Asking for permission

The island and the island

You need to ask permission before doing anything, anything at all.

This remains one of the most persistent take-aways from growing up as an immigrant — or as the official lingo would have it, a “third country national” who in the estimation of the host country’s powers-that-be, is kind-of-like-us, but not quite.

When lining up in special queues for the airport becomes a matter of standard procedure, even familial habit. When even securing permission to take that same trip requires its own previous bout of queuing and rubber-stamping and waiting, waiting, waiting.

When the limbo state becomes your true home, so that you develop habits like taking long, rambling walks alone, even when the surroundings are inadequate or ugly, rather than committing to hanging out with friends, to going somewhere outside your prescribed orbit. A headless chicken.

When anything is perceived as a risk because you quickly learn that you’re always under surveillance — turning 18 is all it takes, and suddenly your home country is calling you for military service (grandpa shoos them away by telling them you’re studying abroad) and suddenly your friends are doing light drugs they could get busted for but you getting busted would mean something far more serious. These are things you cannot ask permission for, anyway.

When getting expelled from school — your official “excuse” for being here — could also mean getting expelled from the country wholesale.

When you develop a skill at writing in a language that isn’t your ‘native tongue’, but which, luckily for you, remains the lingua franca. When you then have to deal with the niggling brain-worm telling you that you will always be second-rate, that these things are determined beforehand and that ‘learning’ to write with the requisite depth and intimacy in a language “not your own” is a delusion.

(I imagine the worm to be black and luminescent, shorter but somehow more industrious than its numerous, pale and lazy peers — all the stacked insecurities that would plague anyone else — on whom it lies like a bed, drawing in their energy before its tip turns into a sharpened drill that pokes and pokes until it draws blood. Blood which turns into scabs that you cannot help picking at, again and again.)

When you look back on these years with strange gratitude. To be clear, these are the years of supposed youthful abandon, which were robbed of any breeziness by the weight you were made to carry. But you sail past them, as in a solitary boat. Your friends are partying on a large yacht nearby, and they’re imploring you to join them. But you need to ask permission, and there’s no officials in sight.

So you sail past it all, and you reach a small rock made just for you. It’s been festering for quite some time — you’ve paid countless visits there, and planted the strange mushrooms you’ve been growing in your room for years. These are the mushrooms that expand, that can even harden into something resembling rock.

By the time you’re halfway through college, the mushrooms have grown into a spongy, stringy mass that can hold you like a hammock. You still hear the blaring music of the yacht as you hop in, proud of your construction though sad that your friends can’t join you. Not just yet.

But the hammock brings you calm, and from this calm comes gratitude. It swells in your breast with the knotted, unexpected and freakish deliberation of your mushrooms. Because, as they grow tired of yelling at you to join them on the yacht, one by one your friends borrow the yacht’s lifeboats and pay you a visit themselves.

They groan, they complain. I was so free, and now life it taking over. When I was a kid, I felt so innocent, I didn’t have a care in the world. Now, I can only care for the world itself.

And you feel grateful. You feel grateful for being spared this pain, at least. Because you don’t ever remember childhood to have been carefree. You don’t ever remember having the luxury of forgetting about the world and its machinations. As your friends begin to groan about leaving bliss behind, you start to settle, you start to experience hints of bliss yourself. You know that finally, you can build something. And that you no longer have to ask for permission.

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Otherness, exile, the diaspora.

It is of course a heady theme, and one that will haunt me till the end of my days, I suspect. I will get a chance to expound on some of the strands expressed above, thankfully in the company of a group of accomplished authors, when I chair the conference on Literature in Diaspora at this year’s edition of the Malta Book Festival, as well as during my conversation with the Croatian author Nikola Petkovic.

But it is also at the heart of the upcoming exhibition to be [defined]; the culminating event for this year of the RIMA project, which opens at Spazju Kreattiv at St James Cavalier, Valletta on October 5 and some of which I’ve had a chance to sample, owing to the fact that V. is its curator.

With a generous geographical sweep and an open-ended approach to the question of exile, to be [defined] short-circuits hackneyed assumptions about migration and displacement, opening up a crucial space for some oxygen to get in.

These are the events that can truly serve as a reminder of how art can be a balm at times like these. How, far from being a simple distraction, it articulates something deep and true. Something that would otherwise have been little more than a worm. Difficult to articulate, impossible to communicate to others, but burrowing with great force into your mind nonetheless.

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Updates | Camilla at Malta Comic Con & Losing [Our] Space on YouTube

My last update was about the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival (MMLF), and this one is sort of about that too. We took a quick trip up to the in-laws soon after the event ended and got something of a breather from this stuffy, overcrowded and practically air-less island. It’s a trip that usually lasts quite a bit longer and is sometimes undertaken in different countries… whatever it takes to escape the July-August swelter of Malta.

The weather is still insufferable, the tourists and AirBnB-ers still crowd us and sometimes bar us from getting a proper night’s sleep, but on the whole — I say this with figurative fingers firmly crossed — it all seems to be thinning out, with the evenings even regaling us with the odd breeze to sleep through every now and then.

It’s a reminder that easier times should be just about ahead, and exciting ones too. It may be the flavour of pumpkin spice latte or crunchy leaves that announces the onset of Autumn pleasures to some… I’m just grateful for a mellowing out of the general atmosphere. But coupled with the fact that yes, Halloween (and horror) is also something I enjoy indulging in quite a bit, there’s very geeky pleasures to be had during autumn on our island too.

But, first things first

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Losing My Space‘ – round-table discussion and MMLF pre-event – now on YouTube

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Losing My Space‘. Moderated by Immanuel Mifsud (far left) and featuring Teodor Reljic and Roger West. Photo by Giola Cassar for Inizjamed

Taking place on August 19, Losing My Space was a well-attended and well-received discussion on just what writing can possibly do in the face of pervasive environmental devastation and urban/corporate overdevlopment, and in a lot of ways ushered in the Festival itself, because the ensuing discussion — undertaken by poet Roger West and myself and moderated by established Maltese author Immanuel Mifsud — reflected both the festival’s artistic sensitivity and political urgency.

But the warmth and wit of the audience is also a bit part of that experience, and I thought it was reflected with an apposite grace here. Either way, you can now see for yourself on YouTube. Be sure to also check out the Festival’s other big — bigger, even — round-table pre-event, ‘Writing Fragile‘. Kudos to Inizjamed for being so efficient with putting these recordings up — it’s a great way to ensure both outreach and posterity as well as, once again, prolonging the wonderful experience at the heart of this event.

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Creating the Maltese Gothic: ‘Camilla’ at Malta Comic Con

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Happily, one of my favourite annual appointments on the island will be just-about coinciding with Halloween this year, as the Malta Comic Con gets bumped up a month ahead of its usual December slot to take place on November 3 and 4 this year at the MFCC in Ta’ Qali.

