coupling of the Communist Manifesto (Culture Matters, 2018). His third book Manland will be published by Nine Arches Press in June 2022.

Monday, 10 January 2022

Review by Joyce Bou Charaa of "Call Us What We Carry" by Amanda Gorman

"What we carry means we survive, it is what survives us. We have survived us." These are Amanda Gorman’s words in her latest poetry collection, Call Us What We Carry. This collection is a truthful message for all who choose to carry on despite the suffering and the aching that we feel nowadays, during the ongoing global pandemic.

In her poems, Gorman reflects deeply on the emotions that everyone felt during the lockdown: the pains of sickness, the loss of the people we love, the fear and anxiety of death, and so on.

Gorman’s poems in this collection focus on all the stages that the world went through in the pandemic: from wearing masks, to the isolation at home, up till the beginning of the recovery from the virus, by seeking hope and joy amid all this misery. Accordingly, each stage has its own sequence of poems, which Gorman wrote to every person surviving this "nightmare," as she calls it.

At the end of this book, Gorman brings us hope out of poems that focus mainly on the new beginnings of tomorrow, and the blessings of the morning. She writes of hope for the future, when life will go back to normal, and when everyone will finally find peace: "For it is in loss that we truly learn to love / In this chaos, we will discover clarity."

Gorman’s words are as power for our souls, that are suffering, while hoping to live for better days ahead. Her poems help us to take a closer look into our feelings of desperation and anticipation, reflecting on one of the most dangerous diseases that has hit the entire world.

About the reviewer
Joyce Bou Charaa is a Lebanese undergraduate English student and a book reviewer, whose articles are published in The Mark Literary Review and at NewpagesShe has also studied Journalism for two years, and has an intimate knowledge of Arabic, English, and French languages.

Friday, 7 January 2022

Review by Rosa Fernandez of "Terminarchy" by Angela France

The end of the year was a very appropriate time to read and savour this collection of forty-three poems by Angela France, taking us through time and change and closing with ‘Living Yule,’ and I appreciated many of the sentiments expressed throughout. Terminarchy is about the last of a species and speaks about our experience of the world as we come to terms with what feels like a precipice moment. 

The poems speak to many of our concerns about the changing climate, and we can all agree with the voice of Sparrow, whose character interjects with concerns about the unexpected mildness of the seasons: ‘we’ll pay for this’; another character called Wantwite acts as the embodiment of materialism, coming to life to then suffer the consequences.

I enjoy sinking into descriptions of the unique English countryside, so I relished descriptions like ‘flickering clutter of town’ and ‘a violet nestles in a knuckle of root’ and enjoyed the scene setting. The subtle villanelle of ‘Blame’ was particularly powerful and serves as a microcosm of the collection. 

I will say that I felt the worldly concern more readily than I felt the hope; there was a subtle sense throughout of a kind of rejection of technology and progress which I entirely understand but found less easy to read; mentions of Spotify and ‘the new build’ read a little binary (nature: good; technology: bad) and while I agree in part, I feel that our relationship with these new developments may end up being part of the solution. 

As an expression of where we are now, Terminarchy is a thoughtful assembly of poems. The positives in this changing world are hard to pinpoint; one of the things that can help us reflect on the part we have to play is this kind of collection.     

About the reviewer
Rosa Fernandez is a slam-winning poet and sometime proofreader. She also enjoys wearing silly hats. 

You can read more about Terminarchy, as well as three sample poems from the collection, on Creative Writing at Leicester here.

Wednesday, 5 January 2022

Favourite Reads of 2021

At the end of 2021, we asked readers to nominate a favourite read of the year, and write a micro-review of their chosen book. The book could be from any time or genre - the only qualification was that it had to be a book the reader found particularly memorable, striking or enjoyable during the last twelve months. Here below are the responses we received from readers. Everybody's Reviewing wishes all its readers a happy and hopeful new year of reading in 2022!

Kirsten Arcadio

Will Dean, The Last Thing to Burn: "Chosen for its stone-cold thrilling properties, this is a truly excellent novel. Set in a desolate farm somewhere between the East Midlands and Yorkshire it tells the story of an illegal immigrant - a Vietnamese woman - who has been trafficked to the UK in the hope of a better life. The protagonist and villain, a farmer called Len, really rattled me, as did the sheer but horrific plausibility of the scenario the author presents. What’s the sign of a good book? That it stays under your skin afterwards. This one definitely did."

