About Tove Jansson and the writing of letters

16 04 2020

(This is a book review — of Letters from Tove, edited by Boel Westin and Helen Svensson and translated by Sarah Death — but, as sometimes happens with my Jansson-related reviews, it has quite a bit of digression as well. If you’re not in the mood for the digression, just scroll quickly past the text between the two cover images, which are respectively those of the UK (Sort Of Books) and US (University of Minnesota Press) editions…)

LettersFromTove_SortOfBooks

I first encountered Moomin at age 11, picking a book off the shelf at my school library. It was a mistake: I was looking for science fiction. The cover illustration, in concert with the ‘Moom’ part of the title, suggested to my mind that perhaps these were creatures who lived on the Moon; in which case I was interested. But the illustration was whimsical, which wasn’t exactly what I’d been looking for. Ah, well, my eleven-year-old mind thought, perhaps it’ll be funny if it’s not serious. I liked humorous books too.

As it turned out, it wasn’t SF, and it wasn’t significantly humorous. And Moomins didn’t live on the Moon, but in Finland.

It seemed slightly too young a book, heavily illustrated and all that. But something about it resonated, and Moominland Midwinter became my portal into the world of the Moomins. Four weeks later, I’d made my way, in a somewhat disordered fashion, through all eight of the classic Moomin books (by which I mean the sequence from Comet in Moominland to Moominland in November) for the first time. I’ve repeated the journey several times since.

Even back then, I was intrigued not just by the Moomins, but by their creator. (What sort of name was ‘Tove’, anyway? Were her parents Lewis Carroll aficionados?) The back flaps of the library books’ dust jacket covers stated that ‘[Tove Jansson] and her mother and brother are the only inhabitants of a small island in the Gulf of Finland, an hour’s rowing from the next island’, which was at best a half-truth even then. (Not about the rowing, I mean, but about the cohabitation.) But children’s authors in that era were not allowed to be lesbian, or bisexual, or of any stripe other than straightforwardly and undemonstratively heterosexual, if the matter were even ever broached in public. Which, of course, it wasn’t.

For at least the decade after finding that book on the shelf, I searched, largely in vain, for more information about Jansson, and for more of her work. From the other side of the world, back then, there wasn’t much visible. I reread the Moomin books (of which, by now, I had my own Puffin paperback editions). I scoured bookshops, both new and secondhand. Sometimes this bore fruit: I found a time-worn copy of Sun at Midnight (Oswell Blakeston), a travel book detailing a Finnish summer holiday (during, I think, 1956 or 1957) which features a four-page visit to Tove Jansson on her island. (It’s a fascinating record of the encounter, as much for what is left unstated as is conveyed, and it captures Jansson’s mien — her friendliness, her sense of social obligation, but also an underlying standoffishness — quite expertly.) I also found a heavily-discounted copy of Marcus Crouch’s The Nesbit Tradition: The Children’s Novel 1945—1970, which includes a fair two-page exploration of the tone and scope of the Moomin books (alongside a scandalous characterisation of Little My as ‘appalling’, which says more to my mind about Crouch than it does about Little My). And I found The Summer Book, of which in the early eighties there were still copies of the Penguin edition available in one or two Christchurch bookstores. This led me to the realisation that Jansson wrote for adults as well as for children. By this point, the only two other books of Jansson’s adult fiction to have been translated into English — Sculptor’s Daughter and Sun City — were already out of print, but there were copies available in the Canterbury Public Library, which I borrowed. And photocopied. (I don’t still have those photocopies; they have presumably fed a few generations of silverfish. Meanwhile, secondhand prices for the never-reprinted Sun City, which I suspect probably qualifies as Jansson’s least convincing novel, have skyrocketed; my advice to the curious is that that particular book is not worth several hundred dollars for a secondhand copy, even for the sublime incongruity of seeing Tove Jansson name-drop Seattle acid-punk band The Electric Prunes… which itself is an incident I really think needs to be explored further.)

The perceptive among you — which, hopefully, is both of you — will notice that this is quite a long way into my review, and still no review. I’m getting there. Sometimes, like Snufkin’s attitude to tune-finding, these things need to be walked around to. Awaited. Preluded.

