Adam Mars-Jones: Kid Gloves

Being an Adam Mars-Jones completist is not a full-time job, requiring round-the-clock vigilance by a troupe of assistants. He has published so few books (three novels, two story collections and some essays in 34 years as a published author) that I’m never really convinced that there’s going to be another. Nor, perhaps, is he: “I’m not the sort of person who writes every day. I write when there’s something write, and if I can’t think of a way to write something, I just don’t.” This, surely, is preferable to the alternative. And it means that those rare publications, when they do come, can take us unawares – I had no idea that this book was imminent until a week or so before publication. Which made it a lovely surprise; but perhaps I do need that troupe of assistants after all.

Adam Mars-Jones: Kid Gloves (cover design by Coralie Bickford-Smith)

Kid Gloves, subtitled A Voyage Round My Father after John Mortimer’s play, is a memoir not just of Mars-Jones’s father, a High Court judge, but of “a particular time”. So although there’s plenty of Dad, there’s a lot of general reminiscing; and much of the paternal stuff is decently distant. For example, although we’re told on the first page that in 1998 “my father had been casually described by medical authority as demented”, we get no grisly slip-by-slip account of his decline – it’s a voyage round, not a deep excavation – but instead a launchpad for a rush of memories. My father and myself.

(I’m going to lapse into code for the rest of this review, by calling the author AMJ – the only way I can see of avoiding a bottleneck of Mars-Joneses accompanied by clarifications.) Mars-Jones Sr’s decline was already established when his wife died, though she had kept her ill-health a secret from him. AMJ “had just finished telling her that her dying belonged to her and she shouldn’t consider anyone else’s wishes, so I could hardly overrule this decision even though I disagreed with it.” When AMJ apologised to his dad for the fact that he had been given no warning of his wife’s death, “he seemed surprised, as if it was the most natural thing in the world for his wife of fifty years to slip away without a word.” These sentences – an intricately expressed report of inner workings, and emotion not so much muted, to adopt social media terminology, as blocked – are fairly representative of the book.

So, for a memoir incorporating the death of two parents, there’s not much emoting, and deep satisfaction for most of the book is more likely to be found in parsing the neat wit of AMJ’s paragraphs. They flow and fold in such a way that they sometimes need to be read carefully a second time, like the sort of poem where a sentence runs on through two or three stanzas.

Dad’s ideal was that we would all become lawyers, which would be following his footsteps in one sense, except that his drive and ambition had taken him very far from the paths trodden by his farming ancestors. To follow him would be very different from being like him, would mean in fact that we were very unlike him. The more we were like him the less we would follow him. All this tangle needs to be kept distinct from the common-sense awareness that we would most likely never emerge from his shadow and be assumed, even if we went on to ‘great things’, to have got our start thanks to his eminence.

All this reminds me – at the risk of aping the book by making this review more about me than its ostensible subject – that I had more or less made the assumption AMJ expects in that last sentence. Or rather, not that he got where he is from his father’s eminence, but that he has pursued the uncertain life of a freelance writer through some trustafarian reliance on his father’s money. The book reveals that this lazy assumption could not really be more wrong. First, “it would take me about five years of literary journalism in print and on the radio to start earning a living.” Second, although judges, as AMJ understatedly notes, “are not poorly paid” (they currently earn around £175,000 a year, putting them comfortably within the top 1% of salaried employees in the UK), his dad had “reverse financial acumen” and in 1987 it was he who had to turn to AMJ, who then had a regular income as film critic for the Independent, for financial support.

Circling a character from enough angles can give as full an account as being inside his mind, and we do learn a lot about Mars-Jones Sr’s character, despite the coolness of the approach. His debt problems, his love of being admired (“Dad had never been uncomfortable with applause”), his vanity (“I was in the room when he had a negotiation with American Express about how many of his honorifics – MBE, LLB – could be crammed onto his Gold Card”), and his ill-temper all come through with plenty of lawyerly evidence. In the first 25 pages, there are three accounts of him demanding the immediate departure from his company of people who have, to his mind, insulted him. One woman whom he had known since her birth committed such an offence at his retirement party, and her apology merely inflamed his self-righteousness to a comic degree. “That,” he responded, “is something you will have to live with for the rest of your life.” The heavy emotional weather with which he buffeted his loved ones means that occasional tender expressions carry great force, as when he sends a postcard from a health club to AMJ, saying “You have always been a rewarding son” – even though the reward, of course, was his.

