Book Review: The Forward Book Of Poetry 2021

The Forward Book of Poetry 2021 by Various Poets | Waterstones

This year’s edition of the Forward compendium acts, as ever, as a shimmering primer of essential contemporary talent

Edition published by: Bookmark, 2020

Many would take it as given that the most resonant poems have the strongest narrative arcs. For me, that’s not always the case – take the likes of Seamus Heaney’s Seeing Things, or much of Thomas Hardy’s poetry. But in the case of The Forward Book of Poetry 2021, it’s pretty much always true.

While many of them have clearly defined themes and influences, their pace and connotations often outrun their parameters. For this review, I’ve honed-in on three multi-faceted themes specifically, but that’s just a microcosm of what the collection entails.  

Femininity

Straight away, Caroline Bird’s Dive Bar reflects a sisterhood; there’s a sense of togetherness, a specific experience becoming a ribbon for universal femininity. The really startling words are almost mumbled over; ‘swaying’ and ‘swallowing’ connoting adaptation and imprisonment in pure ‘blink and you’ll miss them’ style.

Vickie Feaver’s timeless 1974 highlights societal pressure on women and the extremities that can drive them too, and how unchanging those schisms are. Sarah Tsiang’s Dick Pics acerbically explores double standards and the removal of innocence. In Ella Frears’ Sestina For Caroline Bergvall, ‘the edge’ and the backs of heads become synonymous with comfort for women, while Rachel Long’s The Omen leaves women’s futures ominously open-ended, especially as mothers.

Perhaps most affecting of all is Regi Claire’s spellbinding (Un)certainties, written in tribute to her sister who died in a boating accident. A constant guessing game, Claire’s poem is a perfect reflection of the ambiguity of trauma and soul-searching, a mirage of idioms and half-truths. But by the end, assertions become more certain and it’s possible to read the options as excuses – excuses as to why society has let women down again. This is brought full-circle beautifully at its close:

‘When I tried to explain, he did not understand.
Could not’.

Claire’s mourning has highlighted just how much distance exists between men and women, especially regarding personal loss.

Form

Form is employed relatively conservatively across the collection, but when it’s not, the pieces shimmer and sting like proper guttural cries.

Nina Mingya Powles’ Conversational Chinese is the most stirring early example. Taken from her Collection Magnolia and described as one of many ‘love letters to Shanghai’ and ‘retracing steps to a language you’ve lost’, the blanks connote holes in personal and historical identity, and there’s a stark see-sawing between aspects she can’t remember and perhaps those she’s wilfully forgotten. The specificity of answering questions in full sentences also speaks volumes about the weighty expectations enacted on migrant communities.

Elsewhere, Carolyn Forche embodies the immensely tough and unyielding imagery in Museum of Stones. Likewise, the brutalist foundations of Francesca Lock’s On insomnia reflect the imprisonment perfectly, and likely resonant to anyone who has ever struggled with sleeplessness. As she says; ‘this is forever’.

In Shane McCrae’s The Hastily Assembled Angel on Care and Vitality, spaces act as cracks, a flickering image where perceptions don’t align until the very end, tangible feeling reserved for the final couplet as well.

Distance

The dichotomy between roots, belonging and identity has unsurprisingly been extensively explored by poets over the last five years – trauma for migrant communities in particular has been inescapable on a global scale. And all the ruminations on that subject here offer some unique angle; Pascale Petit’s luscious Tiger Gran, Chen Chen’s Year’s End and both of Nina Mingya Powles’ poems are exceptional highlights in that regard.

The mercurial Dean Atta tackles plenty with The Making, but there’s a clear sense of what you can learn from further afield, as well as the melding of the human and technology, of the tangible and the distant. In Fucking In Cornwall, Ella Frears finds connection in coldness, while in Maria Ferguson’s My Letters, anxiety and mundanity are far more comfortable than confronting a direct relationship.

The nature of compendiums like this are that certain selections feel slightly at odds without their entire contexts. Whilst beautiful, that’s certainly true of poems from the likes of Natalie Diaz and Martha Sprackland.

But what the Forward Book of Poetry always does best is show the extent to which resonant, powerful poetry is in rude health. The best way to view it is as exactly what it is; a primer for serious, essential talent in contemporary writing.

You can buy The Forward Book of Poetry 2021 here.

Book Review: David Stafford’s Skelton’s Guide To Suitcase Murders

Skelton's Guide to Suitcase Murders: 2 (Skelton's Guides) (Skelton's Guides,  2): Amazon.co.uk: David Stafford: 9780749026882: Books

Renowned literary chameleon David Stafford’s new novel is a hugely fun, humorous and accessible take on the 1920s murder mystery dynamic

Edition Published by: Allison & Busby, 2021

There are few who understand multi-faceted drama quite as well as David Stafford. His experience spans decades across media for theatre, TV and radio, crafting work with the likes of Benjamin Zepheniah and Alexei Sayle.

It’s no surprise, then, that the trademarks of his addictive style – genuine laugh-out-loud humour and a wry approach to societal ills – run rampant in Skelton’s Guide To Suitcase Murders.

Set in 1929 Britain, barrister Arthur Skelton’s life is uprooted when a woman’s dismembered body appears in a suitcase. Faced with the task of proving the murdered woman’s husband – Dr Ibrahim Aziz – innocent, Skelton and his clerk Edgar Hobbes embark on a gritty journey that’ll see them traverse London, Yorkshire and Scotland to find the true culprit before Aziz is sentenced to hang. 

Quiet Humour and Potent Ethics

Right from the off, Stafford indulges in rich character dynamics and descriptions, as well as a sense of real childlike wonder; the possibilities eeked out of bleak, rural Britain seem endless:

‘One of the great things about the gravel pit was, just like it had ate the kid who died, sometimes it sicked stuff up’.