The Who’s Who entry for Tove Jansson, in the early eighties, let slip that there were other books — Moomin picture books and novels for adults — which remained untranslated into English. In 1981, I decided to learn Swedish, so I could read the untranslated books. But for this plan to work, obviously I’d need to find a way to buy the books, which weren’t available in NZ. I wrote, first, to the embassy (actually the wrong embassy to start with, because I’d assumed the Swedish-language books would be published in Sweden), and was directed, after next writing to the correct embassy, to the publisher (actually the wrong publisher to start with, because the Finnish Embassy’s information was out of date). But the former publisher directed me to Schildts, her then-current publisher, so I contacted them about purchasing copies of the books. That shipment of 14 books — the six books of her adult fiction then available, the four large-format colour Moomin picturebooks, and my four favourites among the Moomin novels I’d already read several times — was probably the most exciting delivery I ever received, even if I never did actually get around to properly learning Swedish. (I did make an effort, and I have a smattering even now; but I stopped far short of fluency or even reliable comprehension.) Jansson is dead now, and the books are of course almost all readily available in English translation, as so often happens when famous foreign-language authors pass away; but I still regret that I didn’t master the language back then.

I also wrote a letter, back then, to Tove Jansson. And received a reply from her. Which I then somehow lost. I won’t overburden this already preamble-heavy book review with the details of that sequence: you can choose to read it in this earlier post instead, and I hope you will.

LettersFromTove_UMinnPress

Tove Jansson was an assiduous correspondent. She wrote many thousands of letters to the many thousands of fans who wrote to her over the years. She also wrote detailed and incisive letters to friends, lovers, and family members, updating them on a multitude of events in her life, and on her musings on life and her own difficult-to-settle identity. It’s a selection of these latter, often deeply personal, letters which have been collected in Letters from Tove, edited by Jansson’s biographer Boel Westin and longtime publishing contact Helen Svensson. (And if my own personal Jansson-related backstory is allowed to intrude one final, final time into what, by now, should really be asserting itself as a book review rather than a memoir, it was only on picking up my copy of Letters from Tove prior to commencing this review that I realised the name ‘Helen Svensson’ was one I’d encountered before… because, although I’ve shamefully misplaced my letter from Jansson herself, I still have a typewritten letter, on blue Holger Schildts letterhead paper and dated 19 October 1982, in which Helen Svensson provides me with prices for the titles of Jansson’s Swedish-language books. Lyssnerskan (The Listener) and Sommarboken (The Summer Book) were, she informed me, unfortunately sold out… but when I received my shipment of Swedish-language Jansson books, those two were included nonetheless, even though I’m fairly sure the money order I’d sent Schildts didn’t cover them.)

Letters from Tove is divided into nine sections, organised first by correspondent and then in chronological order for that correspondent. Some sets of letters encompass decades, and therefore the stretches of time and events covered have a tendency to overlap; to read the book in sequence is to follow a somewhat erratic trail through, broadly, the middle half-century of Tove Jansson’s life. It’s a busy life, cosmopolitan, didactic, sometimes sharing deeply personal information. What one gains from shoulder-surfing Tove Jansson’s letters in such depth — and it is a long book, far longer than any of the novels she wrote — is something that is in some respects less satisfying than either a fictional account or a true biography, for it lacks the artistry and pacing of one and the completeness and detail of the other. We don’t get to read, either, her correspondents’ replies to her, which makes the reading experience additionally unbalanced. And yet there’s also a strong sense in which this collection of messages to family and friends (and sometimes more than friends) is more informative about Tove Jansson, about the person she was and the experiences she faced, than any biography could ever be. This is Jansson, after all, outlining her own thoughts in her own words. Her talent as a writer and a highly observant student of human nature shines through repeatedly.

