Trams. Cats. Circles. We are immediately alerted by these allusions to Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita (1966) that we should expect the unexpected in Black Queen White City, an ambitious novel that aspires to paint its own universe (no less) by means of framing devices, parallel worlds and an eccentric cast of characters that includes the white city of Zagreb itself, where the author was born.
In Exile from Petersburg takes you right into the life of a high calibre intellectual named Abram Saulovich Kagan and is set within the turbulent times of early 20th century Europe. His son Anatol Abramovich Kagan contributed to this informative biographical account, he also happened to be the father-in-law of the book’s editor, Michael Atherton. This book is well presented in an easy to read and informative style.
Ackland handles these themes carefully and subtly – never overstating or diagnosing Thistle or Audra, or giving us too many answers in the mystery, but treating all of the characters with a kind of tender acceptance that is unconditional. Mysteries remain. Time moves forward. Memory is entirely unreliable, but the clues it leaves us are all we have. Little Gods is a poetic book full of beauty, loss, and resilience, exploring what remains in our lives as we move past our pivotal transitions and crises.
The Water Rabbits exposes the limitations of the review process to an embarrassing extent. It is entirely artificial to read this book from cover to cover more or less in one sitting. It is doubly artificial then to sit down and think of things to say about it. The Water Rabbits needs to be read in small doses; indeed, its stories, dialogues and occasional poems and photographs are arranged in small doses. Sense needs to be made of each individually before the collection can be grasped as a whole.
While each story can stand alone, reading them all together in a single volume is an enormous advantage. One of the major accomplishments of Hairway to Heaven is its interconnections and associations, its themes and variations, which gradually resolve themselves – effortlessly, beautifully – into a novelistic whole. Hairway to Heaven is a very good book indeed.
To call Scorn a work of righteous anger would barely do justice to its earth-shattering rage, its apocalyptic howl of protest, its caustic humour, irony and indignation. The power of these emotions literally cannot be contained; the novel overspills its own boundaries, spreads outwards into the world by means of its copious epigraphs and epilogues, illustrations, quotations and allusions – even mixing genres and providing external links.
The stories it tells gather momentum and significance with each short chapter; it is populated by personages in whom we can believe; it is profoundly intelligent and deeply engrossing. Its allusions and references are delightfully subtle and oblique, conveyed effortlessly by the author’s gift for language and ideas. I doubt I shall read a finer novel this year.
The Anarchist Thing to Do is immensely readable in a way that reminds me of Salinger, whose shorter works are particularly admired by Skye and Jude – I suspect because their descriptions of family life are as eccentric, hermetic and all-encompassing as their own. Embedded in a rich tradition of American storytelling, The Anarchist Thing to Do is a thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding book, written with great assurance by an author who rarely puts a foot wrong.
There is a kind of magic that is woven through the book, primarily from the language of flowers that works in conjunction with the semantical story but has its own silent meaning. Flannel flowers mean “what is lost is found”, Sturt’s Desert Peas, which are integral to the plot, mean “Have courage, take heart”, and Foxtails mean “Blood of my blood”. These flowers become Alice’s language when words fail her.
M. Jonathan Lee mesmerizingly develops each story with baby steps that allow the release of tension, which is not necessarily predicated on a joyous turn of events. Sometimes tragedy must happen for this change of perspective, of new awareness and conscience. Mother Nature carries us along in its snowy arms, but it’s human love, wrapping around our fingers, that happily delivers us.