We get a lot about Mars-Jones Sr’s professional career too, with detailed accounts of cases involving Gilbert O’Sullivan (big in his time for sure, but a name known to me only because a website once told me that he had the number one single on the day of my birth) and Ian Fleming: so at last, thanks to Kid Gloves, I finally know why the non-canon James Bond film Never Say Never Again exists. And while 274 pages largely on the life of someone you’ve never heard of may seem a bit much, and while sometimes it is, there is plenty to attract even the judiciophobic, whether by content – the eternal battle of the generations, the unreliability of memory, the injustices of biography – or by style. AMJ’s tone is funny, intimate, gossipy and rigorous. This does mean, as suggested already, that there is not much obvious emotional wrench to most of the book. AMJ notes early on that “it’s part of my psychology, not perhaps the deepest part but part of what I work up and perform, to take things in my stride, to make out that nothing slows me down or drags me off course.” Later, more explicitly, he acknowledges that “I seem to be portraying myself as someone who dealt with his parents’ deaths comparatively coolly.” He adds “that’s not how I see it, obviously” but resists the temptation to say more.

What we do get, which is particularly welcome in a work that appears ostentatiously unstructured – no chapters, not so much as a line break – is an acceleration, both comic and emotional, in the last quarter. This famously homosexual (I think that’s a fair term) writer’s father had another defining characteristic: he was an out-and-out, as it were, homophobe. This sets up an apt tension for the coming-out-to-Dad scene – New Year’s Eve, 1977 into 1978 – though AMJ defuses it by playing it largely for laughs. And why not, when one of his dad’s considered responses was to recommend that Adam be “initiated into the joys of natural love by an older woman,” adding by way of provenance that the “procedure had done the trick for Prince Charles, though several courses of treatment had been needed to make sure that the cure was fully rooted”?

AMJ does a lot of defusing in Kid Gloves, interjecting chattily, such as his assurance near the end that “I’m not going for a big finish here, more of a syncopated coda effect.” In fact the final paragraphs, bringing back one of the carers who looked after his dad in his final years, are close to symphonic. And despite the disclaimer, the final 30 pages are heavy with earned emotion, as AMJ reports on Michael, the lover he introduced to his dad post-coming-out, and who died later of an Aids-related illness. “He and I had been saying goodbye almost from the moment we met.” It is these scenes which give the book the bulk of its weight. Openness – and nakedness – takes another form throughout, too: AMJ shows himself willing to appear undignified in surprising ways. So roll up if, among everything mentioned above – and the book contains multitudes – you want to picture the future literary critic of The Observer, aged twenty and squatting over a mirror to check if Kurt Vonnegut’s asterisk-shaped illustration of an asshole in Breakfast of Champions really was accurate. (Spoiler: it was.)

Claire-Louise Bennett: Pond

The Stinging Fly Press, an offshoot of the literary magazine, has made itself a publisher to watch with its careful selection of debut writers, many of whom have gone on to award-winning, bidding-war status. They published the first books by IMPAC-winner Kevin Barry, Irish Book of the Year-winner Mary Costello and Guardian First Book Award-winner Colin Barrett. So this new book was on my radar, though it wasn’t until Twitter began filling with praise, and the press agreed, that I picked it up.

Claire-Louise Bennett: Pond

Pond is described in the blurb as a ‘collection’ but also as having unity: a “chronicle of the pitfalls and pleasures of a solitudinous life told by an unnamed woman living on the cusp of a coastal town.” That solitudinous is a wink to the reader – expect more of that sort of thing, because this is a book which denies any separability of the traditional elements of a work of fiction. The language is the character is the style is the story. It’s all about the words: one of those books that makes you realise that the story could not be told, the character could not exist, in any other style; and then makes you wonder why that isn’t the case with more books. The style is not something overlaid on pre-existing content: the style is the substance.