Joe Bedford

Preti Taneja, We That Are Young: "Preti Taneja’s reimagining of King Lear is by turns an intoxicating lyrical odyssey, an urgent dissection of India’s new oligarchy-class, and a brutal commentary on the limits of cruelty, loyalty and family ties. Impossible to forget."   

Kathleen Bell

Nadifa Mohamed, The Orchard of Lost Souls: "Offers a gripping perspective on the fairly recent Somali civil war by taking three points of view: the widow Kawsar within her small community; the child Deqo, an outsider in a refugee camp; and Filsan, a young woman soldier loyal to the dictatorial regime. I cared about all these characters and was desperate to know what would happen to them, so I  couldn’t stop reading - but then was disappointed when the book ended and there was no more to learn."


Garth Nix, Angel Mage: "For me Garth Nix remains second only to Tolkien when it comes to world building. But while Tolkien may have the edge in law and linguistics, Garth wins hands down on 'completed works.'  Angel Mage is a stand-alone book; however, it is as rich in law and character as anything he has written, and I think 'beautifully crafted' is an apt description. The protagonists you will care for, every damn one of them. The world seems to exist in a world that is 'bisexual / genderfluid = normal,'  and yet has no need to shout it out and call any more attention to itself then any of us would to our own leanings without cause. There is a small love affair with The Three Musketeers going on with some of the names and nuances but if the author hadn’t alluded to it in the foreword I’m not sure I would have noticed. For me the book stands as possibly his greatest stand-alone novel."

Barbara Cooke

Janice Hallett, The Appeal: "Picked this up idly when teaching a few weeks on crime writing and was glued immediately. I was wary that  the premise - a murder revealed through a web of emails and texts - sounded gimmicky but it's utterly compelling." 

Isobel Copley

Colum McCann, Apeirogon: "Breathtaking, soul searching, life changing; fortunately readable in short bites."

Sally Evans

Kurt Vonnegut, Gal√°pagos: "A funny, witty extravaganza about extreme world conditions -extinction no less - alluding to Darwin's discovery of Galapagos and narrated by a ship's ghost. Horribly relevant today."

Rosa Fernandez

Tim Dowling, How To Be A Husband: "Of all the books I enjoyed this year, this was definitely my favourite. Hysterically funny (and painfully real) in places, Tim's tales of haplessness and his wife's spectacular ability to take it all in her stride were a great comfort. There's no airbrushing or attempt to filter any of the ugly truth about their relationship, and yet ultimately it's a genuine romance. Not that challenging, but there were times in 2021 that I needed an easygoing read and this fit the bill perfectly."

Kershia Field

Elodie Harper, The Wolf Den: "In a world gripped by Covid, like many others I found myself escaping more and more into stories in a bid to forget the world around me. In The Wolf Den, the world I entered was vibrant, thrilling and completely unforgiving. Set in 74AD, the story follows Amara, a Greek doctor's daughter who is sold in to prostitution after her father dies and her mother is unable to provide for her. What follows is a beautiful tale of friendship, bravery, female empowerment but also what it means to be painfully human in a world where everything seems to be against you. Elodie Harper has done what only a handful of writers have succeeded to do and made me laugh and cry in the space of a few hours. I can't recommend this highly enough and I am really looking forward upcoming sequel The House with the Golden Door."

Beth Gaylard

Andrew Michael Hurley, Starve Acre: "
Hares in rural-centred fiction tend to be symbols of fragility and innocence, but the creature in this book is a demonic force, thoughtlessly unleashed by a couple grieving for their lost child; powerfully written, well creepy!"

Colin Gardiner

Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem: "I was stunned by the diamond sharp prose of Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Didion's collection of essays expose the strangeness of 60s Californian life. She takes no prisoners. A vital, singular literary voice." 