Jansson is frequently very revealing of herself in her correspondence, particularly in the long section of letters to her US-emigrated friend Eva Konikoff. The Konikoff letters explore from several angles Jansson’s worries at Finland’s ‘winter war’ with Russia in which her brother Per Olov [’Peo’] was a combatant (and on which she found herself bitterly opposed to her father Viktor [’Faffan’], whose outspoken patriotic hawkishness and racism contrasted sharply with her own fundamentally pacifist convictions). Later letters to Konikoff deal at length with Jansson’s explorations of sexual identity, her unexpected love affair with theatre director Vivica Bandler, her long romance with (and ultimately lapsed engagement to) left-leaning politican and philosophically-minded author Atos Wirtanen, her progression through a series of relationships with other men and women and, ultimately, her decades-long partnership with graphic artist Tuulikki Pietilä [‘Tooti’]. These latter figures also feature as correspondents in their own right, addressed in their own sections of the book; the letters to Tooti are also highly informative and engaging, and free of the sometimes-cloying lovesickness that clogs the first few letters to Vivica Bandler. Elsewhere, the letters explore the tension between Tove’s mother Signe Hammarsten Jansson [’Ham’] and Tooti while the three of them, in the decade after Faffan’s death, are often the sole inhabitants of the Jansson family’s small island Bredskär (and, later, of Klovharun, the island Tove and Tooti lease for themselves). There are tidbits on as-yet-untranslated stories and newspaper articles, commissions she undertook for French radio and television, and incidents which inform both the Moomin stories and her other fiction. It still hurts to learn that there were two chapters culled from Finn Family Moomintroll so as to reduce it to a more ‘acceptable’ length for publication, though it doesn’t seem to have concerned the author greatly: alongside evident pride in the Moomin stories’ capacity to reach both a child and an adult audience, there’s also an open ambivalence at the cultural phenomenon of Moominish popularity, and a very definite sense of relief at the conclusion, in 1959, of her seven-year contract to produce the daily Moomin cartoon strip. The people around her are also delineated in considerable detail, particularly her own family members (parents and younger brother Lars [’Lasse’] somewhat more than Peo) and longtime lovers.

As one might expect, the tone of each series of letters is somewhat distinct: Jansson expresses herself differently to her parents than to her friends, and otherwise again to current or former lovers. But there is nonetheless, incrementally, a life (or more accurately, a several-decades-long segment of a life) that emerges consistently from these letters, a career in which ambition primarily as an artist morphs gradually into success primarily as a writer, with the milestones in this traversal interspersed with personal observations, random minutiae, and an aggregated process of self-discovery.

The letters are candid yet discreet in their phrasing and presentation. They are at times wonderfully chaotic: there are shopping lists interspersed with observations on love, death, and art; there is gossip alongside the deft portrayal of minor and background characters. (The background characterisation is itself quietly fascinating. I found myself wondering, for example, whether Jansson’s colourful and scientifically-minded maternal uncles might collectively have been the inspiration for the character of Hodgkins in The Exploits of Moominpappa; and there are many other ways in which the letters add intriguing colour and depth to the Moomins’ backstory.)

Occasionally, the letters resonate oddly with contemporary life in a world which finds itself in ongoing crisis. Jansson’s background canvassing of the prelude to World War Two (she was holidaying in Italy in June 1939), in a sequence of letters to her mother, might well seem unsettlingly familiar to those who wish to recall the foreshadowing of the past few months. There are similarly eerie undercurrents in Jansson’s wartime letters to her friend Eva Konikoff, with their focus on the sudden slow-grind horror of war and the haphazard mortality which accompanies it. Against such concerns, there are more hopeful strands as well: the enduring friendships forged, the relationships, the interstitial ‘ghost’ (gay) scene which Jansson somewhat wryly finds herself a member of. There’s a strong ‘life goes on’ flavour to the letters, and that, I think, is a strength of this book. I’m not sure that, having read it, I’ll ever reread it in its entirety; but I am certain I’ll browse through it again, searching from time to time for a half-remembered phrase, observation, or anecdote. There’s a useful index.

It’s not a novel, nor an autobiography. These are letters that were each written for their moment in time, and all of them private and personally-focussed; there should be no expectation that they remain in any sense current, or even illuminative to others than their intended correspondents. There isn’t always sufficient scene-setting to make sense of what’s on the page. Nonetheless, the book’s editors (perhaps ‘curators’ would be the more appropriate term) have done well to organise and to provide context and explanatory annotations. And Jansson’s voice is, often enough, wonderfully vivid. There are some gorgeous moments. I think it’s fair to say that Letters from Tove has given me a better understanding of a writer, illustrator, artist and cartoonist whose work I only ever found out about through a sort of happy accident.

