Claire Keegan ‘Small Things like These‘

‘Your day was long,’ Furlong said. ‘What matter,’ she said. ‘That much is done. I don’t know why I put the cake on the long finger. There wasn’t another woman I met there this evening who hadn’t hers made.’ ‘If you don’t slow down, you’ll meet yourself coming back, Eileen.’ ‘No more than yourself.’ ‘At least I’ve Sundays off.’ ‘You have them off but do you take them, is the question.’

This book shortlisted for the Booker 2022, was a slow description of life, family and place, a precise description of a period in time, capturing the community and leading us to see the pressure of the church on everyday life, how the Laundries could have existed. Keegan gives us a little hope by putting a decent man, Furlong, at the centre of the story.
How nice to find here the idioms and way of speech that I assosciate with Ireland, illustrated in the opening quote.

Furlong, who runs a fuel stuffs delivery business, coal, peat, wood and has developed ‘good Protestant habits; was given to rising early and had no taste for drink’ had reached the stage in life where he started to wonder what life was about, when he will soon be tested:

Lately, he had begun to wonder what mattered, apart from Eileen and the girls. He was touching forty but didn’t feel himself to be getting anywhere or making any kind of headway and could not but sometimes wonder what the days were for.

Delivering early one very cold morning to the convent on the outskirts of town he goes unannounced to the coal house whose bolt was difficult to undo due to the frost and finds a young woman locked in from the outside for more than just the night, lead on the cold floor with her excrement around her. He takes her in to the convent where the mother superior gives him tea as the young woman is cleaned up and fed, she must have got locked in for a prank he’s told.
When Furlong goes back to town he is aware of the pressure to conform, to let things be. People would not understand him if he did anything. Mrs Kehoe the shop keeper warns him that they’re all a one the nuns and priests and to be careful, that the only good education available to his own children is with the teaching nuns.

The air was sharper now, without his coat, and he felt his self-preservation and courage battling against each other and thought, once more, of taking the girl to the priest’s house – but several times, already, his mind had gone on ahead, and met him there, and had concluded that the priests already knew. Sure hadn’t Mrs Kehoe as much as told him so? They’re all the one.

A straightforward forward story that captures the moment in time, 1985 just before the religious scandals of the nineties.

First published in English by Faber and Faber in 2021.

Anne Tyler “French Braid”

How did anyone really know what was really going in their kids lives. He had long ago accepted that his experience of fatherhood was not what he used to envision, the girls and he got along thank heaven but girls were more a mother’s business and so he couldn’t take much credit for that. David on the other hand, for some reason he and David had never seemed quite in step with each other.

French Braid begins with an everyday story of girl invited to meet boy’s family. Nothing out of the ordinary here, just life made up of many small details, As Serena and James head back to Baltimore by train Serena glances across the station and sees a man that makes her think of her cousin Nicolas, but how could she not recognise him?

She happened to notice a young man in a suit who had paused to let the cart roll past him. “Oh,” she said. James looked up from his phone. “Hmm?” “I think that might be my cousin,” she said in an undertone. “Where?” “That guy in the suit.” “You think it’s your cousin?” “I’m not really sure.” They studied the man. He seemed older than they were, but not by much. (It might just have been the suit.) ….. “It might be my cousin Nicholas,” Serena said. “Maybe he just resembles Nicholas,” James said. “Seems to me if it was really him, you could say for certain.” “Well, it’s been a while since we’ve seen each other,” Serena said. “He’s my mom’s brother David’s son; they live up here in Philly.”

Anne Tyler then takes us back in time through two generations of Serena’s family, to her grandparents and their young children and we observe their lives in much the same way as we had seen Serena’s first meeting with James’s parents, through the small details and we learn to see the impact of seemingly small events on people’s lives, for instance on Serena’s grandfather Robin’s reflection late in his life, illustrated by the opening quote.

Hidden in the various interactions is a day when Nicolas’s father, David, was a young boy which could be seen as one of many moments leading to his father’s reflections later in life, here is a quote as Mercy, Serena’s grand mother wanted time for herself and Robin takes responsibility for his son, but maybe in the sixties fathers didn’t understand so easily the complexities of their sons as Robin has a sink or swim view of learning to swim:

She was no stranger to water, but after a few yards or so she stopped swimming and stood up. “Come on out” Robin called to her but she said “I don’t want to get my hair wet” she had the kind of hair that took forever to dry, thick, wavy with ringlets spilling from a chignon piled high on top of her head. She said “I was thinking, I might go and fetch my sketch pad and take a little walk in the woods, can you keep an eye on David?” “Sure thing” Robin said, I’ll teach him how to swim”.

