#20BooksofSummer Nos. 5 and 6: The Tribulations of Youth

What is it like to be young, sensitive, well educated but struggling to make ends meet, particularly in a big anonymous city like London in the past few years? The two recent titles on my #20BooksofSummer list address this question from a female and male ethnic minority perspective, while a bonus book that I borrowed from the library has a slightly older protagonist with one foot in Northern Ireland and another in London.

Caleb Azumah Nelson: Open Water

A short novel, more like a novella, that is a love song in more ways than one: a love story of boy meets girl which on the surface seems conventional enough; a loving description of London and its black communities; a celebration of what it means to be young and hopeful, but also wounded and fearful. The prose has all the rhythm and syncopation of poetry, an idiosyncratic delight, written in second person which for once did not jar or feel pretentious.

Two highly educated, beautiful, creative young Londoners meet, become friends, fall in love: he is a photographer, she is a dancer. Her boyfriend is one of his friends at the time when they first meet. They are both still living with their parents, so it is not easy to be together in private. She returns to study in Ireland. He is traumatised by countless microaggressions because of his race – and several much more serious incidents. They hardly dare to allow themselves to fall in love, to trust each other, to hope in a common future, no matter how comfortable and safe they might feel with each other. The world around them does not feel safe or kind, especially towards him as a young black man.

You know that to love is both to swim and to drown. You know to love is to be a whole, partial, a joint, a fracture, a heart, a bone. It is to bleed and heal. It is to be in the world, honest. It is to place someone next to your beating heart, in the absolute darkness of your inner, and trust they will hold you close. To love is to trust, to trust is to have faith. How else are you meant to love?

The author manages to capture the universality of the exhilaration and magic of youthful love and finding your ‘soulmate’, but also brings us back to earth with a jolt, showing how abruptly this magic can be curtailed if you happen to inhabit a black body. There are certain quotes in the book which reminded me very strongly of James Baldwin (a clear influence), and which are heartbreaking in their restrained but clear anger:

You hide your whole self away because you haven’t worked out how to emerge from your own anger, how to dip into your own peace. You hide your whole self away because sometimes you forget you haven’t done anything wrong. Sometimes you forget there’s nothing in your pockets. Sometimes you forget that to be you is to be unseen and unheard, or it is to be seen and heard in ways you didn’t ask for. Sometimes you forget to be you is to be a Black body, and not much else.

I heard the author speak at a Hay Festival event and was looking forward to reading this book – and it did not disappoint. By far the most beautiful, immersive and meaningful description of Millenial or Gen Z life that I have read, although my personal experiences have been so different in terms of age, time, place and race.

Jo Hamya: Three Rooms

I fully expected to love this book as much if not even more than Open Water, since it describes a more familiar type of experience: a young woman wandering from one rented room to another, trying to embark upon a career at least halfway worthy of her education.

… the end goal I wanted, through any job necessary, was to be able to afford a flat, not just a room, and then to settle in it and invite friends to dinner. I thought I had put reasonable effort into this desire through successive degrees while waiting for the economy to clear up enough to raise the median starting wage… Now, even to me, it seemed ridiculous to concede that I had accumulated substantial debt and a few degrees so that I might contractually labour for the sake of having two free days a week in which to cook a meal in a kitchen I could not actually afford to own…

This is basically the book in a nutshell, although the narrator is made to feel even worse because of Brexit, because of her race, because of the hostile political forces she senses all around her. She does not wish to compromise like the intern she sees at the magazine she temps for, simply for the sake of fitting in. In the Clore Gallery, looking at a room full of Turners, she realises the troubled relationship she has with her country, the patriotism fanned by BBC dramas and generic painterly landscapes, how much she wants to love it but how the news cycle tells her otherwise:

The whole thing was abstract enough in style to take on whatever you gave it; and so, though it was unmistakably English, it could have been Yorkshire, it could have been Sussex… Whatever bit of English countryside you could connect it to in your head to hold, and because the painting was a beautiful thing, with its warm tint, its heavy golden frame and its place in the airy, magnificent gallery, the country became beautiful too.

She recognises that this room (this country) does not belong to her, but neither does the country of her parents:

I was newly uncomfortable in the gallery, but I did not want to leave… Because the room I was in did not belong to me, I could not do this infintely. But for the moment I was in it at least, I had the dignity and freedom of a sense of self which belonged entirely to me. I wanted to keep it.

However, if Open Water was all heart, almost visceral in its portrayal of both joy and suffering, this book was all about the intellect and contained far too little joy. The style was reminiscent of Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy, although with more emphasis on the first person than on other people’s stories. The political comments felt shoehorned in, undigested rather than organic.