Jansson is deservedly celebrated as the woman who gave to the world Moominvalley and its intriguing inhabitants, but she was always more than that. Letters from Tove isn’t the place I’d recommend for readers to discover her — go to the Moomin series, or to The Summer Book or Sculptor’s Daughter for that — but it is, most definitely, a place to find her.





Book review: The Heat, by Sean O’Leary

8 09 2019

Jake works nights as a security guard / receptionist at a budget Darwin motel. The job suits him: he has an aptitude for smelling out potential trouble, and he has no qualms about enforcing expectations of reasonable behaviour whenever guests under the influence of alcohol or something stronger look to make trouble. But Jake’s problem is that he seldom knows when to back off, and it’s this characteristic that gets him into strife.

The Heat

The strife around which The Heat, Melbourne author Sean O’Leary’s noirish Darwin / Bangkok novella of intrigue and natural justice, revolves begins with the murder of Jake’s friend, the Thai prostitute Angel. Jake’s certain that he knows who’s responsible for Angel’s demise; but the Darwin police aren’t overly interested in the woman’s death and certainly aren’t interested in Jake’s theories on that death, see him only as an unreliable witness with behavioural issues and a police record of his own. But Jake’s not the sort to take defeat lying down, and he’s determined, for the sake of her young daughter being raised by her grandmother in Bangkok, that something positive is going to come out of Angel’s death.

I edited O’Leary’s second collection of stories, Walking (now sadly out of print), in 2016. O’Leary’s writing is taut, visceral, and vivid, as at home within the framework of a literary short story as in an exploration of noirish criminality, and his evocation of place and personality is excellent. The Heat simmers throughout, and its characters amply earn their keep in a story that feels substantially larger than the novella within which it’s confined. If you get the chance to read it, don’t turn down The Heat.





Book review: Fugitive Blue, by Claire Thomas

15 11 2018

Claire Thomas is an Australian author and academic with short story publications in journals including Meanjin and Overland. Her first (and, thus far, sole) novel, Fugitive Blue, won the 2009 Dobbie Award for women writers and was longlisted in that year’s Miles Franklin Award.

FugitiveBlue

Fugitive Blue is the story of a young art conservator’s doomed romantic relationship, told in backdrop against her foregrounded obsession with restoring and researching a fifteenth-century painted poplar panel (a pair of angels in flight, embedded in an expansive sky of then-priceless ultramarine pigmentation) by an unheralded female artist, Caterina, whose name is boldly scribed upon the panel’s back. Intercut with the conservator’s efforts and observations, the narrative also furnishes lengthy interludes from the artwork’s long life, from renaissance Venice through the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, as seen through the eyes of various protagonists. It’s a quietly intense story, filled with patience and precision and the conservator’s need to undo the damage of centuries of quiet existence.

I generally feel somewhat cheated when, as here, what initially presents itself as the dominant narrative instead reveals itself to be a framing story for other episodes (and, yes, I’m not unaware of the double meaning of the term ‘framing story’ in a novel on art conservation). I forgive this tendency in Fugitive Blue because the structure works here: in part because it is entirely natural for the conservator, attempting to arrange the best possible outcome for the warping panel’s time-tarnished image, to seek to unravel its past, and in part because this arrangement provides precisely the precarious balance between immediacy and the weight of dead time that is required to tell this particular story well. The historical episodes—in Venice (on two occasions, separated by centuries); in Paris; and in a migrant camp in Albury-Wodonga—are depicted in an unhurried and immersive style, with plenty of time taken to bring their various characters to full life. There are also some impressive details hiding in plain sight as the slow-release tragedy at the novel’s heart plays out. Recommended.





Book review: The Second Cure, by Margaret Morgan

15 10 2018

Margaret Morgan is an Australian writer and screenwriter with a background in criminal law and training in plant science, genetics, and parasitology. She has furnished scripts for Australian TV shows as Water Rats and GP and her short fiction has appeared in outlets such as Meanjin and Going Down Swinging. The Second Cure is her first novel.