Like a lot of the best British comedies, Stafford draws humour out of the relatively mundane; Cluedo, for example, or discussions about the sizes of suitcases. But it’s always instantly recognisable. And the relationship between Skelton and his wife, or Skelton and Edgar, thrives and is brought to life by that brilliantly dry timing.

And as theatrical as the dialogue can be, it’s also fulsome and always well realised. Just as humour quickly rises out of thin air, so too does ethical potency:

Mila: ‘Flying isn’t a matter of brute strength; it’s a matter of endurance. And women endure. Women endure’.
Skelton: ‘Yes, they do. I’ve noticed that’.

Sure-fire Political Designs

Thanks to intricate crafting and sensitivity, the morality in the book never seems crowbarred-in. Where issues of race and gender arise, he tests the temperature of modernity and mixes it with 1920s sentiment perfectly.

In the early stages of the book there are reflections of dark truths come to light at the BBC in recent years and critical thinkers who subscribed to a poisonous Eugenics mentality. And he clearly understands the political dynamic between Britain and Egypt in the early 20th century. It’s direct in its social commentary, whether it be taking aim at racism or religion. And the progression of young legal student Rose Critchlow is a whirlwind come the novel’s end.

The Most Readable Murder Mystery of 2021?

Stafford brings everything full circle with a light, deft and nuanced hand. The narrative conclusions for most of the characters are as hilarious as they are touching.

Skelton’s Guide To Suitcase Murders can be considered one of the truly accessible, down-to-earth murder mysteries, helped in spades by rich portraits and human tangibility. It’s always immense fun and might just be one of the most readable murder mysteries of 2021.

You can buy Skelton’s Guide To Suitcase Murders from Allison & Busby now.

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Book Review: Nicole Flattery’s Show Them A Good Time

Show Them a Good Time: Amazon.co.uk: Flattery, Nicole: 9781526611901: Books

In her debut collection of short prose, Nicole Flattery focuses on womanhood and smashing expectations to assert herself as one of Irelands most astute young writers

Edition published by: Bloomsbury Circus, 2019

If you’ve been paying attention to the short story form, then you’ll know that Irish short prose is in rude health just now. From the mercurially gifted Wendy Erskine to Danielle McLoughlin and Kevin Barry, the palette is as rich as it’s ever been. And refreshingly, all of them are forging ahead and out of the perennial spectres of Joyce and Beckett.

One can most certainly add Nicole Flattery to their company. Show Them a Good Time, her debut collection, is one of those that starts with a big subject – the nefariously multi-faceted perception of women in wider society – but lets that subject form itself out of surrealism and tangibility. It simultaneously achieves an organic sense of worth and pushes worthiness away, in frequently hilarious and headstrong ways.

And its real magic lies in the way it manages to unscrupulously and breathlessly smash expectations; both those of the protagonists and the reader. Flattery’s writing is often tricksy, and yet she holds the rudder straight via instantly realistic truths, fears and injustices.

A Tale of Two Landscapes

As well as thematic femininity, there are specific notions that thread themselves through Show Them A Good Time, a constant reminder of the crushing weight women experience. There’s the persistent cultural battle between the presence of ‘the city’ and rural Ireland – something Flattery, who lives in Galway, might be acutely aware of.

In the likes of the titular story, the notion of making a life for oneself is synonymous with big metropolitan breaks, and anyone who never gets there is left behind. But in this instance that city existence forces our protagonist back to where she grew up, judged and ashamed by her existence there in the pornographic industry. The city offers no sense of completion; when Kevin asks her why she got into that business, she replies:

‘Well, I’d gone all that way. I had to do something’.

In Flattery’s world, living rurally is just as ghostly, particularly when lurched over by the shadows of parents & familial expectations – another curse that lingers throughout the collection.

At its most direct, the notion of being outcast by all your surroundings is hammered home in juicily stark ways, whether that be via internet dating in Not The End Yet or multitudinous variations on motherhood (or the lack thereof) in Track and Parrot. In the former, for example, potential distance between mother and son – emphasised by the vacuity of fame – is laid bare when the protagonist writes a scathing review of her comedian boyfriend on a forum under his mother’s name.

Abortion: A Love Story

Very much the collection’s centrepiece and longest story, Abortion: A Love Story pulls absolutely no punches in its meandering arc. It maintains Flattery’s ability to be utterly absurdist while construing real soul, and is without doubt the most on-the-nose accounting of a patriarchal society that I’ve read for some time.

It follows two students at an unnamed college – Natasha and Lucy – both of whom have experienced enormous personal loss. Those losses are amplified by societal expectations, from both men and women, and both secularism and religion; as well as all the other societal ruminations Flattery’s covered previously.

As the two protagonists piece together a brilliantly funny, poignant play, their lives become about subverting those expectations and reclamation; and that’s where Flattery’s real structural mastery comes into play.

If instances in the story are confusing, then that seems deliberate. Not unlike Micaela Cole’s extraordinary I May Destroy You, there are plenty of ruminations on the general emotional and cognitive confusion caused by trauma; in Natasha’s case the inability to finish sentences or forgetting what she’s studying. Initially she feels threatened by Lucy, but it’s through their shared trauma – Lucy has cut herself off from her past completely, including her ‘country’ parents – that they begin to make sense of each other.

And actually, it’s amidst that confusion that the protagonists give us the most biting glimpses of their strength of character. Natasha says that she ‘doesn’t like anyone my own age’, whereas Lucy bats everything away with a rickety but hilarious sense of self:

Lucy: ‘Jesus Christ let me out of here’.
Professor: ‘Who said that Lucy?’
Lucy: ‘Beckett’.

If the derision of Beckett is a plucky comment on the way in which Irish character is canonised, then Flattery flips it on its head and makes it even more pertinent and humanly powerful later on. After admitting to having self-destructive impulses, Lucy asks her:

‘Would you say you’re a typical Irish girl?’