Apart from sharing a table with my very talented sister-in-law (I’ll be the guy peddling prose books); I’ll also be delivering a talk on ‘Camilla’ with the project’s co-writer and director Stephanie Sant, on November 3 at 15:00.

This would be just a week or so shy of the short film’s official premiere at the Malta Book Festival on November 10. Find out more about the event here; and click here to learn more about the project — a work of Gothic horror that adapts a short story by one of Malta’s leading literary voices by injecting it with a bit of Sheridan Le Fanu.

 

The Virtues of Empathy and Niceness | Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival 2018

When the week of the festival finally comes — and it is a week, it is a full, full week — the climate also decides to give us a breather. There is a palpable sense of the trademark Maltese summer swelter finally lifting to give way to something ever so milder, and this shift appears to coincide directly with the very first “pre-events” that Inizjamed’s most prestigious annual appointment is preceded by this year.

For me, it all starts with a brief trip to Gozo, not too long after yet another ‘culture-work’ related trip to the sister island for both V. and myself. With a presentation on the mechanics of storytelling saved in my laptop and generously driven to a from the island with the help of Keith and Justine — just two of Inizjamed’s many diligent literary elves — I still refuse to face the direct sunlight on the ferry however, and eschew the immediate sights of the brief, familiar but still beautiful trip across the archipelagos in favour of an airconditioned enclosure and mediocre-but-effective coffee.

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Delivering a talk about the ‘scaffolding’ of storytelling at the Ministry for Gozo, Victoria on August 17. Photo by Virginia Monteforte for Inizjamed

Once there, the presentation goes a lot better than expected — I’m regaled with an attentive, intelligent and fully engaged audience — and though the food at St George’s Square (a smaller, quainter variant of its Valletta namesake) does leave quite a bit to be desired, we depart with a sense of goodwill towards this particular endeavour that awaits us. The Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival, my subconscious niggles around to tell me, is already striking a welcome nerve.

There is also the far more basic, immediate balm of having the luxury of being able to effectively indulge in the production of literature — or at least, in an active discussion of the parameters that makes this possible across countries and cultures — and this certainly lends a keen buzz to the beginning of the week, something that is only helped along by a dampening of the heat and the welcome breeze which, thankfully, persists all throughout this fateful period.

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Fort Manoel, on the final night of the festival. Photo by Virginia Monteforte

What also looms over the proceedings, however, is the threat of rain. There’s the odd shower during our daily workshop sessions — really the fulcrum of the festival, and where, internally, the most important connections are made among the participating writers — but thankfully, it does not stretch into the festival nights themselves. What the shifty climate does bring in, however, are some shockingly beautiful cloud formations, whose winding textures and rich colours provide yet another layer of beauty to an already ridiculously beautiful venue.

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Fort Manoel, on the final night of the festival. Photo by Virginia Monteforte

Fort Manoel is also a politically contested space, the dynamics of which are very curious to our guests. They listen, intrigued, as we tell them of how the access we do have to the space is the result of direct political action, the like of which rarely happens with the same degree of success on our island. The ‘magic’ of the venue is also given a sobering tinge during Claudia Gauci’s interview with participating author Clare Azzopardi, who contrasts the well-meaning awe of our guests in the face of our historical and architectural heritage with the contemporary realities of overdevelopment.

But in some ways, these strands and tensions were always part and parcel of the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival, which has consistently proven itself to have a political focus that extends beyond some neutered, dewy-eyed appreciation of cultural products in pretty locales.

And it was just as well that a discussion about the (perceived vs actual) effectiveness of literature was also at the root of ‘Losing My Space‘, a round table discussion on how the loss of public space is clearly affecting our consciousness, and whose moderator — the celebrated Maltese author Immanuel Mifsud — asked, “how can literature react to this?”.

Losing My Space Giola Cassar

Losing My Space‘. Moderated by Immanuel Mifsud (far left) and featuring Teodor Reljic and Roger West. Photo by Giola Cassar for Inizjamed

The debate, taking place on the Sunday before the festival-proper, was bereft of a friend-to-be, as the soft-spoken poet Arjan Hut from the Netherlands had just experienced what was sadly to be his first train-and-plane mishap out of two. So Roger West and I were left to field Mifsud’s gentle but stern questions and provocations, an exchange sensitively documented by Kurt Borg in a well-written piece for Isles of the Left.

Quick introductions with travel-weary guests were made after the debate at Gugar, right across the street — an appropriate venue for the festival’s political and intellectual make-up, and where I finally got to have a proper chat with Roger West and his partner Kate Rex – poets both, and in many ways the guardian angels of the festival, having attended nearly every edition of the event to help its always-international array of writers with English-language translations of their work.

And the world of translation is where we head to straight after — nevermind the introductory drinks the night before, and never mind the early wake-up calls: we’re heading to the imposingly-named Fortress Builders building to talk about our work at length the next morning, and that’s that.

 

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Nadia Mifsud introducing the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival translation workshop to the assembled authors at Fortress Builders, Valletta on August 20. Photo by Virginia Monteforte for Inizjamed

But while it certainly requires focus and comes with no small amount of fatigue at the tail end of the day — particularly when more ‘pre-events’ are in the offing — the sessions are the kind of oasis that contemporary writers yearn for with every fibre of their being. Because contemporary writers face contemporary realities, chief of which being that we’re often forced to write in the margins of life.

With me it’s copy writing that occupies the bulk of it, as it does for our Spanish guest, Laia López Manrique — a realisation that breaks the ice with world-weary gusto during our first ‘official’ meet-and-greet at Studio Solipsis in Rabat.

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Laia Lopez Manrique presenting her work at the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival translation workshop at Fortress Builders, Valletta on August 21. Photo by Virginia Monteforte for Inizjamed

The tacit understanding is that we’ve been expected to work on our selected translations — whittling them down to a performance-friendly few come festival night/s — from beforehand, coming up with a rough draft before finalising them ‘face to face’ with the authors in question. But this only comes later, after we’ve been allowed to introduce ourselves and our work, and field questions about what makes us tick as writers.

And while we may be used to reading about the processes (and pains) of other writers online — with a lot of us even growing used to interacting with them on various digital platforms — being physically present in the same room with them makes all the difference.

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Iraqi poet Ali Thareb (centre) presenting his work at the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival translation workshop at Fortress Builders, Valletta on August 20. Photo by Virginia Monteforte for Inizjamed

There is the sheer variety of experience, for one thing — the first and most obvious benefit of assembling such an internationally diverse group. Ali Thareb let us in on the very real hardships of existing as a poet in Iraq, with limitations giving way to acts of resistance and defiance through poetry. Massimo Barilla spoke with potent focus about the political ramifications of his theatrical work, giving a voice to those felled by the toxic mixture of mafia mechanisms and the pitfalls of a corrupt state.