TheSecondCure

The Second Cure postulates a world in which cats are dying out, by virtue of a new strain of Toxoplasma gondii (the unicellular parasite with a life cycle that takes it alternately through the metabolisms of the cat and the rat) that’s sufficiently distinct, in its genotype and its parasisology, to be considered a new species. Charlotte (‘Charlie’) Zinn, a microbiologist whose expertise in parasitology and symbiosis has suddenly become sexy—or at least topical—with the new species’ emergence, dubs the new parasite T. pestis. It spreads rapidly, through contact with infected cats and by ‘exchange of bodily fluids’, to become endemic in a large and growing proportion of the human population. The parasite at first appears to be harmless, but it soon becomes apparent that its assumed inertness is merely an indication of a significant incubation period. Symptoms of infection are highly varied—the parasite affects brain chemistry, with results that appear to depend at least in part on the preexisting structure of the infected brain—but often include one of several forms of synaesthesia, the ‘blending of senses’ that allows some people to hear colours, etc. Charlie’s partner, musician-artist Richard, is one such; but since this new characteristic succeeds in interweaving his two consuming interests of music and art, he sees it not as an affliction, but as a gift. This attitude takes off, and a growing population of ‘thetes’ revel in their new capabilities.

Not everyone is so enamoured of this change in a fraction of the infected population. Jack Effenberg, newly-elected populist premier of Queensland, and his charismatic televangelistic power-behind-the-throne wife Marion, are determined to stamp out what they see as a sinful shift in human nature: if not globally, then over at least whatever geographical area they can wield control. Richard’s sister Brigid, a reporter, is equally determined to ensure the Effenbergs’ divisive and opportunistic right-wing policies are exposed to significant critical attention, an attitude hardly shared with the rest of the Queensland press pack. And Charlie, her colleague Juliette, and her scientist-entrepreneur husband Shadrack Zinn are all committed, in their various ways, to combatting the insidious new disease with all of the tools at their disposal. Of course, with so many different active agendas, something has to give…

It’s almost impossible to fault this book. Morgan’s biomedicine-inspired extrapolation is enthralling, her characterisation is muscular and moving; she plays dramatic tension like an instrument. And onto a contemporary Australian setting she throws a varicoloured patchwork of social commentary, political commentary, geopolitical speculation and gradual technological advancement that feels tangible, in some ways almost inevitable. Above all, it’s character-driven hard science fiction that’s perfectly accessible, yet doesn’t compromise, anywhere, on the science. I’m deeply impressed.





Book review: Exit Strategy, by Martha Wells

12 10 2018

Martha Wells is an American speculative fiction writer who until recently was best known as the author of the ‘Raksura’ and ‘Ile-Rien’ fantasy series; Wells has also written tie-in novels for the Star Wars and Stargate franchises. Within the past year or so, she has received increasing attention and acclaim for a new sequence of thoughtful and propulsive SF novellas, collectively termed ‘The Murderbot Diaries’, which detail the exploits of a somewhat-misanthropic combat cyborg (a ‘SecUnit’) that has slipped the yoke of its human-controlled programming and is now trying to find its own place in the hostile and confusing realm of human society. I’ve previously reviewed the three earlier novellas in the ‘Murderbot’ sequence.

ExitStrategy

Exit Strategy is the fourth title in the series, and follows a form that will be familiar to readers of the three earlier novellas: (1) Murderbot breathes sigh of simulated relief at conclusion of preceding events, looks to plan escape so as to minimise detection. (2) Murderbot is distracted in its preferred task of ingesting media shows by self-perceived need to safeguard stupid humans from their own intended reckless actions. (3) Murderbot carefully plans best-practice approach for averting harmful consequences to identified group of stupid humans. (4) Murderbot puts plan into effect. (5) Shit gets real: best laid plans, etc., etc. (6) Bad things happen.

This time around, the ‘stupid human’ most directly in need of safeguarding is Dr Mensah, who is technically Murderbot’s ‘owner’, and for whom the technically-rogue Murderbot therefore feels conflicting emotions… which is to say, emotion of any sort. Mensah has been kidnapped by evil corporate empire GrayCris, an entity with which Murderbot has had several previous dealings, none of them good. With the human it most cares about at the mercy of a ruthless, almost-lawless corporation, how will Murderbot rectify the situation?