Eventually, the whole notion of their play becomes about not giving people what they want; allowing these women to behave how they want to societally – a place of ‘no laws’. But as the play convulses around itself and becomes a compendium of otherworldly pain and savage socio-political commentary, Flattery doesn’t just trick her invented audience, but us, the actual reader, too. It’s an exceptional, riveting double-bluff. And even if the impact of Lucy & Natasha’s efforts is left fairly open-ended, the sense of achievement and subversion takes on a life of its own.

Wit and Wisdom

A lot of Show Them A Good Time struts the line between personalisation and looking in from the outside impressively. Flattery doesn’t make every line hefty with portent, which means that when that heft is delivered – either humorously or otherwise – it rings harsher.

In her hands, dark humour becomes pretty much her most malleable ingredient. In the titular story, she manages to condense total anxiety into nifty one-liners:

‘In my entire life, not a single good thing had come from standing in a circle’.

Or marks the way sex deceives the reality of relationships with men with a giddy sense of pathos:

‘I loved being picked up. Things were much clearer from that height’.

Or in Sweet Talk, where she manages to make the Exorcist seem like a fair walk in the park from the perspective of a teenage Irish girl:

‘It was dark, but it was just priests really. Priests in unusual circumstances.’

In Hump she expertly traverses masculine sensitivity and the bleakest crags for jokes in probably the whole collection. Upon relaying that her father had only spoken for 30% of his life, our protagonist says:

‘It was a dismal percentage, and I was familiar with what dismal percentages could do to a person’.

That the protagonist is a 17-year-old shows just how much agency women have from a young age; the sneering idea that young people aren’t capable of understanding what the world holds for them is felled in one brilliant swoop here. And then mere moments later, she allows us to glimpse into body dissatisfaction with sardonic bluntness:

‘I was surprised when I caught site of my concentration camp legs. How did they support me?’

At no point does any of Show Them a Good Time feel incongruous. Flattery never leaves the real world; reality is pretty much the most intrinsic part of this collection. But she forces us to look at reality in revitalising ways. Her characters do and say the opposite of what they’re expected to, and her prose is soaked in turns of phrase that come out of nowhere. It’s a collection establishes her as one of Ireland’s most astute young writers.  

Book Review: Emily Brand’s The Fall of The House of Byron

The Fall of the House of Byron: Scandal and Seduction in Georgian England:  Amazon.co.uk: Brand, Emily: 9781473664302: Books

Emily Brand’s latest about the ancestors of the infamous Romantic poet is wonderfully researched and sometimes riveting, if not always totally engaging.

Edition Published By: John Murray Press, 2020

Probably nobody reading this blog will need an introduction to George, 6th Lord Byron. Like many of the Romantic poets, he’s a ‘love him or loathe him’ character whose resonance on the page might well be overshadowed by his infamy in life.

In The Fall of the House of Byron: Scandal and Seduction in Georgian England, historian Emily Brand maps the origins of his contrary condition, by examining his ancestors throughout the 1700s. As it turns out, the malaise and melodrama his poetry is renowned for was pretty much heredity.

After 3 years and a frankly astonishing amount of research – and this book really is fabulously thorough – the tome lands on our laps. But is it as scandalous and deliciously riveting as its title suggests? For me, the answer is sometimes.

How Dramatic Is Georgian High Society?

Beginning with an introduction to Newstead Abbey – which became arguably the greatest, saddest metaphor for the whole Byron dynasty – Brand writes with real vigour. She rolls through a cast of indulgent characters, all with something to lose or gain from the estate and its happenings.

She creates here something which permeates periodically throughout the book; a sense of doomed murkiness and foreboding shadows, itchy paranoia and whispers of violence. All those senses are certainly relevant at various points throughout the Byron story.

Newstead Abbey – aka the Byron estate – today. Image Credit: alan feebery Flickr.

For all her nuance, she can mediate the most outrageous moments with her own kind of tickling coarseness. When writing about Lord Byron in the chapter Folly Castle, she notes:

‘He receives word that a scornful former lover has decided not just to kiss and tell, but to f**k and publish’.

But often, the scandal and downfall promised in the title feel as though they’re a long time coming. Brand often spends a long time focussing on the characters’ esteemed military careers, or fairly innocuous everyday observations.

She sometimes writes those occurrences with gripping drama, especially in the chapter about John Byron, or ‘Foul Weather Jack’. But essentially, there’s a lot of padding around the dramatic moments, so how gripping you find large parts of the book will depend on your appetite for Georgian high society.

Amplifying Women’s Voices

In much of her work, Brand’s emphasis is on relaying women’s perceptions and perspectives in an era of strict misogyny.

While there’s not much here that suggests anything other than the typical patriarchal cruelty of wider society, Brand expertly accounts for the female members of the Byron household, either through her own characterful descriptions:

‘She indulges her melancholy ideas and inevitable tears, knowing they go unobserved in the dim light’.

Or through diary cuttings from both the protagonists and the circles they moved in.

She devotes plenty of time to Isabella Byron, identifying her place and presence in that world resplendently. As the book goes on, Isabella essentially becomes the dynasty’s great tragic figure, her eventually morose life the product of some terrible decisions but also of the ‘wolves at the door’; the mob mentally of the sneering Georgian upper classes and their insatiable appetite for gossip. Indeed, when she died in 1795:

‘Her demise elicited no fanfare, going unreported for two weeks…’

Emily Brand delivers a snapshot of Isabella Byron’s personality and life.

Brand does relay strength, both emotional and intellectual, in pretty much all of the Byron women too. It’d be nigh-on-impossible not to have sympathy for the canny Catherine Gordon, who fights on amidst the poisonous pull of the detestable ‘mad’ Jack Byron.

But any major confrontations by Brand towards women in society and sexism at the time come fairly few and far between.

It’s Not All About Him

Anyone coming to this book thinking it mostly about Lord Byron the 6th himself might be disappointed; it’s not really about him. But it is, in part, about how much he embraced his family’s ruin, in both his work and life.