Asha Krishna

Hafsa Zayyan, We Are All Birds of Uganda: "Walking through the streets of Leicester, I was always curious about the British-Asian connection with the Idi Amin regime. I was aware that this was personal history for many families in the city and yet, for a while, I couldn't find any representation in fiction. And then I came across two: like Neema Shah’s Kololo Hill, and We Are All Birds of Uganda, which allowed me to engage with a part of Asian immigrant history through its engaging plot and vivid characters. An eye-opening experience."

Karen Powell

Helen Dunmore, Zennor in Darkness: "Dunmore blends fiction with real life characters (D. H. Lawrence and his wife) in this novel set in Cornwall during the First World War. Beautifully detailed descriptions took me to the Cornish coast, and away from the reality of 2021."

Karen Rust

Viv Albertine, Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys: "It's impossible not to love this memoir of Viv's life at the centre of the emerging London punk scene. A working-class girl, she took up guitar and found herself playing in The Slits, an all-girl band, at a time when women often only sang. Her complete honesty about everything from her sex life to her insecurities is utterly compelling. Her circle included all the main suspects from Lydon to Vicious, Mick Jones to Mclaren and Westwood. A must read.

Ayana Sen-Handley (aged 12)

Robin Stevens, First Class Murder: "The third book in the suspenseful mystery series, A Murder Most Unladylike, First Class Murder perfectly captures the point of view of Hazel Wong, a Chinese girl travelling through Europe on a train famous for murder. When a death on the Orient Express makes Hazel and her best friend Daisy’s trip a lot more exciting than expected, they must solve the murder against all odds, with a little help from new friends and old along the way. The best of all detectives, of course, they succeed in catching the culprit, leaving me in no doubt that this was their most engrossing investigation yet."

Shreya Sen-Handley

Michael Haag, The Durrells of Corfu: "This year of pandemic travel bans has also been, ironically, the year of the travelogue for me, with my own travel book Handle with Care, my third with HarperCollins, poised to come out in a few months, and featuring a chapter on our own Corfu journey. Having grown up with the Durrells’ fabulous stories of this island paradise, I felt the need to revisit those tales, but from other perspectives as well this time; and it was in Michael Haag’s The Durrells of Corfu that I discovered the additional dimensions I’d hoped to find. Energetically taking the story beyond the Durrells’ charmed Corfu sojourn, whilst shedding further light on the many colourful characters that peopled their accounts, Haag doesn’t shatter the enchantment even as he delves into the grittier aspects of the Durrells’ lives, allowing me to fall a little more in love with some of the family, and a little less with others (like Leslie, who doesn’t improve under scrutiny)!" 

Syon Sen-Handley (aged 13)

Steve Englehart, Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway, The Incredible Hulk Epic Collection Volume 6: Crisis on Counter Earth: "Hulk boing. Hulk smash. Hulk good!"

Jonathan Taylor

Beth Ann Fennelly, Heating & Cooling: "One of the very best collections of micro- or flash-memoirs I have come across, each memoir a miniature snow-globe of emotion. Here is a place where memoir and poetry converge." 

Maria Taylor

Douglas Stuart, Shuggie Bain: "Shuggie Bain was one of my favourite novels of 2021. I practically lived in this novel, written by Douglas Stuart with great sensitivity and realism; a realism which could be described in the time-honoured way as 'gritty,' but was one which was ultimately about the love of a son for his struggling, alcoholic mother."

Miranda Taylor (aged 13)

Ken Wakui, Tokyo Revengers: "Tokyo Revengers is a manga that follows Takemichi learning that he can time travel after he dies to save his girlfriend, as he can travel back to his delinquent phase. He then joins the Tokyo Manji gang to meet the leader Manjiro who becomes another person he wishes to save in the future."

Rosalind Taylor (aged 13)

Syundei, Go for It, Nakamura!: "This is a manga about a boy who is secretly gay. It is drawn in an 80s manga style. Nakamura likes a boy called Hirose. He wants to befriend him but is too shy to do so. I enjoyed the plot and it is very well written, wholesome and cute. They also both have similar interests in marine life."

Paul Taylor-McCartney

Richard Powers, Bewilderment: "A tender, often intimate, portrait of loss and survival and of one boy's mission to save his dying planet. Beautifully written and full of so many surprises that make it both unique and memorable. My book of the year, hands down." 