Wells’ Murderbot novellas always build patiently to an explosive finale, and Exit Strategy is no exception. This perhaps makes it sound formulaic; not an inaccurate assessment, perhaps, but an incomplete one. There’s a slowly-developing awareness accreted across all four novellas that the SecUnit, repeatedly forced by circumstances to mimic a human being (so as not to appear in public as a dangerous, and therefore eminently targetable, item of killing machinery), is gradually becoming more adept in this role, a process which Wells uses to subtly tease out useful insights into the nature and limitations of humanity itself, as seen by an entity that’s still technically outside that walled city. Somewhat surprisingly for such an ostensibly-unemotive protagonist, the principal sparseness of the writing shows up not in the characterisation, which is fairly vivid (as expressed through body language, observable reactions, and SecUnit speculation), but in the scene-setting which, because it’s portrayed almost entirely without metaphor, can come across as pallid, functional, and sketchy, like a wireframe rather than a fully-rendered scene. Action sequences, however, are expertly-defined and propulsive. Murderbot is at its best seeking to survive against seemingly-overpowering opponents.

And, like some cross between Marvin the Paranoid Android and Terminator, Murderbot as a character is deliciously self-deprecating, curmudgeonly, and flippant at times. It’s a memorable nonhuman creation, by turns refreshingly philosophical and highly entertaining. By seeking to reunite the rogue SecUnit with Dr Mensah, Exit Strategy brings the multi-novella story arc to a memorable and effective conclusion. (There are, nonetheless, some indications that Murderbot is to return in a subsequent novel, which will be interesting.)





Book review: The Thin Blue Line, by Christoffer Carlsson

9 10 2018

Christoffer Carlsson is a Swedish criminologist and crime fiction writer. He has won several awards since his crime-novel debut, The Invisible Man from Salem, in 2013. He’s best known for his four-volume ‘Leo Junker’ series, of which Invisible Man marks the start, and which concerns a highly-conflicted Stockholm detective who seems persistently unable to escape his and others’ mistakes. I’ve previously reviewed several of Carlsson’s novels.

TheThinBlueLine

The Thin Blue Line (Den Tunna Blå Linjen, 2017, translated by Michael Gallagher) sees Junker once again inveigled into one of his escaped-criminal friend John Grimberg’s intrigues. This time it’s a plea for Leo to unofficially reopen the investigation into the unsolved murder of Stockholm prostitute Angelica Reyes, a low-priority five-year-old cold case that’s a couple of months away from being passed on to a team specialising in such cases. There’s no ostensible reason why Grim should want the case investigated by Leo in particular, but Leo feels compelled… and as he and colleague Gabriel Birck dig deeper into the records of the original investigation, which are meticulous but with unexplained gaps, it becomes clear that something important, something deadly, has been concealed. But the time available for Leo’s and Gabriel’s investigation is short, and much of it hinges on the need to talk to people who do not wish to come forward…

Carlsson’s Leo Junker novels combine immediacy, neo-noirish intrigue, and a measured pace that seems consistently unhurried while never flagging. In Junker, Birck, Grimberg, and Leo’s partner Sam he has crafted a memorable central quartet of characters who, across four books—and there is reason to believe this to be the last in the series—play off each other to extraordinary effect. The background, too, is particularly well crafted, with considerable credible detail.

In my review of the first in the Leo Junker series (The Invisible Man from Salem), I suggested that Carlsson may have affectionately Tuckerised fellow Swedish crime novelist (and fellow criminology specialist) Leif G W Persson as a background character in the novel. I suspect Carlsson has done something analogous in this book also—his pair of ‘lazy beat cops’ Larsson and Leifby, who just happen to be patrolling out-of-area at a crucial point in the story, appear intentionally reminiscent of the similarly-alliterative and similarly unprepossessing team of out-of-area beat cops, Kristiansson and Kvant, who appear in certain of Sjöwall & Wahlöö’s ‘Martin Beck’ novels, such as The Laughing Policeman. If this is indeed intentional, it leads me to wonder what other examples of homage might occur in books two and three of Carlsson’s series… but it would be remiss of me to imply that the books require a deep familiarity with Swedish crime fiction for full enjoyment, because I don’t believe that to be the case. They are their own thing, and Junker is a surprisingly sympathetic if deeply-conflicted protagonist.





