Wednesday 12 June 2024

Review by Harry Whitehead of "Merchant" by Alexandra Grunberg

 

 

Grunberg’s promising debut paints a dark picture of a far future, climate-broken, quasi-fantasy Earth where the few survivors of "The Flood" eke out meagre lives on mountain tops above lethal seas. Jessica, a half-Jewish girl and the "merchant" of the title, lives in a Venice relocated to the slopes of K2 in the Himalayas. Cem is a Venetian boy slowly falling into the mindless "hiss" of the Feral who haunt the darker caves. Shinobu is a scribe to the Empress of Fuji, whose people provide algae-block food for the world’s few human survivors with their still-functioning tech.

Jessica has memorized all of Shakespeare’s plays and regularly performs them in the segregated streets of Venice. But when she pushes a Fujian sailor into the sea to be devoured by the ever-present eels, she sets off a riot that results in many of the other Fujian sailors’ deaths and the algae blocks stop. Now Jessica must travel to Fuji to persuade the empress to forgive the Venetians and not to let them starve. And Shakespeare will have final word.

There’s certainly much to enjoy in the novel, with unusual settings, and folding Shakespeare’s words intrinsically into a dystopian, fantastic world, as well as loosely using The Merchant of Venice as a story model. Some of the writing is truly unsettling and often beautifully rendered. Broken statues "wore their pain plainly, told it clearly, even in their resolute silence." Less clearly carved at times – forgivably in this the first novel by the author – is the narrative direction, the central crisis and its direct connection to the actions of the protagonists. Jessica helps inaugurate the journey to Fuji (and, of course, pushes the sailor to his death, though we do not directly see this vital inciting action). Yet then Jessica becomes often almost invisible through the novel’s second half. She is a bit-part player, a pawn for others – the Empress, the antagonist (if there is one) Dario from the cannibalistic city-state, Les Alpes. The story meanders, rather, through the second half, towards – for this reader – a somewhat abrupt conclusion.

But I don’t want overly to critique an often potently imagined fantasy eco-fiction by a debut novelist. The book is professionally produced by Goldsmiths Press (although the non-indented, double-spaced paragraphs look more like a philosophical tract of aphorisms and, at first, had me trying to read more meaning than there was into a paragraph. The work’s genre and style do not suggest such a layout). Overall, Grunberg has written a deeply imagined and passionate novel and I look forward to seeing how her work evolves.


About the reviewer
Harry Whitehead a novelist, academic and researcher on climate change and the arts at the University of Leicester, UK, where he directs the Centre for New Writing.


Thursday 6 June 2024

Review by Peter Raynard of "Still City: Diary of an Invasion" by Oksana Maksymchuk



There has never been a time of global peace; the nearest was the two hundred year Pax Romana (Roman Peace) at the crossover into the Common Era. Today sadly, after millennia of technological and social progress, wars still abound, whether in Sub-Saharan Africa, Myanmar, or Gaza, Syria, Yemen of the Middle East. Then there is the Russian invasion of Ukraine over two years ago and its continuation of almost WW1-like trench conflict, where unknown thousands of young men die in combat at the whim of the autocrat Putin.

The Polish American poet Czesław Miłosz criticised a vein of poetry that divorced the poet from society. Urging a poetic that was witness to history (which for him was the dehumanising effect of Soviet totalitarianism in Poland post-World War Two), he called it the Witness of Poetry, not ‘because we witness it, but because it witnesses us,’ inferring that because of his experience in Eastern Europe’s upheavals, he is both witness and citizen.

Oksana Maksymchuk is also both witness and citizen. By being so, the urgency and historicity of Still City: Diary of an Invasion (with no daily dates), punches the reader with each entry. There are many dimensions within the experience of modern warfare, for example being both a land war and a digital war.

Friends of friends have died
on the front line
locked up in cellars
buried alive
in their own beds

We mourn them online

There is a deep ricochet of disbelief in what is happening, not knowing how long it will last. Separation is a key theme throughout: ‘he sends a picture of his classroom, desks / abandoned in haste.’ The normality of the past is a haunting in the present, which changes the nature of time (another key theme): ‘was it / years or days ago / that we read our poems / in an underground gallery?’ Life becomes subterranean, so you lose sight of what is going on.