Harry Whitehead

Richard Powers, The Overstory: "I read this 2019 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about trees, protest and our future in a kind of terrible euphoria, shaken by Powers’ elegiac and tragic writing about trees, exhilarated by the profound characterisation, intricate story structure, and his deep knowledge of the subject."

Lisa Williams

Michael Rosen, Many Different Kinds of Love: "Michael Rosen has touched many of our lives. In 2020 he got poorly. Really poorly. This book is a record of that time and a monumental time in everyone’s lives – the start of the Covid Epidemic. It isn’t just Michael’s story - while he was in a coma the hospital staff that sat with him had the opportunity to share their stories too, in a notebook left by his bed. This isn’t just a book. It’s isn’t just a social history. It’s a reassurance to those that lost friends and relatives in hospitals at that time, that their loved ones probably had the same love and compassion from the NHS staff. It is one of those books that I’ve wanted to pass onto everyone I know since reading it."

Lee Wright

Eric Vuillard, The War of the Poor: "Sixteenth-century Europe and the poor are no longer willing to wait until they get to heaven for equality to be granted to them. Led by Thomas M√ľntzer, they go in search of it on earth."  

Thursday, 30 December 2021

Review by Sally Evans of "The Retreat" by Alison Moore

A well-written novel evocative of the imaginary Mediterranean island at its core, I found the story a little difficult to unpack, in that there are two parallel narratives of two different young women visiting the tiny island, one to attend an artists’ retreat, the other to write a novel. The first one introduced is Sandra, whose reality pervades the main story. She is a dithering would-be artist and photographer who pursues a lone quest among the other people on the retreat, who gang up against her and ostracise her, none of them appearing very capable in their own work. Scenes show squabbling over the food, music and entertainment in the house of an evening, while Sandra makes solitary expeditions round the island in daylight. The house has a ghost which never fully reveals itself, as nothing is fully revealed. There's a transience to this story, as Sandra futilely tries to fit in where she cannot.

Carol, the other protagonist, is going to write a novel. I at first guessed that Sandra’s story was the novel Carol was writing, set on the same island to which she was returning, with more of the history of the island and a smaller offshore isle, which Sandra, at the end of her story, tries to reach. There has been a death, we assume Sandra’s, when Carol arrives at the smaller island at the end of the book. 

The novel is about the attraction of place and the desire to record its beauty, whether in writing or art, and about the incompleteness of short associations with place. The boatman, who takes supplies and post to the island, although shadowy, is the only character truly connected to the place. 

I ended with the feeling I ought to know more about Carol. She is introduced in the future tense narrative, telling where she is going, and what she wants to do, then she is shown gradually approaching the island. Both story strands are mainly told in the present tense, apparently simultaneous until Carol reaches the smaller island at the end of Sandra’s adventure. There’s a lot of atmosphere, detail and almost teasing about the plot, a not-quite-stated ghost narrative about a silent film star, who once lived there.  It’s a novel where the work of reaching conclusions is left to the reader. Sandra is beaten; Carol departs in haste, but the long-gone film star remains silent.

About the reviewer
Sally Evans is a bookseller and poet. Her books include The Bees (2008) and Poetic Adventures in Scotland (2014), both from Diehard publishers. She edited Poetry Scotland for 20 years, and is currently studying for a PhD at Lancaster University. Her novel Wildgoose: A Tale of Two Poets was published by Red Squirrel Press in 2021. You can read a review of it on Everybody's Reviewing here

Monday, 13 December 2021

Interview with Catherine Menon


Catherine Menon is the author of Fragile Monsters, published in 2021 by Viking. Her debut short story collection, Subjunctive Moods, was published by Dahlia Publishing in 2018. She has a PhD in Pure Mathematics and an MA in Creative Writing from City University, for which she won the annual prize. She’s won or been placed in a number of competitions, including the Fish, Bridport, London Short Story, Bare Fiction, Willesden Herald, Asian Writer, Leicester Writes, Winchester Writers Festival and Short Fiction Journal awards. Her work has been published in a number of literary journals, including The Good Journal and Asian Literary Review and has been broadcast on radio.