Which means it makes sense that the stories here are similar, often hard to tell apart in memory, as most are told in the same way (and all but the final story in the first person). It is a digressive, repetitive, obsessive voice, which worries at memories, circles around experiences and alights on the same thoughts over and over. It is a picture of a flywheeling mind, in danger of coming apart, which often reminded me of Keith Ridgway’s broken narrator in the ‘Marching Songs’ chapter from Hawthorn & Child. In the story ‘Morning, Noon, & Night’, the consistency of voice covers everything beautifully, and the only way to present this properly is to quote it at length. It gives us meticulous rumination, such as when our woman thinks about how to arrange and display fruit:

Pears don’t mix well. Pears should always be small and organised nose to tail in a bowl of their very own and perhaps very occasionally introduced to a stem of the freshest redcurrants, which ought not to be hoisted like a mantle across the freckled belly of the topmost pear, but strewn a little further down so that some of the scarlet berries loll and bask between the slowly shifting gaps.

The description is comic in its grandiosity, and she rarely says something straightforwardly when she can hide it behind protective language. After ranging across subjects so wildly that the reader can just about keep her in sight, she interrupts herself:

Still, as I’ve said, none of this has anything to do with now whatsoever. I don’t know what it has to do with and as a matter of fact I’m not sure what now is about either.

This relieves the reader, like a good joke, and despite its density, Bennett’s prose is often funny. Reflecting on bathrooms, the narrator observes that she doesn’t like en suites: “as a rule I think it’s much nicer to leave a room entirely before entering another.” But at the same time it reminds us that these stories are often about the permeable barrier between inside and outside. The view we get of the external world is heavily filtered, and closely internalised. This makes a change from most first person narratives, which give us a uncluttered landscape and ignore the thickets and dead ends of how we really think. In ‘The Big Day’, we get an extrapolation of the quote above which brings the point home:

English, strictly speaking, is not my first language by the way. I haven’t yet discovered what my first language is so for the time being I use English words to say things. I expect I will always have to do it that way; regrettably I don’t think my first language can be written down at all. I’m not sure it can be made external you see.

Claire-Louise Bennett: Pond

Sometimes a direct emotional statement breaks through all this diversion and play, given extra force by the contrast with its surroundings: “On occasion, I have gone quite out of my mind with love.” But the rest is an attempt to enable us to, as the narrator wishes, “just spend five minutes beneath my skin and feel what it’s like. Feel the savage swarming magic I feel.” And as the book goes on, she seems less and less like an eccentric outsider, and more and more like one of us: or perhaps it’s that the language temporarily reshapes the reader’s brain into sympathy with its way of thinking. Why else, after all, would I feel repeatedly drawn back to the stories even with little expectation of understanding them in the traditional sense?

That is to say, there are no straightforward plots, no simple stories in these stories, but this goes back to the inseparability of the elements. The language, full of curlicues and recirculations, would be irritating if delivered by a straightforward narrator – but it could not be delivered by a straightforward narrator. It is part of her. And with its richness and deformations – which become more pronounced in the later stories, particularly ‘The Gloves Are Off’ – I felt no desire for the longest stories, about 18 pages, to be any longer. That’s enough of that sort of thing. But Bennett’s resistance to A-to-B plots doesn’t stop her from filling the stories Pond with some of the strongest endings I’ve seen. In ‘The Big Day’, our woman ends her account of a new home by discovering a pond, in a way that is blunt with symbolism but powerful:

It’s not a very deep pond after all. I always believed they were endlessly deep. But when I took something down there one day I needed to get rid of fast, a broken, precious thing, I dropped it in the water and it did not sink and go on sinking. It just sort of wedged itself and was horribly visible. And within moments lots of very small things, some of them creatures I suppose, collected and oscillated, slowly, along the smooth crevices of its broken precious parts.