My first experience of Anne Tyler’s writing didn’t disappoint, slow moving family drama with points of denial, like many families.

First published in English by Knopf in 2022

Percival Everett ‘The Trees’

Delroy jumped a little when Brady appeared behind him. “Good Lord Almighty!” Brady said. “Goddamn! Is that Junior Junior?”
“I think so,” Delroy said. “Any idea who the nigger is?”
“None.”
“What a mess,” Brady said. “Lord, Lordy, Lord, Lord, Jesus. Looky at that. His balls ain’t on him!”

“I see that.” “I think they’re in the nigger’s hand,” Brady said. “You’re right.” Delroy leaned in for a closer look.

“Don’t touch nothing. Don’t touch a gawddamn thing. We got ourselves some kind of crime here. Lordy.”

The book shortlisted for the Booker this year, didn’t pull be in by the title and I didn’t recognise Percival Everett, but what a book! How to start describing it?

The book begins in Money Mississippi, with two gruesome murders in short succession, both related. First there’s Junior Junior found dead by two local policemen Brady and Delroy as described in the opening quote. The “person of colour“, hope I got that right, found in the same room as Junior Junior is clearly well and truly dead, with his head smashed in, both bodies are taken to the local morgue. Soon after the coloured persons body is found to be missing, no longer in the morgue drawer.

Then the book takes on a surreal form when the same corpse is found next to Junior Junior’s brother in law, Wheat’s dead body with Wheat’s “nuts” in his hand. As each of the family and the policemen’s characters are drawn, we find ourselves in a caricature of poor white people in small town Mississippi (or I hope it’s a caricature). From Wheat’s wife, Charlene, known even to her young kids by her CB handle, Hot Mama Yeller to the mortician Rev doctor Fondle addressing a KKK meeting:

We got ourselves a situation white brothers, I’m afraid what we’re looking at is a real nigger uprising two of our own brothers lay dead and the killing nigger is on the goddamn loose.

Then the second layer of the book sets in as 2 MBI agents (yes , Mississippi bureau of investigation), both black are sent to investigate, and are not exactly welcome and the FBI sends a female black agent and together are able to realise that the locals still think it’s the 1930’s.

We are clearly in “Strange Fruit” country where a very old lady has kept a record of the more than 7000 negroes Lynched in the south with less than 1% of the people involved being questioned and much less being convicted, this is proposed by any definition as being a genocide, where the only way to remember them is to keep saying their names.

Then the killings get out of hand as more and more white people are killed. Even Trump has a cameo appearance.

An excellent idea to mix a murder mystery, farce and difficult to swallow facts.

First published in English by Influx Press in 2022

Shehan Karunatilaka ‘The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida’

When did you last see him?
Weeks ago at a press gathering, said he was quitting the war zone, I thought fair enough.
Johnny should have played poker, he could lie with his eyes, his nose and his teeth
What do you know about Center?
Heard the name, think it’s some aid organisation, which could mean a number of things.
So you know them?
Not really, CNTR could be raising funds for political groups or procuring weapons for militant ones, could be genuinely helping the innocents, hard to know who’s what these days, does your papa Stanley know you’re going around playing detective Columbo?………
Do you know what’s in those five envelopes?
I don’t need to, I can guess there’s two wars going on which means a lot of ugly things get photographed.

This book was originally chosen because it was on the Booker long list, but the after much prevarication by the time I came around to reading it, it had already won the prize!
This book then, really, and in every way, will lead you into a new world, or should that be worlds.
The book begins with Maali waking up with another one of his hangovers, but he and we soon discover that he is in fact dead and is in an in between world for seven moons, or days. The narrator is then the spirit of Maali Almeida.

Maali doesn’t remember how he died, and we slowly learn about him as at first we understand that he was a war photographer and fixer in Sri Lanka in the 1980’s and that he has some potentially explosive photographs hidden in five envelopes under his bed.

Maali was a gambler, living swathes of his life in casinos where with an ability to calculate odds he more or less survives from night to night, he uses the casino to meet people for his missions but also the two loves of his life, Jaki, who he explains gambling odds to and then moves in with and through her D.D or Dilan her cousin who Maali tries to lead out of the proverbial closet. Dilan’s father Sydney is an important minister in the Sri Lankan government. Maali is missing so Dilan goes looking for him, initially to Johnny from the British Embassy from the opening quote.