Of course death is ever present, in reality and fiction.

Some say it didn’t happen
others that it was staged
corpses from the morgue
laid out
for an exhibition

In the poem ‘Blank Pages’, she references Hegel’s ‘History is not the soil in which happiness grows. The periods of happiness in it are the blank pages of history.’ History is thus reduced to either a blank page marking peacetime, or in this case filled pages of horror and destruction.

So you cling to the idea of the old normality, when the present is trying to erase it, replacing it to the point where the invasion becomes ‘the unspeakable.’ So we must be glad that Maksymchuk, as witness and citizen, has spoken, and filled these vital pages of history.


About the Reviewer
Peter Raynard is a poet, and editor of Proletarian Poetry: Poems of Working Class Lives. His latest collection is Manland (Nine Arches Press, 2022). His debut poetry pamphlet, The Harlot and the Rake: Poems after William Hogarth, and academic essay on the poetry of Fred Voss and Martin Hayes, are both forthcoming in 2024.


Tuesday 28 May 2024

Review by Maria Taylor of "Grief's Alphabet" by Carrie Etter



At its heart, Carrie Etter’s fifth collection Grief’s Alphabet poignantly explores the loss of the poet’s mother and describes the impact of bereavement. Yet Etter’s collection is also as much about death’s antithesis – it is a celebration of life and the love which binds parents and children. 

This is not a collection which shies away from the painful aspects of grief. Etter’s poems have a piercing clarity about the rawness and truth of grieving that I admired very much. In terms of form, there are a great many prose poems and pieces which work with the white space of the page. In "The Last Photograph," Etter works with the "golden shovel" form to recreate a poignant moment between mother and daughter:

"Smile" I said, positioning the camera for
the last time. You turned slowly; you
struggled to smile, the lamplight a halo, cultivation
of a minor saint. 

The poem is accompanied by a photo of "Modie," Etter’s affectionate name for her mother. I found myself going between reading the poem and looking at the photo and thinking about how "the strength" Etter’s mother took to "lift her face" is a key image in terms of describing the final shot. Etter is unafraid at exploring the more difficult aspects of grief, those in which the grievers somehow blame themselves for the pain of the final days: "Blame this photo on the love or the / selfishness of daughters before they meet the dark."

Etter’s poems have a pinpointed quality at placing the reader in the immediacy of the moment. In "Homing," Etter writes about a trip to see her mother, where the pair are reunited and their close relationship is instantly rekindled: "If rain fell, we lingered, enchanted in the rooms where it could best be heard." The "rain" here works as a cocoon, a natural shield in which mother and daughter enjoy a comfortable companionship: "… we talked like this for days. I was that red cardinal on the white lawn, easy in brightness, except I was two: we."

Grief is often bittersweet; interspersed in this collection are poems of deep love. "An Adoption in 360°" takes us back to the beginning of the "two" as mentioned above, becoming "we." There is something incredibly tender in how the poet describes the day of adoption:

From the front, she carries a swaddled infant,
And both the man and woman’s bodies curve to shield it,
Though it is April in Illinois and the day mild.

From either side the three are one. 

I loved this collection. I found it compelling and have already read many of the poems several times. The inclusion of photographs also heightened my relationship with the poems. Etter has succeeded in writing a deeply personal collection, which at the same time is notable for its lyrical precision and variety of poetic styles when thinking about grief in all its different guises.  Grief’s Alphabet is a deeply memorable and evocative poetic tribute. 


About the reviewer
Maria Taylor is a British Cypriot poet and reviewer. Her latest collection is Dressing for the Afterlife (Nine Arches Press). She has been highly commended in the UK Forward Prizes for poetry. She also works as Reviews Editor for Under the Radar.