There is a literary awareness too, from the title of the opening story, ‘Voyage in the Dark’, echoing Jean Rhys’s greatest novel, to a story, ‘Control Knobs’, where the narrator ruminates on Marlen Haushofer’s dystopian novel The Wall. The stories, too, are arranged carefully, with very short pieces alternating with the longer ones. Sometimes, like ‘Stir-Fry’, they are only a few lines long, almost one-liners with a tweak – Lydia Davis length – which seems as good a place as any to have a go at giving this review an ending as strong as Bennett’s stories:

I just threw my dinner in the bin. I knew as I was making it I was going to do that,
…..so I put in it all the things I never want to see again.

Benjamin Wood: The Ecliptic

Why is the life and world of the visual artist such an appealing subject for novelists? Perhaps I’m overstating it, but I’ve seen or read several in the last year (Jonathan Gibbs’s Randall, Niven Govinden’s All the Days and Nights, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian) and have strong memories of others: Patrick McGrath’s Port Mungo, Patrick White’s The Vivisector. Could it be that writers like telling painters’ stories because it enables them to write about the creative process – so familiar to them – but in a slightly, well, sexier form? Benjamin Wood: The Ecliptic The Ecliptic is such a book and more. Its narrator is an artist, and in the second part of the book we get a full-blooded account of her development as a painter, but there is more to it than that. We are told this only after we already know that she – Elspeth Conroy – is blocked, can no longer paint, and has come to Portmantle, an artists’ retreat on Heybeliada off the coast of Turkey, to rediscover her muse.

At Portmantle, established “to rescue the depleted minds of artists like us”, everyone has a pseudonym. Elspeth is known as Knell, and she is one of the longest-staying residents there, along with Quickman, MacKinney and Pettifer. (They are, respectively, novelist, playwright and architect, so the four friends conveniently cover a range of creative forms.) Artists leave Portmantle when they have completed a new piece of work, so remaining there for years indicates serious stoppage. Reading this, we wonder whether the approach of going to special place to be an artist and nothing else is more likely to cement the blockage than dislodge it. Is seeking “to rid ourselves of external influence and opinion” a good idea? (Answers accepted from anyone who has tried to write anything while ping-ponging between Word doc and social media feed.)

At the time of the story, it is the mid-1970s and Elspeth, now in her late thirties, has been there for over a decade. Other guests (“transients”) come and go but the four friends seem permanent fixtures. They are intrigued by the arrival one day of a teenage boy, seemingly a musician, known as Fullerton. (The book opens in sturdy read-on fashion: “He was just seventeen when he came to Portmantle, a runaway like the rest of us.”) You might say that they needed something to disrupt their stasis. There’s something affected about them – Quickman smokes a pipe, Knell describes weather as “clement”, they play backgammon – and precious too, so it would take a heart of stone to read MacKinney’s complaint that “I can’t even put down a simple stage direction without questioning myself” without laughing. On the other hand she puts their struggles in perspective when she says:

Do you know how many plays I’ve written in my life? Thirty-six. Know how many of those were actually any good? One. One! If I had a market stall, I’d be in penury by now.

This perfectionism could be the root of their problem, or a corollary of it. “The making part is what we’re addicted to, the struggle, the day-to-day,” Fullerton observes. Or, when Pettifer complains that “I’m useless in every respect, but especially in the field of architecture”, it could be a version of Thomas Mann’s observation that a writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for anyone else. But the clever thing is that the rest of the book makes such struggles feel vital and important, not silly and trivial, through immersing us in Elspeth’s past.

After a dramatic conclusion to the first part of the book (“One of Four”, it says here: geddit?), we get that entirely engaging and in-depth portrait of her birth and growth as a painter. She leaves her Scots upbringing and moves to London, where she has an informal apprenticeship with artist Jim Culvert, has early success, tussles (and more) with a critic, becomes sufficiently important through one series of work to be hung in the Tate, and then – stops. It is the ecliptic of the title that stops Elspeth, when she agrees to a commission to paint a mural for a new observatory, and cannot determine how best to depict the mysterious – well, what is it exactly?

ecliptic, n. a great circle on the celestial sphere representing the sun’s apparent path among the stars during the year.