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Massimo Barilla (right) presenting his work at the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival translation workshop at Fortress Builders, Valletta on August 21. Photo by Virginia Monteforte for Inizjamed

Award-winning Icelandic poet, lyricist and novelist Sjón was always going to be a highlight, especially for someone like me, who’s very much attuned to the generic fluidity that informs his novels. But both his introduction to the workshop group and the interview that closed off the first night of the festival proper — where he spoke at length with Albert Gatt about the rich cultural and thematic make-up that informs his work — offered sometimes amusing, sometimes powerful but always achingly humane observations which radiated out of the texts.

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“It may happen in poems / that when the fog lifts / it takes the mountain with it” — Sjón reading at the grand finale of the Malta Mediterranan Literature Festival at Fort Manoel, Manoel Island on August 25. Photo by Virginia Monteforte for Inizjamed

Both Iceland and Malta are, after all, small islands with a minority language each. But Sjón proudly pointed to a piece of legistlation which discouraged the use of “small languages” to describe those like Icelandic — which, after all, has also housed a translation of Dante’s La Divina Commedia. “And if the language is big enough for Dante, then it’s big enough for anything.”

But something he said during the interview struck an even keener emotional chord. The importance of languages spoken by a few could become of immediate concern once the realities of climate change begin to reach a fever pitch, he reasoned. Because it is the native communities of the world who will be struck down by these temporal changes first. “But they are the people who can speak to nature far better than we can. They may just hold the key to the solutions that we need.”

The true emotional gut-punch was to come during the interview with the Turkish journalist and novelist Aslı Erdoğan, whose recounting of “disappeared” loved ones, and her exiled status from Turkey simply for being critical of the regime left a sobering but necessary pall over the proceedings, and truly pushed the pitch of the Festival into important, urgent territory.

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Asli Erdogan interviewed by Nadia Mifsud on the final night of the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival at Fort Manoel, Manoel Island. Photo by Virginia Monteforte for Inizjamed

While Erdoğan’s interviewer Nadia Mifsud — a poet and novelist herself, and a high-ranking Inizjamed elf in her own right — had the unenviable task of bringing this powder keg of an interview to something resembling a life-affirming close, it was in fact Erdogan herself who picked up the strand in the end, reasoning that despite everything — that “everything” includes over 70,000 students being locked up in Turkish prisons, I hasten to add — it is down to the resilient activism of a few that Erdogan herself is not currently behind bars, an empathetic thread that is uncoiled, in part, thanks to the power of her literary output.

It is an output allowed to spread thanks to the miracle of translation, which we celebrated daily at our workshops and for which this edition of the festival even had something of a theme song (or ‘mascot poem’). This was Juana Adcock’s ‘The Task of the Translator’, a beautiful evocation of the Platonic ideal of what a translation should “do”.

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Juana Adcock (far right) presenting her work at the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival translation workshop on August 20 at the Malta Council for the Voluntary Sector building, Valletta. Photo by Virginia Monteforte for Inizjamed

Juana’s confession that she always feels as though she exists in a “perpetual state of translation” resonated even more deeply with me, however. Juana being Mexican-born but Scotland-based for some years, she straddles two languages at any given time, and proudly pens poems in both the ‘pure’ variants of Spanish and English while also embracing Spanglish from time to time.

It’s an artistic position towards the tools at hand — language, of course — that I’ve not quite reached yet. I’ve always existed between Serbian, Maltese and English, but only ever considered the latter to be adequately accessible to me as the languge of professional and creative endeavour. Some of the place names in Mibdul do hint at this melange, but that’s about it for now. It’s something to think about and build on for future projects and future work.

Because being placed side-by-side with authors and poets of such variety also makes one reconsider what you take for granted. Some choices may be informed by sensible and germane approaches to one’s work and character; others will have gnawed their way up to the brain by spider-shat strands of caution, self-consciousness and fear.

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Jean-Rémi Gandon delivering a multi-media performance of his work on the final night of the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival at Fort Manoel, Manoel Island. Photo by Virginia Monteforte for Inizjamed

As we’re constantly reminded in this era of excessive stimuli and information overload — a mechanism that also has a moralising corollary, when any protection of our internal coherence is labelled as a retreat into an “echo chamber” — humans will always seek out established patterns. This becomes impossible when you share a room with the lovable mad bard from Toulouse, Jean-Rémi Gandon, on the one hand, and the Maltese poet Caldon Mercieca, whose language experiments with Maltese glisten with a kind of crystalline perfection and are animated by an intellectual rigour that was both humbling and baffling to us workshop participants.

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Caldon Mercieca reading a Maltese translation of a poem by Massimo Barilla at the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival 2018, August 24. Photo by Virginia Monteforte for Inizjamed

After being asked to close our very first workshop session on Monday, August 20, Caldon was also invited to read at our ‘meet and greet’ that same evening, by way of smashing the champagne bottle on the festival ship as it begins to make its way through the fateful week. Before beginning to read he made a couple of self-deprecating comments to deflate his austere approach to the work. But the poem he read out had a zen-like perfection that was neither distancing nor emotionally bereft. It lay the ground for the creativity that lay ahead.

With no obligation towards any formality and hand clasped firmly on heart, I can say that it was truly an honour to form part of this edition of the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival. It is an event that I’ve always looked forward to experiencing, both as a “mere” spectator back when it took place at the Couvre Porte in Birgu, then at the Garden of Rest in Floriana; as well as a reporter on the event for MaltaToday when it moved to Fort St Elmo in Valletta (by then also acting as a tag-along partner as V. became the event’s official photographer).

But participating in it confirmed that one key ingredient of its success is not so much the high-profile nature of its headlining guests, nor the inspiring variety of authors or the geographical melting pot that they represent. It is, quite simply, the niceness of the Inizjamed team. It’s a niceness that is contagious, and that flies in the face of the notion that any worthwhile cultural endeavour is run by divas and stentorian dictators who place their aesthetics over people.

Because without that human impulse, without that edge of empathy, all that would be left would be exercises in vanity — a hollow march of the self. What we witnessed instead was in fact what Inizjamed coordinator Adrian Grima labelled “Mediterranean Humanism” in his introductory note to the festival. Taking a long hard look at the challenges the region faces, but also embracing the opportunities for dialogue, and creation.

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Adrian Grima ripping open a gift from the Inizjamed team, in honour of his 20-year tenure at the literary NGO. Photo by Virginia Monteforte for Inizjamed

Adrian Grima will be stepping down to make room for both someone new to take the helm, while also giving himself time to focus on his own academic and creative work as of next year. A wise and sensible decision, especially given how Grima’s work as a poet and lecturer must have been a key inspiration for the dedicated team behind Inizjamed to continue doing the work that they do.