You can read more about Grief's Alphabet on Creative Writing at Leicester here

Friday 24 May 2024

Review by Martyn Crucefix of "Mappa Mundi" by Paul O'Prey



Paul O’Prey’s beautifully designed chapbook from The Melos Press contains a mapping of the poet’s dealings with the world, though every step taken through the outer topography has a powerful resonance with the life within. The epigraph from Rilke’s Duino Elegies nudges the reader in this direction: ‘The world is nowhere, my love, if not within.’ The original Hereford Mappa Mundi was created around 1290 and is described in the opening poem with its ‘seas of fire, walls of flame,’ basilisks, and griffins. O’Prey takes these mythic elements as psychologically significant, rather than a primitive literalism: ‘More of a mirror than a map.’ These flames and strange creatures lie within.

‘South’ proposes an excellent exercise for poetry writing groups: ‘I take a pen and sketch my own mappa mundi.’ O’Prey’s own sketch straddles London, County Down, an unnamed southerly port of embarkation, tropical-sounding islands, a paradise-sounding garden. This outer journey again sustains, just bubbling underneath, its potential inner equivalent. There are several poems about the poet’s father, who ‘salvaged ships / during the war,’ and who worked and fished along the sea’s edge, absorbing it so much that ‘Last Rites’ images his last days as being subject to a ‘shipwrecked mind.’

These portrayals of English land- and sea-scapes enclose several poems at the centre of the book which look to the Mediterranean, the island of Mallorca in particular. Ramon Llull founded the hermitage of Miramar on the island a mere twenty years before the Mappa Mundi was made. The poem, ‘Miramar,’ vividly captures the island’s terraces, its stony soil, its few remaining hermit monks working the land. The ‘inner’ world here is explored in the poem’s meditation on the nature of prayer: ‘the accuracy of words / is irrelevant – intent is content.’ O’Prey’s mappings encompass the spiritual with the pun here on the content(s) of a prayer and the content(ment) it may bring to the one who prays. This is such a skilfully structured book of just sixteen poems, yet its lightness of touch belies the heights and depths of its journeying.


About the reviewer
Martyn Crucefix: Between a Drowning Man was published by Salt in 2023; his translations of Peter Huchel (Shearsman) won the 2020 Schlegel-Tieck Prize. A Rilke Selected Poems, Change Your Life, has just been published by Pushkin Press, 2024. Martyn's blog is here. You can read more about Between a Drowning Man on Creative Writing at Leicester here.  

Wednesday 22 May 2024

Review by Tracey Foster of "Unravel: The Power and Politics of Textiles in Art": Exhibition at the Barbican

 


Textiles are vital to our lives. We are swaddled in them when we’re born, we wrap our bodies in them every day and we’re shrouded in them when we die.*

The symbiosis of text and textiles is as old as mankind itself. The allegorical text of storytelling draws from man's skill to clothe himself: the weaving of a plot, fabricating a narrative and the thread of a story, draw from fireside tales passed on while sewing and mending garments. Our ability to create both fabrics and fantasies has enabled us to record our stories in word and weaving. The current exhibition at the Barbican, Unravel: The Power and Politics of Textiles and Art, has curated a vast range of examples from different cultures and viewpoints that explore the ability of fabrics to record our narrative through touch. 

Entangled in a textile are the knowledge systems of Indigenous people, who for centuries have used thread as a means for communication - to share information, to tell stories and express themselves.

A single dyed thread of indigo cotton expresses a multitude of connotations - of empire, colonial ruling and enslaved peoples - and at one point was said to be in equal in value to the people who slaved to produce it. Textile artists have explored this tale by deconstructing dyed garments to their constituent parts and remodelling them into exhibition pieces, using stitch, applique and embellishments. The artist's mark making, like words layered upon the cloth, trace the tale of our recent histories. Stitching through time has been a subversive act, a mostly female occupation, and seen as the default setting for the demure, domestic members of the household. Young girls were taught needle work from the age of five and expected to learn contrition by being silently contemplative. The bent female head was often portrayed in paintings and tapestries throughout early periods. These females learnt to bend the rules even whilst being compliant - for example, by depicting midwives at the nativity scene despite their presence being banned by the ruling church. Defiance in diligence became a way for them to express themselves, using the power of the needle when the pen was denied to them. This act has transcended ages and has seen modern textile artists continue to express emotions and defy conservative views through fabrics.

