Tuesday 22 June 2010

The Short Review

The new issue is out! Always a cause for celebration, each edition of The Short Review is packed with interviews and reviews of short story collections, classic, contemporary - you name it, it's here. I'm looking forward especially to reading the reviews of Richard Yates' Collected Stories, and Both Ways is the Only Way I Want it by Maile Meloy. My review of Grace Paley: The Collected Stories is also in this new issue:

Monday 21 June 2010

The unreliable narrator

Love her, or hate her? (Or him?) For myself, I love an unreliable narrator. I've recently re-read two first-rate examples, both by Jenefer Shute. Life-Size is a politically-astute, fiery and controversial story about a young woman in the grip of anorexia. Sex Crimes is a terrific thriller about an older woman's brutally destructive relationship with a younger man. Both books are told in the first person by a narrator whose perspective is skewed, almost fatally so, but such is Shute's skill as a storyteller that the reader is never too far from the truth no matter how the narrator might dodge or conceal it. In each case, these are amongst the most exciting and compelling stories I've ever read, poetically told, unsparingly bleak, ultimately rewarding.

A more subtle version of the unreliable narrator can be found in Helen Dunmore's Talking to the Dead, where the reader only starts to doubt the narrative after several chapters, by which time we are so wedded to it that it becomes an exercise in detection to separate the strands of what we are being told and what is not being said. It then becomes almost a competitive sport, as the reader and narrator race to the finish, each with their own piece of the puzzle that will - together - solve the mystery at the heart of the story.

Dunmore talks of this bond between the author and reader as a ‘very deep form of play’. She likens the reader response to that of a person watching a film, viewpoints changing as the camera draws back or closes in. ‘Language has a very powerful sound texture’ she says, enabling the author to capitalise on people’s familiarity with the visual medium of film.

So, do you have favourite examples of unreliable narrators? My list would have to include Humbert Humbert from Lolita. Please recommend your favourites, as I would love to read more of these sorts of stories.

Thursday 17 June 2010

Piecing together a secret past

This story fascinates me. Helen Dunmore drew my attention to it when I interviewed her recently. The E-Puzzler is a piece of machinery being used to "reconstitute" the shredded Stasi files: 45 million documents evidencing the East German secret police's activities prior to 1989, a time when it's estimated there was one police informer for every seven citizens.

"In some ways the E-puzzler works like a human doing a jigsaw, only much faster and without the benefit of a box-lid to show what the puzzle should look like. First, the fragments from each bag are smoothed out and fed into a large scanner: not just ordinary paper but carbon paper, photographs, microfilm, newsprint and folders. The unique characteristics of each piece — shape, colour, font, texture, handwriting, paper-type, edges and thickness — are stored digitally. Using an algorithm, the computer groups together similar fragments to reduce the “search space”, and then locates pieces that join up by matching the different characteristics. The task was made slightly easier by the fact that the Stasi rippers tended to bundle the scraps from sets of files into a single bag."

Link to the full article from The Times, 22 March 2010

Sunday 13 June 2010

Helen Dunmore

I'm re-reading my favourite Helen Dunmore novels at the moment, rediscovering the pleasure of reading pitch-perfect prose shot through with a bitterdark strand of realism, whether crime, thriller, tragedy or history. I had the pleasure of interviewing Helen last week, for a piece which will appear in the autumn issue of the Bristol Review of Books. It was fascinating to discuss fiction with her, including the nuances of character, the need for distinct voices and what Helen calls 'the role of the dead in the lives of the living'.

Of her novels I would particularly recommend Talking to the Dead, which is set during a heatwave one summer as a family regroups and falls apart after the birth of a new baby awakens memories of an old death. Your Blue-Eyed Boy is the book of hers I've read most often, and it still grips me. Set by the sea, it's another but very different story of the past returning to haunt the present. Every character is credible, layered and complex. I haven't read much of her poetry but would like to. Can anyone recommend a good starting-point?

Saturday 5 June 2010

Ice Cream

You know how it is when you discover a book and want to buy half a dozen copies so you can send one to each of your closest friends so they can share the discovery that's too good to be kept to yourself? That's how I feel about Ice Cream by Helen Dunmore. It's not a new book, first published in 2000, but I've just read it for the first time; short stories I want to share.
The next day, when the sun was high, I went back to the lilac bushes. There was no sign except a patch of trampled grass. I pulled down a branch and buried my face in the cones of flowers. The smell of the lilacs went through me as if my blood was carrying it. Strong, sweet, languid, yet fresh as water.
Delicious stories, each one different, several worthy of re-reading. Dunmore is a wizard at writing flavours, scents, food and nature; every page is spiced with sensory experience. There are stories to sink into, to drift away with. Warm stories, and cool ones, and some that are downright icy for when the summer gets too hot. Perfect!