If you’re as interested in Georgian England as Brand is, then you’re likely to love this. But the stories don’t feel vastly different from those you might find elsewhere, other than in the Byronic element.

You can buy The Fall Of The House Of Byron here.

Book Review: Sarah Hawkswood’s Blood Runs Thicker

Blood Runs Thicker by Sarah Hawkswood

The latest novel in Sarah Hawkswood’s Hugh Bradecote series, Blood Runs Thicker, is a gritty, page-turning medieval whodunnit packed with reach realism and beautifully realised modernity.

Edition published: Allison & Busby, 2021

The historical thriller genre has always been a fan favourite. Thanks to writers like C. J. Samson, Ellis Peters and Ariana Franklin, it has enjoyed years in the sun recently. And Sarah Hawkswood is well in the fray as well, which is where we find her new Bradecote novel Blood Runs Thicker.

Set in Worcestershire in the mid-12th century, the De Lench family is sent spiralling into crisis when Osbern, the lord of the manor, is found dead. Called to try and put the pieces of a murderous, complex puzzle together, Hugh Bradecote, his assistants Serjeant Catchpoll and Walkelin get drawn into a murky world of treachery, layers of intrigue and questionable morality.

With a vast number of suspects, finding out the truth behind Osbern’s death is as brain-bending for them as it is riveting for us.

The ‘Classic Thriller’ and Authenticity

Hawkswood’s novel has several classic elements of whodunnit storytelling. There are multiple motives and murky disingenuous characters. There’s familial disenfranchisement, dark pasts a-plenty and simmering feuds. She even has her own Poirot in the shape of Bradecote, a methodical, moral and timely detective who sees through cracks in society to its often-rotten core.

The intricacies and twists are readable and clever without ever being pretentious or having the visible urge to prove itself so.

But there’s also real authenticity here. The scene setting is often beautifully evocative:

‘The church was silent except for the sound of a lone voice chanting in Latin, which faltered as they opened the door’.

And it’s in those moments that you feel like you’re part of the novel itself, sucked in and second-guessing suspects as much as you’re trying to stay one step ahead.

Adding to that flavour is the exuberant dialogue and the cloying sense of claustrophobia in the setting of rural, feudal Worcestershire. Everything feels closer and more inescapable, and when the accusations fly it can get suitably chaotic.

Timeless Modernity

Despite taking place in 1144, central to Hawkswood’s prose is a deep and refreshingly modern lens. There’s a lot about strength in femininity, toxic masculinity and the destruction it causes, and a flipping of gender roles between men and women.

The female characters are given strident voices whilst also being conduits for ethics, personal strength and integrity. Bradecote’s acknowledgement of the cards life often deals women is established in previous novels, but even though it comes from personal loss, it still feels refreshingly modern. And as such, that modernism is always handled with total care and never feels out of place.

There are also, in the book’s more poignant moments, ruminations on the way very little changes, and in particular the lack of accountability for many men. That this is addressed makes a very welcome change.

A Gritty, Engaging Read

Blood Runs Thicker knows it audience, knows it art form and appeases both magnificently. It’s in the dynamics between characters and Hawkswood’s simple but soul-seeing writing that one becomes attached. And while the left-hooks lead to a direct conclusion, it never loses its grittiness or engagement throughout.

You can purchase Blood Runs Thicker from Allison & Busby now.

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Book Review: The Middle Of A Sentence

The Common Breath on Twitter: "And, 4 / 4. 'THE MIDDLE OF A SENTENCE' - our  anthology, due out 01.12.20 The incredible list of included stories &  writers can be viewed via

A new short prose anthology from Scottish indie publisher The Common Breath, The Middle Of A Sentence tackles the staring chasms ever-present in modern western society in beautiful, evergreen and shape-shifting ways.

Edition Published by: The Common Breath, 2020

The debate between the power of the novel as compared to short fiction is ages old. How can one build a world as illustrious as Daphne Du Maurier’s Cornwall, or as vivid as Khaled Khalifa’s Syria, with less than a few thousand words?

It’s a view that Brian Hamill, literary standard bearer, mastermind behind The Common Breath and editor of The Middle of A Sentence admits to holding previously in his introduction. It wasn’t until reading Carol Joyce Oates’ 1988 collection The Assignation that he realised:

‘… stories of such brevity did not have to rely purely on arch humour or abrupt non-sequitur for their effect, but could provide a truly great depth of characterisation and emotion also.’

That sense of world-building is easily achievable via short prose, and The Middle Of A Sentence proves it. And the myriad angles, traumas and societal commentaries that the anthology offers each react to our reality and speedily convey an alternative one, where normality and anguish become whatever the reader makes them.

I’ve attempted to sum up some – and by no means all – of the ways in this review.

Lockdown As A Mirror

If the short prose format offers a unique opportunity for experimentation, then it makes perfect sense for it to react to zeitgeist crises. As open-ended as many of these stories might be, they can at least be viewed as lockdown adjacent. Essentially, they take mundanity and run with it, but allow it to become as lucid and bizarre as any imagination might do when confined to the same four walls, 24 hours a day.

This is apparent from early on, with Jenni Fagan’s The Ship exploring notions of compassion and stagnancy in gripping, hallucinogenic style. Sometimes the assertions are direct: ‘it’s been going on for months’, ruminations on failing to get dressed, hand sanitiser and dancing words all proving weirdly relatable. But in the end, it’s only caring for somebody else that unfries our protagonist’s brain.

Fagan’s work with various vulnerable groups as well as female prisoners places her neatly and astutely at the epicentre of much of Scotland’s literary genetic make-up. The endearing desire to give something back to society on an everyman level has always existed in Scottish literature, and The Ship uses that Irvine Welsh-ian angle of weirdness as underpinning communal spirit.