Stitching can be a subversive act: thread can work as a language to challenge fixed ideas and voice free expressions.

Tracey Emin’s quilt, No chance, allowed her to voice her feelings as a thirteen-year-old girl in 1977, the year she was raped. Old blankets and clothing were used to express these emotions and combine home comforts with the raw truth of her experiences; the decision to pick out the powerful text in a homely blanket stitch conveys the duality of safety and violation. 

For Judy Chicago’s Birth tear/tear embroidery, she collaborated with over 150 women to share birth experiences of the mythical, the celebratory and the painful to create a visceral response to the iconoclastic images of the virgin birth. Her method of using nine needles at a time each with three threads emulates the numerical symbolism of the holy trinity and the stitching following painful childbirth. 

T. Vinoja’s Border and Bunker explores her experiences of the Sri Lankan Civil War, creating aerial maps informed by her own memories and the testimonies of others. Stitches and salvaged textiles form borders, excavation routes, tents, checkpoints, bunkers and burial sites. During the war, she and her father used clothes to craft bunkers and temporary shelters by filling used saris with earth. She has spoken of the individual stitches as reparative sutures, emulating how fabric was used as first-aid to wrap and cover wounds.

Textiles are part of our everyday routines — they are in close contact with our bodies and our homes, they are used, felt, touched and seen. As such, the material is invested with personal narratives, making it uniquely suited to communicate the intricacies and complexities of lived experience.

Not all the contributors to the exhibition are female as men also turn to fabrics to explore their feelings and express their frustrations of conforming to male stereotypes. They use a perceived feminine artform to play with expectations and social narratives.

Women, men and nonbinary artists have both resisted and reclaimed these limiting approaches to the medium, questioning gendered and value-based binaries and using the act of stitching as a radical practice.

Jeffery Gibson drew from his Choctaw-Cherokee heritage and traditional powwow ceremonies, particularly those worn by the Northern Paiute people as spiritual protection in the pacifist Ghost Dance movement, in order to explore his identity as gay man. He plays with the nonbinary gender roles found in many indigenous cultures and his garments are deliberately ungendered.

Politics and art have always been unique companions; this is demonstrated nowhere more simply than the blank wall gaps where artist work has been withdrawn because of the current war in Gaza. Exhibition, explanation and discussion have always been the point of creative artwork, to open dialogue and demand a further look at the intended focus. This exhibition allows a dialogue to be created across cultures, genders, stereotypes and societal norms. Long may the thread be an advocate for communication and understanding. Long may we see more artists using textiles to tell their individual stories.


*Italicised quotations are taken from the exhibition catalogue.


About the reviewer
Tracey Foster started off in a long career as an Art and Design teacher but wanted to refocus her creative energies into writing poetry and prose. She finds inspiration in the past and the events that shape us. Previous work has been published by Comma Press, Ayaskala, Alternateroute, Fish Barrel Review, Mausoleum Press, Bus Poetry Magazine, Wayward Literature, Zine magazine and The Arts Council and she writes her own blog, Small SublimeHer work is currently on exhibition at the Ikon Gallery


Friday 17 May 2024

Review by Joe Bedford of "The Son of Man" by Jean-Baptiste Del Amo

 


