The first of the books I highlighted as those I wanted to look out for in 2020 is this debut written in English by a German born author with Polish heritage. It is an impressively written tale of the relationship between two young men set in Poland during the late 70’s/early 80’s at a time of great unrest.
The pair meet at a summer work camp picking beetroots and the development of this blossoming connection is handled very effectively. Behind much of this lies another book, “Giovanni’s Room” by black American author James Baldwin, a suppressed text which main character and narrator Ludwik glues between the covers of another book becoming the link which forges he and Janusz closer together. (Incidentally in a recent Guardian interview with Sara Collins of Costa winning “Confessions Of Frannie Langton” fame she praises Baldwin’s work as her choice for most under-rated novel calling it a “perfect love story.” I’ve been thinking for a time that I should re-read this and this book has further convinced me that I should do so.) In the novel Ludwik is researching the author for his doctorate and in fact just a couple of years after this novel was set I was doing the same for my degree dissertation. Ludwik faces the additional difficulties of a system where who you know is important in his quest to get his academic work off the ground.
The relationship is threatened by the atmosphere in Poland and the political differences between the two men. The whole narrative is directed towards Janusz as an explanation behind the actions and feelings Ludwik had at the time which he could not express to him face to face. The difficulties of dealing with same sex attraction at different times and places appears in many novels I have read but I feel that these stories need telling and retelling and this literary work is a very welcome addition to this.
My slight quibble is to do with the number of chance encounters the two men seem to have but maybe when attraction is that strong they can’t avoid the pull of fate that places them in similar locations at the same time. Well written and a strong debut, it had the feel of Andre Aciman’s “Call Me By Your Name” which became an Oscar winning film, especially stylistically in this book’s more languid moments but I think I may have enjoyed Tomasz Jedrowski’s novel slightly more.
Swimming In The Dark is published by Bloomsbury on February 6th 2020. Many thanks to Netgalley and the publishers for the advance review copy.
I feel like I’m on familiar ground here. Since publication I’ve been aware of this title and was delighted to see it chosen as an end of year pick by Cathy @ 746 Books as featured in my “Looking Around…” post in January. Familiar because this is the third work I have experienced this year that has taken as its source the 1990 documentary “Paris Is Burning”, which I have also re-watched this year and which once again blew me away (it’s on Netflix). Actually, it may very well be the 4th because the whole set-up of “Rupaul’s Drag Race” is indebted to the 1980’s New York Drag Balls scene which is the subject of this documentary but more explicitly this year we’ve had the Ryan Murphy TV series “Pose” which aired on BBC2 to much acclaim. British author Niven Govinden’s take on this with his 2019 novel “This Brutal House” and now American author Cassara’s debut which was published last year.
Comparisons are inevitable especially as the source material and all of the off-shoots have so far all impressed. Govinden’s novel had as its centre a silent protest against official incompetence in a narrative stream of great energy and rhythm in what was very much a literary take where the plot was less essential than the language and its cast of characters seeking their own family groupings for support and safety. This is also very much the case in “Pose”, character led with great performances and an unprecedented visibility of trans actors but had the Drag Balls themselves more as its focus.
Cassara has focused even closer on the characters, here, the real-life House Of Xtravaganza family, mothered by Angel and comprising of runaways; her lover Hector, transsexual Venus, “banjee boys” Daniel and Juanito and the older observer Dorian, characterisation which will feel familiar to those who have watched “Paris Is Burning” from where their stories are developed.
“The House Of Impossible Beauties” has a wider chronological spread from 1976-1993 which for gay New Yorkers means it has an essentially epic sweep featuring a remarkable period of their history. This encompasses the defining of identity in the hedonistic days of disco, to the forging of their own groupings through the “families” and Drag Balls in the early 80’s leading to a move towards their own self and society’s acceptance and having that shattered through the years of the AIDS epidemic and its aftermath.