There’s a pervasive sense of some of these stories being reactions to *our* reactions to lockdown, too. Take Donna McLean’s Signal, for instance. Technology – and in particular social media – is so nefariously dominant in our hands and lives these days that it’s impossible to ignore this story’s evergreen assertions. Indeed, its sinister suspense hints at a far larger imbalance, in both technology and gender relations. Its ending is multi-faceted:

‘Signal. Where all our secrets disappear’.

But I found it especially cloying given how inescapable it makes technology seem. When your only route to public expression is via social media, some people’s secrets are – often rightly – impossible to mask. Signal eradicates the distance between a user and what they might post on social media. During lockdown, when even the tiniest senses of self-obsession need a release, many people have seemed to deny themselves the choice in looking for worth online.

Similarly, the magnification of what are often everyday concerns feel totally consuming when viewed in an isolated reality. These moments don’t so much represent the abyss gazing back at you as they do make the abyss take on a multitude of different, distinctly tangible shapes. The loneliness in Kevin Williamson’s Ponderous Stuff could reflect sibling rivalry as much as either communal consciousness or struggling romance:

‘Scared of being together. Scared of being alone’.

Examples of what might have previously been written-off as absurdist hilarity now seem weirdly believable. Stewart Home’s A Hypno Kink Princess is the epitome of this, using masculinity and its commodification of sex as a step ladder to domestic embarrassment that’s probably far more widespread than many people would care to admit. Shortly afterwards, Howard Colyer’s two-line Ready embodies the same sense of losing oneself to nothingness in brilliant, beautiful style.

It also takes on far more poignant shades. The ebb and flow between stark reality and hallucinogenic mindfulness in Wayne Conolly’s quietly heart-breaking Blood Cancer seems to be as much a complete disconnection from self as it is searching for meaning and solace.

And while Stuart Murray’s How Ye Keepin Anyway is ostensibly a play on the fairly obvious notion that isolation might lead to alcoholism, its simplicity also connotes another inescapable truism: addictions might seem easy to avoid, but they’re far easier to succumb to.

How informed by lockdown any of the stories are, I’m not sure. But that’s another secret beauty to open-ended storytelling. If people see a version of themselves that has only been prevalent for the last year in these stories, then that can only be a connector. The slew of lockdown novels, albums and films has already permeated to a kind of tiresome extent, but short prose’s advantage – only having a finite time to convey anything – conversely makes them more everlasting than you might expect.

Racial Prejudice and Anti-Imperialist Sentiment

Unfortunately, oftentimes these days it seems that society’s reaction to trauma is contained by brevity. It’s a sentiment encapsulated brutally and distressingly by rapper Killer Mike in the Run The Jewels song ‘Walking In The Snow’ from last year:

‘The most you give’s a Twitter rant and call it a tragedy
But truly the travesty, you’ve been robbed of your empathy’.

How revitalising it is, then, that the myriad variations on short prose in The Middle Of A Sentence prove that brevity doesn’t have to be a shallow pit. In fact, in the hands of these writers that sense of having very little time to say something massive is melded into beautiful, if bleak, forms.

A large part of that bleakness is confronting societal ills that exist around us all the time, and that here in Britain we’re depressingly adapted to ignoring. Whether dealing with toxic masculinity, race or sexual abuse, at their most powerful the stories here make you feel queasily uncomfortable.

Rachael Fulton’s Blood is one devastating example. Whilst ‘shock factor’ is a terminally overused phrase, when Blood appears in the sequencing here it’s like a sucker punch to all the ribs at once. The seething putrescence of the mindset depicted, the hatred and embedded culture of peer pressure are all recognisably commonplace in Britain today. But again, its domesticity and vulnerability of the protagonist are its calling card; it forces society’s cracks open and a patriarchal, toxic, largely right-leaning society to gawp at itself.

Admittedly, for those of us on the left it’s pretty much preaching to the choir. With political entrenchment so thorough as it is now, showing Blood to an EDL member might not change anything. But it also calls us on the left to account for allowing this to happen. Nowhere near enough has been done about the growing far-right presence, and to some extent it has festered so much because we’ve let it.

It’s crucial to view these injustices from a non-white lens too, of course, and the anthology delivers on that front too. In Two Happy Meals, Nigerian writer Chiga Unigwe channels the paranoia of emigrating to a society (in this case the US) where the totally unwelcoming infrastructure is embodied by that most over-arching symbol of western consumerism: McDonald’s. In a sense it’s about desperately trying to be a part of something that doesn’t want you. But also – as the awful denouement contends – it’s about the realisation that maybe it was ever thus. The palpable sense of distrust she feels is inarguable in the most evidence-based way.

Ranbir Sidhu’s That Here They Call Castles offers the same distrust but in a UK environment, and almost more earthy sense in his description of ‘Ealing sidewalks’ as being wonky, ‘as if the builders were drunk or ever searching for that which was never in front of them’. It gets more direct as it goes on:

‘No one smiles here, it is a land colonized by a single expression, the lips flat, tight, they eyes unmoving’.

Sidhu’s castles, or ‘dungeons’ that are the ‘ill-lit living rooms’ become a reproach to everything that symbolises English comfort. As we know, what’s comfortable to the wealthy barely masks the societal superiority complex that pervades it. In a way, Sidhu’s perspective as an outsider looking in is the ultimate advantage; it offers the British what they cannot see for themselves, and with far more cultural sensitivity than many of us could dream of. And yet there’s no mollycoddling; British comfort allows nothing for anybody else.

Masculinity, Class & Looking Inwards

Let me be clear: it’s important, to me, not to give any credence to the ‘war on men’ narrative. And that seems to be one aim of The Middle Of A Sentence too. In fact, pretty much all portrayals of masculinity here are steeped in suitably soul-searching pathos. Given the events of the last two weeks particularly, that feels right.

And besides, literature has had enough of definitively masculine perceptions. In a society where individual dominance is still valued above any sense of equitable outcome, portrayals of masculinity like those here cannot come often enough.