You can read a review of Fragile Monsters on Everybody's Reviewing here. You can read more about Fragile Monsters on Creative Writing at Leicester here

Interviewed by Jonathan Taylor

JT: What was the original starting point or inspiration for writing Fragile Monsters?

CM: The inspiration for Fragile Monsters came from the bedtime stories my father used to tell me about his own childhood in Pahang. It was only as an adult that I began to understand the context of these stories. Kuala Lipis, where he grew up, was the headquarters of the Japanese army in Pahang during the occupation. 

I began to read memoirs and interviews with other people who’d lived through that time, and I was struck by the extent to which all of these speakers were taking ownership of their own narratives. They were describing what had happened to them, but with a focus on the emotional truth rather than the specific events. This was an amazing thing to realise: the sheer resilience that they had had to show in order to take back control of the past.

JT: How far and in what ways did you draw on autobiographical material in writing Fragile Monsters?

CM: Although the inspiration for Fragile Monsters came from my own family history, all the events and characters in Fragile Monsters are completely fictional. Looking more deeply, though, there are certain aspects of the character of Durga with which I feel an identity. Her desire to connect with her past and define her own interpretation of her history, her ancestors, her place in society – that’s something I can strongly relate to. So often we’re led to feel that our lives are out of our control: if we’re born into a particular society, culture or family then that will dictate who we can become. Durga struggles against that and has a fierce desire to create her own identity, even where this means moving half a world away. 

More generally Durga is, I think, a representation of some of the pressures which modern women face. She’s driven to succeed and because of her chosen career feels that she has to fiercely repudiate other ways of looking at the world, such as Mary’s more slippery approach to the truth.

JT: How important is a sense of place in your writing?

CM: This is hugely important to me when writing in general, and was particularly so for Fragile Monsters. The characters are to a certain extent defined by the place: by their history, culture and surrounding society. This was a theme I kept returning to during the writing process, particularly when intertwining the history of the characters with the stories they tell each other, which are of course grounded in myth and folklore. There’s sometimes an expectation that stories from Asian cultures will be somehow made palatable to Western understanding, that the characters will be neatly placed into their boxes: the mystic, the oppressed woman, the ambitious pauper.

The thing is, of course, that stories – and even myths – don’t fall neatly into such partitionings. Durga would have grown up with a similar fusion of stories and folklore as I did: she’d have told stories of pontianaks to terrify her friends at school, she’d have waited for Father Christmas to arrive and she’d have seen stories from the Ramayana on TV on Sundays. Myths and folklore tell us something deep and true about ourselves and the place we live in. In writing Fragile Monsters it was very important to me to acknowledge the power of these stories without falling into the trap of reductionism. 

JT: How important is a sense of history in your writing?

CM: Again, this was immensely important to me. I think that in general – particularly about WW2 – there’s a tendency for history books, education and popular media to focus on the war in Europe. Most people don’t even know that the Japanese invasion of Kota Bharu took place before the attack on Pearl Harbour. This is a shame, because it does a disservice to the unique stories of Malaysians living through the Occupation at the time, and subsumes their identities and narratives into a global, Eurocentric perspective.

When writing Fragile Monsters I spent a lot of time reading through old newspapers, letters and interviews in the British Library. It was very important to me to access primary sources and as far as possible to hear people tell their stories of that time in their own words.

JT: I loved how you threaded mathematical themes and metaphors throughout Fragile Monsters. What part do you think maths plays in the novel? Why do you think it arose as a part of the narrative?

CM: I wanted to explore the way we all tell stories about our past, the way we mythologise certain events and gloss over others until we’re no longer even sure what our real memories are. Obviously Mary does this by co-opting folklore and mythology to create a slippery, evasive history – but it was also important to me to show that this isn’t the only way we reinvent ourselves. Durga, of course, is the exact opposite. She values logic, certainty, a kind of rigorous and exacting thought process that doesn’t allow for something to be “right, instead of true,” as Mary tells her. But of course, that’s just as reductive a way of looking at the world, and misses out just as much.

JT: In a wider sense, do you think there are overlaps between maths and storytelling, or writing?