Jean-Baptiste Del Amo’s latest novel, The Son of Man, opens with a promise. It introduces a context for human experience that places humanity within a continuum that stretches back millions of years, and within an ecology in which our species is far from the centre. But quickly, this promise evolves into something unexpected. While Del Amo’s forensic prose style works to decentre and estrange the human experience, the family at The Son of Man’s core firmly re-grounds the novel in a familiar, all-too-human drama. The drama is contemporary, yet fundamental – the burden of a son trying to understand his difficult, authoritarian father. It is so fundamental as to form a kind of anthropological abstract, a kind of basic human story that could be applied as easily to Neanderthals as to us. In this sense, the obsessive precision of Del Amo’s prose does less to paint our species as another animal, an integrated part of a wider ecosystem, as it does to portray us as a species bound to predictable human melodrama. Whereas other novels have decentred the human by placing us within our ecological context (as in The Overstory by Richard Powers), The Son of Man works to remind us that to resist the personal, as Del Amo achieves, is not to transcend the human. As an exercise in naturalism, Del Amo rarely attempts to rise above the basic human myths that we recognise not from nature or experience but from the history of narrative fiction. And perhaps this is the point. The Son of Man is not the story of a real human family, seen in naturalistic detail as if under a microscope, but a story of archetypes that subtly reflects upon our species as storytellers, not as animals. If the human experience is decentred within the novel it is not replaced by a biological core but by a myth of humanity which has informed the stories we tell about ourselves for thousands of years. It is not a hopeful story. It is not, by definition, an original story. It is rather a story which the reader could imagine stumbling across on the walls of a Palaeolithic cave – a story which, no matter how we develop as a species, will be told again and again and again.


About the reviewer
Joe Bedford is an author from Doncaster, UK. His short stories have been published widely, and have won numerous awards including the Leicester Writes Prize 2022. His debut novel A Bad Decade for Good People was published by Parthian Books in June 2023.

Tuesday 14 May 2024

Review by Tracey Foster of "Shadowlands: A Journey Through Lost Britain" by Matthew Green



Imagining our home, town and local landscape as a wasteland; envisaging the future for our sea-ravaged coasts and climate-battered green spaces is a real prospect that we face today. Matthew Green makes this all the more possible with this well researched book as he takes on a journey through existing derelict sites here on our own British soils. These include places simply eradicated through disease, plagues, coastal erosion, storm surges and land acquisition, leaving us with a ghost map of former communities. Green, a historian, writer and broadcaster, knows how to tell a good tale and evokes a sublime sense of the uncanny with descriptions of visits to these sites. Abandoned homes, half-shelled churches, submerged dwellings and fake buildings make ideal sites to set a horror movie.

The cult of the picturesque began in the eighteenth century and the hunt for the ideal gothic ruin set the middle classes wandering over our own local sites of abandonment. Prior to this no one cared enough to notice and nature was left to take over where man had fled. The passion for old antiquities saw an outbreak of "ruin poetry," waxing lyrical about the joys of the desolation and pathos that surrounded such sites. Old ruins became national monuments and were put back on the maps. The romantic movement that followed revelled in the desolate, evoking reverie to ponder life, death, longing, absence and mourning. One such place to inspire scores of collections of poetry was Dunwich, Britain's lost Atlantis. This was a whole city built on the Suffolk coast, comprising several large churches and a thriving port. A series of huge storm surges eroded the cliffs beneath it and its demise was recorded in early photographs and newspaper reports. The sad sight of a graveyard tumbling onto the rocks below brought many visitors to the site, to write, paint and muse on life's fragility. The writer Henry James being one of them, this prompted him to say: "Sadness hung in the air like the salt spray of the sea; a sense of squandered potential pervaded everything and yet was somehow uplifting."

Green also gets special permission to visit the military training zones on Norfolk. This was land acquired during WW2 that encompassed several old villages on the promise to return them after the war. Several residents left notes pinned to their front door for the army, asking them to take care of their family’s homes in the anticipation of a return. What is left behind now is a ravished wilderness and bombed-out buildings. Very little remains for those families to return to apart from the church where they are allowed back one day a year at Christmas to tend graves and gather to sing hymns: "The path of lime trees leading to the church is specially illuminated and on those bittersweet occasions, the cadences of their song, the streaks of the choir, the gushing of the air through the bellows of the organ effuse from the glowing nave, soaring over the shards, the mounds and the ruins of deserted and disfigured villages, transforming them through the redemptive power of sorrow, and resurrecting them in the theatre of the mind."

What Green did find there was a range of fake building shells, made up in fine detail to replicate medieval Normandy towns, German hamlets, post-war Soviet concrete jungles and even a market town of Basra, simulating the ongoing challenges of today's army recruits: "It was one of the eeriest, most disquieting places I have ever set foot in."