All this is tremendous stuff, engaging, persuasive and full of life. And at its end it brings us back to when Elspeth – Knell – joined Portmantle, and so we skip back to the ‘now’ of the story. Here the book adopts a third form, after the Secret History-esque buddy drama of part one, and the life-in-full of part two. It turns into a mystery, which I can’t say much about to avoid spoiling it. It might be enough to say that it reminded me obscurely of Theodore Roszak’s underrated novel Flicker, which was a sort of mad conspiracy theory thriller about cinema. In The Ecliptic there is just as much eyebrow-raising implausibility, but the pages turn so smoothly – I rattled through its 465 pages in a couple of (bank holi)days – that quibbles flee. Indeed, its craziness is much of its appeal.

If there’s a weakness, it’s in the revelation that comes near the end, which makes things too rational (but at the same time, paradoxically, explains both the neatness and the implausibilities earlier). In particular it seems a stretch to compare The Ecliptic, as my proof copy does, with the work of Kazuo Ishiguro, for its “delight in playing with our perceptions”. It certainly has a wide range and an impressive capacity for turning things upside down, but there isn’t really that sense of existential rudderlessness that Ishiguro excels in. Then again, to say that a book fails to live up to one of the greatest writers of fiction in English is hardly a knock. Another comparison the blurb makes, to David Mitchell, is closer to the mark.

All in all The Ecliptic is a satisfying, irresistible novel with that combination of storytelling punch and literary sensibility which can, with luck, be the sign of a big commercial and critical success. I was going to say that it marks Wood out as a writer to watch, but that usually seems to me to be code for “this book isn’t all that good, but the next one might be.” Better instead to say that he’s a writer to read.

Leonard Michaels: Sylvia

Leonard Michaels (1933 – 2003) is one of those writers who has attained minor icon status in the USA (his fiction is published there by a classics imprint) but has never really taken off in the UK. In his introduction to this book – its first British publication – David Lodge suggests that this is because Michaels’ “concentrated, genre-busting” stories, widely considered to be the best of his work, “were challengingly unfamiliar in content and form, written with an intensity that demanded a corresponding effort from the reader.” For example his story ‘City Boy’, included in The Paris Review’s Object Lessons anthology as one of “the greatest short stories of the past sixty years”, mixes realism and fantasy without distinction. His late stories about mathematician Nachman (“People called Nachman Nachman, as if he were a historical figure”) are semi-comic scenes from a life and the “high point of [his] career”. Michaels also wrote two short novels, The Men’s Club (1981) and Sylvia (1993). I read the former a year or two ago without remembering much about it, so I was interested to see that the reliable Daunt Books had reissued this.

Leonard Michaels: Sylvia

Sylvia started life as a short-story-length memoir, published in a collection of journalism and other pieces, and was extended to stand alone a few years later. Although presented as fiction, it is, Lodge tells us, “[Michaels’] own story”. This at least frees it from the questions of author-as-narrator that dogged Michael’s contemporary Philip Roth: this time we know it’s him. But it invites exactly the same judgements for non-literary reasons (“What is being done to silence this man?” a rabbi asked on publication of Roth’s first book, Goodbye Columbus, in 1959), because the narrator of Sylvia is often as unsympathetic, as crudely and unreconstructedly male, as Alex Portnoy or Mickey Sabbath.

But first: it’s 1960 and our narrator, Leonard, aged 27, has arrived in New York. He’s an aspiring writer, a fortunate young man “humoured by the world”, one who “could give no better account of himself than to say, ‘I love to read’.” In short order a friend introduces him to a young Asian woman, Sylvia, and “the question of what to do with my life was resolved for the next four years.” Sylvia is a book of memory (the epigraph, from Adam Zagajewski’s poem ‘Fruit‘, is “How unattainable life is, it only reveals / its features in memory, / in nonexistence”), and most of it is told long after the events – was, presumably, written long after the events, so the telling has the richness of long thought and is dotted with the sort of details that crystallise and colour over time. Sylvia tells Leonard of her mother’s death:

She said her mother became increasingly sensitive as she declined, until even the odour of the telephone cord beside her bed nauseated her.