I think the subjects Cassara deals with are always going to draw me in. This novel is sparky, touching, funny, fiery and yet becomes increasingly tinged with the inevitability of tragedy. Cassara has both followed the plotlines of the Xtravaganzas as featured in “Paris Is Burning” and broadened their existence with his fictional twists. Perhaps more than “Pose” it shows the struggles in terms of coping with discrimination, poverty, prostitution and mortality but like the television series it is all done with great humanity and compassion and more than a fair share of glitter. That is why, like “Pose” this is an important piece of work, which in terms of the journey the author puts the reader through does outshine the slightly later-to-be published “This Brutal House”. For this reason I am awarding it five stars but take note, this is enough now. No more Drag Balls or “Paris Is Burning” inspirations for a while. I am very happy having this novel, “Pose” and “This Brutal House” all representing this era because they are all high quality works, let’s not oversaturate this particular market.
The House Of Impossible Beauties was published by Oneworld in 2018.
“Every kid wants to find a dead body. About the only thing a twelve year old boy wants to find more is a spaceship, buried treasure or a porn mag.”
These sentiments expressesd in CJ Tudor’s debut remind me very much of “Stand By Me”, the film based upon the short story by Stephen King and the King feel looms large throughout this book, there is even a front cover recommendation from the man himself who has obviously noted that he and Tudor are pulling in the same direction as he states; “If you like my stuff, you’ll like this.”
But don’t think this is some Stephen King rip-off as it is has an identity all of its own. For a start it is British set in a town called Anderbury located around 20 miles from Bournemouth. We have a narrative of two time spans – 1986 with the aforementioned twelve year old boys and thirty years later when a discovery made back then in the woods is still holding the main characters back.
I was really looking forward to the 1980’s setting and I think the author does a pretty good job of conjuring up what it was like to be twelve in the mid-80s but I think I was looking for a stronger feel of the period, but then again I suppose we can’t expect this particular group of adolescents to be too aware of what was going on around them, they are just living their last innocent summer before some horrific realities of life kick in.
What the author does do very well in her debut is to keep a tense atmosphere throughout. A terrifying incident at a fairground packs one hell of a punch early on and from then on we know that lives will never be the same again. I like the ambiguity in the title referring both to chalk figures used by main character Ed and his pals to communicate; to drawings which have resurfaced in the later narrative strand and to the nickname of an albino teacher who makes his presence felt in the summer before he joins the children’s school. This all adds to the richness and edginess of the book.
Characterisation is memorable, the resolution perhaps not as satisfactory as the build- up but I often feel that way about crime novels. I really like the idea of us having a budding Stephen King here in the UK and I could also feel the influence of another of the author’s literary heroes, James Herbert. This is well-written edgy crime, that never allows the reader to truly relax and which does hover towards horror on quite a few occasions. I’m not surprised that it has appeared on a good number of “Best Of 2018” lists.
The Chalk Man was published by Penguin in 2018.
There’s something down in brother and sister John and Marion Zetland’s cellar and we get to find out really early on what it is in this gripping, compulsive debut.
I’m not spoiling things by saying it’s Eastern European girls tricked into the country by John and kept as prisoners and sex slaves. This novel focuses, however, on Marion, now in her late fifties, dominated by her brother and almost in complete denial as to what is going on in their house. Marion has done little with her life and looks back on a past filled with regrets whilst not functioning in the horrific reality of the present. This makes for incredibly tense reading. It is a tale of loneliness (charity shop toys fill the role of friends) and neglect in an environment where evil lurks down the cellar steps.
If this sounds a little too sordid the author has a masterful hand with characterisation and her depiction of Marion will remain long in my mind. There’s dark humour amongst the dark themes which I appreciated and which kept me reading to the point where I found it very difficult to put the book down. This is a very accomplished debut, a combination of crime and horror with a strong literary fiction feel which should make it appeal to more than those who make their reading choices from the darker areas of genre fiction. Publishers Legend Press seem to be building up a great reputation with high quality first-time authors. I will be fascinated to see what the author comes up with next.
The Visitors was published in hardback by Legend Press in 2017 and the paperback is due to appear on 1st June 2018. Many thanks to the publishers for the review copy.