Green travels from the top of Scotland in St Kilda on a journey through lost Britain to the submerged village of Capel Celyn in Wales and takes us with him. Embarking on this journey and in the process losing his father and his marriage, he faced a long period of emotional turmoil: "Ambushed by memories, with the past hanging like a pall in the air, the present seemed so thin as to barely exist at all."

His personal circumstance is in tune with our times. The British psyche, used to change, as our land mass alters and shifts through waves of invasion and geological movement, looks set to face the greatest alteration of all. This book is a fascinating insight into the previous lives that were altered, communities that were lost and the warnings we can take from a long view of nature's reclamation. 


About the reviewer
Tracey Foster started off in a long career as an Art and Design teacher but wanted to refocus her creative energies into writing poetry and prose. After helping others find inspiration in the world around us, she took an MA course in Creative Writing at Leicester University and has not looked back. She finds inspiration in the past and the events that shape us. Previous work has been published by Comma Press, Ayaskala, Alternateroute, Fish Barrel Review, Mausoleum Press, Bus Poetry Magazine, Wayward Literature, Zine magazine and The Arts Council and she writes her own blog, Small Sublime, here


Monday 13 May 2024

Review by Constantine of "Legion of Lost Letters" by Debasish Lahiri



Legion of Lost Letters is such a wonderful title, the alliteration bringing with it the promise of historical adventure and discovery, and it delivers.

These are poetic stories. To call them "Poems" is apt, yet I feel the need to mention that these, while not as epic in scope as the Greek and Latin poems of old, are no less complete in the picture they create. Most modern poetry, by contrast, tends to lend itself to a singular frame in time, a snapshot of an object or feeling

The book opens with "Ovid Contemplates writing his Fasti at Tomis," and while the form and meter are the author's own, I was amazed at how Ovid’s voice came through the piece.  Indeed I could hear the same voice and inflexions in my mind as I would hear when reading a translation of Ovid's works (I alas have no Latin).

With the next poem, though it confused me with the given date, I could again feel the authenticity of the voice. To be sure, the poems / stories here are the imaginings of the author. However, even so, they paint as real and vibrant a picture as one could hope for. Each voice is different enough that you can suspend disbelief and let the characters live out a life in your head. Some voices are colourful, using the most beautiful and descriptive of words. Others are less educated, and younger, but no less real or vivid. 

Most seem unwilling travellers, though. They have landed in Albion (except dear Ovid) and are trying to make the best of what they have. There are anachronisms in plenty for those in the know, and they are intentional as far as I can tell. Indeed the author warned me to "Look out for the anachronistic embedded in the authentic." ( Words I feel he might have mentioned in his introduction).

For myself, I am left a tiny bit wanting. Not with the poetry, it is beautiful. Not with the stories: they resolve as far as they should and with skill. But I wish the author had added a bibliography of works, papers, etc. that had inspired him. Still, this is a small thing in a wonderful work, and possibly I am the only one who would care. Indeed for those who love this period, these poems could be a wonderful jumping-off point for your own study,

In short, the poems are beautiful. The ill-fated Aelle and her lover now have a life lived in my imagination. I have seen Royal Roman elephants in Chester through eyes that were not my own and felt the remembered rays of a Latin sun under a northern sky. 

Read it.  


About the reviewer
Constantine is an autistic writer and father best known for Pablo on CBeebies and The Cats of Charnwood Forest. He left leicester university in 2022 after completing an M.A. in Creative Writing.

Monday 6 May 2024

Review by Jon Wilkins of "The Empusium" by Olga Tokarczuk



A horror story – not my usual thing.

Olga Tokarczuk – I have heard of her but never read her work.

A nod to Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain – a novel I’ve not read.

Empusium – I could not find a definition.

The story begins in September 1913. We meet a young Pole, Mieczyslaw Wojnicz, who is suffering from tuberculosis as he arrives at Wilhelm Opitz’s Guesthouse for Gentlemen in the village of Görbersdorf. 

This is a health resort in the Silesian mountains. We meet the staff. We see the beautifully described landscape. The director's wife commits suicide. Life goes on as normal.