We learn of the wars in Sri Lanka, of the Tigers, but also the JVP who want to overthrow the state, of the Indian peacekeeping force of the UN and the US, each with their own role to play as illustrated by the following discussion between Sydney and Dilan

We are talking about letting foreign devils meddle in our affairs.
Didn’t your excellency the president invite the Indian army in, are they angels?
I voted against that Dylan, you know this. Don’t bite your nails man how old are you?
The UN forensic team had been invited by Rajahpaksa to train our local authorities on identifying bodies against the records of the missing, meanwhile the CIA were rumoured to be training our torturers.

The choice of dead bodies and atrocities to photograph are legion, only access remains a problem, as the book moves forward we learn that Maali has been carrying out a balancing act, working for the army but also for the international press, through Johnny but also through CNTR from the opening quote and that there are any number of groups that may have wanted to kill him.

In the in between Maali meets many people he has photographed but also the Mahakali, a powerful spirit made from thousands or spirits which it seems to have absorbed (a visit to Wikipedia would be useful here).
Maali’s spirit meets the torturers and the « palace » they operate from and is lead to think about dehumanising the people that are tortured and killed:

When the mahakali comes to a stop you leap off of its back and watch it melt into shadows cast by this ugly building at the base is the face of a pole cat it gives you the same disgusted look that all dead animals give you
« What are you looking at ugly? »
I get it, animals have souls, you dream, you do things for pleasure, you feel happy and sad, you understand pain and grief and love and family and friendship, humans don’t acknowledge this because it makes it easier to carve up the ones we find tasty, which isn’t you but that’s neither here nor there. I am profoundly sorry. The pole cat looks surprised or hungry or annoyed or you don’t know it’s a pole cat.
Screw your apology it says before vanishing into the mahakali’s flesh.
There are good reasons humans can’t converse with animals except after death because animals wouldn’t stop complaining and that would make them harder to slaughter. The same may be said for dissidents and insurgents and separatists and photographers of wars. The less they are heard the easier they are forgotten.

So who did kill Maali, and will he decide to be reborn?
I would say the Booker jury got this one right.

First published in English by Sort of Books in 2022

William Gardner Smith “The Stone Face”

Where would he go? He asked himself the question though he knew the inevitable answer—even though repugnance swept through him whenever he thought of it. Back to the States—not because he liked it, not because his antipathy to that country and its people had changed, not because he felt any less anger or bitterness or frustration at the mere thought of living there again, but because the Lulubelles were there, America’s Algerians were back there, fighting a battle harder than that of any guerrillas in any burnt mountains. Fighting the stone face.

This book, my ninth read for the Roman de Rochefort this year was originally written by Gardner Smith and published in 1963. Gardner Smith had himself moved from Philadelphia to escape racism in 1951, joining a thriving community in exile in Paris. Unlike his protagonist Simeon Brown who at the end of the book seems to know he must move back to the US, illustrated above, Gardner Smith stayed and eventually died in Paris.

Simeon Brown leaves the US to avoid committing the irreparable, killing someone, all his life he had been subject to the violence of the racist, from having his eye gouged out as a young child through random acts towards him as a young adult. As a child he had shown he had character and a certain recklessness as illustrated by the knife game:

Holding the knife like a dagger in his right hand, Simeon turned up the palm of his left. Everyone watched in amazement as he raised the knife high over the open palm. “What in hell you gonna do?” He inhaled deeply, thought of Chris and brought the knife down hard into his palm. The boys gasped; the girls squealed. The knife trembled in the palm. He had not flinched. For a moment he let the group stare at the upright knife, then pulled it brutally out of his hand. “Goddam!” a boy whispered admiringly. The girls rushed toward him. “Simeon, you’re crazy!” He let himself be led away, allowed his hand, now covered with blood, to be washed, spread with iodine and bandaged. “Goddam! Goddam!” the boys kept repeating. Simeon smiled. He was a man.

Living in Paris he makes three important friendships, first of all with Babe, another black man enjoying being treated normally, as an American in Paris but not wanting to see how the Algerians were being treated in France, like the negroes in the US. He has made a philosophy of looking the other way because, at least in part, the French authorities could expel him at any time:

“Forget it, man. Algerians are white people. They feel like white people when they’re with Negroes, don’t make no mistake about it. A black man’s got enough trouble in the world without going about defending white people.” But he was not convincing, even to himself.