There are many examples, not least Brian Hamill’s hilarious self-deprecation. On the surface, both The Marriage That Was Ended By Rice and The fucking pest control are about the breakdown of a relationship. But there’s also a massive helping of self-denial. In the former its paramount. When his parents confront him about his part in the break-up, he shoves them off:

‘But it was. I know it was. If I’d never said that about the rice, that moment would never have presented itself’.

In the latter, it unfurls more slowly. Unhealthy drinking habits and an unwillingness for confrontation gradually conspire to create an undoing that he recognises full well, but will do literally anything to keep unacknowledged, except in fleeting moments: ‘I should say her name’.

Garry Cox’s Jesus Christ, 6 Days Short Of His 53rd Birthday rolls down the same road but simultaneously takes on more cultural, communal male inadequacies. It gets back on the absurdist bike, making the divine and unreachable hilarious and not so unfathomable after all; ‘Buddhism is the only religion he feels he might someday commit to’, he writes, before he’s enlightened by Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and becomes consumed by trying to reduce his Union Credit.

It’s almost as though our narrator, just like Christ himself, accepts his lot; he does what he has to do. But it also suggests that Christ is just a hyper-extension of man, probably invented by someone looking for some higher presence. And isn’t that what all of us – and maybe especially middle-aged men – are trying to do in life?

But just as masculinity needs to be considered and deconstructed societally, so too must we look inwards to injustices in class and health. Julie Rea’s The First To Leave is one of the most ferocious examples, tackling personal displacement which ends in tragedy inadvertently created by the protagonist. Seemingly set within the framework of a care system, we learn that a lady has ‘a garden full of scrap metal and garbage, and she’d been given 30 days to clear it’. When our protagonist arrives ‘one stifling afternoon with a rusty lawnmower’, one wonders whether it’s an allegory for the decimation of the NHS.

Graeme Armstrong’s Landit is also ultimately about a failed state:

‘C***s like him never last, the madness that fills them takes them n they perish’.

There’s a terrible sense of potential avoidance, exasperated and undone by the notion that middle-class carers can never truly understand working-class desperations. The drug epidemic that throttled working class communities across Scotland will permeate for as long as austerity works to view those communities as unequal.

Recovery From Trauma And abuse

A crucial element to men looking inwards is amplifying female voices, and accepting their perspectives without taking anything personally. There’s always been room for that in literature, but the sense that literary standards have been too male for too long is still hard to escape.

Frequently, that sense of a system which automatically devalues the work of women is felt acutely. Though this anthology was published in late 2020, they take on an extra urgent tone in a world where women aren’t safe even from people whose job it is to protect them.

That’s done in various ways. Kirsten Andersen’s The Space Between uses cavernous blanks and formatting discombobulation to relay perceptions of bodily and sexual autonomy, a break-up, freedom of choice, recovery from trauma, suicide and the extent to which – in a patriarchy – self-determination can achieve anything.

Ultimately, more and more we seem to exist in a world where ‘she believed she could, so she did’ seems a maxim hard to grasp, and that’s reflected in its repetition and consistent isolation on the pages. Self-determination for women is easy to out as a lie, it seems.

Farah Ahamed’s Thin Air shames us even more. It’s prescient just now that – like all great examples of brevity – you might read it and consider Ahamed some sort of seer. But this is the way things have always been. There’s no sense of futurism or foreshadowing here; this is how life has always been for women.

Sarah Ward’s The Bridge is fascinatingly bleak, excavating the cruel effect both demonisation of femininity and toxic masculinity can have on women. There’s also a sense that it reflects the collapse of society, and how this country – which is amped up to be a hive of equality-based modernity – offers nothing to young women in particularly.

And Hattie Atkins’ Food And Wine replicates a heightened sense of emptiness and desperation in a setting we can all recognise. By re-defining a constantly changing activity – cooking – to be something regimented in tandem with enormous personal loss again reflects the cyclical and constant unease many women live with.

Language And Meaning

There are several spell-binding approaches to language and dialect in The Middle Of A Sentence which, if you’ve been following The Common Breath’s catalogue & online activity, will come as no surprise.

Landit offers language as another essential arm of its assertions of class. Literature written in Scottish dialect has often been a target for sneering (mostly English) middle classes, either dismissed as being ‘too hard to read’, or fetishized as a composite glimpse into working-class Scotland. Graeme Armstrong changes the dynamic of that perception dramatically. Given that it’s a piece of memoir, it’s strikingly direct, but there is a sense of distance between the narration and the subject. Scottish dialect, here, is not so much an embodiment of class as it is deeply entrenched, rising out of a divide that, ultimately, snobbery has created.

That new spin offers Landit a unique position as a purveyor of the impact of words when reformed to fit certain perspectives. Bernard McLaverty reforms the idea of a sentence itself in The Fountain Pen, in so doing proving its liquidous endlessness and all the time keeping tabs on self-expression. Essentially, the anthology ends on a rumination on what the actual point of words is, or more specifically, saying too much or not enough. And both sides of that coin are explored in other examples too.

Sherwood Anderson’s The Dumb Man – one of several examples of short prose from the late 19th/early 20th century – is an exercise in literal non-storytelling. It creates a deeply cinematic, vivid narrative out of what isn’t said. To me, it seems ostensibly about how love is the cure for death. But via sardonic humour, Anderson suggests that words might be over-powerful in the context of love and death, even unwarranted:

‘Why was I not given words? Why am I dumb?


I have a wonderful story to tell but no way of telling it.’

It’s a viewpoint rebuffed by Kirsten Anderson in The Space Between, and one paragraph in particular:

‘Chaos often lives here, in the space between
words and feelings.
Thriving on the manufactured masochism of being misunderstood.
Again and again we try to be understood.
Yet we ask each other to read between our lines.
Why offer up spaces instead of words?
People are ridiculous’.