Each night the residents of the resort meet to take a hallucinogenic local liqueur and we read their conversations as they interact. Together they discuss the great issues of the day: should there be a Monarchy or should democracy prevail? Do devils exist? We are asked if women are born inferior? Must there be war, how do we find  peace? 

The residents' place in the novel seems ambivalent. But they decide that the female brain is smaller than a male's; that women are delicate and sensitive, and impulsive. They find that women are at an earlier stage of human evolution and that because women are socially challenged, they must always rely on men. 

Misogynistically, they decide that the female body belongs not to individual women, but to humankind in general. They affirm that nature having endowed men with fertility, nature didn’t give the female the ability to control it. 

It is painful to read these views. Despite this, Tokarczuk assures her readers that all the misogynist passages in Empusium are taken from writings including such as St Augustine, Conrad, Darwin, Freud, Hesiod, Lawrence, Milton, Nietzsche, Plato, Racine, Shakespeare, Swift, Wagner, and Yeats. The residents of Herr Opitz’s guesthouse are obsessed with patriarchal ideas. To them, patriarchy is the natural order.

How does this all impact on the story that flows from these people? You will need to read the novel to find out!

Tokarczuk tells us that, as life goes on in the sanatorium, disturbing things are happening in the guesthouse and the surrounding forest and hills. There seems to be someone, or something, watching them, attempting to penetrate their sheltered world. As Wojnicz tries to unravel the truth and the malevolent forces outside the guesthouse, fate has already chosen the next target.

What is Empusium? Tokarczuk has come up with her own definition, melding together roots Empousa and symposion. But who, or what, is the Empousa? I quote from Samuel Tchorek-Bentall: "In the comedies of the playwright Aristophanes, she is described as an enormous shapeshifting beast, a bull at one moment, then a mule, then a beautiful woman, then a bitch. Her entire face is on fire, one of her legs is made of bronze, the other of cow dung. Meanwhile, in the third-century Life of Apollonius of Tyana, she makes an appearance as a man-eating spectre, a being 'little affected by the passion of love,' fond of nothing but male flesh."

Need I say more?

This is an amazing book, mysterious and exciting. We have to read on to learn the outcome: it is as if we are taken over by the threatening forces in the book, compelled to turn the next page, to discover who the evil spirits actually are. 

Obviously, Tokarczuk doesn’t take the misogynistic beliefs of her characters seriously. Consequently, the best parts of the novel are not the rather self-indulgent dronings of the patients, but the signs of malevolence that keep appearing: the slimy toad, the headless duck, the mystical female figures created from moss, sticks, fir needles, rotten wood, and other organic materials, which the perverse coalmen use. 

The Empusium is not an easy read, but it is astutely written. The style is old fashioned, but this matches its setting in the 1910s, and adds to the intensity of the tale. Who or what is the malignancy that threatens? Who will survive to tell the tale? It is intoxicating.

A horror story – perhaps I should read more.

Olga Tokarczuk – I need to read more of her work.

A nod to Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain – I must read it.

Empusium - a sexist symposium that Tokarczuk dubs an empuzjon, a neologism derived from the Greek Empousa and modelled, incorrectly from a strictly philological point of view, on symposion, the Greek word for "banquet."


About the reviewer
Jon Wilkins is 68. He is married to the gorgeous Annie with two wonderful sons. He was a teacher for twenty years, a Waterstones bookseller and coached women’s basketball for over thirty years before taking up writing seriously. Nowadays he takes notes for students with Special Needs at Leicester University. He has had a work commissioned by the UK Arts Council and several pieces published traditionally as well as on-line. He has had poems in magazines and anthologies, art galleries, studios, museums and at Huddersfield Railway Station. He loves writing poetry. For his MA, he wrote a crime novel, Utrecht Snow. He followed it up with Utrecht Rain, and is now writing a third part. He is currently writing a crime series, Poppy Knows Best, set at the end of the Great War and into the early 1920s. Next year he takes up the UEA Crime Fiction Creative Writing MA. The game's afoot!