Bonus Book: Lucy Caldwell: Intimacies

A short story collection portraying a series of young women (some of them slightly older than the protagonists of the two previous books) experiencing their own personal epiphanies, both great and small. The twilight zone of illegality for a Belfast student having to rely on drugs ordered online to end an unwanted pregnancy. A young American woman coming with her pastor and the Youth Ministry to convince voters in Ireland to ‘make the right choice’ in the vote about legalising abortion, who starts to question her own motives. Two co-workers pondering upon the unknowability of each other. However, her most relatable ones (for me at least) are about the sheer exhaustion and everyday fears of motherhood.

The author lays bare every single shred of doubt, fear, guilt, self-flagellation of mothers everywhere, but with a fresh contemporary twist. An overwhelmed mother having to leave her baby with a stranger at a cafe so that she can take her toddler for an emergency toilet break. Being alone at night in the house with small children and suddenly hearing what sounds like a possible intruder. Having to endure a long plane flight with a baby and a helpful stranger who might just make you rethink your life choices. An endless car journey with the family – and being reminded of one’s blessings.

Nothing monumental happens in most of these stories, at least not outwardly, but, as the author says in the final story, a sort of letter to her child:

We think the test will come on the days we’re ready for them, braced and prepared, but they don’t: the come to us unheralded, unexpected, in disguise, the ordinariest of moments…

I wish I could tell you my struggles in a way that would be meaningful or even of some practical use. But the secret, most important battles we fight are almost untranslatable to anyone else; and besides, you’ll have your own seething weirs of tigerish waters to cross.

It might not be easy to translate those battles, but I am grateful to Lucy Caldwell for attempting it regardless.

#YoungWriterAward: Tongues of Fire by Seán Hewitt

There are two ways in which I judge poetry.

First, if it it feels like the top of my head were taken off at first reading (to quote Emily Dickinson). In other words, does it produce a moment of epiphany, of feeling ‘that is what I’ve always thought but never quite found the words to express’ or ‘wow, I didn’t even realise that?’. There are quite a few timely, urgent, angry poems being written now which fulfil that first criteria.

Secondly, are these poems that I will return to again and again, reread, bathe in the sounds and colours, images and smells evoked, and find new meanings every time? Those poetry collections tend to be rarer – there may be one or two poems that I treasure in a collection, but not necessarily all of them.

Author photo copyright: Brid O’Donovan

Seán Hewitt’s debut collection meets both of my criteria. It is not a showy piece of work, but it’s not self-effacing either. Each poem releases little hooks at first reading, which then sink into you and never quite let you go, merely bury themselves deeper and deeper. Because of the beauty of the images, the closeness to nature and the musicality of the language, it is a pleasurable experience… and yet you realise there is a lot of grief, a lot of pain in this poetry as well.

The book is composed of three different parts: the first part is closer to what one might call ‘pure’ nature poetry, although the poet is always mindful how the natural cycle mimics the human life cycle. The natural landscape is also the landscape of the mind. The darkness and stillness of nature and then its rebirth in spring has strong parallels to sinking into disease and depression, and then finding hope and recovery.

I turn home, and all across the floor

the spiked white flowers

light the way. The world is dark

but the wood is full of stars.

Throughout, we also have parallels between the beauty of the natural world and the beauty of the human body, an exploration and celebration of sexuality, particularly queer sexuality, which has been considered ‘unnatural’ for so long.

The second part of the book is a retelling of the story of Suibhne (or Sweeney), a legendary Irish king, who was cursed, became a mad poet and was doomed to wander forevermore, never quite finding rest. This was a myth I was less familiar with, but the tension between transience and permanence, between loneliness and finding a place to call home with loved ones resonated with me, particularly in a year when we have all struggled with not seeing loved ones. Also, the recognition that to love is to open yourself up to the possibility of loss and of being hurt.

There was a time when I thought

the sound of a dove cooing and flitting

over a pond was sweeter than the voices

of friends. There was a time when

I preferred the blackbird and the boom

of a stag belling in a storm. I used to think

that the chanting of the mountain grouse

at dawn had more music than your voice,

but things are different now. Still,

it would be hard to say I wouldn’t rather

live above the bright lake, and eat watercress

in the wood, and be away from sorrow.

The poems in the final part of the book were written mainly in the last few months in the life of the poet’s father, who was suddenly diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer and died before the volume was published. There is so much tenderness here, as well as the feeling of being lost without a much loved person.

But hush. No one is coming.

We are handed our lives

by a fierce work. Onto which

blank space will I lock my gaze

when my father

is gone? How am I to wear

his love’s burning mantle?

The language feels very simple, unadorned, but always uncannily ‘right’ in context. There is a lot of restraint here, plenty of breathing space, which makes the impact all the more powerful. This might be called confessional poetry, and certainly there seems to be plenty of autobiographical detail in these poems, but it’s a delicate, elliptical emotion, recollected in tranquillity. The poet himself recognises that this quieter, more personal type of poetry may feel too much like a retreat to an ivory tower at this particular moment. In an interview with the Irish Times, he says:

The lyric poem – its patterning, its rhyme, its insistent “I” – has for me a beauty that is perhaps unfashionable, and might seem to make it isolated from the political imperative. But it is my wager that in speaking of ourselves, we will find readers who share something of that emotion, that experience, that flash of strange perspective. In other words, it is my contention that no poem is ever isolated, if it is done right.