The second friend he makes is Maria, a Polish Jew, survivor of the camps, a would be actress who no longer wants to see racism but to live her life. His third friend is Hossein, an Algerian member of the FLN, a man that reasons with him and lifts the curtain in Paris for him to see behind the scenes.

The further north the bus moved, the more drab became the buildings, the streets and the people. Cheap stores selling clothes, furniture, kitchen utensils: “Easy terms, ten months to pay!” Cafés became dimmer, the streets narrower and noisier, more and more children filled the sidewalks. Men out of work, with nothing to do and no place to go, stood in sullen, futile groups on street corners. Arab music blared from the dark cafés or from the open windows of bleak hotels. Then suddenly, police were everywhere, stalking the streets, eyes moving insolently from face to face, submachine guns strung from their shoulders. It was like Harlem, Simeon thought, except that there were fewer cops in Harlem.

Hossein then leaves to fight in Algeria where he is killed, leaving Simeon with the choice between being more like one of his three friends with the choice being evident for him as illustrated in the opening quote.

Published in English in 1963, republished as a New York Review Books Classic in 2021

Translated into French by Brice Matthieussent and published in 2021 by Christian Bourgois.

The quotes as read in French before translation.

Où irait-il? Il se posa la question, même s’il connaissait la réponse inévitable –et même si, chaque fois qu’il y pensait, il se sentait submergé de répugnance. Il rentrerait aux États Unis –pas parce que cette idée lui plaisait, pas parce que son antipathie envers ce pays et ses habitants avait changé, pas parce qu’il éprouvait moins de colère, d’amertume ou de frustration à la seule perspective d’y vivre à nouveau, mais parce que les Lulu Belle étaient là-bas, que les Algériens de l’Amérique étaient là-bas et qu’ils menaient une lutte plus dure que celle de n’importe quelle guérilla dans n’importe quelle montagne desséchée. Ils se battaient contre le visage de pierres.

Le prenant dans sa main droite comme une dague, Simeon tourna la paume de son autre main vers le haut. Tout le monde le regarda avec stupéfaction lever le couteau au-dessus de la paume offerte. « Bon dieu, mais tu fais quoi? » Il prit une grande inspiration, pensa à Chris et abattit violemment la lame dans sa paume. Les garçons en restèrent bouche bée;les filles crièrent. Le couteau tremblait, fiché dans sa paume. Il n’avait pas flanché Un instant, il laissa le groupe ébahi regarder le manche dressé, puis il l’arracha brutalement de sa main. « Merde alors!« lâcha un garçon admiratif. Les filles se ruèrent sur lui. « Simeon, t’es complètement barge! » Il se laissa entraîner, avec sa paume maintenant ensanglantée; puis il permit qu’on la nettoie, qu’on la bande. « Putain! Putain! » répétaient les garçons. Simeon sourit. Il était un homme.

« Oublie ça, mec. Les Algériens sont Blancs. Ils réagissent comme les Blancs quand ils sont avec des Noirs, ne t’y trompe pas. Un Noir à déjà assez de problèmes sur les bras pour ne pas se mettre à défendre des Blancs. » Mais il manquait de conviction, même pour se convaincre lui-même.

Anthony Doerr ‘Cloud Cuckoo Land’


What his mother and sister distribute among the men, the honey and preserves, the pickled cabbage and the trout, the sheep’s cheese, the dried venison, comprises almost all of their food for the winter. Many of the men wear cloaks and daggers like woodsmen, whilst others dress in cloaks of fox fur or camel hide and at least one wears ermine with the teeth still attached, most have daggers attached to girdles about their waists and everyone speaks of the spoils their going to win from a great city in the south.


Books are fragile, they die, so little of the literature from ancient Greece has reached us, and that often copied and re-copied or translated. But books can free us, change our perceptions, even give us a reason to live. In this tale, Anthony Doerr rells us of such a book, a fictitious work by Antonius Digenes, Cloud Cuckoo Land, its journey to us and through to the future, of librarys and mankinds vain attempts to assemble all knowledge. We discover Cloud Cuckoo Land and its influence on a number of people in this intertwined tale.
We pick up the story and the first of our characters at the siege and fall of Constantinople in 1453, we meet Omeir as the army moving towards this city with the unpenetrable walls at the moment that he is engaged and the immensity of the tasks they must catty out as illustrated in the opening quote

We meet Anna, a seamstress living in what has become an almost illiterate city just before the arrival of the Ottomans, of her learning to read from a dying and drunken Greek living in their city walls, of her finding books in a forgotten and crumbling monastry and selling them to Venitians who have come in search of knowledge for their libraries. As she reads one of the codexes to her dying sister we learn of Ethan the goatheard and his journey in the fantastic old tale and the peace it brings her sister.