That was the 13th edition of the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival. Long may it continue.

Featured image by Virginia Monteforte

 

Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival 2018 |Literary Intersections at Fort Manoel

To say that I’m deeply honoured to have been invited to participate in the 13th edition of the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival is something of an understatement. While I can’t claim to have attended every single edition of the event, organised by local literary NGO Inizjamed, with the help of a number of crucial satellite bodies and initiatives, I certainly have fond memories of it which go way back.

I’ve covered the festival for MaltaToday back when it was still the “day job”, and you can check out some interviews on that score here and here. As it happens, the festival had also hosted one of my favourite writers, Marina Warner, and her conversation with Prof Gloria Lauri-Lucente during the festival’s 2015 edition was sensitive and illuminating, so much so that I took to Soft Disturbances to muse about it.

It is a festival put together with care, taste and conscientiousness, bringing together as it does local and international writers while boasting an unwavering political commitment that feels particularly urgent at this point in time.

I also get the impression that meeting and hanging out with the eclectic mix of writers who form part of this year’s edition — and which hail from countries as varied as Turkey, Iraq, Iceland and beyond — will be rather fun indeed.

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Press conference announcing the festival – Studio Solipsis, Rabat – July 11

This year’s edition of the festival will be taking place at Fort Manoel in Manoel Island, Gzira on August 23, 24 and 25. I am slated to present my work on the second night, and will also be participating in the following festival pre-events:

August 17 – ‘Building a Story‘ – Gozo (VENUE TBC) – 10:00 to 12:00

This presentation will use the Reljic’s recent work — both already-published and currently in progress — to explore how stories in different media can be constructed. Taking this proposition somewhat literally, Reljic will speak about how locating the right tools and devices for a given story helps to make the narrative more robust and coherent, and keeps writer’s block and other crises at bay.

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August 19 – ‘Losing my Space‘ – Malta Society of Arts, Valletta – 20:00 to 22:00

Moderator: Immanuel Mifsud
Participants: Roger West, Arjan Hut and Teodor Reljic

Nature has always been the focus of literature, a source of renewal, spiritual, pure. The relation of authors with nature has changed because our landscapes and seascapes have changed, but nature remains a source of inspiration and concern, a concern transfixed by agony. How does the lack of natural environment and open spaces translate to literature? How do we write trees and fields when trees and fields are no longer? How do we write the colour of the changing sea? Our space and light are being stolen by buildings that reach for the sky. How does literature deal with this daylight robbery? How does it document our struggle for space?

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The participating writers for this year’s edition of the festival are:

Juana Adcock (Mexico/UK) | Clare Azzopardi (Malta) | Massimo Barilla (Italy) | Asli Erdogan (Turkey) | Jean-Rémi Gandon (France) | Arjan Hut (Ljouwert, Netherlands) | Laia López Manrique (Spain) | Caldon Mercieca (Malta) | Teodor Reljić (Malta) | Philip Sciberras (Malta) | Sjón (Iceland) | Ali Thareb (Babel, Iraq)

For more information and the full programme, click here

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On The Tee-Vee | Two & Some Favourite Books | Wicc imb Wicc

It’s been a bit of a strange month; something I’ll be delving into with cautionary coyness in a subsequent blog post. So much so that I’ve missed out on both writing some proper entries over here, and even simply putting up updates on cool stuff I’ve been involved in and invited to.

And one of these actually happened on exactly the day of the premiere of our last burlesque show — the latest thing I spoke about here in some detail before the hiatus. This was an interview for the television programme Wicc Imb Wicc (‘Face to Face’), put together by the National Book Council of Malta, recorded on the very morning of the premiere of Apocalesque. (In fact, beady-eyed viewers might just spot the remnants of hastily-removed cropse-paint eyeliner post-dress rehearsal the night before).

wicc imb wiccThe interview is now up online for all of you to check out, should you be up for hearing an extract from my novel Two — read out by the show’s host, the actress Antonella Axisa — and/or hearing me be interviewed by the same Antonella about some of the key themes and plot dynamics of the book itself. That’s all before my favourite segment of the show kicks in, however: talking about some of my favourite and most energising books.

Among them are Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Judith Halberstam’s Skin Shows, Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter, Angela Carter’s The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffmann, Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan, and Moebius’ hallucinatory classic of a graphic novel, Arzach.

Find out more about Wiċċ imb Wiċċ here, and log on to the National Book Counci’s YouTube channel to watch previous episodes.

 

Short and Bittersweet | Pick of the Novellas | Neil Williamson, Immanuel Mifsud, Jonathan Ames

I like novellas. There’s something about their in-between state which really speaks to me, and makes me feel as though I can forge a more intimate connection with them than other genres and formats on either side of the word-count spectrum.

‘Full’ novels demand a commitment and immersion by proxy. They are to be consumed across various intervals, and the stops and starts make them more of an organising principle than something to be savoured — just like the prestige (or not-so-prestige) TV series a lot of them are ending up as these days, they need to be scheduled into your day until you finally complete them, before moving on to the next one.

And while the membrane separating short stories and novellas can be quite thin at times — a couple of thousand odd words here and there can land the tale in either one category or the other — there’s still something different in the experience of either.

Short fiction has the punch of the impressionistic moment in its favour — the sketch, the instant of revelation (or put another way, epiphany — as exemplified so often in that landmark short story collection, James Joyce’s Dubliners).

The novella, on the other hand, allows for the core ideas to unspool just enough to give them breathing room — at its best, it can be the perfect, attention-grabbing marriage between ‘thought experiment and narrative.

IMG_20180506_163237I thought a lot about this particular facility of the novella as I dug into The Memoirist by Neil Williamson (NewCon Press, 2017). Set in a world where surveillance is paramount, the story focuses on Rhian Fitzgerald, a wordsmith for hire currently charged with ghost-writing the biography of Eloide Eagles, former lead singer of the subversive punk band The HitMEBritneys.

I was familiar with the Scottish writer’s short fiction prior to diving into The Memoirist, his first novella, and I found the same penchant for quirky ideas and sensitive portrayals of human beings — specifically, how they deal with situations that might feel off-kilter.

The Memoirist is also a masterwork in building up a near-future science fictional world without any recourse to crude info-dumping, all the while keeping the narrative threads working towards a fine, crystalline target.

This is also very much evident in his short fiction, and his amusing, politically sensitive story ‘Fish on Friday’, from the collection Secret Language, is one of my favourite examples of this… and a close thematic fit to The Memoirist, which offers a similarly low-key take on what would otherwise be considered technological dystopias.