How much Anderson believes that is unclear; indeed, she offers a different perspective in the following paragraph. But either way, it’s a testament to the power of each and every person’s voice, whereas Sherwood Anderson might argue that there are too many voices in the crowd. The Space Between excavates the dynamics in both words and spaces, challenging the idea that the human condition can be neatly pocketed by interpersonal relationships, and should be more clearly defined by individual thought.

Conclusion

It felt quite resonant to be reading The Middle Of A Sentence in the same week that the new Arab Strap LP came out. Aidan Moffat’s writing has always belonged in the same lineage as that of James Kelman or Alan Warner – both of whom feature here – and seems tied up in many of the same, bleak machinations in navigating 2021 society.

What Moffat and many of these writers share is the ability to eek reality out of absurdity. The distinction is in the sense of fun in Arab Strap’s music, and the sense of wariness in many of these stories. But no matter what you take from The Middle Of A Sentence, the glaring sensitive accuracy throughout the whole anthology is incredible. It’s genuinely very rare for every story in a collection of this kind to strike a chord with me, but each one did, in spades.

You can buy The Middle Of A Sentence here.

BOOK REVIEW: Roddy Doyle’s A Star Called Henry

Soumen Daschoudhury's review of A Star Called Henry

Whilst there’s occasionally interesting stuff in A Star Called Henry, it’s marred by grossly outdated sexual politics that leave a nasty taste in the mouth

Edition published: Vintage, 2000

Acclaim is a strange thing. And as much as people like to state that they don’t care about/pay attention to critical acclaim, it almost always leaves a resonant taste in the mouth.

Irish novelist Roddy Doyle’s A Star Called Henry, the first in his The Last Roundup series, is certainly critically acclaimed. There are many who consider Doyle one of Ireland’s greatest living writers, if not *the* greatest. It’s narrated, in coarse and strikingly frank style, by the teenage protagonist Henry Smart, from his earliest years in poverty in Dublin through his ascension in the IRA and his involvement in both the Easter Rising and The Irish War of Independence.

Sympathy with the Devil

From the off, Henry Smart is a deeply dislikeable voice, but Doyle measures that with his own sense of flare. His prose, whilst poetically loose, is accessibly lyrical. He presents a massive, glitzy Dublin alongside the seedy underbelly which is his emphasis with conviction.

His depictions of violence and the factional nature of the IRA, the paranoia and distrust are vivid and authentic. And there are some genuinely moving moments in the first third of the book; certain deaths and predicaments are shocking, some realisations evergreen and pertinent.

‘1916 is about contested memory and history’. A BBC Newsnight commemoration of the Easter Rising, 100 years on.

But rather quickly, as Henry becomes more involved with atrocities and delivers mean-spirited assertions, the question becomes as to how much sympathy one has with the protagonist. Essentially, how much do you care about their fate?

And by about halfway through, I didn’t care. And there’s a massive, ugly elephant in the room that seems to have been almost routinely ignored.

Gender Roles from the Middle Ages

That aforementioned elephant is that the sex/gender politics in A Star Called Henry are staggeringly misguided, even by the standards of 1999.

Firstly, the way Doyle writes sex is entirely devoid of romance – though one would expect that from the perspective of a 14-year-old. Its voyeuristic cringe-worthiness is just about manageable until incidents of statutory rape – involving Henry and one of his former teachers – become frequent.

Henry loses his virginity to that teacher, who is twice his age, at 14, and continues to have sexual relations with another older woman. He eventually marries the teacher, Miss O’Shea, at the age of 17 (he fakes his birth certificate to say that he’s 22) – she is 32. At no point is there any sense of impropriety at these happenings, neither in the novel nor in critical reception.

But just as offensive is that every woman in the novel exists entirely as a sex object for Henry. Miss O’Shea is given 1.1-dimensional portrayal via her willingness to partake in revolutionary violence, but that lasts for about two pages.

About 2/3 through, we meet a woman who is just as coarse and brutal as Henry. *Finally*, I sighed. A female character who might amount to more than a twisted take on desire. But no – Doyle writes her out as quickly as she appeared by saying that she wants to ‘rape’ Henry. I wish I was making that up.

Authenticity Vs. Distastefulness

It seems, from his own acknowledgements, Doyle did a fair amount of research into the era he focussed on. But frankly, it doesn’t matter. His gross approach to femininity and women on the page would be pig-headed in any decade.

To still have the same acclaim behind his writing, one assumes that Roddy Doyle has become better at writing women since A Star Called Henry. I’m not sure I’ll trouble myself to find out, though.  

An old, fractured image of Michael Collins, one of Irish Independence’s loudest voices. Image Credit: National Library of Ireland Flickr.

You can buy A Star Called Henry here.

BOOK REVIEW: Simon Schama’s A History Of Britain Volume II

A History of Britain - Volume 2: The British Wars 1603-1776: Amazon.co.uk:  Schama, Simon: 9781847920133: Books

In his second volume of the history of Britain, Simon Schama proves himself way ahead of the early-noughties curve and presents a thorough dissection of modern(ish) British politics

Edition Published By: The Bodley Head, 2009

Regular readers of the blog will remember I reviewed the first volume of Simon Schama’s History of Britain a few weeks ago. In it, the legendary art historian leans on his effortlessly poetic tendencies to deliver a fulsome, zinging reading of early and medieval British civilisation.

In Volume II: The British Wars 1603-1775, his emphasis is more on an era that built the foundations of so much of modern Britain. It makes for slightly dryer, date-heavy reading. But Schama’s thorough understanding of the magnitude of this period and forward-thinking sensitivities make it just as intriguing.

The Union

In March 2021, it’s in no way unfeasible that the United Kingdom may not be a thing for much longer. Independence movements in Scotland and Wales now seem to have the strongest grips on their respective populaces than at any point during my lifetime.