She has grown quicker at deciphering the tidy left leaning script inside the old codex and by now can lift lines off the page without trouble. Whenever she comes to a word she does not know or lacunas where mould has obliterated the text she invents replacements, Ethan has managed to become a bird at last, not the resplendent owl he hoped but a bedraggled crow. He flaps across a limitless sea searching for the end of the earth, only to be swept up by a water spout. So long as Anna keeps reading Maria seems to be at peace.


Through Anna and Omeir, the story reaches modern day, being uncovered in the Vatican library. The only timeline where the link with the book is not apparent is that of Konstance, travelling on an interstellar spaceship leaving the Earth behind to implant life on a faraway planet with her family and a group of other passengers, and of course a computer containing “all the knowledge of the world”:


Konstance stands in the library atrium touching the place on her work suit where mother stitched a pine seedling four years before, mrs flowers’ little dog stares up at her and wags his tail, he is not real, the desk beneath her fingertips feels like wood, sounds like wood, smells like wood, the slips in the box look like paper feel like paper, smell like paper, none of it is real.


In the present day, Zeno, an 80 year old Korean war veteran is putting on a school play called Cloud Cuckoo Land by Antonius Diogenes when Seymour, a disturbed adolescent, worrying about the planet comes into the library with a bag packed with explosives:


He remembers how it felt, his whole body taught when he sprung the lid off the crate of pawpaws old grenades for the first time, all that latent power, never before has someone articulated his own anger and confusion like this. Wait they said, be patient they said, technology will solve the carbon crisis. In Kyoto, in Copenhagen, in Doha in Paris they said we’ll cut emissions we’ll wean ourselves off hydrocarbons and they rolled back to the airport in armour plated limos and flew home on Jumbo jets and ate sushi at 30000 feet in the air while poor people choked on the air in their own neighbourhoods. Waiting is over, patience is over we must rise up now before the whole world is on fire.


Why take explosives into a library? who are all of these characters and how are the present day and the future linked, I’ll give you a guess. Get this wonderful read and find out.

First Published in English as “Cloud Cuckoo Land” in 2021 by Fourth Estate

Abby Geni ‘The Lightkeepers’


All the biologists had seasons in which they could focus on their areas of expertise (when their animals ruled the roost) and seasons when they were required to help the others (when their animals were absent). During the summer, Forest, the shark specialist, had been in command.
He and Galen had given orders, and everyone else had jumped to obey. But autumn had brought the whales, and winter would give way to Seal Season, which would be followed by Bird Season. Each biologist had a moment in the sun. This was Mick’s time to shine.


This book, my fourth read for the Prix du Roman de Rochefort 2021, and my first by Abby Geni. Miranda, a photographer chooses to come to the Farradon islands, off of the Californian coast for a year, we quickly learn that these inhospitible Islands, where the presence of a few biologists are rythmed by the seasons as explained in the opening quote.

Miranda lives in a world of quiet violence, writing letters she never that can never. arrive to her mother, trying to cauterise a wound from her youth that has seen her wandering the planet taking pictures in dangerous places, never coming closer to solving her internal torments:


I understand now why I first voyaged here. It has taken me all year to come to terms with that choice. Since your death, I have been looking over my shoulder, looking backward. I have been stuck in time. I have been writing letters to you—letters to no one, a body in a cemetery, a woman I knew for only a small part of my life. Hundreds of notes, some sitting in the Dead Letter Office of various cities, others buried and burned and scattered on the wind. I have never once questioned whether writing them was sane or healthy. Now, though, I can see that it was neither. Each letter has been an anchor chain, dragging me back into the past.


The Island itself is full of natural violence amongst the animals, some on a par with violence she has seen in war zones with the act of photography itself described by Abby Geni and practised by Melanie as violence itself:


There is a wonderful violence to the act of photography. The camera is a potent thing, slicing an image away from the landscape and pinning it to a sheet of film. When I choose a segment of horizon to capture, I might as well be an elephant seal hunting an octopus. The shutter clicks. Every boulder, wave, and curl of cloud included in the snapshot is severed irrevocably from what is not included. The frame is as sharp as a knife. The image is ripped from the surface of the world.