While her subject — an aging punk rocker famous for her anti-surveillance stance — would slot in comfortably as the protagonist in more cookie-cutter cyber-noir stories, here Williamson has the far more laissez-faire Rhian experience that journey.

After watching a historical live performance by Eagles — in which she angrily denounces the new surveillance status quo — Rhian confesses to finding it “difficult to sympathise with her anger”.

“No one had ever been going to strip the public completely of their privacy. If anything, now, your private things were more private. There were clear lines. As long as you observed them, you were fine. So what if we all had to be on all the time these days? To pay more attention to our appearance and watch our P’s and Q’s a bit more, under the gaze of family, friends, schools, bosses, colleagues, clients […] It was all about being a better public person. A small price to pay for a safer world.”

Such a cloyingly ‘neutral’ position is a perfect vantage point through which we can be introduced to this not-so-brave, not-so-new world, and Williamson deftly calibrates both the necessary exposition and our sympathies for the protagonist.

This is a character-driven slice of cyberpunk, with a clear idea at its centre and a satisfying structure that perfectly fits the novella format.

The Memoirist takes advantage of the narrative economy offered up by the novella, operating on satisfying narrative beats that hearken back to the noir genre that’s always lying nested in any cyberpunk work worth its salt. But while the slim, ‘movie-length’ page count can give us a certain satisfaction as the mystery unfolds, the ability to depart from narrative convention without taxing the readers’ attention all that much is another advantage of the novella, I find.

IMG_20180506_163200I certainly found this to be the case with Immanuel Mifsud’s Fl-Isem Tal-Missier (u Tal-Iben) (‘In the Name of the Father (and Of the Son’)). Nestled as it is somewhere between novella and memoir — with frequent and appropriately-footnoted recourse to literary theorists like Helene Cixous — Mifsud’s landmark work of contemporary Maltese literature, now translated into several languages, packs both an emotional and intellectual punch.

“On the 21st Dec 1939 I joined the British army and was enlisted in the 2nd Battalion. The King’s Own Malta Regiment, this regiment was stationed at St. Andrews barracks and we were instructed by the NCOs of different units. The first day that I spent at the barracks I was very happy, my comrades used to teach me how I must fowled the blankits and how to mount the equipment and how to clean the Rifle.”

So Mifsud introduces us to the voice of his late father, soon after his death, and just as Mifsud has become a father himself. He plucks the entry verbatim from an old diary, and prompted by that same fount, Mifsud applies an impressive intellectual rigour to what is, clearly, also a richly emotional landscape.

Scholar, poet, prose writer… the amorphous format of the novella allows Mifsud to tap into all of his varied talents. Some of the passages in the book build precisely with the musical crescendo of a poem, but then Mifsud also dips into a rich found of contemporary philosophy and psychoanalytic theory to explore the implications of his father’s legacy on his own psyche.

It’s a profound and utterly honest work that bears revisiting, and fortunately, the novella format makes repeat readings an all the more palatable experience.

IMG_20180506_163054But the final novella I’m going to look into is so ringed with bleakness that repeat readings may not exactly be the thing you end up craving as you put it down… however, that’s not to say that Jonathan Ames’ You Were Never Really Here doesn’t encourage you to keep those pages turning… thus ensuring that you’ll likely have it done and dusted in roughly the same amount of time it’ll take you to finish its superlative film adaptation by Lynne Ramsay.

Mining a furrow of contemporary noir so dark you’d be forgiven in assuming that Ames was really just arranging the genre’s grisly puzzle pieces to get a rise from the readership (a pinprick-accuracy that is reflected in the book’s sparse style), the book finds former FBI agent and Marine, Joe, take on a case that leads him into a spiraling underworld of corruption and sexual depravity.

Though Ames certainly does get mileage out of Joe’s effectiveness at meting out calculated violence, this isn’t a book that’s dripping in machismo — which, again, gave Ramsay an excellent entry point from which to construct a tonally rich though no less harrowing thriller — but rather, in a legacy of fatherhood that’s far more toxic than anything we see explored in Mifsud’s volume.

Left to care for his sickly mother, Joe is in turn hollowed out by years of abuse at the hands of his father. His attempts to find redemption leave him stuck on a loop; he rescues girls from sex trafficking rings, but this rarely salves any of the pain left by his father — pain inflicted even by implements such as hammers. And in what becomes a clear-as-crystal illustration of the cyclical nature of abuse, hammers end up being Joe’s favourite tool of the trade because, “He was his father’s son after all.”

“Also, a hammer left very little evidence, was excellent in close quarters, and seemed to frighten everyone. It held some universal place of terror in the human mind. The unexpected sight of it raised in Joe’s hand would always momentarily paralyze his enemies, and those few seconds of paralysis were usually all he needed.”

Made up of perfectly pruned sentences that move the narrative along as if it were a film just unfolding in front of you, the adaptation feels like something of a foregone conclusion. But leaving that aside for a minute, Ames’ slim-and-grim story made me crave for more of this stuff. Because dark as it is, being able to slip into such a world in the full knowledge that the story will never drag, that its moments of violence and revelation will soon peak to a crescendo without the risk of getting lost along the way… these are the things that make me thankful for novellas.

The everyday dissolving boundaries | Order vs Chaos | Elena Ferrante

Making some kind of order out of chaos is one of the main things we all do, whether that consists in writing a journal entry like this one, working on a novel or even, simply, by making sure the dishes and laundry are being seen to, or that the kids are sent off the school and that everything is okay with your friends and relations, as you send them that missive by phone, email or WhatsApp – a missive that’s been a long time coming but which, now that you’ve sent it, you feel has lifted a weight – however tangential – off your back.

But whatever order you manage to create always ends up being temporary; it’s a order that needs to be worked on like a gym routine, otherwise you risk stagnating or – worse – devolving into a somehow ‘lesser’ state of being (a conflicting metaphor given the weight-loss-laden image of the gym routine, I know).

Having finally arrived at the fourth and concluding volume of Elena Ferrante’s incredible ‘Neapolitan Novels’, I’m getting the creeping sense that this observation above – the idea that we’re always dogged by a ‘lack’ that needs to be filled, by an order that needs to be imposed – is one of those rare facts of life that transcends race, gender, nationality or social class. Sure, the details of it may vary – organising your life with a view to simply having a better ‘work life balance’ vs organising your life in a way as to ensure your family is safe from the grip of a dictatorial militia are two entirely different things – but I’m increasingly warming to the idea that being framed, compromised and belittled by the forces of chaos is one of the more consistent elements of the Great Human Tragedy.

In the final novel of Ferrante’s much-celebrated quartet – one that I’m only just halfway through at the moment so please, no spoilers – we finally get a full explanation of Lila’s theory of “dissolving boundaries”; hinted at several times across the scope of the novels, with a superlative grace and tact by this expert writer, who works through the tangled nerve centres of life to pluck out key details in a way that appears to conform to the inherent randomness of the life-flow, though of course it’s anything but.