Memories come too from the journal entries that are peppered through the book, which are real and contemporaneous, according to the introduction, and are artless enough that they have a ring of authenticity (that’s to say, I don’t think they add much to the book other than verisimilitude).

Perhaps inevitably – it wouldn’t be much of a story otherwise – Leonard and Sylvia quickly move from fucking to fighting: or rather, to both. “No passport was required. There wasn’t even a border. Time was fractured, there was no cause and effect, and one thing didn’t even lead towards another. As in a metaphor, one thing was another. Raging, hating, I wanted to fuck, and she did too.” Pretty soon, Leonard is spending more time at his parents, including once when Sylvia rings to tell him she has slit her wrists. (Don’t fear spoilers, by the way – we’re only on page 30. This one’s a wild ride.) Here we get relieving bursts of black humour, as Leonard resents his mother detaining him as she makes up a food parcel to take with him as he returns to see if Sylvia really has tried to kill herself. “She suspected things were bad on MacDougal Street, but if I left without the food she’d know they were very bad.”

Leonard Michaels

Even when recollected in tranquility, Leonard’s memories of Sylvia can be brutal. He suggests that the fact that she is (as he sees it) “certifiably, technically nuts” may be connected to her lack of interest in current affairs. “Sylvia never read a newspaper. I told her what was happening. She didn’t care one bit. I told her anyhow.” Because “I had a vague notion that mental health is more or less proportional to the attention you give to matters outside your head.” David Lodge in his introduction seems happy to go along with this, referring to the book as having “its place in the extensive modern literature of psychopathology.” Meanwhile, Leonard, with frankness that’s either refreshing or foolhardy, finds himself “giddy with pleasure” to learn from friends that they all fight with their partners too.

I felt happily irresponsible. Countless men and women, I supposed, all over America, were tearing each other to pieces. How great. I was normal.

The recognition makes him feel “miserably normal … Whatever people thought of me, I could think it first of them. I could flaunt my shame as a form of contempt for others.” His contempt is never more flaunted than when discussing Sylvia’s friend Agatha, a beauty whose voice “suggested a low-voltage brain” and whose boyfriends, “if they weren’t vicious when they met Agatha, she helped them discover it in themselves.” And his thoughts on women generally are – what? – candid, and authentic-seeming. Teaching students, he is surrounded by “gorgeous girls with olive skin and lustrous, wavy hair. I never touched any of them. They had the handwriting of little children and drew bubbles over the letter i.” It’s for the reader to decide if this is just innate – he’s a man – or a reaction to the increasing domestic blitz of life with Sylvia. By this time, their fights “had become so ugly that the gay couple across the hall wouldn’t ever say hello to us.”

All this must end, and so it does – but how? “It would have been easy to leave Sylvia. Had it been difficult, I might have done it.” This is a short book, at 130 pages, but intense, and as ugly as it is beautiful. Not incidentally, it provides a convincing portrait of 1960s New York, from a man who pictured it romantically as a boy, then lived in it unromantically as an adult. It contains self-contained jewels like an account of a Lenny Bruce gig which left Michaels feeling “a pleasing terror, like leaping from a high place.” His book has a not dissimilar effect.

Iván Repila: The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse

This short novella – and that is not a pleonasm, as the book could not be much more than 20,000 words long top to tail – is one of the most unpleasant stories I’ve read in ages. You can take that how you will, though I read so many books without finishing them, and finish so many without reviewing them, that you might have guessed even by now that I do recommend it.

Iván Repila: The Boy Who Stole Attila's Horse

The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse (2013, tr. 2015 by Sophie Hughes) is another book – like Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant – which both attracts and repels consideration as an allegory. It is as grim as a good fairy tale and has a strong, simple story: two brothers, referred to only as Big and Small, trapped in a well. The opening line sets up the oppositions at the heart of the book:

‘It looks impossible to get out,’ he says. And also: ‘But we’ll get out.’