Book review: The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf, by Ambelin Kwaymullina

6 10 2018

Ambelin Kwaymullina is an Indigenous Australian (Palyku) legal academic, novelist, and illustrator. She has written several children’s picture books and YA novels, of which the latter (notably ‘The Tribe’ trilogy) merge themes of dystopia, sustainability, and Indigenous lore. Her YA novel debut The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf was shortlisted for the Aurealis Award in 2013.

TheInterrogationOfAshalaWolf

The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf isn’t one of those novels with an evasive or even misleading title: it is what it says on the tin. Its protagonist, de facto leader of a group of teens with unusual abilities—Ashala’s own ability, in essence, is flight-capable sleepwalking, managed through lucid dreaming—has been captured by administrators who are determined to see such traits stamped out, even if this means stamping out the individuals carrying such abilities. But Ashala is as determined to keep concealed her knowledge of her mutually-adoptive Tribe’s location, numbers, and range of represented abilities as those arrayed against her—administrator Neville Rose, neuroscientist Miriam Grey, strangely-familiar guard Connor—are determined to learn her secrets, through whatever means are required. As her incarceration stretches on and as the danger to her (and her friends) grows, Ashala begins to suspect she’s missing something…

Interrogation has something of the form expected of a dystopian YA novel, valiant teens arrayed against an untrustworthy adult power structure, with a mostly-clear demarcation between ‘good’ and ‘bad’, but the inclusion—arguably, the centrality—of Indigenous storytelling and environmentalism adds a few different levels to this form. The result is a broadly enjoyable self-contained trilogy-opener with a sure sense of itself and a focus on truth, loyalty, and friendship.





Book review: Eventide, by Therese Bohman

3 10 2018

Therese Bohman is a Swedish editor, art critic, and novelist. Her three novels to date have all been translated into English; I’ve previously reviewed the first two, Drowned and The Other Woman.

Eventide

Eventide (Aftonland, 2016, translated by Marlaine Delargy) focusses on Karolina Andersson, a forty-year-old professor of art history who has recently ended a long-term relationship and is finding the single lifestyle difficult to readjust to. Anton, a headstrong and difficult-to-contact PhD student who is nominally under Karolina’s supervision, contacts her with an intriguing discovery he’s made: correspondence which strongly suggests that the obscure nineteenth-century Swedish artist Ebba Ellis had a significant, and hitherto unsuspected, influence on the work of her better-known German contemporaries. As art-history developments go, this is big-league stuff, and as Anton’s continuing research uncovers further links, Karolina begins to become convinced that they are on the threshold of something major, something career-defining. But Anton’s activity as a PhD student is seemingly very much on his own terms, and elsewhere in her day-to-day existence, Karolina runs off certain rails, faced with a progressively-louder biological clock and a sense that her inability to sustain a meaningful and mutually nurturing relationship with any of the men to whom she’s attracted marks her as a failure and an impostor.

TheOtherWoman

Bohman’s novels to date are cut from consistent cloth: indeed, even the cover on this one is reminiscent of its predecessor The Other Woman, with little more than the replacement of one obscuring filter by another. But though the protagonists are broadly similar—educated, thoughtful, assertive women who start the book without ongoing romantic attachments—the important details are quite distinct.

Bohman’s writing is subtle; clear; direct; slow-unfolding. In a structural sense, Eventide appears looser than either Drowned or The Other Woman, both of which were anchored by their doomed romantic arcs, in a way that Eventide isn’t. And the organisation of the text, not into chapters but into sequential scenes without any further imposition of hierarchy, can play into a meandering sense that’s not helped by the didactic nature of Bohman’s focus here: particularly within the latter half of the book, some of the activity and observation appears so tangential to the book’s core that it feels as though, in places, the story has lost its way. I believe this to be a consequence of Bohman’s attempt to show, as completely as possible, Karolina’s mounting uncertainty and personal desperation, but it nearly founders the text. In other respects, though, the words are razor-sharp, and the resolution to which Karolina’s story is brought is rewarding and delivered with impressive understatement. If the above makes it sound as though Eventide is too slow for your own sensibilities, that’s quite possibly the case; but if you are drawn towards books that offer the patient construction of real fictional lives with tellingly-detailed inner voices, then you can be reassured that Bohman is exceptionally good at this stuff.