“She said that the outlines of things and people were delicate, that they broke like cotton thread. She whispered that for her it had always been that way, an object lost its edges and poured into another, into a solution of heterogenous materials, a merging and mixing. She exclaimed that she had always had to struggle to believe that life had firm boundaries, for she had known since she was a child that it was not like that — it was absolutely not like that — and so she couldn’t trust in their resistance to being banged and bumped”

The torrential confession, the sudden and thorough explanation of a psychological bugbear that had been hanging on to Lila — since birth, apparently — arrives right after a literal earthquake that strands her and Elena — our narrator and Lila’s life-long best friend — in a car, as they wait for the chaos to subside enough so that they can at least get home, check on their loved ones.

It’s a moment in which what was previously repressed can no longer be held in, when even the vulnerability of the previously controlled Lila comes pouring out. The true kicker comes just after the above passage, however, as Lila describes how this very tendency — a kind of Imp of the Perverse that dominates her worldview — has never really allowed her to experience moments of calm or beauty for a long enough time.

Because of the merciless gaze she’s burdened with, she cannot help but unmask all appearances for the venality and ugliness that lies within.

We could, of course, reduce all this to the trauma of growing up in impoverished post-war Naples; where fascists and Camorrists jostle for supremacy amid their working class environs, and where someone with Lila’s non-conformist streak had to cultivate a steely facade in order to not only survive, but to thrive (in contrast to Elena, who survived by keeping her head down and thrived by moving elsewhere).

We could reduce it even further by resorting to armchair psychoanalysis; by assuming that Lila suffers from some degree of anxiety disorder or other.

But neither of these interpretations feel sufficient. Though the messy accumulation of life’s details — the four volumes can, in effect, be looked at as a single tome representing the kaleidoscope of a full life — as contrasted with the imposing, steely moor of Lila’s existence and perceptions, we see the conflict between Order and Chaos play out in unique force.

When we lie awake at night worried about health, taxes (money in general), our widening ambitions and the thinning out of time, we are all thrust in the same morass that Lila is wading through (apparently, every single day, every single moment).

The world has it that we need to get up, get dressed, go to work, tend to our house and expand as necessary. But more often than not, it feels as though the natural state of ‘the world’ is one that favours chaos, and that if we were to truly ‘relax’, the darkened pit is the only thing that would welcome us.

End of Year Favourite Things | Horror, Revisionism, Punishment and Thor(s)

As I’ve mentioned in my last post, December took it upon itself to welcome me with a nasty sucker-punch of the flu: a freelancer’s nightmare in a season when all the clients want things done in bulk so that everyone can rest up during the holidays.

But one upside of it all is being able to soak in all the stuff I would have soaked in otherwise, but with an added single-mindedness… partly owing to the fact that I could do little else and so was justified in spending days on end just reading and watching things.

So here are some recent things I’ve consumed and enjoyed during that period… though some of them were either consumed or begun before the illness hit. Either way, feel free to allow them to double-up as gift ideas. Am sure the indie creators on the list would appreciate that especially.

Tanzer_CREATURES_OF_WILL_AND_TEMPER_finalCreatures of Will and Temper by Molly Tanzer (novel)

I was never too keen on the ‘& Zombies’ sub-genre of literature, if we can call it that. It just seems like such a one-trick-pony gimmick that to spread it out over an entire book — much less an entire unofficial series of them — just struck me as a bit redundant and silly.

Having said that, I did enjoy the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies film, in large part because director Burr Steers deftly shot all of it as a Jane Austen pastiche first and foremost, with the zombies having to blend in with the established ‘heritage film’ mise-en-scene, rather than overpowering everything into pulp madness once they do show up.

Rest assured that Tanzer’s novel — a meticulously put together gender-swapped take on Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray — owes very little to the ‘& Zombies’ trend, save for perhaps this last element. When the supernatural element does rear its ugly head, it does so in world with firm period rules already established, and in a story about sibling angst that stands front-and-centre for the bulk of the running time.

The result is an experience that is both immersive and captivating; a Victorian pastiche and tribute to the legacy of Wilde that very much scratches those familiar itches, while also offering a fun, pulpy comeuppance in the end.

***

The-Man-Who-Laughs-CoverThe Man Who Laughs by David Hine & Mark Stafford (graphic novel)

The last thing I did before getting sick was attend Malta Comic Con 2017, and a fun time that was indeed. Meeting old friends and new under the spell of our geeky obsessions is an experience that’s tough to beat. I also spent an inordinate amount of money on comics and artwork and no, I regret nothing.

Particularly when it concerns undeniable gems such as these — a work that once again draws on a literary classic, though one certainly not as universally lauded as The Picture of Dorian Gray.

As writer David Hine writes in an afterword to this adaptation of Victor Hugo’s L’ Homme qui rit — perhaps more famous for a silent film adaptation starring Conrad Veidt which in turn inspired look of Batman’s arch-nemesis The Joker — the original novel, a late-period Hugo miles away from the populist charm of a Les Miserables, is something of a convoluted, knotted beast whose socio-political digressions he’s had to cut down to ensure the story flows as well as it can.

The-Man-Who-Laughs_MEDIA_19

Mark Stafford, ladies and gentlemen

Stripped down as such, and aided by tremendous illustration work from artist Mark Stafford, the volcanic melodrama at the centre of the story — and it is a melodrama, though perhaps in the best possible sense of the word — is allowed to come to the fore, and I practically tore through the pages as my heart raced, yearning to discover the fate of poor perma-rictus-infested Gwynplaine and his fragile adoptive family.

Stafford’s work really is tremendous, though. His grasp of the grotesque idiom works to highlight both the social horror and sublime tragedy that frames the whole story, and the chalk-like colouring technique adds that something special to the feel of each page.

The assured lines and deliberate exaggerations brought to mind the work of Lynd Ward, and in any case — here’s a story that definitely shares some genetic make-up with God’s Man, dealing as it does with the venal, compromising nature of the world.

***

winnebagoWinnebago Graveyard by Steve Niles and Alison Sampson (comics)

Collecting all the single issues of the titular series, this is another gorgeous artefact I managed to pick up at Malta Comic Con, this time from its affable and keenly intelligent artist, Alison Sampson, who was kind enough to sign my copy over a chat about the comic’s intertextual DNA of ‘Satanic panic’ and folk horror.

It’s a lovely-to-the-touch, velvety volume that comes with generous backmatter expounding on the same DNA, but what’s in between isn’t half bad either.

A simple story about a family being shoved into a deeply unpleasant situation — i.e., an amusement park that dovetails into a Satanic human-sacrifice ritual — is elevated away from cliche by Sampson’s art, which flows from one panel to another — often letting rigid panel divisions hang in the process, actually — in a grimy-and-gooey symphony.