I certainly agree with that. The cover of the book features a rust fungus (also called Tongues of Fire): it is basically a cancer eating at the heart of the juniper bush. Despite its yellow beauty, it is lethal. And that is precisely the effect this volume of poetry has had on me. At a time when so many people have died of a disease we barely see or understand, it feels like an elegy, a way of coping with the unspeakable.

I think you can tell that this was my favourite of the shortlisted titles for the Young Writer of the Year Award. But was it the favourite title overall of the Shadow Panel and did we pick it as our winner? Ah, well, you will have to wait and see…

#YoungWriterAward: Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

When I saw the shortlisted titles for the Times/Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award, I have to admit that Exciting Times by Irish writer Naoise Dolan was the only one I had heard of. She had been praised as the ‘next Sally Rooney’, which was not the happiest of comparisons for me, since I wasn’t bowled over by Rooney. But I thought I would start there nevertheless, mostly because it was set in Hong Kong and I’ve always been keen on reading about different geographical locations and the culture shock that expats might experience.

At first all went well. The staccato style and deadpan, deadly sentences were amusing at first, especially when they make fun of rich people.

He’d said everything very slowly that night, so I’d assumed he was drunk – but he still did it sober, so I gathered he was rich.

[…]

Periodically she touched her Celine trapeze bag. I thought: it’s still there, Victoria. It’s not going anywhere. The cow’s dead.

Ava, the main protagonist, is well educated but comes from a less privileged background in Dublin and is now teaching English to children of wealthy Chinese families in Hong Kong. I failed to care about her lukewarm relationship with wealthy banker Julian, and was only marginally more invested in her burgeoning love for the dainty, Cambridge-educated Edith (Chinese name: Mei Ling), perhaps because Ava herself was so confused, cold and self-involved. This was not the charming confusion or deep despair of first love we might encounter in Le Grand Meaulnes or Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart. It is not even the scheming machinations that ends in tragedy of Bonjour Tristesse. It is clinical and detached, at the mercies of modern technology: the one poignant moment was Ava watching the three blue dots that are a sign that someone is typing a message you are eagerly awaiting on the phone.

Next, I was disappointed in the lack of atmosphere. Although the book dutifully dropped Hong Kong place names and mention of local holidays, there was no sense of being immersed in that particular culture or location. The book might have been set anywhere else (in fact, it felt like a very London-based book, with so many of the characters being British). Perhaps that is typical of the Anglo expat experience in Hong Kong (I have certainly seen this replicated in Geneva), but it felt like a missed opportunity.

There were some things I did enjoy about the book. I enjoyed the acerbic observations about the ‘only correct form of English’ being British English.

‘Tings’ was incorrect, you needed to breathe and say ‘things’, but if you breathed for ‘what’ then that was quaint. If the Irish didn’t aspirate and the English did then they were right, but if we did and the English didn’t then they were still right. The English taught us English to teach us they were right. I was teaching my students the same thing about white people. If I said things one way and their live-in Filipino nanny said them another, they were meant to defer to me.

And there was a fair amount of English-bashing which seemed to bring Ava and Edith closer, and which certainly made me guffaw:

We both found it hilarious that Brits thought their international image was one of flaccid tea-loving Hugh Grantish butterfingery. If they’d been a bit more indirect during the Opium Wars, or a bit more self-effacing on Bloody Sunday, then our countries would have been most appreciative. ‘That’s why they can’t accept that they did colonialism,’ Edith said. ‘They see themselves as people who can’t even get a dog put down.’

However, after a while, these clever remarks started to sound a bit too much like the class clown trying to impress everybody with their cynicism. And it turned out that in terms of cultural differences, this book was more revealing about the differences between English upper middle classes and Irish working classes.

He was a rich Irish person, preferred having wealth in common with Victoria to Ireland in common with me, and was annoyed at us both for disabusing him that Victoria saw it that way. His moth said it was great to see another Mick out foreign, and his eyes said: don’t fuck this up for me.

Each of these quotes taken in isolation are rather brilliant, and I certainly appreciated certain passages. Perhaps I’d have enjoyed this more as a sharp, short novella. But the overall sensation I had after reading the book was that I’d been frozen by Ava’s icy temperament, and that I had been slashed and cut by too many razor-sharp remarks, without encountering any effort to thaw or heal me.

We will see what my fellow Shadow Judges made of it, but for me personally, it doesn’t feel like the winner of The Young Writers’ Award. However, the two next reviews will be of the poetry books, and I loved both of those!