Miranda discovers violence herself at the hands of one of the biologists that rapes her leaving her unable to talk about it. Then the rapist is found dead at the bottom of some cliffs and after a police investigation no one is suspected and an accidental death assumed, but the experienced, quiet biologist Galen has been studying the people around him and by analogy realises what has happened:


Galen has had some experience with this phenomenon. The animal mind is one without memory. He has researched it. Most animals are able to recall the short term—the past few seconds or minutes—but anything further back is released from the brain like a balloon on the breeze. Animals retain impressions, rather than stories. They may avoid a dangerous place by instinct. They may shy away from an object that is associated with trauma. But they do not recall specific events. A shark, having devoured a seal, will swim away with a clean conscience, no echo of blood or pain. A gull might kill its own chick in a fit of fury, then mourn when discovering the little body later, unaware of its own guilt, lost in its own forgetting.


No spoiler of course, except inferred, this was a complex, well written parallel study of human and animal life. Well worth the read.


First Published in english as “The Lightkeepers” in 2016, by Counterpoint
Translated into french by Céline Leroy and published as “Farallon Islands” by Actes Sud in 2017

The quotes in French.

Chaque biologiste avait une saison durant laquelle se concentrer sur son domaine de compétence (quand son animal régnait sur les lieux) et celles où il ou elle devait aider ses collègues (quand son animal était absent). L’été, Forest, le spécialiste des requins,était au poste de commandement. Galen et lui lançaient leurs ordres et nous autres nous empressions d’obéir. Mais l’automne avait vu le retour des baleines, et l’hiver laissait place à la saison des phoques qui serait suivie par la saison des oiseaux. Chaque biologiste avait droit à son quart d’heure de gloire. C’était le moment pour Mick de faire des étincelles.

Aujourd’hui, je comprends enfin pourquoi je suis venue jusqu’ici. Il m’a fallu un an pour accepter la raison de ce choix. Depuis ta mort, je passe mon temps à regarder par-dessus mon épaule, à jamais tournée vers le passé. J’ai écrit des lettres — sans autre destinataire qu’un corps dans un cimetière, une femme que je n’ai connue que quelques années. Des centaines de mots dont certaines de mots dont certain prennent la poussière au Bureau des lettres mortes ici et là, d’autres enfouis, brulés ou emportés par le vent. Pas une fois je ne me suis demandé si les écrire était sain ou raisonnable. Maintenant je sais que ça n’était ni l’un ni l’autre. Chaque lettre était une ancre qui me ramenait vers le passé.

L’acte photographique renferme une merveilleuse violence. Ce mécanisme est puissant, qui retranche une image d’un paysage pour la fixer sur un morceau de pellicule. Quand je choisi un segment d’horizon à prendre, je pourrais tout aussi bien être un éléphant de mer en train de chasser un poulpe. L’obturateur émet un déclic. Chaque rocher, vague et volute nuageuse qui entre dans l’image est arraché irrémédiablement à ce qui n’y entre pas. Le cadre est affûté comme un couteau. L’image est arrachée à la face du monde.

Ce phénomène ne lui était pas inconnu. Les animaux n’ont pas de mémoire. Il avait fait des recherches. La plupart des espèces animale n’ont qu’une mémoire à court terme — sur quelques secondes ou minutes — et au-dela. tout leur échappe comme un ballon de baudruche emporté par le vent. Les animaux retiennent des impressions plutôt que des histoires. Leur instinct peut les pousser à eviter un endroit dangereux. Ils peuvent s’éloigner d’un objet associé à un traumatisme. Mais ils n’ont pas de souvenir détaillé des évènements. Un requin qui vient de dévorer un phoque s’éloignera la conscience tranqille, sans souvenir du sang ou de la douleur. Un goéland peut tuer son petit dans un accès de rage puis en faire le deuil après avoir découvert son cadavre, ignorant tout de sa culpabilité, perdu dans son oubli.

Richard Powers ‘Bewilderment’

“Booker Prize 2021: 6 Books Shortlisted for this prize.
“Bewilderment”: In order of reading book number 5.


img_0246I NEVER BELIEVED THE DIAGNOSES the doctors settled on my son. When a condition gets three different names over as many decades, when it requires two subcategories to account for completely contradictory symptoms, when it goes from nonexistent to the country’s most commonly diagnosed childhood disorder in the course of one generation, when two different physicians want to prescribe three different medications, there’s something wrong.