***

god butcherThor: The God Of Thunder (Vols. 1 & 2) by Jason Aaron & Esad Ribic (comics)

More comics now, though this one only confirms that I’m as much of a lemming to the machinations of popular culture as anyone else. To wit: when Comixology announced a discount-deal on a bunch of Thor comics in the wake of the brilliant and hilarious Thor: Ragnarok, I bit like the hungriest fish of the Asgardian oceans.

I’m glad I succumbed to this obvious gimmick, though, because it gave me the chance to catch up with this gem of a story arc, which gives us three Thors for the price of one, all of them trying to stop not just their own Ragnarok but the ‘Ragnarok’ of all the gods of the known universe, as the vengeful Gorr vows to unleash genocide on every single divine creature out there.

The two storylines out of the run that I’ve read so far — ‘The God Butcher’ and ‘Godbomb’ — felt like such a perfect distillation of everything that makes superhero comics work. A grandiose, epic story of ludicrously huge stakes, sprinkled with a necessary indulgence in pulp craziness (Thor on a space-shark, anyone?) which is in turn deflated by the strategic deployment of self-deprecating humour (the sarcastic back-and-forth between the Thors is a pure delight).

Ribic’s art seals the deal though. His gods certainly look the part — they may as well have been carved out of marble — helped along by the clean, gleaming shimmer that is Dean White’s colouring work.

While I eagerly look forward to devouring the latter half of the series, this rounds off a great year in Norse-related literature for me, during which I’ve enjoyed Christine Morgan’s across-the-board excellent The Raven’s Table from Word Horde, while I’m currently devouring Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology — a book that so far displays the popular myth-maker’s slinky and pleasant way with words, if nothing else.

shark

***

The Punisher (TV)

the punisher

Another Marvel product that needs no signal-boosting for me, but which I found gripping enough through its 13-episode run, for some obvious and less-obvious reasons. Yes, updated as it is to insert a too-easy critique of the American military-industrial complex (though really, only of its “bad apples”), Frank Castle’s adventures offer an easy cathartic kick.

As the title character of another show I love dearly — far, far more dearly than The Punisher or anything else for that matter — would have it, “Doing bad things to bad people makes us feel good“.

But that wasn’t what stayed with me. What stayed with me was Frank’s very nature as a “revenant” — he’s even referred to as such by another character at one point — and how that’s hammered home by the fact that he’s made to operate from an underground lair as his true self, but that when he returns temporarily to the surface, it is as if he were alive again, but only when he wears his new disguise.

A mythic touch in a story that revels in its supposed grittiness, and a welcome one too.

Happy holidays to all!

The kids of the demon haunted night | Starr Creek by Nathan Carson

We’re getting to see a lot of phenomena unspool over the pop culture sphere in recent years, months, even perhaps days — their frequency is a direct consequence of the kind of internet-related chatter that I wanna discuss here — partly because we’re now quick to label things as all-out phenomena, or at least consider them as such privately, even subconsciously.

We can attribute at least some of this tendency to gush about things to stratospheric profusion to the ease with which geeky enthusiasm can spread online — encouraged by the producers and promoters of the ‘art’ in question, the rudiments of Web 2.0 (are we past even that now?) are weaponised to make sacred fetishes out of even, frankly, the flimsiest of materials.

Stranger Things Eleven

Phenomenon: Millie Bobbie Brown as ‘Eleven’ in Stranger Things (2016, Duffer Brothers)

But although a lot of this may have just a temporary effect — a film, TV show, book or comic book series could arrive in an explosive flurry of online enthusiasm which turns to mere embers just a couple of days later — it’s an effect that imminently repeatable and desirable for those at the top of the food chain the Meat Factory of Story that can still — despite our aggressively materialist times — churn out big business for those who play their cards right.

And one sure-fire way of making big business in a world where semiotic signifiers are an important stepping stone to success (read: where a healthy-enough accumulation of hashtags and social media shares can actually alchemise into cold, hard cash) is to tap into a rich stash of references.

There’s a fine line between the kind of recognition and familiarity that can result in something feeling boring, repetitive and ultimately unnecessary… and the kind that evokes feelings of comfort, kinship and a desire for connection. Pull the latter off, and you’ve tapped into that strong fount of subconscious desire called nostalgia which, as anyone alive would tell you, means seriously big bucks.

Stranger Things 2

Who you gonna call? Nos-tal-gia! (Stranger Things 2, 2017, Duffer Brothers)

One phenomenon to tap into that same fount is the Duffer Brothers’ television series Stranger Things, first appearing on the Netflix streaming service last summer and definitively declaring itself as a bricolage of 1980s nostalgia for all of us to shamelessly enjoy. And enjoy it we did, en masse and with reckless abandon, even aided and abetted (for the most part) by an enthusiastic critical mass of professional reviewers that helped to validate our love for a show that pushes just the right nostalgia-buttons.

So brazen is its soup of references and Easter eggs — though the Duffers also make sure to craft a catchy-enough story and direct their child actors to perfection, to ensure that it does not just, in fact, become some detached postmodern experiment — that the show could almost be described in tones of pure ritual.

***

In the two seasons of it we’ve had so far, the running time has constantly dredged up one association after another, each of which — for those of a Certain Generation, at least — has recalled at least one touchstone from the movies of Steven Spielberg or the books-made-into-movies by Stephen King and an entire raft-load of others (though I would argue that, for all its busy panoply of references, ET and The Body/Stand by Me give us the strongest and most consistent associative threads here).

Starr Creek Book Cover

Yeah, we’ll be getting to this in a second. Promise.

With everything calibrated to create a perfect snap of recall in our minds, it becomes nothing short of a huge-scale communal exercise of shared mental experience across the hashtagosphere.

The show, whose seasons arrive to us in bulk — all the better to be binge-watched, all together — is a manifestation of Pure Archetype; but archetypes that are recent-enough to strike a real emotional chord, while also being just distant enough to feel as if they’re emanating from a subconscious place of buried, chthonic connections. (To wit: the 1980s is not Ancient Greece, even if Stranger Things’s Demogorgon evokes associations old-enough to pertain to the latter.)

Stranger Things demogorgon

This is certainly one layer of the ‘kids in ’80s getting into world-saving antics’ that a recent short novel emphatically does not partake in, even if it may embody the Stranger Things vibe in other aspects of its make-up.

I’m talking here about Starr Creek by Nathan Carson, a fun book written before Stranger Things was first aired, but which is also set in a rural American milieu during the 80s — specifically, a small town in Oregon in 1986 — and which also pits a band of kids against a supernatural threat that has chosen to make its nesting ground in their otherwise unremarkable suburban backyard.