It’s incredibly pertinent then, that in The British Wars, Schama spends so much time considering the Union in the 17th century. Alarmingly, that prophetic sense he showed in the first volume feels even more forthright here:

‘‘The obsession with ‘union’ and ‘uniformity’ that consumed both James and Charles I turned out to guarantee hatred and schism’.

But instead of extensively focusing on the mainstream, ‘classic’ stories that we’ve all heard a thousand times, he focuses on how relations between Scotland and England were a crucial catalyst for the Civil War, or political engineering by players largely side-lined by the usual narrative.

That does mean that a genuine and deep interest in this era is probably a requirement. But if you have that interest then Schama paints a fascinating fresco.

Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of Scotland’s Independence-favouring Scottish National Party. Image Credit: Scottish Government Flickr.

Modernity And Revision

The main focus of Volume II is how these two centuries set the ball rolling for everything to take off in future Britain, for good or ill. For example, Schama showcases this as the first golden era for propaganda and the printed press, both often used nefariously.

There are also reappraisals of various figures – particularly the likes of Oliver Cromwell and several major colonial players in later chapters – who really have no business being considered game-changing heroes. There’s a quote about Cromwell in the chapter ‘Looking for Leviathan’ that’s likely to ignite fuses on either side of the political divide in 2021, describing Cromwell’s statue outside the House of Commons as ‘a joke in questionable taste’.

Oliver Cromwell’s infamous statue outside the House of Commons in London. Image Credit: UK Parliament Flickr.

The Trouble with Colonialism

Where Schama really drives the nail regarding revisionism is in the final chapter, ‘The Wrong Empire’. It’s here that he describes the Transatlantic slave trade in suitably depressing detail and offers a proverbial middle finger to anybody who might try and claim it as innocuous.

And he makes up the shortfall in lyricism with strident, righteous opinions:

‘The idea that an empire so noisily advertised as an empire of free Britons should depend on the most brutal coercion of enslaved Africans is not just an academic paradox. It was the condition of the empire’s success, its original sin; a stain that no amount of righteous self-congratulation at its eventual abolition can altogether wash away.’

A statue of Queen Victoria, who presided over the British Empire, outside Windsor Castle. Image Credit: SouthEastern Star Flickr.

Whilst it’s arguable that, despite his efforts, Schama never really goes far enough to condemn Empire, he goes further than most would’ve done in the early noughties. It’s still uncommon to find passages like the following in books by white historians today:

‘Beyond the opportunism of personal plunder lay a much deeper question and one that the British Empire would face time and time again in its march across the globe. Was its military power to be used to strengthen or to weaken the native government they claimed to be ‘assisting’?’

And you get the sense that Schama, like me and many others, believes that time has proven it to be unwaveringly the latter.

The same belittlement that ran through Imperialist attitudes then still exists in the way many Westerners feel about Africa & Asia today. And if Schama’s endeavour here isn’t to expose that full-on, then he at least asks plenty of questions to that end.

You can buy A History Of Britain Volume II: The British Wars 1603-1775 here.

BOOK REVIEW: GARY DONELLY’S NEVER ASK THE DEAD

The third in Northern Irish writer Gary Donelly’s D. I. Sheen series, Never Ask the Dead is a nail-biting, exhilarating piece of Belfast noir that has great drama and terrible truth in spades.

Edition published: Allison & Busby, 2021

‘Sometimes the past, just like our childhood, comes back and finds us, whether we’re ready or not.’

So writes Belfast-born, London-based writer Gary Donelly in his scintillating new thriller Never Ask the Dead. The third novel in his Owen Sheen & Aoife McCusker series, it’s unbelievably tense and exciting, the shadow of Belfast’s past looming large while the book examines and excavates the Troubles’ lingering impact.

Colleagues in the police’s Serious Historic Offences Unit – or SHOT – Sheen and McCusker get thrown into Britain’s murky involvement in The Troubles when a walk-in turns up looking for his missing father. A warning note, difficult police chief and several re-opened cases later, our protagonists are locked in an intense game of cat-and-mouse, battling rogue elements on both sides of the conflict’s divide.

A Realist Sense of Menace

Gary Donelly clearly knows the history of the Troubles inside out. And given the impact of early 2021’s Brexit complications for Northern Ireland, this is certainly a timely release.

But the story’s sense of grit is timeless. Whether he’s depicting dilapidated Belfast suburbs or stalking paranoia, he’s totally realistic.

He writes in a typically acerbic, dry Belfast scrawl, rich in bleak humour and colloquialisms. And while his emphasis is more on blood-quickening chase sequences and destructive hypocrisy, he writes about domestic and commonplace themes – alcoholism, romance and parenthood, for example – with knowing aplomb. His understanding of claustrophobia and one-on-one menace, too, is as vivid as in any BBC drama.

‘Belfast’s Vortex of Violence’

‘In Belfast, history usually spelt the Troubles and this case, it seemed, was no exception’.

Given that sociological divisions in Northern Ireland are simmering once again, any novel which deals with the province’s politics needs to be sensitive. The book manages to tread the centrist line impressively, excavating the horrific part played by British Special Branch agents whilst never shying away from the maleficent nature of the IRA.

Readers should be aware that the violence itself is often gruesome and inspired by real-life atrocities – just like how the characters are sometimes reminiscent of real-life players. Many of the novel’s more sinister instances will be likely to ring bells.

What is the truth?

The main emphasis of the book is on being a nail-biting, haunting story. But like all the best detective mysteries, Never Ask the Dead consistently navigates the meaning of truth. And in the context of the ‘Dirty War’, the meaning is always muddied, bloodied and soaked in sadness.

Crucially, you don’t need to be avidly aware of Northern Ireland’s history to enjoy the book. Donelly’s ‘alternate Belfast’ is privy to dark secrets as much as it is blood-raising drama. So whilst there are constant questions in Never Ask the Dead, the author prioritises a brilliantly page-turning story.

You can purchase Never Ask the Dead from Allison & Busby now.