In this complex father-son relationship story, Richard Powers adresses his vision of science’s view of the state of the world in a near future and paints a picture of hopelessness as we collectively head towards our own anhilation.
The narrator, Robin’s father, bringing up his special needs son alone after his wife’s accidental death, is being pushed by society towards treating his 9 year old son with opioids, as illustrated in the opening quote. He resists and one of his wife’s friends offers an experimental treatment for Robin, a new method using a neural feedback loop linked to AI, Robin’s mother had previously helped advance this experimentation also as a subject. Powers uses these two points to show an enlightened child able to question the world with his own mother’s wisdom and a child’s directness before the impending doom.


Clinicians and theorists are rarely going to agree on what constitutes mental health. Is it the ability to function productively in hard conditions or is it more a matter of appropriate response? Constant cheerful optimism may not be the healthiest reaction… I had an awful thought, maybe the last few months of neural feedback were hurting Robin, in the face of the world’s basic brokenness more empathy meant deeper suffering, the question wasn’t why Robin was sliding down again, the question is why the rest of us were staying so insanely sanguine?


Powers’ father is a leading light in looking for life in exo-planets and through discussions with Robin introduces us to Fermi’s paradox and eventually to his son’s vision of the probable solution to this paradox:


At last he said “I think I might know where everybody is.”
It took me a while to remember the question he’d latched onto so long ago on a starry night in the Smokies, the Fermi paradox…
“Remember how you said there might be a big roadblock somewhere.”
“A great filter, that’s what we call it”.
“Like maybe there’s a great filter right at the beginning when molecules turn into living things or it might be when you first evolve a cell or when cells learn to come together or maybe the first brain.”
“Lots of bottlenecks”
“I was just thinking we’ve been looking and listening for sixty years.”
“The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.”
“I know but maybe the great filter isn’t behind us maybe it’s ahead of us.”
“And maybe we were just now hitting it, wild, violent and Godlike consciousness, lots and lots of consciousness, exponential and exploding consciousness leveraged up by machines and multiplied by the billions. Power too precarious to last long.”
“Because otherwise, how old did you say the universe is?”
“14 billion years.”
“Because otherwise they’d be here.”


Powers, through the pressure on the father’s project’s funding of the Seeker space telescope, presents to us a barely extrapolated vision of the fight for science against economic obscurantism in our times, illustrated by his thoughts following one of the President’s tweets:


“So called science should stop inventing facts and charging them to the American people….”
The Seeker was just another proxi-battle in the endless American civil war, our side claimed the discovery of earths would increase humanities collective wisdom and empathy, the presidents men said that wisdom and empathy were collectivist plots to crash our standard of living


This is, as always with Powers, an engaged piece of work. A well constructed story and a pessimistic vision of our ineluctable future. Empathy is the way forward but the human race is not capable of enough of this commodity. Robin’s condition is an allegory of the earth’s situation; as for Robin, in one generation since the Meadow’s report, the realisation of the effect of humans on the climate and on our present and future lives has gone from non existant to the centre of preoccupation and as for Robin’s condition politicians and scientists “want to prescribe three different medications”. An interesting read.

First Published in English as “Bewilderment” in 2021 by W. W. Norton and Company

Anuk Arudpragasam ‘A Passage North’

“Booker Prize 2021: 6 Books Shortlisted for this prize.
“A Passage North”: In order of reading book number 3.


Waking up each morning we follow by circuitous routes the thread of habit, out of our homes, into the world, and back to our beds at night, move unseeingly through familiar paths, one day giving way to another and one week to the next, so that when in the midst of this daydream something happens and the thread is finally cut, when, in a moment of strong desire or unexpected loss, the rhythms of life are interrupted, we look around and are quietly surprised to see that the world is vaster than we thought, as if we’d been tricked or cheated out of all that time, time that in retrospect appears to have contained nothing of substance, no change and no duration, time that has come and gone but left us somehow untouched.