Starr Creek Map

Starr Creek Rd, Oregon. Real place.

But unlike the fictional town of Hawkins in Stranger Things — which fittingly joins a tradition also espoused by Stephen King himself with the fake ‘Derry’ in Maine — the eponymous road of Carson’s Starr Creek is a real place, around which Carson himself grew up.

And while the main trio of kids that make up Carson’s cast of characters — Kira, Allen and Bron — share the same predilection for Dungeons and Dragons as their Stranger Things counterparts, they’re not exactly the eminently plucky and largely squeaky-clean lite-weirdos of the Duffer Brothers. These kids trip on LSD to enhance their D&D games, though when they start chasing around extra-dimensional entities in the woods, that enhancement gains an edge of sublime horror.

And the trio soon comes head to head with another couple of outsiders looking for kicks — in this case, a shameless though understandable quest for nudie magazines — but who end up poking a particularly dangerous avatar of said extra-dimensional creatures, in a way that may just threaten the very fabric of existence if the kids don’t band together to do something about it.

That synopsis makes Carson’s book feel no different than just the kind of phenomena I was describing earlier but as ever, the devil is in the details. Drawing on lived-in experience rather than a desire to exploit the collective unconscious by cherry picking, and stringing together, nostalgic genre touchstones, Carson draws on convention to create a fun framing narrative, while stuffing the rest with memorable, hard-won texture.

***

Starr Creek Review Nathan Carson

Nathan Carson in the book trailer for Starr Creek

The character of ‘Puppy’ who pushes us into the dark corners of this narrative from the word go quickly forces us to watch him eat dog food for money, and the kids’ interactions and overarching milieu is described with affection, yes, but never the kind of mawkish sentimentality that often threatens to tip Stranger Things over into something less than its potential demands. And the pop culture references that do feature in Carson’s book are made in-story, not meta-textually to score audience-engagement points… the kids lament the suddenly and unfairly jacked-up prices of comic books (75c!), they enthuse about The Last Starfighter and listen to Metallica…

HP Lovecraft

HP Lovecraft

And when it comes to the crunch, the Elder Ones are invoked in earnest. While the Duffer Brothers paid lip service to the legacy of controversial Weird Fiction behemoth HP Lovecraft by claiming that the super-demogorgon features in the second season of the show is inspired by the author’s infamous reason-shattering tentacular beasts, Carson’s more sanguine approach throughout ensures that the nihilistic core of Lovecraft’s work is also paid tribute to… for better or worse.

While the likes of Stranger Things will continue to massage us into pleasant nostalgic oblivion — appreciating the more horror-tinged second season despite the mis-step that was Episode Seven, I’m certainly looking forward to Season 3 — Carson’s slim, weird and vicious little novella offers a more ‘genuine’ take on the same sub-genre (come on, this kind of thing has surely solidified into a sub-genre by now).

A howl of partly-autobiographical mad fun by a doom metal drummer (Carson is a member of Witch Mountain), Starr Creek takes one glance at the archetypal melting pot before going on to its own thing… grabbing you by the collar and stringing you along the eponymous road on a demon-haunted night.

Halloween Reads | The Memory Trees by Kali Wallace

“A memory was a thing with no shape, no mass, but indescribable weight. Words spoken in cold winter air, secrets shared, a sprint, a chase, a favor, these things had their own gravity, distorting everything around them like the heaviest star, shaping time and space even when the heart remained hidden.” – Kali Wallace

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These lines open the fourteenth chapter of Kali Wallace’s second novel, The Memory Trees, and they perfectly encapsulate the melancholy but deeply immersive nature of the author’s follow-up to Shallow Graves. Both novels are squarely targeted the ‘Young Adult’ crowd, but, happily, what the successor shares with its predecessor is also an appealing way of crafting characters who are sympathetic and beleaguered but never annoying, and whose ‘young adult’ parameters don’t stop its author from delving into some perennial themes.

The sixteen-year-old Sorrow Lovegood decides to take a trip back to her estranged mother’s rural home in Vermont from Miami, where she’s living with her dad and where, crucially, she is undergoing therapy — in large part due to the tragic (and still mysterious) death of her sister, Patience, eight years prior.

Hoping to find some much-needed emotional closure — and, even, to address some disquieting gaps in her memory pertaining to her sister’s untimely demise — Sorrow’s trip to Vermont ends up tumbling her into a fresh barrel of anxieties. While the (now mute) grandmother appears determined to serve as something of a gentle guiding hand throughout, her mother, Verity, only appears to have grown more neurotic as the years went by. A neurosis that manifests itself most potently whenever the subject of the dreaded Abramses is brought up.

For as we learn early on in this narrative in which the distant past is interlaced with the present, the feud between the Abramses and the Lovegoods stretches deep. And Sorrow’s family legacy is known to have something peculiarly ‘witchy’ about it…

kali wallace

Kali Wallace

The great thing, possibly the greatest thing, about The Memory Trees is that it remains a sensitive coming-of-age story despite the complex, time-hopping weave it’s dropped into. Even if we were to strip off the peculiarities of Sorrow’s situation — though why would we do that? — Wallace’s story would remain a valid exploration of growing up with both a tragedy and a secret hanging over your head, all the while trying to make heads or tails out of everything as your supposed adult superiors are of zero help.

A consistent characteristic of Sorrow’s relationship with her mother is the girl’s fear of saying the wrong thing, her aching need to walk on eggshells as she speaks to her. Apart from helping to form an image of Verity as a nerve-wracking Gothic matron in our minds, this quirk in their relationship is easy to relate to, and as Sorrow struggles to negotiate this psychological minefield, we’re with her all the way.

She even characterizes it as such at one point.

“Verity would ask her about the festival, and Sorrow would have to decide how to answer. She didn’t want to lie. She didn’t want to tell the truth. She hated the feeling that every possible thing she could say to her mother was a potential land mine, and she was navigating a path so narrow she could barely keep her balance.”

But the setting is also a character in and of itself, and Wallace certainly gets plenty of mileage out of it all being set on one farm, with the action and stakes calibrated on a long-drawn out ‘showdown’ between the two families: a showdown that is, perhaps, currently dormant, but which is rearing to bubble back up to the surface at the slightest provocation.

This palpable dread is masterfully turned into a creepy, autumnal vibe throughout the novel, which not only keeps the pages turning, but allows for moments of real beauty, too. Anyone with even a slight predilection for whatever we’re celebrating during Halloween will find something to love in Wallace’s evocations of the landscape; the valleys groaning with horror and promise, the huge, gnarly trees acting as ominous edges to the scene.

Because this is, after all, a book about memory. And memory has plenty of room for both trauma and nostalgia.

This review was based on an uncorrected proof of The Memory Trees, which is out on October 10.