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Autumn Reading 2020

I’m happy to say that as summer slipped gently into autumn, I have still been finding lots of excellent new books to read. A couple of the books below linked nicely into each other due to the theme of females having control over their body and indeed their life. They are though, very different books, which I shall cover in more detail below. The third deals more with the nature of male friendships and the shifting dynamics over a period of time. It also looks at the impact that those friendships have on partners that come along later.
I’ll cover these books in the order that I read them.
Sophie Mackintosh – Blue Ticket
This second full length novel from Sophie Mackintosh. The first – The Water Cure - came out in 2018 but somehow passed me by. This was despite it being on the Man Booker long list and winning a Betty Task Award. My interest in Sophie and the new novel, Blue Ticket was sparked by a great interview with her by Claire Armistead in The Guardian at the start of September. She spoke of the importance of bands like Joy Division and the unsettling qualities of books like Morvern Callar and Under The Skin. Although I haven’t read either of the books, the films that were produced of them, both had a lasting impact upon me. The sense of other worldliness, set in dark yet mundane reality has always appealed to me. The word Dystopian crops up frequently when describing the work of Sophie Mackintosh and upon diving into the novel, it’s clear to see why.
The premise is simple, as girls enter womanhood, they head off to get a ticket that maps their future. White Ticket grants you children, Blue Ticket means no children for them. They are relieved of the burden of choice. What an appealing idea that is for many of us. The ultimate lottery for a life changing outcome.

Yet inevitably this book raises the question of, what happens if fate deals you the wrong hand? We follow Calla on her trip as her feelings change, mapping her uncomfortable journey as she pushes to create her own individuality and future. The cast of the book is small, the tightness of her world building a claustrophobic tension as Calla tries to buck the system. That tension remains in place, even when the landscape of the novel becomes wider. The relationships that she creates along the way are riddled with doubt, anxiety and sometimes outright loathing. 
Although childbirth and indeed children generally, are not something that I have the slightest interest in, the novel made me care deeply for Calla and the traumas that her body and mind go through. Often, we are unsure of time and place, the commonplace and the often uncritical acceptance of this strange world, tell of a compliant populous, content to have their freewill removed.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book and the resistance that Calla shows, as she tries desperately to listen to her inner voice, rather than the one that the state has imposed upon her. The writing is tight and controlled, no words are wasted. Often the most difficult emotional episodes are dealt with, in a brutally matter of fact way. Comfort and joy are in short supply here, but when things in the narrative brighten, the tones lift our mood, helping us to feel the joy and optimism of Calla. No matter how much we fear that it may be short lived.
Certainly, a writer to keep an eye on, I’ll be looking to track down a copy of that debut novel The Water Cure. In addition to which, there are several short stories by Sophie Mackintosh that are available.

Mieko Kawakami - Breasts And Eggs

I’ve enjoyed reading Japanese fiction for the best part of 30 years but haven't read anything quite like this novel from Mieko Kawakami. Although well established and successful in Japan, this is her first full length novel to be published in English.

It’s actually two books linked together, with a ten year gap in the story. The first part of the book was originally a stand alone novella. It introduces us to Natsuko a thirty year old woman getting by, in a fairly frugal way in Tokyo. We also meet her older sister Makiko and Makikio’s twelve year old daughter Midoriko. Makiko and her daughter have headed from the sisters childhood home of Osaka to visit Natsuko whilst Makiko ponders cosmetic surgery. The relationships between all three are strained especially because Makiko seemingly never stops talking about herself, and her daughter refuses to communicate verbally.

The second, and more lengthy, part of the book sees Natsuko in a more successful position from a career perspective. She is now an author, so moving in different circles, yet she is struggling with a gap in her life due to the lack of a partner and rather more pressingly, the lack of a child. We look on as Natsuko wrestles with the ticking clock that lies within her and the impact that has on her ability to work and move forward with her life.