A passage North is a carefully written introspective book, the opening quote gives an idea of this degree of thought, a great deal of emotion is present but mostly kept at a distance as Krishan is forced to reflect on his life both just before and during his passage north. We learn something of the magnitude of the war between the Tamil Tigers and government forces in the poverty stricken north of Sri Lanka where the Tiger’s were not just beaten but their very trace erased from the land leaving the people in a great state of trauma. Krishan was away from Sri Lanka in India during the war, somehow explaining away to himself what was happening there:


Even now he felt ashamed thinking about his initial reluctance to acknowledge the magnitude of what had happened at the end of the war, as though he’d been hesitant to believe the evidence on his computer screen because his own poor, violated, stateless people were the ones alleging it, as though he’d been unable to take the suffering of his own people seriously till it was validated by the authority of a panel of foreign experts, legitimized by a documentary narrated by a clean-shaven white man standing in front of a camera in suit and tie.


Whilst in India krishan had fallen in love with Anjum, an activist and their story had lasted on and off for several years.

After moving back to his home in Colombo, in the south of Sri Lanka, Krishan is given the opportunity to help his ailing grandmother by employing Rani, a woman from the north that had lost her husband and her son during the war, having Rani away from her home region seemed to be helping her. After news of her death Krishan learnt more about Rani’s life, about her electric scock treatment for trauma, and undertakes the long journey north by train where he is able to reflect on his own life.

This is a very different piece of writing to the other shortlisted books, caught between ancient and modern, violence and gentleness, the events are not yet first hand.

First Published in English as “A Passage North” in 2021 by Random House

Maggie Shipshead ‘Great Circle’

“Booker Prize 2021: 6 Books Shortlisted for this prize.
“Great Circle”: In order of reading book number 4.


In my blip of higher education, I had time to take Intro to Philosophy and learn about the panopticon, the hypothetical prison Jeremy Bentham came up with, where there would be one itty-bitty guardhouse at the center of a giant ring of cells. One guard was all you needed because he might be watching at any time, and the idea of being watched matters way more than actually being watched. Then Foucault turned the whole thing into a metaphor about how all you need to discipline and dominate a person or a population is to make them think it’s possible they’re being watched. You could tell the professor wanted us all to think the panopticon was scary and awful, but later, after Archangel made me way too famous, I wanted to take Katie McGee’s preposterous time machine back to that lecture hall and ask him to consider the opposite. Like instead of one guard in the middle, you’re in the middle, and thousands, maybe millions, of guards are watching you—or might be—all the time, no matter where you go.


This is a story about two timelines and two women with a number of things in common, of Marion Graves, the aviator, who dissapeared in 1950 during a round the world attempt passing by both poles and of the actrice chosen to play her role for a film of Marian’s life, Hadley Baxter. Hadley’s parents died in an aircrash when she was young and she was brought up by a Holywood uncle who between drinks and drugs had her taken to a number of castings from which she eventually becomes the young woman epitomised in the opening quote.
Hadley had read the lost logbook of marian in the library:


The lost log book of Marian Graves… It made a big impression on me when I was a kid orphan solidarity you know, team raised by uncles, i thought it would be full of hidden messages like tarot cards….
It’s the perfect sort of book for that isn’t it mostly cryptic bits and pieces what did it tell you? nothing…..really I’m most intrigued by the question of whether or not she intended it to be read at all. I think the fact that she left it behind at least meant that she couldn’t bear to destroy it.


Marian’s life is however the centre point of the book, from surviving a mysterious ship sinking on the atlantic with her twin brother Jamie during the first world war to being brought up, or left to bring herself up by a gambling and drinking uncle who was also a semi renowned painter in Missoula an out of the way town in Missouri where she made and kept, throughout her entire life, her childhood friend Caleb. How did she become an aviator? Well she passed by many steps, marrying a jealous bootlegger and then flying for him before changing her name and going into hiding to escape him:


He’s my friend, Marian said he’s always been my friend am I not allowed to have friends? Her voice rose, do you want me to be completely alone except for you? He sat down heavily the anger going out of him yes he said if I’m being honest
You want to know what we did we talked she gathered herself said as though making an accusation i told Caleb I loved you he looked up, you did when did you start having me followed say it again tell me what you told him he was radiating thrilled pleasure, she felt only hopelessness not now tell me you love me Louder she said When did you start having me followed when you flew to Vancouver only because I was so afraid of losing you…it was for your protection.


Marian becomes an aircraft ferry pilot during the second world war in England before the events around that ship sinking as she was an infant catches up with her. The question Hadley then asks herself and eventually solves is whether Marian really resembles the Marian in the film.

If the prize were to go to a traditional “story” then this book would be an excellent candidate.

First Published in english as “Great Circle” in 2021, by Doubleday