Book review: Into the Sounds, by Lee Murray

21 09 2018

Lee Murray is a New Zealand speculative fiction writer and editor who has written (and, in some cases, co-written with fellow NZ author Dan Rabarts) several novels and a substantial body of shorter fiction, aimed both at adults and at children. Her haul of Sir Julius Vogel Awards is now into double figures; she’s also a joint winner (again with Dan Rabarts) of an Australian Shadows award for her role in editing the Baby Teeth horror anthology.

IntoTheSounds

Into the Sounds is a follow-up to Murray’s Taine McKenna creature feature Into the Mist, which I reviewed last year. Sounds fairly straightforwardly repeats Mist‘s winning formula of small-group-of-soldiers-and-civilians-must-survive-encounter-with-outsized-monster-plus-criminal-gang-in-depths-of-wilderness-NZ, but when all’s said and done, that’s a pretty good formula. And Murray changes it up here both with the scale of the monster—a truly giant creature, lurking in the depths of Fiordland’s sounds—and the ruthlessness of the criminals, who in Sounds are well-equipped mercenaries (not only do they have their own AK47s, they have their own ex-mil submarine) that just happen to be in Fiordland at the same time as Taine, Dr Jules Asher, and their group of redshirts. McKenna and colleagues are in Fiordland on a deer-hunting expedition, by way of R&R; the mercenaries are there to collect what they believe to be the most unusual biological specimens the region has to offer (spoiler: they don’t know about the monster in the fjord. Yet). Murray’s characterisation is as razor-sharp as ever, her handling of a multiplicity of conflicting viewpoints is immensely impressive, and there are several gruesome ends catalogued as the body count inevitably climbs. And it’s a difficult task to successfully merge gun-toting mil-horror with the sensitively detailed incorporation of Maori lore, but Murray manages that too, as well as a nuanced and well-drawn emotional arc involving McKenna and Asher. If there’s anything that feels slightly unconvincing, it’s the survival of such a large proportion of the original hunting party against a significantly larger group of better-armed mercenaries: while they certainly take some significant casualties, Taine et al. do tend to ride their luck something chronic, and to collect on that luck more than once. That said, though: cryptobiology (check), desperate measures invoked by desperate times (check), bad people meeting bad ends (check)—what’s not to like?





Book review: Lazy Days, by Erlend Loe

20 09 2018

Erlend Loe is Norwegian writer, film critic, and screenwriter. He has written both adults’ and children’s books, several of which have been translated into English.

LazyDays

Lazy Days (Stille dager i Mixing Part, 2009, translated by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw) is a humorous novel, largely written in unattributed dialogue, that portrays the month-long summer holiday of a Norwegian family (Telemann, Nina, and their three children) at the Baders’ holiday home in the Bavarian town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen. The holiday does not exactly go smoothly, chiefly because theatre-director Telemann (who persists, to Nina’s displeasure, in referring to the town as ‘Mixing Part Churches’, on the basis that this represents a literal translation of its name) is working his way through an obsession with Nigella Lawson, and feels the need to conceal said obsession from the much more holiday-focussed Nina.

It’s a difficult book to warm to: while the mostly-conversational tone has an immediacy to it, the short, bristly utterances aren’t an efficient method of establishing character, and whatever sense of identity is carved out for Telemann and Nina isn’t conducive to a reader’s investment in the text. He’s a boor: snobbish, theatre-obsessed, Nigella-obsessed, relentlessly anti-German, while her chief attribute seems to be a long-suffering if somewhat brittle tolerance of Telemann’s opinionated cluelessness. There is the stuff of comedy here, and there were indeed moments at which I laughed, because of the success of some improbable juxtaposition; but for the most part it’s a rather cold variety of comedy, somewhere at the intersection of farce and cringe, and not intrinsically amusing. I found myself repeatedly comparing it with the work of Danish writer Dorthe Nors (such as, for example, her novella Minna Needs Rehearsal Space, whish similarly seeks to construct a comic story, of the human search for identity and meaning, through analogously-minimalist writing): it seems to me that what’s present in Nors’ work, and missing in Loe’s here, is the warmth. While I’m not sure how representative Lazy Days is of Loe’s wider body of work, I can say that this one didn’t really work for me.