CM: For me, mathematics and writing come from the same creative well. They're both a search for the right way to express a concept that exists only in potentia and to communicate it to your readers. When we judge a mathematical proof we use words like elegance, interest, beauty - the exact words we use about a piece of writing. Pure mathematics consists of sitting very quietly, inventing abstract objects and thinking up relationships between them – then stretching those relationships, putting the objects together in different ways, looking at them from different angles … everything that you do with characters in a novel!

JT: How and why did you go about structuring Fragile Monsters around parallel, inter-generational stories?

CM: I knew that I wanted to tell both stories in parallel: Durga’s compressed few weeks when she’s discovering all these secrets, and Mary’s entire life which has given rise to them. There are also a number of deliberate points of confluence between the two narrative flows: the crises and tensions of Durga and Mary’s lives arise in similar ways and at similar points. I also very much wanted to show Mary as herself, rather than solely in terms of her relationship to Durga. We have so few representations of older women in literature, and a lot of those treat these women – these grandmothers, they’re often called in rather disparaging tones, as though they’re nothing else! – as essentially stereotypes. 

Of course, it isn’t as simple as that. Mary’s story is in fact told not by herself but by a disembodied voice identified strongly with Durga. This allowed me to suggest to readers that Mary is, perhaps, just as much a construct and product of Durga’s imagination as she is of her own. Durga is telling Mary’s story for her, both literally and metaphorically.

JT: You write short stories as well as novels, and published a brilliant collection of short stories, Subjunctive Moods, before Fragile Monsters. How did you find moving from one form to another? What do you find are the different challenges posed by the two forms?

CM: I really enjoy both forms, but they do present such different challenges. A short story feels to me like a suspended moment, like the pause before a breath. Obviously short fiction doesn’t have to be limited in time – I’ve read some wonderful short stories, such as some of those by Jhumpa Lahiri, which cover an entire life – but there still needs to be that sense of the narrative arc being pared down to a brittle sufficiency. Novels, on the other hand, feel like an immensity of riches. They require a very strong sense of balance between the events of the plot and the development of the characters, and this needs to be sustained over 80,000-odd words. For myself, I found in moving from short stories to novels I definitely needed to recalibrate my mindset; to feel that I had room to settle into the longer work and do it justice.

JT: Are you working on anything new at the moment?

CM: I’m currently working on my second novel, which explores similar themes of science, storytelling and coming-of-age. I’m immensely excited about it, and about making friends with the new characters. It’s been hard to leave Durga and Mary behind, but I’m very much looking forward to the process of creating new characters and complexities.

About the interviewer
Jonathan Taylor is the director of Everybody's Reviewing and the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. His books include the novel Melissa (Salt, 2015), and the memoir Take Me Home (Granta, 2007). 

Friday, 26 November 2021

Review by Cathi Rae of "is, thinks Pearl" by Julia Bird



It is almost completely apposite that I almost didn’t get to read this collection, because the younger French Bulldog (a voracious consumer of all books) got to the post before me. The first piece “Helium Pearl” describes the chaos of the helium balloon seller trying to manage his fat cartoon dogs – I know his pain.

This is a hard-to-categorise collection – poems, prose poems, tiny gems of memoir. I don’t think it matters – imagine Pearl, the jewel at the centre of each piece as the perfect flaneuse – taking you by the hand and opening up the marvellous, the mysterious and the beautiful within the humdrum.

Julia Bird’s powers of observation are razor-sharp; these pieces read like perfect icons where every detail is imbued with leaf gold. In "Liquid Pearl,"

          when the Mayor reopens the lido 
          Pearl takes to the water
          in a blow-up chair the shape
          of a size fourteen flamingo

There is magic, magic realism, another way of seeing at the core of so much of this work. Describing a night club in “Violette Pearl,” Bird writes:

          ... but how the haze, the synthesis
          of dry ice and Silk Cut smoke,
          looks for all the world like
          bluebells in a birch wood seen
          from the far edge of a distant field.

Take a walk with Pearl – you may never see the world in quite the same way.


About the reviewer
Cathi Rae is a spoken word artist and poet. Her debut collection is Your Cleaner Hates You and Other Poems (Soulful Publishing, 2019). She is currently working on an M4C-funded Creative Writing PhD at the University of Leicester on telling marginalised lives through poetry.

You can read a review of Cathi's collection on Everybody's Reviewing here