The well is too deep to climb, with walls that slope steeply overhead “like an empty pyramid with no tip.” We don’t know why they are in there, though others know about their predicament, so we presume it’s not accidental. Initially, they exert a lot of effort and energy in trying to escape, shouting for help but soon abandoning that, and culminating in a failed attempt by Big to throw Small up and out to safety.

Big shouts Now, and lets go, and with his eyes still closed Small breaks free and he takes off from the earth towards the sun like a comet of bones, and for just a few seconds he is flying, but he smashes, literally smashes into the wall, producing a dull crunch that drowns out any cry; and then, unconscious and bleeding from the mouth, he falls the few metres that separate him and the floor and lands on the dizzy body of his brother, like a circus act that ends in a bundle of piled up flesh, and no applause.

You can see the violent physicality of the writing. This is a feature of the story throughout, and Repila never permits the reader to look away as the brothers’ bodies and minds deteriorate over weeks and months. (The tally of days they have been trapped is given by the non-consecutive chapter numbers, all of which are primes: perhaps because like prime numbers, the brothers are indivisible, inseparable, akin to the twins in Kristof’s The Notebook.) The presence of the physical quickly becomes grotesque, from hunger fantasies Big has about biting into Small’s eyes “and suck[ing] out the white jelly”, to Small coughing up “green mucus, thick like jam.” When the brothers have been starving for weeks (day 47), they capture a bird that flies into the well, but fearing that their wasted stomachs will be unable to cope with the meat, they instead allow it to rot and then eat the maggots that grow from it. As their captivity and isolation continues, the brothers leave civility and sociality far behind. There are hallucinations, jumbled language and howls of hatred and inchoate rage:

“Life is wonderful, but living is unbearable. I’d like to pare down existence. To pronounce over a century one long, inimitable word, and for that word to be my true testament.”

Their unexplainable behaviour may, it turns out, have straight thinking behind it, as Small wastes away and Big tries to keep fit with exercise and 80% of the food. We know, for example – I’ve concealed this for longer than the book does – that they do have food, but that they won’t eat it because it’s to be given to their mother. This emphasises the story’s unreality and its status as allegory for – what? The text explicitly suggests numerous interpretations. An environmental fable (“In his dream the well is big like a city. Some say the citizens are all starving because the land exhausted itself”). A parable of leaving childhood (“‘Then what is this anger I can feel inside?’ ‘You’re becoming a man'”). Of man’s inhumanity, or the artist’s cruelty, when Small fantasises that he is “the boy who stole Attila’s horse to make shoes out of his hooves” and uses them to walk over people. “I felt important, like a painter.”

But the strongest fit is with an allegory suggested by the book’s two epigraphs, from the surprising combination of Margaret Thatcher and Bertholt Brecht: of economic inequality, and revolutionary rage. It is no coincidence then that the well is a pyramid, representing the structure of society, or that the brothers know their place and quickly give up crying for help. They are at the bottom of the pile, but the story suggests that they will not be there forever, and the ending leaves a strong and frightening image first of capitulation, then of revenge. Certainly this is a book which packs huge weight for its size; the same sort of disparity as between Big and Small, or between what we expect, and what we might get.

‘Once we are up there, we’ll throw a party.’

‘A party?’

‘Yes.’

‘The kind with balloons and lights and cakes?’

‘No. The kind with rocks, torches and gallows.’

Dorthe Nors: Karate Chop / Minna Needs Rehearsal Space

Here is my review in the Guardian of Dorthe Nors’ first books to be translated into English, the back-to-back volume containing the excellent short story collection Karate Chop and the brilliant novella (or, as the author has it, “novel in headlines”) Minna Needs Rehearsal Space. This edition is published in the UK by Pushkin Press. In the US, Graywolf Press published Karate Chop last year and will issue Minna next year.

Dorthe Nors: Karate Chop / Minna Needs Rehearsal Space