Although her sister and niece still feature they are joined by a supporting cast that play an important role in the book. I really like the way the story deals with the internal moral dilemma that Natsuko battles with. Also the input from the supporting characters is brilliantly handled as they have sharply conflicting opinions on the best way forward for her.

Two of these characters had a particular impact on me. The opportunistic Onda, is brilliantly drawn as an individual hard wired to take advantage of women such as Natsuko. Then a fairly late passage in the the book, with an older lady called Yuriko, who sets out a few home truths when she an Natsuko encounter each other in a park. It is a very powerful part of the book.

Whilst not exactly on the margins of Japanese life, the impact of having a working class upbringing, combined with the options available to single women in Japan, make for some powerful and, for me, enlightening storytelling. There is also much humour in the book, particularly in the interplay between the two sisters. They deal honestly with the impact that the difficult financial circumstances had on the older female members of the family and the bonds that those hard times created amongst them all.

I found this a compelling read, and raced through it with glee and fascination. After reading the book I looked up a few articles which mention, that in it’s Japanese form much of it is written in the local dialect of Osaka, rather than the more formal style that is commonplace with the majority of novels. Maybe the excellent translation by Sam Brett and David Boyd misses out on that, then again that is one of the few downsides to reading translated fiction. Hopefully further works by Mieko Kawakami will soon be translated into english.

Andrew O’Hagan - Mayflies

Scottish writer Andrew O’Hagan has been on my must investigate list for a while. It was a tweet by the musician and writer Tracey Thorn that finally nudged me towards buying a copy of Mayflies, his most recent work. She commented that she had started reading it on a kindle but had to stop and buy a physical copy as she was enjoying it so much. Time to get on board, I thought to myself.

Andrew O’Hagan is a novelist and essayist with a rich body of work behind him. Mayflies is another book of two half’s. The opening part focuses on the friendship of James and Tully, two young men who inspire, educate and enthral each other with a love of music, films and books. They support each other and a wider network of friends through challenging domestic circumstances in Glasgow.

We join them in 1986, just about to enjoy a life defining weekend away, as they head to Manchester, their musical Mecca. The guiding lights of their (and my youth) coming together for a never to be repeated or forgotten experience. The Smiths, New Order, Factory Records, The Hacienda come together to provide the cathedral that these young men worship in. Enough religious references from me, well maybe, but I can certainly empathise with so much of this book.

Although I was born in Bristol, rather than Glasgow and didn’t attend the The Festival of the Tenth Summer gig in Manchester, The opening chapters of this exhilarating and moving book made me think that someone had been looking over my shoulder during the 80’s. They had then decided to reimagine my life and, as would happen with a film, altered things like location and a key moment. Think of when the book High Fidelity was moved from England to the U.S.A. and you get my point.

It’s wonderful to see how well these two central characters are portrayed. Although their backgrounds and home lives are less than privileged, their innate intelligence shines through. Sometimes cultural commentators these days only appear to have an opinion if they come from an Oxbridge background. This was never the case, artistic stimulation and engagement doesn’t have class boundaries.

The joyous sweaty mess of gigs it perfectly captured. Finding and losing your mates in the chaotic maelstrom of an enthusiastic and ever moving sea of a crowd is made flesh in this novel. There are, of course, scrapes and mishaps along the way but the group of travellers have the weekend that defines them.

Thirty years later James and Tully are reunited, though in very different circumstances. There is big news and once again these two are thrown together as emotional and practical support is needed. The complexities and difficulties caused by friends disagreeing on things, yet being able to move forward are perfectly captured. These two don’t always agree but they do value each other.

Sometimes the closeness of that relationship can cause problems for the respective partners, Again this is superbly handled, as we head towards the climax of the book. Without giving too much away, I don’t think I have ever been as moved by the ending of a book, as I was with Mayflies. Maybe that’s because there were so many touch-points that I could directly relate to in the story? Then again, when you have direct experience of something, you can sniff out the phoney at a thousand yards, All of this book rang true,

After finishing the book, I understood why. It is based on Andrew O’Hagan and a friend and it’s brilliantly done.